A Series of Unfortunate Reviews: “The Reptile Room”

If you have come to this review hoping to see that my opinion of Netflix’ series has improved dramatically with The Reptile Room, then it is my solemn duty to tell you…

…CONGRATULATIONS, YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT PLACE!!!

(Beware the spoilers for Episodes 3 & 4.)

Wow.  WOW.  I loved both parts of “The Reptile Room” so very much!

Neil Patrick Harris’ performance as Count Olaf improved.  He strikes a better balance between menacing and humorous.  When he arrived at Uncle Monty’s house, confronted the Baudelaires, and wound up chasing them through the house with his knife, I could actually feel myself tensing up.  I’ve read the book, I knew he wasn’t going to kill them, and yet I found myself thinking, “Oh no, I really hope he doesn’t figure out the trick of how to get into the Reptile Room!  Get out of there, Baudelaires!  Get some place safe!”

I knew they’d be okay.  I knew that if the show just followed the book, nothing would happen until Uncle Monty returned home.  And yet, as Olaf banged on the door to the Reptile Room, I kept thinking, “He’s going to figure it out and turn the knob any second now!  He’s going to figure it out!

Although it’s not accurate to the book, I loved Jim Carrey’s performance as “Stephano,” so I didn’t Harris could possibly top it.  I don’t know if he topped it, but he did at least match Carrey with his equally hilarious accent.  That in itself is a feat.

Then there’s Uncle Monty.  Aasif Mandvi gives such a perfect performance and I love what Daniel Handler and the other writers did with Monty’s character.  I liked him well enough in the book.  He’s one of the only decent guardians that the Baudelaires ever meet.  In the show, however, he gets to be even more intelligent, courageous, and kind-hearted than before.  He knows that Stephano is evil from the get-go and does what he can to help the children feel safe.  He obviously loves the Baudelaires and completely understands why they don’t trust him at first.  He also gets to take down the two white-faced women when they try to kidnap him at the theater, and then stops Stephano from kidnapping the Baudelaires just in time.

Speaking of the Baudelaires, I like how they don’t completely warm up to Monty at first.  They’re still recovering from their horrific experiences at Count Olaf’s.  So when Mr. Poe sends them to live with a complete stranger again, it makes sense that they’d question once again why they’ve never heard of their parents’ friend, Dr. Montgomery.  He responds with a very sweet little speech about reptiles: that there are plenty of dangerous ones out there, but that you can learn to spot the signs that tell you which ones are friendly.

It really says something about an adaptation of a tragedy when you know exactly what’s going to happen, but you still find yourself wishing that maybe, just maybe, this time it’ll end happily.  Granted, Lemony spends the entire time reminding us that Uncle Monty will die.  I responded in a very appropriate manner:

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Unlike the Bad Beginning episodes, I liked the additional ties to V.F.D. placed within the story.  Here, they do make a sincere attempt to help Monty and the Baudelaires by warning them about danger.  It’s just that Monty misinterprets just how dangerous “Stephano” is.  The scene where he uses the code to find the message in the subtitles for Zombies in the Snow is a lot of fun.  (S0 is Zombies in the Snow– now THAT is what I’m looking for when I want to see Stylistic Suck.)

In “Part 2,” there are a few more significant deviances from the book, but they don’t really hurt the story.  First, the Baudelaires quickly pick up on the fact that “Nurse Lucafont” and the “investigators” that come to the Reptile Room are actually Olaf’s troupe.  They just can’t prove it to Mr. Poe (of course).  There’s a seriously funny exchange between Mr. Poe and Klaus over why they couldn’t possibly be people in disguise.

Second, well, the entire troupe comes to Uncle Monty’s house under the pretense of investigating his death, instead of the hook-handed man by himself.  Again, I don’t mind, because they’re funny.  They continue to act not quite as evil as they act in the books.  I laughed watching them get absorbed in Violet’s summation of how “Stephano” killed Uncle Monty.  They know exactly who did it and why, but they’re still so intrigued by her deductions.

Third, because the entire troupe’s there, Olaf doesn’t panic when Mr. Poe realizes his true identity.  Why would he?  His troupe easily outnumbers Poe and the Baudelaires.  But then the reptiles come to the rescue of the children.  This is great partly because it’s heartwarming and partly because Handler took care of a plot hole before it became an issue.  That doesn’t always happen in adaptations.  It doesn’t even always happen in this adaptation.

Finally, there’s the role of the Incredibly Deadly Viper.  This one’s pretty interesting because the movie made the exact same story change.  In the book, Dr. Lucafont tells everyone that he found traces of the Mamba du Mal’s venom in Uncle Monty.  The children have to prove that Olaf injected the venom into Monty because the snake has different ways of killing its victims.  In the movie and the show, everyone except the Baudelaires believe that the Incredibly Deadly Viper killed Monty.  It’s the children’s job to prove that the Viper is friendly.  Although, in the movie, that’s all they had to do.  The show tries to add content from the book by also showing Violet searching Olaf’s suitcase for what did kill Monty- venom from the Mamba du Mal.

And last but not least, I think these episodes did a better job with Mr. Poe’s characterization.  I found him to be a little too clueless and insensitive in Bad Beginning.  Although he doesn’t see anything suspicious about Stephano or the “investigators” in the Reptile Room episodes, he’s a lot more skeptical of their findings.  That’s not too far from the book, where he actually apologized to the Baudelaires for not believing them about Olaf.  Yes, he’s mostly unhelpful throughout the series, but he does have his moments, such as some scenes in The Wide Window.  It’ll be interesting to see how those episodes play out.

Speaking of which, tune in next time for my thoughts on the episodes about The Wide Window…

A Series of Unfortunate Reviews: “The Bad Beginning”

If you have come to this blog in the hopes of reading reviews that absolutely eviscerate the film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events and heap endless praise upon the new Netflix series because it is superior to the film in every way, then you have come to the wrong place and should stop reading immediately.

I regret to inform you that this next series of reviews contains dreadful things, including a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the film and the show, critiques of the actors’ performances, and terrible attempts by the author to imitate Lemony Snicket’s writing style.

For you see, I personally found the movie to be “a decent adaptation,” a phrase which here means, “Jim Carrey was a decent Count Olaf, okay?”

Welcome to my next series of posts: reviewing several adaptations of A Series of Unfortunate Events, including the movie, the Netflix series, and the video game!  (Yes, there was a video game.  It was based on the movie.  I owned the GameCube version.)  Although Lemony Snicket would find this hard to believe, I think this is going to be much more pleasant than Dracula Month because I enjoyed these adaptations by and large.

I’ll be starting with the Netflix series, breaking it down by book.  The first two episodes of Season One adapt the plot of The Bad Beginning.  It’s decent, yet it does have some flaws.

Patrick Warburton really nails the character of Lemony Snicket with his somber, dry delivery of the many over-the-top tragic event that happen to the Baudelaires.  That said, there’s a big difference between the show version and the book version (which I didn’t notice until my friend, Alie pointed it out to me.  Thanks, Alie!).  We never see his face in the books or the movie; all pictures of Snicket show him in the shadows or with his back turned.  Not so with Netflix; he’s front and center throughout the show.  Does it matter?  Eh, it might have been better if we didn’t see him, but it’s not a decision that kills the show for me.

The Baudelaires themselves do a good job too.  My only issue is with Sunny.  I know that’s a little ridiculous since babies can’t really act, but she didn’t seem as expressive as Kara and Shelby Hoffman, who both played Sunny in the film.  She’s also voiced by Tara Strong in the show.  While I like Tara Strong and I got used to things after a while, I thought something felt off when I heard Sunny’s baby gibberish.  When I learned afterwards that an adult actress had made those noises, it explained everything.

In the books, there’s almost nothing funny about Count Olaf’s troupe.  (I say “almost” because they do have moments of dark humor, just like every other aspect of the books.)  Whereas in the show, they provide comic relief about 98% of the time that they’re on screen.  It actually works in their case because their lines are really funny.  It’s also an enormous improvement over their appearance in the movie.  See, in the movie, all they really get to do is show up, look menacing, and provide backup for Count Olaf, a phrase which here means “do absolutely nothing until Olaf needs an extra person to accomplish something.”

They have so much more personality in the show.  When they appear, you know exactly who they are; it doesn’t take a couple of seconds to think, “Oh.  Right.  He/She works for Olaf.”  They’re not just present during the dinner scene; they’re also seen throughout the second episode helping Olaf prepare for The Marvelous Marriage, fool Mr. Poe, and prevent the Baudelaires or V.F.D. from stopping their boss.  They always have a funny comment about the situation that helps them stay memorable.

Yet when the time comes for the hook-handed man to deliver a chilling threat to the Baudelaires, Usman Ally’s performance is scary in a believable way.  He’s fantastic at going back and forth between humorous and menacing.

Neil Patrick Harris’ performance, on the other hand, feels a little less believable in The Bad Beginning.  He also makes the constant switch between entertaining and scary, just not as successfully.  Maybe it’s because he’s the main villain, so there’s more pressure on him to be more of a threat.  He keeps having silly moments like the scene where Klaus reveals his evil plan and has to stop to inform the Count what “literally” and “figuratively” mean.

I guess this isn’t wrong, per se, because he does devolve more and more into comic relief later in the series.  It’s established that he’s not as well-read as the Baudelaires.  However, there’s a powerful moment in Chapter 9 when Olaf threatens to kill Sunny if Violet refuses to marry him:

Violet stared at him.  She had an odd feeling in her stomach, as if she were the one being thrown from a great height.  The really frightening thing about Olaf, she realized, was that he was very smart after all.  He wasn’t merely an unsavory drunken brute, but an unsavory, clever, drunken brute (pp. 113-114).

Although the show follows the plot of the book fairly well, I didn’t get that feeling about Olaf in the first two episodes.  It felt more like he came close to succeeding because of luck than cleverness.  He almost gets away with it because Mr. Poe and Justice Strauss don’t do enough to help the Baudelaires, not because he’s good at what he does.  Granted, the unhelpful nature of the other adults is a reoccurring theme in the books, so that’s not totally inaccurate either.

In the Netflix series, the biggest change to the story is the early inclusion of V.F.D.  There’s no explicit mention of V.F.D. in The Bad Beginning episodes, but we see volunteers working undercover to stop Olaf.  The book didn’t have so much as a hint of a secret organization, except for their symbol tattooed to Olaf’s ankle.  I don’t mind the idea that much.  This should allow the TV writers to keep a consistent tone in the television series instead of making a shift after The Austere Academy.  

Unfortunately, it wasn’t executed well in the first two episodes.  In “Part 2,” we meet a volunteer named Jacqueline who works as Mr. Poe’s secretary.  She tries to stop Olaf from adopting the children, gets captured by the troupe, escapes with some help from fellow volunteer Gustav, and then…not much else.  They attend The Marvelous Marriage to keep an eye on Olaf, but this has no impact on the plot.  The Baudelaires still have to rescue themselves and Olaf still escapes.  Although they do inform the Baudelaires that they’re supposed to go live with Uncle Monty instead of Olaf, that’s something Mr. Poe could have told them.  I want to like Jacqueline and it was nice to actually see Gustav, but there’s just no point to them being there.  It made the scene a bit awkward, at least for me.

Finally, there’s a positive change that must be noted: the increased diversity in the cast, especially compared to the movie.  The Poe family, the hook-handed man, Uncle Monty, and Aunt Josephine are all played by people of color.  There’s also a visible amount of people of color in the backgrounds, particularly in the audience for The Marvelous Marriage.  That’s awesome and I hope it continues into the next season.

So, while definitely not perfect, the first two episodes of the Netflix series made an okay first impression with me.  But as we Snicket fans all know, first impressions can be entirely incorrect.

Will the subsequent episodes change my opinion of the series overall?

“You haven’t the faintest idea…”

My Most Anticipated Adaptations for 2017

Happy New Year, everybody!

In no particular order, here are the adaptations I am most excited about in 2017:

A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix (January 13)

I regret to inform you that the information I am about to pass on to you is extremely unpleasant: I haven’t finished this series.  I only got up to Book 11: The Grim Grotto and then I guess I just started getting frustrated by the lack of answers to the series’ mysteries.  But the books are so good that I’ve started rereading them, and this time I plan to finish them.

I’m absolutely psyched about the Netflix show.  Patrick Warburton looks like a perfect Lemony Snicket and Neil Patrick Harris should be fantastic as Count Olaf.  Visually, it looks very similar to the movie.  However, that’s only fitting because the movie successfully captured the look of Brett Helquist’s illustrations.  It’s also nice to see a little diversity in the cast.  Overall, the show appears to have captured the tone of the series.  I can’t wait to watch it tomorrow!

The final volume of the Kingdom Hearts 2 manga (May 23)

“Desperate to see Roxas again, Axel abandons everything–even Organization XIII and an old friend–to make his wish come true. What awaits him after he’s cut all ties…? Later, determined to return to the Destiny Islands with both Riku and Kairi, Sora–with Donald and Goofy at his side–arrives at the Organization XIII stronghold in search of the kidnapped Kairi. Will he be able to find her in time to make his dream of returning to the Destiny Islands with his friends a reality? Sora’s great adventure comes to a close!!”

Oh, that’s real nice, Yen Press.  I like how you make it sound like everything just MIGHT work out well for EVERYONE at the end of Kingdom Hearts 2, including Axel and Roxas.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

I absolutely adore the rest of the Kingdom Hearts 2 manga, and I’ve already seen a few scans of the fan translations for the final volume.  But I have been trying so very hard to stay away from them for the most part.  Shiro Amano deserves my money and I’d prefer to read an official translation anyway.

Sadly, this is the last volume that Shiro Amano has decided to create- for now.  I’m still hoping he changes his mind and adapts Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, the other big games in the series.  At least we’re getting the Birth by Sleep novels, but the books aren’t as much fun as the manga.

The Masterpiece (2017- no release date yet)

The Masterpiece is an adaptation of a true story: a book called The Disaster Artist, by Greg Sestero.  It’s all about the production of “the greatest bad movie ever made,” The Room.  It should be a lot of fun, especially when they’ve got Zac Efron playing Chris-R the gangster.  But I’m not sure what to make of the official synopsis:

“This is a true story about the making of THE ROOM – the cult classic described as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. THE MASTERPIECE, directed by and starring James Franco, is a buddy comedy about two outsiders chasing a dream. When the world rejects them, they decide to make their own movie – and it’s a movie so wonderfully awful due to its unintentional hilarious moments, meandering plots and terrible acting.”

It makes it sound like Greg and the director/producer/writer/lead actor Tommy Wiseau both believed in The Room, but they didn’t.  Only Tommy did.  Greg knew it was going to be a disaster.  In fact, he didn’t think anyone would ever see it, and that was one of the reasons why he eventually agreed to play the character of Mark.

I’m just hoping that Hollywood doesn’t turn this very interesting story into a tired cliche about two goofy friends that do something goofy.

Speaking of things getting the Hollywood treatment…

Wonder (April 7)

Here’s another book that’s really good, but I personally haven’t finished.  So I don’t really have the right to feel nervous about the movie.  But Diary of a Wimpy Kid left a bad taste in my mouth by insisting on including a Big Meaningful Message About Popularity and Fitting In that the books didn’t have.  Wonder is a children/YA book about Auggie Pullman, a boy with an unusual face going to school for the first time.  Unfortunately, that’s the kind of plot that’s practically begging to get turned into an Inspirational, Cliched, Message Movie.

It doesn’t help the book’s probably going to be better by default, because Auggie has such a distinct voice and the movie can’t have the same level of narration.

But the book’s great, so here’s hoping that the movie will be great too.  I’ll be curious to see how, and if, the movie handles the switch in character perspectives throughout the story.

Anastasia on Broadway (March 23)

Even though it is historically inaccurate, I love Don Bluth’s Anastasia  and can’t wait to see it on Broadway!  If nothing else, I’d just love to hear “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December” live on a stage!  I will do my best to go and see the show this year, but we’ll see if I have the time and money to do it.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Manga (March 14)

Yes, it’s finally happening, for those who enjoy the Zelda manga: Twilight Princess is getting one too!

I don’t enjoy the Zelda manga as much as the Kingdom Hearts manga, but Ocarina of TimeMajora’s Mask, and A Link to the Past were good.  So I’m looking forward to Twilight Princess.

What adaptations are you most looking forward to this year?

Bioshock: Rapture

Happy New Year’s Eve, everybody!  2016 may have been a bad year for everyone, but at least it wasn’t 1959 in Rapture.

Also, this post will have SPOILERS from Bioshock and Bioshock 2.  You have been warned.

Bioshock is the scariest game I’ve ever played and completely out of my comfort zone.  Yet the atmosphere and the story were so absorbing that I just had to keep playing and I ended up loving it.

Still, I went back and forth for a while on writing this post.  Technically, Bioshock: Rapture isn’t a straight adaptation of the spectacular, haunting video game.  It’s a prequel novel that shows how Andrew Ryan founded Rapture and how it devolved into the horror show that Jack finds at the beginning of the game.  However, one could technically see it as an adaptation and expansion of the audio diaries, and it uses many characters who appear in some form during Bioshock and Bioshock 2.

Overall, I enjoyed reading it.  Ever since playing Bioshock, I’ve eaten up anything I can find about the backstory of Rapture.  The game’s about a man named Jack who survives a plane crash in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  Luckily, it lands right next to a lighthouse.  Unluckily, that lighthouse is the entrance to an underwater city called Rapture.  A man named Andrew Ryan built Rapture as a utopia for a select group of brilliant people, shortly after World War II.  He promised that they could achieve success because there would be no restrictions on business, science, or art.  No censorship, no ethics, and no religion.  Do whatever the heck you want as long as you don’t murder people…and never leave Rapture.

Things spiraled out of control very quickly within the decade.  Scientists discovered a substance called ADAM that gave people superpowers.  It was also highly addictive and made people unstable.  By the time Jack arrives in Rapture, there’s very few sane people left.  Everyone else is either dead, in hiding, or wandering around the city trapped in their ADAM addiction, out to kill anybody they consider an enemy- which is almost anyone they meet.

Since there aren’t many people left, Jack and the player find out about Rapture through two sources: a survivor named Atlas who guides you through the city via radio, and audio diaries left scattered around.  It’s like putting together a big puzzle.  John Shirley, author of Bioshock: Rapture, made his own attempt to put the pieces together.  While I did like it, it does have a few problems.

1) The Women

Apart from Sofia Lamb, the female characters do not get much to do in this book.  We get wonderful embellishments on Andrew Ryan, Frank Fontaine, and Bill McDonagh, but what about Brigid Tenenbaum?  She’s arguably one of the protagonists of the first game with a very interesting story arc.  Unfortunately, almost every thought or lengthy piece of dialogue that she has in the book comes straight from her audio diaries in the game, with no alterations.  Everyone else got some original dialogue for the book, so what happened with her?

But at least Dr. Tenenbaum got development.  That’s more than can be said for poor Dr. Julie Langford.  She’s an important character in the first game.  At the very least, she’s no more or less important than Dr. J.S. Steinman or Sander Cohen.  Langford joined Team Rapture as a botanist who developed the garden of Arcadia.  Arcadia provided oxygen to the people living in Rapture and peaceful place for them to visit.  Then Andrew Ryan deciding to start charging people to visit and even put a price on oxygen.  Julie Langford opposed these ideas, but ultimately let it slide because she didn’t want to lose her job.  Eventually she does switch sides to help Jack.

She gets one scene in the entire 400-page novel.  One scene.  Not only that, but it’s just a conversation between her and Bill about the problem with Andrew commercializing Arcadia.  In comparison, Sander Cohen pops up all over the book and Dr. Steinman gets several passages that take place from his perspective.  They’re not the main focus of the book or anything, but they get more to do than Julie Langford, one of the only allies that Jack finds in Bioshock.

We don’t get to see much of Jasmine Jolene except through Andrew Ryan’s eyes, despite the hints that she’s not as happy with him as he thinks.  Why did she “need the money so bad” that she made a shady deal with Fontaine, when Ryan was providing for her?  It’s implied that Fontaine worked on convincing her that Ryan wasn’t trustworthy, but there’s never any passages in the book from her perspective- and her deal with Fontaine is an extremely important moment in the plot.

Ryan’s other lover, Diane McClintock, gets treated better by the author, but her development’s not consistent with the audio diaries in the game.  She seems to be having second thoughts about Ryan and the way things are before the New Year’s attacks, but the game says that she changed her mind when she saw the attacks happening in Apollo Square after the New Year’s attacks.  I guess this one’s more of a personal grievance than anything else.  I just really liked the game’s version of her character.

I would’ve liked to have read some scenes from Anya Andersotter’s perspective too.  She wasn’t a huge character but she did try to kill Ryan after her daughter got turned into a Little Sister.  All she gets is a passing mention in the book.

2) The Audio Diaries

I like Shirley’s explanation for the diaries’ existence.  Andrew Ryan believes that Rapture will eventually reshape the world after the “parasites” in the American and Russian governments run it into the ground.  So he encourages the citizens of Rapture to record their thoughts and the events happening in their lives, for the sake of future generations.  That fits his character.

The book has scenes where the characters either listen to the audio diaries or record them, and those scenes mostly make sense in context.  However, there are other times where the characters’ dialogue is what they say in the audio diaries, except they’re not recording.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in certain scenes.  For example, here’s one of the audio diaries of Tenenbaum, as found in the game:

One of the children came and sat in my lap. I push her off, I shout, “Get away from me!” I can see the ADAM oozing out of the corner of her mouth, thick and green. Her filthy hair hanging in her face, dirty clothes, and that dead glow in her eye… I feel… hatred, like I never felt before, in my chest. Bitter, burning fury. I can barely breathe. And suddenly, I know, it is not this child I hate.

In the book, she says this word-for-word to Frank Fontaine, not in an audio diary.  Ignoring the fact that it doesn’t seem likely that a person would remember exactly what they said during a conversation and then record it verbatim later, I have trouble believing that Tenenbaum would be this open with Fontaine.  Why would she casually reveal to a gangster that she doesn’t like working for him anymore?  She’s not stupid.

I might not have cared as much if the audio diaries didn’t appear at all in the book.  Then, while I’d still be annoyed by a lack of original dialogue for Tenenbaum, it wouldn’t seem as  out of place.  It would feel like a shout-out to a game mechanic.    But since the audio diaries are included in the story, the act of inserting the words from those recordings into natural conversations comes off as lazy, especially in Tenenbaum’s case.  It’s like the author couldn’t come up with original dialogue for a particular scene, so he copied and pasted from the game.

3) Bringing It All Together

Shirley made the wise decision to combine the backstories of Bioshock and Bioshock 2 together.  After going through Jack’s nightmare trip in the first game, the second game picks up ten years later with a new villain who was supposedly always there in Rapture.  We just never heard anything about her even though she was such an important rival to Andrew Ryan.

The book covers Sofia Lamb’s arrival in Rapture and how she quickly falls out of favor with Ryan as she lays the foundation for her own schemes.  It’s all wonderfully written…but then it just ends.  Shirley only covers the story of Rapture from the time that Andrew Ryan starts laying the foundation to 1959, one year before Jack arrives.  This means that a lot of characters’ story arcs remain unfinished at the end.  Sofia Lamb succeeds in taking control of the place where she was being held as a political prisoner, and it looks like she’s about to reclaim her daughter and start some new plan…but it never goes anywhere within the book because her plans don’t come to fruition until Bioshock 2.

Frank Fontaine and Jack suffer from the same problem.  While I loved the way Frank was written in the book, his story basically ends after the shootout at Fontaine’s Fisheries.  The reader knows he had plans in motion that would continue after the attack, but nothing comes out of it.  He’s got this big con planned with Jack, and then Jack gets sent on the bathysphere in the middle of Part 3, and never reappears in the story.

The book just doesn’t work as a self-contained story because there are too many loose ends.  Brigid Tenenbaum rescues some of the Little Sisters and goes into hiding…then what?  Readers won’t find out unless they play the game.  What happens to Andrew Ryan and the rest of the people in the city?  We don’t know because those answers come when Jack shows up in the games.  What is Sofia Lamb planning to do with her daughter?  Will Frank Fontaine succeed in taking over the city?  Whatever happened to Sander Cohen?

Bill’s story wraps up nicely and the last scenes in the book are heart-wrenching.  But in regards to everyone else, if I hadn’t played the first game, I would’ve felt unsatisfied.

Okay, now for the things I liked:

Positive Stuff

First, as I alluded before, I loved Frank Fontaine’s story.  He’s a great villain and foil to Andrew Ryan.  He filled me with dread pretty much from the get-go.  Shirley doesn’t give him much of a backstory except for a few mentions of growing up in an orphanage, but it’s not needed.  Fontaine’s like Maleficent or the Joker where he’s menacing enough and compelling enough that no backstory is needed to make him an interesting character.

Bill McDonagh’s a good protagonist: a man who genuinely believes in Rapture and Ryan’s philosophy, but cannot turn a blind eye to the problems that appear as the city falls apart.  Now I wish that we’d seen more of him in the games.  I like his friendship with Ryan too.  On that note, I found myself sympathizing with Andrew Ryan against all odds.  He makes so many mistakes and hurts/kills a lot of people.  Yet it’s still sad to watch his dream fall apart, while he deludes himself into believing that Rapture will survive and everything will be fine.  Unlike Fontaine, he’s a complex villain and they play off of each other well.

Finally, there’s two minor characters that I enjoyed: Redgrave and Karlosky.  Both are loyal to Andrew Ryan and consider Bill a friend until Bill tries to leave Rapture.  Redgrave is an African-American constable and Karlosky is the Russian bodyguard of Andrew Ryan.

They’re good characters on their own, but I also love what they bring to the story of Rapture, though it’s only touched upon.  Like Bill, Redgrave feels loyal to Rapture because it’s given him opportunities that he wouldn’t have in America as a black man.  He also says that he likes Bill’s family because they’re the only white family that invites him over to dinner multiple times.

This raises so many interesting questions about society in Rapture that the game doesn’t discuss.  What are racial relations like in Rapture?  What about women, LGBT+ communities, and people with disabilities?  On the one hand, Rapture was founded specifically to do away with any rules, morals, or ethics that might hold a person back from whatever they wanted to do.  So, theoretically, there should be no problems with sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.  But how did that actually play out?  This story takes place in the 1950’s, when sexism, racism, and homophobia were part of the norm.  It’s not like people can just turn off their feelings when they move to a new environment.  I imagine there’d still be resentment felt by white people if/when a black person received a promotion over one of them.  They wouldn’t expect something like that to happen to them.

Sofia Lamb also brings up this issue when she first arrives in Rapture.  She compliments Ryan on his society because she thinks it presents a great opportunity for women.  Ryan’s reaction is pretty funny: he’s taken aback because the idea never occurred to him before.  But after thinking it over for a few seconds, he realizes that, yes, his society does allow women to advance if they work hard.

With Karlosky, it’s touched upon even less, but while he is a white man, he’s also from Russia, a country that’s at war with the United States.  Dr. Suchong comes from Japan, which just lost a war to the United States.  Brigid Tenenbaum used to work for the Nazis.  What kind of prejudice did they face?  Do people find them trustworthy?  It’s brought up every once a while in little ways, but not very much since the focus is on how Andrew’s society falls apart.

That would’ve been so interesting to explore in the games and I wish they’d had more minorities in the cast.  As it is, the book doesn’t go very deeply into the issue, but at least Shirley brings it up every once and a while.

So, all in all, I’m glad that I read Bioshock: Rapture, though it wasn’t quite on par with the game.  Someday, I would really love to see a movie or a television series adaptation that would show the backstory of the city alongside Jack’s adventure.  To the people who make movies and TV shows, would you kindly consider adapting Bioshock?

Believing in “The Polar Express”

Merry Christmas, everyone!  THIS IS MY REVIEW OF THE POLAR EXPRESS!  ALL ABOARD!

The Polar Express holds a special place in my heart, ever since my aunt read it to me one Christmas.  It’s a wonderful children’s book.  Yet, for one reason or another, I never got around to watching the movie the whole way through.  This year, I put my foot down, set a reminder in my iPhone, and tuned into Freeform’s 25 Days of Christmas to watch it.

As an adaptation, it obviously presents a different challenge than The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.  Those books were too long to fit completely into a movie’s typical running time.  The Polar Express is too short.  So, going into it, I knew the movie would have many additional scenes and would need to expand on the story beyond “a nameless boy visits the North Pole on Christmas Eve.”

Visually, this movie is PHENOMENAL.  It successfully captures the art style of Chris Van Allsburg, who wrote and illustrated the book.  The only big problem, which has brought up multiple times, is the character animation.  Their faces aren’t as expressive as they ought to be because of the limits of motion capture animation.  Although it does hurt the movie overall, you get used to it after a while.

Then we have the story and characters.  The movie begins with a subtle change from the book.  Instead of the boy ruminating about whether Santa’s real based on something his friend said, we see that he’s come to this conclusion on his own.  His parents wonder if this will be his last year believing, he’s collecting newspaper evidence in his room, and he tells his sister about his doubts instead of a friend telling him.

The book begins and ends with the question of belief in Santa Claus, while the middle focuses more on the journey and the amazing things that the children see. Movies generally provide some kind of problem that the protagonist needs to overcome. The problem in this movie fits the spirit of the book.  It’s a great adaptation decision.  I also like the little moment when the Polar Express passes a department store with a mechanical Santa, and the boy shakes his head.

Unfortunately, when the Polar Express arrived and the boy climbed aboard, that’s when I felt the film begin to drag.  Although I get that the screenwriters needed to add things to the plot, I wasn’t a fan of most of the additions.  I don’t know why, but I could feel this sense of padding throughout the film.  It felt like these scenes existed just to make the movie longer.  Moreover, The Polar Express didn’t need to be 100 minutes long.  Most Disney animated movies aren’t even that long.  I think it would’ve worked a lot better as a half-hour Christmas special, or even an hour.

Two scenes particularly bugged me: 1) the boy losing the girl’s ticket and 2) the boy and his friends getting lost in the North Pole.

First, the lead girl realizes that a lonely boy didn’t get his mug of hot chocolate, so she and the conductor go over to the next train car to give him one.  Then the lead boy notices the girl’s ticket on her seat and realizes that the conductor forgot to punch it.  So he takes the ticket, tries to cross over to the next train car to give it to them, and then the wind blows it out of his hands.

Why didn’t he just wait for them to come back?!?  There was absolutely no reason for him to leave the train car.  They came right back after delivering the hot chocolate.

Losing the ticket starts a chain reaction where it looks like the girl will get kicked off the train, the boy chases after her, and eventually finds out that the girl just got sent to work in the engine room.  So they get a front-row seat and a chance to help out when things go wrong on the train’s journey.  Therefore, the ticket scenes serves a purpose in the plot.  It’s just a weak way to get them from the train car to the engine room when the whole problem could have been so easily avoided.  I found it harder to get invested in the story as a result.

The second scene happens right after the train finally arrives in the North Pole.  The kids line up to meet Santa, and the boy and girl realize that the lonely boy, Billy, never left the train.  They decide to sneak back on board to convince Billy to come with them.  Unfortunately, the boy slips and accidentally hits something that separates the car from the rest of the train.  The car rolls away and they get lost in the city.

At this point, I’d gotten happily sucked back into the story, in awe over how good the North Pole looked, psyched that it was almost time for the scene where the boy meets Santa- and then groaned when I realized the kids had to face another long obstacle before they could get to the end of their journey.  Although I liked that they got to explore the North Pole and Santa’s workshop, I still felt like the sequence only existed to make the film longer.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

That said, the scenes where the kids tried to find their way back to the train introduced another positive change to the story.  The lead girl guides them based on the sound of sleigh bells- but she’s the only one who can hear them.  Eventually, Billy hears them too.  But the boy can’t.  Even after experiencing so many magical adventures, he can’t decide whether he truly believes in Santa or not. He wants to believe, but he’s afraid of being disappointed.  So it feels all the more triumphant when he finally declares that he believes, shakes the bell, and hears it ring.

For the record, I also love the song, “Hot Chocolate.”  It’s still padding, but unlike some of those other aforementioned scenes, it’s so much fun that I don’t care.  The song’s really catchy and the impossible choreography of the waiters is cool to watch.  Plus, the kids do drink delicious hot chocolate on the train, so it’s faithful to the book.

(Gif found on GIPHY)

Overall, The Polar Express makes a decent attempt to adapt a beautiful picture book, and while I think it’s flawed and doesn’t come close to the book, it’s worth watching once or twice at Christmas.  I will always believe in the book!

Dracula: Dead and Loving It

Wow.

It’s hard to believe, but at the end of the day, the most faithful version of Jonathan Harker came from the parody of the Dracula movies.  Can you explain zat?  I cannot explain zat.  NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN ZAT!

But yeah.  After watching two movies and a television series that portray Dracula as a sexy beast who just wants to be loved, I get to watch a movie that makes fun of that idea, and boy does that feel refreshing!  Unfortunately, Dracula: Dead and Loving It doesn’t take the opportunity to also do justice to Mina’s character.  But at this point, I will take whatever I can get.

Adaptation-wise, this one’s a unique entry because it’s an adaptation of Stoker’s novel but also an adaptation of the Dracula movies, in a way.  Do parodies count as adaptations?  Eh, I say they do. They’re certainly not original stories.  They’re just a different kind of adaptation- taking the story and making changes to it that kind of examine and poke fun of it.  Like A Very Potter Musical, this movie doesn’t come off as mean-spirited, which is good.  It’s not as funny as Team Starkid’s parodies (and oh, how I would love to see Team Starkid do a parody of Dracula), but I enjoyed it.

It starts out following the same story beats as the 1931 film: Renfield goes to Transylvania to help Dracula move to Carfax Abbey instead of Jonathan.  The villagers warn him not to go and he ignores them.  He meets Dracula, who creeps him out, they go over the purchase, Dracula gets excited when his guest gets a paper cut, the Brides visit Renfield at night, etc.

There are references to the Coppola version too, namely, Dracula’s ridiculous wig and his attempts to turn Mina into his bride.  Also, unlike the 1931 film, this movie draws out Lucy’s illness and includes the part of the plot where she dies, becomes a vampire, and gets staked.  After that, the plot reverts back to the 1931 movie except for a new scene at a ball.  But even the ball is just a version of the mirror scene on a bigger, funnier scale.

The climax happens in London, not Transylvania.  Luckily, it’s a lot more dramatic than the Lugosi one, involving a battle between Dracula, Van Helsing, Jonathan, and Dr. Seward.  And instead of fleeing every time Van Helsing holds up anything resembling garlic or a crucifix, Dracula actually fights back and almost wins!  Seriously.  How come the films that are trying to be dramatic and frightening let the heroes stomp all over him and the parody is the one that pits them against each other almost like equals?  How?

NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN ZAT.

Although the movie pokes fun at Jonathan’s chastity, he’s nothing like the 1931 or 1992 versions of his character.  Instead of challenging everything that Van Helsing says, he tells Dr. Seward that even if he’s not sure what he believes about vampires, he wants to watch over Lucy’s grave just in case the professor might be right.  Dr. Seward becomes the one who questions everything (and he’s back to being Mina’s father).  That’s actually more accurate to the book because Dr. Seward still had doubts after seeing Lucy disappear and reappear in her coffin.

I love the scene where Undead Lucy tries to seduce Jonathan in the graveyard.  It’s funny its own, but after watching the episode in the TV series where Lucy successfully cheated with Jonathan, it became so much more beautiful to watch her fail miserably in the movie.  She may be undead, but he’s “not un-engaged,” as he puts it.  That’s right, Mr. Harker, you aren’t!

Mel Brooks is very entertaining as Prof. Van Helsing.  He acts more like a parody of the movie versions of Van Helsing than the book version, since there’s nothing about him that comes exclusively from the book.  He’s zany, like you’d expect from a parody, but he’s also kind-hearted and passionate about defeating Dracula.

Peter MacNichol does a very impressive impersonation of Dwight Frye’s Renfield.  He has some funny scenes, i.e. trying to convince Dr. Seward that he doesn’t eat bugs as he’s eating them.  But unfortunately (probably because it’s a parody) we don’t get to see Renfield’s cunning here, the way we did in the book and a bit in the 1931 film.  Here, he’s just an “imbecile,” as Van Helsing puts it.

Leslie Nielsen would not be the person I’d imagine in the role of Dracula, but he does a great job.  His facial expressions when things don’t go his way are hilarious and I like all of the jokes where his attempts to hypnotize people go wrong.  He schemes to turn Mina and Lucy into vampires but also seems to genuinely enjoy the times when he socializes with regular people.  He’s a nice exaggerated form of Dracula.

Sadly, there’s not much to say about Mina and Lucy.  It’s a shame; Mel Brooks could have gone farther and poked fun at the differences between Mina in the movies and Mina in the books.  He could’ve had Mina constantly suggest the right thing to do, only for the men to talk over her and then decide to try her suggestion.  He could’ve shown her fighting back when Dracula kidnaps her and holding up just fine until the rest of the heroes showed up, to everyone’s shock (especially Dracula’s).  He could’ve gone the Blazing Saddles route to mock sexism the way he mocked racism.

Nonetheless, I appreciate what he did for poor Jonathan’s character and I think it’s a pretty funny movie.  I recommend checking it out.  However, I also recommend reading the book or watching one of the movies first.  Otherwise, it’s difficult to appreciate all of the jokes.

And so ends Dracula Month!  HUZZAH!  Thank you to those of you who read all of these posts!

 

Dracula: The Series

The very first scene of the very first episode shows Professor Abraham Van Helsing breaking into Dracula’s tomb with a partner.  Then he murders his partner and uses the man’s blood to revive Count Dracula, saying, “The blood is the life.  You must be so thirsty.”

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

In case you haven’t read the book or any of my other Dracula posts, here’s a synopsis of the book, by Bram Stoker.  A vampire named Count Dracula decides to move from Transylvania to London so that he can drink the blood of the millions of unsuspecting people.  Jonathan, a solicitor who just passed his exam, comes to help him with the move, and gradually figures out that he’s dealing with a vampire.  Dracula imprisons him and then goes to London, where he attacks a woman named Lucy who happens to be best friends with Jonathan’s fiancé, Mina.  One thing leads to another and a group of people connected to Lucy come together to hunt the vampire before he kills again.

The plot of the TV series goes like this: Dracula moves to London with his manservant, R.M. Renfield, posing as an American businessman named Alexander Grayson.  To the rest of British society, he’s an egotistical genius trying to make electric light a viable source of energy.  Little do they know that he’s actually a vampire who wants to use his resources to bring down the group that turned him into a monster in the first place: the Order of the Dragon.  Meanwhile, Dracula meets a woman named Mina who is studying to be a doctor and realizes that she looks and sounds exactly like a reincarnation of his dead wife.  Although he doesn’t want to put her in danger and she’s engaged to Jonathan, they fall in love.

Can this truly be considered an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel when it’s got almost nothing in common with the source material?  They both take place in London and they both involve characters named Count Dracula, Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, Van Helsing, Lucy, and Renfield.  They both contain the lines, “The blood is the life!” and “Welcome to my house! Come freely.  Go safely.  And leave something of the happiness that you bring.” (Ooo, one of my favorite lines!  I’m not joking- despite everything else that they threw out, the writers included one of my favorite lines from the book!)

That’s it.

Can you imagine Warner Bros. trying to do something like this with Harry Potter?  They’d never get away with it.

I planned to go on a full-scale, “Bat Credit Card” level rant about this show, but now I’m both burnt out by Dracula Month and feeling guilty about hating something that so many people worked hard on for so long.  If you’re not a passionate fan of the book, you may simply enjoy it on its own terms, as a television show.  I just can’t enjoy it because I love Stoker’s character so much, and they got so warped and twisted in the following ways:

  • Van Helsing and Dracula are allies.  They’re not friends, but again, Van Helsing is the one who brings the Count back to life and endangers countless people for a revenge plot against the Order that murdered his family.  All of the obvious issues aside, book!Van Helsing didn’t have any kids.  He alluded that he was married to a woman who was mentally ill, but doesn’t give her name or anything else about her.
  • Lucy is a manipulative, selfish jerk.  She’s also in love with Mina.  So she gets Jonathan to cheat on Mina with her in the hopes of breaking up their engagement.  I hate these types of story arcs almost as much as I hate the trope where someone tries to blackmail the murderer in a mystery.  Amazingly, this plan doesn’t work!  Mina finds out and she never wants to see Lucy again!
  • Renfield doesn’t appear to have any mental illness.  He’s basically Dracula’s right-hand man.  While I do like his character in the context of the show, it’s a shame that this changed because the book version of Renfield was so much more complex and interesting.
  • Arthur, Seward, and Quincey don’t appear at all.  Lucy flirts with a guy named Alistair, but we never find out much about him.  To be fair, Coppola’s version showed that having all three suitors won’t necessarily improve the film if they aren’t given enough to distinguish themselves.  But in a TV series, the writers would have had more time to flesh them out, so it’s a shame that they got left out.
  • Dracula comes across as a progressive who values Mina’s independence and intelligence.  Jonathan doesn’t appreciate her enough. Their wedding almost gets called off when she overhears him bragging to his friends about how he plans to turn her into a good little housewife and end her medical career after they get married.  He does feel bad about it afterwards, but UGH.
  • Van Helsing finally gets his revenge by kidnapping the children of one of his enemies and then turning them into vampires.  He whistles happily to himself as he prepares to send a ransom note to the grieving parents.
  • Mina is in love with Dracula and the reincarnation of his dead wife.  The book did not mention a dead wife (except the three undead brides, who don’t appear in the show), and Mina wasn’t a reincarnation of anyone related to Dracula.

My friend Alie suggested that we refer to this Van Helsing as “What the Hel-Sing” instead. I’ve continued the trend with “Non-athan Harker” and “Renfake.” If anyone’s got clever versions of Mina and Lucy’s names, I’m all ears. Dracula can just keep being Alexander Grayson.

I will say this: I found that I can sort-of tolerate the Dracula/Mina romance in the TV show more than I can in the Langella and Oldman versions. That’s because “Alexander Grayson” doesn’t resemble Count Dracula at all, aside from being a vampire who has no problems with killing people to get what he wants. He doesn’t turn Lucy into a vampire until the penultimate episode, and only after finding out that she broke Mina’s heart. He even decides to sacrifice his own desires to help Mina and Jonathan patch up their relationship earlier in the season. There’s no scene where he drags Mina off into a corner. He’s always polite to her and she responds with enthusiasm. They just aren’t the Dracula and Mina from Stoker’s novel.

There’s also a major new character introduced to the story, Lady Jayne.  She’s a member of the Order of the Dragon who is hunting Dracula.  She doesn’t know that Dracula is actually the man that she loves, Alexander Grayson.  It’s nice to see another female character, but she reflects how much the plot changed from book to TV.  I can’t really evaluate how well she fits in Stoker’s universe because it’s not Stoker’s universe.  At least she’s not a badly-written character or anything.

The sets look very nice, it’s well-acted, and the music’s fine.  But it’s a horrible adaptation of the book.  The writers might as well have changed all of the characters’ names and nobody would’ve guessed that it had anything to do with Count Dracula or Bram Stoker.