I've had the privilege of attending Head Geek Harry Knowles' yearly gathering four times now, and I have to say, this year's might have been the best yet. There was an even split, 6-6, between classic films and new movies (including one which had only juuust been released in several markets), and a few special guests that made us all stand up and cheer. There wasn't one film that clashed with my sensibilities, and I had a great time basking in cinema of both old and new with everyone in that theater.
Harry got us going at 11:30 A.M. on Saturday, and we were out at around 2:35 P.M the next day. Here's what happened during that time.
-STUNT ROCK (a given)
HOOPER (1978), dir. Hal Needham:
I'd never seen this '70s gem with Burt Reynolds as an aging stuntman, but I feel like it's a crucial piece of Burt's filmography. Made during his post SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT heyday with that film's director (Hal Needham, a former stuntman/stunt coordinator himself) and female lead (Sally Field), Burt tones down his chuckling good ol' boy routine for a somewhat more grounded portrayal of a showbiz vet. The titular Hooper has the gleefully gung-ho attitude of The Bandit, but you get a sense of melancholy behind the bravado. After his stunts, he puts on a brave face for the cast & crew before begging for pain pills or, in the extreme cases, an injection. His age is gaining on him, and a younger generation (represented by young buck Jan-Michael Vincent) is waiting in the wings to edge him out of relevance.
Needless to say, the film's got a handful of terrific stunts, including some daunting freefalls (including one out of a helicopter), several crazy chases and fights, and a big rocket-car jump that's somewhat deflated by the decision to cut away from the action mid-jump. I love that it shines a light on the underappreciated world of stuntpeople (there's even a pretty, un-butch stuntwoman on the crew), and acknowledges that these folks routinely put themselves in harms way for no other purpose but our entertainment. We see that, even with the protection of inflatable fall mats and DEATH PROOF-style cages, these guys and gals are constantly taking formidable hits to their backs, knees, ribs, and necks, only to dust themselves off and do it all again.
The film culminates with the shooting of a massive stunt-heavy sequence involving a 300-foot+ jump, and it feels unique in that a. there's no cops or bad guys chasing our heros, and b. the New Jack Stuntman is riding alongside Hooper, rather than gunning for him. There's a goofy little stretch (complete with a country ballad by Tammy Wynette) that gets a little too sappy for my tastes, but other than that, the film is constantly funny, energetic, and charming. Harry told us that the director of the second film of the day (wich he didn't reveal) told him to program HOOPER to lead into it, and it really was a pitch-perfect way to set up both that film and the rest of BNAT.
Last word: seeing young Sally Field pouncing on Burt in short shorts was odd…a little like seeing your mom making out with a new boyfriend or something.
-POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW (Christopher Lee and Ron Perlman!)
-GOLDGINGER (a "spaghetti spy flick" with humor that may have been lost in the translation)
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014), dir. Matthew Vaughn
This was my second time seeing KINGSMAN, and it remains one hell of a ride. You could feel the energy pulsating through the BNAT crowd during the big set-pieces (including a 2nd act clusterfuck that may very well may be Hit-Girl-hallway-scene-level awesome), and the performances by Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson are phenomenally arch and exciting. It's a bigger, more superficially ambitious film than KICK-ASS, but it doesn't take quite as many risks: though the ending is wonderfully macabre and cynical, there are no trigger-happy pre-teens, on-screen deaths of parents, or simple non-sequiturs like Kick-Ass and Red Mist tenuously rocking out to "Crazy". Plus, the general trajectory of the two movies are somewhat similar, but KINGSMAN combines Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl into one character (the lead, Eggsy), and the lack of a firecracker like Chloe Moretz's Cindy keeps the film from truly popping off (though there is an asskicking young lady in the form of Jackson's henchman, a femme fatale with bladed Oscar Pistorius legs).
But, man, I love Colin Firth's Harry Hart. Looking quite fit and agile, and rocking the same deadpan British sensibility that he made his bones on, Firth has a blast as the suave super-agent, playing the character with a degree of control and restraint that does a lot to smooth over the film's ridiculousness. You'd never think a bespectacled Colin Firth using an umbrella to kick dudes' (and dudettes') asses would be the coolest thing ever, but it is; his action scenes are the clear highlight of the film, and one of my biggest problems with it is that Eggsy never gets the kind of showstopping moments that Firth's "Galahad" does.
I have my nitpicks, like wanting more Firth, less of Eggsy's dealings with an abusive stepfather and his jackass son, and a lead that actually looks natural cracking wise in a suit and specs, but I can't deny the film's ridiculous, sensational charm. Jackson's character's scheme is better than 95% of Bond villains', and the ending has a colorful (heh) sequence that's gasp-worthy in both audacity and impact.
Between this and KICK-ASS, I'd put Vaughn up there with the best action directors working today, and maybe the only one working with this type of budget. His gunfights and melees have a comic-book pop unlike anything anyone else is doing. The action alone makes the movie worth seeing, as does Firth. Even if this didn't send me to the stratosphere the way KICK-ASS did, it's still edgier than the vast majority of tentpoles, and is almost certainly going to be better and more fun than anything else coming out in February.
Before the film, we were graced with the presence of Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, who was just as amazing, hilarious, and fucking cool as you'd imagine. Choice (paraphrased) tidbits: "I'd love to stay and watch this movie: both 'cause I'm not one of those guys who doesn't like to watch himself onscreen, and also 'cause it's so damn good!" He told a great story of how he didn't know his role in EPISODE ONE until really late because of Lucas' level of secrecy, and how he was initially told that his character could only have a green or blue lightsaber (obviously, that didn't stick). He also said that he feels bad for 50 SHADES OF GRAY, opening the same day as KINGSMAN: "We gonna kick that ass!"
-A live-action SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS
-Not really sure what played here…something involving Ronald McDonald and Mother Goose. Weird, and they got the wrong dude to play Ronald McDonald, which just made it creepier.
-THE SECRET OF MAGIC ISLAND
-A commercial for "The Amazing Dr. Chicken" restaurant
THE KING AND THE MOCKINGBIRD (1978), dir. Paul Grimault
Harry set this up by saying that this French animated film started production in the '40s, and took over three decades to complete, similar to Richard Williams' THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Unsurprisingly, it's remarkably visually complex and striking; this is a world that has elements of both past and future (with a kingdom built vertically into the sky, requiring the tallest elevator you can imagine), featuring paintings and sculptures that come alive and cross over into each others' worlds. The plot has the doofy, self-obsessed French King falling for the visage of a young shepherdess featured in one of his personal paintings. However, the shepherdess within the painting (who is, as I said, alive) falls for a young stableboy in an adjacent piece, and the two escape the King's secret quarters/art collection. A mockingbird, who loathes the King, assists the pair in evading him and his guards, and the group ends up rallying the kingdom's beleaguered subjects into standing against their tyrannical leader.
Given the film's long production time, and the fact that some sequences were no doubt inked and edited (maybe even written) years apart from each other, it's not surprising that the narrative is somewhat disjointed and perfunctory. There are long, gag-heavy sequences that don't really do anything to advance the narrative, and end up feeling indulgent when the laughs or imagery aren't enough to hold your interest. But this isn't a "plot film": it's an animated film that, like FANTASTIC PLANET or something like that, is way more concerned with creating a surreal, mind-expanding experience than with the inner motivations of its characters. There's a particular, French sense of humor to the whole thing (particularly the depiction of the King) that also provides a lot of its personality; much snippier than most American animation, the film's sly cynicism seems way more sincere than its romantic elements, and even if it's not that funny in the "ha-ha" kind of way, I found myself smiling for much of the film.
Somewhat ignored upon its stateside release in 1980, this forgotten film has recently undergone a restoration, which has only played one European festival outside of BNAT. This was a great way to expose us to this achievement in animation, and it's definitely on the list of films I would not have seen for a long time had it not been for Harrys' efforts. Keep an eye out for whenever the restoration makes its way across the pond, whether in theaters or on Blu-ray or DVD.
-THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!
-CHEECH AND CHONG'S STILL SMOKIN'
-THE MANSON MASSACRE
INHERENT VICE 2014, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
The second film of the day I'd already seen, P.T.A.'s seventh feature was, as I expected, even better on a second viewing. Like many, I found myself struggling to keep up with the plot the first time around, leaning on every utterance out of Doc Sportello's mouth for info on how the Aryan brotherhood, the Black Panthers, a consortium of tax-dodging dentists, a zoned-out ex-junkie sax player, and real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann related to one another. Problem is, Sportello's not only a filthy stoner (seriously, we all have some ridiculous friends, but this guy man…), but he's also got one thing on his mind: his "ex-old lady," Shasta. Everything else is of secondary importance to him, so experiencing the narrative through his eyes definitely paints a sketchy picture of what the hell is going on in this flick.
Watching it more objectively the second time around, I was surprised with how relatively conventional and digestible the windy noir plot actually was when looked at from a distance. That's sort of what I adore about this movie: it's chief concern is character, not plot, and like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, it's all about watching its protagonist bump against the rich, the desperate, and the lost souls of greater Los Angeles. In two films, Joaquin Phoenix has become an amazingly reliable P.T.A. lead, keeping the momentum in both movies going with his goofy ticks, sincerity, and dedicated body language. Josh Brolin gets more screentime than I remembered as "Bigfoot" Jorgensen, a wannabe-DRAGNET type who has a surprising (and unadmitted) level of professional respect for Doc. I still missed the presence of Benicio Del Toro's lawyer in the second act, and the applause for Martin Short's name during the closing credits proved that he cuts one amazing impression in his two short scenes.
If you are a P.T.A. fan, but found yourself flummoxed after seeing this the first time, I implore you to give it another shot. It's certainly his funniest film to date, and if this ends up being his sole contribution to the "detective movie" genre, then at least we'll always have this unique, hilarious oddity to refer to.
THE INTERVIEW (20??), dirs. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
The first new film of the night that I hadn't already seen, and perhaps the biggest "show" of all of BNAT. Aside from both pre-film and post-film appearances by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, there were also Kim Jong Un posters adorning the walls, free collectible THE INTERVIEW cups handed out, and even a massive blast of confetti (for which Harry sympathized with the staff tasked with eventually cleaning it up).
While I can't deny that I had a good time with the flick, I'm sorry to say that it was something of a disappointment. The premise, which has a tabloid newsman and his producer being recruited by the C.I.A. to kill North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, is the funniest aspect of the film, which never transcends its initial setup the way THIS IS THE END did with Jay and Seth's relationship. The jokes are typically much broader than they were in Rogen/Goldberg's previous film: "They hate us 'cause they ain't us," bit in the trailer is very indicative of the type of humor on display here. As always, the main guys are bumbling goofballs (how are these guys even functional professionals?), and there's a remarkable, possibly unnecessary level of bro-mantic love between the two. The women of the film, including Lizzy Caplan's straight-man C.I.A. agent and Diana Bang as Un's no-nonsense media advisor, don't have much to do, and the film feels oddly contained considering its plotline takes us across three different nations. Un himself, as played by Randall Park, gets a ton of screentime, and the film can't decide it wants to portray him as a spoiled goofball or a hatable, duplicitous tyrant; he's fun as long as the script wants him to be funny, and goes menacing as soon as the third act needs to get going.
The improv-heavy humor and gross-out set-pieces (including a denouement that makes the North Korean disdain for this film painfully unsurprising) weren't working for me the way they have in these guys' earlier films, but I have to give them credit for trying to hone it in and actually make something pointed and relevant. There's a real story being told here, and it doesn't feel like a sloppily edited collection of gags and non-sequiturs the way the worst "Apatow crew" flicks do. There's actually a handful of really fun visual sequences, including a quick-cut trek through China and what's probably the first scene featuring both a working tank and Katy Perry's "Fireworks." The lighting, action, and editing are all more polished than they were in TITE, and even if the humor doesn't reach the heights of their best work, Rogen/Goldberg do a great job at proving their mettle as directors.
It's not like I didn't laugh at all during THE INTERVIEW, but it's not going to be bouncing around my head the way Rogen/Baruchel's Backstreet Boys-set NAVY SEALS-out, "The Exorcism of Jonah Hill", and basically anything that came out of McBride's mouth did in TITE. I can't help but blame the fact that Rogen and Goldberg aren't credited for the script on how less funny this film is than their usual stuff; seriously, there are times where this feels like the BIG TROUBLE to PINEAPPLE EXPRESS' THE IN-LAWS, or BUDDY BUDDY to PINEAPPLE's THE FORTUNE COOKIE. Tone down your expectations, and you might very well have a much better time than I did, but after TITE, I was really hoping I'd fall in love with this flick, I didn't.
EDIT: I wrote this before the movie's release got pulled from theaters across the nation. I'll admit that when I was watching it, there were one or two moments that seemed to me like they were almost baiting North Korea to react somehow, particularly given how they knew it would be a high-profile release. I didn't get the impression that the movie was "harmless": it's not one gag, or one segment, but rather an entire film specifically about how fucked up and totalitarian Un's dictatorship is. We knew that the Kim Jongs watched our movies, and that they like to throw their nuclear weight around and make vague threats like it's nothing. I'm not saying Sony made the right move (though I am on the fence about it, given how many people I know that scare away from theaters easily); but this film is a lightning rod no one needs that is also, in total frankness, not worth it at all.
Instead of trailers, the next film was preceded by a presentation by Rian Johnson and a man he introduced as his practical FX guru for EPISODE VIII. The latter set it up as his "faith-based" audition tape for STAR WARS, but we were instead treated with a remarkable stop-motion short titled, LE TOY SHOP, by Chuck Vincent. It shows a wide variety of sex toys coming to life in a closed porno shop, and there's a bunch of great gross-out gags involving all sorts of dildos, artificial vaginas, and blow-up dolls. Hilarious, and worth hunting down for both the technique on display and the unashamed perversity.
1941 (1979), dir. Steven Spielberg (who?)
The 3rd and final film of BNAT 16 that I'd already seen. My buddy Tommy made fun of me for liking this movie when we were pre-teens, and since then, I've grown increasingly aware of how most people, from the most casual video renter to the most well-versed cinephile, don't give a hoot about Spielberg's fourth theatrical feature. Some dismiss it as a bad movie, while others applaud its technical aspects (including its undeniably great John Williams score) while decrying it for being "tone-deaf" and "the first Spielberg misfire."
Well, I don't give a fuck. When Harry announced this as the next movie (in 35 mm, no less), I let out an emphatic, "YES!!", and I had a smile on the face for the entire 2-hour-plus runtime. This is the kind of big, spectacle-based film that really benefits from a big-screen presentation. There are so many little bits I'd never really noticed before. The intricate dancing in the massive Jitterbug sequence. The surprising amount of screentime for young Mickey Rourke (in his first film). The amazing level of detail on the modelwork, including a showstopping plane battle over downtown L.A., and a striking climactic sunrise. And the fact that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's only interaction in the film is a simple, pitch-perfect salute.
There were a lot of star-studded, spectacle-based disaster and war films in the '70s, and many of them (including alleged classics like THE TOWERING INFERNO or kitsch-fests like the AIRPORT sequels) don't really do anything for me, despite their sometimes unbelievable casts (though I'll applaud A BRIDGE TOO FAR and THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE for getting it right). Spielberg, Williams, and the impossibly badass writing team of Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and JOHN MILIUS, all turn in epic, underrated work that perfectly evokes both the period and the patented sense of choreographed chaos that defines the film. Particularly by the end, I was having the kind of blast watching 1941 that the noticeable disdain of the crowd couldn't penetrate, and I only wish that those of us in the crowd that dig the film (a list which also includes our very own Nordling and Quint) outnumbered those that didn't.
Oh and if you haven't seen this, let's just forget the crew members mentioned above for a second, and let me run down pretty much all the big names that pop up in this thing in alphabetical order: Nancy Allen, Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, Elisha Cook Jr., Joe Flaherty, Christopher Lee, Patti LuPone, Penny Marshall, Tim Matheson, Michael McKean, Frank McRae, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Mickey Rourke, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, and, making his first and thankfully only appearance in a Steven Spielberg film, Eddie Deezen. So yeah, at least give it a shot.
-CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY (what's poor Robert Ryan doing in this?)
-BON VOYAGE, CHARLIE BROWN (AND DON'T COME BACK)
-SWEET KILL (starring '50s star Tab Hunter as a deranged serial killer)
CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS 1937, dir. Victor Fleming
I knew this film by name only, and had no idea that it was based on a book by Rudyard Kipling, was directed by Victor Fleming (THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND), or that it featured Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, and Mickey Rooney. It's an old-fashioned, yet soulful yarn about a spoiled brat (played by DAVID COPPERFIELD's Freddie Bartholomew) who is lost at sea and is picked up by a fishing boat. The kid insists that his dad is rich, and that he'll pay the fishermen handsomely if they immediately go to port and return the boy, but they dismiss his claims as hogwash and keep him onboard for the duration of the season. Spencer Tracy plays Manuel, a Portuguese (uh-huh) seadog who teaches the young lad how to operate on the vessel, and who becomes the boy's surrogate father.
While I found it enjoyable, I could never fully embrace this film for a number of reasons. For one, Tracy's accent and constantly jubilant attitude might've appeared silly had he not been adorned with a prominent crucifix and unfortunate brown-face makeup, but as is, it goes beyond that and square into "Oh, boy" territory. It's a testament to Tracy's talent that his Manuel not only doesn't sink the film, but is its most endearing character; as he coaches the young lad in the ways of seamen, he reveals a warm center underneath his crustiness that serves as the movie's emotional center.
Another factor was the level of predictability of its plot. Without spoiling too much, I'll just say that the narrative conventions on display are nothing you haven't seen before, and you can guess the trajectory of the story as soon as the boy first arrives on the fishing boat (when a fisherman starts talking about the suits and women he'll buy with the money from their catch, he may as well be drawing a bullseye on his forehead). The boy's arc, the relationships he develops with both his real father and the surrogate one, and the emphasis on hard work over self-entitlement are as old hat as the fishing methods they use on the boat.
Still, the film is quite enjoyable, and some of the sea sequences are very handsomely produced. Freddie Bartholomew cuts a deep impression as the lead, with a look, voice, and candor that seems ready-made for the big screen; I was somewhat bummed to see that he retired from acting at the age of 27, and spent the remainder of his years directing television. Its portrayal of working-class life is mostly free of the heavy artifice that similar films of the era sometimes featured, and the supporting parts (particularly Barrymore's pipe-huffing captain) are more restrained than they could've been. I wasn't ga-ga for this Victor Fleming lead-up to the one-two punch of WIZARD OF OZ and GONE WITH THE WIND, but I was rarely bored, and there's plenty to enjoy for fans of Bartholomew, Tracy, Barrymore, or the director.
-PINOCCHIO'S BIRTHDAY PARTY (a zero-budget Canadian kids film that looked…odd)
We watched another clip set up by the alleged Christian FX guru. This time, it was a clip from the 1980 film LOOSE SHOES that was a satire of Cab Calloway-era big band music. I can't describe this thing in a way that'll do it justice. Like THE MATRIX, you have to see it for yourself.
We then saw a short, hammy commercial with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz encouraging the audience to buy savings bonds (for the kids' Christmas presents, no less), and then we were off to movie number 8…
MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID 1942, dir. Mervyn LeRoy
Harry introduced this by saying that it was a film he'd been trying to get for BNAT since its inception in '99, but was only able to track down a print this year. It's a biopic of Annette Kellerman (Esther Williams), who went from being a crippled polio victim in Australia to becoming a massively famous ballet swimmer who eventually headlined New York's Hippodrome. Victor Mature plays her promoter/lover, Sullivan, who sells her act to London, Boston, and finally New York City.
It's a strong, world-spanning story that serves as a great parable for feminism. From the first time we see her, Kellerman is told what she can and can't do, and we watch her reject what's expected of her time and time again. By the time Sullivan is telling her to "settle down and have kids" like everybody else, it's obvious that Kellerman is a hell of a role model for women who are not only as capable as men at what they've already accomplished, but who are able to break new ground on their own. Williams turns in a great, likable performance as the tenacious Kellerman, and Mature is both slick and likable as the eternally hustling Sullivan.
The film also boasts a trio of magnificent water sequences choreographed by none other than Busby Berkeley, and a striking, hyper-colorful palette courtesy of cinematographer George J. Folsey (who was Oscar-nominated for his efforts). This is the kind of big-budget, spectacle-heavy Hollywood musical that was flying left-and-right in the '50s, but it lacks the bloat or heavy sentimentality of the worst of those films. Worth seeing if only for the water ballet scenes and Williams' take-no-shit performance.
Oh yeah, there's also a boxing kangaroo.
SANTIAGO VIOLENTA 2015, dir. Ernesto Diaz Espinosa
Harry said that this film was in the same vein as Shion Sono's WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, and that's a great comparison point for Espinosa's homage to cinema and specifically, post-Tarantino crime films. This one focuses on a group of three amateur filmmakers who get involved with some actual crimes involving actual criminals, and have to pose and bluff their way out of it.
You may know Espinosa from his films like KILLTRO and MANDRILL (Marko Zaror makes a quick, funny cameo here), and his energetic, tongue-in-cheek style is on full display here. The three leads have a strong dynamic, and the references to American and Italian gangster films come fast and heavy. The central director quite literally worships at the altar of Quentin Tarantino, and the film does a great job of unironically professing its love for that lurid, violent flavor of cinema. When real blood starts to get shed, and real bodies start to drop, the movie takes on a sort of anarchic, oh-shit-what's-going-to-happen vibe that goes a long way in making the whole experience an adrenaline-heavy, yet thoroughly sincere love letter to attitude-heavy filmmaking.
This film only played one festival prior to its showing at BNAT, so I'm grateful to have been able to see it in that venue. Like the BNAT crowd, it wears its devotion to film on its sleeve, and there is a lot that any cinephile will see of themselves in the core three characters.
A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015), dirs. Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, Brett Sullivan
This Canadian horror anthology features four Christmas-themed stories linked together by a late-night, Eggnog-swilling DJ (played by a Mr. William Shatner). They're not told one-by-one, but rather intertwined: a trio of kids is locked into the bowels of their high school, a mother and father learn that their child may be subject to some nefarious influences, a family gets lost in the woods on the way home from Grandma's, and Santa Claus (yes, Santa Claus) has to fight off his army of elves when they become possessed by some sort of demonic force.
Needless to say, the latter story is the most fantastical of the four, and it features a plethora of great gore shots and action beats as the zombified elves get cut down one-by-one. Still, I found something to like in each section: I particularly responded to the black comedy of the lost family (who only trekked out to earn a spot on Grandma's will) and the adolescent tensions of the high schooler trio. The ending is ballsy and hilarious, and does a great job of tying the whole film together.
Sunday morning had already begun to encroach upon us when this played, which was thoroughly appropriate; this is exactly the kind of film I'd watch at 6 in the morning anyway, and being able to dig its brand of funny, gory carnage.
Apparently, you'll have to wait 'till next Christmas to check this one out, but you late-night horror fans (and aficionados of the underexploited anthology genre) are sure to get a kick out of it.
-KING KONG (the 1976 one)
-KING KONG LIVES (from everything I've heard over the years, this wonderfully cheeseball, Cannon-style trailer is probably better than the actual film)
-GOING APE (Tony Danza inherits three orangutans…)
SON OF KONG (1931), dir. Ernest B. Shoedsack
This sequel to KING KONG was rushed out 9 months after the original's release with only one of that film's actors and a lower budget, but it's not without its charms. I'll admit, this was the one film that I could not really get a grasp of due to my increasing exhaustion, but every time I was able to open my eyes, I found myself charmed by some gorgeous matte effects, stop-motion animation (apparently utilizing one of the original KONG frames), and the energetic and thoroughly welcome return appearance of Robert Armstrong's Carl Denham. The plot is all about down-and-out Denham, under threat of about a million lawsuits for bringing Kong over, venturing out on the high seas with the captain of the Venture from the original. They end up bumping into the man who initially gave Denham the map to Skull Island, who insists that there's a massive treasure hidden on the island. They go back to the island, only to encounter another big-ass (yet slightly-smaller) ape: you guessed it, Kong's son, "Little Kong."
Like I said, I can't weigh too heavily on this one, other than that I was able to comprehend and enjoy whatever I was awake to see. It was breezy, B-movie entertainment using sets, props, and iconography from one of the most legendary monster movies of all time. Very pleasant watch, even through only fleeting moments of consciousness.
-DRAGONSLAYER (doesn't do the film justice)
-THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER
-THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD
THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES (2014), dir. Peter Jackson
It was a bold move to end this particularly-long BNAT with the conclusion to Peter Jacksons Middle-Earth saga, but I have to say it was something of a stroke of genius. We all knew it was coming, and when the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and beasts convened in front of the Lonely Mountain, it was a sustained shot of adrenaline for many of us. Make no mistake, this movie is the BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES: the melee itself takes up about an hour of screentime, with a ton of character and world-building stuff happening in between the sword thrusts and staff swings. Since the first HOBBIT, I've been saying that Jackson's sense of action choreography has improved since LOTR, and this is perfect evidence of that. There's a sense of escalation and tension in each action beat, and so many payoffs that the exhausted audience rarely went 5 minutes without applauding.
Those of you who mistakingly thought that the 9-hour LOTR trilogy suffered from having "too many endings" will be pleased to hear that that's not the case here. At 144 minutes, this is actually the shortest of the six films by quite a margin, and once the titular battle concludes, things wrap up very quickly. If anything, I wanted more of a bridge between the events of this film and Gandalf's "A wizard is never late" meeting with Frodo outside The Shire. The stuff that Jackson went back and reshot after deciding to make three HOBBITses instead of two is mostly in the front section, with Gandalf (and friends) dealing with the Necromancer, and I will say that it features the first huge crowd-pleasing moment of the film. Smaug comes and goes quite quickly, giving Cumberbatch only one brief monologue to snarl and sneer as the massive fire-breather. No, this film is mostly comprised of one epic, multi-tier battle sequence involving pretty much every surviving character, and there's oodles of badassery and pathos coming at you constantly throughout.
God, I love Martin Freeman as Bilbo. As huge and FX-driven as this series got, it always had a beating heart at its center, and that emotional core was always Bilbo. Instead of four underdog Hobbits on a journey, we only had one for these films, and Freeman had to simultaneously have our sympathy, show off some genuine toughness, and eventually devolve into a scarred, wounded creature addicted to the power of his stolen ring. He's able to create laughs when there's nothing on the page, and serves as our surrogate as massive waves of trained, armor-clad armies rush at each other by the thousands. Also, credit must be given to Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, who starts this film off with a bit of a psycho glare in his eyes, and manages to become perhaps the most heroic character in the film. Thorin's story has been as crucial to THE HOBBIT as any other individual character's, and there's a huge weight to his quest to restore his kingdom and exact revenge on Azog the Defiler.
And if this is to be our last encounter with Ian McKellen's Gandalf, then let me say that it was nothing but an unrelenting joy to watch him huff his pipe, dispense wisdom, and beat fools down with his staff over the past 13 years. We never did anything to deserve a Gandalf this good. We should all be thankful.
The Mayor of Laketown's assistant, Alfrid, is even more grating this time again, with way too many gags about his cowardice and greed peppered throughout the battle, but that's about as far as my gripes go. I remember convincing my cousins to see ALI instead of FELLOWSHIP in theaters back in '01 because I thought it looked slightly too cornball and fan-oriented (remember, that DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS flick had only come out a year prior). Cut to 2014: both LOTR and THE HOBBIT are two of my favorite cinematic trilogies of all time, filled with stuff that made me both cheer and tear, and the films are six of the best examples of onscreen sword-and-sorcery fantasy we as geeks have ever been blessed with. Am I exaggerating?
And with a rubbing of the eyes and a request to Uber, I made my way out into the hot Austin afternoon and promptly hit the sack. It was another 24+ hours of moviegoing enjoyment, and was almost certainly my favorite BNAT experience to date. I didn't meet as many people as I would've liked, but those I did talk to were interesting, awesome folks who were just as elated to be there as I was (I caught a guy close to me tearing up at the same time I did during BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, and just thinking about it makes me grin). We saw movies I probably never would've seen with a crowd, and a few new movies that couldn't have played better anywhere else. Once again, I applaud Harry for his slick, savvy programming (seriously, following up THE INTERVIEW with 1941 now seems smarter than ever given what's been going on), and thank him for allowing me to be part of this unique, extraordinary celebration of this art form that we all swear by.