Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review - "The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies" by David Pretty

For better or for worse, Peter Jackson's vision of The Hobbit is finally complete. And make no mistake about it, this is most assuredly the New Zealand director's take on the venerable children's fantasy yarn since it bears about as much resemblance to Tolkien's original text as Olive Garden does to an Italian restaurant.

Smaug the dragon (voiced by prerequisite presence Benedict Cumberbatch) has been evicted from his squatters lair in Erebor thanks to a gutsy extermination effort by the displaced dwarves. The olde wyrm decides to punish their temerity by turning the nearby hamlet of Laketown into a giant hibachi. This concludes with a fateful encounter with the dauntless and dead-eyed Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).

With Smaug out of the picture the new dwarven King Thorin Oakenshield decides to celebrate by diving Scrooge McDuck-style into the freshly-liberated treasure horde. As a result he begins to suffer from "dragon sickness", a corrupting influence left over from Smaug's extended proximity to the gold. Overcome by greed and paranoia, Thorin barricades the front gates of Erebor like the Middle Earth version of Cliven Bundy.

And his paranoia may very well be justified. The Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) have arrived en masse to recover their heirlooms which were stolen by Smaug over the years. The survivors of Laketown also come a-knockin', looking to file a dragon fire insurance claim. Even worse: hordes of orcs are converging on the relatively undefended stronghold, demanding their own piece of the action.

The best thing I can say about The Battle Of Five Armies is that all the irrelevant mush that Jackson and his screenwriters have dragged into the story are all action beats this time out. Well, most of it is anyway. For example, the subplot featuring the Wormtongue-esque Alfred Lickspittle (Ryan Gage) is completely superfluous but at least Gage is fun to watch. Equally superfluous is the color-by-numbers non-existent love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili the hawt dwarf (Aiden Turner).

At this stage, Jackson isn't even trying to replicate the tone of Tolkien's classic kid's adventure book. It's been re-purposed to conform with every single other modern blockbuster: in other words it's a dark, noisy and hideously violent action movie. There's absolutely no sense of adventure, discovery or wonder, just a constantly-escalating parade of digital spectacles. And that's really a bloody shame because The Hobbit should have been a training wheels version of Lord of the Rings for kids: something short, sweet, lighthearted, funny and occasionally scary but maybe not too scary. Instead we get an incessant bombardment of sound and fury signifying Jackson shouting "Are you not entertained?!?" to the widest theater-going demographic possible.

Moments of insight, emotion, tranquility and reflection are few and far between. Sadly I'm at my happiest when the dwarves are trucking along a real mountain ridge, Gandalf is galloping across the New Zealand countryside or Bilbo is crossing the threshold of the Shire. Many of the practical sets, including the dwarven realm of Erebor, the charred and ruined city of Dale and the desolate peak of Dol Guldur showcase a fine attention to detail, but most of the digital backgrounds and establishing shots look like cut scenes from Diablo III.

I also wish that the dwarves looked more rough n' tumble, like Gimli did in Lord of the Rings. It's bad enough that Legolas and Thranduil are under so many freakin' filters that they look like plastic, pointy-eared versions of Bruce Jenner but the dwarves are equally well-coiffed. When you superimpose one of these flawless, ruddy, rubbery ("ruddery?")-looking bastards in the foreground of an equally fraudulent digital background I feel as if I'm watching some sort of competent-looking fan film. For example, when Scottish comedian Billy Connolly shows up as Dáin all I could think of is how much better Varric from Dragon Age: Inquisition looks.

Jackson makes amends somewhat by serving up some of the trippiest moments of the entire Middle Earth saga. When the White Council featuring Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) suddenly bomb in like the Super Friends to confront the embryonic Ring Wraiths, you'll swear that you just popped a tab of brown acid instead of a Milk Dud. After witnessing the incongruous sight of 92-year-old Christopher Lee kicking ass and taking names like Jackie Chan in a Drunken Master movie you'll also get a load of Galadriel foreshadowing her Fellowship freak-out by going full Ozymandias on the re-constituted Lidless Eye. By the time you watch Thorin sinking into Smaug's lake of gold like a deleted scene from The Lawnmower Man you'll begin to wonder if Jackson is just trying pay homage to his earlier, infinitely more interesting low-budget horror movie career.

But for every WTF?!? moment of  there are three instances of eye-rolling idiocy, most of which involve *surprise, surprise*, I mean Legolas. I was willing to accept his patented light-as-air arm sweep / arrow in the skull bat-glider scene, but when he steers a troll around with a cranium-embedded sword and then runs up a series of falling bricks like Bugs Bunny I audibly shouted "Check, please!" in the theater. Honestly, just because the movie looks like a cartoon does the action hafta go all Looney Tunes on us as well?

But I can't criticize all of the spectacle. Smaug's attack on Laketown is harrowing and intense. The titular Five Army fracas is an epic scrum of humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, giant bats, and sandworms who apparently took the wrong turn on their way to Arrakis. But even the best-visualized action scenes get boring after awhile, especially if you've been given so little reason to identify with the characters who are supposedly in peril. The reason we cared so much for Frodo and Sam in the Rings trilogy is because we spent so much time with them and suffered as they did. Here Bilbo is just trying to keep his head down as a bunch of greedy assholes get into a very stabby rugby match over a pile of gold.

It's bad enough that the characters are under-written but the action scenes drag on and on. At one point I thought that Thorin had actually used his noodle to abbreviate an already-prolonged scrum with Azog but seconds later we get a predictable, hackneyed, slasher-villain style jump scare that anyone can see coming a mile away. Eventually I started to suffer from hyper-extended spectacle fatigue and began to tune out.

Thankfully the film is aided by a horde of capable actors who give credence to the alternately functional, interchangeable and / or stilted dialogue. Martin Freeman's performance is a bit self-conscious and labored but I think that he's just trying to wring some passion and nuance out of the wafer-thin material. For a film titled The Hobbit Bilbo sure spends a lot of time in the background peeking over shoulders or wordlessly staring at other characters as they do more interesting things. Ian McKellen is his usual great self and the jarringly-quiet pipe-cleaning scene he shares with Freeman is something that I wanted a lot more of.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield enjoys a functional, if rather dragged out, character arc. It takes nearly two hours for him to go from an obstinate, avaricious hermit to a valiant, take-charge warrior. Unfortunately, it isn't the eponymous hobbit that prompts this epiphany but his aforementioned psychedelic gold whirlpool nightmare. Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly are stalwart and stiff-upper-lipped as Legolas and Tauriel. Luke Evans also deserves considerable praise for filling in as an Aragorn understudy.

I feel churlish criticizing a film as well-made as The Battle of Five Armies. The sets look cool, the music is solid, the actors are strong, the costumes are convincing and the special effects are especially effective. It just has no heart and no soul. In his effort to make The Hobbit as epic and earth-shattering as the chronologically-distant Lord of the Rings, Jackson stripped that humble little tale of everything that made it quaint, charming and unique.

Even worse, if you watch Fellowship of the Ring right after a Hobbit flick you'll realize that the two don't even dove-tail visually and tonally with one another. The Lord of the Rings still feels like a comparatively lean and mean little quest tale featuring three-dimensional characters and practical special effects while The Hobbit reeks of the modern cinematic failure of trying too hard.

   Tilt: down.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" by David Pretty


Poor Katniss Everdeen. Along with faux love interest Peeta Mellark, she managed to survive the state-sanctioned horrors of the 74'th Annual Hunger Games. But even after she's granted all the privileges and rights associated with victory she's unable to reconcile her new role as a willing pawn for the totalitarian regime with the destitution and abuse being inflicted on her people. 

During her Victory Tour she becomes increasingly willful, inspiring the despotic President Snow to propose a new version of the Hunger Games called the "Quarter Quell". A selection of prior champions, including the hapless Katniss and Peeta, are once again thrown into the field of battle to determine a single winner. But this time secret forces are at work in an attempt to turn our budding heroine into an unwitting symbol for a full-fledged rebellion. 


Of course, fans of the Suzanne Collins book series will most likely have already seen this several times over. Anyone else who digs lite sci-fi / dystopian future / big event movies will also be predisposed to checking out The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

  •  Yay, new director! Francis "I Am Legend" Lawrence replaces Gary "Seabiscuit" Ross and the results are pretty noticeable. Even though I Am Legend was downright ass-tacular, at least Lawrence didn't cheat most of the action scenes by resorting to shaky-cams and electron-microscope-style close-ups. And even though this one has a slightly-longer run time it actually feels shorter. This is, in part, due to Lawrence's breezy directorial style and partly because of my next point.
  • Introductions are over and now we're down to the real nitty gritty. By threatening to enact a suicide pact at the end of the prior film, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) managed to survive the Games and generate a groundswell of opposition to the barbaric practices of the Capitol. When President Snow (Donald Sutherland) trots them out for a self-serving "Victory Tour" they begin to see just how widespread the uprisings are. Whenever someone in the crowd tries to perform the District 12 Sign to salute the two self-sacrificial "lovers" they're either dragged away, pummeled into submission or shot on sight. Even though our heroes would love to come out in public support of the people, Snow has threatened to execute everyone in their circle. Man, talk about a sticky wicket!
  • The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) finally starts to coalesce. In the first film, Peeta's motivations were tough to pin down but now that he's proven his mettle, I can see the dude's appeal. Since they've been through hell and back together it makes sense that Katniss would develop feelings for him. By the same token Gale is a childhood sweetheart and quite noble and heroic in his own right.
  • Snow's nasty solution to the surging popularity of Katniss is kinda like Jeopardy's "Tournament of Champions" but with 100% more murder. Even though this "Quarter Quell" doesn't make a lick of sense to this armchair dictator (see "CONS" below), it sure ramps up the film's dramatic tension. Especially when you consider that these Victors have been promised a lifetime of fame, fortune and security if they survive the Games. When they find themselves dragged back onto the field of battle, the resulting rancor and bitterness is downright palpable.
  • In addition to its superior pacing and story, Catching Fire also exhibits a considerably sharper visual eye. The special effects used to depict the Capitol, the Roman-esque Chariot Ride / Tribute Parade, the transport hovercraft and the combat grounds are all a lot more convincing this time out. 
  • There's also some great set design on display here including the slums of District 12, the ghostly "Victor's Village", the Capitol Train car, the Presidential Mansion, the Training Center and the battle site itself.   
  • The costumes of the Capitol residents are as extravagant as ever but not nearly as inadvertently goofy. Effie Trinket's monarch butterfly frock and Katniss's transformative wedding dress / mockingjay gown are pretty distinctive. This contrasts nicely with the shabby, work-a-day garb worn by the average District-dweller. The stormtrooper-like armor of the incongruously-named "Peacekeepers" is also chillingly effective.        
  • I'm really glad that these books and films are so popular with young people since, at the very least, it should give them the ability to recognize symptoms of fascism. Keep a checklist handy while watching Catching Fire and count how many real-world parallels you can spot. We've got a growing disparity between the rich upper-class and the working poor, overt pageantry and idolatry, law-enforcement over-reach, Orwellian language, dictatorial powers, info-tainment media distractions and an attempt to convince the average plebe that you can become one of the elite if you just jettison your morals and start doing whatever it takes to get ahead. I only hope that fans realize sooner rather then later that The Hunger Games is only nominally a work of fiction. 
  • Jennifer Lawrence is forced to endure what amounts to an emotional roller coaster here but she's sure-footed throughout the entire film. Brash and defiant towards Snow's regime, terrified by the prospects of retaliation against her mom and l'il sis and suffering from what amounts to PTSD, the character of Katniss has a lot on her plate here. Not a lot of young actresses could pull off the insight, mental agility and physical demands required to make all of this work but Lawrence is completely self-assured and sympathetic throughout. 
  • Josh Hutcherson presides over a pretty decent little character arc and even provides a few twists as Peeta. In my review for the first film I described his character as a "milksop" and wanted Katniss to just "snap" and "make his head look like a pincushion". Between the solid scripting and Hutcherson's growing command over the role, I no longer want a heavy object to fall on him such as a safe or a piano. Perhaps this was the intent of Suzanne Collins all along: to have our feelings towards Peeta mirror those of Katniss and evolve as we got to know him. Having said that, I can't escape this overwhelming suspicion that fans of the book are probably reading this and laughing their asses off at me for some reason.
  • Peeta occasionally calls Katniss Cat-Nip. Now if Katniss had only referred to Peeta's grade-school crush "Hummus" then things would have been absolutely perfect.  
  • Just as I predicted, Gale emerges here as a vaguely three-dimensional character and Liam Hemsworth finally gets a chance to do something. Even though he's miles away from the Tribute spotlight he does provide considerable emotional heft for Katniss and also proves to be a stalwart guardian for the downtrodden masses of District 12. The scene where he bull-rushes the cruel and sadistic Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) makes for a great "Hells, yeah!" moment and his resulting punishment is pretty harrowing. 
  • In a related point, congrats to St. Esprit for making the most out of his limited screen time and delivering a genuinely frightening and unhinged performance.  
  • As the "damaged veteran" Haymitch Abernathy, Harrelson is no longer a sloppy, flinty, acerbic mess. He's become a highly-functioning alcoholic with his own machinations to deal with. Whether he's dreading a return to the Games, prepping his young charges for battle or revealing a surprisingly deep agenda, Harrelson is pitch-perfect throughout. 
  • And just as expected, the flighty, audacious and relentlessly-cheerful Effie Trinket seems to be on the cusp of a complete mental breakdown. It's fun to watch the fantastic Elizabeth Banks struggle to keep up appearances during the deja vu District 12 Reaping Ceremony. Effie's close proximity to Katniss and Peeta has put a pretty big hole in her Kool-Aid tumbler. Her best moment comes on the eve of the Quarter Quell when she struggles to present Haymitch and Peeta with their "team symbols" without crying. Given what these token come to symbolize later you can't help but wonder if she's done with the whole rotten edifice.    
  • There are some great supporting performances on hand as well. Lenny Kravitz is cooly self-assured as the fashion consultant Cinna. As the new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, the greatly-missed and entirely-unreadable Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a very welcome addition to the cast. Stanley Tucci is gloriously obnoxious and vacant as media personality Caesar Flickerman. Donald Sutherland is quietly terrifying as President Coriolanus Snow. Finally Jena Malone makes a real impression as the bitter, shifty and um...body-positive Tribute Johanna Mason. Her elevator scene alone is worth the price of admission.
  • As much as Suzanne Collins might wish that Battle Royale doesn't exist, the two are so similar that comparisons are inevitable. In Battle Royale the participants are secretly gassed, they wake up in captivity, they're handed a weapon and then they're told that it's "kill or be killed". There's no time to dwell on morality: their immediate actions are primal and instinctive. In The Hunger Games the Tributes have plenty of time to ponder their predicament. Hell, they're even trained, for Chrissakes. As such, I'm surprised that more Tributes don't struggle with the concept of becoming a state-sponsored murderer and that more of them don't just off themselves. I know that this is probably addressed somewhere in the books but it's petty much glossed over in the films.
  • The subtext in Battle Royale is that kids should be culled because they are, by their very nature, rebellious. In The Hunger Games these gladiatorial contests happen to distract the masses and remind citizens of the omnipotent power of the Capital. Which makes Snow's decision to martyr a bunch of honored heroes seem pretty stupid to me. Wouldn't this just piss off more people and galvanize them against the government? At the very least wouldn't everyone be gunning for Katniss because its her fault that they all got dragged back into this mess? Snow needs to take a cue from the real world: the best distractions are the most vapid. If the Capital could only find its own Grumpy Cat, PewDiePie and Kardashians they'd be all set. 
  • For the most part the action scenes are gritty, realistic and well-shot. That is until the original novel requires the film-makers to break open a barrel of monkeys. As soon as our heroes were attacked by a horde of pissed-off mandrills I was this friggin' close to shouting "Check, please!" and stopping the movie. I'm sure this scene plays out a lot better in the book but in cinematic terms it feels like a deleted pre-vis scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • Another thing that threatened to eject me out of the film was the ol' "lets-string-this-seemingly-limitless-bolt-of-copper-wire-through-the-jungle-and-electrocute-everyone-in-the-lake-and-on-the-beach" trick. If I was Katniss I probably would have stuck my hand up at that point and asked: "Um, ooookay, so, won't this unjacketed wire with a hundred gigawatts of lightning surging through it also electrocute everything else in this damp-ass rain forest? Like, y'know, us for example?"      

Catching Fire is definitely an improvement on the first film. Even though I still maintain that Battle Royale pulls off this scenario more viciously and economically, I still appreciate the in-depth world-building and social commentary on display here. I'm now officially engrossed in The Hunger Games saga and I really wanna see what happens in the last two installments.
Tilt: Up.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Movie Review: "In The Name Of The Father" by David Pretty

There aren't a lot of films dealing with "The Troubles" in Ireland, but along with 2008's Hunger, In the Name of the Father is one of the best.

Director Jim Sheridan tells the real-life story of Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), a scrap metal thief who ventures to London in the mid-Seventies to try and escape the constant danger and despair in his native Belfast. But when an IRA bomb rips through a pub in Guildford killing five people, Conlon and three of his mates are snatched up by the British secret service who have just been granted sweeping powers of arrest and detainment thanks to the hastily-cobbled-together "Prevention of Terrorism Acts".

The authorities beat and coerce Conlon and his associates for seven straight days in an effort to wring confessions out of them. To make matters worse, when Gerry's father "Giuseppe" Conlon (Pete Postlethwaite) visits his sister-in-law Anne Maguire in London to assist his son, the entire family is swept up by the police as accomplices. All told, eleven innocent people were sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit, including Anne's fourteen-year-old son Patrick! In the mad rush to produce results and quell needless panic, witnesses for the defense were deep-sixed, evidence was concealed and latent confessions were ignored.

The balance of the film details the trials and tribulation of Gerry and his father, their effort to survive incarceration and the subsequent campaign led by an English solicitor named Gareth Peirce (Emma Thomson) to see them released. As she begins to peel back the layers of corruption we witness a contemporary example of why it's so important to preserve the due process of law, particularly during times of "terrorist threat", whether it be legitimate or the product of fear-mongering.

The film is a masterstroke. Sheridan takes his time, easing the audience into the story and generating a considerable amount of pathos for his subjects along the way. As a corollary, they aren't depicted as saints either, which lends more weight to their humanity. In Sheridan's capable hands, all of the pertinent introductions, complications, impossibilities and revelations are presented to us in an economic and engaging fashion.

Since the violence was starting to abate somewhat in the early Nineties, this afforded the film-makers a rare opportunity to shoot on location in Ireland. This gives the movie an original look and convincing tone. Belfast was still a bit too volatile at the time but Dublin fills in adequately, with its Docklands, Sheriff Street and Kilmainham Jail offering an unmatched level of authenticity.

The actors do a stellar job. Human chameleon Daniel-Day Lewis is incredible, investing as much effort in the physicality of the role as the emoting. Celebrated character actor Pete Postlewaite is absolutely superb as Jerry "Giuseppe" Conlon. His physical deterioration in prison mirrors that of his son's mental state and its heart-rending to think about how wasteful and unnecessary this all was.

A pre-Nanny McPhee Emma Thomson proves just how much of a treasure she is. As Gareth Peirce she's single-minded, earnest and strident. The scene in which she gains access to secret documents in Jerry's protected file thanks to a clerk's oversight intoxicates the viewer with overwhelming feelings of righteous vindication.

Back when this film was released it was just one of many fascinating stories to emerge from a dark period of modern British history. Now it's a contemporary warning against politicians who are trying to use the intangible but ever-renewing specter of terrorism to erode our freedoms and basic human rights. It's a clarion call for vigilance since, in many ways, our own liberties have been curtailed far more dramatically in recent years and with far less justification.

This is a very relevant, compelling and heartbreaking story.

Tilt: up.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Movie Review: "The Wolf Man" (1941) by David Pretty

The second flick I watched in the Cineplex Cinema Classics Halloween Double Feature was The Wolf Man. Following nine years after The Mummy, The Wolf Man is an even slicker package that exemplifies how well-tuned the Universal horror factory had become by then.

In fact, this wasn't Universal's first bash at head-lining a lycanthropy-stricken protagonist. That dubious distinction belongs to Henry Hull who portrayed the Werewolf of London back in 1935. Unfortunately that film failed to resonate with audiences partly because Hull refused to wear the full version of Jack Pierce's iconic make-up and partially due to the film's pedestrian plot.

But writer Curt Siodmak was convinced that a character suffering under the inherently-tragic werewolf myth had a genuine shot at joining the Universal monster fraternity, which already included such luminaries as Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Mummy. He persisted, eventually delivering a crackerjack script which was then realized by veteran producer / director George Waggner.

Prodigal son Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Wales after his brother is killed in a hunting accident. Instead of acting like a resentful jackhole, his supportive dad Sir John (Claude Rains) uses this tragic occasion to reconnect with his journeyman son. Pretty soon Larry finds himself easing into the role of a local Lord.

This includes a whirlwind romance with the beautiful Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). After spying her from afar in a scene that feels less "Peeping Tom" and more "love-at-first-sight" Larry visits her at her family's antique shop. During their meeting it's revealed that she's engaged to be wed to the milquetoast Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). Undeterred Larry invites her out with him the following evening.

Before he leaves the shop he buys an unusual walking stick with a silver handle in the shape of a wolf's head. This gives Gwen an opportunity to repeat a popular refrain amongst the superstitious locals:

Even a man who is pure in heart 
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms 
and the autumn moon is bright.

The following night Larry, Gwen and wing-woman / third wheel Jenny (Fay Helm) visit a traveling band of gypsies that have just rolled into town. While Larry and Gwen flirt with one another Jenny gets her fortune told by the intense and brooding Bela (Béla Lugosi). When the cards predict doom, Jenny freaks out and runs away, prompting the gypsy to give chase. Soon the girl's desperate cries for help are heard reverberating through the misty woods.

Larry rushes to her aid but suddenly finds himself in a life-or-death battle with a vicious wolf. He manages to slay the beast with his silver-headed cane but he's wounded in the process and passes out. When he comes to, Jenny is dead and Larry's cane has been used to tee off on Bela's skull.

Before we can pass this off as Republican-style xenophobia, Larry is approached by the gypsy matron Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) who tells him that her son Bela was cursed with lycanthropy. This gives her a chance to serve up that timeless old chestnut: "Whoever is bitten by a verewolf and lives becomes a verewolf himself". Naturally, Larry chalks this up to more paranoid local color and tries to forget about the whole thing.

Unfortunately THE LAW, led by Colonel Montford (Ralph Bellamy) can't overlook the evidence which clearly implicates Larry in Bela's murder. Sir John and their family physician Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) try to mount a defense for the young man but Larry's odd behavior makes this increasingly difficult. On the same night that a gravedigger is brutally murdered, Larry blacks out and then wakes up the following morning covered in mud. It would seem that the gypsy woman's warnings were more truth then superstition after all!

As I mentioned before, by the time the 1940's rolled around, Universal had pretty much perfected its horror recipe. Less melodramatic and stagey then The Mummy and Dracula, director George Waggner takes advantage of the ambitious script and serves up plenty of cool and interesting set-pieces. Like those earlier films there's plenty of vintage production design to admire here.

Talbot Manor is appropriately stately. The Conliffe antique shop is gloriously cluttered and arcane. And when the gypsies arrive in town the set decoration really starts to impress. All of those authentic-looking carts, tents, props and costumes become the stuff of nightmares when immersed in a gnarled, fog-shrouded forest. Eventually the movie takes on the bearing of a dreamy, nebulous fairy-tale.

The Wolf Man also features one of the earliest on-screen monster transformations. In earlier films potential werewolves or Mr. Hydes would just lurch off-screen or collapse behind some strategically-placed furniture. The camera would be turned off and the make-up man would rush in to do his business. When he was done the camera would start cranking again, the actor would either rise up or lurch back into frame and - voilà! - instant monster! Sure, it was a bit of a cheat but it worked in a pinch.

For his film Waggner wanted something more undeniable, more horrifying. Ergo, Larry's transformation happens right up on screen. As you might expect, a much more laborious process was used in order to achieve this. After the camera was locked down, Chaney had to remain perfectly still as make-up impresario Jack Pierce applied some appliances, grease paint and yak hair to the actor's hands and feet. After shooting a few frames, they'd turn the camera off and once again Pierce would run in and add a bit more detail to the illusion. This process was painstakingly repeated over and over again until Chaney was in full wolf mode.

This technique is beautifully showcased during the film's first transformation sequence. Granted Waggner doesn't show Chaney's face during this pivotal moment, but this restraint allows for a spectacular reveal of the Wolf Man later on. The shot begins with an anxious and alarmed Larry noticing that his body hair is experiencing an alarming growth spurt. The camera locks down on his legs which slowly dissolve into wolf paws. Upon completion, he stands up and then stalks out to frame. Cut to those same beastly feet tramping through the misty forest. Then the camera pulls back, revealing the fearsome Wolf Man in all his snarling glory!
Between Waggner's taut direction, Joseph Valentine's agile camerawork and a stirring original soundtrack by the sadly-uncredited trifecta of Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner, the film retains quite a bit of its original power. When The Wolf Man first unspooled for audiences back in 1941 it really must have looked as if Chaney was transforming into a beast right before their unbelieving eyes. One can only imagine how many cinephiles must have fallen forward into their popcorn when they first got a load of this.

As great as the sets and makeup effects are, the whole thing would be rather hollow without the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr. Although he wasn't as accomplished or multifaceted as his famous dad, I'd challenge anyone to name another actor who could generate half the amount of pathos that Chaney manages to embody here. With his towering height, basset-hound facial features and cut-like-a-bag-of-milk physique, Chaney had the perfect sad-sack everyman qualities needed to embody a character cursed by fate. A case can be made that he was even more effective in lupine form: feral, manic and vicious.

Claude Rains also deserves a nod for his terrific turn as Sir John Talbot. I guarantee that if this film were re-made right now, the senior Talbot would be written as a complete asshole, treating his wayward son like the family's black sheep. Apart from a brief awkward moment, he's perfectly welcoming to Larry, relieved that his last remaining son is back within his sphere influence safe and sound. His unwavering support for Larry is what makes the film's finale even more tragic. The performance delivered by Rains is so natural and contemporary that I feel downright compelled to seek out his leading man roles in The Invisible Man and The Phantom of the Opera.     

Béla Lugosi doesn't have a lot to do here but his screen time is highly memorable. Always hypnotic, Lugosi brings a burning intensity to the role of the doomed Bela. Between this and his supporting role as Igor in Son of Frankenstein, one wishes that the studio had kept him in colorful bit parts throughout the rest of his life. He was a powerful and charismatic presence and it's a bloody shame that he was forced to appear in a lot of dreck later on in his career.

Also worthy of special mention is Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy woman. Already an accomplished actress back in her native Russia, Maria turned the disadvantage of a thick accent into a thriving career, playing a slew of Slavic characters in Hollywood. Her performance here is very low-key and borderline monotone which is perfectly in step with someone who's seen a lot of weird shit and unnatural fates. In contrast to her outward stoicism, the mixture of sadness, pity and relief she communicates during the following speech still clobbers the viewer smack dab in the feels:

"The way you walked was thorny, though no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity."

Finally, the winsome Evelyn Ankers is terrific as Larry's love interest Gwen Conliffe. Considerably less waifish and screamy then your average horror movie damsel, Anders brings a reserve of strength and confidence to the role that lesser actresses might telegraph. Her scenes with Chaney crackle with chemistry and she always seems to be two steps ahead of him during their verbal sparring. Even though she's betrothed to the yawn-inducing Frank Andrews her devotion to Larry never feels like like a far-fetched script contrivance.

Is the movie perfect? Not quite. Just looking at "father and son" Claude Rains and Lon Chaney, Jr. standing next to each other is enough to inspire giggles. Even though Chaney could inspire sympathy without effort he really wasn't a great nuts and bolts actor. All of the film's write-ups insist that the action takes place in Wales but has absolutely no impact on the story itself. In fact, the action could very well be set in GENERIC EUROPEAN TOWN. Finally, as one of the first werewolf movies some of the lore is downright kooky, such as the inexplicable appearance of the pentagram on a victim's hand.  

Nevertheless, The Wolf Man represents the last truly original addition to the Universal horror pantheon. From here on in, the creatures started to get paired up in an increasingly-silly series of "monster mash" movies that attempted to bolster their flagging appeal. Eventually these great character had to suffer the indignity of chasing Bud Abbott and Lou Costello around back-lots and creaky-looking castle sets. It wasn't until Creature from the Black Lagoon surfaced in 1954 that something new and original was added to the milieu.

There's been a lot of talk lately of rebooting all of the Universal Monsters, which sounds like a good idea in theory. Unfortunately if the recent Dracula Untold is any indication, the producers of this Marvel-style "shared universe" are completely missing the point. Turning these properties into CGI-soaked action-fests will only end up watering down these iconic characters whilst pissing off the purists. Case in point: I remember being super-excited to see the movie Van Helsing back in 2004. But then I actually saw Van Helsing*Eeeeeeeesshh!*
Regardless of what's to come, these new versions will never diminish the atmosphere, class and timeless qualities embodied by classics like The Wolf Man. If you want to see some vintage movie craftsmanship combined with a few mild shivers, you gotta check it out! 

Tilt: up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie Review "The Mummy" (1932) by David Pretty

As I've detailed in previous blog entries, being a horror movie fan back in the days before the proliferation of home video was a pretty tough gig. As a kid I had no readily-available way to see the old Universal monster movies so for years I had to be content with just reading about them.

One of the movies I desperately wanted to see was The Mummy. Frankly, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I'd watch this fully-restored classic up on the big screen, the way it was always intended!  

After the runaway success of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), Universal gave producer Carl Laemmle Jr. carte blance to come up with another iconic movie monster. Clearly inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb nine years earlier, Laemmle tried to keep his winning formula intact by mining for literary sources of Egyptian horror. When this fizzled, writers Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Shayer crafted a story called Cagliostro about an ancient alchemist who's managed to prolong his life unnaturally with the use of nitrates, like a spell-casting ham one assumes.

The story swung back towards its original intent when journalist John L. Balderston had a bash at the screenplay. Balderson, who'd extensively covered the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922, returned the action back to modern-day Egypt and infused it with a story about timeless love and obsession.

With all of the film's creative and financial ducks now in a row, Laemmle then hired Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund to direct just days before principal photography was schedules to begin. Undaunted, Freund tackled the material with gusto, delivering a horror masterpiece in the process.

Lifting a musical cue directly from Dracula, Freund opens the film with a memorable credits sequence featuring an art-deco prologue set to the evocative tune of Swan Lake:

We're then introduced to the members of an archeological expedition led by Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron). In a stroke of "good" fortune, Whemple and his team have stumbled upon the tomb of an Egyptian priest named Imhotep (Boris Karloff), who, by all accounts, was mummified alive as punishment for some severe transgression. Contrary to the dire warnings of the astute Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), Sir Joseph's moronic assistant Ralph (Bramwell Fletcher) cracks into a forbidden box and reads aloud the life-giving Scroll of Thoth contained within. The next thing you know, Imhotep wakes up, nips the Scroll and then shambles off, leaving a completely hysterical Ralph in his wake.

Fast forward ten years. Imhotep has unraveled himself and is posing as an antiquities dealer in Cairo named Ardath Bey. In order to unearth his long-dead love Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, Bey tells Sir Joseph's son Frank (David Manners) about the location of her tomb. Desperate to salvage their fruitless venture, Frank and his associate Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie) jump at the chance. Just as predicted, the dig yields tremendous dividends including the mummified remains of the Princess herself. After she's interred at the Cairo museum Bey promptly vanishes before Frank can properly thank him.

Bey then crosses paths with socialite Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the long-dead Princess. Believing that Helen is a incarnation of his beloved, Bey plots to kill and mummify her and then use the pilfered Scroll of Thoth to bring her back to "life" and make her his immortal bride. Only the very-smitten Frank, wily Dr. Muller and Helen's own buried memories hold any chance for her salvation.

If you freeze any given frame of The Mummy, you'll be left with a genuine piece of art. The fleeting exteriors of the dig site, the hotel entrance and the scenes in downtown Cairo provide just enough exotic credibility to avoid the claustrophobic staginess of Dracula. The interiors, including the expedition office at the start of the film, the museum, the hotel room, Whemple's study and Ardath Bey's chambers are all perfect; examples of an aesthetically-beautiful era preserved in the timeless amber of celluloid. Seeing a movie like this on the big screen is a real treat for anyone like me who loves to study the minutia of set decoration and production design. 

As if deliberately railing against Tod Browning's camera-bolted-down approach to Dracula, Freund exhibits considerable visual flair here. The scene in which Imhotep slowly opens his eyes, reaches for the Scroll and then slowly shambles unseen out of the room still elicits squirms, nervous chuckles and gasps. This is followed later on by a great flashback sequence which boasts an intense live burial and one of the first (and last) pre-Code Hollywood on-screen impalings.   

Freund keep his camera slinking around darkened museums, sweeping across dusty tombs and tilting over Imhotep's shoulder into his scrying pool. And that's good because the film feels a bit static at times with large swaths of expository dialogue to sit through. Personally this doesn't bother me at all since I find character development and lively dialogue to be a helluva lot more interesting then Micheal Bay-style pyrotechnics. But even I have to admit that The Mummy can feel a bit talky and pedestrian from time to time.  

Thank Ra then for Boris Karloff. By all accounts the horror icon absolutely despised the eight hour process that legendary makeup man Jack Pierce subjected him to in order to transform him into the mouldering mummy. Many speculate that's why Karloff only spends the first scene in full makeup and the rest of the film in his "unwrapped" state. Now some people might gripe that Karloff doesn't spend enough screen time in full mummy mode, but I'd much rather have Karloff talkative in lighter makeup then mute under a ton of cotton and spirit gum.

And make no mistake, he's downright fantastic here. With his hunched neck, deadpan expression and preternaturally-long limbs, Karloff haunts every scene he's in. Every time Freund goes in for a close-up of Karloff's dessicated visage and penetrating eyes the effect is still jarring. Drifting through the film like a tall, be-fezzed, ghoulish beanpole, you really get the impression that he'll crumble into dust if subjected to a strong gust of wind. This is belied by a commanding presence and a distinctive voice that has rarely been rivaled in cinema history.

Also noteworthy is the stunningly-gorgeous Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Ankh-es-en-Amon. Curiously in step with the movie's theme, her unique beauty is preserved here in celluloid amber for all eternity. Even though she spends large swaths of screen time under Imhotep's thrall, her hypnotic eyes and palpable confidence will draw you in whenever she's on screen. Bonus points: the men don't rescue her ultimately, she saves herself through the strength of her own convictions. Not to undercut this last point but the incredibly-daring pre-Code costume she wears at the climax of the film certainly adds to the film's "va-va, voom!" factor. 

Also notable is the omnipresent Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Muller. Some folks deride Sloan's earlier performances as sloth-like and self-conscious but I find his deliberate movements and enunciation to be oddly comforting. Despite the fact that his warnings sound completely whack-a-do, he drops these lines with such erudite precision that we have no trouble believing him. If only the other characters in the film were so insightful! Throughout the film he's a propulsive presence, constantly laboring to get the dimmer characters to catch up to him.     

Having seen the film recently as part of Cineplex's recent Halloween-themed The Wolf Man / The Mummy Double Feature I really feel blessed. If you can't get out to it then I highly recommend the recent fully-restored Blu-Ray release. The image quality is impeccable, giving this viewer the distinct impression that I was watching a recent experimental film that just so happens to employ all of the equipment, trappings and techniques from the late Twenties / early Thirties.

This film is a real gem and makes for a great family watch during this Halloween season! 
   Tilt: up.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Movie Review: "Session 9" by David Pretty

As soon Brad Anderson and Stephen Gevedon learned about Danvers State Hospital the Session 9 script probably wrote itself pretty durned quick. The place is so freakin' creepy that they didn't even feel the need to fictionalize it. In fact, there's enough nightmare fuel surrounding this real-life loony-bin to inspire an entire legion of scary screenplays.

Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan) is a man on the edge. As the owner of a struggling asbestos abatement team he's constantly surrounded by deadly carcinogens. To drive up his blood pressure even more, business is terrible and, as a new father, his finances are stretched to the limit. In order to keep his head above water, Gordon is forced to take on the unenviable task of cleaning out the condemned Danvers State Mental Hospital, underbidding the competition by promising faster and cheaper results.

This causes considerable strain amongst his already-contentious team. Phil (David Caruso) becomes particularly testy when Gordon retains the competent-but-cocky Hank (Josh Lucas) in order to meet the aggressive deadline. As it turns out, Hank stole Phil's girlfriend away from him and isn't shy about bragging about it. Thrown into this volatile mix is Gordon's be-mulleted, nyctophobic cousin Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) and Mike (Stephen Gevedon), a failed lawyer who's acutely aware of the hospital's dark history.

Almost immediately things take a turn for the weird. Gordon starts hearing voices and becomes increasingly contentious and distracted. As freaked out about the dangerous nature of the job as he is by their creepy surroundings Jeff is twitchier then a cat at a rocking chair convention. Frustrated by the unrealistic timetable and his close proximity to Hank, Phil becomes increasingly volatile. Only Hank lucks out, hitting the jackpot by finding a hidden cache of coins and jewelry. Unfortunately he's completely oblivious to the fact that this little treasure trove is the by-product of the hospital's in-house crematorium.

But it's Mike who makes the most chilling discovery: a series of audio tapes documenting an interview with a mental patient named Mary Hobbes. After suffering through some unspoken and traumatic event, Mary's personality has fractured into two innocent and child-like identities both of which seem terrified to manifest a third facet known only as "Simon". Over the course of the titular nine sessions, it's slowly revealed that Simon may very well be a strong presence in the hospital even though Mary is long-gone.

According to actor David Caruso the film's production designers had a relatively easy time of it because the interiors of Danvers State Mental Hospital came pre-decorated. There's a reason why so many horror-themed video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil use abandoned mental institutions as their settings; the peeling paint, gurneys, wheelchairs, isolation cells and stray orbitoclasts lying around provide enough unconscious bad karma to immediately establish the right mood. In fact, the hospital is, by far, the scariest character in the entire film.

Session 9 also has the distinction of being one of the very first feature films to be shot with Sony's new-at-the-time 24P HD digital video camera, beating out 28 Days Later by a year. This approach benefits the overall presentation, since it feels as if a sixth member of the abatement team was on hand to keep a video journal of the operation. What we're left with is a sweaty, claustrophobic, gritty final product that avoids the visual palsy of found footage films. Even with the obvious challenges posed by on-set lighting, director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz serve up an engaging and varied presentation that captures every fiber of asbestos dust, every flake of peeling paint and every creepy wall-collage.


The music by Seattle-based experimental outfit Climax Golden Twins is pretty much spot-on. There's no grand, florid orchestral score here just some atmospheric keyboard tones and jangly, discordant notes that supports the disturbing mood. It's a minimalistic choice but it succeeds in immersing the viewer deeper in the experience rather then jarring you out of the moment by being showy or self-aware.

Armed with authentic dialogue, the casts earns considerable plaudits. Brendan Sexton III is so perfect I'd be tempted to say that they pulled a fast one and hired someone right off a construction road crew and then paid to send him to Juilliard. Even though Jeff is pretty dim and slack-jawed, Sexton is so natural in his approach to the role that you instantly feel bad for the guy. Everybody knows someone like Jeff so we're immediately protective of the poor little dweeb.

The casting department also should be commended for retaining Josh Lucas as Class-A twat Hank. It's to his credit that we still don't want to see anything bad happen to him, in spite of his shabby treatment of Phil.  This is due, in part, to the brief but memorable "exit strategy" dialogue he shares with Sexton during the early goings of the film. Lucas takes advantage of this pivotal moment to clearly delineate Hank's motivation while offering some precious insight into his co-workers.

Stephen Gevedon is note-perfect as failed lawyer Mike King. We get a taste of his intensity early on when he recounts a horrifying tale clearly inspired by the infamous Satanic Panic day-care abuse scares from the 80's. King's delivery will immediately have you dreading what's to come and on pondering the impact that hysteria can have on reality. From there on in we're left to wonder if Mike is legitimately curious about Mary Hobbes or if he's a little "Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs". Either way, Gevedon keeps his cards close to his chest.

In what can only be described as a moment of hubris, David Caruso abandoned the wildly-successful N.Y.P.D. Blue at its zenith back in 1994 for the promise of a movie career that never materialized. Anybody out there remember Kiss of Death? Jade? No? Didn't think so. To this day I'm convinced that the general public wanted to punish Caruso at the time for upsetting their so-so network cop show. As a result, people  stayed away from his movies in droves.

Sadly, this also applied to Session 9, but to their own detriment. Caruso turns in an effortlessly natural performance, instantly becoming the character we relate to the most. He manages to switch gears between diplomatic, irritated, calming and irascible at the drop of a hat and each turn feels completely devoid of labor and pretense. I still maintain that this guy's been unfairly persecuted over the years and the fact that he hasn't gotten more quality film work is our loss.

The real laurels, however, should be reserved for Peter Mullen as Gordon Fleming. I'm not sure how method Mullen is but he starts out looking as if he hasn't slept in a week and eventually devolves into a twitchy, vacant, babbling mess. Despite his harrowing and authentic depiction of mental degradation, Mullen keeps us firmly in his corner. We want this poor, over-worked, stressed-out sad sack to be alright in the end but scripted and improvised throwaways unconsciously burden the viewer with the sort of unconscious dread that only a Greek tragedy audience member can relate to.

In fact, the actors are so good that they actually eclipse the characters as scripted. Frankly, I wanted to know more about these guys. For example, why did Mike fail to become a lawyer? Phil seems to be a pretty sharp dude so why is he languishing in a dangerous and dead-end job? What makes Hank so special that Gordon would hire him knowing how poisonous he'd be to the work environment? How did Jeff become "dark-o-phobic"? More details about Gordon's marriage would also have made the ending a lot more plausible.

I'm of two minds when it comes to this last gripe. On one hand the writers probably wanted to keep things nebulous in order to preserve the murder mystery aspect of the story. The downside is that these characters don't feel fully formed and, on paper, I'd be hard-pressed to give shit about them. Mercifully, just through  the grace of inhabiting these roles with complete conviction, the actors really pick up the slack.  

Half-baked characterization isn't the only issue. Allegedly the only impetus Steven King needs to begin a new novel is a high concept; it doesn't matter if he has an ending or not. That's all well and good if you produce a Misery or a Shining but not so good if the final results are It. I suspect that something similar probably happened with Session 9: Gevedon and Anderson found out about the hospital, immediately knew that it was the perfect setting for a horror movie, came up with a serviceable plot to hang this premise off of but then painted themselves into a corner with the ending.

In their defense, at least they didn't overextend themselves and make promises that the script couldn't keep. In the end we're still left to ponder if all the chaos was due to some sort of malevolent influence or if it was just good, ol' fashioned, bat-shit, head-case human nuttery. In other words, they didn't make the same mistake that the producers of Paranormal Activity made: invoking the threat of demons and then following through with a disappointing parade of creaking doors and billowing bedsheets.  

Some might also gripe about the film's disjointed quality and muddy chronology. For example, it's pretty hard to determine exactly when Gordon had that pivotal encounter with his wife. And can someone please explain this whole Miami thing with Hank to me? Given the nature of the film, even these things feel like quibbles. The story is all about skewed perceptions brought on by mental illness so these flaws actually give the movie a weird, schizophrenic quality that succeeds in leaving the viewer feeling decidedly off-kilter.

Overall the film does a lot more right then wrong. Between the amazing setting, great cast, solid dialogue, low-fi sensibilities and atmospheric restraint, Session 9 held my attention and provided more then a few haunting images, unsettling twists and lingering chills.

 Tilt: up.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Movie Review: "Ju-on: The Grudge" by David Pretty

Movies like Paranormal Activity makes me suspect that North American filmmakers kinda know what scares an audience, it's just their execution that stinks. When it comes to producing legitimately scary ghost movies, the Japanese have been way ahead of us for years. If you don't believe me then check out Ju-on: The Grudge from way back in 2002.

As it is with most great horror films: the premise here is deceptively simple. A horrible event happens in a nondescript-looking house and the leftover dark karmic residue manifests itself in the form of a vengeful spirit. Anyone foolish enough to venture inside the house is haunted by this entity until death comes, almost as a sweet relief.

Even though buckets of gore and flying limbs don't scare me anymore, barely-glimpsed, unexplained spiritual manifestations that haunt the hinterlands of a movie screen really gives me a bad case of what Buffy Summers used to refer to as "the wiggins". Thanks to a series of brilliantly-conceived set-ups, nerve-jangling sound effects and a restrained application of make-up and blood, Ju-on: The Grudge really has my number. The sly, throwaway glimpses of creepy kids and shadowy spirits loitering around the boundaries of any given scene never fails to freak me out.

Having said that, the Japanese certainly have their own unique way of storytelling, which can best be characterized as "disjointed". Now, assuming that something wasn't just lost in translation, it's a bit of a challenge to keep all of the characters, story threads and even chronological lapses straight. For example, there's a scene towards the end of the film when a girl ventures into the cursed house and witnesses the death of her own father which happened years prior. Dafuq?

I still maintain that this schizophrenic method of scripting actually helps the film instead of hinders it. It keeps the audience off-kilter and doesn't provide any of the hackneyed moments of respite that soft Western audiences have come to rely on after a big scare. If you're completely jaded with the usual "maniac with a hatchet" horror flick, Ju-on: The Grudge is an inspired and original take on the genre which will resonate with you long after it's over.

Tilt: up.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Movie Review: "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" by David Pretty


With Nostradamus-like accuracy, screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Soloman predicted that oblivious levels of idiocy will be celebrated as positive traits by our future society. As such, a time-guardian is dispatched from the year 2688 to 1988 to ensure that two random chuckle-heads finish their history presentation (!) so that they can become the custodians of humanity's evolution. Dear God, please help us all.


People who feel more comfortable seeing their jokes coming from a mile away or folks who have been waiting to see Keanu Reeves in the role he was born to play might dig this one.

  • Before Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, before Beavis and Butthead and before Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne there was Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves attack these nominal roles with tremendous aplomb and without a shred of self-consciousness. They're so successful in this endeavor that they take a pretty pedestrian color-by-numbers script and make it fun to watch. Even though Bill and Ted are both impressively stupid, they're also kinda sweet and have their hearts in the right place, which explains why we like 'em.
  • George Carlin is criminally under-used but every time he's on-screen things get exponentially better. Given his aloof attitude, unconventional mode of dress and call-box related method of transportation a case can be made that Rufus is, in fact, the very first American Dr. Who.
  • I love that Bill and Ted call their band "Wyld Stallyns". Which begs the question, were they embracing that hoary 80's trope of deliberately miss-spelling your band name just to be all "wild" and "crazy" or do these guys actually not know how to spell "wild" and "stallions". Maybe we'll get the answer to this burning question in Part III.
  • Terry Camilleri is welcome relief as a petty, spiteful, vindictive and gleefully childish Napoleon Bonaparte. His rampage at the water-slide is downright hilarious.   
  • The dynamic between Bill and Missy *slash* Mom (Amy Stock-Poynton) is worth a few yocks. 
  • The scene which inspires the line: "Yeah! I fell out of my suit when I hit the floor!" is so beautifully dada-esque I really wish there was more strange shit like this in the movie. Mike Myers probably picked up on this, which is one reason why Wayne's World is a better movie. 
  • Even though the whole time-travel plot here isn't exactly Twelve Monkeys, there are a few cool examples of that old screenwriting adage: "If a gun appears on the mantlepiece in Act I it needs to be fired in Act III". Bill and Ted's early encounter with themselves comes and goes later on in the film without thoughts of paradox. Missing keys that are mentioned early on actually have an impact on the story. And when our two So Cal bros finally figure out the creative applications of time travel in the last reel, we see hints of Back To The Future-style hi-jinx. Pity the movie is practically over by the time this happens.
  • So-CRATES. Absolutely no-one on the planet actually pronounces the famous Greek philosopher's name properly anymore: proof positive of the film's lasting cultural impact.
  • Honestly it's worth sitting through the film just to see omnipresent 80's action-movie bad-guy Al Leong lose his shit on a sporting goods store mannequin with an aluminum baseball bat. Bonus "star", right thur.
  • The first one-third of the film is nothing but a boring checklist of "Hey, let's go to this vaguely historic-looking film set and abduct a cosplaying character actor". These early scenes are further hampered by Stephen Herek's flat direction which makes the Wild West and ancient Greece scenes look like out-takes from a T.V. movie. Mercifully the aforementioned Terry Camilleri shows up not long after and things immediately start to liven up.
  • The production design and special effects are, in Bill and Ted parlance, pretty heinous. The "time circuit" looks like a cheesy first-gen CGI demo reel and the Utopian future sets and costumes look like they were designed by Ed Wood and Georgio Armani.
  • In the space of a few short hours Ted's asshole cop dad goes from "if you don't pass History there's gonna be hell to pay" to "pack yer shit, yer goin' to military college!". Wow, that escalated quickly. 
  • Now I know that Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure isn't supposed to be an art film, but I think it could have been a lot funnier to drop these two yahoos smack dab into the middle of darkest and strangest moments of human history. I'd love to see these idiots deal with the Black Death or the Crusades...
  • Although the Sigmund Freud / food court / corn-dog pick-up scene is vaguely funny, it's also pretty low-ball. If they'd just taken the time to flesh out these historical figures a little bit we could have had some subversive learning and social commentary along with all the sitcom-style humor. Instead, what we're left with is equivalent to a bunch of background performers dressed up in low-rent Halloween costumes. 
  • If I was Bill and Ted's History teacher, I still would have flunked them. At face value all they did was hire a bunch of historic recreation actors and throw them up onstage with an admittedly bitchin' light and sound show. Big fat hairy deal. I wanna see some applied knowledge, motherfuckers!


When it comes to all for these inane "idiot protagonist" movies that we've suffered through over the years credit or blame must fall squarely on the shoulders of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Watching this just goes to show that a movie isn't necessarily good just because it's old. Above and beyond the nostalgia factor, the biggest saving grace for the film is Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. They really deserve the lion's share of credit for making this mediocre script work in any capacity.

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is a vaguely-amusing, non-threatening hour and a half long diversion. And now that I've seen it I have absolutely no desire to be lured back into the time machine for a re-watch.

Tilt: down.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Movie Review: "The Conspiracy" by David Pretty

Suppose I were to tell you that the world is controlled by a small, rich, cabal of illuminated elites. Would you scoff, call me paranoid and then write me off as delusional? Or would you admit that this is perfectly feasible if not self-evident given the sad state of the world? At the very least, I'm willing to wager that my claim would certainly inspire a passionate reaction.

The Conspiracy is just one reaction to that claim courtesy of indie film-makers Aaron and Jim. Intrigued by a viral video that makes light of a local n' vocal, bullhorn-armed conspiracy nut named Terrance, the two decide to make a documentary about his theories. At first Terrence's tin-foil-hat leanings seem like the stuff of parody but the more they listen to him, the more he starts to make sense.

Things get even weirder when Terrance vanishes off the face of the earth just days after he notices that he's being followed. In an desperate bid to un-bury their lead, Aaron re-creates the missing man's work and soon discovers that every major world event has been preceded by a meeting of the shadowy secret society known as the Tarsus Club. The only evidence that Aaron and Jim can find of the group's existence is a Time Magazine article written by "Mark Tucker" in the 1960's.

They track down Tucker who tells them that the piece was intended to be an major expose on Tarsus until the article was neutered by his editor and he was black-listed for his efforts. He goes on to say that Tarsus is steeped in an ancient mystery religion which worships a bull-headed deity named Mithras. These secret pagan ceremonies also serve as networking opportunities to nudge the planet towards the group's ultimate goal of establishing a one-world government.

When Tucker gives Aaron and James the chance to infiltrate one of these clandestine meetings, the two reluctantly agree. Pretty soon the pair discover that there's a price to be paid for their curiosity and they're subjected to unimaginable terrors.   

While loitering around on Netflix I have a tendency to binge-watch documentaries so finding and watching The Conspiracy was probably inevitable. Although it took me a few minutes I eventually figured out that I was watching a docu-drama in the vein of The Blair Witch Project or REC. This illusion lingered as long as it did primarily because the film's real writer/director Christopher MacBride was quick to serve up a tantalizing blend of conspiracy theory and conspiracy fact.

Here are some examples:
  • The Military Commissions Act "allows U.S. citizens to be detained in undisclosed locations indefinitely". Very potentially
  • "Bill H.R. 645 authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to set up a network of FEMA camps to intern U.S. citizens in the case of a national emergency." Okay, well, apparently this is a possibility
  • "FEMA conducts training exercises for clergymen on how they can help the government quell dissent in the case of the enactment of martial law." Um, "training exercises" might be a stretch but there are reports of this happening. 
  • "The key is the Federal Reserve! The U.S. Government is assured so-called financial stability,
    because the Fed can just print more money out of thin air, but the government's always gonna be in debt to the Fed." Well, this one's definitely true.    
  • "Every single thing you do on the Internet is monitored." Given Edward Snowden's recent whistle-blowing about the NSA only an oblivious moron wouldn't believe this one.     
  • "The...*quote-unquote* plane crash at The Pentagon...the footage from over 100 cameras was confiscated, and the only piece of film we see shows an explosion, but no plane." 
  • "The head of security in Pakistan (General Mahmoud Ahmed) wires $100,000 to Mohamed Atta just prior to the 9/11 attacks. Then on the morning of the attacks, Ahmed is in Washington...why is the guy who bankrolled 9/11 meeting with the CIA before the attacks?"  Turns out this is inexplicably true.
  • "World War I, 1913. It's a fact that Woodrow Wilson's senior advisor, Edward House, deliberately sent a passenger ship, the RMS Lusitania, into German-controlled waters with the intention that it be hit by a U-boat, which it was, and that brings America into World War I."  Although I'm skeptical about this one historian and former British naval intelligence officer Patrick Beesly is convinced that some sort of chicanery took place.
  • "Gulf of Tonkin! Two U.S. boats are attacked by three Vietnamese boats, and that's what brings the U.S. into the Vietnam conflict. In 2005, the NSA releases a classified document that states the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened!" This one is definitely true. Hell, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara openly admitted this in the 2003 documentary Fog of War.  
  • Did J.F.K. actually warn us about the dangers of "secret societies" just two years before he was murdered? Oh, you better believe that shit is real.   
What's even more incredible is that the really bizarre stuff also has some basis in reality. The fictional Tarsus Club at the heart of the film is an amalgam of several elite and secretive outfits, such as the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, Skull & Bones, the Freemasons, the Illuminati and a slew of others. Hell, MacBride even cribbed the film's climax from Alex Jones, who famously infiltrated Bohemian Grove back in 2000.

So, do all of these links prove that there's some sort of over-arching global conspiracy? Not really. I went through my own "red pill" moment a few years back and came to the conclusion that a small cadre of rich assholes probably does rule the world but they're probably not nearly as organized as MacBride's paranoid nightmare would have us believe.

My main motivation for linking to all of that freaky shit was to drive home just how feasible the film's basic premise is. For a good five or ten minutes I was convinced that I was watching a legitimate documentary. However, as soon as I saw Terrance "crazed loner" apartment, wallpapered with newspaper headlines, I knew that something was up. My suspicions quickly deepened thanks to James and Aaron's OCD-like predilection to video capture every thing they say and do. Sorry, but the last thing documentary film-makers want to do is document is themselves. Finally, when the fictional Tarsus Club reared its horny head I knew full-well that I was witnessing a rather clever and well-made artifice.

Aaron Poole and James Gilbert do a pretty decent job as our two leads, but they aren't perfect. And honestly, in order to really knock something like this out of the park, the performances have to be absolutely note-perfect. That's why The Blair Witch Project is still one of the best docu-dramas to date since the kids in that movie had no clue what they were being subjected to and most of their dialogue was inadvertently ad-libbed. Of the main cast, Alan Peterson almost fooled me into believing that Terrance was a real person before he went MIA.    

Some viewers might be put off by the film's deliberately slow pace but I think that the story unfolds very naturally. If I didn't know any better I'd say that Christopher MacBride probably fell down the conspiracy rabbit-hole himself and the script was likely inspired by his own epiphany. Having his characters crash a Tarsus meeting Alex Jones-style feels like vicarious living and a natural extension of the plot.

As such, the film has a creepy, slow-burn quality that makes all of this insanity seem strangely plausible. The very same bicycle-bound spook that haunted Terrance starts to shadow Jim and Aaron. After procuring their tie-clip mini-cameras, the two are pursued by an ominous-looking SUV that ends up entrenched outside of their apartment. As soon as our protagonists start sniffing around the Tarsus compound they immediate draw the persistent curiosity of the be-suited Green Man. Even though his face is completely blurred out, its not hard to tell that veteran Canadian character actor Damon E. White is behind the digital mask.

A healthy awareness of its own budgetary limits isn't the only thing thing makes The Conspiracy so feasible. The movie's low-fi visual style also helps considerably. A huge chunk of the film's surreptitious second half is captured via the aforementioned tie clip cameras, meaning that our peripheral vision is limited to a fuzzy port-hole of claustrophobic dread. Admittedly this doesn't exactly make for a visually arresting experience, but it certainly adds to the tense atmosphere, especially during the ultra-unnerving Eyes Wide Shut-style initiation sequence.  

Audiences might also be let down by the film's "more whimper then bang" finale but think its thematically well in step. Frankly it's a lot more unnerving and realistic to hear a Tarsus legal representative and official mouthpiece try to re-assure us that everything is perfectly fine, while still confirming the dubious nature of their "benevolent' agenda. After all, one should think that blatant, wholesale murder would draw unwanted public attention to the machinations of a secret society.

On a completely superficial level The Conspiracy is a great example of budgetary constraints inspiring creativity. Thanks to a clever premise and a modest execution, MacBride and company have crafted a pretty decent little thriller. Clearly found footage / docu-drama style films don't have to suck if you stay within the boundaries of the format, exploit the power of suggestion and avoid the temptation to over-reach.

More importantly, the subject matter might very well resonate with you long after the credits roll.

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