A Dead Whale of a Tale

Hey guys, guess what? Yeah, it’s my turn to talk about this thing.

After playing Death Stranding on the PlayStation 4, I’m convinced that the gulf between American and Japanese cultures, as well as that between video games and movies, are still vast, and might not be crossed for several generations. I’m not sure if Hideo Kojima was trying to bridge those gaps in writing and designing this game, but if he was, I’m sorry to say that he failed.

The reason I’m sorry about that is because Death Stranding is an uncompromised venture. I can see that it was made with a sincere and unquestioned enthusiasm, but I think that a little questioning might have done it some good. I find its gameplay engrossing, but it’s not for everyone, and its cinematics and backstory — impressive though they are — are certainly not for most gaming audiences.

Death Stranding is a game about delivering things, not just hiking or walking as some folks like to complain. It’s about plotting routes, packing materials, and maintaining equipment (artificial and natural). It’s about setting up signs and services to facilitate trips for oneself as well as for others. It’s about making a plan and watching it come together. It’s also highly physical: balance and momentum are always at odds in this game, so one must consider each step carefully to avoid damaging tumbles.

What I’m saying is that Death Stranding is the sequel to Solar Jetman that I’ve been waiting for.

I’ve always loved games like Solar Jetman and The Oregon Trail, in which the details and decisions of travel actually matter. It bugs me when the challenges of roughing it are abstracted down to random monster encounters. I don’t want to just slide my characters around a world map; I want to experience it. I want to decide how to deal with a fallen tree, how to cross a rocky gorge, or how to scale a cliff. I want to see my characters heft themselves over logs, trudge through muddy fields, and fall over in the dirt. We’ve recently seen some rugged, outdoorsy adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption II, and I think Death Stranding took a lot of inspiration from them. Still, Stranding, with its harsh, ghost-ridden world, leaves them far behind.

Death Stranding asks me to do all those things I talked about, from finding ways up mountains to finding ways around pirate camps. It gives me a big map, some basic tools, and a whole mountain of deliveries, and says, “Get to it.” It lets me explore, it lets me experiment. It lets me fall over, and then figure out the best way to avoid falling again. Some players jeer at this, saying that the protagonist’s flailing and flopping makes him look pathetic. I say, as I make Sam trundle across a barren, seemingly endless plain, bowed under hundreds of pounds of cargo, that feeling pathetic is part of the point. This game is as much about isolation as it is about delivering. It’s about trying to make a difference in an indifferent world.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing just isn’t all that popular. People don’t want to pretend that they’re small, or that they’re part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel powerful, important, better than what they already are. Of course, “better” is a subjective term, and only indicates what a person values, not the value of that person.

I admit that Death Stranding is simply not the sort of game that most gamers want to play, and I can’t say I blame them for their sniggering. This is a AAA, big-budget release, brought to us by the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, so expectations for the next big thing in action games were high. A ponderous meditation on loneliness and logistics was not what these people were looking for. I’d like to say that this was an intentional, large-scale joke committed by one of gaming’s best-known pranksters, but I’ve given up on analyzing Kojima’s motivations.

What I do know is that Hideo Kojima loves to spin stories. Big stories. Big, anime, sci-fi stories about world-ending catastrophes, the dangers of technology, and all manner of other social issues. He tends to be a little overzealous about it, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the Ed Wood of video games, as he’s actually pretty damn talented, but I do fear that he shares some of Wood’s delusional verve.

You see, Kojima tries really, really hard to ape his favorite Hollywood movies, but oftentimes his efforts are misplaced. In Snatcher, one of his first games, there’s an early scene in which a character separates from his wife in a flying car. As the car ascends, the character says something, but the engine roar drowns it out. The wife says that she can’t hear him, but then he flies off, and we never know what was said. I take it that this was meant to be some sort of tearful parting, not unlike the Train-Station Goodbye of Since You Went Away, but this is not the last time the two characters ever see each other. In fact, since this scene occurs right at the beginning of the game, the two are bound to interact quite often. The mystery of the drowned-out line is never brought up again. It feels like Kojima just put it there to put it there. Without a fitting subtext, the drama falls on its face.

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game Kojima made many years into his career, there’s a love scene between two awkward scientists. The man’s an anime nerd who’s falls in love with any pretty girl he sees, and the woman’s a treacherous reptile who injects people with grey goo. There’s so little to like about these characters that the tender, heartfelt music that plays as they surrender to ardor only made me shake my head. Later, the woman commits suicide, while her new lover, witnessing the act through a computer screen, bawls likes a baby. I’m not even a fan of Shakespeare, and I was embarrassed at this overblown attempt to emulate him.

To put it simply, Kojima is very much in love with being a director, although I don’t think he knows what being a director really means.

Sadly, this lesson continues to elude him in Death Stranding, whose delightful kernel of gameplay is surrounded by an absurd, Lynchian melodrama. Although I just spoke about the profound melancholy that I feel when playing this game, I can’t say that’s what was intended, because the tone is all over the place.

The apocalyptic setting for the game is lovingly crafted, but its explanation is so complicated that it employs a whole glossary of jargon. There’s some dark symbolism with frightening implications, but there’s also a whole lot of ham-fisted silliness about ropes, knots, and strands that gets tiresome quickly. There’s also that unique preoccupation with marine life that could only have sprung from a culture of islanders. It’s striking, but it feels out of place in a story that won’t stop reminding us of how American it is.

I’d say the biggest problem, though, is in the game’s characters. They’re all modeled after real actors (and comedians and film directors), and they look amazing. Seriously, Death Stranding in action makes even non-gamers turn their heads with its up-to-the-minute cast and presentation. But then these fabulously rendered beings start talking, and we find that they’re given names that sound like Mega Man villains, and dialogue worse than anything Anakin Skywalker ever said.

“It’s all the truth, except for the lies.”
“We run together…like Mario and Princess ‘Beach.'”
“Take the first step, Sam, and deliver the president’s body to the incinerator.”

They say these things with tremendous gravity, and I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to react. I suppose this is the fault of poor translation. For all I know, the original Japanese script could have sounded downright poetic. National differences, however, can’t explain the indulgent visuals. When you play this game, expect lots of long, lingering shots on Lea Seydoux’s pouty face and panty-model’s butt.

I’m sure there are a lot of apologists who’ll say that I’m not supposed to take Kojima’s games very seriously. In fact, the first song that plays in Death Stranding — and there are a lot of songs — is titled “Don’t Be So Serious.” That would fall in line with the idea that Kojima is really a master troll, but I suspect it’s more of a copout, and a coverup for the man’s wanting skill as a storyteller.

I can get past this, though, because I love playing the game so much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m even thinking about it when I’m at work, or getting out of bed in the morning. I keep thinking about how I want to thread my route so as to complete the most deliveries in one swoop. I keep thinking about how I need to truck some metals from the distro center so I can finally finish that highway I’ve been working on. I keep thinking about the new bola gun I just got, and which MULE outpost I should try it out at. I keep thinking about BB, and how difficult being a parent really must be. In these manifold regards, the game really has its hooks in me.

My concern is that most others won’t agree with me, and as a result, we may never see another Death Stranding again. It was too much risk for too many eye-rolls. The thing is: I respect the risks that Kojima took with this game. I like that he left his fingerprints all over it. Any creative person should look to this game and be inspired by it. To the end of my days, I will gladly argue that big-budget entertainment is in sore need of that wondrous, childlike love of creation that Kojima is in touch with, cringeworthy or not.

Top Cartoons: Aqua Teen Hunger Force – Total Recarl

While I’ve always enjoyed the dark humor of Williams Street, I feel like they kind of lost their way as time went on. Take the later seasons of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. They fell back on gimmicks, fourth-wall breakage, dick jokes, and guest voices. There’s a sense of growing frustration, or maybe boredom, about them, and it just got tiresome. The show wasn’t about the characters anymore, and it was disappointing.

The first three seasons, however, are where it’s at. In place of the cynicism of the later days, you’ll find real excitement and joy in the early Aqua Teens, and Total Recarl is one of the best.

There are really only two kinds of scripts in the the Aqua Teen toolbox:

1.) Weird creatures show up. Carl is victimized. Master Shake makes sarcastic comments. Meatwad tries to make friends with the creatures. Frylock eventually disposes of them.

2.) Frylock invents dangerous device. Carl is victimized. Shake makes sarcastic comments. Meatwad stands by in fear. Frylock eventually disposes of the invention.

This doesn’t signify a lack of imagination on the writers’ part, of course. These guys held nothing back once a plot got started. Total Recarl is particularly nuts, with characters dying in horrible bloody ways, and then coping with awful attempts at reanimation. The moment when Carl is asked to “try to take another step towards” Frylock is one of the funniest in animated history. It was the moment that cemented Aqua Teen Hunger Force as a new favorite of mine, even if the celebration wasn’t to last. Daniel says, “check it out.”

Not-So-Top Cartoons: Big Hero 6

Everything about Disney’s Big Hero 6 annoys me. The characters are annoying, the art style is annoying, the setting is annoying, and the story is annoying.

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Now, I respect its goals. Disney was not aiming to make one of their trademark, safe, fun-for-all-ages, self-proclaimed masterpieces. One glimpse told me that this wasn’t a film for a thirty-eight-year-old man, or even for a thirty-eight-year-old man who likes cartoons. No, Big Hero 6 is a prepubescent slumber party for Honors students who’ve just discovered Naruto. I’d say that this movie is an anime wading pool, but it’s not even in the same waterpark. It’s wannabe anime — or as I call it, “wanime” — with a budget.

I loved anime once. I was a weird little boy who liked horror movies and violent video games, but not always for the material itself. I liked the fact that my peculiar tastes shocked the grown-ups around me, and made them look at me funny. To a kid, any attention is good attention, and being called such things as “unusual” and “mature for his age” feels good to a second child.

So, when I found out about cartoons from Japan that featured ultra-violence and scantily-clad nymphs, I was all over that shit.

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I sought it out. I found the holes in the wall that carried the early imports of MADOX-01 and Riding Bean. I rented Genesis Survivor Gaiarth. I watched Bubblegum Crisis. I read Outlanders. I even pronounced the word “manga” properly. I knew about Dragon Ball Z before Dragon Ball Z was cool.

Yeah, I was one of those people. In 1994, though, there weren’t very many of those people, so I didn’t realize just how insufferable they could be. I was one of only two kids in my high school class who even knew what anime was, so I felt okay with having a niche hobby. Being an anime-lover made me unique, and added a layer to my identity.

In the next few years, the niche became a hernia. Comic magazines printed fan art laden with blatant imitations of anime tropes. Films like Akira and Green Legend Ran crept into basic cable schedules. Blockbuster Video changed the “foreign” shelf to the “anime” shelf. My local newspaper started carrying The Boondocks. Then Marvel produced the Marvel Mangaverse, and I knew it was all over. Anime got its toehold in the western creative culture, and I was no longer special.

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I had felt special because anime hadn’t just affected my image as a person, it had affected me as an artist. I didn’t keep many drawings from my teenage years, but the ones I did still make me wince. My adolescent attempts at duplicating the shiny hair and starry eyes of animes past are quite embarrassing. I am glad to say that my current style retains an anime influence, but my old stuff was just plain “man this is cool” aping, done only to make myself feel hip, cool, and different.

When I look at Big Hero 6, I see that same aping happening all over again.

In its city of San Fransokyo (God, I feel dirty just typing that), we have all the familiar crap: the tween robotics genius, Yakuza gamblers, women in geisha-face, and a guy named “Wasabi,” because, you know, Japan. The ensemble is comprised of impossibly cheerful, fast-talking sorts (except for Gogo, who’s the moody one).

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The only likable entity in this film is the naive Baymax, an inflatable robot who just wants to help everyone. I feel that, had this movie not been so distracted with its overblown action scenes, the relationship between its hero (named “Hiro,” naturally) and his droid could have worked all on its own. It doesn’t matter that Baymax is a pale hybrid of the VGC-6OL from Robot & Frank, and the Giant from The Iron Giant, because those two movies were actually pretty good.

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Sadly, Big Hero 6 is not a heartfelt drama, but just another toy commercial, made to stimulate the kiddies with its purple laser blasts and its oh-so-Japany fantasy land. That’s okay, I guess, but I think we deserve cartoons that are better, and smarter, than this.

Not-So-Top Cartoons: Wreck-It Ralph

Something’s gone wrong in Videoland, and it’s not that Sarah Silverman found a way into it.

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I don’t know what to make of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s 2012 niche-teaser about a video game villain who just wants to be liked, dammit. Is it a morality tale? Is it an action film? Or is it just empty-headed entertainment that’s about as satisfying as a Sugar Rush?

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I’ll summarize it as best I can: there’s this arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., in which the player guides the friendly Felix up a building to stop the ape-like Wreck-It Ralph from busting up the place. It’s an obvious send-up of Donkey Kong, but this particular Kong is tired of getting tossed off a roof everyday. So, against the advice of his fellow bad guys, Ralph abandons his post and tries heroic deeds in other arcade games, so he can prove that he’s more than just a terrorizing thug.

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Along the way, Ralph is tormented by the violence of modern games, the gooey pitfalls of a saccharine candy-land, and the specter of a former villain who “game-jumped:” the glory hog Turbo, who caused two games to go out of order.

Like Pixar’s Toy Story or the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph presents us with a strangely complex society, with many rules and expectations for its citizens. Like the toons and toys of cartoons past, Wreck-It Ralph’s video game characters exist to please and entertain humans. As such, any individual’s attempt to rise above his or her station is considered disruptive to the community, and is thus met with disapproval. The mantra of Ralph’s support group, Bad-Anon, is, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

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So the message of the film seems to be the stale old platitude of “be happy with whom you are,” but with the tacked-on amendment of, “so long as you remember your place.”

I take issue with this because, in the real world, criminals (or “bad guys”) who reform are to be commended. It takes real effort and work to improve oneself, to recognize the consequences of one’s actions, to learn empathy, to foster positivity. Even if the motivation is self-serving, i.e., to avoid prison or to save money or to raise a family, breaking away from a life of crime is indisputably a good thing, for both the group and the individual.

So is the constant urging for Ralph to stop his pipe dreams of heroism and just get back to breaking things really healthy?

Keep in mind that I only “take issue” with this. I’m not offended by it, and I understand that Ralph’s world has certain requirements in order to function, but the can of worms that this story opens isn’t, and cannot be, fully explored, and that’s frustrating. There are many perspectives and feelings to consider in a topic as complex as this, and a Disney cartoon just isn’t equipped to handle them all. You might say that Ralph’s writers were aiming to raise questions, to encourage its audiences to have lively discussions on the ride home from the theater. When a movie’s height of humor is a sassy little girl spewing doody jokes, however, I highly doubt that it has such lofty artistic goals.

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Anyway, that’s my main beef with this film: the story feels slapped together to line up with its “Roger Rabbit in Videoland” premise. And really, that’s what Wreck-It Ralph is: an updated version of Robert Zemeckis’s masterpiece, only more niche. It references the Golden Age of Video Games, when kids actually played 8-bit games in arcades, it’s got cameos from faces such as Q-Bert, M. Bison, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Clyde, and its original characters are amalgamations of existing Disney fixtures, like Mickey Mouse and The Mad Hatter.

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I actually like that last part. Fix-It Felix Jr., as played by Jack McBrayer, is basically a human Mickey Mouse. He may have been modeled after Mario, but his movements, attitude, and mannerisms are all Mickey’s. Imagine any one of his lines in Wayne Allwine’s voice and you’ll see it, I promise you. I find this idea of a postmodern update to the Mickey persona fascinating.

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(spoiler warning)

Then there’s my favorite character, King Candy, who’s voiced by Ed Wynn…as impersonated by Alan Tudyk. Put a top hat on him and you’re back in Alice’s Wonderland. I actually think the King is more like Judge Doom, in that he’s an ancient, whispered evil in disguise, revealed by accident and assuming a monstrous form.

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Turbo is, of course, a device meant to lead Ralph’s quest to a battle to save all of Videoland, but I guess that’s okay. The real antagonist of this film seems to be the insufferable weight of one’s peers, though I suppose that’s open to interpretation. There are things I like about this movie — the performances of John C. Reilly as Ralph and McBrayer as Felix, the occasionally irreverent tone, the fact that it has no songs — but the rest of Wreck-It Ralph is pretty forgettable. As with most Disney productions, it never goes too far in any direction, for fear of upsetting somebody. So instead we get fizzy, fuzzy harmlessness painted in sweets and sugars, to be ingested for a quick high before seeking out something more filling.

A post-script: yes, the animation is excellent, but that’s to be expected from Disney. Besides, computer-generated animation is so prevalent now, even in freaking live-action films, that its spectacle has become numbing. Had Disney been bold enough to depict Wreck-It Ralph in the pixel-art style of the games it was evoking, it might have earned a real high score from me.

Top Non-Cartoons: Creepshow

Clear the roaches outta the pantry and unpin those voodoo dolls; it’s the best horror film of all time!

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Well, okay, that’s not true. The Exorcist is the best horror film of all time, but that doesn’t mean it’s my favorite. To me, Warner Bros.’s Creepshow is, and will always be, the scary movie to top all scary movies. It’s not just freaky, it’s funny. It’s not just scary, it’s silly. It’s not just fantastic, it’s fantabulous. It gushes with blood and shakes with shivers, but it knows it’s all in good fun. You can’t afford to take this movie too seriously, as the trash man at the end of the film — a hilarious cameo from makeup artist Tom Savini — reminds us: “IT’S A COMIC BOOK!”

And as you might have guessed, this is precisely why I love it.

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From left to right: Stephen King (writer), Tom Savini (makeup artist), and George Romero (film director). Nah, I never heard of them either

Creepshow stands in the pantheon of great horror anthologies, alongside Trilogy of Terror, Black Sabbath, Tales From the Darkside, and The Twilight Zone: The Movie (though that one only partially qualifies as horror). As the first collaboration between Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero (R.I.P.) and one Stephen King, Creepshow had a hell of a lot going for it. The creators wanted to make it special, something that would stand out from other horror films. They considered some unique concepts for the movie, such as attempting different visual styles for each story, but they settled on a bright, exaggerated look…a look reminiscent of the classic EC horror comics.

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In the early 1950s, William Gaines developed a series of macabre comics that read like Pulp Fiction Illustrated. Some of them were set in the real world, others were completely outlandish, but they were all decidedly adult, and quite graphic for their time. Murder, sex, and monsters spilled across every page, and they often had disturbing, twist endings.

While the material was not intended for children, the EC crew knew that kids would jump at the forbidden fruit anyway, as it dangled so low in comic book stores across the country. To better reach these kids, EC adopted the “host” concept from scary radio shows such as Inner Sanctum or Weird Circle. These gleefully sadistic characters spun terrifying tales, and introduced them with terrifying puns. The most prominent of them was the Cryptkeeper, a slavering old man who was so diddly-darn delighted to scare you that you almost wanted to hug him. He’d later reemerge on the Tales From the Crypt TV series, in a more ghoulish form than before, but with his arsenal of bad puns intact.

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These hosts came off as freakish grandparents, who stole spooky little moments with the kiddies when Mom and Dad weren’t around to stop them, and said kiddies ate it up. Surely, the thrill of an EC comic was not only in reading the foul material contained therein, but in hiding it from one’s God-fearing, suburbanite parents.

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Without fail, Creepshow maintains this tradition. The movie even uses a frame story about a little boy named Billy who’s been caught with the naughty comic. The boy is played by Stephen King’s son Joe, who’s now a horror writer of some note himself, but I digress.

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The wicked father smacks his son across the face and tosses the “horror crap” in the trash as a wild thunderstorm kicks up. The incensed Billy then wishes death on his father and sinks into his horror fantasyland to escape.

That’s when Raoul shows up.

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“Raoul” was Tom Savini’s nickname for the skeletal phantom who appears at Billy’s window. The creature was built from an actual human skeleton imported from India, and it looks terrific. Raoul assumes the role of the Creepshow comic’s “host,” the Creepshow Creep, and he guides us — wordlessly — from one scary vignette to another in a nifty animated form. Thank Rick Catizone for the excellent animated segments, which are smooth and effective in capturing the style of the EC greats like Jack Kamen and Bernie Wrightson.

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He wants his…well, you know

We start off with “Father’s Day,” which is about a wealthy clan called the Granthams, who have made their dough off of the illegal enterprises of their patriarch Nathan. Seven years earlier, Nathan drove his daughter and caretaker Bedelia off the deep end with his demented ramblings, and Bedelia decided to off him with a blow to the head. The weapon: a marble ashtray with a solemn cherub at its head. It’s a prominent prop in this story, but it also appears in all the tales that follow. You’ll need sharp eyes to spot it, but it’s a fun little easter egg for fans.

Anyway, Bedelia has made a tradition out of visiting Dad’s grave on Father’s Day to expunge her guilt and demons, but this year, ol’ Nate strikes back. With a wonderfully rotted and rock-filled throat, he croaks out his unfulfilled desire for the Father’s Day cake he never received, and then he uses his zombie-powers to croak out everyone on his way to get it.

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This guy directed The Kentucky Cycle

Along Nate’s journey, the film’s comic book style is made apparent. Dramatic scenes are soaked in bright reds and blues, patterned scrims glow behind characters’ screeching faces, and shots are framed with colorful panels. You even see comic book-y banners at screen’s edge, showing phrases like MEANWHILE… and LATER…. More important than that, though, is the appearance of a young Ed Harris, and his spectacular dance moves!

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Your author, ladies and gentlemen

The second, and most divisive, of the stories, is “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” which stars Stephen King himself, in what is basically a one-man comedy show. It’s based on King’s short story Weeds, in which a poor Maine hick and his homestead are overgrown by aggressive alien vegetation. The vile weeds even consume Jordy’s body, sucking the moisture out of him and burrowing into his brain. Any opportunity for serious body horror is blown, however, thanks to effects problems and King’s outrageous acting.

King isn’t entirely to blame for this. Turns out Romero encouraged King to play Jordy like Wile E. Coyote, with huge, bug-eyed faces and goofy hick-talk. What’s more, certain plant/body effects that Savini had in mind, like tendrils sprouting from Jordy’s tongue and fingers, and green contact lenses, didn’t work out for various reasons and had to be cut. Thus, the silliness overwhelms the creepy concept, and “Jordy” ends up a real head-shaker for what it could have been.

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R.I.P.

Now we get to the good stuff. When asked about their favorite of Creepshow’s stories, most viewers choose one of the next two. “Something to Tide You Over” stars funnymen Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen playing so hard against type you can hear the smack of it. Danson is a playboy who’s been sleeping with Nielsen’s woman, so Nielsen lures the two lovers into a particularly cruel death-trap.

The plot’s nothing new, not even for King, but the performances make it work. Nielsen’s character, a manipulative dandy fittingly named Richard, is a playful monster that you can’t help but hate. Danson, meanwhile, is an emotional firestorm, blazing with rage, tension, deference, distrust, and outright panic. You can almost see his brain-box smoking as he seeks a way out of his ever-worsening situation.

The ending, while appropriate, is a little too vague for its own good, but the story is well-done overall. It’s Nielsen that grabs you: he hurls himself headfirst into this asshole-role, and he gives it every last ounce that he’s got. If all you see when you look at the man is Frank Drebin of Police Squad!, prepare to have your eyebrows raised.

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Something not of our ken

Now, this next one…ooh, I love this next one. “The Crate” is the longest and most complex of the five stories, and it’s vintage King through and through. It’s based off of King’s short story of the same name, but it’s told in a very different manner.

It stars two Tony-winning pros of theater, Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver, as university professors and best buds. They also both have lady problems. Weaver’s character, Dexter, is a widower who’s taken to dating his grad students, while Henry, played by Holbrook, is married to a dragon named Wilma — but you can call her “Billie,” everyone does.

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Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes, together at last

Adrienne Barbeau flushes her sexuality down the toilet to create Billie, and her constant, drunken crassness is so acrid that it’s just plain funny. One of her lines was so foul, in fact, that it had to be rewritten and dubbed over before the movie was released. You can hear the change in the recording quality if you pay close attention. I guess that theatergoers of 1982 just weren’t ready for the word “cunt” yet.

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What would we do without her?

Anyway, Dexter stumbles across a strange crate that’s apparently returned from a hundred-year-old Arctic expedition, and decides to open it up. Now, I know I’m not tipping any cards in saying that whatever’s inside isn’t good, but I still won’t go into detail. I’ll just say that the plot travels to intriguing places, and closes with Dex and Henry in a strange sort of standoff.

The Crate stands out to me because it features a wild scenario, and yet it somehow maintains a grip on reality. Holbrook and Weaver behave in ways that are extreme, and yet completely believable. Dex is pushed so far into fright-world that he wheezes, whistles, and breaks down laughing. Henry is meant to be a henpecked milquetoast, but Holbrook adds an unmistakable anger to the role, so his silence looks less like shame and more like wily, patient calm. He’s waiting for something — something that’s coming up fast. Such dips and rises would be impossible for any but the finest actors, and these two men rise to the challenge with supreme confidence. They’re a joy to watch, and I only wish the movie had more scenes of them together.

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What? You got a problem with Rochas?

The final story, “They’re Creeping Up on You!” doesn’t have the length or depth of the two stories that precede it, but God damn, I can’t imagine a better capper for this film. It’s a gross-out episode that plays on that oh-so-common phobia of big, fat, ugly bugs. Cockroaches, to be specific.

Now, I’ve seen a couple of horror films that stab at nasty cockroach scenes, but none of them work so well as this. I think it’s because the setting and characters — er, character — are so effective.

E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a germaphobic billionaire who’s sequestered himself from humanity in a blinding-white, antiseptic penthouse. His waking life consists of shuffling about, poking at eerie, buzzing devices, and watching his money pile up. His only interactions with other people are over the phone or through a peephole, both of which he handles with gloves. Pratt’s conversations reveal all we need to know about him: he’s misanthropic, he’s unpleasant, he’s a real goat-fucker. The weird thing is — as was the case with Barbeau’s Billie — Pratt’s cruelty is so extreme as to be hilarious. You’d never want to know Mr. Pratt in real life, but on film, he’s enthralling.

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Still, a man this evil is bound to get punished, and Creepshow chooses to punish him not with a mere infestation of cockroaches, but with a full-scale invasion of them.

David Brody and Raymond Mendez, credited as the film’s “Roach Wranglers,” delved into the bat caves of Trinidad to gather over a hundred-thousand roaches for this story. The two men got them past U.S. Customs by stating they were for a Stephen King movie. The shots of the roaches are all quite brief, as Romero explained that the little buggers were natural hiders. He said that you could spill a bundle of roaches all over a white table, and within seconds, it’d be as though they were never there. It wouldn’t matter what surrounded them, either; they’d somehow find spaces to squeeze into and disappear.

It makes you wonder just how hard they had to push to get that finale to work, eh? Heh heh. Oh, it’s something you’ll never forget.

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This is not Joe’s Apartment, fellas

With its devilish kills and saucy spirit, Creepshow is generally beloved amongst horror fans. Just say something like “Meteor shit,” “I want my cake,” or “If you can hold your breath,” and any gore-hound worth his salt will know exactly what you’re talking about. Even George Romero had a soft spot for the film, and spoke publicly about his desire to make another one. A hefty legacy of sequels should have been guaranteed. Strangely, this just didn’t pan out — at least, not in the way that fans hoped it would.

In 1987, low-budget churn-house New World Pictures brought us Creepshow 2, but the movie feels watered-down in comparison to the original. Everyone who made the first film what it was seemed to take a few steps away from this one. The stories are still King’s, but there are only three of them this time, and King didn’t adapt them for the film. George Romero actually penned the script, but he didn’t direct, so the playfulness he worked so hard to inject in the first movie is missing. Director Michael Gornick instead plays it straight: you won’t see any extreme colors, scrims, or page/panel effects here. Composer John Harrison is replaced by Rick Wakeman, who makes a passable effort at an eerie, synthesized score, but the non-synth stuff is bland as bacon. Tom Savini appears in the movie as a different — and less appealing — incarnation of the Creepshow Creep, but he didn’t handle any of the major special effects. The frame story is a fully-animated fable about Billy having a run-in with bullies, but the quality is uneven throughout. I’ll grant that the finale is effective, though, what with all the children screaming for their lives.

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Then there’s Creepshow III, which is completely divorced from the series’s illustrious creators, and is absolute junk. I don’t know how or why the morons behind this film got the rights to the once-proud Creepshow name, but they did it no favors in attempting to revive it. Hell, could have written a better Creepshow than these guys…and I did, in fact, try.

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I called it Creepshow: Fourth Printing. Three of its stories are originals, while the fourth is an adaptation of King’s The Moving Finger. I shared the screenplay with a few friends, and all of them told me they liked “the finger story” the best, which doesn’t say much for my own storytelling skills. I don’t know if I’ll ever sell the dang thing. I don’t even know if anybody wants it. It was fun to write, though, and I think it stands as a testament to my love for the first movie.

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And I do love it. I loved it from the first time I watched it…when I was around three or four years old. My parents either had considerable faith in my discernment between fantasy and reality, or else they found the movie so cartoonish and over-the-top that they didn’t think it would affect me. Well, it turns out that it did affect me, in that it taught me how much fun a horror movie can be, and in that it inspired me to eventually write my own. Maybe, after the obligatory rewrites, you’ll get to see my nauseating novellas in the theaters yourselves! Hey, one can always dream, right, kiddies?

Who would be best to animate a cartoon version of Creepshow? I’m not sure such a project is necessary. The movie’s entire purpose is to be a live-action cartoon/comic book. If it had to be done, however, Romero already found the right man to do it. Rick Catizone is the only one who could ever animate Creepshow. His unique style oozes freaky fear, but it’s appealing enough to enthrall children (like myself). Catizone says he was inspired by Ray Harryhausen, which sounds about right. Harryhausen brought some spooky monsters to life, and instilled wonder in imaginative little kids the world round. Now Catizone has done the same. He’s produced animation for many commercials and even kids’ shows, but he also did stop-motion work for Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn. The dude’s got range, and we need more productions like his.

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Until next time

Top Non-Cartoons: 12 Monkeys

Today, I’d like to write about Non-Cartoons. I’m not sure that the term needs definition. Does it? What do you think?

Well, okay, I’ll do it anyway. A “non-cartoon” is a live-action film which, I feel, was made with the ambitious scope, and the careful physical attention, that I associate with animated films. I’m not talking about superhero or Star Wars films, which are practically cartoons already, nor am I talking about dry, adolescent anime films, which would probably turn out the same if they weren’t animated. No, I’m talking about films that go broad: they’re grand in scope, and they deal with very huge characters. They’re extreme, they’re over the top, and yet their live actors somehow keep them from sailing off into space. They are weird, but they would not work if they weren’t.

In this venture, I feel I must start with 12 Monkeys, a film directed by Terry Gilliam: an animator.

Terry Gilliam is the guy who did the Monty Python cartoons. You know, the goofy paper cut-out stuff that bridged the sketches:

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Terry Gilliam is known for his outlandish, ambitious movies, and the boiling water they throw him into. Studio executives hate his works, which often feature bleak and authoritarian settings, strange, cheap-looking props, and dark, ambiguous endings. His most successful movie, Time Bandits, is a whimsical children’s story. Its cast made it attractive — it features John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Sean Connery — and it has some of the most dazzling imagery that I’ve yet seen in a film. I think Gilliam used that marketability to sneak in his trademark cynicism, but he couldn’t get away with that twice. His next film, Brazilwould be his greatest struggle.

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Brazil is another Top Non-Cartoon, one that I would like to write about later. I bring it up now because it is the unrestrained portrait of Gilliam’s vision. It’s weird, it’s silly, it’s frightening, and it’s funny. Different people could call it fantasy, sci-fi, action, horror, art film, and comedy, and they’d all be right. Here’s a movie that’s impossible to categorize, impossible to forget, and, I daresay, impossible to like completely.

12 Monkeys is another one.

This is a time-travel story about a deadly epidemic that’s wiped out eighty percent of the population, and a science team’s efforts to stop it. Forced to live below ground, they send convicts up to the germ-ridden surface to find clues about how everything fell apart. James Cole, played by Bruce Willis, has proven himself to be one of their best investigators, so the scientists offer him a full pardon if he’ll go back in time to find the virus’s source.

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The prison facility is a hellhole with joint-crunching cells and terrifying interview rooms. The scientists exchange sentences in a comic fashion, and they observe Cole through a jittering orb of monitors and cameras. Sorry for bringing it up again, but it’s all very Brazil, and all very Gilliam.

The time-travel scheme doesn’t go well. First off, the scientists accidentally send Cole to the wrong year. Second, Cole’s story and violent behavior land him in a mental institution before he can get anywhere. When he explains himself to a panel of therapists, even he seems to realize just how loony it sounds. So he’s trapped, spending his days in a thorazine haze, and his nights reliving a murder he witnessed as a child. Life sucks in a nut house, especially when you think you don’t belong there.

Cole’s foil is a person who’s owned his craziness: one Jeffrey Goines, a string of firecrackers given Oscar-nominated life by Brad Pitt. I fucking love this guy.

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Pitt was chosen for the role in an effort to deflate his “pretty boy” persona, and boy does he succeed. Goines is balls-out wacko. He spews manic monologues. He flips everyone off. His laugh is a dopey croak. He’s that weird kid down the street that your parents didn’t like you hanging out with, and that you weren’t sure you liked hanging out with, but you did it anyway because you were kinda scared to say no to him.

He’s also a ton of fun to watch. Fast-talking and fast-moving, he’s like James Woods on crack. With his wild antics and anti-establishment speeches, he is the original Nolan Joker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. In the movie’s best shot, a desperate Cole pushes Goines against a third-story balcony railing, and holds his head over the side. The camera is held above the two, so we can see the frightened onlookers from the floors below. Goines doesn’t react in any rational way: he just cracks up laughing, and thrusts a fuck-you finger in Cole’s face. It’s a total Batman/Joker moment, only without the stupid costumes and makeup. It proves the superfluity of the superhero movie.

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So Goines is a force of nature, but he’s also a red herring, and the movie kinda limps to its finale after Goines leaves the picture. It gets reflective and melancholy when it really needs to get up and get moving. Threads about sanity and the Cassandra complex wrap up long after we’ve lost interest in them, and the romance doesn’t feel believable. The language of time-travel movies is so familiar by now that there’s no surprise to the ending at all (this was likely intentional, but that makes it no less boring). There’s an excellent, chilling moment involving David Morse’s character, but the rest feels low and saggy.

Now this brings me to the TV show.

For some reason, the SyFy channel felt the need to expand 12 Monkeys into a series, one of those things that makes no sense to me. The movie may be flawed, but it got its point across, and serializing it won’t do its slower elements any favors. I call it “The Sopranos Syndrome,” and you see it everywhere now. The Peak TV philosophy seems to go like this: stretch a plot until it’s ready to snap, bloat it with tired themes, provide no answers or resolution until the mad rush of the finale, and boom, you’ve got yourself a success. Even South Park is doing this now, and it drives me nuts.

What’s more, the producers decided to cast Emily Hampshire as the Goines character, and one of the first things she says is, “Look at you; you can’t take your eyes off me!” Ugh.

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Already, this new Goines has told us that she knows she’s hot. Come on. A great character shouldn’t have to fall back on hotness. There is nothing sexy or even sexual about the original Goines, and that a sex symbol plays him underscores that fact. In the movie, Goines is Daffy Duck. In the show, Goines is Catwoman.

This doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying this because of any feminist leanings; I just don’t find the “small, cute, and catlike” look to be especially threatening. There are plenty of women in cinema who’ve done crazy and terrible without any eye candy. Look at Misery. Look at La Femme/Inside. Look at The Ring! Perhaps it’s the nature of our culture, but it does seem like this equation of menace with attractiveness is more common among female villains. Is there any male villain like that? Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, is the only one I can think of.

Anyway, 12 Monkeys is a true Non-Cartoon, not only because of Pitt’s character, but because of the peculiar setting, wild concept, and crooked camerawork. I think its musical score is beautiful too. I believe that animating it wouldn’t damage it, if it was provided the right animator. In this case, that animator is Peter Chung, creator of Aeon Flux. His character designs are freaky and weird, and his settings are eerie and monolithic. I can totally see him doing this movie justice, but I would keep him far away from the show.

Top Cartoons: Snoopy Come Home

There have been over forty animated Peanuts TV specials, and five feature films. There’s a timeless quality to these tales of precocious youngsters. Their lives, activities, pains, and pleasures — baseball games, flying kites, pulling pranks, fitting in — have rarely deviated from what children deal with even today. Snoopy Come Home maintains the themes of the comic, but it pushes them farther than they ever went before.

This is the second animated Peanuts feature, written by Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez. As the title says, the focus is on Charlie Brown’s independent, imaginative, attention-loving beagle, but instead of playing vulture or chasing the Red Baron, he gets trapped at the peak of what amounts to a symbolic love triangle.

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There are tensions in the Peanuts neighborhood. Snoopy’s been spending too much time away from home, fighting with the Van Pelt kids, and standing up his play dates. NO DOGS ALLOWED signs are cropping up at his favorite haunts, and even that round-headed kid is pounding him with lectures. It seems as though he just doesn’t belong anymore.

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So when a letter from a mysterious girl named Lila arrives, which spurs Snoopy on an impromptu road trip, everyone feels responsible.

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It turns out that Lila is Snoopy’s original owner, who, for some reason, had to give up her puppy when her family moved. She returned him to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where Charlie Brown’s parents later discovered him.

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Now Lila is sick with an unnamed, but  serious disease, and misses her pup terribly. Snoopy and his bud Woodstock try to use mass transit to reach her, but NO DOGS ALLOWED signs stymie them, so they have to make the trip through unfamiliar towns and wilderness on foot. They travel a mighty long distance together, bonding, joking, and generally dealing with the rustic life. On one occasion, however, their adventure, and their lives, are put in serious jeopardy.

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Having gone without human companionship, Snoopy is pleased to spot Clara, a gal playing in the sand outside her house. He runs up and greets her, but she seizes him, kidnaps him, and attempts to forcibly adopt him.

Clara is more or less a relative of Tiny Toons’s Elmyra, with no awareness or empathy for an animal’s feelings. She gives Snoopy a flea bath, repeatedly dunking him underwater. She ties a hefty rope around his neck and yanks him around. She dresses him in hideous clothes for a tea party. Then, when she spills her tea on him, she blames Snoopy, and gives him a spanking.

It must be noted that Linda Ercoli, the voice actress for Clara, is amazing. At only thirteen years old, she gives Clara an impressive range of emotions, from giddiness to rage, and she’s always  horrifying. She even sings a very complicated patter song with aplomb and perfect rhythm.

After a crazy and intense chase, our wayward heroes make their escape, perhaps having learned something about dealing with strangers.

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is haggard with worry. His friends reach out and provide advice to help him accept that Snoopy is likely gone for good, but nothing works.

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When Snoopy finally reaches his old friend, he has to make a tremendous decision. Lila feels so much better with her doggy around that she begs him to come back to her. It is here that Melendez’s direction best demonstrates its wisdom. Melendez understood that Snoopy’s comic strip thought-bubbles wouldn’t work in a film, so he instructed  his animators to pour their efforts into the pup’s physical expression. He may be a simple-looking cartoon character, but the agony Snoopy displays at Lila’s request is truly heartbreaking.

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What follows is a series of shockingly painful scenes, restrained only with a stingy sprinkle of humor. There are tearful, even maudlin, partings, and a haunting portrait of real depression as Charlie Brown is unable to eat or sleep in the absence of his dear friend. The sequence plays to a wistful lament called “It Changes,” which, while written with innocent and childlike language, will likely never be understood by any but the most scarred of children.

Speaking of music, one will notice that Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano themes are missing from this film. You won’t even hear the iconic “Linus and Lucy” anywhere in it. The score is by Richard and Robert Sherman, who also worked on Disney’s The Jungle Book and Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web. Their work here swerves from pleasant and dark, just like the film itself.

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Mercifully, two wonderful payoffs await, and the film closes with enough joy to conquer the preceding misery.

Snoopy Come Home baffled most critics, and even Roger Ebert described it as “schizoid.” I agree that it vacillates from one emotional extreme to the other, but I don’t know if that damages the film in any way. Peanuts has always been tinged with anxiety, and I believe that’s part of its endearing nature. I don’t believe it would continue to be printed in today’s comics if Schulz hadn’t dared to mix his own insecurities and doubts into the minds of his cute little characters. I think this movie is quite an achievement, even if it would never play well with today’s audiences, who expect shiny computer animation instead of the exquisite hand-drawn work shown here.