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Pre-Tucson Odds And Ends

November 5th, 2007

I’m off to Tucson first thing tomorrow morning for a public TV conference, so I thought I’d blog about a few loose ends before I take off.

Loose end #1: The Writers’ Guild strike. I’m not usually pro-union, but I think this is one case in which labor action is justified. TV on DVD is a huge revenue stream for the studios, but the writers have been screwed out of their share; now, it appears the same might happen with online streaming.

If this goes on for any length of time, it’s going to massively suck for both the networks and the viewers. Broadcast TV networks have already seen double-digit decreases in many of their headline series this season, and an interruption in the flow of new scripted material will only further drive audiences to other entertainment alternatives.

All of the late-night comedy/talk series are going into immediate rerun mode, which means that we’ll miss out on The Daily Show‘s take on this very political season. Meanwhile, many scripted comedies and dramas are only partially into their production seasons, which could mean that they’ll only have eight-to-ten episodes in the can. That’s going to play hell with all those year-long serialized story arcs.

The upside–for me–is that public TV might actually stand to gain some audience from all this.

Loose end #2: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was clearing out my DVR queue this weekend and finally watched Tim Burton’s remake of the ’70s film.

I will admit my biases up front: I adore the original, I think it’s arguably the best thing Gene Wilder ever did, and I didn’t see any need for a remake. Plus, I got over my Tim Burton infatuation around the time of Mars Attacks!.

Therefore, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I didn’t care for it very much. It didn’t rape my childhood, as I feared, but neither did it gel into anything very engaging. I’m stunned that it seemed to rate so highly with critics.

The chief problem is the portrayal of Willy Wonka. The character, portrayed by Gene Wilder as a manic enigma, is reconceptualized as a pale, socially-retarded Michael Jackson type, left so scarred by his domineering father that he shuns family relationships and even human contact. Johnny Depp underplays the part, rarely seeming as he’s having much fun showing off his marvelous factory.

When the film was released, much was made of the notion that it would be much more faithful to the book than the original. Certainly, that’s true in such sequences as the boat trip on the chocolate river and Veruca Salt’s peril at the paws of an army of nut-shelling squirrels. The Oompa Loompa song lyrics are straight out of Roald Dahl’s text.

Yet, as I mentioned, Wonka now has a backstory about his borderline-abusive dentist father (Christopher Lee). This changes the lesson of the book: instead of a polemic against bratty children, it becomes a cozy story about the importance of family. Gag me with an Everlasting Gobstopper.

One problem that both films had to address was that the book’s title hero wins solely by attrition; Charlie is the last kid standing after the others fall victim to Wonka’s confectionary booby-traps. He doesn’t succeed so much as fail to fail.

The original movie gets around this by offering Charlie a moment of temptation. Wonka tests the boy by giving him an opportunity to sell out his secrets to a rival company, yet Charlie stands by his principles even in light of his family’s desperate poverty.

In the remake, Charlie initially turns down Wonka’s offer of the chocolate factory because the family-phobic candyman won’t allow him to bring his parents and grandparents along, a decision which causes Wonka to rethink his relationship with his own dad, and…what? Was I asleep?

One thing the remake misses is that the reason for Wonka’s contest isn’t merely that he’s a childless man who wants an heir. To replace him, Wonka wants someone young, imaginative and–most importantly–willing to run the place exactly as he himself has done. Both the book and the original adaptation are clear on this: an adult would want to operate things his or her way, but a child would continue to run the factory according to Wonka’s peculiar worldview.

One thing that’s kind of a wash is that the remake includes the scene from the book depicting the final fate of the bratty kids: alive, yet in some cases physically changed by their experience. Violet the blueberry is dejuiced but retains her coloration, and shrunken Mike Teevee is stretched out too far, becoming unnaturally tall and thin. That’s fine, I guess, but I liked the uncertainty of the first film, which left it to us to decide if Wonka had really killed them off.

Loose end #3: The Simpsons video game. I traded in some stuff at Gamestop this weekend and had enough credit for a copy of the new release. The reviews have said that it’s a mediocre platformer, but that it has a lot of humor for fans of the show. Considering how much fun I had with all the in-jokes in The Simpsons Hit & Run, I figured it was worth a try.

Well, so far, the humor is there, but the gameplay and story are lacking. Three levels in, and there really doesn’t seem to be a plot so much as a series of random challenges. In one, I’m trying to stop the bullies from ransacking the natural history museum, and in another, I’m in a food-consuming running race. And I don’t know why.

Worst is the virtual “camera” that follows the action. I would’ve thought that by now video game programmers would have figured how to keep it from getting hung up on walls and other obstacles. None of these things really exist, so why is the camera blocked by them? I can’t tell you how many times I failed a crucial jump because the viewing angle changed in mid-air.

Furthermore, something happened to me last night that has never, ever happened in all my years of gameplay: I got seriously motion sick. I’m not entirely sure why; my best guess is that I’ve having to spin the camera around so much to get a decent angle on the action that it’s messing with my head. But it happened twice yesterday, and both times it took me a good hour to stop wanting to hurl.

On the plus side, all the familiar voices are there and a lot of what they have to say is funny. Plus, the linking sequences are all cel animation created specifically for the game, so that’s pretty cool.

Still, you might need a barf bag for this trip to Springfield.

Well, that’s enough randomness for today. Back in town Saturday!

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