The Movies-to-Watch List: Night of the Hunter (1955)

I don’t know what I was expecting from Night of the Hunter, but it wasn’t what I got. What’s there is a fascinatingly bizarre movie with weird tonal changes, a single riveting performance, and absolutely surreal scenes.

Robert Mitchum is amazing, and not just because the other performances around him are kind of wanting (the kid that plays John isn’t too bad, though Pearl is hopeless.) He enters the movie absolutely off his nut and just keeps going from there, and it’s fantastic. It’s also nice that he wastes no time in being a bad guy. We don’t have to have an extended, “Uhoh, is he what he seems?” bit because no, he’s not, and you know it and I know it so let’s not dither around. And as a bonus, he’s creepy in so many ways. His wedding night speech to Shelley Winters is scary as hell. Just a wonderful character, done absolutely right.

The movie is also interesting for the amount of just plain weirdness to it. As I said, there are some odd tonal shifts and some strange moments, such as the “Pretty Fly” song that kind of comes out of nowhere. The scene with John and Pearl in the barn and Powell on the horizon hovers on a border between amateur theater and German Expressionism and yet completely works.

This was a riveting movie and I’m glad to have finally seen it.

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Shriekback: Without Real String or Fish

I’ve been listening to Shriekback for about thirty years now. It’s the only band, of all my favorites, that I still keep up with. If it exists as an mp3, I have it as an mp3. And yet, I have learned something that I was simply not aware of all this time.

I got into the band just before the release of Big Night Music, and by then founding member Carl Marsh had left. I didn’t know much about the backstory or the history of the band — there weren’t too many articles about them and besides, I don’t usually care. Alls I knew was Barry Andrews of the bald head and basso voice, Dave Allen of the Factual bass, and Martyn Barker of the skipping rimshots. There were guitarists, Mike Cozzi and Lu Edmonds and such, but as far as I knew and concerned, that was the band. Later, as members would come and go and Barry Andrews stayed put, as far as I was concerned he was Shriekback.

I didn’t know until fairly recently (when BA started blogging on Tumblr) that the voice I loved on the early records was not his but Carl’s. Who was also responsible for many of the lyrics. Here I was, uberfan supreme, and I had no idea how much Marsh had contributed to the band I knew. I feel kind of dumb but alas, here we are.

And here we are on album #13, Without Real String or Fish, and it’s Barry and Carl and Martyn, and if you’re tempted to do a knee-jerk comparison of this album to those of three decades ago, it starts with “Now Those Days Are Gone” to aid or frustrate you.

Frustrate a little, yes, because while the band’s musical styles have always been all over the map, the one fixed point that tethered it was the smooth bass voice of Andrews or Marsh, always sounding like that character in the movie who’s trying just a little too hard to assure you he’s got your best interests as heart. Even when let loose on “Running on the Rocks” or “Suck” there was still a cool firmness to it. Here, though, on a few of the songs, the vocals are harsher, more jagged, and it’s disconcerting. It sounds like mortality. It’s not on all of the songs, just a few, so it sneaks up on you.

Musically, after the big stompy opening track, things settle down a little. In this current era of the band I’ve come to really like the slow, moody songs, and this album provides several. “Soft Estate” and “Horrors of the Deep” are quite good, but “Ammonia Tree” is absolutely off the charts. For the heavier tunes there’s “Recessive Jean” and the sprawling, anthemic “Beyond Metropolis” (If “parthenogenesis” in a pop song impressed you, you’ll want to bolt your hat on your head for this one.) There’s also the disconcertingly bizarre “Woke Up Wrong” which fascinates as it disturbs.

The final two tracks, “And Everything Like That” and “Bernadette” are the only two that just don’t work for me. In the case of the former, I can’t really put my finger on why, but for the latter the vocals sound a bit like Ringo McCartney can’t quite figure out if he’s serious or not. It’s a lovely song and I think deserves another take.

As with nearly every Shriekback album of the past ten years or so, I’ve had to give it a few listens before I really appreciated it. I was uncertain at first but now I’m well sold on it.

If you’d like a copy, you can order it here.

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I Played That! #3: Ultima III, II, and I (C64, PC)

If there is a single game that formed the basis of my videogame interests, it’s Ultima III. I can’t overstate how influential it was to me. Once I played it, there was no turning back, and that’s kind of an unfortunate thing.

Ultima III: Exodus had it all. It was a graphical, colorful adventure on a large map, with all kinds of secrets hidden on it. It teased you with views of places you couldn’t get to yet, and it hid things from you in clever ways. It was also just plain fun. You had a party with different skills, a bunch of spells and weapons, you could fight on ships, steal from merchants (I had looting the town of Dawn down to an art form), explore dungeons…there was just so much going on. I played it over and over.

It could also be brutal. Every now and then it would spawn a monster that your party was simply not strong enough to fight yet, and if you couldn’t get to a ship to blast it with cannons, you were out of luck. This could easily kill the game for you and dampen your enthusiasm, but it never got me down.

As its name implies, Ultima III is the third part of a trilogy. When I played it, I hadn’t played the others (hence, my ordering of them above), but that didn’t matter. All you needed to know was that the villains from the first two, Mondain and Minax, had an evil offspring called “Exodus” and you gotta stop it. Boom, now you’re all caught up. Nothing from the previous games really carried over, so the backstory wasn’t important.

Eventually I did play Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, which was something of a different experience. First off, I got this one (as I did with Exodus) pirated, and the files for it were somewhat corrupted in the process. As a result, there were weird glitches all over the map, including a “bridge” of castles connecting two landmasses and an infinite supply of boats. So it was kind of tough to play it as intended.

Secondly, Ultima II is just kind of bizarre. It takes place in different eras, some of which are more or less on Earth. At one point you’re in the Soviet Union, where “WARREN BEATTY ASKS: HAVE YOU SEEN DIANE KEATON?” So that’s a sort of thing that happens. It still has a lot to impress: there are still dungeons, secrets, flying a spaceship, dying of starvation instantly, so it has a lot to offer, but after the more focused plot of Ultima III it was a bit off-putting. I still, however, can recite from memory the poem that you piece together through the game.

I mention that I pirated these two; I more than made up for that later. Eventually Origin released “The Complete Ultima”, which contained the first three games with relatively upgraded graphics. Not only did I finally buy the things, I got to play Ultima II as intended and Ultima I at all. I don’t remember much about that first one, though. (I also re-bought them via GOG.com.)

Ultima III is the jewel in that particular crown, and it’s old-fashioned keep-a-notebook-and-pencil-handy-to-take-notes role-playing gaming at its finest. And what would come after it was even better, but that — and why I describe my love for the series as “unfortunate” above — is a story for another time.

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Aiding and Abetting

There’s a thing going on in the comics Internet that doesn’t really need another voice throwing in on, but since this is my little corner, let me address the part that directly pertains to me.

The very least a person can sometimes do is tell a friend, “Hey, you’re being a jerk and you need to knock it off.” I was in that situation and, instead of doing that, I enabled the person.

I’m sorry that I did that. It’s a small but important thing, and I got it wrong.

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I Played That! #2: Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II (PC)

Baldur’s Gate came out in 1998 after something of a dry spell for me, game-wise. The types of role-playing games I enjoyed, which I’ll talk about later, had been coming out less and less frequently, pushed off the shelves by swarms of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games, neither of which interested me much. (It was actually not the first such game to break this fast, and we’ll talk about that one in time as well.)

Baldur’s Gate absolutely blew me away. It was beautiful to look at, had tons of equipment, spells, characters, and locations, and a pretty decent plot. The mix of real-time and paused combat was a gift to me, who simply couldn’t handle most RTS games. I was playing D&D around this time, so the subject matter was interesting to me as well (though I had never followed any of the “Forgotten Realms” stuff, so the references to characters and organizations there were completely lost on me).

In 2000 Interplay released Baldur’s Gate II, and it was even better. The engine had been updated greatly, and the story was actually very very good, one of the best RPG stories I’ve encountered.

These games really returned role-playing games — as opposed to cartoons with slime-fighting in-between episodes — to the landscape. The games were developed by Black Isle Studios, and I’ll be talking about every single game they released before they went belly-up in 2003, leaving this promising field to go fallow.

In 2012 an “enhanced edition” of Baldur’s Gate was released, which I bought immediately and then didn’t really play. I’d started it twice but both times didn’t get too far into it. Part of this is because, in retrospect, Baldur’s Gate has a really slow beginning. It’s really hard to keep up your momentum during Non-Stop Xvart Attack. It’s also kind of punishing; one of the first quests you get is to clear spiders out of a guy’s house and they will wreck you over and over.

A month or so ago I took another crack at it and made it through the Xvart of the Storm and got going on the main plot, eventually finishing it. Coming at it fifteen(!) years later reveals a certain amount of nostalgia seasoning my memories of Baldur’s Gate. While still nothing to complain about, my memories had smoothed over some of the rough patches. Not only is the plot slow, it’s really hard to figure out what quests you’re still on and where you need to go for them, an the vast amount of spells, potions, weapons, and loot make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams nearly immediately, especially since you only need a fraction of them. There’s also the fact that the 2nd-edition Dungeons and Dragons rules make everything more opaque than necessary; this potion will raise your intelligence to 18, but what does that mean? What will this help me do?

On the other hand, I finished the game with more or less the first people you meet for companions, despite there being loads of others. There were quests I never went on, and places on the map I never visited. There’s a lot more packed into this game that I’ve barely touched, even after three plays (I’ve had the exact same party every time). So there’s at least one more play of it here for me.

And not only that, I’ve bought the complete Baldur’s Gate II from GOG.com, and will be starting that up again soon.

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RIP Terry Pratchett

Author Terry Pratchett died yesterday. I never really read any of his books, but most of my friends have, and are devastated. It wasn’t unexpected. Pratchett was a victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s. The same disease that killed my mother, at roughly the same age.

The drawing above is by pal Dave H..

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The Movies-to-Watch List: Barton Fink (1991)

I like a lot of Coen Brothers movies, and I try to take notice of when there’s a new one, but I don’t know that I’d call myself a huge fan. There are ones I like a bunch (Fargo, Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou?), ones I’ve seen and don’t really think much about (The Man Who Wasn’t There, Blood Simple, Burn After Reading), and ones I’m just not interested in seeing (Inside Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis). Last year I finally saw The Big Lebowski, which I enjoyed, and now I’ve finally seen the one I hadn’t yet watched and was most interested in trying out.

Barton Fink gets a lot of play from Coen fans and not much of anyone else. It seems to be an oddball even among a collection of oddballs, but it sounded like it might be something I’d really like. In the end, though, it was kind of just…there…for me.

It’s the story of a leftist intellectual writer going to Hollywood to write movies, in defiance of his “art for the common man” stance. The joke is that Fink has no interest in actual common men, but like a lot of the notes in this movie, it’s obvious from the get-go and nothing much is ever done with it. Hollywood also receives some venom but again, it’s the same old Hollywood “Hollywood” we’ve seen a dozen times. A stand-in for William Faulkner slumming it at the studios goes just about as expected from such a thing. The Coens are usually tricky and subversive but everything here is pretty much by the numbers.

When things take an expected unexpected turn, it gets a little more interesting, but even that plays out without too many surprises and little point. The revelation about John Goodman’s character, while well-played by Goodman, doesn’t really do much of anything other than clumsily drive home the “Barton doesn’t care about common men” joke that’s already been going on for over an hour.

There’s some really great stuff in here. The character of the hotel where Fink is staying is fantastic, and one can see the Earle and the Overlook hanging out together. There’s a great apocalyptic feel to the place, especially at the end, but in service to what? We already get that this is Hell for Fink, so why make it literal? And then why give us the two codas of the predictable rejection of his script and seeing the real-life beach girl, while still toting the “mysterious” box.

Maybe I was expecting too much, but Barton Fink didn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie so much as a film school movie by someone who’d watched a few of their films. It felt clumsy and obvious, two things I almost never feel about their movies. It’s pretty to look at, though.

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I Played That! #1: Impossible Mission (C64)

A recurring character in this series will be Joe. Joe was my fix for Commodore 64 games. His family had moved to New Orleans from elsewhere, and in elsewhere he’d been part of a group of software crackers and pirates. He regularly got new games from his old crowd and traded disks of them to me for Star Wars figures for his little brother. As I was moving from toys to computers, this was a good trade for me. Impossible Mission was one I got from Joe.

This was a platform game where you were a spy searching an evil villain’s compound for parts of a password that would stop an impending missile launch by said villain. The rooms were randomly generated and patrolled by robots with different types of patrol moves. You had to navigate the rooms, figure out how to get past the robots, and search each item. It was also timed, which added to the intensity. It was a great game.

It was also memorable for the electronic voice of the bad guy.

He’d also pop up from time to time to urge, “Destroy him, my robots!”

Impossible Mission wasn’t impossible, but it was tough. I played and played and would sometimes get close but just couldn’t beat it. Finally one day I triumphed!

I called Joe to tell him the good news and he revealed that he too had just finally beat it. And the weird thing was, from that point on, the game became “Possible Mission” for me. I could now beat it just about every time. It wasn’t that I found the trick or sussed out a strategy, just for some reason I could now do it. Perhaps it was some kind of hundredth monkey thing.

Impossible Mission was released by Epyx in 1984, and a sequel came out in 1988, but those four short years were an age in my life. By that time I was no longer on my C64 and I had lost touch with Joe. I never played it.

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