Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Zack Clopton's 2013 Film Retrospective


“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with…

ZACK CLOPTON’S 2013 FILM RETROSPECTIVE!!!


Normally, I open my year end retrospective with a look back at the major new stories of the past 12 months. Today, I don’t wanna’. We didn’t go to war with Syria, the government wasted lots of money spying on us, tragedy struck Boston, and Congress took two weeks off because agreeing on things is hard. Aside from that, 2013 was a year mostly defined by stupid people saying or doing stupid things.

Film Thoughts, meanwhile, had a more productive year. My Oscar coverage was more thorough then ever. The Bangers n’ Mash Show stuck to a sort-of regular schedule. The Halloween Horror-Fest left me satisfied. I only completed three Director Report Cards (four if Catch-Up Week counts), fewer then 2012’s six. However, I reviewed 61 films, more then 2012’s 58. For the first time in this blog’s six year history, I made strides towards making it worth reading more often.

Enough about me, what about the people who died? Roger Ebert’s death hit me the hardest, as his writing has been an inspiration for years. With Ray Harryhausen joining Forest Ackerman and Ray Bradbury in heaven, the first generation of monster kids are gone forever. I was never fans of James Gandolfini or Paul Walker but both died too young. We lost Lou Reed, Elmore Leonard, Karen Black, Billy Jack, Jonathan Winters, Miss Krabappel, Miss Peacock, Annette Funicello, Black Belt Jones, George Jones, Ed Lauter, Al Goldstein, Julie Harris, Peter O’Toole, Harry Reems, and the only Devo drummer that matters. It was a bad year to be a fan of awesome stuff.

As for the Year in Cinema, people who are paid to write about movies keep going on about what a great year 2013 was. Maybe it was. Maybe I haven’t seen the glitzy dramas, fascinating documentaries, and pretentious art-film wank-fests. From my end of the pool, with the horror films and superhero flicks, I was mostly disappointed. There was enough interesting stuff to form a solid top twenty but it seems many things I was excited for ended up being forgettable. I’m qualified to say as, aside from Spike Jonze’s “Her,” I saw everything I was looking forward too.

Below is THE LIST, short reviews of every new release I saw this year, a total of 77 films. By reading this, you’ll go on a journey through the year with me. Which films were good, which were bad, and which ones do I barely remember? Read on to find out!










FOUR STARS:

1. Stoker
Chan-wook Park adapts fine to English, lending his spellbinding visuals to this utterly engrossing gothic thriller. Mia Wasikowska makes an excellent strange girl and Matthew Goode is an unnervingly good psychopath. The plot twists and turns until you have no idea what’s coming next, all the while maintaining a disturbing air of oddness.

2. The World’s End
Denser and wackier then previous Pegg/Frost/Winter projects. Which isn’t a bad thing, as the movie is equally hilarious, action-packed, heartfelt, and character driven as the other two. Once again, the team sneaks life lessons in under ramped-up genre homages and uproarious humor. Pegg and Frost both give career-best performances. The end threw me for a bit of a loop though.

3. Zero Charisma
Not all nerds are terrible people but some are. This film is an uncompromising peak at the darkest corners of geek fandom. Scott, a brave performance from Sam Eidson, is a deeply unpleasant human being. It’s an incredible performance and one that explores the neurotic, insecure mindset in an honest way, no punches pulled. Seek out this scrappy indie. 

4. Room 237
Is “The Shining” Kubrick confessing he faked the moonlanding? About the genocide of the Indians? The Holocaust? Everything in a Kubrick film has a purpose but some of these theories even give him too much credit. What this brilliant documentary shows is that people can look at the same film and come away with totally different impressions. It’s about the malleability of art.

5. Gravity
Sandra Bullock, whom I hate, isn’t the star of this film. Rather, a series of incredibly thrilling action set-pieces are what drives the story. Alfonso Cuaron’s camera swirls around the character, effectively placing the audience in the cast’s shoes while continuously upping the tension.

6. Maniac
By shooting the film largely in point-of-view shots, the filmmakers put you even further into the mind of a deranged person. The stylish direction, fantastic electronic score, and brutal, bloody attack scenes help but its Elijah Wood’s sensitive, thoughtful performance that makes this a truly captivating film and a worthy remake.

7. Byzantium
Neil Jordon, the man who started the romantic cinematic vampire fad, returns to end it, with this gory, beautifully photographed, deeply unglamorous bloodsucker flick. Buoyed by two captivating female leads, this unfolds like an engrossing novel, cutting back and forth between eras. The film earns its melancholic mood and wraps up on a touching, satisfying note.

THREE AND A HALF STARS:

8. We Are What We Are
After two overrated features, Jim Mickle comes into his own with this superior remake. A dark tale of family, the film is sustained by a foreboding Southern Gothic atmosphere and a committed cast, especially the two actresses playing the daughters. While the ending is a bit disappointing, relying more on gore then quiet tension, this remains an involving, fascinating horror-drama.

9. The Congress
Destined to be analyzed for years, the animated sequences in this are surreal, amazing, and nearly unique. Visually, it’s incredible. The concepts and themes are diverse, complicated, and presented in sometimes pretentious ways. The ending tries to tie up all this madness with an emotional coda that mostly succeeds. Harvey Kietal’s brief, live action role is some of his best acting in decades.

10. Pacific Rim
Rocket punches, mechs vs. kaiju, chain swords, countless references and Ron Perlman being a badass make this a fantastically entertaining nerd spectacle. The movie is actually too awesome, too soon. The ending is a let-down after the fantastic middle battle. The lead is also the least interesting character. Still, del Toro has birthed what is destined to be a true cult classic.

11. Only God Forgives
A hyper-violent tone poem on the nature of justice. The director distills “Drive” down to its best parts, creating a visually arresting exercise in style and captivating film experience. Humor even pokes through, with the inexplicable karaoke and Kristin Scott Thomas’ harpy performance. How much more monosyllabic can Ryan Gosling be? The answer is none. None more monosyllabic.

12. Bad Milo
Plays its absurd premise out to full comedic value. The lead is deadpan and relatable while the supporting cast features hilarious turns from Stephen Root and Peter Stromire. The titular Milo is surprisingly cute and likable for an ass-dwelling demon. The ending is weirdly sweet but completely sincere.

13. Escape Plan
A movie that understands the pleasures of solid structure, dramatic tension, and whip-like pacing. It also knows when to hand Arnold a giant machine gun. Arnie and Sly play off each other nicely while the surprisingly smart screenplay hooks the audience early. A fun throw-back to eighties action cheese that also functions as a perfectly entertaining stand-alone film.

14. Thor: The Dark World
Smartly, the “Thor” films continue to root their epic fantasy plots in humor and character interactions. The Whedon-esque dialogue and hilarious supporting cast make this a briskly entertaining film, along with the creative action and the gorgeous set design. The least interesting part of the film is its plot, a personality lacking villain, generic threat, and by-the-numbers story.











THREE STARS:

15. Frozen
Disney should be commended for the female focused story, placing sisterly bonding over romance. Ana is lovably klutzy and Elsa’s dilemmas are rooted in real world adolescent fears. The CGI ice-scapes are gorgeous, the comic relief hilarious, and the adventure scenes assured. The songs are unusually weak, a few of the musical numbers stopping the plot cold. (Sorry.)

16. Hellbenders
J.T. Petty has created a charmingly perverse horror-comedy. The cast, led by a hilariously vulgar Clancy Brown, lend an off-hand, sarcastic manner to the “paranormal experts vs. the end of the world” concept. The budget is too small to truly explore the scope, the documentary scenes are unwelcomed, and the ending is disappointingly typical. Still, fans will likely love this.

17. I Declare War
One of the best premises of the year, the film contrasts the petty conflicts of adolescence with melodramatic war movie clichés. The young cast is hugely talented and have fun with dialogue that ranges from mock-grizzled to circularly absurd. Sadly, the script can’t maintain that youthful energy, the movie slowly coming to a stop, instead of building in intensity.

18. Jug Face
Director Chad Crawford Kinkle creates a fully-formed world out of his backwoods setting. The premise is bizarre and not like anything else in horror genre. Lauren Ashley Carter carries the film nicely and the supporting cast is full of memorable faces. It’s a shame the director doesn’t have more confidence in his visual design and the script runs out of gusto at the end.

19. Violet & Daisy
Despite killing people for a living, Violet and Daisy are both innocents. The film is actually about their loss of innocence and belatedly coming into adulthood but not in the way you’d expect. Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan are both funny and heartfelt while James Gandolfini exudes warmness and maturity. Their performances root the dreamy, sometimes uncertain material.

20. You’re Next
Starts out playing horror clichés straight, slowly starts subverting them, before slipping into outright parody at the end. Sharni Vinson is a final girl that doesn’t wait for the last act to start kicking ass. While the characters and plot twist are hard to handle at first, the film’s impish side shows through in time, revealing this as a clever, smart-ass take on home invasion thrillers.

21. Jack the Giant Slayer
A sense of old fashion adventure elevates this above other fairy tale adapted would-be blockbusters. Nicholas Hoult is unexpectantly charming and has great chemistry with Elenor Tomlinson. The CGI giants are fun to look at and there’s some surprisingly exciting action, even if the movie’s last half falls flat and the plot is typical Hollywood screenwriting nonsense.

22. V/H/S/2
Not as good as the original. The first segment is a derivative if effective boo-show. The second goes successfully for dark comedy. The third is a gory, unsettling cult thriller while part four is an intense monster chase. The shaky-cam is heavier. “V/H/S” is probably the only modern horror franchise that tries to scare audiences, which is admirable, even if they don’t always make it.

23. American Mary
As a twisted comedy, a character study, or even a metaphor for women fighting through the work place, this works great. Whenever it has to function as a more conventional horror movie is when it falters. Katherine Isabelle is fantastic in the lead and holds your attention through the shaky middle chapter. The writers totally pulled the ending out of their asses though.

24. Thale
“Huldras” are a bit of obscure Norweigan mythology I rather like. Befitting its subject, this film is intentionally vague, generating a real sense of mystery and mysticism. The two characters have real world problems that are organically incorporated with the story. It’s a shame this is so short , so heavy on voiceover exposition, and peters off at the end..

25. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Far more entertaining then expected. The script is rightfully tongue-in-cheek, having fun with the ridiculously anachronistic weapons and dialogue. Each central cast member jokes around and hams it up, Jeremy Renner especially. The action is gleefully gory. The story is nonsense, of course, but this is still one of the more amusing horror/action hybrids of recent years.

26. John Dies at the End
Don Coscarelli was the perfect man to bring David Wong’s absurd images to the screen. He smartly condenses the novel, even if it means excising some hilarious, scary, weird stuff. The lead actors are well cast and the creature effects are extremely nasty. It’s not as good as the book but it is a worthy adaptation, perfectly capturing the tone, if not the story.

27. From Up on Poppy Hill
Quiet character study that captures the cast’s personalities, the time, and the place through nonintrusive observation. The romantic entanglement of the plot is less involving then the simple humor and conversations that pass between the characters. The animation is lovely even if this probably didn’t have to be animated.

28. This is the End
What should have been a masturbatory celebrity vanity project is instead a genuine genre mash-up that smartly skewers, not only the public personas of the involved stars, but the price of celebrity in our tabloid world. In addition to featuring some hilarious dialogue, dick/pot/gay panic jokes aplenty, and some brilliant horror parody.

29. The Conjuring
A better then average studio spook-show. James Wan continues to show a talent for viably creepy atmosphere and frequently plays slow-burns for all they’re worth. Disappointingly, like in previous efforts, this eventually falls back on overdone special effects and obvious story turns. Once again, Wan has almost made a great horror film. At least the doll is creepy as fuck.

30. Man of Steel
Gets it about 87% right. Cavill, Adams, and most of the supporting cast are perfect. The humanity and moral center of Superman is spot-on. The hand-to-hand fight scenes are exactly what comic fans have been waiting for. It’s a shame Zack Snyder’s shaky, manufactured “gritty” direction is so bad and his weak pacing causes the movie to drag before the awesome finale.

31. Star Trek Into Darkness
Filled to the brim with awesome action sequences, special effects, humor, a great cast, and even something resembling a message. The revelation about the villain is wholly unnecessary and some of the more blatant call-backs and imitations were problematic. The weak last act isn’t enough to ruin a hugely entertaining experience and solid addition to the series.

32. Monsters University
The laughs aren’t there at first and the college setting doesn’t lend itself to creative ideas. However, about half way through, you start to care about the characters and the movie becomes astonishingly sweet and funny, leading up to a surprisingly good ending with an unexpected message. Moreover, this is Pixar’s most visually beautiful film yet.

33. Marianne
Swedish character study about a father haunted by a mare. The nightmare scenes are rather effectively creepy, making great use of sound design. The family drama proves involving, helped along by the naturalistic direction. The lead character is quite unlikable but Thomas Hedengran does his best. The ending is abrupt and comes about twenty minutes too late.

34. Dark Touch
Difficult to watch, this genre film addresses the real life horrors of child abuse. The performances, especially young Missy Keating, are commendable, as is the chilling atmosphere. Writer/director Marina de Van has had difficulty ending her films on satisfying notes before and this is no different. By the end, this disturbing horror picture disappears into undefined allegory.

35. Europa Report
There’s one chilling moment, a POV shot of an astronaut drifting through space, the ship growing smaller in the distance. The rest, an effective if derivative astronaut thriller, has a hard time living up to that scene. The production design and cast are solid. The found-footage angle is used well. I liked it better then “Sunshine” and “Mission to Mars” but would rank it below “Moon.”

36. Haunter
I mostly liked this. The clever premise is executed interestingly. Yet there’s something awkward about how the mystery unfolds. Abigail Breslin is strong enough but seems unsure, not nailing the emotional highs. Vincenzo Natali’s direction is stylish but unusually crowded. Only Stephen McHattie’s sleazy performance is self-assured. The film falls just short of its promising start.

37. Magic Magic
Hypnotic and distressing. Juno Temple’s raw, emotionally barring performance is the reason to stick around. If the goal was to put the audience in the mind of someone experiencing a mental breakdown, it succeeds. Perhaps too well, as this is an unpleasant watch. It hurts the film that the supporting cast is so obnoxious, sometimes making this hard to watch for the wrong reasons.

38. The Lords of Salem
Rob Zombie dials back the gore and amps up the freaky imagery. Owing quite a bit to Polanski, the first half creates a genuinely unnerving atmosphere and has several good shocks, even if Sheri isn’t as strong an actress as the material needs. This eventually falls into plottless abstraction, which isn’t as effective even if Rob creates some honestly weird, memorable images.

39. The Last Stand
While it’s a bit slow to start and the Las Vegas subplot could have used some serious trimming, this is a satisfying shoot-em-up action flick. Enough of Ji Woon-Kim’s twisted humor and creative energy shins through. Arnold adapts to the old man persona extremely well. The primo supporting cast helps a great deal.

40. Machete Kills
Supremely silly but still massively entertaining. Rodriguez packs the script full of too many ideas, plotlines, and characters, as usual. The movie abandons faux-grindhouse for a goofy sci-fi riff fairly early. Still, you can’t undersell the simple joys of Danny Trejo decapitating lots of people, Sofia Vergara’s machine gun bra, or Mel Gibson riding around in a sand speeder.

41. My Amityville Horror
As a skeptic of the Amityville incident, I don’t see this as an expose on the infamous haunting. Instead, it’s a study of Daniel Lutz. He was clearly traumatized by something and hates his step-dad passionately. How much of his interview is performance or sincere confession is hard to read, lending ambiguity that makes this more interesting then it would have been otherwise.

42. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Smaug is really, really awesome, the best realized dragon to ever grace the screen. The rest of the movie? Eh. The additional subplots are cancerous, the structure is jumbled, the action is exaggerated, the direction is distracting, and the ending is non-existent. But that dragon. Man, he’s great.

43. The East
Most of what’s interesting about this comes from guessing where its lead characters’ loyalties lie. The ending falters by revealing that definitively. Brit Marling plays it too low-key, underselling the complexity. Luckily, the rest of the cast brings more intensity. The middle section, when the eco-terrorists are doing their thing, is when this best functions and generates some honest tension.

44. Kick-Ass 2
At first, there’s little balance between three unrelated plots. Half-way through, things pick up with two stand-out action scenes involving a lawn mower and a van. More comedic then the first, which makes the serious moments stick out further. Chloe does great again, Jim Carrey’s small role is appreciated, and McLovin makes a surprisingly vile villain. I’d see a(n unlikely) third one.

45. The Purge
The social commentary is muddled but I appreciate that they tried. “The Purge” is actually a siege picture, an action-ized version of “The Strangers,” filled with solid thrills, creepy images, decent shocks, and some entertaining action. The cast is good even if a few actors play it a little broad. A hopelessly awkward last act goes a long way towards distracting from the great middle section.

46. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I miss the characters from the first movie, the cartoon-y tone, and found most of the new cast fairly bland. There’s too much shaky-cam action. Still, the ninja fight scenes are exciting and the villains are awesome. It’s a satisfying popcorn action flick despite the “realistic” tone.

47. Elysium
As with “District 9,” Neill Blomkamp hitches obvious social commentary to a bloody, sci-fi action story. “Elysium” looks great, of course, and there are some fantastic ideas, some of them darkly funny. The action is never quite satisfying, even with Sharlto Copley’s great villain, and the story is highly predictable.

48. Hatchet III
Continues the “Hatchet” tradition of entertaining, campy gore-fests. Part 3 looks less cheap then the second and at least attempts some scares under the fake blood, body parts, and intestines. Caroline Williams has a great supporting role, which makes up for Danielle Harris’ cartoonish lead, Sid Haig’s silly cameo, and the sometimes overly clever, profanity-filled dialogue.

49. Sightseers
A pitch black comedy that’s so dry, you wonder how much of it is meant to be funny. Both lead performances are quite good, Alice Lowe especially, and you quickly get invested in this quirky couple who just happen to murder people. The laughs are few but loud. Ben Wheatley, as a director, definitely has a strong grasp on tone.











TWO AND A HALF STARS:

50. Despicable Me 2
You’ll laugh but will you remember why? The plot is meaningless and shifting the focus away from Gru’s relationship with the girls probably wasn’t a good idea. Even then, Kristen Wigg’s character brings a new energy, leading to the biggest laughs in the film. I have a low tolerance for the Minions’ antics and that makes up way too much of the runtime.

51. Revenge for Jolly!
Film-noir riff about a man seeking revenge for the murder of… His dog. The humor is sometimes lost amidst the dark tone and bloody violence. There’s something captivating about the stoned-out lead performances. The electronic score is surprisingly excellent. Just don’t expect an ending that wraps everything up neatly.

52. Hell Baby
As far as horror parodies go, this one had a low bar to clear. The excellent cast is underused, save Michael Ian Black’s cameo and a scene-stealing Keegan-Michael Key. A few gags are awesome, such as the baby hot potato and Riki Lindholm’s nude scene. Others, like a repeated visit to a sandwich shop, fall flat. Still, a handful of belly laughs are worth the price of a digital rental.

53. Carrie
Chloe Moretz is miscast. She’s too strong to ever buy as a victim. Still, her performance is good, as is Julianne Moore’s. The CGI is overused but the prom scene is still thrilling. The direction is competent but the story follows the exact same outline as previous adaptations. While inoffensive, this one didn’t convince me that a second remake of “Carrie” was necessary.

54. Ginger & Rosa
Most coming-of-age stories follow a similar outline. The actors have to distinguish the material. Elle Fanning is too shallow before exploding in the much-better last act. The filmmaker doesn’t succeed in capturing the spirit of ‘60s Britain. (Casting the film with Americans doesn’t help.) A grown man sleeping with a teenage girl when he has Christina Hendricks at home seems unlikely.

55. The Wolverine
Focuses more on Wolverine as a character, which is interesting. Jackman does well and the cast is strong. The fight scenes are overly shaky or implausible, aside from an impressive one-on-one duel halfway through. The villain’s plot is unnecessarily convoluted and there are a few holes in the concept. Still, it makes for an intriguing take on the long in the tooth superhero franchise.

56. Escape from Tomorrow
Inevitably, the making-of story behind this is more interesting then the finished product. The hammered-home, unpleasant theme of sexual frustration doesn’t blend with the story of corporations engineering dreams and expectations. It goes on too long and gets self-indulgent before the end. Still, the filmmaker shows some twisted talent.

57. Touchy Feely
Seeing an emotionally constipated dentist get involved with the New Age scene is by far the most entertaining moment in this quiet indie. The cast is capable especially an underused Ellen Page who gets a heart-breaking monologue all to herself. It’s the abrupt script that is the main problem. Still, at only 88 minutes long, you can’t say your time’s been wasted.

58. The ABCs of Death
Anthologies are always uneven. An anthology involving 26 filmmakers is going to be especially uneven. The highs are very high, the lows are very low. “D,” “U,” and “T” are the best, while “W,” “P,” and “Z” are nearly unwatchable. There’s a lot of weirdness for weirdness’ sake and some boredom. It’s definitely too long. I liked more then I hated so it evens out, I suppose.

59. Beneath
Is Larry Fessenden mocking trite horror clichés or playing them straight? The dead cell phone and found footage angle are held up as ridiculous. However, it seems we’re supposed to care about the bickering survivors and their escalating conflicts. A few plot turns are rather ridiculous while others are more cruelly creative. The giant fish is cool and the score is oddly memorable.

60. Berberian Sound Studio
An audio-visual mood piece about a sound designer slowly loosing his mind while working on a gory Italian horror film. As you’d expect, the sound design and music are great and sometimes deeply creepy. There’s some memorable images about. However, the story eventually falls into meandering experimentation. I’d probably like the fictional movie-within-the-movie more.

61. Bullet to the Head
Not Sly’s most inspired effort. The clichéd story and warehouse settings I’m okay with. I’m not okay with the lack of chemistry between the leads, awkward narration, and low energy. In the last act, when the focus shifts to shoot-em-up action and dude-on-dude brawling, things finally pick up. Probably not the return to form for Walter Hill we were hoping for.

62. Iron Man 3
Incredibly disappointing. Robert Downey Jr. is always a joy to watch, I loved the entire Tennessee subplot, and the action, effects, and stunts are uniformly strong. A plot-twist concerning the main villain derails the movie. The second half is a jumbled mess and the ending a complete let-down.

63. Texas Chainsaw 3D
Puts enough of a twist on the material to make up for the dumb script, bad acting, continuity errors, trite melodrama, and underwear model cast. The gore is well done, the 3D/CGI is not distracting, the lead actress is very hot, and there are some genuine themes of family and destiny.

64. Black Rock
Designed as a feminist take on “Deliverance,” this is hampered by Mark Duplass’ typically petty screenplay. The unlikable characters argue about relationship bullshit and make increasingly bad decisions, making the theme of sisterhood a bit hard to swallow. Once the action starts, this builds into an okay thriller with a decent finale and an unusually good score.

65. Frankenstein’s Army
If you like monsters, this one has got some crazy monsters for you. Shambling corpses outfitted with blades of all types, stiffly marching forward. The found-footage gimmick is implausible but does add some first-person intensity. The story is a thin collection of encounters, lacks motivation, and the characters are as swallow as can be. But, man, those monsters are awesome.

66. Aftershock
Similar to “Hostel” but with less hateful characters and an earthquake standing in for Slovakian torturers. Nicolas Lopez is a better director then Eli Roth, knows how to create real shocks, and has more on his mind then just gross-outs. This is an effective, if unambitious, thriller until a stupid plot twist and cruel ending squander any good will the film has built up.











TWO STARS:

67. The Last Exorcism Part II
Dropping the found footage angle and focusing on Ashley Belle was a great idea. Her performance is quite good and suggests a more straight film, focused on her trauma and recovery, could have been fascinating. Instead, it’s the only saving grace of a thudding studio horror film, filled with constant, intrusive jump-scares, pointless characters, and lazy structure.

68. Detention of the Dead
Adding zombies to “The Breakfast Club” is a cute idea. Despite a decent cast, the characters are intentionally exaggerated, which becomes a problem when the movie wants us to take them seriously. The story starts to spin its wheels halfway through, the audience’s interest, and patience for this goofy film, wearing thin before then.

69. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
After being shelved for seven years, the sun-washed, fake-grain, post-millennial visuals are instantly dated. This follows the slasher outline closely, with actually age-appropriate actors and minimal gore. It seems to be making a statement about male entitlement, at least until the point-negating twist ending. The cast is obnoxious but I liked the retro soundtrack.

70. Spring Breakers
Harmony Korine isn’t just wallowing in/criticizing the hedonism of youth. Casting former Disney starlets is obviously meant to comment on how the culture treats young women or how they see themselves. Yet the constant excess, like James Franco’s cartoonish performance, wares the audience down. When a film is so deliberately shallow, it’s hard to care about what happens.

71. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
The movie’s biggest problem is that it asks Charlie Sheen to feel shame, something he’s probably incapable of. The casual misogyny, thin characters, and general smugness is difficult to forgive. Roman Coppola successfully apes Wes Anderson’s style, with the retro soundtrack and meticulous set design. His next movie will probably be better.

72. Dracula 3D
All the ridiculous stuff we laughed at in the trailer is still there. The special effects are bafflingly awful. The script is a mess. The performances are woodened. Still, you get the impression that Dario was at least trying on this one. He was having fun. The movie is entertaining in spite of itself.

73. Evil Dead
Most disappointingly, this never tries to be scary, instead merely satisfied with being gross and gory. There are at least two decent attack scenes and the cast is okay. However, the script has many lazy, unlikable elements. It never feels like an “Evil Dead” film and seems to misunderstand what made the originals so great.

74. Come Out and Play
Nearly a shot-for-shot remake of obscure seventies thriller “Who Can Kill a Child?,” director Makinov can’t replicate the chilly atmosphere and disturbing tension of the original. Instead, he ramps up the gore, blares the sound design to deafening levels, and adds shaky direction. Oh, and some unearned pretensions. Skip this one and rent the original instead.

75. No One Lives
Ryuhei Kitamura’s direction is disappointingly bland. The deeply unlikable characters and laughable dialogue drags down what could have been an interesting crime/slasher hybrid. The extended, out-of-nowhere catfight midway through makes me wonder if this was suppose to be some over-the-top genre exercise but the rest of the movie is drearily routine.

ONE AND A HALF STARS:

76. The Amazing Adventures of the Living Corpse
After six years on the shelf, the CGI animation looks terrible. The extended delay doesn’t forgive the episodic pacing, the monotonic rock-guitar score, the terrible voice acting, or the ridiculous time jump a third of the way into the movie. Some of the action scenes are well-animated. It’s a shame that Justin Paul Ritter’s once promising career has turned into a non-starter.

ONE STAR:

77. Sharknado!
Syfy forced me to acknowledge this by giving it a brief theatrical run. The most insulting part isn’t the charmless SFX, pitiful direction, sub-community theatre acting, or pathetic attempts at drama. Every character slaying sharks with ease and slinging awful one-liners hurt the most. Like all Asylum joints, this is also very boring, most of the runtime spent inside an unmoving truck.

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I work all year towards my retrospective. 79 has been my average for a few years and, yes, I'm disappointed that I came up a few short. However, I think it's fair to say I still see more then the average film goer. I'm still in that weird grey zone between casual movie fan and actual film critic. Thus is the life of a movie nerd.

Now that we've close the book on 2013, come back tomorrow for my 2014 Film Preview! I've got Director Report Cards, podcast, Oscar coverage, all sorts of crazy stuff promised for next year. Until then, thanks for reading. I'll see you on the other side.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 32: Christmas Vacation

I told you I wanted to get one more episode up before the year was over! This was originally planned to be a structured episode about Christmas holiday specials. However, December sort of kicked both of our asses. My Christmas movie marathon didn't exactly go as planned. Most pressingly, the previous episode was ridiculously late. As a result of all of this, we decided to recorded a looser episode, a post-Christmas breakdown of what the holiday was like for us.

After talking about some of the perennial holiday favorites (and not-so-favorites) we got to see this December, our conversation turns towards weird holiday traditions from around the world. After the episode degrades into a typical collection of nerdy bullshit. I talk about a few recent watches, we discuss Disney's "Frozen," the Hexafusion internet meme, a few interesting projects that were never made. And, of course, the two of us rant about Gal Gadot's casting as Wonder Woman in the "Man of Steel" sequel, which still doesn't come out until 2015.



Come back tomorrow for my Yearly Retrospective, a comprehensive list of every new release I saw this year, and on the first for my 2014 Film Preview. Happy New Year from Film Thoughts!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bangers n' Mash 31: Disney Animated Features

Regular readers of this blog are surely aware of my love of animation and, more specifically, of Disney Studio's animated output. However, I suspect listeners of the Bangers n' Mash Show mostly come from the horror fandom. Yet, in addition to missing our release dates by weeks, another hallmark of this show is doing stuff our "fans" probably won't enjoy. So here's an hour of two nerds talking about Disney cartoons.



Somewhat ironically, this is probably are least family-friendly episode ever, as there is a lot of generous profanity and an unnecessary amount of filthy humor. That wasn't planned.

This, hopefully, will not be the last episode of the year, as I hope to squeeze another one before my Year End Retrospective and 2014 Film Preview go up on the 31st and the 1st. Hopefully.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 24

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Horror and Christmas are two great tastes that taste great together. Contrasting the jolliest day of the year with monsters, murder, and mayhem are obviously fascinating, and something the action genre has repeatedly taken advantage of. Moreover, Christmas is a pretty weird day, when you think about it. Santa Claus, especially, is a strange figure, an omniscient being who watches all our actions, judges, and bends time to his will in order to sneak into your house. Holiday traditions all over the world frequently bring macabre or horrific elements to Christmas. There have been many Christmas horror films made over the years, so many that a killer Santa Claus no longer surprises. In 1984, when “Silent Night, Deadly Night” was originally released, the idea of a killer Santa Claus was shocking enough to lead to boycotts from the PTA and picketing around the country. Unlike more sophisticated Christmas horror fare like “Black Christmas,” “Silent Night, Deadly Night” gives the audience exactly what they want, providing sleazy, gory, mean-spirited violence with holiday trappings, while also being more character oriented then you’d expect a greasy eighties slasher flick to be.

It’s also hilarious. The film begins with the Chapman family, dad Jim, Mom Ellie, five year old son Billy, and infant son Ricky on a Christmas road trip to visit Grandpa in the nursing home. The parents spent two minutes with the catatonic old man before wandering off, leaving their pre-school age son in the hands of an unmoving old man. Sensing blood, the Old Man springs to life and delivers a monologue about how Christmas is the scariest night of the year. Following that, the family jumps back in the car and drives off. Why a family would drive all day to spend seconds with a relative, leave a little boy alone with a comatose grandparent, or whether Grandpa is truly demented or was simply binding his time, waiting for an opportunity to traumatize his grandchild, are unimportant questions. “Silent Night, Deadly Night” functions on its own level of reality.

Anyway, a robber in a Santa suit pulls the family over, murders the father, sexually assaults the mother, and traumatizes Billy and Ricky for life. While in the care of a catholic orphanage, Billy is further traumatized by the psychotic Mother Superior. When presented with a child’s drawing of a dismembered Santa Claus and reindeer, Mother Superior doesn’t consult a child psychologist but instead locks Billy in his room. (Why a strict Catholic wouldn’t even allow kids to talk about Santa Claus, I don’t know.) When Billy walks in on a humping pair of teenager, Mother Superior whips the fucking teens as well as Billy, all while going on about punishment. She ties him to his bed when he has bad dreams and forces him to sit on Santa’s lap, even though he really, really doesn’t want too. The distressing nature of the child abuse is hilariously undermined by the inept execution. Child actor Danny Wagner sports a bad mullet while stiffly delivering his lines. Lilyan Chauvin plays Mother Superior straight-faced, bringing method actor intensity to this light-weight, ridiculous material. The tone is never less then melodramatic, with hilarious images like an eight year old punching a grown man across a room decorating the presentation.

After a solid half-hour of hysterically overwrought character building, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” finally gets to the point. Adult Billy, now a six foot tall body-builder, gets a job at a toy store, where he bonds with his boss, female co-worker, and asshole stock manager. However, as Christmas season approaches, Billy becomes uneasy, haunted by disturbing dreams. When the actor hired to play Santa Claus injures himself, Mr. Sims immediately decides the six foot tall, emotionally disturbed body builder is the right man to play the jolly, fat elf. In one of the film’s most (probably) unintentionally funny bits, Billy sternly threatens the children who sit on his lap with punishment, the kids running away in tears, the shop owners smiling and laughing about “how good [Billy] is with kids.” Inevitably, at the post-Christmas office party, the aforementioned asshole stock manager attempts to rape the object of Billy’s affection, sending the dime-store Santa over the edge, spurning on his murdering spree. After claiming several lives in festive fashion, our sadistic Santa hunts down Mother Superior to get his final revenge.

The absurdity mounts during the slasher escapades of the latter half. Like any good Catholic, Billy blames Pamela for her rape, gutting his romantic crush with a box cutter. The murders go unheard by the shop owner, who shrugs off the strange noises as the result of his drinking. The stalking scene through the toy shop has a few clever bits. However, you have to wonder why a toy shop would stock a fully working box and arrow… The movie’s most notorious moment is, no doubt, it’s most entertaining. Nudity prone scream queen Linnea Quigley is getting hot and heavy with her boyfriend in the basement. Their attempted seasonal rutting is interrupted first by the girl’s little sister and then the cat wanting in. Dressed in a pair of cut-off jean shorts and nothing else, Linnea goes outside into the snow to let the cat in. Naturally, the killer springs, tumbles the nude girl around the living room, before impaling her on a pair of strategically placed reindeer antlers. The boyfriend, meanwhile, doesn’t hear any of the screaming, wall slashing, or glass breaking. After both are dead, Santa gifts the little sister with a bloody box cutter, she too apparently not hearing the noisy murders that had just taken place.

The dramatic contrivances build up as the film barrels towards its climax. The police can’t call the orphanage and warn the nuns because one of the kids left the only phone off the hook. The cops shoot a man in a Santa suit approaching the orphanage, only to find out that was kindly Father O’Brian, the deaf-mute pastor! When Billy does show up to take his revenge on Mother Superior, she doesn’t run or try to get the other kids to safety. Instead, she looks the killer right in the eyes and says, repeatedly, “There is no Santa Claus!,” as if that would stop him.

The most endearing thing about “Silent Night, Deadly Night” is its deeply misanthropic, anti-Christmas streak. The first murder, the Santa Suit-clad robber shooting a gas station attendant, begins with the worker complaining about the fakeness of the holiday and ends with the murderer shouting “Merry fucking Christmas!” Christmas is presented as a night of judgment and moral hypocrisy. During the toy shop murder, Christmas decorations of Santa and his elves watch, coldly, disinterested, as innocent victims are brutally slain. Twice in the film, Santa Claus is shot to death in front of a room of kids. The most visually striking moment in the film is when Billy, randomly, turns his wrath on an innocent snowman. Just because he hates the season that much. Director Charles E. Sellier has claimed he had no agenda while making the film but clearly someone on the creative team really fucking hated Christmas. This makes “Silent Night, Deadly Night” ideal holiday counter-programming.

The movie’s good natured stupidity and camp balances out that mean tone. Robert Brian Wilson is a terrible actor, grunting monosyllabically behind his improbable Santa’s beard. The movie is loosely plotted, Billy mostly murdering random people before working his way back to Mother Superior. Most of the characters are aggressively sleazy cartoons. And what about those fucking awful original songs? “Santa’s Creeping?” “The Warm Side of the Door?” No wonder Billy goes crazy. Still, for all its dumbness, the film knows its audience. The gore effects are wet and creative. Each kill ties into the holiday setting, involving everything from Christmas lights to a sled. The sex and gore are piled on, with two rape scenes and four different sets of breasts. This is delightfully sleazy, deliriously campy, empty-headed holiday horror entertainment. Paired with a glass of eggnog, it’s the perfect antidote to a horror fan’s Christmas blues. [7.5/10]


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 23

This Christmas Countdown thing has been a complete fucking disaster. There were so many Christmas-related things I wanted to watched, established film classics, animated TV specials, obscure holiday-related TV episodes, Christmas-themed horror films, all sorts of things. Instead, I’ve managed to sneak in a few cartoons and that’s it. What can I say? The end of the year is a busy time for me. And don’t even mention that the month is merely over and I still haven’t squeezed a podcast episode out, much less two. The pressure is on, is what I’m saying. Anyway, here’s some stuff.


The Snowman and the Snowdog (2012)

I was completely unaware of this. While out doing some last minute Christmas dinner shopping yesterday, I found this one on the DVD shelves at the check-out lane. At first, I assumed it was a repackaging of “The Snowman” but upon closer examination, nope. It’s a brand new film, a sequel to my all-time favorite holiday special. Looking at the DVD case, I noticed that the film was only “based on the characters by Raymond Briggs” and had no direct involvement with the original author. Consider me skeptical.

“The Snowman and the Snowdog” gets one very important detail right. It maintains the hand-drawn animation of the original, retaining the colored-pencils-and-paper style of the first film. The edges are much smoother but, visually, there’s a strong sense of continuity. I was also kind of worried at first that the characters were going to start talking which, thank god, is avoided. As with “The Snowman,” this is a silent production, only music and visuals.

“The Snowdog” opens with an emotional gut-punch. A mother and son move into a new home during the summer time, accompanied by an old, much loved dog that has clearly seen better days. The next scene we see is a pan around a silent home, a carved jack o’lantern sitting in the sink. Outside, mother and boy shovel the last bit of dirt on a fresh grave, an empty collar and beloved ball placed on the mound. The original “Snowman” was a children’s film partially about lose. Since the death of a pet is the first lost most children will deal with, this seems like a logical place to take the material. Establishing the place, setting, and emotional weight so quickly is an impressive feat.

Disappointingly, this is a sequel and has to fulfill certain story obligations. During that winter, after the first snow fall, the young boys find a familiar scarf, hat, bits of coal and even a dried-up tangerine under the floorboards. He also finds a photograph of another little boy with a happy, smiling snowman. Gathering up the little snow in the backyard, he builds a new snowman, slavishly copying the original seen in the photograph. This works as a metaphor for the film’s commitment to the proven formula. That night, the Snowman magically springs to life. The two explore the suburban home for while before the boy and the snowman magically take to the sky, flying through the night. The flight takes them to a gathering of other living snowmen, climaxing with a meeting with Santa Claus. The next morning, the boy discovers the melted remains of the snowman, falling to his knees in sadness.

There are differences. The boy also builds a little dog out of snow, fashioning floppy ears out of old socks, the pet joining him on the night’s journey. A sprawling suburban neighborhood has been built around the old farm house. This leads to a magic-propelled flight through urban London. Instead of riding a motorcycle, the Snowman pilots an airplane. The gathering of snowmen escalates into a fairly uninvolving sleigh race. This is all just set-dressing for a familiar story. Attempting to directly emulate the original’s iconic scenes was a grave mistake. The new score is nice but Andy Burrow’s “Light the Night” is no “Walking in the Air,” this version ‘s flying sequence lacking the magic of the original.

Similarly, the meaning of the ending is completely changed. The little boy has lost his dog but, through the magic of Christmas, gains a new puppy. This film isn’t about the relationship between the boy and the snowman but rather the boy and the dog. So the Snowman’s inevitable fate lacks the same emotional significance. And Santa magically turning the Snowdog into a real dog kind of undermines the point, don’t you think? All in all, “The Snowman and the Snowdog” isn’t bad. It’s a valid effort and by no mean’s disrespectful. However, at the end, my suspicions were confirmed. “The Snowman” was a complete story. It didn’t need a sequel. [6/10]




Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Might as well keep the snowman theme going… If the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials were the Avengers, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” would be Iron Man and “Frosty the Snowman” would be, I suppose, Thor. If you don’t grasp what I mean by that awkward pop culture analogy, let me elaborate. “Rudolph” remains the most popular of the studio’s seasonal output and was their first. “Frosty,” meanwhile, runs a close second in popularity. It usually airs directly after “Rudolph” or on the next night. The two character’s status as the studio’s most popular characters was solidify when Rankin/Bass chose them as the twin stars of its sole foray into feature length Christmas programming. Which brings my confusing Avengers analogy full circle. (Though, disappointingly, Frosty never punched a giant snake monster in the face.)

Anyway, the point of my rambling introduction is that “Frosty” was the studio’s most blatant attempt to recreate the success of “Rudolph.” The latter might have introduced the device of a formally semi-popular singer narrating the story but this program set the standard. Both were closely adapted from beloved Christmas songs. Both feature Santa Claus in supporting roles. The biggest differences are that “Frosty” strays from the studio’s iconic stop-motion animation, instead being told through traditional animation.

I’m actually rather fond of the adaptional changes made to the source material. Unlike “Rudolph” or the other, previous specials, “Frosty” doesn’t take place in a fantasy land. It’s set in a normal town, starring normal school kids, which look to be in the six-to-nine range. We found out why there had to have been some magic in that old hat, since it belonged to a washed-up, foolish magician. The half-hour’s non-snowman protagonist is a young girl, which also changes things up a bit. The animation is primitive but has aged fairly well, thanks to the cute character designs. Unlike “Rudolph,” this isn’t a proper musical, meaning no extra songs drag the story down.

Honestly, that story is the weakest element of the special. Nobody seems much alarmed by a snowman springing to life, save for yet another stereotypical Irish cop. Frosty’s intelligence is handled inconsistently. One minute, he can’t count higher then five. The next, he knows what the North Pole is, how to read a thermometer, and is aware of his own mortality. The magician’s pursuit of the girl and the snowman seems like a bit of an overreaction. Secondly, little Karen herself doesn’t think twice about jumping aboard a refrigerated train car. Nor does any adult notice the stowaways. Finally, Santa’s sudden appearance at the end is a major deus ex machine. He brings Frosty back to life, robbing his sacrifice of any meaning, and quickly punishes the villain. That villain, a goofy comic relief character, isn’t particularly intimidating either.

Watching as an adult, the most endearing thing about “Frosty” is probably its voice cast. Jackie Vernon’s big doofy voice embodies the character, making him lovable despite his flaws. Veteran voice actress June Foray is especially good as Karen, and a number of minor supporting characters, making you really care about the little girl. It’s weird to think that there are whole generations of kids who only know who Jimmy Durante is through this special. Anyway, “Frosty the Snowman” doesn’t quite live up to its nostalgic status but isn’t bad. [6.5/10]



Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 19


How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

I’ve spent most of my December Christmas reviews asking if the various established holiday classics deserve to be classics, if they survive for any other reason then nostalgia and pop culture osmosis. Would we be watching most of these specials if they hadn’t been forced down our throats every December? I feel no need to have this conversation when it comes to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I genuine love this movie.

The previous decade has seen many attempts to adapt the works of Dr. Seuss into feature length films. All of them have been failures to different varying degrees, from the absolutely wretched “Cat in the Hat” to the just-tolerably-mediocre “Horton Hears a Who.” They all have the same problem. You can’t really fill out a twelve page picture book to feature length without ludicrous amounts of padding. The classic animated adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” doesn’t have this problem. Mostly because it’s only 26 minutes long but also because the animators felt no desire to stray from the source material. All the spoken dialogue is taken directly from Seuss’ original book, the majority provided by the brilliantly cast Boris Karloff and his soulful reading of the words. What additional material was added evolves naturally out of the material. The three songs have lyrics provided by the original author while any zany slapstick added contrasts nicely with Seuss’ absurd, nonsense rhyming.

The content is all Seuss but the visuals are purely Chuck Jones. In Seuss’ illustrations, the Grinch looked far more feline. In the cartoon, the Grinch takes on a troll-like appearance, supposedly modeled after Jones himself. The director’s style dominates the half-hour with a whimsical sense of inventive silliness. The Whos come in all sizes, from standard human height to three inches tall. Jones was the right man to bring Seuss’ absurd creations to life, as he realizes the ridiculous toys the Who children play with fantastically. Max the Dog is a minor character in the original story but is transformed into a star player here. His slapstick antics prove highly amusing, either cowering in fear from his cruel master or happily running to the front of the sleigh.

Yet Jones’ interpretation of the Grinch is by far the best aspect. The title character’s evil grin grows and grows, taking over his whole face, his hair parting into devilish horns. His dumpy body and gangly limbs are ill-suited to the role of Santa, a great visual joke. His crooked teeth look like they could literally be the home of termites. He slithers between the presents, gnaws nervously on his nails and generally enjoys his villainy to great degrees. Jones even handles the Grinch’s charitable transformation well, his red eyes switching to soulful blue. The x-ray showing his withered heart growing three sizes is such a simple, brilliant visual clue. Imagine if grown-up movies with real people could get away with visual short hand like that…

It seems the best Christmas fare focuses on finding a deeper meaning in the holiday. There’s no grand standing over the moral. Christmas came all the same, the Whos celebrating family and togetherness, not their awesome toys and present. Of course, “The Grinch” tries to have it both ways with its anti-materialism message, the villain returning the stolen gifts after his change of heart. With the way he’s immediately accepted into Who society, perhaps the message we’re suppose to focus on is one of forgiveness? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Of all the perennial classics, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is the most brilliantly constructed and well done. Maybe, as an act of cinematic masochism, I should watch the Jim Carrey version next year? [9/10]




It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992)

As with any beloved institution, thoughts eventually turned towards sequelizing “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Of course, “It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown” came twenty-seven years after the original, after the “Peanuts” specials had cycled through every other calendar event imaginable. A lot had change in those two and a half decades. The “Peanuts” supporting cast had evolved considerably. Iconic pop culture quasi-lesbian couple Marcy and Peppermint Patty had long been added to the crew. Snoopy had gained a sidekick in the form of Woodstock and his army of similarly yellow, chirpy clones. Charles Schulz had even gotten around to adding a token black kid to the group.

The changes those years brought are most evident in the special’s opening minutes. Last seen disenfranchised with the commercialization of the holiday, Charlie Brown is introduced here trying to sell Christmas reefs door-to-door. Good grief. While the animation has improved considerably in the time between, “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” is deeply episodic. It’s really, really obvious that the animators just took a bunch of Schulz’ daily comic strips and strung them together. Short scenes play out in an orderly fashion, building up to a simplistic punch line. Such as Linus’ early attempt at cardboard box sledding, Snoopy’s go at charity bell ringing, or any of Marcy and Peppermint Patty’s interactions. Plot lines slowly form. Chuck is selling reefs in hopes of making enough cash to buy the Little Redheaded Girl a nice Christmas present. Meanwhile, Sally, Marcy, and Peppermint Patty get involved in the school’s Christmas pageant, the exact same story the characters were attempting to tell in 1965. The focus is primarily on those duos, Lucy, Linus, and even Snoopy getting pushed to the sidelines, Schroeder, Pigpen, and others not appearing at all.

It’s not that “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” isn’t funny. A number of gags pay off nicely. Sally’s more direct attempts to sell reefs, Patty’s reaction to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” or the little sister stressing out over her single line of dialogue are all amusing enough. The dialogue is sharp and funny. However, there’s nothing particularly memorable about this one. While the original “Charlie Brown Christmas” had something to say about the season and invoked a deeper meaning to the holiday, “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” merely uses Christmas as set-dressing for typical “Peanuts” shenanigans. It accompanied the better made and better known special for a few years before disappearing into obscurity. Which isn’t surprising at all. [6/10]




Batman: The Brave and the Bold: “Invasion of the Secret Santas

In my brain, Christmas and Batman are inescapably linked. “Batman Returns” was the Bat-film of my childhood, after all. That film’s seasonal setting was probably just Tim Burton indulging in his particular fetishes but the character and the holiday contrast nicely. Christmas is bright and cheery. Batman is dark and brooding. Yet Christmas lights at night are sort of eerie and there’s something vaguely macabre about dragging a dead tree into your home and covering it in lights and shiny metal balls. I plan on reviewing “Batman Returns” for an eventual Tim Burton report card and I’ve never gotten around to buying “Batman: The Animated Series,” which featured two excellent Christmas episodes. So instead I’ve made a habit of watching “Invasion of the Secret Santas,” the Christmas edition of “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” every December.

Though, if we’re being honest, “Brave and the Bold” is probably my favorite alliteration of the Dark Knight anyway. While there have been many great stories told during the character’s various dark and gritty stages, the campy insanity of the Silver Age is undeniably charming and creative. I also love “Brave and the Bold” for exposing the more obscure corners of the DC Universe to a wider audience. (Not to mention having an OUTRAGEOUS Aquaman.) I’ve always enjoyed Dietrich Bader as well. His deadpan delivery was a spectacular match for Batman, making the character a hilarious straight man to all the wackiness around him while never downplaying his Bat-badassery.

As for the actual episode itself, “Invasion of the Secret Santas” is a good primer for the uninitiated. It displays the series’ keen balance of Silver Age tomfoolery, genuine comedic timing, respect for the source material, character insight, and colorful animation. Robotic hero Red Tornado is baffled by the Christmas holiday and, as part of his quest to become more human, becomes determined to experience the holiday spirit. Since this isn’t “TV Funhouse” and he can’t go out and freebase some Cheer, he instead wears poofy sweaters, covers his house in decorations, sings carols, and gives gifts. (His gift to Batman is one of the episode’s best gags.) Even this isn’t enough to get the robot feeling completely seasonal. Luckily, an evil plot by Toyman expy Funhaus allows Red Tornado, with a little help from Batman, to discover the true meaning of the season.

“Invasion of the Secret Santas” has a nicely subversive, even twisted, sense of humor. When evil robotic Santas attack the city, the heroes are forced to repeatedly explode, burn, and dismember Santa Claus in front of children. In either a funny sight-gag or a clever way to reuse animation, the same woman is caught in three crises, reacting the exact same way each time. The episode slyly attacks commercialism too, since the villain’s plan involves using the season’s hottest toy as a tool of evil. The action sequences are beautifully animated too, such as a ride across several flying saucers, an out-of-nowhere reference to “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Among all the goofiness, the episode even finds time for some heart-warming moments, such as Bruce’s flashback to his own childhood. I wouldn’t call “Invasion of the Secret Santas” one of the series’ best episodes but it’s a good seasonal entertainment nevertheless. [7/10]



Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 17

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

When writing about “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I called it the most successful Christmas special of all time. Maybe it is. Even if it isn’t, that raises other questions. “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is probably the most famous Christmas special, what with it contributing a term to the dictionary. But the most beloved Christmas television special? It’s got to be this one, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “Rudolph” and “The Grinch” air every year but Charlie Brown is frequently the highest rated. The film spawned countless other holiday-themed “Peanuts” special, covering everything from Thanksgiving to Arbor Day. The “Christmas” original is easily the most popular and probably the best of the Charles Schulz inspired productions.

I personally think “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has endured for nearly fifty years because it addresses many of the feelings the holidays bring, not just the snowy, candy-cane present-laden happiness. Honestly, Schulz’ comic strip could frequently be incredibly depressing. This is a series that started with two side characters declaring their hatred for the main protagonist. “Peanuts” and its many spin-offs subsist on Charlie Brown’s misery. Why does everyone hate this kid so much? Because he has thoughts in his head. Nonconformity breeds contempt even among children. Charlie doesn’t buy into the crushing cheer of the holiday season. Snow is on the ground, lights are strung on all the trees, and his fellow kids are making up Santa wish list. Yet Charlie just feels a general malaise about the season. Even in 1965, people were fed up with the rampant commercialization of the holiday but that’s not the only reason Charlie is down. Suggesting the melancholy the end of the year can bring, and a search for meaning in the festivities, puts “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on a different level then most other holiday specials.

Which makes it a bit disappointing that the special ends on such a shrug. Charlie Brown is enlisted to direct the local Christmas pageant and unsuccessfully puts up with his classmates’ bullshit. That doesn’t do the trick. Instead, Linus’ monologue about the holiday’s Biblical origin seems to turn the title character’s mind around. His not-really-friends then bond over the adorably shitty tree he’s chosen. So… Is that it? Charlie Brown strikes me as the skeptical type and just reciting the nativity story alone doesn’t seem like it would be enough. I guess there’s only so much ground a half-hour television special can cover. Either way, I like to look at the ending as Charlie Brown coming to his own conclusion about the holiday, finding his own peace with it.

The story’s humor comes from its supporting cast. Lucy is either the world’s youngest hipster, dismissing December snowflakes as too mainstream, or an early example of a young Republican, looking for any opportunity to capitalize on her friend’s misery. She’s also a massive bitch, threatening to punch Linus and charging her friends money to listen to her parrot useless textbook advice. Snoopy was right to take the shit out her meaningless speechifying. Though even Snoopy disrespects Charlie Brown. No wonder he grew up to smack his girlfriend around. Anyway, a lot of the small gags and lines of dialogue are highly memorable. I like Pigpen’s promise to keep a clean inn, Sally’s brutally honest letter to Santa, or Linus’ response to Chuck’s seasonal melancholy. Schulz’ greatest gift, aside from his whimsical artwork, was probably his ability to quickly establish amusing, lovable characters.

The show’s score is rightfully, widely beloved. The jazzy tones and soft, choir music was unique sounding for the day and has never been quite replicated. The animation is cheap, the character design loose and sketchy, the background bland and undefined. However, this winds up creating a timeless feel, since it’s so closely adapted from the source material. It’s easy to see why “A Charlie Brown Christmas” resonates with audience so much, even today. [8/10]




A Garfield Christmas Special (1987)

The most regrettable legacy “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has is that it made comic strip adaptations and holiday specials synonymous. The trend has died down over the last two decades but it used to be every December brought a new holiday-themed special starring a familiar character from the Sunday funny papers. Even Opus the Penguin and Casper the Friendly Ghost took a crack at it. “A Garfield Christmas Special” is far from a yearly classic but it is fondly remembered by a portion of the population. His huge success and hacky writing has made Garfield widely mocked yet the same internet that invented “Lasagna Cat” and “Garfield Minus Garfield” seems to have embraced the fat cat’s various vintage holiday specials.

“A Garfield Christmas Special” is, in particular, way better then it has any right to be. In a strip, Garfield’s sarcastic asides come off as mean-spirited and barbless. In animation, with the beautifully dead-pan vocals of Lorenzo Music behind him, Garfield becomes a sardonic straight man to the upbeat supporting cast. Thom Huge’s Jon is so obnoxiously caught up in the holiday cheer that Garfield’s snide remarks come off less like snarky asides and more like proper reactions. Music’s delivery makes lines that otherwise would have been groaners, like comments about the spicy sausage gravy or the décor of the building, quite amusing. The special doesn’t back away from mocking its hero a few times too, like when the cat gets lost in the snow or awkwardly climbing a tree.

The story follows the expected Christmas special outline. Garfield, as the opening dream sequence displays, only cares about getting as many presents as possible. He’s preoccupied with the “receiving,” not so much the giving. As the story goes on, he, of course, learns the true meaning of the holiday. However, the special goes about this far more subtly then expected. Instead of focusing exclusively on Jon, Odie, and Garfield, the script introduces Jon’s family. His meek brother Doc Boy (Doc Boy?) shares Jon’s child-like enthusiasm for the holiday, best displayed when the two wake up their parents at one in the morning. Jon’s Mom is your typical sitcom mother, cooking an absurd amount of money while being boringly wholesome. Dad Arbuckle is the straight man of the group, reacting to his sons’ antics with agitated bemusement. He is most amusing when forced to read the traditional Christmas story in an overly enthusiastic manner.

Yet the undeniable VIP of “A Garfield Christmas” is Grandma. Perpetual old lady Pat Carroll, best known as Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” plays the grand mother as more then a little loopy. She sabotages her daughter-in-law’s cooking, arm-wrestles her grandson, and does unexpected push-ups. She immediately bonds with Garfield, finding a kindred spirit in the snarky cat. However, Grandma is more then just a goofy, spry old lady. The special’s best moment, and the scene that establishes its emotional heart, involves the grandmother talking about her late husband’s love of the holiday. Grandpa was a traditional old man, unable to express his feelings most of the time. But on Christmas, a gleeful, child-like wonder shined through. These words always spoke to me especially, since they also perfectly describe my grandfather, gone for many years. It’s a sad, sweet scene and not one you’d expect to find in an eighties Christmas special staring a fat, sarcastic cat.

The music is better then average too, much of it provided by Lou Rowls of all people. “Gimme, Gimme” and “Can’t Wait ‘til Christmas” always stuck out to me. Of course, as is typical of Garfield, no body questions how weird it is that Jon takes his pets with him on a holiday. Or that he talks to his cat like he can hear him. Or that the cat winds up giving the best gift of the night. Goes with the territory, I suppose. The animation holds up fairly well too. So is it blind nostalgia or is “A Garfield Christmas” actually kind of good? Either way, it usually finds its way into my yearly Christmas movie rotation. [7/10]




Ziggy’s Gift (1982)

Somewhere near the bottom of the comic strip-based Christmas special totem pole resides “Ziggy’s Gift.” Wikipedia claims that Tom Wilson’s creation is still being published with tie-in merchandise a-plenty but I haven’t seen any proof of this. It seems the character peaked in popularity during the late seventies and has been drastically dropping off in recognition every since. When mentioned at all today, it’s as an easy target of mockery. Do kids today even know what a Ziggy is? Anyway, in the early eighties there was a cartoon.

“Ziggy’s Gift” seems to be a fairly accurate representation of its source material. Ziggy puts up with a lot of bullshit from a cruel world but his undying sincerity sees him through, exposing the gooey sweet heart in every one. The plot here has the speechless hunchback unknowingly joining up with a circle of con-men, dressing as Santas, ringing charity bells, and making off with the donations. Despite this, the iron pot the con-man gives Ziggy winds up magically producing gifts and money. This magical plot device proves our hero’s innocence to the clueless cop pursuing the crooks and converts a slimy, snake-like pick-pocket.

That saccharine sweetness is most evident though that plot line. Ziggy gives a wad of bills to a group of sidewalk carolers. He produces a scarf for a freezing homeless man. At the end, Ziggy winds up gifting an orphanage with fresh Christmas toys and a brand new pet kitten. This is harmless enough. The special’s attempts at blatant humor are more confusing. Broad ethnic stereotypes seem to be the gag of the day. The police officer is named O’Conner and speaks with the kind of Irish accent that would make Chief O’Hara blush. An Italian butcher selling crates full of turkeys is especially broad. The kind old woman who runs the orphanage speaks with a large German accent, a stereotype I was previously unaware of. Some of the more surreal asides are even more off-putting. Store front displays, like a mechanical Santa Claus or choir of singing angels, malfunction in wild, borderline creepy ways when faced with the overwhelming sincerity of Ziggy’s magic pot.

Even Harry Nilson’s theme song, “Give Love Joy,” is sappy and lazy. I mean, I don’t hate “Ziggy’s Gift.” I watched the damn thing all the time as a kid and return to it every December. The animation is kind of pretty, I’ll give it that, and the whole thing is weirdly hypnotizing in its visual and sound design. Still, I’m shrugging. [5/10]


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2013)

13. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I can’t recall the last time a major nerd event like “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was met with such resigned duty. No one was excited about “The Hobbit,” a simple story, getting bloated to three long films, stretched out over three years, with a total run time in the nine-hour range. Despite these reservations, we’re all going to see “The Desolation of Smaug.” I liked “An Unexpected Journey,” in spite of the excessive padding. Even then, I approached part two of this unnecessary trilogy with a weary sigh. It’s December. Must be Middle Earth time.

I knew there’d be a bunch of extra double-long bullshit stuffed inside its two hours and forty minutes but I was looking forward to “Hobbit II: Bilbo Harder” for one reason. The motherfucking dragon. Give me a bad ass giant dragon, Peter Jackson. As its subtitle promises, “The Desolation of Smaug” does indeed get to the dragon. Eventually. First, the hobbit and his dwarf friends have to navigate a labyrinthine forest, battle some big ass spiders, encounter stuck-up elves, duel orcs while rolling on the river in barrels, encounter more political hand wringing in a floating human city, and angst out about a key that may or may not work.

All still that isn’t enough to occupy an epic run time. The second “Hobbit” film double-downs on extraneous subplots. Gandalf spends almost the entire film separated from his friends, instead investigating the soon-to-be resurrected Sauron. The orcs that was so important last time spends this film hanging in the margins, building their army. Sort-of beloved fellowship member Legolas shows back up for some action theatrics. His would-be elf girlfriend gets stolen away by the most handsome dwarf. That plot line continues into the third act, two of the dwarfs stranded in Lake-town, one of them dying from a poisoned arrow. Not to mention political conspiracies involving the townsfolk. All of this distracts from the truly exciting stuff involving Smaug. Whatever movie, with your necromancers and boring romantic shenanigans. Just get back to the awesome dragon.

Man, that dragon is awesome. Smaug is, with little question, the best realized dragon to ever grace the silver screen. The film conveys the scale and sheer size of the creature exquisitely. Smaug takes over the entire theater screen. Hobbits, men, and dwarves are tiny next to his claws and eyes. His wings summon up gale force winds. The dragon’s fire is illustrated as a truly destructive force, spraying out as hot, molten lava. A fantasy troupe I’ve always liked is the talking, intelligent dragon. Up until now, that concept wasn’t represented in live-action film. Smaug is actually quite verbose. He mocks and toys with Bilbo, enjoying watching the little creature squirm. The dragon is arrogant, greedy, and proud, qualities befitting any human. Though Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is digitally altered beyond the point of recognition, Smaug is still a fully formed character. Amazing to look at and interesting to watch, the dragon is, in many ways, a more layered person then any of his human co-stars.

While “The Hobbit: The Book” was a kid-friendly adventure fantasy, “The Hobbit: The Trilogy” has to fit uncomfortably within the epic action film parameters of his mother franchise. It starts out fine enough. The encounter with the giant spiders is well orchestrated. Though not as impressive as the dragon, the huge arachnoids are similarly detailed with a little personality of their own. I love their chattering, nervous language. Bilbo and the dwarfs swinging around webs, stabbing giant spiders left and right is exciting enough to hook you in.

After that, sadly, the film’s action falls into a predictable formula. Legolas and Tauriel slide into scene like video game sprites, jumping around in stylized fashion. During the river chase scene, the elf jumps around on dwarf heads, slashing and shooting enemies. Decapitated heads, axes, and hairy bodies are tossed into the air. Sure, it’s cool to look at. Yet it feels exaggerated compared to the previous trilogy’s more grounded combat. At times, it’s as if the filmmakers are repeating “Look! Legolas is still a badass! LOOK AT HOW BADASS HE IS!” The elves are even shoehorned into the last act. Thorin got an arch-enemy last time with Azog. Legolas gets one too, an orc bruiser he sword fights in Lake-Town. Why is this shit in the movie?

How about those cancerous subplots? Gandalf does time in his own storyline, wearily investigates tombs and castles, occasionally throwing balls of light at monsters. This subplot climaxes with a belabored showdown with the nearly reborn Sauron, a ludicrous battle of light and shadow. Occasionally, Ian McKellen’s natural charm slips through but he seems mostly depressed and bored.

The elves are even worse. Evangeline Lily is fine, charming even, as a character invented solely for the movie, looking all the world like a gender bent Link. The love triangle between her, Legolas, and Kili is especially forced in, an appeal to romance-crazed fan girls. The political upheaval noticed in Lake-town is blatantly inserted to extend the conflict, keeping Luke Evan’s blandly handsome Bard occupied while more important shit happens to more important characters. This becomes a major issue in the scrambled last act, the other story lines constantly interrupting the more interesting dragon related business.

Smaug is so brilliantly created and such a justified threat that you’re willing to overlook some minor quibbles. The dragon looks great, even if that CGI melted gold looks weirdly fake. The way the dwarves distract the beast is silly, occasionally slipping into the film’s bad habit of overdone action. Still, it works, the intensity building, Smaug getting more and more pissed off. He flies towards the water-set city, determined to burn it to the ground, the audience’s excitement at peak level. And then… It ends! Just when the film is getting really exciting, it ends! To be continued, see you next December. Peter Jackson, you tricky motherfucker.

Aside from its non-ending and bloated screenplay, the biggest sin “The Hobbit Strikes Back” commits is relegating its title character to a supporting role. Martin Freeman’s exasperated reactions were frequently the best part of “An Unexpected Journey.” Bilbo is shifted aside in favor of other characters, Freeman mostly replaced by his CGI double. Yet, even with the sharper focus, the dwarves are still sketchy outlines at best.

Peter Jackson’s direction can be overdone, focusing too much on 3D eye-gouging, the camera swirling around in CGI assisted ways. Even the score isn’t as good as last time, only hinting at the richer, deeper themes used in part one. But… That dragon. Man, he’s awesome. I’m trashing “Desolation of Smaug” more then it deserves. The whole time you’ll wish this was the last half of a duo and not the middle chapter of a trilogy. Yet when it works, it works exceptionally well. Maybe some day, we’ll get a proper, abbreviated cut of the whole series, no filler, just the good parts. [Grade: B-]