Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dome Wreckers

In and of itself, the pilot episode of CBS's new drama Under the Dome  offered an entertaining hour of television (and some cool visuals--Dome-bisected cow, chest-bursting pacemaker).  But anyone who has read the bestselling Stephen King novel of the same title can't help but notice how much of the narrative has been changed, and not necessarily for the better:

The first glimpse we get of protagonist Dale "Barbie" Barbara is of him burying a dead body, which instantly sullies the good-guy image that the novel thoroughly establishes.  Even if all is not as it first seems in this opening scene, the fact that Barbie is played by actor Mike Vogel (last seen menacing Norman and Norma in Bates Motel) also makes it difficult to view his character in a heroic light.

How about this for a curveball: the character who arguably forms the novel's secondary protagonist, Rusty Everett, is trapped outside the Dome in the TV version.

Actor Dean Norris proved on Breaking Bad that he possesses both charm and the capacity to strong-arm, two qualities integral to Dome arch-villain Jim Rennie.  But at the same time, Norris lacks the stature of King's Big Jim character, the overbearing presence and obviously overweight physique.

It's also readily apparent from the first episode that the novel's most offbeat character, Phil Bushey (a.k.a The Chef) has been reworked.  By thrusting Phil onstage from the get-go, the TV show also undercuts the mystique with which the novel carefully surrounds the figure.

Even more disconcerting, Sheriff Perkins is well aware of Rennie's shady business involving propane, and has turned a blind eye toward such endeavors.  This alone is guaranteed to skew the plot development of King's novel in dramatically different directions.

Julia Shumway is now a vivacious (yet apparently cheated-on) bride; Angie Mitchell is Joe McClatchey's sister (and Junior Rennie's captive rather than murder victim; Carolyn is part of a lesbian couple, with a drug-addict, teenage daughter who is a far cry from the endearing skater girl Norrie in the novel.  The drastic recasting of King's characters is as disorienting is as disorienting as it is disappointing (if it wasn't broke...).  I can understand the necessity of streamlining when translating a book into a movie, but the producers had the space of an ongoing TV series to work with here, making the radical alterations quite questionable.  One episode in, I'm already wondering if Under the Dome has been doomed by those up above.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dark Passages: "Prey"

This week our macabre republic lost a literary legend.  In honor of Richard Matheson, today's dark passage is taken from his classic story "Prey."  The narrative (famously filmed as a segment of Trilogy of Terror) details the ordeal of Amelia, who is menaced by an uncannily animate Zuni fetish doll.  Her harrowing experience has the quality of a waking nightmare, as can be seen in the following passage (whose sequence of shorts sentences creates a rhythm like that of a thumping heart):
She was dialing Arthur's number by the light from the bathroom when the doorknob started turning.  Suddenly, her fingers couldn't move.  She stared across the darkened room.  The door latch clicked.  The telephone slipped off her lap.  She heard it thudding onto the carpet as the door swung open.  Something dropped from the outside knob.
Amelia jerked back, pulling up her legs.  A shadowy form was scurrying across the carpet toward the bed.  She gaped at it. It isn't true, she thought.  She stiffened at the tugging on her bedspread.  It was climbing up to get her.  No, she thought; it isn't true.  She couldn't move.  She stared at the edge of the mattress.
Something that looked like a tiny head appeared.  Amelia twisted around with a cry of shock, flung herself across the bed and jumped to the floor.  Plunging into the bathroom, she sprung around and slammed the door, gasping at the pain in her ankle.  She had barely thumbed in the button on the doorknob when something banged against the bottom of the door.  Amelia heard a noise like the scratching of a rat.  Then it was still. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

World War Z (Movie Review)

World War Z (Paramount Pictures/Plan B, 2013.  Directed by Marc Forster.)

After having its original release date postponed (and its ending re-shot), World War Z has finally hit theaters.  And somewhat surprisingly, it proves worth the wait.

The undead hordes harrying Brad Pitt and the rest of humanity in the film certainly aren't the cinematic descendants of Romero's shambling ghouls (or even the infamously fleet zombies from the Dawn of the Dead remake).  These virus-infected and revivified carnivores move about with kamikaze-like abandon, smashing their heads through windshields and tossing themselves off walls.  They are an unruly mob sweeping across the landscape with all the devastating force of a natural disaster.  Perhaps to reinforce the idea of a swarming menace, the film chooses not to focus its lens on individual decadents.  There are no lingering shots of putrefying figures, and no scenes of explicit, grisly feasting.  Nor is the film replete with exploding heads or other images of inventive zombie destruction, such as has become the norm on episodes of TV's The Walking Dead.  In keeping with a PG-13 rating, much of the carnage here is kept off-screen, which is apt to disappoint gorehounds but actually fits with WWZ's broad scope (the sense of a large-scale catastrophe transpiring, where it is impossible to ever grasp the complete picture).

One might even argue that this is less a zombie film than a global-disaster thriller that happens to employ the undead as a pandemic device.  Yes, there are some implausible visuals (most blatantly, the zombie uprising over the walls of Jerusalem), yet what makes WWZ most effective is its realism: it captures the experience of being suddenly faced with the downfall of civilization.  Early scenes (in the streets of Philadelphia and Newark) of chaos and confusion--involving not just zombie attacks but acts of looting and human-on-human violence--unnerve the viewer because he/she can easily envision such societal breakdown occurring.

Overall, the film offers an entertaining alternation between spectacular vistas and claustrophobic settings, between furious action and slow-building tension.  The cat-and-mouse-game climax that plays out within the labyrinthine, dead-haunted corridors of a WHO facility is terrifically suspenseful, and drives home the heroism of Pitt's character.  As a former UN investigator forced back into action, he combats the zombie plague with his cunning more than his gunslinging.

World War Z is hardly a flawless film (one major lament I have is that Mireille Enos [The Killing] was grossly under-utilized as Pitt's wife), but those willing to cast aside expectations of typical zombie fare will find it a thoroughly enjoyable endeavor.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini, R.I.P.

Yesterday the world received the sad news of James Gandolfini's sudden passing in Italy.  The 51-year-old Sopranos star is best known for embodying one of the most iconic characters in television history, but Gandolfini shined in any role he played (and was scary good in films like True Romance and 8MM).  And by all accounts from those who worked with him, the esteemed actor was an even better person.

I join with millions of fans in mourning his untimely death. 

James Gandolfini

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reactions to The Killing

Some quick thoughts on Sunday night's episode, "Head Shots":

*It seemed pretty foolish of Linden to press the buzzer in Mama Dips' office during the raid (thereby alerting whomever Mama Dips was just about to notify).  Such sloppy police work (quite out of character for Linden) served as a blatant plot contrivance, forwarding the story while forestalling resolution.

*Nonetheless, the secret panel leading to a hidden room in the motel (where a perpetrator of illicit sexual activity resides) furnished another strong example of The Killing's American Gothic sensibilities.

*Mama Dips (Grace Zabriskie, who played George's would-be mother-in-law on Seinfeld) nearly stole the episode during her scene in the interrogation room with Holder.  Her claim to be the voice of the unseen male on the sex tape ("I smoke a lot") was laugh-out-loud funny.

*Another rousing bit of dialogue was supplied by Linden when she finally told off the nuisance Reddick.  The look on his face when she told him he's just in the way was priceless.

*Just how many street kids are there in Seattle?  Judging by The Killing, no teen has a good place to call home.

*Season 3's story has unfolded relatively slowly thus far (lacking the narrative drive of the Rosie Larsen murder mystery in the prior two seasons), but in last night's episode, The Killing exemplified one of its strongest attributes: its care in developing its characters, presenting them as rounded, realistic human beings.  Particularly interesting in this regard was the glimpse into the home life of the prison guards, and the tracing of the developing relationship between Seward and Alton.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Reactions to The Killing

Some quick thoughts on last night's episode, "Seventeen":

*Interesting to see Elias Koteas ("Shutter Island," "The Killer Inside Me," "Crash")--who has a long career of playing criminal and creepy characters--appearing here as the head of Seattle's Special Investigations Unit.  Just as hard to picture his Skinner character and Sarah Linden as (formerly) romantically involved.

*Great double homage when Skinner references both The Silence of the Lambs and SevenThe Killing is certainly aware of its genre forebears.

*Last week Detective Reddick aroused my suspicions, and last night's episode did nothing to alleviate them.  The scene in the interrogation room where the pimp Goldie tauntingly claims that he works to protect his girls from sick guys like Reddick perhaps furnished another clue to Reddick's ultimate culpability.

*Still, one can't help but to appreciate Reddick's hard-boiled sense of humor.  The line where he deadpans that Goldie has nothing but diaper commercials to masturbate to (now that porn collection featuring underage girls has been seized by the police) was priceless.

*From the grizzled to the grisly: that scene where Ray Seward attempts tattoo removal via razor blade was enough to make a statue squirm.

*Symbolic items seem to abound in Season 3's storyline: Seward's
"A" tattoo, Adrian's mysterious sketch, Bullet's eponymous pendant.  Just another example of how The Killing hooks viewers in, tantalizing them with gradually-revealed detail.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


[For the previous game of Hangmany, click here.]

Can you solve the following puzzle within 20 seconds, or are you going to choke?


__  __  __  N       M  __  __  __  __       __  N

"__  __  __       __  __  __  __  N  C  __       O  __

__  __  __       __  __  M  __  __"


HINT: Smelled Clarice coming.

Correct answer appears in the Comments section of this post.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Reactions to The Killing

Some thoughts on last night's two-hour season premiere of the standout crime drama, The Killing:

*Within minutes of viewing the first episode of Season 3, I had a lead suspect in mind: Holder's hard-boiled, perennially wise-cracking partner Carl.  Of course, my hunch is bound to be wrong, but maybe an early clue was provided when Holder jokes with Carl about speaking from experience about sex acts with prostitutes (as the pair of policemen loom over the corpse of a murdered teen

*Also quickly apparent: the character Bullet promises to be as annoying as she is androgynous.  But with her street-tough attitude, she will undoubtedly trade plenty of verbal fireworks with Holder.

*Was it coincidental that Linden's beau resembles Holder?  Even the man's name--Cody--seems to echo Holder's.

*Peter Sargaard is going to kill in the role of death-row inmate Ray Seward.  He might look here like a latter-day John Malkovich, but with his menacing aura and manipulative skill, he is quite reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lector.

*It was a bit disorienting to see Norman's shrink on Bates Motel here playing Mr. Kwon, the father of the murder victim.  How many macabre cable-TV series is this guy going to appear on at once?

*I was soon reminded what makes The Killing so addicting: not just its sense of mystery, but its depth of characterization.  Linden and Holden form the most interesting pair of investigator characters since Mulder and Scully (the show also seemed to be tipping its hand to The X-Files in last night's episode by naming Linden's ex-partner "Skinner").

*Another hallmark of The Killing has been its grim and eerie Seattle-area setting, and the Season 3 premiere established this wonderfully
on several occasions.  The scene where Linden stumbles upon the cow carcasses was downright creepy, and her discovery in the swampy grove at the end of the second-hour represented Pacific Northwest Gothic at its finest.