Wednesday, March 12, 2014

This blog has moved...

In the interest of consolidating everything I do in one place, I decided to move all future reviews over to my personal website.  So Castle Rock Companion, the Bill  Murray films, Beatlemiscellania and any other misc. reviews will now post over there.  I'm also moved all past entries over there to have everything in one convenient place.  That even includes comments.  As for this blog, I'm debating on whether to leave it here or not.  I may at least close comments and such to prevent having to respond to people in multiple places.  We'll see.

This is the RSS feed for my personal webpage, or you can follow me on Twitter for notifications of new posts as well.  My apologies to those of you who really like Blogger, I just couldn't see any reason to be spending money on a website and not using it to its fullest.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 3, 2014

Nothing Lasts Forever

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 28, 2014

John Dies at the End (book and film)

I've had an Audible subscription for a few months now, and when my monthly credit came up I was trying to decide what to spend it on.  Browsing the suggestions for me, I saw someone call David Wong's John Dies at the End a mix between Stephen King and Douglas Adams, and that certainly got my attention.  Having now gotten through the book, I wouldn't call that entirely accurate.  Of course, those are really lofty comparisons that would be very difficult to match, so it's not really fair.  But if you've been enjoying some of the recent mixes between horror and comedy we've been getting lately, this book is for you.

The book started as a webserial, and while I didn't know that will listening it makes a lot of sense in retrospect.  It isn't so much a clear narrative as a series of episodes in the life of the fictional version of David.  The name is a pseudonym for the author, but it also makes the book feel more personal having the author narrate to you that way, and I liked it. The book just feels a bit unfocused as he jumps through time periods and tries to make these events connect to each other.  Some events feel like they need to be expanded, and others are probably dwelt on a little too long.  The mythology is also not well explained, but I was okay with that, as being from the first person perspective, it makes sense that he's not going to always fully understand what is happening around him.

What is more important is the humor and the horror, and both of those work very well.  The humor probably a little more so than the horror, but that's probably what you would expect from the editor of The characters also feel real, and I liked that this is a story very much grounded in reality despite the insane things happening.  The book takes a turn toward the end that was very much unexpected and entertaining.  It worked well keeping me in suspense and wanting to reach the end of the book.  Of course that title also keeps you in suspense the whole time too, waiting for the shoe to drop.

With the narrative unfocused as it is, it makes sense that a film adaptation would make some changes and try to make something a little more cohesive.  That's exactly what Don Coscarelli did, essentially melding two of the main events of the book into one story and keeping in a few of the wilder smaller events for the sake of humor and strangeness.  The film isn't as clever as Cabin in the Woods or as funny as Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, but it does make for an entertaining film with some legitimate scares and gross out moments.  A lot of the humor from the book is left intact, though Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes are not the strongest of leads.  Doug Jones and Clancy Brown are perfect in their supporting roles, but sadly underused.

Sometimes, going from book to film can be a bad thing, or at least spoil a film for you.  In this case, my main complaint revolves around the character of Amy Sullivan.  I became quite fond of her in the book, from her introduction when David can only remember her by her nickname "Cucumber" until her proper role in the story is revealed.  She's sweet and timid but smart and sure of herself and just a wonderful character.  But in the film all of that is lost, merging her with Jennifer Lopez (not the celebrity, just a girl with the same name) and keeping her around because she's needed for one moment and that's it.  They also give her a large over-sized hand to cover her amputated one, and since it is completely nonfunctional and doesn't look remotely real, I can only assume this was meant to be a joke that falls really flat.

Personal bias aside, it's still a film worth watching for horror fans.  I also highly recommend the book, flawed though it may be.  There's a second novel in the series titled This Book is Full of Spiders, and that title alone makes me want to check it out.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Green Mile

Christ figures are incredibly common in literature, and have been found by scholars even in places where they may not have been originally intended.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen as accurate a portrayal as John Coffey in any other work of fiction.  King himself would botch another attempt years later in a Kingdom Hospital episode, but Coffey’s sacrifice and execution are very well done and heartbreaking in this work.

Beyond that parable, both versions of the story stand strongly against the use of the electric chair, but also don’t preach to you about the issue.  I think King manages to skirt the line well, particularly in the case of Delacroix, acknowledging his horrible crime while also making him a pitiable creature at times.  The movie on the other hand, isn’t quite so effective at this, as we never hear at all about just what it is Delacroix did.  You can safely assume murder was involved for him to end up on death row, but I think removing the details that Delacroix committed rape and murder of a teenage girl and then burned down an apartment building that had children inside to try to cover it up makes the situation more complex and thought provoking.  But considering that this movie is three hours long and still doesn’t have enough time to cover everything in the story, it is understandable that they left out these details.

The Green Mile is a unique volume by today’s standards, originally published in six mini-volumes released in serial format.  While this was probably very exciting for people at the time it was released, these days, it can be a little tedious.  You can buy the story in one single volume now, but it is literally just the six books bound together in one.  So at the beginning of each new volume, there is a recap of everything that happened before.  This is a pretty common occurrence whenever you’re reading a series of books – Rowling’s recap of all that Harry had dealt with before in each new Harry Potter novel comes to mind.  But I find that tedious as well, and especially in the later books I had much longer stories to read in between the recaps.  Here, it comes more quickly, and I found myself skimming over those passages to just hurry up and get back to the story.

This is generally regarded as one of King’s non-horror stories, and the film is certainly not in the horror section, but the description of Del’s execution is most definitely pure horror, and the element of the supernatural in the story makes it a bit different than The Body and Shawshank Redemption.  It makes sense that Darabont would use this to bridge the gap before adapting an actual horror story.  His version of the botched execution is still horrifying, and I think it’s actually improved with the removal of the popping eyeballs and other gory details King describes in the book.

The changes between the two are pretty minor.  Some details get left out, and the timeline is shifted slightly – Bitterbuck was executed before John ever showed up on the mile, but for the most part these changes make sense.  Often times, they properly condense the story.  In the book there is a bully of an orderly making Paul’s life miserable at the old folks home, and he reminds him very much of Percy.  While it’s a nice parallel, it’s also not necessary, and it makes sense that they dropped it.  It was also a movie with a character much like William Wharton that upset Paul in the novel, whereas here we add in the detail that John Coffey wanted to see a film before he died.  I think this was probably added to try to add one nice moment for John, who spends so much time in misery.

Another change that really makes sense is having John touch Paul and revealing the truth to him about Wharton killing the little girls.  It saves us all the time it requires Paul to research the issue, a scene that is pretty redundant in tone to when he visits Hammersmith and asks him if he thinks Coffey is guilty.  It also makes the moment where John touches Paul a second time make more sense.  In the novel it comes out of nowhere, just John wanting to give Paul a glimpse of what it’s like to be him all the time.  Here the touch has a purpose.

The only moment in the film I felt didn’t entirely work was when they included the grandfather clock breaking and the house shaking as Coffey heals Melinda.  In the book it makes sense, as it’s a very tense moment and all the men can see is this towering giant on top of the woman, but here the swelling, touching music and overall tone of the way it is shot create a different kind of mood, and the cracking of the clock and the quick shudder of the house clash with that mood for me.

Another small complaint I have, and one I realize some people may not agree with, but I’ve never cared for Tom Hanks as a dramatic actor.  He has a stiffness to him that often makes it hard for me to sympathize with him.  It’s strange for a man who was always so expressive with his comedy to come off wooden in dramatic performances, but more often than not that’s how I see him.

In strong contrast to that is Michael Clark Duncan, who plays John Coffey perfectly.  In the book it’s said that Coffey seems almost empty inside when he’s not performing his miracles, and that he has trouble remembering things.  That kind of switch between dullness and clarity is not an easy thing to pull off, but he does it, and makes Coffey the sympathetic character he needs to be.  His physical stature is also perfect of course, as he does tower over all the other performers.

Once again I can’t help but question whether the movie really needed to be three hours long, but I have to admit that there is nothing I would trim here.  Losing some of the little details already changes things a little, like the way all the guys seem to go along with the plan to release Coffey just because Paul says so.  But the film never drags and the performances are strong enough that I wasn’t ever looking at my watch wishing it was over yet.

The fact that Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are both set at prisons in the past can be a bit confusing – enough that I expected to see Bob Gunton playing the warden in this film.  There are a lot of crossover actors here in the background, particularly William Sadler.  We’ll see him again in Darabont’s next King adaptation, The Mist.

Monday, February 24, 2014


I was already putting off doing this review, feeling like I couldn't properly state the affect this movie had on my generation or explain what it was that made it so magical, and then today I hear the news that Harold Ramis has passed away, and I am even more overwhelmed.  But perhaps that means it's the perfect time to try.

The original idea for the film was Dan Aykroyd's, but it was too large in scope to be filmed.  Having recently watched the extended edition of The Blues Brothers, I can tell you that an unfocused Aykroyd not being reigned in is not a good thing.  Fortunately Ivan Reitman knew this too, and called in Harold Ramis to help Aykroyd with the script and bring it more down to earth.  While the two previous Reitman/Ramis collaborations were lacking in focus (Meatballs, Stripes) Ramis seemed to have learned quite a bit from his time in the director's chair since then (Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation).  As such this film stands miles ahead of all those that came before it.  It's a merging of all those talents plus Bill Murray at just the right moment to create something truly special, something that couldn't ever entirely be reproduced again (depending on how you feel about the sequel anyway).

This was also the first family friendly film for all of them, and you almost have to wonder if that was also a large part of the reason why it stands above - while there is plenty of sexual innuendo and jokes designed to fly over the heads of children and make the adults watching with them laugh, the fact that they're not trying to throw in a pair of breasts just because seems to help.  Or maybe it's that this is going into the realm of science fiction and the paranormal, a fascinating subject, and something children in particular are ready to believe.

That last part definitely has a lot to do with why the film became such a phenomenon at least.  The cartoon and toys that followed helped too, providing us with the continuing adventures and allowing us to don our own proton packs and throw out traps to catch ghosts.  It also made something we were once so afraid of seem controllable and fun.  There was less of a reason to worry about the monster under your bed or hiding in your closet if you could blast them and trap them in a containment unit.

The Ghostbusters themselves were the height of cool.  I've never taken a poll, but from most people I know, it seems like Egon and Peter are the stand out favorites.  Egon was the awkward nerd that reminded us of ourselves, and Peter was the wise-ass you wished you could be.  Which is not to put down Ray or Winston - Ray's enthusiasm and childlike innocence is a large part of the appeal of the film, and Winston's every-man attitude gives you someone to relate to.  They are all perfect in their own way, and it's this strong cast that really makes the film work, and continued to make it work in the sequel even when the plot wasn't as strong.

Somewhere in an alternate universe stands a film where Venkmen is played by John Belushi, Louis Tully by John Candy, and Winston by Eddie Murphy.  While I'd love to see that film, I feel pretty confident in saying that the one we got is better.  Because while John Belushi was a talent in his own right, this film needs Bill Murray, and is better because he's here.  Murray always brings at least some degree of improvisation to his roles, and it may just be personal opinion but his wise ass beats Belushi's any day of the week.  It's hard to pull off asshole who is also likeable, but that's exactly what Venkman is, and you can understand why Dana Barrett does ultimately fall for him.

Of course, I didn't.  I fell for Egon.  Hard.  As I said earlier, a large part of the appeal was that Egon was like me - glasses, quiet and reserved, a bit awkward and shy and oblivious.  But he was also accomplished and capable and had what seemed to be one of the coolest jobs in the world.  When I watched the cartoon and saw Janine so completely smitten with Egon, I totally understood.  I was too.  Even watching it today, I still find myself smitten with him.  He's written intentionally creepy in parts, but he's still adorably awkward, Ramis' quiet charm coming through all the way.

I technically wrote about this film once before on here, and everything I said there still applies.  It's a great film for both kids and adults, and it deserves its cultural status.  I would go so far as to say it will hold up as a classic for years to come as well.

As far as my thoughts on losing Ramis, I'm at a loss.  As a writer and director in particular, he did a lot to change comedy for the better, and his influence is immeasurable. I'm looking forward to checking out some of his work that I missed even more now.  It's a shame that it will now have a bit of a bittersweet edge to it, knowing he's now gone.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption

Stephen King loves to tell the story of how a woman once approached him and admonished him for writing such disgusting horror stories, and how he should really write something nice, like The Shawshank Redemption. When he explained to her that he did in fact write that one, she didn’t believe him. I certainly don’t remember King’s name ever being mentioned in promotional materials for the film, so it’s logical for people to make that mistake. I can also understand why Hollywood chose to avoid it, as the moment the general public sees King’s name stamped on something, they are automatically thinking horror. It is a shame though, because this story is a perfect example of how he is just as capable of non-horror fiction as well.

The story is set in Shawshank prison, and follows the lives of two men in particular, Red, our narrator, and Andy Dufresne, a wrongly convicted man serving two life sentences for double homicide. Andy is strongly determined to get out of Shawshank, and it’s his never-ending hope to do so that inspires Red and many of the other men who knew Andy.

When your narrator is a man who has spent most of his life in prison, you could certainly run the risk of having an unlikable narrator. Red’s biggest offense in the novella is throwing around the n word a couple times. He uses it as a term for all prisoners regardless of race, and he’s not being insulting as much as he’s trying to explain how they are seen by everyone else, but I can certainly see how someone could get turned off by it. Beyond that though, he’s a fairly pleasant old man, hardened by his time in prison but remorseful enough for his crimes that you believe him. Of course in the film he is portrayed by Morgan Freeman, which makes him about fifty times more likable right off the bat.

When I was young, I remember being bothered by the fact that Red was described as an Irishman with red hair in the book and yet they cast a black man. Of course, I was also bothered that they decided to shorten the title, dropping off the mention of Rita Hayworth. In truth, neither of these changes is truly relevant to the story at all. Red is the guy in prison who can get things for you and his race is irrelevant. The poster of Rita and the other ladies Andy requests are still in the story, and that’s all that really matters.

The novella is pretty short, definitely closer to short story size than to novel length. So I was pretty shocked when I went to revisit the film and realized it was two hours and twenty minutes long. The added length is there primarily by expanding on things that Red only briefly mentions in the story – parole hearings, Andy helping out the warden and prison guards with money, and what happens to Brooks once he leaves prison. There’s one completely fabricated event, where Andy plays the classical music over the speakers which leads to them also adding the idea that Red used to play the harmonica. It’s not a bad addition, but I can’t help but feel that some of this could have been cut. It’s a good film, but I’m not sure there is enough happening here to really justify the long running time.

There are very few differences from the story itself. While Andy asks for three cold beers a piece for his crewmates working on the roof, in the story they only get one warm beer each. That seems far more realistic to me than Hadley actually giving them exactly what Andy asked for. And as Red mentions in the story, they are grateful for even that. Warm beer is better than no beer at all when you’ve been locked up as long as these men have. The death of young Tommy is also an addition to the film, perhaps to show just how hard and cruel Warden Norton is. In the story, he’s simply transferred to a lower security prison where he’ll get to see his wife and child more frequently.

Speaking of the warden, there are a few different ones that come and go in the novella, but it makes sense that they combined them into one for simplicity’s sake. They also made it so that Andy sets up his fake identity in prison rather than having a friend on the outside help him out. It makes it a little easier to explain, and the fact that Norton commits suicide at the end helps to guarantee that no one will know enough to trace the new identity to Andy.

One more change that had to be a joke for anyone familiar with the story. In the novella, Red states that he always hears sirens go off in films when there is a prison break, but he never heard one once in all his time at Shawshank despite many breakout attempts in the past. In the film, once they realize Andy is gone, a siren goes off.

Despite its bloated length, this is a fantastic film with strong performances from the entire cast, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it before. If you have seen the film, I recommend tracking down Different Seasons to read the original novella along with a few other great non-horror stories from Stephen King.

Friday, February 14, 2014

National Lampoon's Vacation

When I reached Stripes in my Bill Murray project, it made me realize just how fond I was of Harold Ramis, and how silly it is that I haven't seen a lot of the films he either directed or acted in.  So while I don't plan to review his entire career, I wanted to fill in a few gaps while I could.  And to do that, we have to put Ghostbusters on a slight delay and take a look at National Lampoon's Vacation.  I think I had largely avoided this one until now because it stars Chevy Chase.  But it seems the combination of direction by Ramis and a script written by John Hughes means it was pretty silly of me to avoid this one for so long.

The movie had me laughing pretty early on and continued to do so for most of its run time.  It balances this touching story of a father who really wants to spend some quality time with his family with a lot of absurd and crazy humor, and with the exception of maybe one scene, never feels uneven or out of place for it.  They even managed to make Chase likable some of the time, though it does fade.

What probably made me laugh the most is some of the more quiet, subtle humor that happens.  After having driven off the road and crashed the family's car, Chase sits down to have a talk with his son, an incredibly young looking Anthony Michael Hall.  He puts his glasses on, and without any acknowledgement from either character, the glasses split in half and each piece falls off his face one at a time.  It's so simple that you could almost miss it if you weren't paying attention, and it's great.

A lot of films will get a quick sympathetic response from the audience by threatening animals.  The clearest example of this I always think of is Apocalypse Now, where you've seen lots of death already, but then suddenly they pull out some puppies and you go "No!  Don't hurt the puppies!"  It's intentional and kind of genius, because the film is pointing out to you that you should also care about all the men you've seen die up to this point too.  In Vacation, the complete opposite happens.  If you read in a description "Clark ties the dog to the rear bumper and then drives off" it sounds absolutely horrifying. But this is a mean and nasty dog that has done nothing but bites the ankles of our family and pee all over their lunches, and since we never actually see the poor thing being dragged, there's a great bit of humor here. The cop who pulls him over is furious, and Clark is trying so hard to care about this dog who has made his life miserable for hours now that it just works.  It happens again when their miserable, grouchy aunt dies and all they really want to do is get rid of the body.  And you want them to do it too, because at this point you're hoping they reach Walley World just as badly as Clark wants to get them there.

The only part of the film I don't care for is Clark's obsession with the woman he sees on the highway, played by Christie Brinkley.  While I understand that it's largely to point out that Clark is feeling a little smothered on the vacation and she represents freedom, it still goes a little too far into making him a jerk, especially since he gets far enough to get naked in a pool with her.  Add to that that his wife shrugs it all off and I can't help but feel like this is the one part of the film that doesn't really work.

This film does have a loose tie to Bill Murray, in that his older brother Brian Doyle-Murray appears as the guy running the campground they stay at.  The role isn't all that different from characters Bill himself often played.  Ramis does not appear in the film at all, but does deliver a line off camera toward the end.  Besides his comedic direction, I was also really impressed with the scenes where the family rides the roller coasters, that did a good job of reminding me what it was like to ride one.

Overall I was really impressed with the film, and if like me you've been putting this one off because you assumed it was low brow, I highly recommend you giving it a chance.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - The Woman in the Room

A lot of people would not consider "The Woman in the Room" a horror story. There is certainly no supernatural element to be found here, no creatures that go bump in the night. But for any of us who have had a loved one that we lost to cancer or illness, we know that sometimes real life horrors are far worse than the ones our imaginations dream up.

The story is told from the perspective of Johnny, a man dealing with his mother's slow and miserable decline related to cancer. A procedure the doctor's attempted to alleviate her pain only made things worse by paralyzing her. He finds some pills in the medicine cabinet of her home and debates on bringing them to the hospital so she can take them and be free of the cancer and the pain once and for all..

This story is amazingly vivid, sad, and real, and it should be.

While I don't think Stephen King gave his mother too many pills, all the other details here are from his life. The grandparents who Johnny's mother cared for and who died in their home. The adopted older brother. The mother's age at the time of her death. The fact that Johnny is an alcoholic. So I think it's fair to say that the descriptions of what Johnny's mother goes through and what she looks like, are probably also stunningly accurate, and I imagine he wrote this as part of a way to deal with the tragedy of what happened.

At the age of 20, a young man named Frank Darabont wrote Stephen King a letter asking if he could adapt the story. No one seems to have official word of whether or not this was the very first dollar baby, but it was definitely one of the earliest ones created. It's also the most critically acclaimed and the only one that launched someone's career as a feature film director. It was part of the Night Shift Collection VHS and can also be found online.

Johnny does not seem to be an alcoholic in this adaptation, but I don't think the story is lacking anything by removing that. While on one hand you might see it as a sign of weakness on his part that would make this decision easier for him to make, the fact that this is a mercy killing and something his mother seems to wish for lets him remain a sympathetic character regardless.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the weakest part of the short is the part that is completely made up. I understand they were trying to find a way to compensate for the fact that Johhny isn't narrating to us, but I'm not sure he picked the best method. The discussion with his jailed client isn't bad, though it does go on a little too long. It's mostly the dream sequence that loses me. It has an undeniable student film look to it and it doesn't reach the emotional impact that he's clearly going for. But the interaction between the two actors in the room is good, and that part remains emotional and strong. There is enough here to show he had a future in film making.

Stephen King felt the same way and therefore gave Darabont permission to adapt Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which I will talk about next week.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Beatlesmiscellania - The Rutles 2 - Can't Buy Me Lunch

When I originally planned these reviews, I assumed the two Rutles films were separate stories.  I had seen the first before, but not the second.  The description on Netflix described this second film as a parody of The Beatles Anthology, featuring interviews from the Rutles looking back on their old days.  I suppose the fact that they called the interviewer Stanley Krammerhead rather then Melvin Hall should have been a clue to me.  The Krammerhead character isn't even in this film, so I guess the person in charge of writing that description had a bit too much tea to drink that day.

In reality, this film is just a do-over for Idle who apparently wanted to add on a few jokes for the Melvin Hall character, get a lot more celebrities in, and visit a few more locales just for the hell of it.  He also changed a few of the details here and there - instead of the Maharishi stand in being into Ouija boards, he recommends eating curry to attain enlightenment.  If you're a big fan of any of the celebrities involved here, it might be fun for you to see them getting a bit silly and having fun with it.  But for me personally, even some of the people I did like fell a bit flat.

There is some previously unseen Rutles material here, but it's all scenes that were cut from the original film, as Idle did not involve any of the other three performers in this project.  He did use some songs from The Rutles Archaeology, an album recorded by Innes, Halsey, and Fataar in 1996, their own parody of the music version of The Beatles Anthology.  Idle did not appear on that album, but he didn't appear on any of the original songs either.

Some of the celebrities are stronger than others.  Tom Hanks just seems odd sitting there with an unflattering mustache discussing the whole thing, and Robin Williams as a German sexologist went over like a lead balloon for me.  But Conan O'Brien and Billy Connolly are pretty funny, as is Carrie Fisher.  Idle also uses some extra footage from Bill Murray's original appearance as Bill Murray the K and that's fun.

Hands down the absolute worst part of the film for me is Jimmy Fallon.  Of course I'm also kind of baffled that a guy who giggled his way through most of his Saturday Night Live appearances went on to have the career he now does, but his recurring bit with Idle of interrupting and trying to take over the documentary goes on for far too long, and the end "reveal" that he's actually Melvin Hall's son isn't really all that funny either.

When I finished watching it I was frankly left kind of confused why this even exists.  I suppose we can debate whether or not an artist has the right to recreate their own work - Star Wars fans certainly love to do so, but I'm more of the opinion that once something is out there and released, it's time to walk away.  If you want to revisit that world, make something new rather than just rehash the old. 

I'd recommend checking out The Rutles Archeology if you were thirsting for more Rutles rather than this film, because at least that was something completely new and feels much more fresh.
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