Archive | October 2019

Retro Recaps: Amazing Stories – The Pumpkin Competition

Retro Recaps is where we will look back at old television episodes from the past, and analyze their story, content, and much more.

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Though only lasting two seasons, Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories, left an impression on my young mind many years later. While I didn’t have fond memories of the two episodes he directed, there were others that left little bits of residue in my youthful brain.

One of them, was a tale of the saintly and the selfish, that seemed to have a little bit of author Roald Dahl thrown into it’s storyline.

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The 32nd Yarborough County Fair is about to end another successful year. This time, the judges for the annual pumpkin contest have chosen Mildred McMinamin (June Lockhart) as 1st place winner!

However, the announcement is met by a sharp ‘NO’ from the audience, as wealthy local Elma Dinnock (Poly Holiday), cuts through the crowd and storms onto the stage. Elma claims that since she has not won in the 21 years she’s been entering the contest, it must be fixed (even though we see in one moment, that Mildred’s pumpkin is bigger than Elma’s).

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Her tirade is interrupted by Mildred, who claims her failure to win is due to the angry woman’s stingy nature. Elma owns half the county and has foreclosed on a number of people’s properties, and Mildred has decided to have her say in the matter.

“To be rewarded in life, Elma,” lectures Mildred, “one must give. Whether you’re raising vegetables or raising children.”

The words do nothing to change the old woman’s feelings, and she storms off the stage.ASTPC-1

Returning home, Elma is perturbed when a man named Bertram Carver (J.A. Preston) shows up at her doorstep. She quickly demands this ‘salesman’ leave, but allows him in when he says he can help her win next year’s competition.

Mr Carver claims he’s a professor of agriculture, and is working on finding a way to help end world hunger. Naturally, Elma cares nothing about the plight of the hungry, and wants him to get to the point.

It is then that Mr Carver pulls out a large green object the size of bowling ball. Cutting off a piece of it, he gives it to Elma to eat. When she claims that it ‘tastes like a pea,’ he confirms her observation.

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Bertram has created a formula to enlarge fruits and vegetables, but needs $10,000 to finish his research. He is willing to give some of his formula to help Elma, if she will give him the money he needs.

Elma’s desire to win gets the better of her, and she goes to her secret safe. However, she retrieves only $5,000, claiming it is all she can spare Mr Carver. The cash-starved botanist reluctantly takes the money, and gives the miserly woman a flask and some instructions.

As growing season begins, Elma plants a pumpkin seed with the formula, but over a period of days, nothing happens. Just when she is ready to sue Mr Carver for false advertising, she awakens one morning to the sounds of breaking wood! Rushing out to her backyard, she finds that an enormous pumpkin has sprouted in her garden!ASTPC-3

Shortly afterward, she goes to sign up for the 33rd annual pumpkin competition, and runs into Mildred.

Mildred claims her pumpkin is bigger than last year’s, and says she is telling Elma this to not only save her from disappointment, but also paying the entry fee (since the miserly woman hates to part with money).

This concern causes Elma to laugh and she proposes a wager: everything she has (her estate and savings) against everything Mildred has (a small trailer-home and meager finances). Her goading gets Mildred to consider, and she smiles at the nervous expression that washes over her opponent’s face.

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“Mildred,” she says, “do your friends really believe all that about, ‘blessed be the givers?'”

“I’m sure they do,” says a shaken Mildred.

“Good,” smiles Elma, “since you’ll be asking them to give you a place to stay!”

Elma then attempts to hire a local moving service to transport her pumpkin to the fair, but finds they are unavailable. Forced to get creative with time running out, she uses railroad spikes and rope to attach the pumpkin to her car, before driving off.ASTPC-5

However, the friction of the pumpkin against the road soon causes chunks of it to tear off over the course of the trip, leaving a sloppy trail behind the car.

By the time Elma has reached the fair, the pumpkin is 1/3 it’s original size…and Mildred has won for the second year in a row! Naturally, Elma throws a fit, claiming that hers is the biggest pumpkin there.

“Obviously, you haven’t seen this year’s entries,” chuckles the judge.

Opening a door behind the main stage, Elma is shocked to see numerous pumpkins…each as large as the one she grew!

“Quite amazing, really,” says Mildred. “A professor asked us for $5,000 to complete his research to end hunger. Of course, we all gave, and in return, he gave us his growth formula!”

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We then see Elma shaking on the ground, realizing that her greed has not only cost her the contest, but also the bet she made with Mildred…all because she couldn’t truly “give.”

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And that was The Pumpkin Competition.

This was one of those episodes that I only saw once, but remembered in bits and pieces. Most of my memories had to do with the enormous pumpkin of Elma’s, from it being dragged behind her car to it’s final ‘ruined state’ (though in my mind, the drive was longer, and there was less of the pumpkin when she arrived).

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There was also a scene I recalled, where Elma drives past a family changing a flat tire on their car. A boy in the car starts freaking out about ‘the great pumpkin,’ to which his Mom claims he’s “too old for fairy tales.”

When it comes to the characters in the episode, Elma Dinnock is our main focus. Played by actress Poly Holiday, many had already seen her play a somewhat similar character, in Joe Dante’s Gremlins…which also seemed to be an offshoot of Miss Gulch from the 1939 Wizard of Oz film. Just like Gulch, Holiday’s character roles were wealthy people who sneered down their noses at being “insulted” by those they felt below them. Though in the case of her character in this episode, she lived to be tormented by her decisions.

Strangely, Holiday’s portrayal of Elma feels a little less abrasive than one would assume. It almost feels like they hold back from making her too much of a caricature, though they do hammer over our heads just how obsessed she is with money in a few scenes.

There even comes a minor character moment when Mildred is lecturing Elma. When she mentions ‘raising vegetables or children,’ this causes the old woman to gasp. It could be possible that due to unforeseen circumstances in her life, Elma may have wanted to have a family and children, but being denied such things, turned her attention to more ‘monetary pursuits.’

June Lockhart’s Mildred is the straight-arrow of the piece, taking us back to her roles as the mother figure in the TV series Lassie, and Lost in Space. Her character isn’t wealthy like Elma, but she gets by well enough on her beliefs, and has a grandmotherly quality to her line deliveries.

Just like in episodes of The Twilight ZoneThe Pumpkin Competition is a story that shows someone being a greedy jerk, and getting their comeuppance.

Elma’s stinginess ends up being her downfall, when we find out she could have won the contest had she just paid Mr Carver the full $10,000 he asked for.

Of course, one has to wonder if he offered the formula to the rest of the locals as a way to get back at Elma. Or, maybe Mildred didn’t have enough money, but was able to convince her friends to chip in, thus why they were able to “share the wealth” of the formula.

Plus, given the local moving company was unavailable when Elma called, maybe they were busy moving the other contestant’s pumpkins to the fairgrounds?

Writer Peter Z Orton depicts a place that seems somewhat unstuck in time. The vehicles are decidedly retro, and we only have the fair location and Elma’s home to go off of. Orton was the story editor on half of the Amazing Stories episodes that were made, but this episode marks the only time he is credited as the sole writer for a story.

Directing duties fell to Norman Reynolds. This would be one of two Stories episodes he directed…the only directorial credits in his career. Many may know his name from doing production and art design in the 80’s and 90’s, contributing to films like Superman and Raiders of the Lost Ark (to name a few).

Yes, The Pumpkin Competition doesn’t rank as highly as others, but it definitely into the methodology that would be a part of many Steven Spielberg-related projects: the ability for extraordinary things to happen to ordinary people, and maybe throw in a little morality tale into the mix.

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Movie Review: Parasite

Rated R for language, some violence and sexual content

In one of Parasite’s most memorable scenes, writer/director Bong Joon-Ho visually shows the discrepancies between the upper and lower-class families of his film.

As one family sleeps peacefully in their luxury home high on a hill during a thundering rainstorm, another family descends down winding streets and stairways, soaked to the bone…only to find their basement apartment (and the street it’s on) flooded. There will be no peace for this family tonight: only the struggle to salvage what belongings they can, and find a dry shelter soon afterwards.

Bong Joon-Ho is no stranger to class struggles. His 2013 science-fiction film Snowpiercer, showed a number of people at the rear of a futuristic train pushed into action, when the wealthier patrons from the front take several of their children away against their will. With Parasite, the director moves the examinations of class distinction to modern-day South Korea, in a story that is more subtle, but still quite intriguing to the senses.

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The Kim family. L to R: Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song), Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang), Ki-jung (So-dam Park)

Our main focus is on the Kim family, who currently eek out a meager existence being paid to fold pizza boxes, and struggling to find a stray wi-fi signal in their area. Opportunity comes knocking when the family’s son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) finds that his friend wants him to continue tutoring a wealthy high school student, while he goes abroad.

Thanks to the friend’s recommendation and some forged documents Photoshopped by Ki-woo’s sister Ki-Jung (So-Dam Park), he enters into the gated, upper-class world of the Park family. After winning the trust of the family’s naive matriarch Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), he hatches a bold plan. Soon, the rest of the Kim family have assumed alternate identities, taking on roles that support the Park family in their daily lives.

Unlike most films that would probably have one family “good” and the other “evil,” the two families here (while caricatured at times) exist in a very real “grey area.” Of the two, the Kim family is definitely the more “cunning,” with the skills they’ve acquired over the years helping them in a big way. The Park family on the other hand, seems to live comfortably without a care in the world, and seemingly oblivious to the world outside their narrow scope.

Most of Joon-Ho’s films have stories that don’t fit into a standard formula, and Parasite is no different. Just when you think you may know just where he’s taking us, he swerves down a side-path that takes the audience completely by surprise. It is this way of storytelling that often makes his films interesting conversation pieces once the lights come up.

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Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) arrives for his tutoring lessons.

Much like the director’s 2006 film The Host, we find ourselves bemused by the comedic antics of the main family, including Joon-Ho alumni, Kang-ho Song. Song has played the father-figure in a number of the filmmaker’s stories, though here he takes more of a supporting (but still important) role. It is the younger family members Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung who we follow through most of the film, as we see them speak with a confidence that easily subdues Yeon-kyo Park to give in to their requests.

This year has given us several films about people in the lower echelons of society, wanting respect or acknowledgement in a world that seems to think they are invisible. Some films are made as a reflection of the times we are in, and along with Jordan Peele’s recent film UsParasite feels like a story that has something important to say, even if it is a work of fiction.

To tell more about the film would be to spoil many of the surprises Joon-ho has hidden within it’s walls. While it seems to struggle to find it’s ending, the rest of the film leads us on a journey that truly has to be seen to be believed. Be prepared to run through a number of emotions while watching Parasite…and possibly question some of the people you yourself work with on a daily basis.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review: The Addams Family

Many of us have encountered Charles Addams’ creepy-and-kooky family in some form or another over the years, and now they have found themselves in the world of computer animation, courtesy of MGM and Cinesite Studios.

After moving to their dream residence and living in seclusion for 13 years, the Addams find the community of Assimilation has been built close by. While Gomez (Oscar Issacs) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) are a little apprehensive about their new neighbors, their daughter Wednesday (Chloe Grace-Moretz) grows curious about the world beyond the house she’s known all her life.

A highlight of the Addams family has often been their twisted take on family and society, and when the film focuses on those areas, it can get rather fun. The designs follow the original comic imagery pretty closely, and we even see a number of additional Addams characters brought to life.

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When it comes to the film’s storyline, it feels like it borrows from “the best of the mediocre” in recent years. If you’ve seen Hotel Transylvania or a number of Illumination Entertainment films, there are a number of similarities to be found here.

From an overly-colorful town presided over by a smiling-but-controlling figure, and the blatantly-obvious “it’s okay to be different” theme, there’s nothing really new the film has to offer regarding messages or storylines.

The film is also quite busy juggling a number of storylines (which pushes it’s run-time past the standard 90-minute average for animated features). When the film strives to find a focal point, it zeroes in on Wednesday, who soon finds herself hanging out with an ostracized teenager named Parker (Elsie Fisher). Sadly, just when it seems things might be getting interesting with this story thread, we are zipped back to a number of less-interesting ones.

What’s shocking is that even with all that stuff I mentioned…The Addams Family is still a pretty okay film!

While animation from the likes of Disney or Pixar may feel like a fine meal, Addams comes across like animated fast food. It’s okay and a little enjoyable, but a few hours later, it’s an experience that is only faintly remembered.

The voice cast does a decent-enough job, with Isaacs disappearing vocally into Gomez, and Theron vamping it up as Morticia. They can’t all be perfect however, as Finn Wolfhard sounds a little too old to play Pugsley, and…what was the point of hiring Snoop Dogg for Cousin It if he’s just going to be speaking in gibberish?

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Most films have some nods to pop-culture, and surprisingly, Addams keeps it on the down-low. They end up making a number of quips in relation to certain horror films, with a few references that will probably make the adults chuckle (aside from the It-related gag spoiled in the early previews).

The Addams Family could have really crashed-and-burned, but has enough life within it that it manages to eek by as a passable film experience. It’s doubtful this will get nominated for Best Animated Feature come awards season, but it’s enjoyable and harmless enough to take the family to on a weekend matinee.

Final Grade: B-

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