6.30.2012

King's Highway pt. 16: Dreamcatcher


As always, there be spoilers ahead; turn back now if such things offend thee.

I saw this trailer before X2 in the theater, if memory serves.


I remember thinking Good lord, that looks a mess... is that one movie or a dozen movies smashed into one? 

Both the book and the film (though perhaps more the film) provoke wildly divergent reactions. The garden variety reaction is something like this (and man, do I disagree with just about every word in that, but it's a fair example of the general consensus), but there is also this. I don't necessarily agree with that one, either, but just included it to show the other side of the Dreamcatcher coin in internet-land.

As evidenced by this, as well, which I adore.
The film must have seemed like a slam dunk on paper. Best-selling Stephen King novel? Lawrence Kasdan? (Despite Grand Canyon, he wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, right? Wrong. The failure of this film led to this gap in Kasdan's career. He's lamented it a few times in interviews, which is probably why we don't get a director's commentary on the DVD.) William Goldman? Writer extraordinaire and veteran of other successful King adaptations like Misery and Hearts in Atlantis? And this cast?

"How could we go wrong?" harrumphed the Hollywood fat-cats, who financed this to the tune of 65 million:

How? Two words: Shit Weasel. A lot easier to deal with on the page, and for some it was a shit-weasel too far. The original title of this was Cancer, which Tabitha King wisely talked him out of. I think Dreamcatcher works great - mysterious, apt for the material/ subtext - but I almost wish it was just called Shit Weasel. 
Also in the "How" department... Donnie Wahlberg does a good job, actually, but I'm just saying. Maybe if David Cronenberg directed this, it'd have struck the right tones, but tender scenes of childhood juxtaposed to attack helicopters machine-gunning a field of CGI Gray Aliens/ explosions? And suddenly Duddits is Donnie Wahlberg? With light coming out of his mouth?
I actually threw out a few paragraphs of my review once I came out across this. No point summarizing/ analyzing a movie that has been so hilariously skewered elsewhere; I can only say "Chapeau." Seek thee elsewhere for anything but personal impressions from here on out; the AV Club beat me to/ bested me re: any jokes.
Far be it for me to criticize a luminary like William Goldman, but transcription-wise, the film stumbles right out of the gate by compartmentalizing sequences of the novel that only make sense in the third act, reading-wise. Specifically, 1) Duddits-as-realized-dreamcatcher; I mean, they toast him as "their dreamcatcher" in the beginning of the film (even in the freaking trailer), whereas it's an important realization for Henry and Jonesy in the book, and a well-paced one at that. 2) Mr. Gray's possession doesn't come across as intriguingly onscreen, nor does the way he disposes of Pete. (In the book, Mr. Gray manipulates the byrus growing in Pete; in the movie, he turns into a CGI Venus Flytrap and chomps him in two. So, Jonesy's body can now change shape?) 3) The child actors don't do a bad job, but this is sure no Stand By Me. 4) Jonesy's Memory Warehouse is a not-unclever sequence in the film but it nonetheless comes across as too-on-the-nose foreshadowing:

 
Feel free to skip over the first minute or so; I couldn't find a clip that didn't have the guys at the beginning BS-ing. Roger Ebert singled this clip out as his favorite part of the movie... but also added that he hadn't read the book.

Well, sure, Roger, it's a cool sequence; it can't help but make you think of the ways you store and re-sequence your own memories, and it's a pleasure to watch. But, Jonesy's experiences in the inner sanctum of his memory warehouse (not to mention the reason why he is the successful exception when it comes to being possessed) come across so much more elegantly and "organically" in the novel. (I know "organic" is one of those BS words, these days, but there it is.) Here, it's just another sequence that feels at odds with the sequences around it. Loses its impact as just an info-dump to be exploited later by Mister Gray.

Ahh, Mister Gray.

Jonesy 1: Aren't you the fella whose head exploded back at the Hole in the Wall?
Jonesy 2: Damian Lewis deserves props for his performance, but as mentioned above, Goldman/ Kasdan should have approached his possession much differently. Comes across, again, much better in the reading of it.
One change I did like, tho, (and it's a big one, from the novel to screen) was making Duddits into one of Mister Gray's own for the climax. This alteration gets a lot of "bad press" on the Stephen King Forum for that, but meh. While the emotional impact of the character is far greater in the book (I, for one, cried almost every time Duddits appears in the story), this altered-resolution to Duddits's character arc makes sense to me. Like The Langoliers, perhaps the rest of the adaptation suffers from too rigid a faithfulness to the source material without accurately translating its "vibe," but here, specifically, I'm glad the film charted its own course.

Duddits sees the line. Ooby-Ooby-Doo, where-are-oo? We gah sum urk oo-do-now.
King wrote in On Writing about how critics never talk about the language in his books (paraphrasing). It's a shame, as he invests as much as any author noted-for-such in the language. To that end, I assembled some phrases I really liked in the novel and mashed them up. I tried different combinations of the sentences and my favorite combination is below.

(This may not be to everyone's liking, so my feelings won't be hurt if you skip over this part.)

Change will come upon them sudden and unannounced, as it always does with children of this age; if change needed permission from junior-high students, it would cease to exist.
There is no darkness, not this time; for better or for worse, arc-sodiums have been installed on Memory Lane. But the film is confused, as if the editor took a few too many drinks for lunch and forgot just how the story was supposed to go. 
 
Jonesy's in the hospital with Mister Gray.

BACON IS JUST THE BEGINNING.
Mister Gray is the pain in my brain.
Then he stepped out into the cold.
"Time slowed and reality bent; on and on the eggman went."


Henry believed that all children were presented with self-defining moments in early adolescence, and that children in groups were apt to respond more decisively than children alone. Often they behaved badly, answering distress with cruelty.


Henry and his friends had behaved well, for whatever reason. It meant no more than anything else in the end, but it did not hurt to remember... that once, you had confounded the odds and behaved decently.
Our wickedest motions, in a cosmic sense, come down to no more than counting someone's crib, pegging it backward, then playing dumb about it.
Henry was crying again. "So long, Beav," he said. 
"Love you man and that's straight from the heart."

King writes in the afterward that he wrote all 620 pages of this with just a fountain pen and that "to write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven't been for years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored." Amen.

It shows. a) in the above quoted bits, b) in The Beav's dialogue ie. Fuck Me Freddy and Jesus Christ Bananas and He's bald like Telly What's-his-fuck and all of his mantra-like expressions, c) in the military jargon, with its Ripleys and Blue Boys. Along the lines of "c," I like this section:

"Is she a cannibal, Freddy? The person we leave in charge here has got to be a cannibal."
"She eats em raw with slaw, boss."

I should mention the Kurtz aka "Boss," above, is played by Morgan Freeman in the movie.
"Okay," Kurtz said. "Because this is going to be dirty. I need two Ripley Positives, hopefully Blue Boy guys... Imperial Valley is now a search-and-destroy mission..."The firelight painted Kurtz's brain with byrus, turned his eyes into weasel eyes. "We're going to hunt down Owen Underhill and teach him to love the Lord."

But language or no, this is a novel about a group of boys who do the right thing instead of the cruel thing, and the effect it has on their life. That it incorporates shit-weasels, alien possession, UFOs and Grays, suicide, Maine, and drinking too much is par for the SK course. Maybe I'm just getting too used to walking the links. But part of its power of the whole thing lies in the Lord of the Flies like reality of children in groups, particularly boys. That we all have a Duddits/ dreamcatcher and that we all need that to not turn down the wrong roads makes reality/ safety seem so fragile. And all the more important.

To sum-up, the movie is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe. It's just one of those like John Carter or Ang Lee's Hulk where people seize upon it as the ultimate example of terrible-ness and never give it up. It's no masterpiece, but I can think literally of thousands less imaginative. (That goes for Hulk and John Carter, as well) And the performances aren't bad. But let's not kid ourselves - it's a mess. And as an adaptation of the book, it's not very successful.

The book is a deeply personal work with some wonderful language, wild twists and turns, and a lot of heart. The adventures of Duddits and the gang as kids are both heartbreaking and inspiring. And they ring true even when you might not want them to. Good stuff. I referred to Stand by Me, above, but the parallel here would definitely be It. (Right down to the setting in Derry as well as references to "all those kids who keep disappearing" and some graffiti: Pennywise Lives.)

It will likely be one of the last blogs of this series, so we won't get to it for awhile. (The world gasps and with trembling hands updates its calendars...)
It may lose a little steam in the last 200 pages. Which may have been why Goldman decided to condense the interstate chase into a mano-y-mano helicopter showdown between Morgan Freeman and Damian Lewis... for the record, this is a condensation that doesn't work for me. (Though it fits the lunacy of the film enough where I laughed and went along with it.) And the very end of the film is a bit like a door slammed in your face; the book has an epilogue and some actual denouement.

One last thing - the book deals with the wider implications of an alien invasion. (A Presidential address, the reality of citizens with lawyers and families getting corralled and "disappeared," the decades-long UFO phenomenon, and some quarantine-and-recovery for Henry and Jonesy after the whole experience) The movie does not. A huge wasted opportunity, if you ask me.

P.s. Very disappointed with internet-land for not picking up more on the Red Weed allusions. It's only War of the Worlds, people! Google searches for "red weed War of the Worlds" do not inspire confidence that enough people made the connection.

6.27.2012

King's Highway pt. 15: The Langoliers

I'm a sucker for a good time travel story. The novella "The Langoliers" from Four Past Midnight is a good time travel story. 

The made-for-TV movie is not.


Actually, there's plenty to recommend it, and it's not the time travel that sinks this one. Wha There are few more faithful adaptations of an original King story than this, so you'd figure I'd love it since I love the novella, but the movie is a textbook example of what happens when you translate a story to screen and do not condense or compartmentalize the material. (An essential act of story-to-screen transcription, if you ask me)

The movie has been referred to it as a Twilight Zone episode stretched out to 4 hours. While it's actually only 3, it's a reasonable description.

And that TZ episode is undoubtedly "The Odyssey of Flight 23." With a dash of "The Arrival."
The other story it reminded me of was "A Matter of Minutes" from the 80s Twilight Zone. (The one with the Grateful Dead doing the theme song)
Adapted by Harlan Ellison from a story by Theodore Sturgeon, who, it must be mentioned, wrote this:
God bless him, and thank you Jeff for the image.
I do not suggest it's derivative, only that these other stories came to mind. 

Anytime I read a work of King's during this period (this came out in 1990, which means it was likely written in '88 or '89), I imagine the day-to-day reality of those Ace Frehley years: Tony-Soprano-esque yet not Tony-Soprano-esque, laying golden eggs by the dozen at great cost to his peace/stability of mind and family. Considering Four Past Midnight came out right after this period, it's hard not to cross-reference to his commentary from On Writing. "I was not in shouting distance of my right mind."

If I was King, I'd perhaps get tired of people projecting "Oh he must have been addressing his addiction/ recovery" on every-and-anything from this period, but there are times when he introduces a character or situation that seems to be commenting so explicitly on his own journey through addiction that you can't help but notice. So, I do here but don't want to make too much of it: the black-bearded character - passed out during most of the events of the novella (not in the movie) - seems to me to be a recovery talisman of a kind.

(If you're interested, see ch 9.4 for more on this, and the 2nd or 3rd last paragraph from the very end. Then, if you like, consider how this character provides an interesting side-narrative for a story on the idea of time-eating-itself.)

King's substance-abuse years (and his recovery from them) are an ongoing subtext during this period of his writing from 1980 to 1990-ish, the same way the traffic accident in 1999 and his recovery from that inform his work from 2000 on. How could they not?


Along these lines, one of the things I like about King's work is that there will always be a writer around somewhere. It's a fun thing to look forward to; at some point after I start something new by him, a character will turn around and say Oh, who, me? I'm the writer of mystery novels....  

Dean Stockwell of God-so-many-damn-shows-but-Brother-freaking-Cavill-from-Battlestar-most-particularly, plays that part here:

How do you know that God is on your side, Doctor?
 Speaking of casting, here's Maximum Overdrive's Frankie Faison as Don Gaffney:

This guy has been in everything.
And David Morse as Captain Brian Engle:

This guy is going for the King-adaptation record. Though he appears to have slowed down considerably in recent years. (JULY 2013 EDIT: They should've cast him in "Under the Dome.")
The story itself is about a "tear" in time-space, and a plane that goes through it. Hijinks ensue. The Langoliers, so named after one character's sublimation of parental abuse and expectation, arrive to eat time, and here is the most interesting part of the novella, but not the movie.

Maybe because the Langoliers look like this in the movie.
As the characters arrive at the conclusion that they have moved through time and that the past is a sterile world, as "dead as a used paint can," the Langoliers finally arrive on the scene. They are time-space termites that decimate lingering elements of The Past so The Present can roll on and on. Further hijinks ensue. As mentioned earlier, the novella does a better job of wrapping it up; the movie ends with a Breakfast Club moment where Alfred (who seemed a lot younger in the novella; actually, all of the characters seem sanitized/ compromised in their movie incarnations vis-a-vis the novella) leaps into the air, fist-raised.

The f/x switch from the bad-computer-graphics of DOS to stock footage of planes; very sloppy.
A few mentions are made of the Mary Celeste. Interesting reading, if you're so inclined.

I wasn't very invested in the Nick/ Laurel relationship. Nor the little-girl-with-psychic-talents aspect. Not that they came across badly (though it's weird - some of Nick's dialogue comes across way better in the movie than the book, whereas the Nick/Laurel romance does not come believably at all. That "Daisies! Daisies!" bit at the end especially. I know this won't make sense to a lot of people, that' ok)

King cameo:

Stapler.
Mainly, the movie just doesn't pull it off. The f/x are bad and inconsistent. Bronson Pinchot gives an eccentric but not quite convincing performance. It's easy enough to put some things to the side in the novella (one example - when they discover the left-behind accoutrements of all those not present after The Event, from dental fillings to surgical pins to dentures to wigs, no one asks But why are there no clothes?) but the movie sits a little too long in some of its mistakes, if that makes any sense.

6.25.2012

King's Highway pt. 14 Creepshow and Creepshow 2

Pt. 14! How far we've come, how far we have to go... Without further ado:

Cover art (to the comic book adaptation) by Jack Kamen. Interiors by Bernie Wrightson.
If I ever met Stephen King - say we were holed up in a town barn in East Axe-Killer, Maine, in-between all the snowplows, while the cops and Feds quarantined the area. Around us, other townsfolk complain and beat their chests at the armed guards. I want my attorney; I demand you respect the Rights of Man. Ain't nobody got time for that. Gotta' pass the time with chit-chat, and I think Mr. King agrees... - I'm pretty sure we could talk about nothing but EC Comics (and/or baseball) and pass the time fine. I've been a fan of EC in my own life for as long as he was, in his own, when he got together with George A. Romero to make this movie.

I mentioned Jack Kamen and Bernie Wrightson before. Both are masters in their field:

Not entirely representative of Jack Kamen's work; I encourage you to google-image-search him. His son Dean, by the way, invented the Segway, among other things.
This is from his adaptation of Frankenstein, but Berni Wrightson illustrated SK's Cycle of the Werewolf, i.e. what became the movie Silver Bullet.
More on EC in a bit, but real quick - I dislike "EC Comics" as a term; it's redundant. It's like when the cable guide lists "MLS Soccer." Really? Major League Soccer Soccer? Is this Jar-Jar world? An argument I lost somewhere in my teens, I think, with the world, but hey, if you can't bitch about such things in your blog, then that's a blog I don't want to write in...

Anyway, the movie:

I think I saw this - at least the Ted Dansen part - at Mike Simons' in Walldorf, Baden-W├╝rttemberg, 1985 or something. At the time - again, due to the Firestarter fiasco, which has turned out to be a lighthouse of navigating childhood memories and terror during this series - I was just moving out of a parental moratorium on R-rated films. But I didn't really sit down and watch it until a few years back, on the eve of heading back to Rhode Island after a vacation at Dawn's, back when we were interstate love banditos. There's a lot to recommend this movie - chiefly, the visual design,


which effectively transcribes the lurid four-color appeal of the EC Comics and keeps the stories from taking themselves too seriously - and the familiar faces are fun.

Some general impressions:

"Father's Day" - fun. A young Ed Harris, boogyin' down. And the veteran Jon Lormer as the dude who just wants his damn cake.

Any chance I have to reference "The Return of the Archons," I take.
"The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" - This is as sweet an EC homage as you can get - it can very easily fit into any Weird Fantasy issue without breaking a sweat.

Meteorshit.
The imagined scenes at the college, especially, crack me up.

"Something to Tide You Over"and "The Crate" may go on a tad too long - and with the latter, we may take issue with some latent misogyny of King's early work, tho it's more the misogyny of the genre in general, 1950-1980, but more on this later/ elsewhere - but a) again, the familiar faces are great, and b) such perfect EC titles. I can easily picture either title over a splash page by Graham Ingels, Jack Davis, or Johnny Craig.

EC was the Discovery ID of its time, just in four-color comic book form.
An edit of "The Crate: I found on YouTube:


"They're Creeping Up On You" is perfectly self-explanatory.

Unfortunately,


doesn't quite follow up in heroic fashion. Despite a fun score from Rick Wakeman and lead billing for Lois "Moonraker" Chiles...

Looking at this picture makes me want to do a blog series about Bond movies... Maybe in 2030.
this one doesn't quite justify its existence/ all the trouble it must have been to make it.

SK tells a pretty good story about the publication of "The Raft" in the endnotes to Skeleton Crew, more or less just that the money for it arrived at a timely moment, and that he misplaced both the original manuscript (a world before floppy disks, a world before Word and the cloud and whatever else) and also the copy of Juggs or whatever "men's magazine" in which it was published it at the time.

Since everyone in the story is slugging or groping or punching one another, I kind of rooted for the oil slick monster.
"Old Chief Wood'nhead" has a little going for it, but ultimately, it's an acceptable Tales from the Darkside episode, not much more. Ditto for "The Hitch-Hiker." Nothing special. It should be mentioned - George Romero did not direct any of this, only wrote the screenplay "based on stories by SK." So, their involvement seems scant to say the least.

I will give Creepshow 2 some props for trying to introduce the EC staple - the master of ceremonies. (When and where did this tradition begin? Not sure.) But even Tom Savini, though, can not save the low-budget attempt offered here:

Come on! Plus - it's sad, I mean, the guy is driving around and delivering bundles of comic books to newsstands. He's like a haunted hunchbacked paperboy.
Similarly, the animation is not very good. Light years away from the inter-title sequences from the first one. And the sound for these sequences is really muddled.

When it comes to transcribing the feel of EC to the screen, Creepshow the first does the task quite well; Creepshow 2 is a pretty low-rent affair. The EC emcee comes across best in Tales from the Crypt. The Cryptkeeper as voiced by John Kassir:

Well, he looks like him to me, anyway.
(I understand there is a Creepshow 3 but the reviews are so uniformly loathsome I decided not to cover it.)

I kind of went overboard with pictures tonight, but so the cookie crumbles.

The Perry Mason theme just started on MeTV - that's my cue... Good night.

6.24.2012

King's Highway pt. 13: Cujo

I hadn't read or seen Cujo before this past week. (I think after the Firestarter fiasco, my parents shut the door on my checking out anything King-related on VHS.)

"What do you mean, Bryan? Sure, this is Cujo..."

I started reading Harlan Ellison in 1986 or so, and I knew at the time that he thought the book was "just okay." I'm very impressionable, so that meant for study halls at the time, it was pushed down the list and I never got to it. King himself regrets not remembering having written it, as he likes it. Me...


...this is probably my least favorite of the books I've read so far for this project. Not to say it's not enjoyable, but some of the writing seems kind of gimmicky. Not Tom Robbins-gimmicky, but you get a lot of backstory for things that don't necessarily advance the plot or pad it out significantly, and then some capitalization-stuff like "Cujo saw THE MAN and THE BOY" Okay, I get it... that's how Cujo sees the world (more on that below) but come on. And then there's a lot of
(the man... the dream)
stuff between the paragraphs, sometimes
(zab-zooey!)
breaking up the sentences themselves. King's left a lot of this stuff behind over the years, which I like. He stills breaks into italics to approximate inner monologue. But he's hardly alone in that, and that isn't as intrusive. Maybe gimmicky's not the word, and maybe I'm unfairly projecting King's admission he wrote it in more or less of a blackout onto it. It feels like kind of a drunk rambling story, with a lot of stuff to pad it out, but not much there. But I think he's left
(the man... the dream)
behind in his later work.
 
Not that there isn't symbolism that comes through. Is marriage the rabid dog? Or is it the broken-down pinto? (Or is it the lies in a marriage that create the monster/ the broken-down pinto?) Or the Red Raspberry Zingers? (I don't want to get into it) None of the above? Whatever your poison, there's a case to be made of artful construction The book is basically three different threads:

1) Vic and Donna's disintegrating marriage. She's had an affair, and the lover returns to the narrative much as Cujo himself does. Their son, Tad, projects or sublimates his awareness of this the way little boys sometimes can do - the monster in the closet.

2) Brett and Charity Camber's abusive marriage and their son. They're the ones who have Cujo, the St. Bernard who chases a rabbit down a hall, wakes some rabid bats, and gets a bite on the nose.

Quick side-note: I'm not a particular fan of a narrative switching to the p.o.v. of an animal. For me, it's a slippery slope. Once you switch over and have Cujo start describing things, what's to stop you from switching to a squirrel or any animal in the story? Logically, at that point - you've already shown us the mind of a non-human, what's the author's justification for not including the squirrel's narrative, and so on? I don't know, not my thing.

3) Vic's advertising account. I won't get into it. But, sure, preserving the image of something/ giving a failed account an honorable burial - these things definitely reflect on the above.

But I don't think points 2 and 3 tie in to the main point of 1 as successfully as they could. Donna and Tad have their rendezvous with Cujo pretty early on, and it's apparent that struggle is the climax. It seems to go on too long. The end is grim.

Which brings us to the movie, which may be a better take on the same material. Cuckoo for cocoa puffs? Crazy in the coconut? Maybe. It's not a masterpiece but certainly successful enough for what it is. Considering the subsequent work of director Lewis Teague, it's a high water mark for him, anyway.

Yeah, rough day. Dee Wallace is Danny "Who's the Boss" Pintauro's mom, here, and played Henry Thomas's Mom in E.T., and Andy Bernard's mom in The Office. Whole lotta' moms!

I've always enjoyed the animal vs. man sub-genre of films where the attacks bear some Freudian or other-ian deconstruction of human relations.

The Birds is perhaps the best example. Tho...
isn't bad either.



I don't know if Cujo belongs in the same category of films, but a case can be made for it. At any rate, it conveys some horrible things quite effectively - particularly everything that happens to Dee Wallace in the car. I don't recommend this for prospective moms or children under 10.

Cujo in happier times.
Cujo after the rabies.

Tad's Dad by the way is played by Daniel Hugh Kelly, who may not sound familiar but is instantly recognizable to men of a certain age as Skid McCormack from McCormack and Hardcastle, and, for me personally, as what's-his-toes from Star Trek: Insurrection.

That guy, with Donna Murphy and Patrick Stewart,

The biggest differences:

1) The film eliminates most of the cruder or more violent elements of the novel. The character of Gary Pervier, who gets such lines as "I don't give a shit if he was hitting line drives into her catcher's mitt" in the novel, doesn't do too much here except get to be the first victim. And there's no battering the rabid St. Bernard's head into near-unconsciousness with the car door, for example. But the terror of the child screaming/ claustrophobic space comes across even more immediately than in the reading.

2) Both the fate of Tad and the manner in which Cujo is disposed - which, depending on your opinions of the subtext here, mean everything or nothing, take your pick. That's not me equivocating, just saying, there's a big difference, if you're looking for one - are very different.

3) The whole Brett/ Charity plot, which see above and didn't-miss-it-if-you-ask-me.

Terrible, terrible way to end the movie, though, with the frozen image and then the Muzack. All that was missing was Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." What the what?

This would have been better. Albeit creepier.

A final note: in an intentional perversion of the point of King's confession of not remembering writing this, I thought it would be fun to get blackout drunk for the blogging of this. I failed spectacularly - just remembered to pour a second glass of the bottle of wine I bought. (10:36 pm) Sigh. I feel I've let down my 18-year-old self, who was looking forward to putting the headphones on and listening to the Doors or something.