Saturday, September 28, 2013

From the Files of Arbitrary Ranking and Pre-Gaming - Treehouse of Horror.

So, like I said before, I was gonna be jump-starting the October festivities a bit early (Hey, it's all of three days, compared to other places, this is still pretty reasonable.)
I toyed with a few ideas for what to do with this week, including an acknowledgment of Banned Book Week - which may appear in future years, but this kind of stuck and it's all of a one-year idea. After getting caught up recently, this felt like a nice little breather before going into the wonderful insanity that is October at The
Third Row.

So, in a fun way to set the mood, I dug up one of those great Halloween traditions-albeit one that, over the last few years, hasn't actually happened until early November - Treehouse of Horror [So, apparently this year it IS running before Halloween again.] For the many, many, many (I could keep going) years that the series 'The Simpsons' has been on the air, one of their most consistent traditions that they've stuck with has been their Halloween episodes: an anthology of three Halloween-styled segments, often playing to classic horror stories or just Halloween ideas.

Now, I'll admit that, like much of the rest of the show, the quality of these has sadly gone downhill.  But in their glory days, these were definitely some of the show's high points.

So I thought, even though as a general rule I tend to avoid the actual ranked 'top' lists beyond my end of the year picks (and even those I acknowledge with a margin of subjective error) could be a fun idea to go back through the show's prime years and try to parse out a list of, at least for me, the 10 best shorts.

5 of them were picked right off the bat. As for the rest, choosing between them did NOT make this easy.

So anyway, this is more of a 'for the Hell of it,' piece, so you'll have to excuse me if this doesn't quite go into my usual weight of pros and cons so much.

For those who are leaving now, do be sure to come back next week! The randomizer starting things off with a VERY interesting spread.

Note - given the nature of this one, extra-cheeky captions would be kind of redundant here. May still include choice quotables with certain images though.

10. 'The Homega Man'

Besides giving them some points for invoking The Omega Man (a reference that  would be unlikely in the show's more recent years, which favor more contemporary nods) this is one of those that works in part because, even if you've never seen the film, the premise is played loosely enough here to mine it for enough fodder, and remains funny to all audiences. I mean, the first half is your classic 'last man on Earth just decides to do all the things society and good taste say not to.' Even if it is a cliche, the show makes some good material of it (culminating in Homer dancing naked in the church to Edwin Starr's 'War.' ... Sort of raises all sorts of odd questions about what he thinks about every Sunday.) The actual reference to the film comes in mid-way care of Homer meeting the scarred mutant survivors of the disaster (incidentally, I do love how they gave them a car that plays like a massive nod to this movie.) Again, like many of the better parodies in these segments, the story still stands as funny in its own right ("Oh my God! You're mutants!" "Hey, we don't like the term mutants...we prefer freaks.") and the parody is more just as extra layer of enjoyment for those who get the joke. Here, it's really just a case of the writers doing the other thing they do best - taking some old material and showing us it still has some mileage left in it if one knows what they're doing.

9. 'The Bart Zone'

One of the big shows mined for references during the 'golden years' of these specials was 'The Twilight Zone.' This is for good reason - they're some of the most iconic shorter stories in sci-fi horror storytelling, so it stands to reason, to that end, that they'd be ripe for a LOT of humor. This particular short is no exception - taking the famous Billy Mumy episode 'It's a Good Life', they actually figure out how to make the idea of god-like powers in the hands of a young boy worse: making that young boy Bart Simpson. The story starts out on a good note, embracing the Twilight Zone homage complete with a faux-Rod Serling narration ("and did I mention that the monster is a 10 year old boy? ... Quite a twist, huh? Bet you didn't seen that one coming.") Some of the fun actually winds up coming not from Bart abusing his powers directly, but through the sheer number of things he gets away with from fear of his using his powers - the highlight here probably having to go to either having to change history in accordance with Bart's exam answers, or a constantly performing Krusty on the verge of a complete breakdown. It's a case of a pretty simple concept the show plays to the hilt, and the result is still quite funny nowadays.

"Who's that goat-legged fellow? I like the cut of his jib."
"Prince of Darkness, sir. He's your 11:00."

8. 'The Devil and Homer Simpson'

I will admit, part of the reason I snuck this onto the list has to do with it providing the only Treehouse of Horror appearance of Phil Hartman's Lionel Hutz.  Outside of that though, this episode has a lot going for it. Even just the idea of Homer striking up a pact with Satan ( depicted here by Ned Flanders of all people) lends itself to a lot of potential. The fact he does it over a doughnut of all things...well, that's just Homer for you. Surprisingly, the episode doesn't do as much with the idea of Homer in Hell (though it does lead to a couple of fairly amusing visual gags) but considering what they then do with the subsequent trial for Homer's soul, complete with an appearance by a then still alive Richard Nixon, I think the time was well spent.
Also, I will concede, part of what further clinched this story's spot on the list was the deleted scenes for it featured in a later episode of the series. Most notably the follow-up gag on Hutz. Those who've seen it know what I mean.

7. 'Homer^3'

Looking back, I have to admit the promotion for this did make this story risk looking like a gimmick. Luckily, the execution lays that one to rest. Taking another cue from 'The Twilight Zone' (with this, the score is currently 2 on this list for those playing at home,) this adapts the episode 'Little Girl Lost.' While not quite as immediately iconic as some of the other 'Twilight Zone' stories they've adapted, they still make up for it here care of some playful prodding of the 4th wall - the entire premise of the story runs on the idea of the people of Springfield being aware of their two-dimensional status. As such, when Homer vanishes, as the title suggest, he has in fact stumbled into the third dimension (rendered in CGI that actually has aged fairly well, considering when this was made.)
Admittedly this one doesn't have quite as much of the big laughs as some of the other stories featured on this list, but at the same time, it's still, for the medium and time, a relatively ambitious effort for these specials, and it holds up well for it.

6. 'If I Only Had a Brain'

This is one of those stories that, when rewatching these episodes, I have to admit is a lot funnier than I remember it being. Further, this is one of the standouts in that the Simpsons themselves are more minor players in this story - the meat of the humor actually going to the interplay between Mr. Burns and Smithers. Further, the idea of taking these two side characters and casting them in a sort of skewed Frankenstein storyline gives their dynamic a lot more to play with. The result leads to some great bits of dialogue between Burns's mad scientist and Smithers as his somewhat shaky conscience ("Smithers, hand me that ice cream scoop." "Ice cream scoop?" "Dammit, Smithers! This isn't rocket science, it's brain surgery!") Even more of a surprise considering this was actually back in the show's second Treehouse of Horror, back when the show was still really getting a feel for fleshing out its supporting cast - so giving those two central focus like this in a story was a relatively new call at the time, and one that thankfully paid off.

5. 'Time and Punishment'

OK, I'm just gonna say this now - all three of the installments from Treehouse of Horror V made the cut. So yeah, you've been partially spoiled for the rest of the list. In all fairness, there's a reason it's considered by many to be the best.
Anyway, this is another case where I have to commend these shorts for taking a story that, on a purely conceptual level, has seen a LOT of mileage, and making it work through the sheer execution. Taking the classic time travel paradox of the butterfly effect, and putting it in the hands of Homer, of all characters, is roughly akin to giving a flare gun to a chimp in a gasoline refinery and asking "What's the worst that could happen?" In this case, quite a bit. Rather than play in minor tweaks, the show's writers take this to the other extreme, where Homer's simply killing one small life form leads to increasingly more ludicrous realities. In a lot of ways, playing to those extremes is a big part of what makes this one work. It's the sheer randomness that some of the futures provide - from a world where Ned Flanders is unquestioned ruler, to the utopia Homer misses out on over a communications breakdown - that provides a lot of the fuel for laughs on this one, eventually driving Homer to just pick up a branch in the past and play temporal Russian Roulette.

and oh yes, "Quiet, you!"

Because it bears repeating:
"Don't blame me. I voted for Kodos."

4. 'Citizen Kang'

There's a part of me that feels a little bit weird putting this one on here simply because this marked the first time that THoH started playing into, for the time, contemporary material. Now, this is a creative call that would really harm later installments (and later Simpsons in general, but that's another story,) but surprisingly, it doesn't really hurt too much here. A big part of what helps in this case is the fact that, despite it playing off the Bill Clinton-Bob Dole presidential election, taking us into 'Oh crap, I'm old' territory here, the humor itself doesn't feel particularly dated. Even for their own parts, Clinton or Dole aren't really major parts of the humor per se - though again, always nice to hear the late Phil Hartman in there. Really, the big laughs here come via alien invaders Kang and Kodos trying to impersonate the two - their campaigns are awkward, laced with misused rhetoric, and in many cases bizarrely quotable as a result of that. Despite the setting, the jokes themselves on this one remain timeless, playing to a lot of the general election chicanery that comes part and parcel with the whole process - the names change, the songs and dances stay the same...and in this case, the two ringers play them so absurdly they actually inspire laughter rather than the groans the election season often entails.
Also, the crack at third party voting at the's still funny, but nowadays it's even more depressingly accurate.

...yes. You can tell where these are going now.

3. 'Nightmare Cafeteria'

You know...looking back, while the show's played into some kind of loose horror elements among the comedy before, I think this one might be one of the most overt forays into horror the THoH episodes have had to date. To the point where I have heard testimony from several people, my girlfriend included, who can attest to being creeped out by this episode when they were younger (Editor's note: You mean actually had nightmares on account of this episode!). I have to give the show some serious points for being able to pull that one off. On top of that, this has some GREAT black humor in it. Granted, with cannibalism of children as the entire basis of the episode, black humor is almost inevitable, but I still have to hand it to this one for going whole-hog on it. It's like the bizarre love-child of A Modest Proposal and DeadAlive, even to the wonderfully sick twist on the 'It was all a dream' ending. Additionally, for the number of times in these stories when regular characters have been killed off, this was probably one of the closest to actually making it into a non-comedic moment at the story's climax. What happens to the rest of the kids...well, OK, THAT'S played for comedy, albeit again, very dark comedy.
Come to think of it, for how much this one goes into the morbid humor and hinted-at gore, it's surprising it's still part of one of the most popular episodes, given that style tends to be polarizing a lot of the time.

2. 'The Raven'

Of all the stories on this list, I think this is the one my opinion of has grown the most on the rewatch. I mean, I liked this one before, but on rewatching, I have to admit I REALLY like the presentation on this story. Even more impressive in that most of the writing in this one really is just the classic Poe poem. There's a few little interruptions here and there, many inspiring a couple of chuckles, but really the big presentation here is all on the poem (as read by James Earl Jones.) I think the fact that most of the jokes here are on the smaller side is actually one of the assets - this one's definitely not a big laugh inducer, but given the premise it's working with, that would actually hurt the material. Leaving it to just little visual gags or the occasional comment from a still-not-yet scared Bart makes the humor more of an accent on a pretty well put together presentation. It's one of those rare occasions where the show establishes a genuine sense of atmosphere, and it's a big part of what caught me on the rewatch. The other two segments in the first THoH have their moments, but still show a bit of roughness around the edges - this one they hit gold right out of the gate.

...yep. 3-for-3.
As Willie himself would say it best, "I'm bad at this."

1. 'The Shinning'

and rounding out the warning regarding part V, we have probably one of the single-most popular of the Halloween segments...and for good reason - it's that funny. I realize that's putting it rather bluntly on this list, but it is. For as much as pop culture has parodied Kubrick's take on The Shining, this still stands out as arguably one of the best riffs on it. I think a big part of what helps it in that regard is the fact that it has enough material to get a laugh from those who know the movie while still also being entertaining even if you haven't seen it. Even the parts that are direct shout-outs are handled in a way that allows people who haven't seen the film to get in on the fun (see - the error-riddled take off on the classic "Here's Johnny!" scene.) There's only so many ways I can repeat myself on this before it gets old, so I'll just bring this one to a landing - even nowadays, this segment is still a blast to watch, and none of the jokes in it really fall flat. While it's not quite as ambitious as The Raven before it, it's still easily the most entertaining of the stories the franchise has produced for its Halloween specials. Oft-quoted, oft-imitated, but still never quite duplicated. All the pieces really just fall into place on this one, it's a solid parody, but also just a great episode where the parody can still serve as icing on the cake.


(Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

That said, join us next Friday when the kickoff begins proper.

Also, bring some boots. It's gonna get messy here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Things to Come - OK, MAYBE I picked this one for a bit of foreshadowing.

Buckle your seatbelts, kids.
Thanks to a bit of pregaming next week, The Third Row is kicking into festive mode for October after this entry.and yes, the article isn't just announcing that. It seemed appropriate to kick off not one but two events (I'll announce the other when we get there) with this writeup on the H.G. Wells classic.

This is one of those films I went in to with a bit of a high bar attached to it - the story is, Wells set this film in motion after seeing Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis...and not liking it at all. This film, he is said to have told the players involved, was to do the opposite of what that movie did.

So I went into this realizing this was essentially a cinematic equivalent of  throwing down the gauntlet.

I don't think it necessarily surpasses the classic that Wells sought to throw down against. At the same time, however, it actually excels on several other levels.

Loosely based on Wells's own novel "The Shape of Things to Come," the movie plays out roughly with what the title promises - offering a speculative look at the next 100 years of human history from the end of World War I onward. The arc sees mankind plummet into war, desolation, and finally be reborn into a scientific utopia. Naturally, given the film's roughly 100 minute run time, this is told in broad strokes. Yet it's still an impressive feat to see pulled off in a film all the same.

Over the course of this, Wells chooses to focus on a select few characters and their next of kin over the generations - the Cabals (played in both iterations by Raymond Massey) and the Passworthys (here played by Edward Chapman.) It's a creative narrative trick, and one that the actors make a good go of. Though their roles are somewhat kept the same, they do try to make some differences in how they play each of their roles. The rest of the cast, likewise, turns in solid performances. The other standout in this regard is during the arc of post-war ruin, where what remains of the movie's focal location of Everytown (OK, I'll concede subtlety isn't really this movie's strong suit) is lorded over by a man simply known as The Boss, played by a
young Ralph Richardson. For a role that boils down to a thug and a bully, Richardson does what he can with the part, and manages to make him one of the more memorable characters in this in spite of his shortcoming. Admittedly, some of the scenes can feel a bit more suited for the stage than film, but given when this film was made, it's something you learn to take in stride as part of the medium's growing pains.

"...welp, I ain't cleaning THIS one up!"

That's actually both the strength and weakness of the film - because it's being told in such broad strokes and over such a long period of time, the story itself feels somewhat lacking beyond seeing what happens in the broader history. There are some interesting plot points in individual sequences, but the overall narrative feels somewhat disjointed between eras.

Which, again, is a shame, because on an era to era basis, this movie has some strong bits of directing to it. One of the standouts in this regard being in the film's opening, which heralds the outbreak of a second World War. We learn this through a series of scene along a street in Everytown one Christmas eve, the holiday fervor, all set to Christmas carols, intercut with news articles announcing the situation worsening globally and the occasional 'the end is near.' The contrast is quite well put together and arguably one of the strongest scenes in the film. Willam Cameron Menzies has a sharp eye for individual scenes, and I can't even rightly fault him for the problems with the overall narrative, as those are a mix of consequence of the concept and Wells's script.

"...and I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, 'Merry Christmas to all, and to all duck and cover!'"

Alongside the disjointed element of the script, the one other problem I'd say this script has going for it is as a result of its message. Which is strange to say since the message itself isn't a bad one - the film advocates an increased emphasis on science with the idea that it could lead to a utopian future. This mostly is handled well, if a little bluntly, until the last act set in 2035. with the Earth a technological paradise, mankind is on the verge of flight to the moon. This achievement, however, is being challenged by a group of luddites led by a sculptor (Cedric Hardwicke.) Again, in and of itself not a bad idea, however part of the dialogue does inadvertently cast the conflict in an 'arts vs sciences' light. I suspect this wasn't the intent of the film per se, but it does become an inadvertent message of the last act.

Of course, to Wells's credit, where he slips on the narrative, he makes up for it in sheer ideas. One of the reasons this film has endured, and one of the most fascinating things it has going for it, is the fact that its title actually proved more accurate than people would expect. While naturally not an exact match, many of the technical innovations Wells envisions in this film did in fact come to pass, some with a strange amount of accuracy. Things like the fact he predicts the outbreak of World War II fairly close to the mark - though thankfully he was a bit off the mark in the regard of the use of poison gas in the war. Likewise, many of the technologies he envisions, such as traveling to the moon, flat-screen televisions, and other such innovations, albeit sometimes on a different timeline than they actually came to be.

Still, I imagine his corpse has one VERY smug, if well earned grin...what's left of it, anyway.

In all, Things to Come is a pretty striking entry in  early science fiction cinema. As an overall narrative, its ambition is both a strength and a weakness, presenting an intriguing concept, albeit at the cost of a more personal element in its cast and plotting. As a film of its time, it makes a MAJOR impact for the number of things it actually does manage to predict right.

What it lacks in Lang's human element, it arguably surpasses him in in terms of scientific innovations. In a weird way, I can't rightly say one surpasses the other, but rather the two films, despite being born out of a rivalry, compliment each other in a way.

Really, if you have any interest in science fiction cinema, especially in its early years, this is one I can't recommend enough. It's certainly a stand out among the genre's early trailblazers, and even with its story shortcomings, has enough going in its favor to make it well worth the time to see.

Once again, as I am wont to do when it comes to movies in the public domain, I'm gonna use this opportunity to plug for the Criterion release for this. Not because I'm paid by them, not just because I like their general line, but because this is one of those films that gets subject to a lot of different releases of varying video quality and length. By their very nature as a group, Criterion has assembled the closest to a complete cut of the film (with some extra scenes made for it after included as a bonus) with a wonderfully cleaned up master. Plus, their extra features further help outline its significance to film and science fiction cinema in particular.

All in all, a trip worth taking...

With that, brace yourselves.  Next Friday, the shenanigans begin.

There may still be other entries alongside those as time permits/allows, but this will be a major two projects lined up.

Till then...

Monday, September 9, 2013

Summer Reading #4 - Post-Summer Report - Les Misérables (2012) & stage version.

So we come to the end at last. This has proven a pretty interesting experiment, really. Some bumps to start with, but nothing that can't be hammered out in future years.

I'd been saving this one for the end, one part cause it made sense to leave it on this note, and one part because, compared to the others, this was gonna be a doozy - and given the sheer length on some of the adaptations of this book, that says something. To that end, some of the other ones I couldn't fit into this project may appear in later writeups for the Hell of it. Anyway, the reason for said doozy is partially because of the nature of this last adaptation. For those who wondered why it hadn't been brought up sooner, yes, this is in reference to Tom Hooper's adaptation of the musical adaptation by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Suffice it to say, in light of the matroshka effect on this adaptation, this was going to call for going an extra level. At first, as stated in earlier reviews, I was going to do the stage version as a separate write-up. Given how it really would just extend to laying the groundwork for this film, it seemed best to just go all in and do a two-fer discussing how the two fair as adaptations in one go.

So yeah, this one may run a bit longer than usual. Now would be a good time to get something to eat or drink before we continue.

Now then...

The musical version of Les Misérables is one of those curious cases in the world of adaptation. It's a case of an adaptation that's become successful enough in its own right that it's almost an entire entity unto itself, and in some circles has even overshadowed its source material.

It almost feels odd to hold this up to comparison given that extra legacy attached. To its credit though, it's not like this has too much to worry about as an adaptation.

There is one particular advantage I'd argue this version tends to have over many of the played straight film versions as adaptation goes. It's the fact that, by its nature, the medium of the musical often uses song as a means for characters to sort out internal conflicts. As such, what would look odd in a straightforward film feels commonplace within the trappings of a musical. This works particularly well when adapting a story like this one. Part of the reason the book is such a dense read, besides Victor Hugo's quasi-fetish for backstories, is his tendency to get into the heads of his characters. It makes for an introspective style that, in a printed medium where you have no real restrictions of time to worry about, you can really do a lot with. Yet In a visual medium,  where you have limits on what you can really depict and how much time you have and how you can do it, your hands are severely tied. For a good example of this pertaining to these versions, one can use Valjean's conflict when he learns that another man has been arrested on being mistaken for him. In the original novel, this scene is a prolonged piece of introspection as Valjean wrestles with himself on whether to jeopardize his freedom in the interests of doing the right thing. This is an uphill struggle he constantly comes back to all the way up to arriving at the trial, when he finally just bites the bullet and speaks up. In many of the film versions, this scene tends to be rather truncated by virtue of consequence of the medium. In the better versions, we at least still see him weighing over the possible consequences of each possible choice of actions, but given how much of the conflict is internalized, the film can only really go just so far into it without trying to turn it into a monologue. Said monologue (after a fashion) is a luxury the musical has, and as a result, the song 'Who Am I?' openly lays out his internal conflict and all the aspects being weighed in around 3 minutes. It still has to distill things some for time, naturally, but it has a bit more freedom in that conveyance. This also goes as far as backstories, which, as I said above, Hugo does a LOT with. While some versions do actually elaborate on Fantine's backstory (such as the Raymond Bernard version reviewed earlier this summer) it is also not uncommon to see that story sacrificed for time. Once again, the music medium actually allows for more freedom in this regard - what would be seen as a potentially awkward information dump in just a straight adaptation, song allows to convey with less of a clumsy feeling- in this case, 'I Dreamed a Dream'.

I could keep going with examples, but you can see where I'm going with this - this version has an extra advantage with regards to Hugo's style of writing. Of course, it still has its limitations, albeit understandable ones. For a show that's a solid three hours when performed, it still has to make a fair number of concessions as backstory goes - one of the biggest surprises to people who jump from the musical to the book would be that moment when they find out that Marius actually has a surprising amount of backstory and personality that doesn't really get conveyed in the stage version. Granted, his lovestruck phase still makes him seem odd and awkward, but it's not the only thing we see in his life at least. It's not going to be a 1:1 lift, in part because the only way you could feasibly even hope to attempt that would be to subject your audience to a multi-part saga akin to Wagner's Ring cycle...the human buttocks can only take just so much sitting at any given time, after all.

That said, one of the other curious things this version has going for it is the extra things it works in. Like I said a few reviews back, one of the fairly common practices when it comes to adapting a work as large as this one is in the matter of, rather than bring everything through in one huge mass, find certain elements in the work that appeal to you and elaborate on those. This version in particular does that in the second half. Much of the first half plays out fairly straightforward, albeit with a few minor tweaks; things like Fantine's reason for losing her job being a bit more simplified - a bit understandable, since even with the liberties song offers, getting sacked from a mix of morality clause and social stigma feels a little lacking without an extra immediacy attached. Come the latter half of the show, however, a much more pronounced focus is made on the failed 1832 rebellion. This is partially done by rewriting Marius to be a much more active member of the Friends of the ABC, where he was previously more interested, but not really focused or driven. This time around, he's a full card-carrying member taking part in all the plans. To this end, the audience for the stage version is in for quite a surprise should they choose to give the book a read and find there is no real build-up for the barricade until the fighting breaks out, largely a consequence of the fact Marius drifts from the group and as such is in the dark about a lot of their plans until the fight breaks out. Further, his stay at the barricade is much more of a 'I'm here to die' decision on his part.

Of course, Marius isn't the only character who gets reworked. A good chunk of the Thénardier clan, likewise, are also modified in various capacities, with the exception of Gavroche, who isn't even explicitly mentioned as their child. The three other children are written out, somewhat understandably since they wouldn't add much to the narrative-and then we come to their one other progeny, Eponine. Eponine is probably one of the debatably stranger changes within this adaptation. Those only familiar with the musical tend to remember Eponine as the luckless third in a love triangle, resulting in a mix of devoted fandom in some circles, mockery in others. It's somewhat of a softened image, and while it inspires some good music, including one of the show's most iconic songs, it is largely a product of the stage show. The original version of her being, for lack of a better term, a bit more pathetic - Marius looks on her not as a friend he simply never considered as more, but someone he genuinely pities. Further, her death, while still tragic, is also a touch creepy for the extra motivation. Though again, I can't entirely say I blame them for omitting that from the musical - 'A Little Fall of Rain' would sound a lot weirder with the implications of it being a botched attempt at murder-suicide. The Thénardiers, like their daughter, get a bit of a softened touch as well, albeit in a different sense. They're still generally horrible people, but for the show, that horrible edge is tinged with a more comedic element. This is one that, for the purposes of the show, actually still serves well, resulting in another of the particularly iconic songs. Plus, to their credit, Boublil and Schönberg still do seek to remind us that Thénardier himself is, for all the joking, a horrible person. When the song 'Dog Eats Dog' occurs, it is like seeing the man behind the image of the buffoon, and finding him to be the monster readers would recognize underneath it all. Even when his comedic image returns for the end of the show, it's such a change that the audience won't forget it. The entire family actually does pretty well with the changes, all things considered. They're a bit odd at first, but the show does still manage to do a fair amount of justice to them.

For as much as I bring up some of these changes, I do still have to concede - the show works well. Very well, in fact. There's a reason the show has become as popular as it is. For as odd as some of the creative liberties may be, it still, does justice to the material, even if it doesn't necessarily hit all the same notes (but, again, because of the medium, you take those changes in stride.) Outside of the adaptation factor, it rolls well in all. There are a few minor lingering questions or parts that seem odd in stride that are more thoroughly explained in the original book, but nothing that ultimately derails the show.

It's not something that is a complete substitute for the book, so I do find it a bit of a shame that it has overshadowed the source, but it's still a very enjoyable show on its own that also works well as a supplement to the material.

All this and we haven't even gotten to the movie yet.

OK, buckle your seatbelt, Hooper. We're getting to you now.

This adaptation has been one that had been gaining momentum for a while now - an attempt to take on one of the most acclaimed musicals to date with the extra budget and freedom that a Hollywood production would allow for.  Top this off with an all-star cast and a director fresh off an Oscar win, albeit one some have already disputed (As being paid for by Harvey Weinstein- editor), and this had a LOT of expectations to live up to. Expectations further being added to by the ambitious, if risky, idea of having the songs performed live, rather than synced and then recorder later, as is the common practice with musical movies.

Yeah, you can get where I'm going with this. There was a lot riding on this movie.

To its credit, some of it paid off.
Some of it.

"Just a few more years at this and they'll finally lay off me about X-Men Origins..."

Like I said above, there were some particular reservations among some people over the appointment of Tom Hooper to direct this - true, The King's Speech had won the best picture Oscar previously, but despite that win, his direction itself didn't particularly seem to wow many. Given a project like this, that could be a detriment, as doing this show justice calls for a creative and ambitious eye. Surprisingly, at points, Hooper does rise to the challenge. While the camera is frequently misused, there are certain sequences that do wind up showing flashes of potential, such as the opening shots of the movie. The initial camera work used to introduce Valjean and Javert does a great job of establishing their dynamic to start with. Unfortunately, from there, Hooper lapses into his problem habits of holding tight shots on his actors at dutch angles. This a technique that has a time and a place. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as often as Hooper seems to think. I could write an entire article in and of itself on the problematic use of the camera in this movie, which, again, for a project like this is a disappointment. I'd say if you want a particularly good example of the problems with the camera work in this, and this is one I feel somewhat bad bringing up for a negative point since the acting is good, is the much promoted 'I Dreamed a Dream' sequence. Hathaway certainly sells her part of it, and we'll get to that later. The problem is, Hooper spends the entire song just holding on her in close-up. While it does give her extra incentive to sell the performance, it also feels like a lazy shot from the directorial perspective, as even a good performance only goes so far when that's all you see for an extended period. It gets tiring after the first minute. Of course, not all the shots are held overly long - there are other scenes where the editing is problematic to the other extreme, such as in 'Look Down,' where the shots jump all over the place where a long take would have been just as ambitious and arguably better suited. Perhaps he could have spoken to Alfonso kind of get where I'm going with this one. Tom, when your audience is doing your work for you, something is wrong. When you're a director with an Academy award on your mantle and this is happening, something is REALLY wrong.

The unfortunate part of all of this is, for as many faults as Tom has on a technical level, again, he does have some good ideas as well. For as much as I bust his chops on his painful camera work, I do have to give credit to him that some of the sequences he sets up are actually not bad. His prevalence for dutch angles actually pays off for him during the song 'Lovely Ladies,' where the set design combines with that penchant to give the entire sequence a rather nightmarish effect. I'm not sure if that was the idea the whole time, but I will give him that it works well. Likewise, the decision to rearrange the order on some of the songs makes for a good call at points - saving 'I Dreamed a Dream' until after the above-mentioned song, I have to concede, actually gives the latter song more impact. Having it after Fantine's descent into prostitution makes the song's feeling of someone who life has ground into the dirt really hit home more than its former placement, which was when she'd just been canned on the job. The other standout call in this regard comes from the decision to shift 'Do You Hear the People Sing?' from its original spot, moving it instead to the outbreak of rebellion at Lamarque's funeral. This is a sequence that the stage versions tend to gloss over as a necessary evil of time and cost. Hooper's decision to add the sequence and set it to this song is actually one of those calls I have to give him credit for. In fact, the barricade scenes are actually some of the strongest parts of this version. Some of Hooper's bad habits are still there at points, but he actually manages to keep focused fairly well during this section of the film. He even manages to actually handle the collapse of the barricade and the last stand of the Friends of the ABC fairly well. Which, in some ways, adds to the hurt - since it again reminds that he's got the potential to do this movie well, but only seems to capture it at sporadic points.

On the other side of that coin, and appropriately right after the barricade, one of the weakest parts of this movie was probably the sewers. This is in part because they choose to omit the song 'Dog Eats Dog', which I have problems with that we'll come into more in casting, but also because that song is really a major piece of the sewers scene. Otherwise, it's really just a protracted scene of Valjean dragging Marius through sewers. Which you can roll with in a stage version, if only cause the direction there can find ways to make a stage look like a seemingly endless sewer that show some extra creativity - in a film, the decision unfortunately just feels tedious. Also, on the problem side of creative calls is the addition of the song 'Suddenly,' a song that, even after having rewatched the film a few times for this writeup, I still can't really remember much of. It's not like it's not an idea that couldn't make for a good song, but the song in question just...doesn't really do much. I found it particularly telling when the song got entered for the Best Original Song at the Oscars and its performance instead segued into a performance of the show-stopping 'One Day More.' It was like an unspoken concession that the new song wasn't up to snuff with the rest of the show and was mainly just there to give them a shot at the awards.

"Valjean dragged Marius to safety through five hundred years of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want to. Five hundred yards...that's the length of five football fields, just shy of half a mile."...hey, I can't be the only one that was waiting for Morgan Freeman to say something like this during this sequence, can I?

OK, I need to stop or we'll be here all night.  You can see what I'm getting at though, this film's got spread of some good and some bad ideas that makes it really hard to completely write off. It's a flawed production that definitely did not deserve the 4 star reviews and best picture nominations, but isn't the disaster some think it is. It's watchable at the very least, and definitely works hard to do the stage production justice.

Further on that point, let's take a look at the casting.

I know I said this one was a cast that, on paper, looked pretty promising, but I have to admit, I still had some reservations going in. Luckily, not all of them were justified. Still...some were. Even knowing his background in theater, I still wasn't sure at first how to feel about Hugh Jackman as Valjean. He's a good actor, but at first I wasn't sure if I could picture him in fitting the part. For the most part, I will admit he did the part justice. The singing was sometimes a little problematic, though learning some of that was actually a creative touch, such as in 'Bring Him Home,' where Jackman's voice cracking was a way to convey Valjean's growing older, I do cut the decision a bit more slack. It may not have been the way I'd have liked it to go, but it's actually not a bad idea to work with. The other I was really uncertain of at first was Russell Crowe as Javert. This was one that really had me mixed, since, in a straight performance as Javert, I'd have been all for it. Crowe has the presence to do the role justice. But this was the first time I'd ever heard the man sing. And it was...really not what I was expecting. I will at least give him this much, if there's any character in this show who could feasibly get away with sounding flatter, it would be Javert, where it could be seen as part of his stiff nature. Again, I can respect that idea, even though in this case I doubt it was on purpose, but it is still disappointing to hear in some of these songs. Much of the rest of the cast, actually, are fairly good. Anne Hathaway's Oscar win for this one was certainly earned, and Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne both do justice to two characters who, even in this version, seem a bit light on actual character. Actually, in their case, I really have to give Redmayne some credit for one thing, when it came to 'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,' he succeeded at selling the song. For as mixed as I was with later parts of the movie, that was one I was actually satisfied with. Likewise, as the third member of the triangle, Samantha Barks as Eponine carries her role well. While the decision to have her big number, 'On My Own', take place in the rain felt a bit heavy-handed on Hooper's part, she still delivers the emotion strongly enough that the rain doesn't really detract. [EDIT - OK, I will concede the rain fits the song in hindsight.  Though I still think the film lays on the downpour a bit thick here. Especially considering afterwards it's like it never happened. Even in New England, a downpour like that leaves SOME signs after.] Actually, about the only other area where I had much of an issue with the casting was in the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers. This is one it saddens me a bit to admit to since, on paper, I REALLY liked the idea of Cohen as Thénardier. In some regards, he actually doesn't do that badly, either. Like Crowe, he feels like a case where he'd be better suited to playing the role in a non-musical capacity. He does make for some decent bits of comedy, but his singing unfortunately feels somewhat lacking here. He at least makes the most of some of it in 'Master of the House' with the physical comedy, but it's hard not to feel like there's an opportunity wasted there. He does get some of the hang of balancing the comedy with the singing when it comes to 'The Thénardier Waltz of Treachery,' but for a man known for his comedy, it feels strange to have him come up short here. Though from an adaptation standpoint, I do have to admit, I actually did find his playing Thénardier as a bit crueler and harsher at times a nice callback. Though, further on that, it made me sad they omitted 'Dog Eats Dog,' as Cohen's singing style would have been perfect for that. As for Carter...OK, she's not a bad actress, but given the character in question, I wasn't particularly sold on the idea of her in the part from the get-go. Then she didn't exactly work to assuage my reservations from there. For a character who is, by all accounts, an overbearing bruiser and a terror to everyone but her husband, Carter channeled none of that. In fact, half the time, she didn't really seem to be channeling much of anything beyond a nondescript performance cribbed from a lost Tim Burton movie. Again, the knowledge that she's not actually a bad actress and that this is actually a character an actress could have a lot of fun with just made the cruise control performance feel like THAT much more of a disappointment. Back on the good side of the performances, the rest of the cast were actually quite well chosen. The Friends of the ABC all balance the acting and singing well, and hearing the performances within the right age range is a nice little bonus. Again, it's the kind of thing you can take in stride on stage, but for a film, it's nice to see them meet this one part way and still do it. Along those lines, I was actually very happy with Daniel Huttlestone's turn as Gavroche. Admittedly, it feels a bit weird to hear a British accent from someone who's supposed to be French (Cohen, Carter, this one's on you two as well!) but for his age, I can let some of that slide. That aside, he channels the boy's rebelliousness well, and carries his songs well. Given the hit or miss field of child acting, it's always nice to see the kids who can hold their own this well. In wrapping up this section, I do have to give one other shoutout - the decision to cast Colm Wilkinson, the show's original Jean Valjean, as the Bishop of Digne was a VERY nice touch. Both for a general trivia bit, and the fact that Wilkinson makes a great performance of the brief role, giving him the warmth necessary to see why he has the impact on Valjean that he does.


So yeah, a few bumps aside, this actually turned out to be a net positive.

But how does it fair as an adaptation?

One of the biggest hurdles this film has from an adaptation standpoint is the fact that, at least by design, it's not so much an adaptation of the original book as it is an adaptation of the musical adaptation of the book. Despite that, and in something of a risky move, Hooper seems to want to try and reconcile the two different versions together, and includes a lot of callbacks to the original novel while he films the musical. Some of these aren't bad ideas, such as invoking the reaction from Gavroche during 'A Little Fall of Rain' to hint to the fact he and Eponine are siblings (though to be fair, this is common in a lot of the stage performances is as well.) Likewise, introducing Gavroche by having him climb out of the elephant statue the novel describes him as living in are nice touches for those familiar with the original while not really deterring the musical. Unfortunately, it also leads to a couple of areas that DO tend to sit awkwardly in the narrative. Much as I like the idea of this adaptation actually providing the follow-up to Fauchlevent (the man Valjean saves when he's trapped under a cart,) it's part of an overly long sequence that, while also accurate to the book, really doesn't fit into the pace of the movie that well. Likewise, while the movie does make a bit of a nod to Marius's grandfather, Gillenormand, he's almost a non-character in how he's depicted. Given just how much personality Hugo gives the man in the original work, as a somewhat comedic example of bourgeoisie, seeing him as just a scowling old man here is arguably more of a disappointment than not featuring him at all.

Much of the rest of the elements, I already discussed before, so there's no real need to go into them too much here. While I want to be able to give Hooper more credit for his including the shoutouts, several or the more pronounced ones really don't justify themselves in the film too well.

...whew.  That...that was a lot.

So what did I get from this film? Honestly, a very mixed sentiment. Again, I can't bring myself to completely hate the movie, since it does have its strengths. At the same time, however, it also has a LOT of problems, many stemming from the faults of the director. I feel like Hooper is the kind of director who may be better suited for the stage than film. He knows how to direct actors well, but otherwise, he either doesn't realize or doesn't appreciate the extra freedom the medium of film gives him, resulting in a lot of moments in this film that leave me with a feeling of "This could have been so much better." In fact, that phrase really seems to sum up this film in general. It's not particularly awful, but for what it has to work with, and what it's trying to adapt, it really feels like it could have been a much grander vision. What we did get was an interesting experiment, and has some traces of ambition - while I like the basic idea of live recording on the songs, in many cases here, it feels like Hooper just used the first take and ran with it, rather than trying for a better rendition - but only really seems to live up to its potential at select intervals.

Maybe in another 10 or 20 years time, I'd be game to see another attempt made at this with a fresh director with a strong sense of ambition and direction. In the meantime, this isn't as bad as it could have been, but I will continue to look at it with a sense of what might have been.

and if they're lucky, the Academy hazing rituals won't be quite as severe by then.

So...several stops and starts later, this brings the first Summer Reading project to a close. In all, was an interesting project, and one I look forward to trying to work with more in the future.

In the meantime though, now I'm just glad to have that one past, cause that was a LOT.

Keep an eye out this Friday when we get back on track!

Till then!

...oh, what the Hell, I've put off the jokes about him this long, one for the road:

"Did someone say FOIGHTIN'?!"

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Evil Dead (2013) - Why Am I Grilling This Movie For Looking Good?

Well, most of the summer film queue is over, but I've still got a 'to do' of this year's releases in general to work through. With this in mind, after a lot of mixed feelings on my own interest in seeing it, I finally decided 'Hell with it' and got around to checking out Fede Alvarez's remake of the cult classic The Evil Dead.

Personally, I felt really torn on this one going in. On the one hand, the filmmakers' enthusiasm actually had me sold on wanting to give this movie a shot. On the other, the trailers felt...I didn't quite know how to put it at
the time. They looked nice, but they lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that I come to expect when I hear Evil Dead.

Yeah, I know that sounds kind of biased, which is why I still decided to shut that voice up and finally got around to seeing the movie.

In some ways, I have to admit, I was actually pleasantly surprised. At the same time, I also felt myself let down in other ways.

OK, I'll just go for the throat and say it before I dive right in: Alvarez's Evil Dead is both a good and bad film all at once. On its own, it's actually a well done horror film, especially for a man making his feature debut. On the other, for as good as it is in its own doesn't really feel like an Evil Dead movie.

...well, OK, there WAS that, but not really the best scene to use to recapture that feeling.

I'll explain that further later. I just needed to get that out of my system before I went on.

Now then, let's get started.

The film begins with a prologue that, to its credit, could actually make for a pretty good short film on its own. One of the things this version actually has over the predecessor it takes its name from is that the script by
Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues aims to give more backstory, both to the main characters, and to the infamous Book of the Dead that triggers everything. As such, this opening helps give a bit of insight into how the book wound up at the cabin for this movie - and on its own it's actually a pretty good little bit of creepiness to set things into motion. With that, we jump into the main movie: unlike the earlier version, and again, this is one area I think this version actually has an advantage, we learn more about the future victims, both in general and right out of the gate. This time around, the trip to the cabin has a bit more motivation behind it than the old horror tradition of going for a weekend of fun and/or casual sex. Rather, the group have gathered at the request of Mia (Jane Levy,) a former junkie who's trying to go straight. This trip to the cabin is her detox - they're gonna stay until she's completely cleaned up. This angle actually serves the writers fairly well early in, particularly as it fuels both the general character interaction, and allows for a degree of slow escalation as the movie's supernatural elements begin. At first they build up slowly, with the group finding a basement loaded with occult objects and dead animals (which, while a little heavy handed, is still not too badly done.) Then comes the famous Book of the Dead among these things, and anyone who's familiar with the story knows where this is heading.
That said, the summoning is one area where I do have to dock the film a couple of minor points - in the original, the scene with the group playing the tape is, admittedly not the brightest thing in the world, but to their credit, it's not like they particularly know better at that point. By comparison, when Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) is thumbing through the book and sees the words, explicitly written in English 'DO NOT READ OUT LOUD,' and does so's hard not to say he brought it on himself.

The fact the warning is attached to a book that looks like this just makes it even less excusable.

Anyway, from here, like I said, the film actually ramps itself up pretty well - again, they take advantage of the detox angle, and the fact Mia is the first person targeted by the demons, to allow the events to slowly build. Thanks to her history, the rest of the group, including her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) assume this is part of her addiction talking and don't realize something else is genuinely wrong until it's too late. Additionally, one of the other areas this version distinguishes itself from the earlier Evil Dead movies is in the fact that the use of the Book triggers a ritual, leading in part to further escalation of the horrors that will be inflicted on the ill-fated visitors. This leads to a neat narrative device in using the ritual to parallel the things that happen over the course of the movie. While this could be seen by some as a bit on the nose, I have to admit, I thought it was an interesting element - suggesting that these seeming acts of mutilation and death are not simply random acts from the demons, but part of a deliberate cycle.

Wow...that's a lot for discussing the plot to an Evil Dead movie.

Anyway, like I said, on its own merits, this is actually a pretty well made movie. Alongside the extra effort put into the script, the movie has a good cast going for it. Most notably Levy as Mia, whose character gets run, all but literally, through a wringer over the course of this movie, and she handles it all well. The rest of the group, carry their weight on this one too. It's not gonna be particularly award-winning fare for this year, but it still holds up well. Likewise, for his first time full-time, Alvarez's direction shows a good eye for the subject matter. Some of the sequences he has put together in this are creative and fairly squirm-inducing, and outside of those, he even lands one surprise I have to admit I didn't expect. Pair this with some VERY welcome use of practical effects and this movie is actually a rather promising first offering.

"Just keep telling's for an authentic effect...", some of you are probably wondering "then why did you call it a bad movie before?"
That's...actually kind of the weird thing. Like I said before, this is a good movie. It's partially because of that that it's not a particularly good Evil Dead movie.

Don't read this as a slam on the Evil Dead trilogy, mind you. Anyone who was here last October knows that's not the case.

But after three films and a lot of tie-in media, the Evil Dead trilogy has essentially cemented itself with an
identity defined now in part by the wonderfully low budget, somewhat goofy style that has made the films as embraced as comedy as they have been horror. I want to give this film points for trying to go back to its roots, but the fact is, that image has become such a pronounced part of the Evil Dead identity, that this film just doesn't really feel like it lives up to the name. Most notably with regards to the production values - again, I actually was rather impressed with the effects on this movie, practical FX in the age of CGI, especially when done well, are always a welcome change.

But, again, seeing something look this polished and professional just feels alien to have bearing the Evil Dead name.

I realize it sounds weird, but that's the score here. Again, I commend the efforts on the part of Alvarez and his team. Honestly, the big problem here isn't even their fault per se. It's just what happens when you go all in on a brand that's built its identity on its low budget trappings...well, it feels like the wrong way to go is all.

It's a rather curious feeling...not bad, but curious.

Two more entries tomorrow.

See you then...and maybe in your nightmares!

Summer Reading #3 - Les Miserables (1978)

The backlog continues.  It actually feels somewhat fitting thematically that the last entries into Summer Reading are rushed into early September. I mean, really, who hasn't had that happen with their summer reading at least once?

In hunting adaptations for this, I did want to try and find a good variety. Unfortunately, many of the standouts I found in this regard were miniseries. Now, nothing wrong with those- I've tagged a few for watching on my own anyway-but in trying to keep a schedule with these, now that things are in a rush, time dictated that I try and keep to the shorter versions. On the plus side, this did allow for this rather curious find - a 1978 made for TV movie based on the novel.

The story...OK, do I really need to review the story by this point? In terms of how this version fares in adapting that story, well...

About the best analogy I can think to make for how this film paces its events is akin to a funhouse mirror. Certain parts that were minor within the original story get considerably more focus here, such as Valjean's arrest and imprisonment at Toulon, a fairly short sequence in the book that nets a solid 20 minutes of this two hour version. By comparison, other parts feel almost alarmingly condensed, most damningly Fantine's narrative, which has much of its front-end chopped off and then revealed in a rather hasty information dump. This creative decision feels particularly problematic given this adaptation makes it a point to start with Hugo's famous prologue declaring "So long as there are people suffering in the world, stories such as this one will be necessary." It feels somewhat hypocritical to emphasize that quote while ultimately downplaying the one character who, more than anyone else in the narrative, is the ultimate poster child for suffering and the casual cruelty of people. Given how much of this movie tends to carry itself, it feels like this is because writer John Gay and director Glenn Jordan seem to want to place the emphasis on the storylines of Valjean and Javert (it's rather telling that many of the covers for this version prominently display Anthony Perkins in the latter role.) In fact, anyone who isn't Valjean or Javert can look forward to their story essentially being told with a fast forward button.

This is kind of a shame since, for the parts they do pay the focus to, the movie actually does a pretty solid job. It's not without its drawbacks (I do find it strange this version has Valjean actively break out of Toulon) but in all, it still manages to capture their respective plots mostly well. I say mostly because Javert's botched spy job is a VERY clumsy scene in this version. Otherwise, the film does their characters fair justice. Everyone else, however, is far less than lucky. Like I said above, much of Fantine's storyline is sacrificed, drastically reducing the impact of her tragedy. Her daughter is even less of a character, sadly. I'll grant Cosette is kind of a light character even in the original narrative, but in this version, she's almost nonexistent. The biggest casualties in this version, as it were, would be Marius and the ill-fated Friends of the ABC. For what's meant to be a major turning point in the story, they're only introduced within the last half-hour of the movie, and the barricade only arises in the last 20 minutes. Further, it occurs with almost no buildup whatsoever. We learn about it as it's happening care of young Gavroche, who this version makes into an almost literal plot device. From there, much of the barricade is further rushed through. And, in keeping with the film's matter-of-fact handling of his character, even Gavroche's death is rather abrupt.

Speaking of no buildup, they aren't standing on anything here.
This is as large as their barricade gets.

As heavily condensed as the film's script is, I do have to give the film credit for its casting. It is arguably the movie's strongest suit, and in many cases does make up for how the script has rendered several people to be non-characters. At the start, I will concede, I wasn't particularly sold on Richard Jordan as Valjean, but after the first 30 minutes or so, he grew on me. It's a bit strange to say he first really starts to fit the role around the time Valjean is slowly losing his humanity in prison, and becoming more and more of a dangerous thug. For how this film writes the character, Jordan does a decent job with giving the role the needed emotional weight - or at least as much as this telling allows it to carry. Likewise, Anthony Perkins, who I initially felt a bit uncertain about going into this movie, really surprised me as Javert. His turn is arguably one of the best performances in this version, playing the inspector with what starts as a clipped detachment that slowly turns into more of a dogged determination as the movie goes on. The supporting cast, it feels somewhat odd to comment on since, like I said, so many are ultimately marginalized by the script. There are still a few notable turns, such as Ian Holm as the innkeeper Thenardier, and John Gielgud as Marius's uncle, Gillenormand (I got my hopes up at seeing this version incorporate him, as he's a character that often tends to get omitted from adaptations.)  From there, the two other performances that really stand out for much are Angela Pleasance as Fantine and Christopher Guard as Marius. The two aren't bad, but again, they only can do just so much being demoted to extras.

On the plus side, being killed here WOULD free him from getting called back for more Psycho sequels.
...come on, I bit back a LOT of Norman Bates jokes during this review, let me have this one!

I actually feel somewhat bad coming down on the script on this version so hard since, to be honest, it's otherwise not a particularly bad movie. Jordan's direction is certainly capable of handling the material well, even with the focal problems. Further, he makes good use of the cast he has here. Because again, they certainly deliver on their performances. Even the overall production, for a made for TV budget, looks quite good. Some of the sets are, admittedly, a bit downsized (the barricade being the prime example,) but given the means the production had to work with, that's understandable. For what they had to work with, they still make the most of the money on hand. Also, Jordan's handling of certain scenes relying more on emotion than dialogue actually shows some good directorial skill (for the most part, there's a couple of iffy moments, though given how introspective parts of this novel are, it's a challenge to be expected.) Further adding to those emotional scenes, the score by Allyn Fergsuon, while nothing timeless, does serve the movie well. Really, the other components of this film have a lot of potential and do manage some good on their own terms.

Though on the plus side, that lower budget DOES make the sewers much easier to maneuver.

In all, I feel rather conflicted about this version. I want to be able to say more good for it, cause the things it handles well, it actually does a fairly solid job with. Unfortunately, the very heavy hand in adapting the script hurts the film in a lot of ways, both as an adaptation and with its own standalone ability. It's a case where one of the weakest pieces has the ill luck to be a central one. The rest of the components of the film do their best to make up for that failing, but they can only do so much.

"...and they said this was going to be a sad ending!"

Well, three down, one to go.

Keep an eye out for the last in a few days. As you can imagine, this one's gonna be a biggie.

"Well, my work here is done."
(...and this is actually how this version ends. Really. Well, not the line, but this shot.)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The World's End - This Time "I'm Getting Too Old For This" Is Part of the Plan

As the summer winds down, I find my 'to do' list for releases wrapping up pretty quick.  Sure, there's still a couple of stragglers (need to get around to You're Next and see if I can find a theater around here that would still have Fruitvale Station, but otherwise, just about done) but the season has just about clocked out for me. With that in mind, it seems strangely appropriate that the last 'must see' for me this season was Edgar Wright's final installment in the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy The World's End.

This is a film I've been curious about since its first announcement, both as the awaited spiritual successor/conclusion to the series started with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and both for the statements made in interviews leading up to the film's genesis, of the film's creative team exploring the idea of getting older in a genre where the man-child archetype has become something of the norm.

The result, while a bit unusual and a little jarring at times, is still a largely satisfying finale that proves well worth the wait.

The film's story, in as spoiler-free a way as I can sum it up, is first introduced to us by protagonist Gary King (Simon Pegg,) a former high school bad boy who recounts, in flashback, what he considers to be the peak of his glory days - a fateful night when he and four of his friends took on the challenge of the Golden Mile: a 12 bar pub crawl. The night was eventful, intoxicating, and incomplete. In present day, Gary decides this is the time to go back and finish the fight - but he's not going alone: he wants his old friends (played by Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan) to join him, whether they want to or not. So, the reluctantly reunited group returns to their old home town to partake of this last pub crawl. To their surprise, their old home town seems kind of strange. People don't recognize them, or don't seem to have aged. At first they brush this off as being on them: time has changed, they've changed, etc. As the night goes on, however, they find the town has changed as well - and is now a launching off point for an alien occupation of Earth. know, nothing they can't handle after a few beers.

Like the first two installments in the TFC trilogy, this movie runs with the idea that its story can still stand on its own without necessarily needing the genre riffing. In a bit of a shift, the genre riffing is less pronounced in this film than it was in the prior two. There is definitely a play on alien invasion films - most notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers - prevalent in the movie. Yet at times it almost feels secondary to the character interaction between the group. That said, the characterization is arguably the strongest element of this movie. Both in terms of comedy and general writing, the movie works at its best with the interaction between the group of friends. As in the prior two movies, amid the various tweaks of various genre cliches, there was still a core message about the characters in focus: in SotD, it was getting your life in order and stepping up for those you really care about; in Hot Fuzz, it was trying to balance not being too rigid in life with not being too complacent in it either (Pegg and Frost starting out at the two extremes before each comes to more of a middle ground); here, as said above, it's the idea of reconciling your past. While Pegg is arguably the most pronounced case of this, we see examples of it in all of the members of the group to extents: Freeman's Oliver is at first hesitant to revisit his past, and at first is the most visibly annoyed with Gary over the whole thing; Considine's Steven has been trying for years to get over the girl who got away (Rosamund Pike) only to find out she's still there when they return; Marsan's Peter has an old wound reopened care of a former tormentor, a plot point that climaxes in a scene that's as gratifying as it is sadly unsettling thanks to how Marsan plays it; and finally Frost's Andy, who we learn parted ways with Gary over some rather dark events. Having Gary desperately try and revive the past causes each of these people to confront, and in their own ways, deal with that balance of who they were and who they are now. Some overcome it with more success than others. Unfortunately, I can't really explain further on this point without spoiling.

On the note of the core cast, I do have to make a particular shout-out for Pegg on this one. Of his three roles in the trilogy, and honestly, of his career in general, Gary King may be one of his best performances to date. This is somewhat surprising considering that Gary is arguably one of the most obnoxious and unlikable characters you could hope to meet - and he's like that by design. In many ways, Gary is the old established comedic trope of the man-child played completely straight, and Pegg doesn't try to soften the negative parts. This isn't to say he doesn't get some laughs - he certainly gets a fair number - but he also doesn't shy away from the fact that someone so attached to the past as Gary is WOULD come across as sad and somewhat conniving in a lot of ways. You can see why his friends both seem to dislike him, but still haven't got the heart to just drop out on him entirely. He's a jerk, but he's not without his sympathy - particularly in the third act, but again, I can't go into that one too much.

I couldn't have asked for a better screencap to sum him up than this.

Outside of the character interaction, the overall plot feels somewhat relegated to the background. It's not bad, but it doesn't really resonate quite the same way as the performances do. Though I do have to certainly hand Wright and Pegg some extra brownie points here for the number of clues and signs of a full circle plot the movie works in. Things like the pub names reflecting what's happening in the story, and the fact that the group's decision making process becomes increasingly worse, though their fighting improves, as they get more drunk are little touches that really speak to the thought that got put into the storyline on this one.

Of course, even with all that thought, the script does have a few problems - most notably with the alien plot. It makes for an compelling mystery at the start of the film, but when all the cards are on the table in the final act, it feels somewhat anticlimactic. The message behind them is certainly interesting (Wright has said in interviews the film's invaders are in part a message about the sort of branding that is spreading throughout England, here embodied in the uniform design of all the pubs,) but it feels like a thought that would be better used in another film entirely. Additionally, the third act suffers from a rather severe case of emotional whiplash. It's not necessarily a bad shift per se, and it makes for a well done surprise character shift to work with, but it also can potentially be problematic for some viewers to work with. Otherwise, the only other real grievance I can say on this is with regards to the film's epilogue. This, again, isn't bad in and of itself, it provides some nice closure on everyone, but it DOES also run a bit longer than it probably needs to.

In terms of direction, the film is very much up to par with the first two installments - containing many of the same sharp edits and camera work that made these films stand out in the first place. Likewise, this film handles its fights with a surprising level of energy and creativity for a comedy. A highlight in this being one brawl where Frost wields two barstools as weapons; words can't do it justice, you really need to see it to get why this one works. This energy and directorial vision are certainly welcome here, as they're a big part of what helps keep the movie trucking through the somewhat shaky third act. Paired with the sharp work by the cast and a well-employed soundtrack, everything else about the movie still manages to fire on all cylinders.

Even this screencap only starts to do it justice. It just works that well in motion.

All in all, it's not a bad note to send these films off on. It's not perfect, but even the downsides aren't particularly crippling ones, and when the films does things well, it does them VERY well. It didn't all hit me right away, but more and more I am actually still very satisfied with this as an end point for the films. It's actually a bit of a shame to see them off, but hopefully the team may still work again in the future - I know I'd look forward to it.

Well, with summer wrapping up, that means...yep, time to wrap up the last of the Summer Reading (two entries left to go on those, guys. You're not getting away that easy!)

Of course, other entries will be coming up alongside them as well. At this rate, will be caught up by the weekend!

Till then...

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Backlog Week Entry 2: A Fistful of Fingers - No, It's Not a Caligula Joke

So with last night's announcement posted (and again, I can't stress the value of your input enough on that) we're back to the review backlog to be caught up this week.

This next entry was lined up to actually go with two Fridays back, to coincide with Edgar Wright wrapping up the last of his Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy, The World's End. That write-up will be here tomorrow. In the meantime, thanks to a mix of checking filmography and hunting around, I was able to track down Wright's feature directorial debut - the spaghetti western sendup A Fistful of Fingers - Okay TECHNICALLY it's a remake of his first version of the movie, which was done on a considerably lower budget (believe me, I've been trying to find that version as well.)

Told ya that was the actual name...

To anyone whose prior encounters with Wright's penchant for parody come from the above mentioned trilogy, I should warn you now. This is a different flavor of parody compared to those films. While there is still a healthy dose of genre-riffing abundant in Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, they also still have a separate story that could, theoretically, exist without the riffing. By comparison, Edgar Wright is going all-in on the parody with this film.

As such, what story we have is even an extension of the send-up: we followed the gunman with no name (Graham Low, complete with the Eastwood style adornment) as he ambles into town seeking to take down the wanted criminal known only as The Squint (Oli van der Vijver.) What follows is a skewed playthrough of many of the tried and true western cliches, up to and including even spoofing on the genre's tendency to be less than PC in its handling of Native Americans, largely in the form of No-Name's companion, Running Sore (Martin Curtis.)

Yep...again, they go all in with this.

On paper, this really doesn't sound like much. Fortunately, Writer/director Wright has enough of a sense of humor to take the very basic premise and characters and still make for a good run with them. A run that actually is further added to by the fact this is very much in the spirit of a low budget student film (considering the original was one,) most notably with regards to how it chooses to handle horses, as pictured below. It actually becomes a sort of strength for the movie - rather than try and downplay its more low budget pieces, the film embraces them, making the way the actors handle them as much a part of the joke. Given the style of some of the spaghetti westerns, this is actually rather fitting.


The result, oddly enough, feels a bit less like Blazing Saddles, and a bit more like Matt Stone and Trey Parker's Cannibal! The Musical. It's a work that feels comfortable enough in its low-budget trappings to have fun with them without making them feel like it's being done arbitrarily to mock it.

Given that the design of this film is more based around the joke than the story, this does have something of a drawback in terms of its execution - some parts can be a bit hit or miss depending how you feel about the humor. For the most part, it's still fairly entertaining, but if you're looking for something beyond the light laugh, this isn't gonna get you particularly far.

In an example of one of the gags I have to admit I found particularly amusing - taking the old west saloon to such a full cliche that everyone in the bar acts as though they're animatronic dummies on a loop...but only when someone comes in, of course.

Still, there's something to be said for simplicity some times. This film does what it wants and for the most part, succeeds. The script takes some somewhat well-worn ground for parody and manages to mine some fresh laughs out of it where other films would likely have less luck. Also, given this was a very early attempt at a feature, some of the bumps are to be a bit expected. For a second-filming-of-a-first try, it still shows a good deal of the potential Wright would then go on to impress people with, both in television and film (for those who've enjoyed his films but not checked out his TV work, consider this a less than subtle plug to watch Spaced.)  It's actually fascinating, in an odd way, to get to seeing some of the earlier works from a director like this, while they're still finding their more solid footing. Wright walks a bit of an easier path here, but still shows he's got it in him to take on more challenges in the future, as he has then gone on to prove.

All in all, nothing must-see, but if you're a fan of the man's work, it's certainly a nice look at his early years if you have the interest. Even outside of that, hey, still fairly entertaining as a parody movie goes.

Now tomorrow we get to play time and tone whiplash by looking at Edgar Wright's latest, as promised above.

Till then...

Monday, September 2, 2013


OK, the speed run will continue, but first, it's time for a little bit of an announcement...and this one benefits from user feedback, so please do pay attention.

Yes, this announcement applies to everyone in the office.

Well guys, it's September. For those of you who've been around this place for over a year, or at least done some archive diving, you know what that means. That's right, we're coming up on this year's October run.

For those of you new to this, here's the deal: each October, The Third Row gets into the Halloween spirit by
picking 31 horror movies, a review a day (naturally kept on the shorter side for brevity) posted in the form of a weekly write-up every Friday of the month.

This year, I'm trying a bit of a different spin on the formula: in the past, it's been a general combination of whatever I came up with for the year and user contributed suggestions.  In order to balance, this unfortunately meant some user suggestions got left out.

In the interest of fairness, and to cast a wider net, here's the new attempted plan:
I'm currently sitting on a...shall we say rather bulked up list culled from various other lists as well as just titles that have been on my 'to do' list for Halloween suggestions.

Naturally, however, this isn't a perfect spread - in fact, user suggestions have actually helped me find some great entries these last two years, which is why I value the feedback on this event so much.

What does this new setup mean for you guys? Simply put - go nuts. Rain down suggestions on me. Doesn't matter if they've already been on the pending list, I'll gladly take 'em anyway. Don't be shy, give me as many titles as you can hit me with! These suggestions, as well as the current list, will all be dumped into the randomizer - out of this heaping helping of horror (...did this suddenly turn into an old Tales From the Crypt comic?) the first 31 titles chosen by the randomizer will be offered up for this year. Everything else, by default, is officially included in the running for subsequent years, ensuring as wide a net as possible is cast. So really, no reason to get discouraged if it doesn't make it in this year - it's already in the running regardless for the future.

So again, feel free to send in your suggestions by whatever means you so choose: post replies here, post on the Twitter feed (it's @guyinthe3rdrow for the record) or email at

I can't make this clear enough - I want as many suggestions as you guys can find to hit me with. This is one of those times of year I really look forward to, in no small part for the variety it offers, and you guys are a big part of helping with that. Don't even worry if something you suggested might already be on the list - better to have it suggested and already be on here than to say nothing and have it stay off the radar entirely.

Hopefully we'll get a good list out of this year!

Also, fun as it would be to send you guys going through the old lists to generate extra hits, as a show of good faith, here's the 62 that have already been covered in previous years:

-The Tunnel
-Rosemary's Baby
-Eyes Without a Face
-Penny Dreadful
-The Omen
-I Spit On Your Grave
-Dementia 13
-The Other
-Night of the Living Dead (1968)
-The Wicker Man
-Lake Mungo
-Picnic at Hanging Rock
-Land of the Dead
-Werewolves on Wheels
-The Exorcist
-Kairo (Pulse)
-Hour of the Wolf
-The Others
-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
-The Devil's Backbone
-Let's Scare Jessica to Death
-The Thing (1982)
-Cannibal Holocaust
-The Baby's Room
-Nosferatu the Vampyre
-Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens
-Don't Look Now
-Village of the Damned
-The Abominable Dr. Phibes
-Sleepaway Camp
-In the Mouth of Madness
-I Drink Your Blood
-Trick 'R Treat
-The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
-Perfect Blue
-A Tale of Two Sisters
-The Evil Dead
-Burnt Offerings
-Marble Hornets
-Return of the Living Dead
-The Serpent and the Rainbow
-28 Days Later
-At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul
-Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
-The Beyond
-Carnival of Souls
-The House of the Devil
-Jacob's Ladder
-Cabin in the Woods
-The Brood

As a general rule, the cut-off for suggestions is the 15th - simply so I have a decent buffer window to sort the list and hunt down this year's winners. So get 'em in early and get in a lot of 'em.

Will be keeping an eye out and looking forward to what you guys offer up!