Saturday, December 22, 2012

Movie Reviews-The Hobbit, Supernatural: Season Four, Lust for a Vampire, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead

The Hobbit (An Unexpected Journey)
directed by Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is a very very very long movie. Interminable. And did I mention it was long. Look let's be honest here. If you are a Jackson or a Tolkien fan you're going to see this movie no matter what anybody writes. You're a Tolkien junkie and you need your fix. I am too so don't try to kid a kidder. If you're not a Tolkien fan, well just be aware that this is a lengthy film that simultaneously takes a lot of liberties with the source material but still attempts fidelity to its spirit.
I was a little worried when I read that Jackson's producing and writing partners, Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, disapproved of the lack of any women characters in The Hobbit and changed things so that there would be some female energy. They added a few scenes with the elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) that weren't in the book but I didn't mind that much. I didn't like the implication that Gandalf had to report to Galadriel. Saruman yes, but not Galadriel. Anyway that was minor. Blanchett IS Galadriel and Galadriel IS probably the most powerful elven leader still in Middle-Earth so it's all good.
J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit was mostly written for children. Tolkien had conceived of some back story but not all of it and wasn't sure if or how it would be connected to The Hobbit. So the book is a light short romp about a well fed, relatively incurious hobbit of The Shire (a virtual stand in for pastoral England) who is accidentally drawn into a quest to restore a dwarfish kingdom and defeat a dragon. During his adventure he encounters wizards, dwarves, elves, trolls, a lonely cave dweller with a magic ring, greedy merchants, evilly intelligent giant wolves, nasty giant spiders, human heroes, goblins, and of course a rather sarcastic dragon with an ego that matches his size. It's only at the end where there's a huge battle royale over gold and revenge that the book's tone briefly changes to something a bit more majestic and darker.

In paperback The Hobbit is maybe 300 pages. Maybe. It's shorter than any of the three separate books that make up The Lord of The Rings. So there was really no reason to make The Hobbit into a sprawling three movie series. But when you have consistently produced the creative and commercial success of Peter Jackson and his crew, much like another popular creator of mythic beauty I could mention, you probably enjoy a slightly different relationship with editors than your average artistic person.
If you liked Jackson's LOTR visual style you will definitely love what you see here. Pains have been taken to establish continuity. Initially the film stays faithful to the book's puckish nature. The film's Shire looks almost exactly like the edition shown in an illustrated version I read decades ago. We see Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) well fed and somewhat lazy sense of propriety. Left to his own devices he would be content to eat, drink and smoke pipe-weed all day long. This won't happen though. When the friendly but imposing wizard Gandalf The Gray (Ian McKellen) stops by to talk to Bilbo one morning, Bilbo realizes that Gandalf is trying to entice him into an adventure. So he tells Gandalf good morning and quickly retreats into his safe, comfortable, dry and clean home. But it's too late. Gandalf has left a mark upon Bilbo's door. 
Later that night, a number of dour, hungry and ready to party dwarves stop by Bilbo's home. They are all either kinsmen or countrymen of their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), exiled King Under The Mountain. He's a rough but charismatic dwarf with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, who yearns to lead his people to reclaim their kingdom, stolen by the dragon Smaug. For reasons that aren't exactly clear even to him, Gandalf has led the dwarves to believe that Bilbo is a skilled burglar and someone who will be of use to them in their quest. Once everyone meets it's very obvious that this isn't the case. The dwarves are getting very angry with both Bilbo and Gandalf, when Gandalf, showing flashes of annoyance and temper that really define his character, explains that he has reasons for his decisions and Bilbo will be useful in ways no one even knows yet. This is a really cool scene as simply by his vocal resonance it becomes apparent that Gandalf is not human. Strictly speaking, Gandalf is a lower level angelic being bound in human form, sworn to help and heal free peoples, but not to rule or dominate them like the Enemy. I imagine that a being of massively greater power and intelligence would occasionally get annoyed with so-called lower life forms. It happened a LOT in the books and I liked Jackson's take on it here. 
Obviously Bilbo does accompany the dwarves. This is where the film goes a bit off track. Everything is drawn out and the level of violence/action is increased immensely from the book. 2 hours and 49 minutes later, we are only about 1/3 to 1/2 way thru the book. Many scenes that were only referred to in the book or in The Lord of the Rings appendices are added. Other scenes are completely made up. I liked how the film depicted the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch). That was honestly somewhat unnerving. The film doesn't really have a standout star but if it did it would be Richard Armitage, who's got the brooding bada$$ thing down pat. Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), a wizard who is more concerned with plants and animals than elves, dwarves or men, makes an appearance. He's more comic relief than I expected but it's ok. The film's other star is the land of New Zealand. 
Andy Serkis is back again as Gollum and if anything his characterization of the pathetic hobbit like creature is both more empathetic and more wicked. The Dragon Smaug is never shown completely. It's a more effective trick than you might think. I liked the flashback to the desperate battle that showed how Thorin Oakenshield got his name. I didn't care for the movie's invention of a nemesis for Thorin, one that in the books, had already been put down long ago by one of Thorin's cousins. I think the filmmakers wanted to make Thorin more personally heroic for people who hadn't read the books.

This is not Oscar material but again if you are any sort of Tolkien fan you will see it. Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Ian Holm reprise their roles from the LOTR movies.  The movie's music is almost the same as that in LOTR. Conan Stevens, who you may remember as The Mountain That Rides from S1 of HBO's Game of Thrones, was originally cast as one goblin leader but ended up playing another. I may have to watch the movie again (just kidding) to see if he was in this film or will show up in the sequels. Someone really needs to talk to Jackson about editing.


Supernatural Season Four
created by Eric Kripke
When last we left the Winchester Brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) was desperately seeking a way, moral or not, to save big brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) from going to Hell. But some things are beyond the abilities of even the Winchester Brothers. A deal is a deal. Sam could only watch in horror as invisible extradimensional hell hounds ripped Dean apart and carried his soul off to Hell. Season Three ended with Dean being tortured on meat hooks in Hell and calling out in utter desperation for Sam. Dean's nemesis, Lilith, tried to kill Sam too, but was shocked to find out her powers didn't work on him. She fled her host.

But you know you just can't keep a good man down. When Season Four starts Dean is buried six feet underground. ALIVE! He breaks out. He is surprised to find himself alive and with his body whole and unmarked. Well almost unmarked. Dean finds a hand shaped burn mark on his left shoulder. He hears mutterings and high pitched noise that is enough to cause pain and break glass around him. Dean calls friend, mentor and substitute father figure Bobby Singer, (Jim Beaver) who thinks the call is a sick joke and hangs up.
Eventually however, Dean meets up with Bobby and Sam. After he's convinced them that he's real, they are of course relieved and happily surprised. But as Bobby Singer would say let's not just stand around giving each other love wedgies, ladies. There's work to do. And this season things are different.
In Dean's absence, Sam has become close, really close, with the demon Ruby (Genevieve Cortese-Padalecki's real life wife). Ruby wants to help Sam develop his hellborn powers in order to exorcise and kill demons. Ruby says she's not like other demons. Dean despises and distrusts Ruby. But Dean and Sam put aside this disagreement long enough to visit Pamela (Traci Dinwiddie), a psychic, to learn what broke Dean out of Hell. There is one class of being powerful enough to rescue Dean from the Pit. This being is so magnificent that glimpses of its true form blind Pamela. Undeterred Dean and Bobby summon this creature. It turns out they didn't summon it so much as it wanted to come. It's an angel. The angel Castiel (Misha Collins), manifesting in a nondescript devout man, casually informs Dean that he saved Dean from eternal damnation because God has plans for him.
And the series enters a new level of awesomeness and strangeness. The religiously minded Sam is delighted to learn God exists. But Dean is upset both by Castiel's seeming callousness about having blinded Pamela and the fact that Castiel, although nice enough as angels go, makes it crystal clear that humans should obey angels and not ask questions. Dean is offended that the world is as messed up as it is, given that God exists. Dean also has a well hidden sense of self-loathing that he tries to dull via alcohol and other earthly pleasures. He can't quite believe that God actually cared enough about him to send Castiel to rescue him from Hell. Castiel's orders are to get Sam and Dean's assistance to prevent Lilith from breaking 66 seals and thus bringing about the Apocalypse and Lucifer's release from Hell. If need be, Castiel and the angel Uriel (Robert Wisdom -Bunny Colvin from The Wire) are prepared to sacrifice many humans in this fight. The angels may be the "good guys" but kind and cuddly they're not. Following orders is their highest good. Whether that means saving someone from Hell, healing the sick, raining fire and brimstone down on a city, or killing all the firstborn, it is all the same to them. No one is going to mistake them for Gandalf. 

So Season Four has five major themes:
A) The Winchester Brothers grow increasingly distant from each other. Dean is unnerved by Sam's growing psychic abilities and Sam's bond with Ruby. Sam is curious about Dean's time in hell and later hurt and angry that Dean won't share what happened in Hell. The Angels know but they aren't talking.
B) Sam's powers are growing immensely but he also has ugly secrets that he keeps from Dean.
C) The War between Heaven and Hell is growing closer as more seals are broken.
D) The lines between good and evil aren't as clear as the Winchester Brothers thought they were. Humanity's interests don't necessarily align with Heaven's. Light is not always good.
E) Dean's gotta get some. Frequently. As often as possible.
This was a much darker season but there were still some hijinks and laughs. There is a campy episode shot in black and white in which the brothers confront monsters drawn straight from the Universal and Warner Bros. classics. Chuckles are also had when macho Dean gets infected with a disease that causes him to have excessive paralyzing fears of almost everything. He won't stay in a second story motel room for fear of falling and runs in terror from a shih-tzu. Dean remains a chauvinistic horndog with heart. He knows exactly what women need and is eager to give it to them. His brother Sam cautions him that women may not like being called a certain name. Dean raises an eyebrow, calls a woman he's flirting with that certain name, receives a very positive response and smirks at Sam. In fact Dean's got so much game that even female angels are curious about the Dean machine. Although Dean may be a sex freak, he's otherwise a relatively moral and ethical man, much more so than Sam this season. Sam is breaking all the rules. As Dean tells Sam in one confrontation, "If I didn't know you, I'd be hunting you." Sam's behavior and relationship with Ruby have not gone unnoticed by the angels, who order him to stop or else. Dean runs into a few demons who remember him from Hell, especially the smug, smarmy, and incredibly self satisfied Alastair (Mark Royston), Hell's chief torturer. Alastair looks like a boss I used to have.
Season Four also shows in flashback that Sam and Dean may have been cursed even before they were born. They thought that their father was the first supernatural hunter in the family, drawn into it by their mother's untimely death. But that wasn't the case. Ever wished you could change the past or meet your parents before you were born? In the world of Supernatural that might not be such a good idea. This season has more of rage filled Sam than emo Sam. The actor gets to show more range. Although he's the younger brother, Sam is bigger and stronger than Dean and not someone you want to upset. In some respects Season Four was a chess match between Heaven and Hell in which the Winchester Brothers were just pawns. But their Daddy didn't raise them to be anyone's pawns...

Season Four Intro

Lust for a Vampire
directed by Jimmy Sangster
I've discussed previously how Hammer Films, once the paragon of British Gothic Horror, eventually deteriorated into virtual softcore nonsense, that didn't really scare anyone. There's a fine line between using revealing dress and/or nudity in an artistic way that makes sense for the story and using such tools only to appeal to the lowest common denominator of obvious prurient interest.
Lust for a Vampire doesn't even try to do the former. Almost everyone involved understood that this movie was by definition exploitative and aimed at the cheap thrills crowd. Everyone understood that with the unfortunate exception of the movie's lead actress, Yutte Stensgaard. Stensgaard was a young Danish actress who was still naive and ambitious enough to believe that she had been hired primarily for her acting abilities and not her more obvious attributes. There is one story of the guileless Stensgaard asking the director what was her character's motivation for getting out of a carriage.

This should have been a better movie, but outside of seeing the delectable Stensgaard in various states of undress, there's not much here. The movie was born under a bad sign. Ingrid Pitt turned down the lead role. The original director quit. And Hammer icon Peter Cushing, who brought several films undeserved gravitas, left production to attend his dying wife. 
The story is a rewrite of Hammer's previous Karnstein movies. Mircalla Karnstein (Stensgaard) a vampire immune to daylight, arrives at a Styrian finishing school to enroll as a student. Of course a vampire's gotta do what a vampire's gotta do and before long young girls are dying. Two different male teachers both have the hots for Mircalla. This is evidently before sexual harassment law was enforced. There is the creepy Giles Barton (Ralph Bates) who is known by his students to sneak around outside their rooms spying on them. Barton knows all about the Karnstein history and aches to serve a real Karnstein. The other male teacher is the dashing Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson). The girls generally like this younger, liberal man. Johnson doesn't believe in vampires. Mircalla gives the strong impression that men are not her first choice for love or food but there's something about Richard.
Stensgaard likely did the best she could but her acting abilities were less than her beauty.  And even if she had been Meryl Streep she could not have done much with the script. Bates hams it up as he tries to play Renfield to Stensgaard's vampire queen but that makes things worse. And Johnson gives the impression that he wandered in from a Pride and Prejudice outtake. He's just in the wrong film. A subplot with a corrupt greedy headmistress and a female teacher (Suzanna Leigh) who suspects odd events goes nowhere.
Bates once said that Lust for a Vampire was among the worst films ever made and he regretted having anything to do with it. I don't know if I'd say it's quite that bad but that's only because Stensgaard was easy on the eyes. An honest unbiased appraisal must indicate that this was an unambiguously horrid film. A cheesy pop song was dubbed over a key scene between Stensgaard and Johnson. What should be intense or at least erotic becomes laughable.The director is accidentally seen on camera near the end. This film should only be watched late night if there's nothing else on or by obsessive completists who want to watch and possess every single Hammer film ever made. The trailer was trying for fear and shock but it just seemed schlocky to me. 


Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead
directed by Gary Fleder
Why is it that in so many movies, especially crime movies, that there's always One Last Job that never goes as it seems? I mean does anyone ever do One Last Job with no problems and waltz away into the sunset? Usually not. Although the One Last Job is a cliche or trope, what is true is that there is no story without some conflict. One Last Job is just a useful technique to introduce that conflict. The characters can then either grow, mature and improve their lives OR they can falter and in crime movies, be forced to move off the planet. Maybe that's because in real life there is also no growth without conflict.

So you've definitely seen this movie before with slightly different actors and actresses. The only reason to watch it is that you like the setting or the particular actors involved. I did. YMMV of course.

Denver is not usually considered an organized crime setting but in point of fact Denver did and does have criminals like any other major city. One former criminal is Jimmy The Saint (Andy Garcia) -presumably playing a made Mafia member though it's not really clear. In real life once you're in the Mafia you don't get to retire but showing that in the movie, just like not having One Last Job, would mean there wouldn't be a movie.
Jimmy The Saint is a man who's put a few people underground in his day but he's retired from crime. He's moved into a rather macabre business, in which terminally ill people record messages and advice for their loved ones. This business isn't doing very well. Jimmy is in debt to loan sharks. It's nothing he can't handle but it's not a small amount either. Jimmy is adamant about paying his debts, playing by the rules and keeping to the straight and narrow. He looks out for the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold Lucinda (Fairuza Balk), who has a serious crush on Jimmy. He also is pursuing a serious relationship with a beautiful classy woman Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). So Jimmy is very surprised when he is picked up by his former boss' goons and taken to the boss' home. The boss, only known as The Man With The Plan, (Christoper Walken) is a quadriplegic who was made so in an assassination attempt. 
Since he can no longer do anything physically his only joy comes in spoiling his creepy pedophile son, Bernard (Michael Nicosoli) or ordering pain for other people. He has a job for Jimmy. Jimmy refuses but The Man With The Plan reveals that he's bought up Jimmy's debt. So this isn't really a request. Bernard is despondent because a college co-ed rejected him for a new boyfriend. Jimmy is to arrange a minor beating of this boyfriend. The boyfriend is not to be killed or hurt too badly. The girl is not to be harmed or see any violence.
Jimmy puts together his old crew, Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), Pieces (Christopher Lloyd) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams). Critical Bill got his nickname because anyone that ever went up against him wound up in critical condition. These men don't all like each other but they respect each other and are 100% loyal to Jimmy. Of course something goes wrong with the job. 

Much of the story is told in flashback by Joe Heff (Jack Warden), a grizzled truly retired old gangster who was a friend of Jimmy's. Joe explains the criminal lingo. This was a good drama with a bittersweet ending. Steve Buscemi, Jenny McCarthy, Don Cheadle, Tiny Lister, Glenn Plummer, and Bill Cobbs also have roles.
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