Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaugh. (Or, It’s the second Hobbit movie.)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaugh. (Or, It’s the second Hobbit movie.)

In what had been my most eagerly anticipated film of the year, Peter Jackson pretty much delivers on every expectation and then some. Wide sweeping action scenes, intensely emotional moments, and the ever present darkness of an impending threat all converge in the latest installation to the incredibly successful “Lord of the Rings” films- which is where the first problem begins for me. The first Hobbit had a good number of nods to the Trilogy, but this film full-out attempts to capture the tone and mood of those later films and it ultimately fails to be a “Hobbit” film as a result. Bilbo’s endeavors with the magic ring, only later identified as the “One” ring, are fraught with ominous peril and far too many jump-scares as the Eye already seems to begin the search that the later films are so dependent upon. Thorins’ hubris overwhelms the potential heroism of the character throughout the film- the tone captured at the end of the first film is completely lost within the first half hour. And, furthermore, scenes that should have had far more attention and time to develop much loved characters are rushed through while Jackson lingers on long moments in River Town and a number of scenes with Orcs to show us how vicious and angry they all are- or something. Beorn barely makes his presence felt, the journey through the forest barely touches on the various dangers the Dwarves and their Hobbit burglar face, and the movie just goes on and on and on.

I would normally respond quite well to the length of a film of this magnitude, but the whole thing results in what is essentially a tease. There’s no closure- it’s not like a cliffhanger, either. The movie just abruptly ends with an impending doom. There’s a sense in most second films in a trilogy to leave the heroes wounded, broken, and battered- but there’s essentially a bit of closure to the chapter and we’re just waiting for the heroes to get up again. That’s not the case with this film. The heroes aren’t broken, we’re not waiting for them to get up, we’re just left waiting- and that’s not a good thing. I don’t mind that the story isn’t complete, I mind that the chapter is left open and I have to wait a year for the end and then for the next chapter to begin. And I’ve read the book, so I know how the chapter should have ended and I know how the next chapter begins, and I know what the big looming darkness is and how it’s met.

Peter Jackson may have received instructions from up on high for the film to be closer to Lord of the Rings, but he should have fought a little harder and reminded the studio that the Hobbit is essentially a childrens’ book. It’s not the sweeping epic the latter books were, it’s not as dark, it’s not as threatening, and it requires a lighter touch. That’s not to say the film was a total failure, however- far from it. It's an amazing film. There are some amazing moments! The Barrel chase is a thing of absolute beauty, the introduction of Tauriel as a female elf interested in the Dwarves and their quest was a nice touch and allowed Jackson to bring in the wildly popular Legolas for support, and the presentation of Smaugh was as grand and amazing as it should have been. Far more of the film worked than didn’t so I do recommend it.

4 out of 5.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Be Kind, please rewind... VHS/2.!


Checking the credits and- YES! There’s no involvement from my arch-nemesis this time around, so I can sit back and try to enjoy the latest in the anthology series without worrying that Ty West will pop his head around the corner to ruin my film watching experience. It’s a fun little anthology premise and the story wrap-around seems to have a much more cohesive narrative than the previous entry so let’s just keep our fingers crossed, shall we?

The wraparound features a pair of private detectives hired by the mother of a missing teen to check on his welfare. They locate his house, stacked high with video tapes and monitors and other equipment but no sign of the teen. One of the detectives sits to watch the series of tapes, while the other continues to check out the house for any additional clues. The story is generally creepy and the tension builds with each successive tape, and the handheld camera techniques are actually pretty smooth without too much of the “shaky” cam effect so successfully parodied by that one South Park episode. That one cracks me up… and this story actually cracked me up. More on that later, though.

The first story features a character receiving an implant replacement to his left eye. The lead lost his eye is in an accident that never gets a fully fleshed story. He’s seeing phantoms, though and these ghosts seem to have gained the ability to interact with him through the implant as well. It’s a pretty short piece and would have worked better with some additional exposition, but the story in itself works very well. I’m not so sure the high-tech eye implant really does much to further the “VHS” themed narrative, but it was a good story either way.

The second story is my favorite by far. A young man takes to a biking trail for a morning ride only to be attacked by zombies. Yes, I know many people are just going to dismiss this because they know my affinity for zombies but that was actually the least interesting aspect of the story in general. This film take the best advantage of the VHS theme by giving our lead a helmet cam and establishing that he enjoys recording these morning rides. It’s a digital recording but I can really forgive that, because it’s the one video that seems to have the most legitimately “filmed for home use” feel to it. As the lead character goes through his ordeal, we establish who he is and we understand what is happening to him and we are able to slide ourselves into his shoes for a long period of time. There’s a sense of riding along in his head for long moments, living through his experiences, and the end is ultimately the most perfect one that could be imagined. This short made the whole movie worth-while.

The third story is longer- and maybe too long. A group of investigative journalists are doing an in depth piece on a cult in some unnamed Asian or Asian Pacific compound and- I don’t want to spoil anything, but the whole thing sort of builds to a predictable climax and is both the most entertaining and most fiercely annoying “short” in the film. Actually, most of the movie is this short and it’s got the added promise of coming to us from the team that brought us “The Blair Witch Project”… great gory effects, some interesting concepts, but probably one of the single doofiest monsters I’ve ever seen in the last revealing shot. I couldn’t stop laughing and had to stop the film because of how moronically stupid the monster looked. Still, there were momentary sequences and blips throughout the story to give a person some decent nightmares through the night.

The final story is probably the weakest and most overblown. It establishes the first person narrative to be coming from a “doggy-cam” attached to a mini pooch that the family members use to spy on one another and play pranks and all that kind of stuff. Some teens have a slumber party, the dog wanders about with a couple of bits leading up to an alien invasion. Yes, an alien invasion that features a bunch of grey-skinned, thin, creeping “monsters” that pose elaborately as they approach whoever might be dragging the dog along with an eruption of electro-bass audio looped back on itself while too-bright lights flash in the background to frame the aliens in shadowy outline. We get that same jump scare eruption of sound at least five separate times.

My final thoughts on the film are this: it’s not nearly as serious an attempt as the last one. There were some serious scares in the previous entry, an attempt to utilize the restrictive thematic structure to create an interesting dynamic but this one seems to flout those limits and dismiss them at a whim. There’s massive use of digital after-effects in some of the shorts, they don’t tend to utilize an actual VHS recorder in nearly any of the shorts, and nearly every film has some sort of a “punchline” for its finale. They seem to be played for laughs rather than for scares, which is well and good if that’s what you want to sell or buy. It just didn’t seem to be following the narrative established in the previous film in the anthology series. I recommend it for a good Halloween fright flick this season, it’s fun, and there’s a lot worse you could do. The “Ride in the Park” is probably worth the time in and of itself, but it seems to go downhill from there. The wraparound story itself followed the entire structure of the film… it started off strong, it was building a decent tension, and then it finished with what amounted to a punchline that fell a little flat for me. There was a visual effect in this movie that seemed plastic and fake, especially under the lights of the shakey-cam effect we were seeing it.

4 out of 5.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pontypool at the Stardust Theater.

Pontypool Changes Everything

At least that’s the title of the original book upon which the stage play is based. And the stage play is based upon the movie, and a radio drama has also been released, and so on so forth and again. It’s quickly becoming one of the most oft adapted fictions of the modern era, and that’s pretty impressive to be honest.  I’m a big fan of low budget minimalist pictures, so this one had been on my radar from shortly before it’s official release on film. It’s an interesting little story, with a bizarre premise, and a minimalist approach to the zombie apocalypse reminiscent of the original zombie film; Night of the Living Dead. Instead of a lone farm house and a group of survivors, we’re trapped in a radio station with minimal staff that includes an aging former shock jock, his producer, and the lone radio technician. And when the poop hits the fan, we’re not left with a traditional horde of flesh eating zombies either- they’re infected people (conversationalists) driven to blood-thirsty acts through the usage of “language”… yes, you read that right. Language is the means through which the virus is spread.

Now, first off: if you think the premise is too bizarre, then let me put you on pause. Language IS an infection- it’s not just a means of communication, it’s not just a series of sounds that come out of the human mouth. It’s an understanding, a way of defining our world, and a means through which people can convey thoughts, emotions, logic, and understanding. The words I’m writing this very moment are having an effect on my own mind, echoing my thoughts as I think them but also reflecting them back to myself to check for comprehension and understanding. It may seem like a lot of “blah blah” to you, but the truth is that if you are reading my thoughts you are also being infected by them and by the verbiage and translation within your own minds. And my words are also being infected by your own understanding of them. The story regarding the “Tower of Babel” is very much a reflection of this same idea. For a slightly goofier yet probably far easier to understand translation of what this infection might be like, you could listen to the song “Bulbous Bouffant” which is just a series of words that the singers find impressive, amusing, and fascinating. There is no true meaning to the words being shouted out through the song, the meaning is totally lost, but the song is highly entertaining nonetheless.

Enough ranting on the whole idea behind hte show...

The set is amazing! Right off the bat, you immediately feel like you are occupying the very real fourth wall of this small radio station in the rural hinterlands of Canada. The community bulletin board in the lobby offers a number of hints to the characters involved and they are very real within the confines of the set. This is their world. And the cast never lets you forget it once they hit the stage.

Grant Mazzy takes to the microphone with an opening monologue regarding the story of a local missing cat. And there are interesting coincidences regarding a series of words, jumbled together, connected, a strong foreshadowing of what's to come but more importantly a peek into our protagonist. Patrick Golden puts another notch into his acting credits with a strong, often amusing, and very charismatic performance. He captures the "outlaw" shock jock personality of our lead and pushes him into small communty that seems to box him in from all sides.

Opposite Golden is Beverly Van Pelt as the station manager, Sidney Briar. She's the anchor to Mazzy's desire to shake up his audience. She knows the town and the people. The tension between her and Mazzy carries much of the drama, the events transforming them both, and Van Pelt captures the heart of the show in her performance. There's one moment where my heart literally ached for her character; a sobering phone call that reminds the audience of the world beyond our fourth wall and that these events will ripple far beyond our brief moments in ths small town radio station.

And then there's Laurel-Anne, a resourceful technician recently returned from a military tour in Afghanistan. She's amused with Mazzy's on-air hijinks and has a close working relationship with Briar. She often seems caught between the two, and Molly Lindquists' performance is endearingly playful as she chuckles through the banter of her boss and the talented man behind the microphone.

The trio are joined by traffic reporter Ken Loney (Jesse Juarez) through phone call updates and then by  Doctor Mendez in person, his arrival coming on the heels of the event that spirals out of control. Other calls flow into the station, various reported incidents, and then there's Mazzy's own personal run in with a strange woman on his way to work.

Highly recommended show for the Halloween season and a terrific exploration on the effects of language in our society. 5 out of 5.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Rocky Horror Show at the Paper Wing Theater-

LJ Brewer. 

No, that's not a typo or an incomplete thought- that's just the first thing I needed to type. That's it. The name. And now I have more to say about the show-

You want to talk about all the terrific performances from the show, but the honest truth is that it’s hard to start writing about The Rocky Horror Show without focusing so much of your attention on the shows lead player. It’s the defining role of the show, it’s an iconic character, and LJ Brewer brings Frankenfurter to life and utterly blows (pun intended) each and every audience away with the performance. The moment before he struts onto the stage the entire tone shifts and you can feel an absolutely electrical moment shiver through the crowd (with anticipation, yes, I know). You can just suck in the energy from the players on the stage to the customers in the seats to the band and everywhere in between as Frank takes his place in front of the stage lights and hits the familiar notes and lyrics “Well how do you do?” At that moment, we’re all slaves to LJ Brewer and he can do whatever the hell he wants with each and every one of us. There is absolute power in the performance and LJ Brewer delivers with a charisma few ever hope to achieve.

But no matter how good he is, LJ Brewer is definitely not alone on the stage. And he’s also not the only one returning to a familiar role. Heather Hahn returns as Janet, carrying charm, comedy, and seduction in perfectly measured … uhhh.. .. (I can’t resist) cups. (I was going to go with levels, but I think some of this rant should have a little of pervisity in it.) Nicholas Kelly steps into the milquetoast shoes of Brad and this chalks up another fun performance from the veteran Winger. The young couple are on their way to see old friend, Dr. Scott (Shane Dallmann), when an unfortunate flat tire in the pouring rain leads them to follow a light toward the old spooky castle where events are about to unfold.

Frank is joined by his assistants, Riff Raff (Taylor Landess), Magenta (Jourdain Barton), and Columbia (Taylor Noel Young) in his mad plot to create a personal monster designed for his own particular interests. All details regarding The Denton Incident are explained by the knowledgeable  (and clearly neckless) Criminologist, Jay Devine. Everyone rises to the occasion and delivers a number of great performances, comedic timing, and they’ve been well prepared for the audience participatory “shout outs” during the performance with enough pauses  to allow people to feel as if they were part of the experience themselves.

And that’s what Rocky Horror is: An Experience. It’s not a traditional show, it’s not just people on stage doing their thing and then receiving applause- everyone is being let it on the jokes, on the moments, and it’s something audiences get to share with the performers. I don’t know anyone who delivers the goods as well as this Theatre, and anyone missing out is really going to be missing out. The show runs throughout October, playing Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm with a special Midnight show on Saturdays. There are also two shows on Halloween- the 8 pm and Midnight shows. Costumes are encouraged, props encouraged, and riffing (shout outs) virtually in demand. Casts members are willing to take photos in the lobby, but photography during the show itself is prohibited. Additionally, this is not a “shadow cast” performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, this is the stage production without the film screening in the background. Be prepared for something a little different in what is normally so very familiar so very many … who are… familiar… with… well, anyway, I think you get the point, yes?

(In the interest of full disclosure: I had the opportunity two years previously to be a part of the Rocky Horror Show with the Paper Wing Theatre as one of the Transylvanians. I had a blast during that particular performance and many of the players from that show have returned for this round. Maybe you think that will color my opinion or my recommendation. Fair enough. None-the-less, there are many ways to perform the show and there were obvious changes to direction and style from the last time. So this was a new experience entirely for me AND I don’t really believe that my previous experiences disqualify my opinions. I’m just sharing some thoughts on local shows and I’ll just keep on doing it my way.–Mark)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Motherfucker With The Hat: The latest Paper Wing Theatre production

I'm going to link you to another review on this show from Shane M. Dallmann:

And here are my ranting thoughts:

I've known way too many people like this. My family is largely in and out of AA and rehab, spending all that quality time with their 'sponsors', and attempting to either make their lives bearable or replace one addiction with another. Drew Wheeler plays a character, Ralph D., who embodies so much of the positive and the negative people tend to find in recovery programs. He's a self-centered, hypocritical, opportunistic manipulator who takes a struggling young Jackie (Timothy Samaniego) under his wing and waxes philosophic regarding his self-centered excuses wrapped up in false morality. The worst part is that the character obviously falls for his own bullshit and I personally wanted to walk up and punch his face in. Chalk this up to an amazing performance, but Jackie meets this philosophy head on during a crucial moment in his struggle toward sobriety.

Melissa Kamnikar explodes in her first appearance on the Paper Wing Stage! She opens the show with a foul mouthed diatribe toward her mother, blasting a verbal barrage without limits and continues to mow through the rest of the show with unbridled passion. Veronica is a force of nature that blasts Jackie (Timothy Samaniego) into a tail spin rush when he finds the mysteriously discarded "Hat" of the plays title.We can immediately see the furious passion between the young couple that explodes from one extreme to the next when Jackie flips out over a suspected affair. Veronica insists that nothing is happening, but Jackie certainly knows better and he's out for answers- fleeing toward the only other people in his life he can trust, Jackie's reactions are extreme and lead him in a tailspin toward self destruction.

Recently paroled, Jackie has been on the wagon for some time and he has a strong relationship with his sponsor. Ralph opens his home to the ex-con and addict, offering advice and juice drinks while holding himself up as an example for Jackie to aspire toward. But as events transpire, Jackie also turns toward his cousin Julio (Jesse Juarez) and is confronted with the nature of who he's become, who he once was, and what it means to be the man he really wants to be. Juarez brings perfect comedic timing to the role of Julio, and also manages to bring tears to the eyes with a particularly poignant moment in the show- but the Van Damme obsession kicks in and you will not be able to stop laughing when he arrives in scene two of the second act.

And then there's the central question at the heart of the show: "What is recovery?" And the best person to answer that question is Victoria (Amanda Platsis), the abrasive and verbally absuive wife of Ralph. She's also struggling with her own addiction, her own experiences, and her marriage to the supposed Paragon of Virtue. While Jackie stumbles and falls through a raging flux of emotions, Victoria delivers a realistic look at the supposed Paragon to which Jackie has been looking for guidance.

Jackie is a man of desperate passion and is played to the hilt by the enormously talented Samaniego. He's been in love with Veronica since their early teens, her picture a warm comfort throughout his two year stint in prison. We wonder if he's trying to be clean for her, if he's trying to find work for her, or if he's really even angry with her or with who he sees he's become. There are some hard questions that Jackie is forced to ask himself regarding the man he wants to be and the man he is, what he will become, or whether he even has a real opportunity to make that transition.

Go see this show at your next opportunity. It's fantastic, you'll laugh, and you'll cheer, and you'll definitely feel  a number of things before the final curtain call.

Monday, September 9, 2013

My grindhouse weekend of being sick.

I’m fighting a massive sinus infection, my ears are itching and feel clogged, my head is grinding, and I have an itch in the back of my throat. I stayed home on Thursday and went to the doctor, got a prescription filled, and came home to spend most of the weekend laid up in bed where I could grind out a few feature films I’d been meaning to watch or some such nonsense. I don’t know. I don’t feel good.

I rewatched a couple of movies I’ve already previously discussed in earlier blogs and comments- by the way, I had no clue precisely how much myspace had changed until I went back to try and read some of my old posts on my page there. There’s nothing there anymore, all gone. Wish I had paid attention before and maybe copied a few to a disc before the whole thing went kaput… but so goes life.

On to the movies.


It isn’t exactly the best weekend of my life, but the first weekend is always a chance for me and the wife to get out for Date Night and catch a movie or a show or something with one another and spend some time together. And it was definitely a weekend full of hard choices if I were left to my own devices, but thankfully the wife only had one clear choice to make as she is a big fan of the Riddick series. Let me make this clear; it’s not necessarily because Vin Diesel is the lead (though she does have a thing for deep bass voices) but it’s more the character itself. She was sold on Pitch Black, she was engaged throughout the Chronicles film, and she was eager to catch the return of one of her favorite action badasses come to live on the big screen. I guess? I’m sure that’s not how she would phrase it, but this is my blog. Bleh! She never reads it.  And I was looking forward to it also,  before you start doubting this is some sort of sacrifice play on my part.

And I’ll be fair; I’ve been much harsher on other films that delivered far less in the cheese factor or predictable storylines. I’m downright sadistically cruel to a lot of films out there, and yet this film series seems to get  a pass from me. I loved Pitch Black- one of my favorite “Alien” rip-offs ever made, it established the character of Riddick, and pretty much set the pace for Vin Diesels’ career for a number of years. And I’ve heard all the negative criticism regarding the Chronicles film, and I agree with much of the negative points, but it’s still a terrific movie in my own mind and I put it in regular rotation for movies to watch. I mean, it’s basically an adaptation of Vin Diesel playing his D&D Dark Elf character up on the big screen. And if you doubt Diesel’s geek credentials, just check a youtube clip from a talk show where he’s pressed to talk about playing Dungeons and Dragons- the mans’ eyes absolutely light up and right there is what we got to see on the big screen. I loved it.

“Riddick”, however, brings the character back down to basics. Betrayed and left for dead on a hostile alien world, Riddick only peripherally addresses the previous entry in the series. It’s largely glossed over but does feature a nice cameo from Karl Urban. Once we’re left with Riddick and we’re alone, we get a lot of introspection from the character as he wonders if he lost his edge and whether he’d become “too civilized” and so on, so forth. He manages to survive for some unknown period of time, raises a pup to keep him company, and then finds out the planet is about to get far more hostile in a short period of time. So he finds an abandoned “Mercenary” station and sends out a beacon, which includes a facial recognition scan that immediately sets a number of bells clinging and clanging as the huge bounty on his head is bound to bring in a couple of different crews.

And from that point the film plays pretty much as you’d expect it. The two crews that show up are at odds, one of the crews being led by a man with a personal score to settle, the other led by an ineffectual braggart, and Katee Sackhoff playing a token bad-ass girl named “Dahl”. And Dahl fulfills far too many quotas to ever really be taken seriously- she’s a woman, she’s a bad ass, a crack shot, a professed lesbian, she has a filthy mouth, and we get to see Starbuck in the buck(Hah!).  It’s unapologetically a return to the thirteen year-old fantasies of bad assery all around. We have a former WWE wrestler, we have some good gore effects, and Diesel delivers one flippant line after another while doing the terrible deeds.  Really, we mostly get a paint by numbers here.

That’s not a bad thing. This is as much a popcorn muncher as you can get, it’s a fun ride, and it’s a character a lot of people have come to really enjoy. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, and I had a really fun time watching the same wheel go round and round. Sometimes, that’s really all you need to see. The film promised us Riddick, alien monsters, and a return to the R-Rating that brings the grue. Nothing more could have been asked for and I definitely had a blast.

3.5 out of 5.

The House Where Hell Froze Over (AKA: Keep my Grave Open)

I’m always finding something new and interesting to put my attention on. This seventies exploitation gem is about a woman living out on her own (mostly) in the middle of nowhere. She’s really the star and focus of the story and she’s forced to carry the majority, with only a few minor supporting bits thrown in here and there. She lives with a man who may be her husband or her brother, it’s never really made clear which- she refers to them as both, and they may very well be. The thing is that we do not see him throughout most of the movie, but we do know he’s a murderer from the get-go. Nice little gory death scene, favored weapon a civil-war era saber. Compelling performance from the lead, none too shocking in this day and age, but a film that held me interested throughout its runtime.

3 out of 5.

God Bless America

So the opening moments of the film begin with a man, our lead character, fantasizing about the brutal murder of an infant in the apartment next door. It’s a bloody scene, played for a bit of twisted humor, but this is our lead character and he’s fantasizing about a brutal action that no one could really comprehend. His opening monologue introduces the situation, the constant crying, the babbling chit-chat from his neighbors overheard through paper-thin walls, but a shotgun blast and a splash of blood does seem a little extreme for even the most jaded viewer.

So who is this character? His name is Frank. He is bombarded by reality television, loud neighbors, a failed marriage, a spoiled daughter, a thankless and largely obnoxious place to work. He is a miserable loner who gets diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and just snaps. One reality show too many, an argument with his ex-wife, and the spoiled rot of his own daughter push him over the edge and Frank goes out and kills the star of a reality show with a single shot to the head. There are plenty of witnesses, including one jaded young girl who finds herself driven to join Frank on his eventual crusade. And the pair hit the road to kill various people they cannot stand; Religious protesters calling for the damnation of all they find offensive, a talking head, reality stars, people who use their cell phones during a movie, and we go from one place to the next and the next. And there’s a bit of a sick sense of satisfaction, a sick murder fantasy played out, and both characters are fully fleshed out in the process of their horrible crimes.

Bobcat Goldthwaite helms the film and delivers another bizarre entry into a filmography that includes a few whoppers. Certainly not the sort to play it safe, this film could have been played completely for laughs but there’s much more going on here than a simple violent fantasy being played out on screen. The pacing can move a little slowly at times while Goldthwaite continues to build on Frank’s tension, but the comedy hits the right notes in gallows humor and never really lets up once the pace gets moving. These two people are troubled, lonely, and frustrated and they are not really heroes in this film. They may be killing annoying people that are largely disliked, but what right do these two have to make these judgments? This isn’t a question that gets ignored; they’re both challenged by one another, they both fit the bill to a “tee” with regards to impending victims, and they are consistently complicit in promoting the very attitudes and actions they claim to despise.

As this is my “entertainment” blog, I try to not discuss my politics. I’m not shy about discussing them, much to many friends  chagrin. But I don’t use my blog to soap box or discuss my beliefs- It’s not the purpose, and it’s not something that tends to come up. But there is a degree of controversy to discuss regarding this film, which one a few festival awards and found itself the target of discussion from the Right and the Left. Most would say I fall a little right of center, probably true. I consider myself a libertarian. But with that said, the bit of criticism regarding the films politics revolve around a “conservative” talking head portrayed as a bullying, arrogant, and totally obnoxious blow-hard. The lead characters are criticized for being ultraviolent “liberals” stomping down their political adversaries. In other words, ultrasensitive political hacks got their panties in a bunch over a movie that was as non-political as it gets- because it didn’t matter what politics were at play here, the film didn’t glorify one over another in any way. It just showed how loud, obnoxious, and unnervingly impolite people can be. In fact, Frank even discusses how his politics are mostly the same as the Talking Head, but that he thinks the guy is just flat out mean and impolite. So there’s that.

4 out of 5

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Shrine and Castle Freak: 2 Reviews.

The Shrine:

Browsing through Netflix and thinking that I have far too much access to far too much crap these days, I stumble upon “The Shrine” and give the synopsis a quick little read through. No spark of interest the first, second, or tenth time I read through it on a given night but a recent recommendation of brief mention in a Lovecraft discussion board urged that I give this low budget indie flick a second look and a screening. So let me tell you about the boring synopsis – It basically sounded like Hostel meets the Wicker Man, a journalist investigates the disappearance of a hiker in a backwoods area of Europe and finds more than she bargained for. Something like that- it doesn’t really spark much interest in me because there are a couple dozen movies with the same description and I’ve seen the same thing over again. But when there’s a recommendation- and what’s more, a few more agreements with that same recommendation, I figure it’s worth checking out. And then, when you see the names of people responsible for one of your favorite movies in the past ten years, a little bit of excitement begins to build.

So the film starts off with a cult sacrifice as a young man is held down and chanting prayers echo through a dark chamber. An iron mask is brought to his face, huge spikes at strategic locations above the eyes and a little lower. As the mask is placed just perfectly, the cult leader brings a massive hammer down across the mask and drives it down into his face- blood pours, the body jerks and spasms, and ultimately dies a gruesome death. Then we’re introduced to the films lead characters, a young couple going through some rocky times as the woman continues to ignore the relationship in favor of pursuing her career as a journalist. She’s investigating the disappearance of the murdered man in the beginning of the film so she engages her boyfriend ( A photographer) and her assistant to accompany her to the man’s last known destination in Europe. I think it may be Scandinavia, but I’m not entirely certain.  They find a xenophobic town that bars them from entering the wilderness over which floats an unmoving grey smoke or mist.

And while we’ve taken some time to get here and the atmosphere has been built up rather impressively, it’s at this point that the movie starts to roll down the track with only a few small drops to get you ready for the big one. Oh, these people find the mist.  And two of them enter, do a bit of exploring, and they definitely find something in there. I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s definitely a creepy scene. And the townspeople certainly do not want them to be there, but now very bad things are absolutely going to happen as a result. And I’m not going to spoil these either. But I’m going to tell you something else, also: there are no explanations. There are no subtitles beneath the screen when the townspeople talk about the situation, when they discuss their options for what to do with these interlopers, there’s no answer for anyone, and the resolution will not solve everything- and this is about as far from all the other generic films matching Hostel and Wicker Man descriptions as it can get, because this film is definitely a creature of a different sort.

What “The Shrine” does have is an atmosphere reminiscent of the Hammer Films with a little bit of Lovecraft thrown in for flavor. Special effects seem practical, bloody, and gruesome but the film focuses much more on the situation and the mythology of its own story. The choice to not add subtitles helps the audience to identify much more strongly with the protagonists as we also fail to understand where they are, what is happening, and who the people are who are chasing them through the wilderness.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

4 out of 5.

(retro-look) Castle Freak

Presented by Full Moon Video, the film is loosely based upon “The Stranger” by HP Lovecraft and falls incredibly short by several measures. Barbara Crampton is once again cast with Jeffrey Combs to tackle the material in what seems to be a continuation of the series begun with “Re-animator”. I’m not entirely sure where this film falls in the order of release, but I know that director Stuart Gordon worked on a number of films “inspired” by Lovecraft during this period of time and this is the least discussed amongst the work. Watching the film, it’s easy to see why.

The story by Lovecraft is considered one of his best, but there simply isn’t enough material there to explore a full length feature on its’ own. There are other stories that explore the “ghoulish” creature described, an entire society of the creatures mentioned in various “dream cycle” stories, but “The Stranger” is pretty much a stand-alone tale dependent on the twist ending to deliver the sock to the gut it requires. The story is utilized and takes up all of about five minutes from the film, the rest of it revolving around a marriage on the rocks and the typical stalking monster living in the castle.

Combs delivers a decent performance, and Crampton largely disappoints with a character that seems poorly written at best. The “plot”, such as it is, revolves around the inheritance of a family castle and the unhappily married couple attempting to cope with the death of their young son after a DUI accident involving the father. Combs is carrying a lot of weight, Crampton’s character blames him and wants him to suffer, and the blinded daughter is only trying to learn to cope with her new life. The film, however, puts all of its gravity in Combs and he borders on the pathetic while coping with his demons. Crampton might have well been on the phone to deliver her lines, because she’s barely there for either daughter or husband save to scold him and then disappear. Very little is done to explore her emotions throughout the film, and it’s a shame because Cramption is a far better actress than this. Add into the mix a suspicious police inspector jumping from one conclusion to the next in a dizzying display of logic leaping and the film generally starts to fall apart.

The special effects are nothing to sneer at, however and the movie works on a few levels but fails to live up to the expectations set by From Beyond or Re-animator. Synthetic music builds the tension suitably, but is just the same old Full Moon scoring we hear in a variety of movies from the studio and adds little to the tension of a given scene. Quite possibly the best performance comes from “the Freak” itself- a pathetic creature tortured for untold decades, his body a mass of scar tissue and unset broken bones jumbled into a pulpy mass that knows it could never be loved by a the society from which he has been kept for so long. The actor within the rubber suit manages to convey moments of frustration, worry, and insecurity within the creature and it is definitely the best part of this poor film.

2 out of 5.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Finding Genre Films: Addendum update.

I originally wrote most of this a few years ago... and I have a few new thoughts to add and it was something on my mind recently.

Rant On!!!

When I was young, the local television networks offered a strong variety of kung fu, horror, and sci-fi feature films for Saturday and Sunday matinee and late night viewings. It was my gateway to cult movies, the world of monsters and aliens and chop-socky action. When my life seemed rough, I could always look forward to Saturday afternoons or late night weekend features where people ran around in rubber costumes and beautiful women fainted at the sight of the latest creature to come stalking their way. It was a warm comfort to find a safe outlet for my fears, my angers, and my hurt. In an odd sort of way, it helped me feel less lonely on some levels. There were other people who wanted to watch the same stuff, and I became friends with some and found a sense of camaraderie in the world of The Strange. And, as I got older and video stores began to stock my favorite titles… I moved on to the next big scare, the next gross out, the next hollow drop from the center of my stomach. My world seemed a lot simpler when I imagined myself as a Great Vampire Hunter or the Slayer of Demons. I grew up with an introduction to the genre, caught by chance while skimming channels for something to while away the day and spend an afternoon escaping the madness of a fairly rough childhood.

With the advent of DVD I’m able to own almost all of my favorite child-hood titles and purchase the new ones with very little investment of real cash value. So I can watch Army of Darkness with the press of a button, throw on Curse of Frankenstein, sit down for The Curse of the Werewolf, or check out the newest Eli Roth gore fest any time I want. It’s nice to have this kind of technology at my fingertips, but it’s also a bit of a shame in some ways. What had been a treasured discovery for me is all but lost to the next generation of fans to the genre.

Flipping through channels on a Saturday afternoon or late in the wee hours of the night results in an endless stream of reality based programs and infomercials. Celebrities talk about their hair, their love lives, their pets, cars, houses, and scandals in an endless bleating of self-importance. Stupid kids attempt to emulate the moronic stunts they see on various MTV programs where some kid runs around and slaps his Uncles fat stomach, builds a skate ramp in his mothers’ house, and laughs at his friends when they suffer one injury after another attempting to one up each other with an bizarre string of stupid antics. Singing competitions, dance contests, wives in one county after another, and criminals doing bad things while families crumble for the sake of entertainment. It will always be cheaper to put these people on the air for a major network, so the executives have no concerns about story or substance or even the cultural value of presenting classic genre work to a younger audience.

The Horror Host Underground continues their own proud traditions by investing their time and resources into providing a gateway for many fans, young and old. Using the technology made available through cable television, Horror Hosts use public access channels to broadcast the genre gems that have fallen through the cracks to the Public Domain. It’s a labor of love for many of these heroes and they support one another through a network of websites and tape trading. The Local Access availability was a measure passed by congress and the Senate many years ago, created to help local people present their own artistic visions in a format where the bottom line wasn’t a commercial profit. Too many people ignore their public access television access and the shows available. In Monterey County, Local Access allows Remo D to present the Manor of Mayhem on a weekly basis with a Friday and Saturday night screening. Like many hosts, he also uses his allotted time to feature shared programs from other hosts. I’ve appeared on his show a number of times and I continue to support the show and I absolutely love the genre he chooses to present in his slot. It offers me hope that somewhere there’s a young kid watching another host, laughing and getting scared in the comfort of their home and finding a means of escape from the dreary reality we all find ourselves.

My roku box gives me access to a number of "genre" channels offering a sort of broadcast.... films in the public domain, rare indie films, and other such stuff. There's also a bunch of snarky reviewers I found through who introduce people to varioius films, with reviews and synopsis riffing and so on so forth. My favorite reviewer is The Cinema Snob, played by Brad Jones- an independent film maker and radio personality. Fantastic stuff right here with that guy, as he brings a number of interesting films to a new life and provides plenty of comedy to fans of the original material. My big suggestion for people who enjoy his work is that they also follow up a review by maybe looking for the source material of his projects and give it a view of their own.

So yeah... finding Genre films and bizarre shit: It ain't always easy, but there are going to be people out there willing to share what they find. And there are blogs like this one... one little voice in the world wide web willing to talk about random shit and blather on with these bits and pieces. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Golden Mile: The Worlds' End rant.

The World's End:
Gary King was the Man amongst his friends. Brimming with charisma, arrogance, and a devil-may-care charm he would lead the charge on one venture after another, from one conquest to the next, from one pub to the next, until his friends were unable to keep up and they were left behind. The penultimate moment of his existence lies in a single night, graduating night from school, when he led his friends on the “Golden Mile” pub crawl through their hometown and utterly failed to reach the conclusion. His entire life is wrapped in this one night and he’s on a quest now, in his forties, to recapture the glory of that one night and finish the quest he once started with the four mates he grew up with. The problem is, the mates didn’t just fall behind and each of them have moved on with their lives- careers, families, responsibilities, and a few burned bridges stand between Gary and his quest to bring the old band back together. But if anyone’s seen the previews, you already know this much happens- and you already know that this isn’t just a simple pub crawl, that there’s an alien invasion to fight, and that there are hijinks afoot.

What you don’t know is that wrapped in this outlandish genre film is a brutal look at midlife crisis, relationships between men, bonds of friendship, and a much deeper look into the human condition than you’re likely to see in most Oscar Bait films. If you were to ask me to tell you what movie this reminded me of, you might expect me to throw out “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” or maybe something a little zany or wacky or maybe some goofy B-Movie hilarity. My answer would be; The Deer Hunter. Because this is about men who are coping with age, coping with the past, and while we don’t see the jungles of Vietnam we do see these men struggling with their own issues beneath the fa├žade of a sparkly “invasion” film.

Edgar Wright is an amazing film maker, and the collaborations between him, Pegg, and Frost have resulted in some of the best genre-bending films ever made. IF you think Sean of the Dead is just a zombie film, then you didn’t watch the movie or you’re an idiot. If you think that Hot Fuzz is just a buddy cop movie with secret conspiracies thrown about all willy-nilly, you need to give that film a rewatch. The three Coranado (Sp?) delivered in the conclusion to their trilogy, raised the bar, and blew my mind. This film may not just be one of the films I’ve seen all year, it may be one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
5 out of 5. 

And now : RANT ON!!! 

 Who was I supposed to be twenty years ago? 18 years old, graduating High School, struggling to keep my head above water, and I didn't know jack shit- I wasn't going to learn jack shit for a couple of years, but here's the basic gist: I hated the world and the world didn't fancy me all that much. Let me be clear; graduation for me was pure bullshit- got a call from a friend of mine who heard them call my name at the ceremony but I wasn't there. I didn't belong in the school I graduated from and that was crystal clear from the moment I stepped in, but I went through the last two years and pulled it off and I was done. I had no prospects, either... no college for me, I had no money and no means to get there. What I did do was I got myself dumped, I got myself tossed into the street a couple of times, and I felt my life spinning around the shitter for a good many years... 

And I got drunk. Whoah boy, did I get drunk- not often, but when I did drink it was one down after another and another until I couldn't see straight and I was critiquing the pornographic photos friends were showing me based on airbrushing techniques and shading. And I don't look back at that time as my glory days- but there are times I do look back on with a fondness. Driving NORTH on a spur of the moment, nights at random diners, a friend projectile vomitting in the parking lot, running around the neighborhood buck ass naked and then hiding beneath a children's pool in the backyard when the police came looking for me. Yeah, they make me laugh now- yeah I miss some of those moments. And that's what this movie is all about- looking back at those fond memories that you maybe regret, but there's also more than a bit of nostalgia and fondness for all those moments. 

What's more, this movie is designed for my generation- the marketing blank slate that the studios start ignoring because they just expect us to toss our money away. We're not using much in the way of disposable income so we're in this big blank spot... and there are few films that tackle the late thirties and forties with any real effort. This is that film. So yeah, I loved this movie... loved it and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

10 Lovecraftian Horror Movies not based on an adaptation!

10 films based in Lovecraftian Horror:

The mission: Come up with a list of ten movies with a decidedly Lovecraftian feel while keeping away from any direct adaptations. HP Lovecraft, as a writer, developed a mythos and style that he encouraged others amongst his contemporaries to explore which resulted in fantastic stories from Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, and August Derleth. Later writers would also explore elements of Lovecraft, including Cliver Barker, Edward Lee, and Stephen King. But his influence on the medium of film has also been absolute, despite his total disdain for the art in general. Actually, Lovecraft as a creator is an amazing visionary but I don’t exactly look to the man as a source for inspiration on how to live my life.

Anyway, so my project this week has been to build a list of Lovecraft films to recommend to others… films that are NOT based on Lovecraft’s writings, but rather just films that carry a feel or style reminiscent to HP Lovecraft in some way or another. If there are others you think should be added, feel free to comment below. I think the more people know about and share with others, the better the market will become and the wider the influence will be.

1.      Lucio Fulci’s “Gothic” trilogy:

Okay, technically I’m cheating here by throwing a total of 3 movies into one pick… but it’s my list and I’ll do it again later on. Get over it!

There are three movies that act as a sort of trilogy from director Lucio Fulci, though none of the three movies have a connecting storyline of any real sort. There are a couple of interesting little tidbits scattered about, most often in reference to the doors through hell… basically portals scattered across the globe, connecting our world to that of a desolate hell. All three films have a strange atmosphere of fear, dread, and a number of confusing plot threads that dangle with uncertainty. They also include aspects that find a strong connection with the writing of H.P. Lovecraft including cults, books, inter-dimensional portals, and sanity-breaking revelations.

Including all three on the list with separate numbers seems a little redundant. So if you have a chance you should check “House At the End of the Cemetary”, “The Beyond”, and most assuredly my favorite in the series “City of the Living Dead”.

2.      The Descent:

A group of women descend into a deep cavern, get lost, and ultimately find long-twisted humanoid monsters in the deep dark. This movie (director Neil Marshal is excellent!) has a number of connections to Lovecraft, including a strong similarity to “The Beast in the Cave”, “Rats in the Walls”, and of course “The Lurking Fear”. The movie also features a fantastic cast of women, and shows that much of this may simply be crawling through the head of a character broken by an earlier trauma and trapped beneath the earth by the friends who are trying to help.

3.      In The Mouth of Madness: and other John Carpenter works.

Have you read Sutter Kane? The story of a detective on the trail of a writer whose works may have become more than just fiction is like something you’d imagine Lovecraft stories to be. John Carpenter has long been influenced by several of Lovecrafts writings, which becomes obvious with his vision for “The Thing” and even with the unstoppable and unrelenting nature of Michael Myers in “Halloween”. Carpenter preceded “Mouth” with another story that people often overlook, and that film is  “Prince of Darkness”… check that one out sometime, you won’t regret it.

4.      Cloverfield:

A giant monster of unknown origin rises from the deep sea and there is just flat out nothing the story’s main protagonist can really do about it. That’s as Lovecraftian as it gets… that’s cosmic horror right there. There is nothing to do, you are helpless in the face of the terrible horror, and it really has nothing personal against you but you may just wind up in its path. That’s horrifying. I wish I was more of a fan of the film technique or that they had decided to not shoot the film in “first person”, but the story is still really well done.

5.      Paranormal Activity: (most of the films in the series)

I’m hoping enough people have seen this entry so that what I write isn’t so much a spoiler, but this is not just some random ghost story. This is a family specifically targeted because of their familial connection to something darker and far more evil than they understand. Now when I was thinking of movies with a Lovecraftian “feel” to it, I had to debate myself on this one because I don’t really like the film. I think it’s largely a lazy effort, but it tells a solid story and it does so in a manner that is very reminiscent of Lovecraft.

6.      Evil Dead: Series

Sam Raimi has discussed his influence from Lovecraft when it came to developing the script for the original film. The sequel went a little more for the humor, and the third movie just threw the whole Lovecraftian formula out the window… but the recent remake brought the Lovecraft right on back into the project and delivered the goods. I also happen to think that the first Evil Dead may have come the closest to expressing the soul-wrenching insanity of Lovecrafts work without being based on anything in particular.

7.      Phantasm:

Often surreal and dreamlike, Phantasm isn’t exactly known for being “Lovecraftian” in nature. But here’s the thing… a mysterious force is snatching the bodies of the dead, shrinking them, and sending them across the galaxy to an unknown planet where they are forced into slave labor. We learn, throughout the series, that the floating spheres contain the still living brains of people forced into slavery by “The Tall Man”… there’s a very “Mi-go” feel to some of the revelations within the film and I think the atmosphere is very Lovecraftian when you really think about it.

8.      The Ruins

Based on a novel of the same name, there are still a number of elements that are very Lovecraftian in nature… a somewhat benign seeming element hiding an unknown horror, ancient ruins, a lost civilization trying to protect the world from the looming threat. The sense of dread as everything the characters do only makes their situation worse.

9.      Bug

This one may be the one that gets the most head shaking from Dear Faceless Readers, but allow me to explain: Much of Lovecrafts’ horror came from the minds inability to cope with the horrors of a persons’ reality. In some cases, the narrator may not really be the most reliable of story-tellers and these are often their reasons for committing some heinous acts. Bug is a drug-fueled nightmare of suspense with self-immolation, fear of “secret societies”, and it delivers a downward spiral through the nightmare perceptions of its two leads. HP Lovecrafts’ horror didn’t depend on a man in the rubber suit, it was always about the reaction and I think Bug fits the bill to a “t”.

10.   Alien : (I’m going to include Prometheus in this one)

Absolutely the BEST film to capture the feel and flow of Lovecraft, and I firmly believe that the story for this film and the recent “Prometheus” prequel are strongly based on “At The Mountains of Madness”. I’m not sure if this really violates the “adaptation” rule I’ve set for myself, which is why I’ve held off on discussing it. Alien features a lost ruin in a desolate backdrop, a crew of people who discover the ancient mummified corpses of long dead alien creatures, and then they also discover another life form that proceeds to attack and infects one of the crew before the film turns into a basic horror trope… Prometheus addressed some of the issues a little more deeply by showing us that the “Aliens” were the result of an experiment from an “Engineer” race. It’s actually even more strongly related to the Lovecraft story by having the crew be explorers and scientists who can examine the corpses in a manner similar to the exploration crew in the story.

Honorable Mention:

The antagonist monsters from the Hellboy movie are very “cthullhu-esque”, but I didn’t include the film because it lacked many of the elements that make Lovecraft stories so terrifying. First, the lead protagonist is fully capable of tackling the many tentacle monster beasts he faces and his sanity is never really at risk. Most of the characters are unfazed by the horrors they face and the only threat is that of the physical realm. Even the “secret cult” isn’t really seen as much of a threat, it’s more like the “bad guys of the week” sort of feel and they’re not really all that secret. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE the Hellboy series and I think there’s a strong influence from HP Lovecraft but I don’t really find the movie “Lovecraftian” itself.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

She Kills Monster! (Reviewing an unseen play that I read. New Challenge.)

“She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen

Reviewing a play that you read rather than one you actually see is a new challenge for me. I’ve never really tried to do this before, but this title just sort of screamed out to me and the synopsis pretty much guaranteed my interest from the get-go. Monsters, demons, Dungenons & Dragons, and a woman attempting to come to terms with the loss of her teenage sister kind of appealed to a number of my senses, so I put in an order with the gift-certificate and sat down to the material. I laughed very hard, felt a few kicks to the gut, and generally found this play to be everything I would look for in my entertainment.

Tilly is a socially awkward teenage girl who, along with her parents, recently died in a car accident. This leave her schoolteacher sister, Agnes, alone to griever over her losses. While cleaning out her sisters room, the woman comes across a “Dungeons and Dragons” module written by her sister, an adventure written specifically for a very small group of beginners in a world created by Tilly. Agnes recruits help from a local teen gamer (Chuck) to explore her sisters’ story in an attempt to connect with the geeky teen she barely knew.  She gets more than she bargained for as she fights with wise-cracking slacker demons, evil cheerleader succubi, doppelgangers, and a five headed dragon in her quest to free her sisters soul.

The play is easily accessible for those who don’t understand Dungeons & Dragons, utilizing the game itself as a mechanic to tell the story on the stage. There is plenty of stage combat, visual gags, and references to the geek culture that Agnes struggles to understand. Not all of her obstacles come in the game, either… her snobbish best friend (Vera) doesn’t entirely approve of her new hobby, her long-term boyfriend (Myles) is confused by the situation (with some very hilarious results), and she starts to come face to face with the real life inspirations to Tilly’s private world. There are definitely a few shocks in store for Agnes, some emotional upheaval, and the whole story comes to an end in an exciting and tearful climax.

“She Kills Monsters” is designed for a young cast of mid-teens to early twenties and has strong profanity, multiple dance numbers, and graphically violent stage combat. It tackles themes of loss, teen angst, sexuality, roles of gender, and the nature of relationships between people. This is definitely something I would go to see, wish I could be involved with, and enjoy.

4 out of 5.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

HI HO, HI HO... Silver AWAYYYY!!!! (The Lone Ranger) AKA: Not Part of Shakespeare Month

Jerry Bruckheimer brings on Gore Verbinsky, Johnny Depp, and Disney Pictures to try and reignite the magic of “The Lone Ranger” in a long list of summer blockbuster “remakes”… or reimagining, or just flat out update on familiar material? I don’t know, but I did get a chance to check it out and have a lot to get off my mind regarding this particular film. Firstly, the reviews came in and they were largely negative… to be honest, they were downright horrendous. The high and mighty took every opportunity they could to blast Depp for his Tonto, to mock Verbinsky for attempting to catch lightning in a bottle once more with his Pirates of the Caribbean star, and to smack every aspect of the production that they could. Few probably saw the movie as a fan of the Lone Ranger itself, and fewer still could find the good that was scattered abundantly throughout the film.

I, however, am a fan of the Lone Ranger. Let me be honest… as harsh as my taste in film may be, as violent as my interests may lie, as sick and as disturbed as my mind may occasionally get there is still a part of me that is the same idealistic 6 year old who waved the red, white, and blue and swore allegiance to that same flag with absolute fervor every morning at assembly. As cynical as I’ve become, most of that same cynicism is actually born from the shattered hopes of that little boy who wanted to believe that good would always triumph over evil and that good people far outnumbered the bad. So the tenets of men like the Lone Ranger or Captain America or Spiderman tend to ring true with me to this day… and while many current hero stories are born in the darkness of shattered lives, there are still those who should refuse to become the monsters they profess to fight. The Lone Ranger has always been one of “those guys” for me… I’m one of the few people I know who understands why he uses the silver bullet, who understands the values he represented, and I wanted more than anything to see those values represented on the screen especially in light of the recent rush of “hero” films featuring dark people doing dark deeds and being unapologetic when it came time to do those terrible deeds. And based on the desires of a fan, I’m going to judge this film based on the merits I was looking for…

So the movie decides to start with the Lone Ranger robbing a bank. And yes, I had a fanboy moment of such horrible embarrassment I might as well never hold out hope of ever getting a “cool guy” teeshirt and matching hat when I exclaimed in the middle of a theater “NO!!! THE LONE RANGER WOULD NEVER ROB A BANK!!! WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!” and got the dagger eyes from my own kid. Yeah, I shit you not. I did that. And I sat with my mouth shut and watched the rest of the movie… and I’m glad that I did.

It’s not perfect, it’s not entirely without flaws, but the Lone Ranger is far better than many have thus far given it credit for being. The Ranger himself was everything he should have been and maybe a little more, and I was actually very impressed with Armie Hammer’s portrayal of the title character. It’s not hard to see how he managed to win the role, with a deep bass voice and athletic build, Hammer also retains a sense of shy uncertainty of a hero about to begin his quest. He’s an idealist placed in a dark situation, and the actions of others do not yank him from his path… even when all hope is lost, when the “good” guys are absolutely outnumbered by the “bad” and revenge seems to be the only answer, the Ranger continues to fight for Justice above all else and continues to place value on even the lives of his enemies. Maybe someone would roll their eyes on such a thing in this day and age, but it made me happy. The aforementioned bank-robbery seemed like just the sort of moment a film-maker looks forward to utilizing to wake up the fanbase and get their blood boiling, and then offering an explanation that does entirely make sense with the character they’d long ago come to love. It’s a slap on the back with a wink, “did you really think we’d screw it up THAT badly?” comment on the side. Okay, I get it.

The movie is fun. There’s no doubt about it… there are some terrific sequences and the chemistry between Hammer and Depp is pretty good, and doesn’t feel so much shoe-horned like some have expected. I don’t feel like I wasted my money and my fan-boy zeal was satisfied so far as it goes.

So where does the film go wrong? We have a long-running series of moments that my son refers to as the “poo-poo” scenes. It is also the big conceit of the movie itself, that all of this is being told from the point of view of a CGI-transformed Johnny Depp as an older Tonto regales a young boy with the story of a hero. We are taken from the 1930’s San Francisco and plunged back another forty or fifty years ( I admit, I didn’t take a note here) to the time of the Ranger and it doesn’t work. It tags about twenty minutes or so onto a film that is already too long by about 15 minutes without these scenes of Hammy Depp acting like a goof for the sake of screen time. And this is kind of indicative to where the film goes wrong in various points… Johnny Depp is the “Hollywood” name, I know… but people would see the film even if they shaved a few moments of Deppy-goof in order to tighten the story itself a bit more. Also… the “twist” about half way through the film isn’t really much of one as things become fairly obvious very early. In fact, Tonto’s back story almost seems comical in and of itself because the stakes are already high enough without adding his personal vendetta to the mix. We like him better before the story takes away some of the glamour of a character we enjoy getting to know.

The film isn’t an absolute MUST SEE… but it’s fun if you have the time and the inclination.

3.5 out of 5.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Tragedy of Macbeth

My first experience with Macbeth came during my senior year of High School. Unlike some, I usually enjoyed my required reading assignments and I had only just recently discovered an affection for the Bard at that point. I’d seen “Much Ado About Nothing”, I’d read “Romeo and Juliet”, and I’d also read a number of sonnets in passing at the local library. I had also seen the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version of “The Taming of the Shrew” only a few short months prior, in class, as sort of a warm up to the upcoming reading assignment. None of my prior experience really prepared me for what I’d find in The Scottish Play; witchcraft, murder, betrayal, paranoia, prophecies, and terror. Macbeth quickly rose to become one of my favorites, so I was incredibly excited when Paperwing Theatre announced that production would soon be underway and I sincerely hoped to be a part of it. Real life stepped in, I stepped out, but my wife and a good number of friends held on and went for a ride that opened to a standing ovation.

I will roll my eyes a little here, because I’m sure you already noticed I said that my wife and several friends were involved with the production. In the interest of full disclosure… yadda blah, yammer blah, etc. etc. and on and on. If you think it’s going to be a big deal, then whatever… but if you want to keep reading, go right ahead.

The play opens in explosive fashion, with the last skirmish of a great war where Thane Macbeth has established a reputation through acts of valour and a ferocious skill with the sword. Director Jourdain Barton utilizes a ferocious gothic-punk soundtrack to establish the dark fantasy elements of the show and blends modern styles with history. Patrick Golden tackles the title role with a fever, establishing a steady decline of moral and mental faculties throughout the performance. Macbeth betrays and murders the King in order to fulfill a prophecy delivered by three “weird” sisters met upon the road. The witches promise the lord titles beyond his own, a kingship, and a great future. Golden is a strong presence on the stage, demanding attention with near every gesture and reacting to the story around him with an intensifying madness. He draws the audience in with sardonic humor, intensifying the tragic events by letting us see him as both the assailant and the victim in a series of terrible events. He is a hero, he is a monster, he is a villain, he is a tyrant, he is a madman, and he is a victim of the events that play out. To put it far too simply and without proper justice, Patrick Golden IS Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is played by Penelope Morgan. I’m struggling right now to describe this performance and offer justice in my own words. She was amazing, but that doesn’t touch the elements of her performance… brilliant, horrifying, sympathetic… all of them are small adjectives that manage to capture small pieces of the performance, but none of them do her justice. She eagerly pushes her husband toward his vile deed, but the guilt begins to gnaw at her… revulsion, disgust, fear, and horror begin to drag her mind toward a dark and terrible place, but none of that description really truly captures it. It has to be seen. It has to be felt. It has to be experienced. Penelope Morgan has always been one of my favorite actresses to watch on the Central Coast, but she manages to broil in this production and serves a justice to Shakespeare that simply has to be admired.

And then there’s Jesse Juarez in the role of Macduff, the reluctant hero and prophesied enemy to the show’s title character. Macduff is the reverse image of our villain, a man driven by loyalty and inspired by his own duty to take a stand against the tyrant. The cost is high, and Juarez delivers an emotionally brutal performance when he is informed to those costs. The audience feels his pain, and old Shakespeares’ language is taken, devoured, absorbed, and released with passion and clear understanding by Macduff. The difficult language comes easy from his lips, the audience understands every word and intent and we are engaged the moment he draws his sword.

Other performances continue to highlight this production, including a number of turns from stalwart performer Jodi Gilmore . He shines as the Porter, he slithers as the first Murderer, and each role continues to solidify the reliability and versatility of this performer who may be one of the hardest working men I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in the theater. Shane Dallmann’s Ross is a selfish snake, but to reveal any more about the character would betray several surprises the story has for a potential audience. Taylor Young takes a number of turns as well, playing a midwife, Lady Macduff, and a small number of other women seen throughout the show. Her scene with Dustin Moore is cleverly played, a too brief moment of innocent teasing between mother and son. Timothy Samaniego captures the audience with his portrayal of Banquo, but a discussion of his character is another spoiler for those who may not know the story.

Macbeth is playing at the Paper Wing Theatre in Monterey, off Lighthouse Avenue. The company has done a terrific job of making the language accessible to young audiences with their performance, though none of it has been “dumbed” down or modified. The actions simply speak volumes to the words of the Great Bard. There are some bloody moments, some acts of cruelty, and I would say the show is accessible to a PG-13 rating… so if parents would like to introduce their teens to classic literature, this is an excellent opportunity to do so. If teens feel the heavy weight of an impending study on Shakespeare, this is the kind of performance to soak the dryness in blood. If you’re a fan of the material, like me, this is definitely the show to see on the Central Coast.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

SHAKESPEARE MONTH!!!! Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing"

So… I’ve decided to sort of do something a little different this month. My wife is going to be appearing in the local production of Macbeth, Joss Whedon released his anticipated adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing”, and I’m a little bit bored out of my mind. So I’m going to focus this months reviews in the realm of the Bard himself, William Shakespeare.

Much Ado About Nothing

Kenneth Branaghs’ “Much Ado About Nothing” was my first positive experience with Shakespeare, the first time I remember truly enjoying a movie based on the Bard’s work and it provided me with a very deep love for classic literature to this day. What makes it so special, for me, is that it’s completely unlike anything people would normally associate with my taste… there’s really no violent conflict, there’s no blood, there’s no guts, there’s no horror… it’s just a frivolous love story between two very different couples; the young, hopeful, and largely innocent Claudio with his Hero and the cynical, barbed tongue battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. The latter couple carry much of the shows drama and comedy as they are both manipulated by their friends and family into exposing their true feelings for one another. It’s my favorite of the Shakespeare comedies, followed by The Tempest and The Taming of the Shrew (Macbeth being my favorite tragedy, followed by Romeo and Juliet).  With that said…

Joss Whedon is responsible for some of my favorite recent “genre” films, which include the sci-fi masterpiece of Firefly and the motion picture conclusion, Serenity. I largely enjoyed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, though I’m not a huge fan like some other friends of mine. I thought his take on The Avengers was spot on and represented the idea of people who do not get along eventually coming together for a common purpose. It carried a much more dramatic flair than he was given credit for. “Cabin in the Woods” was brilliantly written and has his fingerprints all over the production, though another director takes the credit for execution. I’m not a fan of Dollhouse. Sue me.

Now, color me a little excited to see a new adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” with Joss Whedon at the helm. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen an adaptation of this particular play… let’s be honest, here, it’s not one of the plays I see getting advertised at any local or anywhere nearby theaters.  I can go back and watch the 1992 version whenever I want, but I would like to see some new spins on a few of the performances.  I usually find it hard to sympathize with Claudio regarding some modern sensibilities, so a new take on various characters would be nice to see. I also enjoyed the story of how the film came about, too… about a week of filming during a break in shooting The Avengers, mostly with friends and a skeleton crew and little preparation? Whedon would have parties where he and a group of friends would just sit around and do a read through on Shakespeare… cool, huh? That kind of appeals to my “low budget, independent” sensibilities. Managing to find a babysitter was a little rough, but I eventually made my way to the local “art house” theater in Monterey and caught a little screening with a soda in one hand and chocolate covered raisins in the other.

Whedon takes a somewhat “modern” approach to the material, setting the story in a sort of contemporary time while maintaining the feudal lord aspect of the story itself. We’re asked to sort of suspend disbelief here and Whedon takes another bold approach by filming entirely without color. Despite these small changes, the story largely remains the same as the visiting Prince Don Pedro attends the home of his good friend, Leonato. He’s accompanied by his right and left hand men, the youthful Claudio and the cynical Benedick. All three are accompanied by the far less willing Don Jon, rebellious brother to the Pedro, and his two companions, Conrade and Boracio, all of whom are just brimming with terrible intentions.

Alex Denisof and Amy Acker manage to gather brilliant chemistry and deliver stellar performances as Benedick and Beatrice. Their barbed tongue fly with cynical wit, cutting one another brilliantly. Whedon stalwart regular, Nathan Fillion, turns in a brilliantly comedic performance as the bumbling master of the watch, Dogberry. But, and I would rarely say this regarding this particular story, it’s Fran Kranz’s “Claudio” who absolutely steals the movie with his affection for Hero. Why would I rarely say this? Because Claudio is largely a huge dripping wang whose regard for Hero seems far less than genuine in most adaptations of the work. Whedon takes a chance here and offers some physical direction not seen in the text, his manner much more the heartbroken cuckold than the petulant child seen in Branagh’s version. In fact, I usually found myself cheering for Benedick during their confrontation and hoping to see these two duel whenever I saw the ’92 version… in this, I see two men driven by their affections for loved ones and Claudio is so shattered and torn apart that he’s looking to take it out on anyone. He’s not the hesitant coward as he’s so often been described, but a heartbroken fool in mourning. It’s a different take on the character than I’m used to and one that both Kranz and Whedon made work without changing the actual text.

If Whedon’s version has any drawback, it’s where some characters are combined or completely dismissed in favor of the narrative as it stands. This is only a drawback to Shakespeare “die hards” who maybe wanted to see a much more complete version, but Whedons’ is a little more streamlined within the limits set by budget and shooting schedule. This didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the film, but I want to at least offer a complete view and anticipate where some may feel the movie falls short.

Shakespeare is not exactly my usual forte’ in writing reviews, it’s not the usual kind of show I seem to attend, so my faceless readers may feel this particular review jumps the shark. To them I offer only this; get over it. I write about what I experience, what I like to write about, and that’s all there is to it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Exploring my passions, pursuing a dream, and adapting HP Lovecraft

I first saw an advertisement for the Full Moon adaptation of “The Lurking Fear” in some random issue of Fangoria back in ’92 or ’92. It was a picture that featured a creepy manor house overlooking a dug up cemetery, and from the depths of a small cave near the bottom of the picture a creepy little face stared out. It was a picture that sort of caught my attention from the get-go with a pretty cool monster design, classic motif, and the expectation that comes from adapting material by H.P. Lovecraft… before I realized that Lovecraft is rarely ever adapted very well.

The story was stuffed in some random book of collected works, a story that didn’t really measure up well against the likes of “Rats in the Walls”, “Call of Cthulhu”, or “Dagon”… .but it featured many of the Lovecraft staples, from a dark secret driving the narrator mad to the general feelings of dread and horror associated with his work. The Lurking Fear, however, was a little more traditional than most. It featured a much more linear storyline with a variety of supporting characters to push the narrative forward. It would be a few short years before I managed to come across the film, but finding the story and a love for H.P. Lovecraft was much quicker.

The movie, when I eventually saw it, was a poor representation of the work though it did try to maintain a number of the character names featured in the original story. It featured Jeffrey Combs in one of his many featured Lovecraftian roles, it was a typical Full Moon production, and the creature design that I thought looked pretty cool on the box-cover wound up looking rubber and stiff while in action. But it still held a bit of a special place in my heart for box cover and advertisement art alone. My one thought was, “this could be done better.”

So flash forward some twenty years later and I find myself in need of a project, something to occupy my time between family, work, and all the stresses involved. I’ve got a passion for writing, but I can’t think of anything to write and I’m sort of floundering creatively… so I decided to tackle a written stage adaptation of something by H.P. Lovecraft. The first thing I thought of was “The Dunwhich Horror”, probably his best known and most often adapted works. It’s a fairly standard story with a solid narrative, but it’s been done before (none of them especially faithful or necessarily ‘good’ <though I did enjoy the Corman version>). My second thought was something related to The Rats in the Walls, or maybe The Call of Cthullhu, but both seemed a little difficult to envision. And this led me to “The Lurking Fear”, my old flame. It was a good narrative and I had once thought “This could be done better” and then did nothing to prove it. Well, I consider comments like that to be a challenge from myself so I set out to tackle the project and see what I could make of it.

It started out as a verbatim faithful adaptation, but realized that it was really just one guy narrating a whole lot of dialogue. I needed to create some action, some sort of narrative dynamic, and so I placed the whole of the story within the confines of the Martense Manor and built a story around the narrators’ description of events. I added characters from the story and created one of my own to encapsulate the whole of various others who appear briefly. I looked beyond the story and to others from Lovecraft for influence, for direction, for a general sense of where things might end up going . The end result is pretty good and something I actually believe in… so after several drafts and revisions, I think the whole thing is ready and geared up. It’s time to see if I can get it produced.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

3? Fucking 3?!?!! Part Three... Hatchet and Iron Man and the rating...

Hatchet III

I love Adam Green’s franchise! Let me make this clear… Adam Green makes the kind of stuff I wish I could do; the blending of horror and humor and just enough geekiness to make every project seem like a dream come true for me. I look forward to the annual “ariescope” Halloween short film on youtube, ever since I saw “The Tiffany Problem” and the twisted horror and humor brought to life there. I watch “Holliston” on fearnet, one of the few sitcoms I can get into since it’s about two horror movie fanatics who wish they could make their own independent film. I found “Frozen” to be one of the most suspenseful horror films in the past ten years, and it all started when I rented “Hatchet” from Netflix a good many years back. Victor Crowley smashed his way into my heart and mind and I’ve been a huge fan ever since.

Hatchet III is the third film in the franchise, and Adam Green passes up the directors’ chair in favor of being a producer on the project. His absence is felt in a slight change of style behind the lense, but the mans’ touch is still there as Kane Hodder reprises Victor Crowley and Danielle Harris returns as Marybeth. There are a number of other returning actors and a few characters, but some are spoiler-ish surprises so I’ll leave mention of them to a minimum. The Hatchet franchise has always been about the splatter… slapstick splatter, to be exact. Gruesome deaths mount up through the running time, creative “kills”, and the vicious onslaught of Victor Crowley goes far beyond the previous two entries as he manhandles one character after another including a brief one on one battle between opposing “Jasons” that may have been intended to mirror the previous films battle between Hodder and a former “Leatherface” actor.

Okay, the film starts off right where the last film ends with Marybeth shooting Victor in the head and then follows that up with a series of gruesome moments before she wanders back into New Orleans and stumbles into a Sheriff’s station covered in blood and clutching a scalp torn from the head of Crowley. The Sheriff and his deputies head out to Honey Island Swamp and discover the grisly scene, bring in paramedic, SWAT officers, and basically offer up a smorgasbord of victims for Victor to mow through. The Sheriff is played by Zack Gallagher, from Gremlins. We have Derek Mears (Friday remakes Jason) come in as a SWAT officer, RileahVanderbilt (AKA: Young Victor Crowley and Adam Greens’ wife) is another SWAT officer, Dee Snider’s son as Schneiderman, cameo appearances from a variety of genre vets, and of course the returning Parry Chen as an Asian EMT named Andrew who bears no family connection to the brothers he played in the previous two entries of the franchise. The body count piles up as the sun goes down… but the film sort of stalls out at various points. We basically have two stories happening at the same time and the character of Marybeth seems to have gone from our lead Heroine to a foul-mouthed background character we kind of stop sympathizing with halfway through the film itself.

The film benefits from having Adam Green closely involved with the story and production, but it suffers from having a lack of attention to the story itself and the characters that Adam Green had a knack for bringing to life. In the first two Hatchet films we really got to know the characters, whether in the lead or in some sort of tertiary role. We kind of rooted for many of them to make it, even the scummy Reverend Zombie had enough “character” to be someone we kind of want to see make it through to the end. Heck, the mute hunter who didn’t have a single line did more with his facial expressions than Zack Gallagher does as a semi-lead in the third film. The third entry in the Hatchet series doesn’t give that much warmth to the characters… they’re all cussing up a storm, threatening one another, and generally acting like privileged jerks who we actively want to see Victor rip apart. Schneiderman may be the only exception, but I don’t really think it was on purpose when you look at how the movie was edited together. His performance is just so over the top that it has nothing to drag it down, and kudos to Sniders’ kid for that.

There is a good movie here, but it doesn’t rise to the level of the previous two films. I enjoyed it, however… it was fun, goofy, gory, and entertaining. Worth the money I spent to watch it On-Demand and would have been worth the money to watch it in a theater even if I would have had to drive to San Fran like I did with the previous film. I will be buying it to own when it comes out on DVD, and I will still see it in a local theater if it happens to play.

3 out of 5

Iron Man 3.

I don’t know… maybe I’m spoiled at this point. Or I’m jaded. Or my expectations were set to high. It could have been any number of those things, or it could just be that the movie really isn’t as good as I’ve heard others describe it. But I do know I wasn’t the only one unhappy with the film.

My son wasn’t happy. At the age of 7, he’s become invested in the Iron Man character and practically grew up on the exploits of Tony Stark. He wasn’t grinning from ear to ear, he wasn’t pleased, and he asked me to take him home at various points throughout the film as we sat in a dark theater and munched popcorn to the latest installment of the Iron Man Franchise. And, please understand, my son loves the Iron Man movies… he really loves the Avengers, he was bouncing in his seat throughout the Thor preview, and he was excited to be AT this movie when we took him but the excitement gave way to fear and discomfort as the movie progressed. You see, that’s one of the things that’s been haunting me… my son was ‘scared’ of this movie, it wasn’t making him happy, it wasn’t making him feel good, and it really wasn’t making me feel too good myself.

Director Shane Black takes the helm for the third movie and he sets a different tone from the earlier productions with Jon Favreu, with Tony Stark coping with PTSD after the events of the Avengers and relocating himself to Malibu, California. War Machine is rebranded the “Iron Patriot” by the U.S. Government and Pepper Potts has all but taken complete control of Stark Industries while Tony copes with his personal demons and amasses a veritable army of Iron suits. He’s also coping with other demons from his past, including a jilted lover and a spurned genius whose work results in the creation of AIM and the Extremis Project.  And then there’s the looming threat of the Mandarin… a foreshadowed threat handled quite well during the earlier two movies kind of fails to bring a pay off in the third, with much of the earlier groundwork being ignored. It’s a boiling cauldron of plot points and characters that seem to … well… be there. They’re all taking a back seat to Robert Downey Jr. portraying the flippant, dismissive, and amusing Stark as he copes with one panic attack after another… a vulnerable hero is a good thing, but the sorry wreck that we constantly get to see over and over again doesn’t make us feel like someone is rising above their vulnerabilities; Tony Stark is wallowing in them and being snide while doing it. This isn’t the fault of Downey, who is fantastic in the role… but rather the script which is frankly poor and cobbled together with various points.

Iron Man 3 tries to be clever when it should just be heroic. It tries to do too much with the number of characters at its disposal, and fails to make an impact with any of them. They try to make Pepper into something more than a damsel in distress, but they don’t give her enough time to develop her own story despite the hints that there’s something more there. There are too many sub-plots and twists and turns to make Iron Man 3 a cohesive story and it ultimately fails to live up to the promise of the previous two films. This isn’t to say the film is an absolute disaster, since there are several good points in the film.

The Extremis effects are good and it’s an interesting way to add variety to the stock villains in the Iron Man “tech battles”.  I enjoyed the battle sequence featuring Stark having to go against two of the agents sans suit, using his wits to survive and take on the villains. The finale battle is impressive, a good escape scenario earlier in the film, and the rescue of passengers thrown from an airplane is definitely impressive as anything else you’re likely to see in a superhero film. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow shine in their reprisals, but the rest of the film is cluttered.

And then there’s the end. It’s meant to be an upturn ending, a “hope for tomorrow” kind of ending, the hero gets his rest and the world is set right. But it isn’t… it’s more of a confusing scrunch of the brows, we wonder what the point was, and we’re sort of left floundering as fans to a series. My son said something that broke my heart, and I won’t repeat it because it may be a bit of a spoiler. And it pissed me off to some extent, because my son deserves to have his mythology and his heroes. He deserves to look forward to the next installment, the next challenge, and Shane Black might as well get strung up and have his spine ripped from his body for this ending.

3 out of 5?