Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2001-2005)

7. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings
It’s boring. I’ve never read J. R. R. Tolken and have never been a fan. Sure, when the novels first came out, it was a unique world that had never been heard of before. But by now so much of what was new and exciting back then has been stolen and reused so much that it just isn’t anymore.

The biggest thing I dislike about this film is its lack of a sense of humor. It’s that humor that characterized so much of Jackson’s earlier films and without it, this film lacks the certain energy needed. It’s way, way too serious. And did I mention how incredibly uninteresting the characters are? This film is full of great actors and none of them can transcend the pretentiousness of the original text. Very little of this is Jackson’s fault, granted, as these are all problems I had with the original novels and if he had dared to changed something the geek gods might have rain vengeance down on him.
What is his fault is the ridiculously long run-time. I know there’s a lot of ground to cover, but did this really need to be three hours long? The final battle scene in particular drags and the film takes forever to end. And of course the worst punch line is, that’s not the end! There are still six more hours to sit through before you get any sort of closure!

Still, I’ll give credit where it’s due. The world created here is visually beautiful and probably the best realized universe seen on film in ages. The special effects are particularly flawless. Truthfully, elves and hobbits just aren’t my thing so I can’t really appreciate this film on any other level then the “Wow, that’s pretty!” one.
[Grade: C]

8. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
This one is a little better. There are big battles scenes all around and I think that’s why I enjoyed it more then part one. When the characters stop spewing that hopelessly droll fantasy speak at each other and just start stabbing things, the film actually comes close to being fun.

The film is also the debut of Gollem, the only character that is actually interesting in the entire film series. Gollem is totally fascinating and you can’t take your eyes off him when his on screen. The Academy robbed Andy Serkis of an award because of some stupid technicality but it is a wonderful performance that deserved some sort of recognition. The film is still too goddamn long and when Gollem isn’t around and somebody isn’t getting stabbed, I couldn’t care less. But still, it’s definitely a step forward.
[Grade: B]

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit… …probably because I skipped it in theaters and only saw it on DVD, where I could fast-forward through all the boring shit. And I didn’t really miss any of the plot either which proves how bloated these films really are.

The battle scenes are as epic as you’d expect. The ring slowly consuming Frodo is actually entertaining to watch and Gollem still can do no wrong in my eyes. This film also features an honest to God conclusion which makes it all far more satisfying then the other two. (Of course, the film takes frikin’ forever to end, but still, at least it did end.) I actually found myself almost liking Sam and Frodo too, though I would never ever admit it in the presence of some Tolken humping fan boy.
[Grade: B]

10. King Kong
Jackson seems to be suffering from Sergio Leone syndrome and can’t seem to make a film less than three hours anymore, so this is a bit longer then it should be and the first act could probably have used some trimming. Still, I much prefer it to anything from the Hairy Feet trilogy.

When watched back-to-back with the original film, it actually proves to be a rather brilliant post-modern treatment of the 1933 classic. Scenes from the original are recreated here as the film-within-the-film and Jackson seems to be saying that much of the original is outdated macho pandering. Which it is, of course, but we love it anyway. And the director obviously loves it too as none of this comes off as really critical. Jackson takes a much more humanistic approach to everything, particularly the characters. Adrian Brody’s Jack Driscoll is an everyman playwright as opposed to the original’s two-fisted hero. Jack Black is great as Carl Denham and isn’t afraid to play up the character’s more bastard-like qualities.
The concept to receive the biggest overhaul is the relationship between Ann Darrows and the big monkey. There actually appears to be, if not a genuine affection between the two, at least a mutual respect. Naomi Watts redeems herself after a bunch of crappy movies and proves that she is indeed a great actress. Andy Serkis makes Kong just as memorable and lovable a character as Gollem was. The Skull Island sequences are exciting and thrilling, the dinosaur stampede being my favorite. The spider pit is pretty squirm inducing as well. And I don’t even think I need to tell you how good the special effects are.

The film has a real soul to it, however, that makes it a far more dramatically rounded feature then “Lord of the Rings” was. As Kong scales the Empire State Building and Howard Shore’s score plays, the film pulls back and makes you aware of the inevitable conclusion to all this. You realize that the story is really a heart-breaking tragedy.
[Grade: A]

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (1994-1996)

4. Heavenly Creatures
Feels like something of a transition from Jackson’s earlier more outrageous films to his slicker Hollywood productions. It maintains a lot of the spirit of his previous productions. There’s certain energy, plucky spirit, and anarchic humor to many of the fantasy sequences. Jackson’s imagination shines during these moments and he forges many unforgettable images.

The film’s short prologue seems to be a sort of warning to the audience to let them know that, despite most of the film feeling like a whimsical story of young friendship and budding sexuality, none of this ends well. There’s a certain darkness underlining much of the lighter proceedings. This prevents any sudden shift in mood because you realize it’s been building up to this all along.
The two lead performances are really wonderful. I wonder how many directors envy Peter Jackson for being the one who discover Kate Winslet. She’s captures the essence of a bubbly, energetic teenage girl right on the edge of a breakdown perfectly. Despite Winslet demanding much of your attention, Melanie Lynskey’s Pauline is at the center of the film. When she stares at you with those eyes, you can feel a real intensity cooking inside the girl. She completely immerses herself in the role. Of course, it’s how the two actresses, playing very different but strangely very similar characters, compliment each other that really makes the film work. The relationship they have feels honest and, dare I say, heart-warming. Proof of how involving the film is, is that at the end I wasn’t thinking, “It’s horrible what they did,” but, “It’s so sad they’ll never see each other again.” [Grade: A]

5. Forgotten Silver (with Costa Botes)
I suppose a lot of the fun of “Forgotten Silver” is ruined by knowing anything about the movie before watching it. The movie is quite a brilliant mockumentary.

It details the career of early film pioneer Colin McKenzie. Rising out of obscurity in New Zealand, McKenzie would go on to make such cinematic advances as motorized film, feature length stories, synchronized sound, close-ups, and color. He would film the first working airplane (not the Wright brothers), an early example of police brutality, before his career climaxed in a epic four-hour rendition of the biblical tale of Salome, that wouldn’t be seen until years after his death in the Spanish Civil War. Peter Jackson himself would accidentally discover much of McKenzie’s work before presenting it to the world, where McKenzie was accepted as a hugely important pioneer of early film, to be held in the same regard as Edison, Melies, and Griffin.
Never heard of Colin McKenzie before? That’s because the whole movie is a fabulous hoax. He never existed and everything here is totally fictional. Even if you didn’t know that going in, there are several clues, such as a preposterous use of digital recovery and the amusing series of misfortunes that prevented McKenzie’s amazing developments from being recognized. Everyone involved, including such recognizable faces as Leonard Maltin, Sam Neil, and Harvey Weinstein, keep straight faces. All of the silent recreations as very well done and fairly convincing. The final Salome feature in particular feels pretty definitely like a real silent film. I also really like the music. Under an hour in length despite the 70 minute running time listed on the DVD (I suppose that includes the excellent “Behind the Bull” featurette included in the special features), “Forgotten Silver” is still a really neat little picture and a good example of Peter Jackson’s range as a filmmaker. [Grade: B]

6. The Frighteners
I suppose we couldn’t expect Jackson’s first studio horror film to meet up with the expectations of his earlier gory projects. Considering those expectations, “The Frighteners” holds up pretty well. The movie’s tone isn’t one hundred percent perfect. Ultimately, it’s a horror-tinged supernatural mystery-adventure with some comedy thrown in.

In the earlier parts of the movie, when Frank Bannister is chatting with his ghost friends, many scenes come off as shrill or too frantic. Generally speaking, the goofy slapstick antics of our spectral pals doesn’t really gel over all. Once they exit the picture, things start to go better. Not to say this section is bad. It’s still pretty decent and the likes of John Astin, Chi McBride, and R. Lee Ermy make the goofy ghost pretty entertaining anyway.

Still, once the set-up is established and we get on with the story, the movie improves dramatically. The second half is excellent. The entire finale in the old hospital is thrilling, exciting perfect popcorn stuff. If the whole movie was like that, “The Frighteners” would be a masterpiece. But, you know, the set-up is necessary.
Michael J. Fox isn’t the kind of leading man you would have thought of for a project like this but he actually does a pretty good job, keeping some of his typical smarmy charm while occasionally going to darker places. Jeffery Combs steals the show in his supporting part as the highly demented FBI agent. He’s hilarious and I’d say its Combs best performance after old Herbert West. Dee Wallace, who is almost unrecognizable in a black wig, has fun playing a villainess for once. Jake Busey is good even if he doesn’t cover any new ground.

Peter Jackson’s direction is quite good. Color is used excellently and the whole movie has a beautiful green, blue drab to it. The score, with its gothic violins, is a good listen and provides a unique tone. Though this is definitely Peter Jackson’s project, you can’t help but wonder how much influence producer Robert Zemeckis held. “The Frighteners” feels a lot like a Zemeckis project at times. Still, it’s a good time.
[Grade: B+]

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (1987-1992)

1. Bad Taste
I didn’t like this one as much as I hoped I would, considering it’s a film right up my alley. It very obviously a low budget, very independent film and I can’t help but feel that hurts the film, even though it really isn’t its fault. For a film of this type, I thought the cast was maybe a little too large as you only get to know two or three characters.
More then anything else, “Bad Taste” is driven by its demented sense of humor. It’s filled with the gross-out humor that characterizes many of Jackson’s early films. Some of it crosses the line from “funny-gross” to just plain gross, but still, this has a generous amount of twisted laughs. When you consider how professional this looks considering it’s budget, it becomes a little impressive. Though I was disappointed, it’s hard to really dislike any film with an exploding sheep in it. [Grade: B-]

2. Meet the Feebles
“Meet the Feebles” is a sick and twisted comedy so sick and twisted that those words don’t really aptly describe it. Jackson tops “Bad Taste” in just about every way as this movie is better made, funnier, and more outrageous.

The general plot is, basically, Muppets acting as deprived as humanly (Muppet-ly?) possible. Sex, rape, drug abuse, gang violence, war violence, S&M, vomiting, binge eating, coprophagia, murder, and full frontal puppet nudity are just some of the acts feature within. And all of it is played for laughs, of course. This very easily could have been a one-joke movie but
somehow it works. The funniest moment in the film is the knife-throwing frog’s drug-induced Vietnam flashback, in which the Americans are portrayed as frogs and the VC are woodchucks. There’s also a “Deer Hunter” style Russian Roulette game. Also deserving of mention is the film’s climax, in which the jilted, suicidal/homicidal hippo diva goes on a machine gun rampage throughout the theater set to the tune of the “Sodomy Song.” If that doesn’t tickle your funny bone then you are obviously not the target audience for this film. [Grade: B+]

3. Dead-Alive
Jackson’s so-called “splatter trilogy” reaches it crescendo with “Dead/Alive” (aka “Braindead”), the film that pretty much defines the “splatstick” subgenre of horror film. The bigger budget shine helps this one a lot and the quality of the special effects are greatly improved from the last two films. The lead performances are actually pretty good and the central romance is nice, too. There’s also some not-so-subtle Freudian subtext that adds some replay value.
Of course, the real reason anyone talks about this film is for the demented comedy and gore. There’s plenty of great gags in this one. The diner party? The zombie baby? The Nazi chemist? The kung-fu ass-kicking-for-the-Lord priest? Yeah. Possibly not as outrageous as “Meet the Feebles” but definitely funnier. And the gore? This film has the label of goriest of all time for a reason. There’s some blood throughout but it’s the climax where the movie really pays off. Seriously, not a second pass without somebody getting dismember or splattered. Words fail to convey the greatness of the last twenty minutes. It’s a gore hound’s wet dream and is just as likely to horrify you as it to cause you falling off the couch laughing. The rest of the public can have their “Lord of the Rings” movie, in my mind, this will always be Peter Jackson’s greatest achievement. [Grade: A]