The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Photo taken moments after Martin Freeman is told Peter Jackson’s net worth.

Directed by Peter Jackson. 161 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen in 3D [24fps] at Arclight Hollywood)

Apart from my sore bladder near the end, Desolation is a good adventure movie and the first of Jackson’s Middle-earth adaptations in which I thought the good outweighed the bad. Some of the transitions between plots and subplots are janky (though I don’t know how Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen could have taken on so many stories and made it smoother), but unlike previous installments, fun shit happens at an acceptably steady rate.

Also, I opted for the 24fps experience this time around, definitely a good call. An Unexpected Journey looked like a nauseating (literally – 48fps makes me physically queasy) television program.

Martin Freeman is an infinitely better lead actor than LotR’s Elijah Wood. Freeman was the best part of Unexpected, and his character is even more interesting in Desolation. Kudos to the One Ring for slowly turning Bilbo into a sadistic junkie. Thorin (Richard Armitage) develops some layers, but I still wouldn’t care if any of the other dwarves die. I couldn’t name any of them. One of them is Cory, maybe?

Oh, and Ian McKellan is reliably awesome. That dude is able to carry even the most outlandish scenes. If you don’t believe me, watch X-Men: The Last Stand. McKellan’s the only actor who does any acting in that piece of Ratner shit.

Some critics and nearly every fan of the original novel are up in arms about Desolation’s inclusion of Legolas (who wasn’t in The Hobbit) and Tauriel (who has no basis whatsoever in Tolkien’s bibliography). Their inclusion isn’t crucial to the story, but I wasn’t offended. I understand that Jackson wants his Hobbit trilogy to tie into The Lord of the Rings more closely than the novels, and that’s okay by me. If you want The Hobbit to be 100% faithful to Tolkien’s vision, read the goddamn book. You could probably complete it cover-to-cover in the same time it takes to watch two of these movies.

Cliffhanger endings are tricky, but I thought Desolation pulled one off very well. The revelation and confrontation with Smaug was well done – he’s a pretty suave dragon – and the final battle scene kept me on my toes. I almost jumped when the screen went black. That’s a pretty good reaction to have after such a long movie.

Aside: Why do dragons like gold so much? They aren’t spending it, and sleeping in it appears rather uncomfortable. So what’s going on?

(Seen and written on 2013-12-13)

Son of Frankenstein -1939-

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Directed by Rowland V. Lee. 99 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on Amazon Instant View)

Bleh, this was one of the worst threequels I’ve seen since Spider-Man 3. Karloff and Lugosi are wasted (though Ygor’s broken neck looks pretty nifty). The sense of humor that made Bride refreshing is gone, and the creepiest thing about this film is Basil Rathbone’s last name.

Son is nearly a half hour longer than the 1931 original, and I felt every last second. Most of the film consists of townsfolk hemming and hawing about how spooky and creepy the Frankenstein legacy is. The Monster is even dumber than he was in the first movie, having somehow lost the knowledge and character that he gained throughout Bride. Karloff seems more dead than usual.

Also, why in the fuck did Rathbone revive the Monster. He straight up says, “This is a really bad idea, and nothing good can come of it.”

(Seen and written on 2013-12-12)

Bride of Frankenstein -1935-

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Directed James Whale. 75 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Netflix Instant View)

The sequel to the 1931 horror classic is the Evil Dead 2 of its time. Not only does it quickly go through the events of its predecessor (by way of a bizarre, Kaufmanian frame story featuring the Shelleys and Lord Byron), but it also has a self-awareness and sense of humor that I wasn’t expecting. Dr. Pretorius (the new villain played by Ernest Thesiger) takes the mad scientist to an absurd level with his jars full of tiny, gerbil-voiced actors. Didn’t see that coming.

Karloff’s Monster is much more sympathetic character this time around. Yeah, he’s still violent, but it’s clearer that all he wants is acceptance. His friendship with the blind hermit (inspired by a segment of the original novel) and subsequent education turns the Monster into a smoking, drinking, fun-loving sort of undead dude.

I was bummed that the Bride only has about one minute of screentime, but the ending is way cooler than the original. Lots of explosions, panic, and one of the best final lines of any movie I’ve seen:

“You stay. We belong dead.”

Aside: The writers’ rationale for how the Monster survived the end of the first film seemed like bullshit to me.

(Seen and written on 2013-12-11)

Frankenstein -1931-

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Directed by James Whale. 70 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Amazon Prime)

Whatever happened to the 70-minute movie? Just get to the action without the bullshit exposition. One would think that studios would be shortening film lengths in order to get more screenings per theater per day, but that doesn’t appear so. Christ, in this day and age, even manchild comedies are quickly approaching Malickian runtimes (seriously, Judd, knock it the fuck off).

Short features are the bee’s knees.

I was probably a toddler when I last saw Frankenstein, and certainly appreciate it more now. I vaguely remembered it as a clunky film (probably because it’s in black-and-white and toddlers are superficial assholes), but it’s a supremely polished piece of entertainment. From the polite-yet-unsettling opening disclaimer to the busy pre-StediCam shots á la Murnau, James Whale and Arthur Edeson know exactly how to capture the action. The use of silhouettes against nightscapes is especially beautiful.

Everyone already knows that Boris Karloff is super-creepy as the Monster, so I want to spend that time giving props to Colin Clive as the titular doctor. He’s actually fairly level headed (as well as his hunchback assistant), so it’s nice to see that the archetypical mad scientist had a restrained, believable genesis. The allegories of the movie are pretty clear. You don’t need a Dr. Heiter to drive it into the ground.

(Seen and written on 2013-12-03)

Oldboy -2013-

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Directed Spike Lee. 104 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but my expectations were modest. (Seen for free at Arclight Hollywood)

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 K-vengeance classic isn’t a must-see by any stretch, nor is it the wet noodle (or raw octopus) that many critics have alleged. As I expected, this new version lacks the can’t-look-awayness of the original. Park, is a master of the sensuous and visceral (as his Stoker demonstrated so well earlier this year). Lee is more accustomed to illustrating his points with musical numbers and angry white dudes. To paraphrase a Mr. Thomas Hardy, Lee merely adopted the revenge thriller; Park was born in it.

The film would have been a disaster if Lee had tried to imitate Park’s sensibilities. Luckily, he makes no such attempt. Even though Lee doesn’t have a style that meshes well with the Oldboy story, there was some fun to be had in seeing his interpretation of the material. I’ve glanced through a lot of critics who have panned the film for being stylistically flat and lacking Lee’s interest, but they’re wrong. Sure, Lee isn’t going to be as enthusiastic about this film as he was about Do the Right Thing, but what the fuck were these folks expecting?

Even a mercenary director can leave an unmistakable mark on a film adaptation (see Lynch’s Dune). Here, Lee sniffs out plenty of opportunities of to ruminate on themes such as:

  1. Absent fathers
  2. White exploitation of successful black men
  3. White men hypersexualizing black women
  4. Frustration at New York’s Asian population
  5. Street-level charity and activism for the underprivileged
  6. The arrogance and decadence of old money and society’s elites
  7. Grotesque imagery of Americana
  8. Hurricane fuckin’ Katrina
  9. More New York than you can shake a stick at
  10. George Zimmerman’s home address is constantly displayed in the bottom-right corner of the frame.

Some of Lee’s flourishes feel silly, but I got a kick outta them. The core cast is solid, and Sharlto Copley is as believable as his cartoonish role will allow. Sam Jackson, of course, is so goddamn Sam Jackson that he instantly grows tiresome, but I suppose I’m resigned to that.

Aside: The two frame stories are gone, but it also eliminates the lazy narration of the original. Call it a lateral move.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-27)

The Dunwich Horror -1970-

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Directed by Daniel Haller. 90 mins.

Worth my time? I sorta want to say Yes, but No. (Streamed through Netflix)

I watched this movie because a) I finished reading Lovecraft’s freakin’ awesome short story of the same name early today and b) I was curious since its screenplay is one of the first film credits of LA Confidential director Curtis Hanson. Unfortunately, I started to fear that this film would stink because a) the opening credits listed Roger Corman (lovable, but not known for top-notch work) as producer, and b) it stars Dean Stockwell who is supposed to be a villain but resembles Adam Brody as Harry Reems in Lovelace.

With the exception of Re-Animator, it’s not a good idea to adapt Lovecraft stories to the present day, and this rule hold especially true for Dunwich. Wilbur Whateley, the characters whom Stockwell portrays, comes off in the short story as one of the most fucked-up characters I’ve ever encountered in a book (I suspect John Carpenter had him in mind while filming parts of The Thing). Stockwell (Blue Velvet notwithstanding) is not at all intimidating, especially when he looks like the type of dude who would be wearing a coke-spoon on his necklace.

While all of Lovecraft’s stories require some suspension of disbelief, he had the benefit of placing his stories in pre-New Deal (and sometimes pre-WWI) America. Aside from the railroads, the country was loosely connected, and the government as well as communities tended not to give a shit about the neighboring areas. The oceans (apart from trade routes) were a mystery. Folks were still reeling from the fact that there was a whole fuckin’ frozen continent at the bottom of the world, and no one knew a goddamn thing about it.

In such settings, it’s easy to buy the notion that spooky shit could be happening all the time in the dark corners of the country. But this film is set in 1970, the age of Cronkite and highways, for fuck’s sake. Dunwich doesn’t look like the squalid, inbred hamlet that Lovecraft described – it looks part-resort town, part-suburbs. Not only does the setting make the movie as a whole less creepy, but it also makes it harder to swallow that a bunch of pretentious artists (the movie was shot in Mendocino) would live with a cult of the Great Old Ones just chillin’ down the street.

Aside: This is the first film I’ve seen to co-star Ed Begley. The first one, not Junior.

Aside: Keep your eyes peeled for a young Talia Shire!

Aside: The opening titles were pretty neat.

Aside: The film’s score is waaaay too distracting.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-20)

Beyond ReAnimator -2003-

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Directed by Brian Yuzna. 96 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Ah, here’s the piece of shit that I expected Bride of Re-Animator to be. Unsurprisingly, the film had its premiere on the Sci-Fi channel back in ’03. The only piece keeping it from being an Asylum film is Lorenzo Lamas.

Jeffrey Combs is, yet again, the best part of the movie, faint praise considering his lethargic performance. Everything else is shit of the runniest variety. The plot makes the previous two Re-Animators seem like they were penned by Robert Towne. Even the special effects by Screaming Mad George (from Society and Bride) were nothing interesting.

I usually try to be a little more comprehensive with my reviews, but why even bother with Beyond? Watch Combs in From Beyond instead.

Aside: For whatever reason (probably financing), the cast and crew is overwhelmingly Spanish. Who’dathunk that Arkham, Massachusetts, would be a nexus of Spaniards?

Aside: Has there ever been a film in which the investigative journalist character is anything but annoying? I’m looking at you, Superman and Manhunter.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-19)

Bride of ReAnimator -1990-

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Directed by Brian Yuzna. 96 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

Holy crap, I really liked this movie even though it has so many things going against it. After all, Bride of Re-Animator is a straight-to-VHS sequel (that’s one) of an iconic movie (that’s two) and demands that the viewer accept a dramatic revision of its predecessor’s ending (that’s three). In spite of all these potential weak links, Bride is a fun horror-comedy that has the inspired special effects of the original if not the inspired narrative.

Jeffrey Combs’ Herbert West (now a full-fledged doctor) is entertaining as ever.  Surprisingly, he has become somewhat more sensitive to the feelings of other, particularly his roommate and co-conspirator Dr. Cain (Bruce Abbott again) in the months since the “Miskatonic Massacre.” And David Gale is a good sport for reprising his role as the head of sinister Dr. Hill even though the character was obviously killed off in the first film.

Unfortunately, Bride’s plot lacks focus. The film has three major threads (the construction of the Bride, Lt. Chapham’s investigation, and Dr. Hill’s revenge) and no clear strategy to balance them or combine them in a satisfying matter. The new supporting players (Dr. Graves and Ernest the orderly, in particular) are boring and feel tacked-on.

Despite the clunky convergence of plotlines, the film’s ending is probably its strongest point. The mayhem in West’s lab and the adjacent crypt is just as fun and even more visually impressive (the poor shot-on-video photography notwithstanding) than Re-Animator. West’s experiments with creating new organisms from spare human parts are so gross and clever that H.R. Giger would be proud.

Aside: How the fuck did West and Cain come back to Miskatonic Medical School with no hospital personnel even raising an eyebrow?

Aside: “He’s a wife-beater, Dan! Use the gun!”

(Seen and written on 2013-11-15)

Day of the Dead -1985-

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Directed by George A. Romero. 96 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

The conclusion of the Night of the Living Dead trilogy (the later movies in the series aren’t worth the time) is just as effective as its predecessors. The film manages to out-bleak even the original. This time around, the end of the world isn’t near – it’s already come and gone. And while the film ends with more survivors than any of the previous installments, the final shot is pretty devastating.

The movie’s most glaring flaw is Captain Rhodes (played by Joseph Pilato). The dude’s such a cartoon villain that he may as well have a Jon Polito pencil mustache. While Romero’s zombie films contain some lousy people, Rhodes has no depth as a character. Even NotLD’s Harry Cooper, despite being nasty and selfish, exhibited plausible motivations such as panic, internalized bigotry, and sincere concern for his daughter’s wellbeing. Rhodes is just a dick, and it doesn’t make for very compelling drama.

Tom Savini returns for the makeup effects, and damn, they’re fantastic. From the very first moment a zombie walks onscreen (its tongue hanging from what little face it still has), you know these aren’t going to be the meek, blue zombies of Dawn. These things are ugly and far more pissed than in the other films and are responsible for some of the best death scenes in all of American horror.

Aside: I get a kick out of John Harrison’s score. The tropical flourished may seem out of place, but I think they’re meant to clue the viewers into the characters’ dreams and fantasies á la Badlands.

(Seen on 2013-11-12, written on 2013-11-15)

The Unnamable -1988-

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Directed by Jean-Paul Ouellette. 87 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

I’ve been reading a lot of H.P. Lovecraft lately, so I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for decent film adaptations of his material. My current search (I first saw Gordon’s excellent Re-Animator and From Beyond years ago) has yet to bear quality fruit.

Lovecraft’s work is particularly tricky to successfully bring to the screen. First, his stories are told almost exclusively from a first person perspective and contain little to no dialogue. Secondly, Lovecraft’s signature was the exploration of aspects of reality that defied description and often human comprehension altogether. When you have a movie titled The Unnamable and its poster shows a creatures that’s easily namable (let’s call it a gargoyle, yeah that works), it probably won’t be a top-notch piece of work.

The Unnamable is just another “Dead Teenager” movie with a few nice Lovecraftian trimmings. I liked that it featured Arkham’s Miskatonic University, the Necronomicon, and featured Randolph Carter (one of Lovecraft’s few recurring human characters) as a main character, but that’s about all the connection it has. The limp ending is a shameless parroting of Raimi’s Evil Dead films.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-09)