Two of last winter’s big fantasy epics come to Blu-ray this week, along with another volume of hilarity in the not-too-distant-future, and a movie that got banned in Britain for a number of years. Interesting mixture I think you’ll agree. We’ve also got a couple box sets and movies with young fellas making names for themselves. All the things can be yours IF… you spend money on them!
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Is the third part of a trilogy “the defining chapter” simply because it’s the last one or because it actually does define things? The promotional material for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies certainly wants you to believe that this is that defining chapter, perhaps of the whole Middle-earth saga as depicted on film by Peter Jackson and crew. Certainly, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King felt like we were nearing the end of something major, but could the third part of a 300-page book really have that kind of oomph or impact? I’m going to say “not really.” That doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable ride and a good farewell for what it is.
I was very impressed with how much resonance they were actually able to mine from such a small amount of source material. Bilbo, who had sort of taken a backseat in the last movie, comes to the forefront once again here and it’s really quite something. Thorin’s descent into madness and subsequent battle with the orcs is a little rocky but ultimately narratively satisfying, and other characters like Bard, Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), and Thranduil also get their opportunities to shine. Gandalf’s journey away from Bilbo finishes out too, but it’s only when he rejoins the main story that he’s integral.
Into the Woods
Modern movie musicals for me land somewhere between “Yeah, all right,” and “Buh, no thank you.” I have a hard time with musicals not on a stage. They just seem too artificial to be anywhere else. That being said, I can usually appreciate the artistry and craft it takes to make such big pictures with lots of moving parts. I expected not to care much for Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods just based on idea of it existing alone. I’ve never seen the show Into the Woods but I knew enough to know that it was essentially poking fun at Disney-esque fairytales, and for it to be made at Disney seemed destined for catastrophe. However, I have to say this wasn’t the case and I was pleasantly surprised. For most of it.
Now for most of the running time, I was saying to myself, “Why, this is a lot of fun. I wonder why people were worried.” And then we got to the second half of the play, the dour and sad part. That only takes up maybe a half-hour or 40 minutes of screentime, I’d bet, and so it just felt incredibly rushed. A lot of it felt like it was coming out of nowhere and the character motivations didn’t make sense with what we’d seen onscreen. I’m sure there are huge swaths of the play that fans will be sad are missing, but I was blissfully ignorant and only acknowledged it as awkward within what I was seeing.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XXXII
For my money, there will never be enough volumes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 released on DVD to satiate me. Even if, by some stroke of license-granting luck, all close-to-400 episodes of the show could be released, I’d still want there to be more. And part of what I love about it is that there are still episodes I’ve never seen out there, waiting to join my ever-growing library. This is what Volume 32 is to me: four episodes I’d never seen until now.
As is common with these sets, 32 has four episodes, two with Joel, two with Mike, both from the Comedy Central days. The first one, ep 401, is Space Travelers (a ’90s re-titling of Marooned), which is a mid-’60s space movie by John Sturges starring Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, and Lee Grant. Why did this end up on MST3K? Two reasons: 1) it was sold to a cruddy low-rent video distribution company and 2) it was really, really boring, despite all the great people attached.
The second episode, number 502, is Hercules, the first in a long-line of Steve Reeves-starring Italian sword-and-sandals movies from the 1960s. However, this ended up being the last of the films MST3K riffed. Next, we have our first Mike episode, 520 Radar Secret Service, an absurdly boring ’50s “thriller” that plays a lot more like a propaganda film for the radar industry. Finally, we’ve got Episode 614, San Francisco International, the pilot movie of a 1970 TV drama starring Pernell Roberts as the manager of the gigantic SFO.
Each episode features an introduction from Frank Conniff, a/k/a TV’s Frank; the first two eps have a making-of concerning the films in question, the third disc has a featurette about Conniff and Trace Beaulieu’s trip to London for Sci-Fi London Con, and the fourth disc has a brief history of Satellite News. Obviously, this is a huge recommendation from me. Buy, buy, buy.
Italian horror cinema of the 1970s and 1980s were some of the goriest and graphic of any made in the period. Though the American horror boom was in full swing, and slasher movies were all the rage, Italy was still making giallos and zombie movies in the highest of clips. One of the stalwarts of the Italian horror movement was Lucio Fulci, whose flicks were standouts in terms of over-the-top gore, which I think is very impressive, and often a huge helping of misogyny, which I really can’t stand. On top of making Zombie (alternately known as Zombi 2 or Zombie Flesh-Eaters depending on where you are in the world), Fulci also made a very loose trilogy of zombie/black arts/hell movies, each depicting the result of one of the fabled seven gateways to hell being opened. The first of these was 1980’s City of the Living Dead, which is solid for what it is, but it’s the second of these, 1981’s The Beyond, which I think is the best of both the trilogy and possibly the director’s whole catalog.
The Beyond, like most Fulci movies, and indeed most Italian horror movies, has a plot that makes sense on paper but not really much once you start paying attention to it. It’s really more just an excuse for creepy imagery and gruesome set pieces, which are by all rights incredibly effective and impressive, if this is the kind of thing you’re into. Of all of Fulci’s movies, and he directed over 50 films in his career, The Beyond is the one that for me has proven the most rewarding on multiple watches, precisely because it’s so oblique and it requires the audience to fill in a lot of the information on their own. It’s not a well-written screenplay, but the artfulness of the direction makes it something special, as does one of the most bombastic and apocalyptic endings of any such film you’re likely to see.
UBER GORY TRAILER. PLEASE BE ADVISED
Unbroken – The amazing true story of an Olympian enduring Hell in a POW camp.
Mr. Bean: The Whole Bean – Every deliriously silly episode of Rowan Atkinson not saying words very much.
The Thin Blue Line – Errol Morris’ landmark documentary about a man in the ’70s wrongly tried and convicted of murder.
The Sure Thing – One of those 3 movies in the ’80s that made everybody love John Cusack.