Recent entertainments

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on my YA adaptation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a big project with many aspects (such as photo research and aquisition) that will continue to keep me busy for some time. I am thrilled with the editorial support I’ve gotten from Simon & Schuster and am excited about the book that my ms. is becoming.

But woman does not live by work alone. In recent weeks I’ve enjoyed entertainments on page, stage, and screen. Here are a couple of highlights:

The Devil’s Detective, a novel by Simon Kurt Unsworth. I believe I was tipped to it by a post on the Lovecraft eZine Facebook page. It is dark (very), beautifully written, and deeply disturbing. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which I believe comes out this fall.

Peter and the Starcatcher, a hilarious, bawdy play that unfolds Peter Pan’s origin story. It’s based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, but I didn’t know that until I saw the play. Lots of laughs and well worth seeing, if you get a chance.

Green Room. Damn, what a movie. Unrelentingly violent, but compelling and very well acted. Patrick Stewart as the patriarch of a bunch of skinheads in the woods of southern Oregon will put Captain Picard waaaay out of mind. Imogen Poots inhabits her role with terrifying completeness. But Anton Yelchin, who died a few days ago in a tragic accident, gives the standout performance. The film stayed in my mind to such an extent that I had to watch the Goosebumps movie the next day to derail it. But I will see it again (Green Room, that is) one of these days.

After the tentacles: HPL Film Fest 2015

I spent much of last weekend at the Hollywood Theater for this year’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. It was one of the better festivals of recent years, partly because I saw some very good films and partly because I got to spend a lot of time hanging with some reading and writing friends, especially Dale Ivan Smith and Anthony Pryor.

Organizers made a heroic attempt to widen the scope of the festival this year, with a lot of panels and readings held in an auxiliary location a block from the theater.  I appreciate the widening, but I attended almost none of those events–interesting as many sounded–because the festival is still about films for me, and I wanted to see as many as I could. (More on that in a moment.) I did, though, enjoy a very good dramatic reading of Alex Shvartsman’s story “Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma,” presented by Pulp Stage. I heard a talk by Charles Stross, the guest of honor, whose Laundry Files books I like a lot. And I was on hand when Wendy Wagner read “Queen of a New America,” her delightful and twisted story from the anthology She Walks in Shadows. I got to hear readings by Andrew Fuller and Molly Tanzer at the same event.

And now for the films. There were three feature films I wanted to see, and six blocks of short films. The shorts blocks have always been my favorite part of the festival, so I worked my schedule-fu to see all six of them and two of the features. I came home last night with tired eyes and brain, but with the satisfaction of having seen some fine films, a lot of decent or interesting ones, and only a couple of real duds.

Here are my standout picks:

Black Mountain Side, feature length. A tense, eerie, and professional iteration of “people alone in the wilderness when weird shit starts happening and minds buckle.” It reminded me, in a good way, of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo and The Last Winter, but at the same time it was fresh and assured, and not without some black humor. (The screenplay for this film won Best Screenplay award at the 2013 HPLFF.)

Tesla vs. Cthulhu: The Nightmare of Desolation Sound, short. Well-done episode, in full period style, in the ongoing attempt of Tesla and others to halt the irruption of the Great Old Ones and their evil minions.

Mercy, short. A very tight short film with a character arc and a distinctive tone, dealing with a mysterious find on a beach and its aftermath. This film won the festival organizers’ award for Best Short of the year. It is the letter M in Filmmaking Frenzy’s ABCs of Death 2.

Cat Killer, animated short. I know, the title. It’s a bleak fable, but beautifully animated and surprisingly touching.

The Trap, The Littlest Chtulhuist, and The Call of Farqunglu, shorts. Amid an infinity of shorts involving the ocean, tentacles, a mad artist and his dreadful model, or the sole survivor of a descent down a flight of subterranean stairs, these three films were a breath of fresh, funny air. The first two are live action, the third animated with customized Lego figures. All made me laugh, and all were well-written and produced.

There were plenty of others I enjoyed–too many to mention. I look forward to next year’s festival. If you like any of the films I’ve mentioned here, you should, too.

Props to the festival’s organizers and volunteers for a job well done, and to the Kickstarter backers who made it happen.

 

 

 

 

 

Smaug, The Desolation of

This afternoon I saw the second Hobbit movie–er, the second Lord of the Rings prequel. I enjoyed it more and found it less heinous than the first installment. No dishwashing, no fart jokes, less forced whimsy.kinopoisk.ru

Kili is still hot. Tauriel is real purty. Thranduil is kind of a dick, and also he wins the Blondest Hair/Blackest Eyebrows award of the year. The dragon is awesome.

The film is too long by about half of each chase scene, and one of the most elaborate of those is marred by the same lame Scooby-Doo madcappery that marred the first film, but long stretches of this one were entertaining and impressive. So, better than I expected.

 

 

 

An unnecessary journey

I didn’t hate The Hobbit. I didn’t love The Hobbit. There were bits I enjoyed a lot and bits I found regrettable or even detestable. It was exactly the kind of experience for which “meh” was made. With occasional “feh” and “wow.”

The following comments may include spoilers. But does anybody really not know what’s coming?

Format: My friend Fred and I saw The Hobbit in plain old 2D, 24 fps, so I am unable to weigh in on the Great Frame-Rate Debate. Everything I’ve read suggests that 48 fps could be really, really cool with the right movie, which The Hobbit is very possibly not. James Cameron is purportedly planning for the Avatar sequel to be shown at 60 fps, which could be fabulous. Or not. I confess to a slight residual curiosity about the 48 fps Hobbit, but it is almost certainly too slight to induce me to see the film again. Maybe at one of the $2 second-run theaters I would, but they won’t have the 48 fps projection technology.

Storytelling: My knickers are not particularly twisted by the fact that Jackson & Co. made a film that should really be called Lord of the Rings, Episode I: The Nebulous Menace and not The Hobbit. They went to a lot of trouble to lay the groundwork for what happens in the later trilogy of films, rendering explicit what is implicit in The Hobbit, or is mentioned in that book only obliquely or glancingly, or is elaborated in LotR‘s support structure: the appendices and The Silmarillion. Their goal was to make this movie dovetail neatly with the already-made (and vastly successful) trilogy, and that they did.

That’s fine. It makes sense to spoon-feed backstory and narrative links to audiences who may have seen the LotR films but not read any of the books. It also makes for a longer movie, about which more in a moment.

Appearances in The Hobbit by Frodo, Saruman, and Galadriel–none of whom appear in the book–were okay with me. (I half-expected to see Arwen mooning over a picture of Aragorn in the background, if only to get a second lady-face into the thing.) But although the concept is not bad, the intro in which Bilbo explains to Frodo how Erebor and Dale flourished until Smaug destroyed them is overlong, and Dale looks absurdly like a Renaissance Faire. (In a related gripe, Rivendell, the Last Homely House, looks even more like a Thomas Kinkade-inspired architectural model than ever.)

To make it abundantly clear that Thorin is a Mighty Warrior Prince, the filmmakers flimflam the story of how he survived the dragon’s attack, and here I think the film ventures into the dubious territory of character manipulation.

The most egregious case of this is Bilbo. Martin Freeman is terrific as Bilbo–the best thing about this movie. Inspired casting, fine acting. But the tension between Bilbo and Thorin feels forced and manipulative, as though “Look, we’ve given these characters a powerful arc” were written in glowing Elvish script above each of their scenes. Near the end of this installment Bilbo is thrust into a bit of battlefield derring-do that I found utterly unconvincing. His transformation from timid hobbit to Sting-wielding warrior comes much too soon and is too extreme. If, in the third movie, we see Bilbo hewing and hacking instead of spending most of the Battle of the Five Armies unconscious, I will be disappointed but not surprised.

Good, Bad, and Ugly: I loved the encounter and riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. Andy Serkis is even more Gollumy, more simultaneously horrible and pitiful, than before. I hated the preposterously long, over-the-top sequence in which Gandalf and the dwarves escape from the Goblin King’s caves. More hokey than every runaway-mine-cart-on-shaky-trestles scene you’ve ever seen, it resembles nothing so much as the inevitable madcap chase scene in a Scooby-Doo episode. I half expected Gandalf to throw Bombur a Scooby Snack when it was over.

And Radagast . . . in the name of all that is good and decent, what have they done to Radagast? He always sounded like a cool character, and I was delighted to hear that he would appear onscreen in The Hobbit. How hollow that delight seems now that my eyeballs have been blasted with things I can’t unsee. Radagast and the fart jokes–who wrote this thing, frat boys? But speaking of how characters look, is it creepy that I thought Kili was totally hot?

Length: Normally I loves me a 3-hour movie, especially if it’s sf or fantasy and full of big effects and cool stuff to look at. I like to settle in knowing that the delights and excitement unfolding before me will continue for a while. During this movie I would’ve looked at my watch, except that I don’t wear a watch these days and was too polite to turn on my phone to check the time. There was a lot of running around and a lot of orc-hewing, and you know, it’s all kind of the same. A little goes a long way, but “a little” seems a concept foreign to this franchise.

In fairness, we had sat through a lot of junk before the movie even started. On the plus side, though, how cool is it that five of the trailers were for sf, fantasy, or horror films? Well, horror-comedy. I refer to Pacific Rim (looks very Lovecraftian in some ways), After Earth, Oblivion, Epic, and Warm Bodies.

I loved Jackson’s LotR movies, even when I had gripes about details or minor elements. I watch them from time to time on Blu-Ray. I know I’ll go to see the second and third installments of The Hobbit, but they will have to be better than this one for me to want to own them,  or even to watch them twice.

The Last Lovecraft Film Festival?

Highlights of Friday night were three short films–catch them online or from a VOD service if you can. “Frank DanCoolo, Paranormal Drug Dealer” (8 minutes, crazy and hilarious); “AM 1200” (40 minutes, reprised from an earlier festival, but worth seeing again); and “Derailed” (French, 16 minutes, very creepy).

This was the 15th year of the HPL film fest here in Portland. The guy who founded it and has run it every year has stepped down. Someone else may take up the torch and continue the event; there is also a plan to start up a yearly HPL FF in the LA area.

The sad fact is that I’ve found the festival progressively less compelling over the past couple of years. Not that my interest in HPL and all things cosmically horrific has waned–far from it. But the menu of screenings has grown smaller and less exciting. Perhaps the festival organizer worked his way through all of the earlier and obscure films that could possibly find a place in the festival, and there’s just not enough new stuff being made.

There used to be more feature films each year than I could possibly see, as well as three to five 90-minute blocks of shorts, which were usually the most fun, innovative, and exciting things on the program.

This year the handful of feature-length films included Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, which has been shown at the festival before (it premiered there a couple of years ago); Burrowers, which has been on the Syfy Channel half a dozen times; Pan’s Labyrinth, included perhaps as a nod to Guillermo del Toro, who’s supposed to be filming At the Mountains of Madness; The Whole Wide World, which a lot of Lovecraft and Howard fans have already seen; and The Unnameable and The Unnameable II, campy fun but featured at the festival in earlier years. So . . . not so much excitement about the features. The guest list was long; the festival has included more and more panels and Q&A sessions in recent years. Others may like these, but they don’t appeal to me.

The Mall of Cthulhu is always good. Vendors and booksellers from all over peddle their wares amid a sea of black-garbed browsers. It’s fun to cruise the tables and decide that yeah, you do need that Miskatonic U. parking sticker for your car, or that that collection of essays from some small press about the greater meaning of the Cthulhu Mythos looks like suitable bathtub reading.

I’m in the middle of a deadline crunch and didn’t attend the rest of this year’s fest. But I’m glad I went for one night, both to enjoy the shorts and to be part of the crowd for what may be the final HPL FF in Portland.