Sunday, August 25, 2013

Movie Review: "The Stand, Part 2: The Dreams" (1994)

I am not Ann Landers.  Despite that, we are going to open today's post with a piece of advice:

Ladies -- and gentlemen, too, for that matter -- should consider their actions.  For example, when they find themselves to have survived an apocalyptic plague -- or a zombie outbreak, or a planet-leveling meteor strike, or an alien invasion, or any similar scenario -- they should understand that their actions may have consequences.  When and if they discover that a slimebag who has spent that last several years feverishly yearning to hump them, only to (correctly) be met with rejection at every turn, has also survived, it is imperative that you not give him/her mixed signals.  This mandate holds true even if you suspect that the two of you could literally be the only two people left on Earth.  In fact, in this scenario it holds doubly true...assuming, that is, that you wish to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings later on in the miniseires life.

Do not hug this person; do not gently touch this person's arm; and do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES rest your head upon this person's knee.

These are what we advice-giving professionals refer to as "major mixed signals," and they will almost certainly lead to confusion, an intensified renewal of their perverted desire, and retributive action (up to and including homemade explosives) when and if you meet a more appropriate mate later in your apocalyptic scenario.

You also risk looking like a worthless waste of a character in the (admittedly unlikely) case of your entire existence actually being a movie people in another dimension are watching for entertainment value.

This brings us to the strange case of Frances Goldsmith and Harold Emery Lauder:




The thing about this opening scene is that it actually makes Harold seem a little bit less insane, and his wrathful actions later on seem a little bit more justified.  Not that I'm saying political assassination is an appropriate reaction to being sent mixed signals by the object of one's affections; I'm not.  What I am saying is that Harold is right to be pissed off.  He's a weirdo, and a misfit, and a dupe; but he's also a hormonal young man who's -- in the novel, at least -- never had much encouragement except that of his own making.  He's found himself in a cataclysmically stressful situation, one that seems as if it might well have supernatural ramifications, and now the woman he's been crushing on for most of his semi-adult life is putting her head on his knee, treating him as if he is her only solace in this horrifying new world.

This, friends, is a recipe for disaster.  Harold turns into a bad person later on, but at this precise moment in the story, he's not bad at all; he's being misled, and he's just not quite canny enough to see it.  He'll be misled again later, and by that point in time it'll be for bigger stakes.


If this scene had been handled a bit better, I'd have no complaint.  Actually, scratch that; there's nothing wrong with the way this scene is handled at all.  It's directed nicely, the acting from both Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec is good, and the other aspects (editing, etc.) are strong as well.  The scene itself isn't the problem.  The lack of followup is the problem.  There should have been another scene at some point where Fran rebuffs Harold, and preferably prior to their meeting up with Stu and Glen.  It needed to be made clear to us that at some point, Fran had point-blank told Harold that what he wanted couldn't happen.  I can't remember if there is a scene like that in the novel.  It seems like there is (and my memory is insisting that it comes after meeting Stu, not before).  Either way, the miniseries needed it.

One thing I'd like to point out before we depart this scene is the use of the song "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House.  That's been one of my favorite songs since it came out in the '80s, so when it popped up in this miniseries in 1994, in this context, my hair stood on end.  It still does, what's left of it.

According to the commentary track, this song was Mick Garris's idea.  Stephen King had evidently put notes in the screenplay specifying what songs should be used in certain scenes, and his idea for this scene was "Fun Fun Fun" by the Beach Boys.  I love the dark implications that song takes on in this flu-ravaged context (humanity has been having fun, but God has taken the T-Bird away in a massive way), but Garris's idea is the better of the two, and I'm glad he got his way.  The Crowded House song has emotional punch that the Beach Boys song doesn't; layering some melancholy onto the proceedings seems like the right move.






There are several new characters introduced in the second episode that we ought to talk about now.  The first is Nadine Cross, played in fits of weirdness by Laura San Giacomo.





One of the big decisions King made as screenwriter was to combine the characters of Rita Blakemoor (with whom Larry had a relationship during the exodus from New York) and Nadine Cross (with whom Larry picked up later on).  The part of me that loves the novel misses Rita, but the honest side of me has no choice but to admit that this combination of characters into one was a very good decision on King's part.

I also have no choice but to admit that I absolutely hate San Giacomo's performance.  It starts weird, it gets weirder, and it eventually becomes even weirder than that.  The phrase "over the top" applies, and it's only the presence of a few other actors who seem inclined to go over the top who keep San Giacomo's from being the most annoying presence in the miniseries.  (More on one of those actors in a moment.)

I also have to point out that San Giacomo -- to my eyes at least -- looks terrible here.  She's still a beautiful woman in 2013, but in 1994, she was what might fairly be called "smokin' hot."  But there's something about her appearance in The Stand that makes me wrinkle one side of my face and recoil from the screen.  The argument could be made that that actually works for the miniseries, rather than against it; but I wouldn't make that argument.  The hotter we think Nadine is, the more embedded we are in Larry's point of view, and the stronger a character he becomes later when he rejects her.  As is, though, it doesn't quite come off that way.

Not for me, at least.  Attractiveness is obviously a highly subjective thing, and I usually strive to not bring it up at all (certainly not in the negative sense).  Here, though, I think it impacts the story, and I also think it was some weird sort of mistake by the hair and makeup department.  Garris talks on the commentary track about how much he hated the wigs San Giacomo wore; they evidently displeased him so much that he vowed to never use another wig on any movie he ever made.  No word on whether he was able to keep that vow, but it's understandable.

Let's move on now to someone whom I would nominate for being the worst character in television history:




It would be difficult for me to explain how annoyed I get by Matt Frewer's take on the Trashcan Man.  I may not even try; it'd be like trying to explain calculus to a bear.  Bear's just gonna eat you, so what's the point?

In the novel, Trashcan Man is occasionally annoying, too, but -- are you noticing a trend here? -- that is mitigated to a large degree by the fact that King tells us what makes the poor guy tick.  He's a profoundly disturbed young man, one who has been abused and neglected.  Yes, he's done things he ought not to have done; but in a perfect world, he'd be under constant supervision and treatment to protect himself, and to protect society from him.  One of the scariest of the implications of King's novel is that idea that if society collapses tomorrow, there will be a few deranged people like Trash wandering the landscape; it's a statistical certainty.

I like the character in the novel.  That's the bottom line.  But the miniseries strips him of every nuance, every shade.  Not once are we told that his actual name is Donald Merwin Elbert; he may as well be a Spider-Man villain.  Except not really, because even '60s Marvel Comics used to give its readers a bit of context for who the baddies were and what made them evil.
  
Here, we get almost nothing.  Trashcan Man occasionally hears taunting voices, which seem to be accusing him of doing something to some lady's pension check.  That's about it.  We don't know much otherwise.  I'd be surprised in no way to learn that somebody made it all the way through the miniseries without understanding that Trash is addicted to arson and is also a bit of a mechanical genius.  Neither of those things is missing from the screenplay, but King doesn't take much effort to pluck those strings clearly.  He seems to have been more focused on adapting the novel for people who'd already read it than for people who hadn't.  So if you already know who Trashcan Man is and what's wrong with him, you get it; if you don't, well, maybe you should read the novel.  I don't think anyone thought of it in terms that blunt; it was almost certainly just an oversight.

The argument could be made that if I -- meaning, literally, me -- already know Trashcan Man's backstory, I shouldn't be bothered by it not being present in the miniseries.  Because, like, I already know it; so I can just layer it in for myself.  I sympathize with that argument, but I don't agree with it.  Because ultimately, I know the entire story; I've read The Stand, probably about a dozen times.  That being the case, why should I need to see the miniseries at all?

It's a fair question.  Here's a fair answer: because humans enjoy hearing the same stories over ad over again.  We derive pleasure from having it told to us in different ways.  "It was great when Uncle Pete told it to us, but it was even better when Grandpa told it!"  Like that.  So yeah, I know the story already, because Uncle Steve has told it to me a dozen times.  But that doesn't mean that if Uncle Steve and Uncle Mick decide to tell it to me again, they can get away with telling me an inferior version of it.  How'm I s'posed to sleep that way?  And what about my friends who are sleeping over tonight?  They've never heard the story before!  They keep asking what "Ciabola" means, and why the weird guy keeps saying "bumpty-bumpty-bump" all the time, and I don't know how to tell it to 'em so it makes sense!

Trashcan Man, here, is an utter failure for me.  And it hurts the miniseries badly.  We'll return to that complaint elsewhere; rest assured.

Ah, but I haven't discussed Matt Frewer yet, have I?  He is awful here.  Just absolutely, stupendously awful.  Given the choice between watching Frewer's Trashcan Man and seeing Jar Jar Binks star in a remake of Citizen Kane, I'd go with the Gungan.  It's that bad a performance Frewer is giving here.

Thing is, I can understand the urge to go over the top if you're an actor.  You immerse yourself in the role, and if what's on the page is as weird as what must be on the pages of this screenplay, I can sort of see how you would feel moved to go to some weird places.  That's what a director is for; to rein you in when you need to be reined in.  Why Mick Garris didn't pull Frewer to the side after the first time he did what he does here and say, "Hey, uhm, Matt...maybe you could go for something a bit more restrained and naturalistic?" is a mystery to me.  I can only conclude that Garris must actually have enjoyed the performance, or perhaps was too nice a guy to try and steer his actor in a different direction.  Neither of those things would surprise me.

Regardless, we're stuck with it.  Apparently, some people don't mind it; some people, I'm sure, even like it.  I shudder to think what that must be like.




Bill Faggerbakke plays Tom Cullen.  M-O-O-N, that spells Bill Faggerbakke.  It also spells Tom Cullen, coincidentally enough.

Tom is certainly one of my favorite characters from the novel, and I think he's probably one of the favorites of a great many people who have read the book.  There's just something nifty about the idea of a retarded guy who gets to be a hero.  Object to my use of the word "retarded" if you need to; object to King's use of it -- in novel and miniseries alike -- if you need to.  But remember something: King is the one who's saying that somebody like Tom Cullen is capable of great feats of bravery, heroism, empathy, kindness, and -- yes -- intelligence.  Tom is a sort of mirror image of Trashcan Man: whereas that firebug was abused and mistreated by the world and then turned loose like a shark upon the new world created by the superflu, Tom is someone who seems to have been treated kindly and well, and who brings those points of view with him into what's left of America.  His capability is limited, sure; but within the bounds of those limits, he can and will do extraordinary things.

We are asked to love him, not because he is mentally challenged, but because he is lovable.  That, to me, is a good message.  And Tom is a great character.  Faggerbakke -- then-famous thanks to his role as Dauber on Coach -- does a tremendous job with the role.  He's not as great as Tom Hanks was as Forrest Gump later that summer, but he gets close at times; and if he'd had Robert Zemeckis directing him, as Hanks did, well, who knows?

Now, if I may play devil's advocate for a moment, here's where I have to admit that I can see how some people would be just as annoyed by Faggerbakke's Tom as I am by Frewer's Trashcan Man.  The character is undeniably composed of a lot of tics and mannerisms (such the "M-O-O-N, that spells..." gag, which gets used a few times too many), and if you happen to be annoyed by them, then this character will grate your nerves like they're a block of cheddar.  I would understand.  It just doesn't hit me that way; if it does you, then I feel for ya, pal.




Amazingly, we have not yet discussed Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg.

I have some split-personality issues when it comes to Sheridan's work here.  On the one hand, I think Sheridan was miscast; on the other, I think he did fairly fantastic work.  I think it's a very good performance; I just feel that it is a somewhat inappropriate performance for the role.  This is in no way Sheridan's fault.  Again, this is where a director comes into play.  Lest we think a director is merely responsible for figuring out the visual side of things, it's always worth emphasizing that one of the primary roles a director has on a movie is to make sure the actors are giving not merely good performances, but also appropriate performances.  (I say this as someone whose directorial experience is limited to unsuccessfully directing his cats to cease their meowing, so bear that in mind.)  Do the performances match the tone?  Do they match the emotional intent of the scene?  Are they being faithful to the intent of the screenplay?

The intent with Sheridan seems to have been to cast someone who was primarily known for being a good, stable, fatherly-type person, and then turning that on its head.  That isn't a bad impulse, but it didn't quite pay off.  Flagg, to me, needs to be the sort of character who commands fear, and from those who fear him commands respect and loyalty.  There has to be a huge amount of charisma.  Sheridan's method was to play Flagg as someone who, on the face of things, is a pleasant, affable go-along-to-get-along type of guy; underneath that are hints of menace, insanity, and homicidal rage, and depending on the scene he would bring those elements to the fore.  On the commentary track, he also speaks about bringing to the role an element of relating to his people as one soldier to another.  That comes through in the performance, too, and it's good acting.  I just don't think it's right for the character, who is decidedly not relating to these people as one soldier to another.

(Side-note: the actor I usually picture as Flagg is Tom Cruise.  Cruise is charismatic, commanding, and confident; you can see why people would follow him.  He also speaks with tremendous conviction, so you see why people would believe him even when they know they shouldn't.  He also -- thanks partly to his real-world persona and partly to the intensity that is the trademark of the roles he typically takes -- has a dangerous gleam of insanity behind his eyes that allows him to turn the corner from affability into menace at a moment's notice.  I think he'd knock the role of Randall Flagg out of the park.)

Sheridan does good work as Flagg, but I still end up not liking the miniseries version of the character, simply because I think Garris -- yes, and King -- mishandled the way Flagg is presented.  I touched on part of that in the review of Part 1, mentioning that I had some uncertainty as to what Flagg's purpose was, and what the extent of his powers is.

I also simply don't understand why anyone except for Lloyd -- and Harold, and Nadine, and maybe Trashcan Man -- joins him.  Yes, he blatantly gives Lloyd something; letting a starving man out of prison before his stomach eats itself is a substantial gift, and it's impossible not to sympathize a bit with Lloyd as a result.  We also sort of get the sense that Flagg is promising to fulfill Trash's life in a way that has never been even a possibility before.

What's everyone else's excuse?  Why do they flock to Flagg?  The novel doesn't do a great job with this, either, quite frankly.  The implication, I guess, is that they do it because they're evil.  Except in the novel, we know that there are some nice people in Vegas; including children.  The miniseries doesn't even have that much subtlety, though; the people in Vegas are there, as far as I can tell, mostly because they're despicable.  (This certainly explains John Landis's presence.)  It's all very pat, and not interesting.

The problem could have been solved by doing a bit more with the dreams.  If Flagg represents a choice that each of these people could potentially make, then why not have him appear to one or two of the good guys -- Larry would have been a prime choice, but Stu and Frannie would have worked, or Glen, or Tom, or Nick, or anyone -- and try to persuade them to join him?  Why not have some of the good guys sitting around debating which of the two roads to take?  I mean, just picture Flagg appearing to Larry and saying something like, "Join me, Larry, and I'll give you all the fame, all the power, all the women...everything you could ever want."

None of that happens.  We can sort of infer it, if we're of a mind to do so.  But it isn't there.  Instead, Flagg is just a boogeyman.  He's mildly scary, because he occasionally appears to us as a demon or a scarecrow or something.  But compellingly scary?  Not for a second.  Especially since he rarely seems inclined to actually use whatever powers he seems to possess.

So for me, despite the fact that I like Jamey Sheridan's performance based on its own merits, I have to chalk Flagg up as a bit of a failure, too.




Speaking of failure, here's Shawnee Smith as Julie Lawry.  Smith's performance is actually close to being more annoying than Frewer's.  In some ways, it's even worse.  What keeps me from hating her as much is a two-fold excuse: (1) Lawry is not an essential character and therefore isn't around much; and (2) Shawnee Smith is very, very hot.  That doesn't keep me from hating the character; but it helps infinitesimally, which is enough to keep Frewer in the lead for Worst Character Ever status.





Here's Bridgit Ryan, who plays Lucy Swan.  She's very good, and it makes me wonder whatever happened to her.  She seemingly has not acted since 1995, and that seems like a bit of a loss.





Here's Peter Van Norden as Ralph Brentner.  He's pretty good, too, but he's hobbled by the fact that Ralph isn't really given anything in terms of characteristics.  He has nothing to do.  This is true of the character as he appears in the novel, too, and it's one of my major complaints about the book.  Ralph, of course, plays a pivotal role as one of the four men chosen to go make "the stand" in Las Vegas.  But we essentially know nothing about him, so his presence carries no weight.

As a result, Van Norden's good work is mostly inconsequential here.


*****

Let's finish out by tackling a few odds and ends:

  • Generally-speaking, I don't care for Mick Garris's visual style.  Here's a great example: when Traschan Man hears the voices inside his head, taunting him, Garris puts the camera on one side of Frewer's head and has him turn and look directly at the camera, i.e., at us, putting us in the position of being the voices inside Trash's head.


It's a distracting, off-putting technique, and it also serves the presumably-unintended purpose of making us feel subconsciously as if we are bullying Trashcan Man.

  • Does the miniseries give us any explanation -- even a vague one -- as to why it is necessary for Mother Abagail and her new flock to leave Nebraska and resettle in Boulder?  No, it does not.  What do you suppose people who've never read the novel make of this?

  • "Pleased to meet you, Lloyd; hope you guess my name."  That's awesome.  You'll only get it if you're familiar with "Sympathy for the Devil," but since everyone everywhere needs to be familiar with that song, I figure a good percentage of viewers get the joke.  It's also pretty great that Lloyd himself is too dimwitted to get the joke, and that Flagg explains it by saying it's just a classical reference.  This little moment is not in the novel, and I imagine King being enormously satisfied with himself when he thought of it.  (The only downside -- which I feel compelled to mention -- is that the association muddies the water even further in terms of whether we are supposed to think Flagg is literally the Devil, i.e., Satan.)



  • Flagg gives Lloyd what he calls "the keys to the kingdom," but he doesn't really say anything in terms of what that means.  Why not have Flagg just come right out and say, "Lloyd, I'm going to rebuild this broken country; I'm going to gather the people in Las Vegas, and together we are going to build a bright new world, one where the kind of insanity that led to the superflu will never, ever happen again."  I really feel like Flagg needs to point-blank say this to Lloyd at some point.  Lloyd is a villain, yes; but villains who are not heroes in their own minds are very, very boring villains, and apart from the fact that he;s let him out of prison, there's really no reason for Lloyd to feel loyalty toward Flagg.  The character is much richer if you layer genuine purpose on top of that. Some of that comes through in the novel; none of it comes through in the miniseries.

  • The Lincoln Tunnel sequence works reasonably well.  Boy, that's a tough scene to put on film.  Depicting anything that takes place mostly in darkness is something that film is just not well-suited to do.  This is especially true of television.  In a movie theatre, it could sorta work; you could conquer the lack of visuals with immersive sound design.  But on television in 1994, it was a thankless task, and the fact that it works even as well as it works here is due to basically solid direction from Mick Garris (as well as a convincing performance from Adam Storke as Larry).  I have to ask, though: why did Larry not just pick his flashlight back up when he dropped it?  That's just dumb.




  • Giant missed opportunity: not having Larry holler, "Nadine...?!?  Honey, is that you...?!?" during the Lincoln Tunnel sequence.  Don't get the joke?  Sorry 'bout that.

  • Boy, is that motorcycling jacket of Harold's awful.  On purpose, I presume; but still...




  • Why does Stu look like the Terminator in the scene depicted below?  Is he looking for Sarah Connor?






  • One of the least effective edits in the whole movie: the cut from Larry saying “Who’d want to burn a whole city to the ground, for God’s sakes?” (in reference to Des Moines, Iowa) to Trashcan Man walking through the Utah Badlands.  The only inference to draw from this is that the fires were set by Trashy.  But Lucy has said only moments previously that the fires started around dusk, with a series of explosions.  So clearly, it can’t have been Trash.  Why go down that road?  Why risk confusing people?  I think that what’s happening here is that King and Garris are trying to make the world seem bigger, by suggesting that while the plague may have wiped out most of the population, what’s left of it is still very active, and not entirely sane.  The edit to Trashcan Man does them no favors, though, because it removes that subtext and instead causes us to focus on a single character.  Which would be fine if the character in question were part of the Des Moines goings-on.  He isn’t. But how many viewers, watching with slightly lessened attention, have assumed that he is?
  • During the scene in which Mother Abagail is talking to Nick and Ralph, I love the little cutaway to Tom Cullen playing with the guitar (as opposed to playing the guitar).  There's something childlike and delightful -- and, yes, even a little creepy -- about that.



  • I like the scene at the end in which Mother Abagail has to leave her home.  The lack of context keeps it from being as great a scene as it could have been; but even so, it's pretty good, with her complaining about God being the celestial equivalent of a railroad dick making somebody get off a train.







  • When Trashcan Man is wandering around in the casino, shouting "Hey!  HEY!  Anybody here?!?," how come nobody answers him?  They're sitting right there, playing cards!  What a bunch of dicks.
  • Boy, do they get to Boulder quick...

Well, that's about it, I guess.  See y'all soon with Part 3 of the review.  As before, I leave you with a leftover series of screencaps.  (And a link to Part 1, in case you missed it.)  Enjoy!
















4 comments:

  1. Some of these screencaps you've got here are really good. I'm almost of a mind to re-evaluate some of my Mick Garris snark, except I know that they're the best of the lot, and everything else you've written here about his visual design choices is true, as well. Still: some good shots, here and in the last one.

    I can't agree more with - or put it better - than your accounts of Frewer, San Giacomo, and Sheridan. San Giacomo has that one "We are all in Hell" line before the elevators close; I think it's in the next one. But it's so wrong. Just delivered wrong, wrong feel, wrong everything. Where is Garris when the actors are doing this stuff? It's a fair question, and I'm glad you asked it.

    (Incidentally, I thought San Giacomo was at her most attractive in Just Shoot Me.)

    That Frewer also has Rasmussen from TNG on his c.v. of worst performances ever is something. A dubious distinction, but something.

    Stu's Terminator pic has to be some kind of in-joke, because yeah, otherwise, whew.

    I think Van Norden's cast pretty well as Ralph. Like you say, he's just sort of an everyman, character in both places, distinguished only by being one of the four who go make The Stand in Vegas. I kind of like the effect of one of the four being this everyday sort of guy who no one would remember much about, "he/you too can make a difference," etc. But in terms of drama, sure, it's a little too blah. There are ways of showing something else about the character that King didn't choose, so all we're left is a shrug/ question mark.

    Tom Cruise as Flagg is interesting. I don't know if he could sell the menace as well as the charisma, but he's surprised me over the years, so I'd keep an open mind. What you say here about why he'd work is certainly all true.

    I honestly don't know who my dream casting for Flagg would be. I hope to have an answer by the time you finish this overview.

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    1. "Just Shoot Me"! Forgot about that one. Yeah, she was good on that show. Good call!

      The "We are dead and this is hell" line comes during the fourth episode. It's a very memorable line, but you are 100% correct: it does not work.

      On the subject of Mick Garris snark: you know what boat I'm in on that topic. I am not a fan. But there are times -- especially in this miniseries -- when he gets things VERY right, and I'm doing my best to point them out, just to help keep a balance to things. As for where he is during some of these bad performances his actors are delivering...honestly, my take on it is that it's a combination of him just having a different opinion on what constitutes good acting and him also being an extremely nice guy. Unless he's just faking it to an incredible degree, he comes off in interviews and whatnot and seeming like a pleasant, kind, down-to-earth fella. Same as Stephen King does; and that probably helps explain their friendship, and King's loyalty toward him.

      I've said all that before, but -- and I've said THIS before, too -- I feel a need to keep pointing it out. I really do feel bad sometimes for not liking Garris's style. But hey, he's made a life out of making movies, and I'm a dipshit who barely earns a living and spends his free time eating chili-cheese dogs, getting fat(ter), and writing blogs that will never earn him a dime. I don't feel too bad about THOSE things, so presumably Mick Garris would see what someone like me has to say and just rolls his eyes. That'd certainly be the correct response.

      And it's okay by me.

      So, to sum up: I like Mick Garris a lot. I just wish I liked his movies more.

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