My Month in Film: March 2014

This month I watched C.H.U.D. (full review forthcoming), which I have already discussed on episode 78 of Lair of the Unwanted; it will also be featured in the next episode of the Forced Viewing Podcast. My other podcast guest appearance in March was on episode 208 of the LAMBcast.

As for my own podcast, the featured movies in episode 26 were The Cell 2 (the Drudgeon’s pick), Murder Party (Jori’s pick) and Pacific Rim (my pick). John, Zeb and Benny joined us, along with our friend Doug Walker (AKA “That Guy with the Glasses”) as a special guest.

Other films I watched included…

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The biggest problem with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (dir. Peter Jackson, 2012) isn’t how Jackson pads out The Lord of the Rings’ shorter, slighter predecessor into a trilogy. (Although the padding is a problem; often, it feels like Jackson’s chief inspiration in the new material was Randall’s rant in Clerks 2.)

It’s that he spends too much time making it work as a prequel and not enough making it work as its own story. He forgets that The Hobbit isn’t the story of how Bilbo found the Ring; it’s about Thorin’s quest, Bilbo’s role in it, and how it changed him. Glorified cameos from Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee don’t help matters. The tone is uneven: the ruder aspects of what is, at its heart, a story for kids don’t sit well with Jackson’s desire for a tone more consistent with the Rings films. Even the parallels between the two works are too obvious: so often, it seems as if you could replace Thorin with Aragorn without changing all that much.

That being said, that’s all made up for in the always-breathtaking scenery, inspired design (except for occasional missteps such as the Great Goblin, who seems to have a scrotum where his chin ought to be, and to make things even more surreal he’s voiced by Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries) and a fantastic cast led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage, and backed up by James Nesbitt and Sylvester McCoy. Most of the big effects set-pieces work very well (the stone giants sequence being the major exception). And they managed to slip in the “That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates” song from the novel (“Blunt the knives, bend the forks, smash the bottles and burn the corks…”), so that’s a plus.

Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost

I’m pretty sure of two things in life: first, that almost nobody watches Jesse Stone movies for their plots; and second, that the people who make Jesse Stone movies know that almost nobody watches them for their plots. The screenwriters of Jesse Stone: Innocents Lost (dir. Dick Lowry, 2011) acknowledge this by starting with the murder of a character you could have sworn appeared earlier in the series, such as Stephen Baldwin’s daughter from the first movie, or whoever was is Mae Whitman played (you were too busy making Arrested Development jokes and didn’t catch her name). But nope, it’s an original character, albeit one he talks to (in flashbacks) using the same sort of language he always uses when talking to the wayward girls he serves as a reluctant father figure for. He even manages to pull out the old line about how he’s not in the “right and wrong business” but the “legal and illegal business.”

That being said, Innocents Lost features plenty of what people do watch Jesse Stone movies for: Tom Selleck’s nigh-existential stoicism, the chemistry between Selleck and the series regulars, and the series’ trademark rapid-fire crime-novel dialog. The sort of things that happen in Jesse Stone movies always happen. Suitcase calls Jesse “Lou”; a beautiful woman (Gloria Rubens this time) offers Jesse uncomplicated, no-strings-attached sex; Hasty wears that stupid bow tie; everybody throws around phrases like “coply intuition.”

It’s a well-oiled machine where the old hands do what they do best, and newcomers such as Jeff Geddis (the new police chief) and Christine Tizzard (Gino Fish’s new secretary) get to show off. It only suffers a bit from not having Robert Harmon at the helm, or not actually being based on something Robert B. Parker wrote. (As with most Stone screenplays, it’s co-written by Selleck and Michael Brandman, but the story is original this time.) It’s made-for-TV comfort food, routine and not exactly exciting, but satisfying nonetheless.

Bad Milo

To counter accusations that my dislike of Zombie Ass springs from a highbrow aversion to toilet humor, I humbly submit Bad Milo (dir. Jacob Vaughan, 2013) as a prime example of how to do it right.

The State’s Ken Marino stars as a stressed-out, uptight middle manager with a hitherto-unknown goblin living in his digestive system; Milo, as the monster is eventually named, crawls out of his anus when Marino gets stressed and savagely attacks his host’s apparent enemies. Milo features a bevy of brilliant supporting performances including Gillian Jacobs, Kumail Nanjiani and Stephen Root as Marino’s family members (wife, oversexed stepfather and hippie biological stepfather) along with Peter Stormare as an unconventional therapist and Patrick Warburton as a slimy corporate executive.

But it’s the title character who steals the show, an animatronic marvel who’s simultaneously monstrous and cute–an expressive, well-rounded character with phenomenal vocal work by Steve Zissis. Add in a witty script that’s as poignant as it is disgusting and rude, and you’ve got one sweet and enchanting sick-joke of a cinematic experience.

Saving Mr. Banks

P.L. Travers was on the record as having strongly disliked Walt Disney’s adaptation of her novel Mary Poppins; I expect that the story of their creative difficulties would make a fine source for a film about the creative process.

Unfortunately, Saving Mr. Banks (dir. John Lee Hancock, 2013) tells a more conventional and dumbed-down story, that of England’s stuffiest, fussiest, most uptight prig (she doesn’t even like Dick Van Dyke!), who learns to loosen up just a little when a brash maverick shows her the error of her ways. It’s all a bit condescending, really, especially when Disney figures out what Travers is too blind to see: that Mary Poppins was her attempt to redeem the memory of her irresponsible, alcoholic father. Typical biodoc stuff that all culminates in a typical biodoc ending. You could subtitle it How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mouse. In real life, Travers never forgave Disney til the day she died.

Emma Thompson (Travers) and Tom Hanks (Disney), along with Colin Farrell (Travers’s father, in flashbacks) save Saving Mr. Banks. Hanks and Farrell are scene-stealers, but there’s no doubt that this is Thompson’s show, and it’s never more entertaining than when she drifts through it, insulting everyone in her path. (“What is wrong with his leg?” she asks, in reference to songwriter Robert Sherman’s limp. “He got shot,” is the answer, to which she replies, “Hardly surprising.”) It’s a performance–and a character, and a real person–that deserves a less reductive and more insightful story to go along with it.

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