Review: The Beasts of Valhalla

An enjoyable novel that goes from murder mystery to James Bond film. The lead character is interesting, an ex-circus dwarf turned criminologist, karate expert, and private investigator. He has little trouble with anything a dwarf deals with on a daily basis. I can suspend my disbelief for mad scientist shenanigans, but can a dwarf drive an unmodified car? Petty, I know, but this is the main character we’re talking about. I forgot he was a dwarf, and it felt like the author did, too. It’s a good rollicking story, but left me feeling rushed and like much had been forgotten. The first act is excellent, but once the huge conspiracy unfolds, it becomes a very different story, more plot driven than character driven, and while we meet some very interesting characters, they are mere kindling for to keep the steam boiler running. One major helper simply disappears.

I’ll admit, I read this as I am tying my own novel together and digging out problems at the root, so I was quite critical with this one. For a quick fun read, it works. I was expecting a lot more, and left disappointed. I am told this book was a turning point for the series, and I will go back to see if it had a more emotional foundation in the earlier books.

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

The Warrior’s Way

There now exists a subgenre known as the Samurai Western; they were made for each other, as Kurosawa directly inspired spaghetti westerns, and now it’s come back at us like a kid’s boomerang in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We’ve had SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO, SIX STRING SAMURAI, SHANGHAI NOON and NIGHTS, and now we get cowboys, carnies and carnage with THE WARRIOR’S WAY. Written and directed by Sngmoo Lee, who’s IMDb resume includes only this film. So I’m calling him Schmoo for the entirety of his review, in case he does not actually exist.

Dong-gun Jang from the excellent Korean war flick TAE GUK GI: THE BROTHERHOOD OF WAR stars as the Yang, Greatest Swordsman of All Time Ever, as we are told in glittering Comic Sans. We see him pose dramatically after slicing apart a dozen warriors in a few seconds, and he finds the treasure they are guarding is a baby girl, the last of the enemy clan. He cannot kill her, so his assassin’s guild- the Sad Flutes- vow he will die. He flees to the mythical American West, and comes upon a ghost town that a group of Carnies have chosen to build a Ferris Wheel in, hoping to lure pioneering tourists to the middle of the desert. It’s like Vegas, built by extras from “Deadwood” and “Carnivale.”

The movie keeps us interested by having an absurdly comic tone, from Yang carrying the baby girl like a shopping bag to how he kills innocuous-seeming bystanders, only to have assassin’s weapons fall out of their hands after they collapse. There are references galore, from Lone Wolf & Cub, to John Woo, and more, but they never feel like cribbing. Yang strolls into town, Walkin’ the Earth like Kane in “Kung Fu,” as lone killers are wont to do. We meet Geoffrey Rush as the Town Drunk, Tony Cox as the midget ringmaster who’s quick to crush someone’s nuts in his hands, and Kate Bosworth as Jesse the Cowgirl from TOY STORY 2, at least at first. She manages to mellow out into less of a caricature, but still has plenty of fun with their role. Rush is very memorable as the drunk, staggering around in his pajamas and getting the best lines.

The closest you get to boobs in this R rated bloodless film.

The wild west equivalent of a post-apocalyptic wastelands motorcycle gang rides into town on horses, like they have once before; Kate has a score to settle with their leader, and Yang can’t draw his blade without alerting his Sad Flutes to his whereabouts. But you know he’ll have to, and thank goodness he does. That’s when we get to see six guns versus samurai swords, and it’s a lot of fun to watch how they make it less one-sided than it seems. The town drunk is of course a great gunslinger; they nod toward BLAZING SADDLES
some more with how they use dynamite. It’s not long before blood, explosions and gunplay light up the town, and we get to settle that childhood bet, who kicks more ass? Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood?

The director makes great use of his bizarre set, with merry-go-rounds and circus freaks and clowns fighting against masked marauders with a Gatling gun and ninja swordsmen. It’s a lot of fun to look at when the overuse of CG doesn’t get in the way. I have made peace with CG blood after @AxelleCarolyn on Twitter- better known as the smokin’ hot killer Pict babe from CENTURION– told me how much money it saves independent productions. But I noticed CG cowboys climbing the Ferris Wheel, and CG swordsmen in black leather all over the place. It really stood out and made it look like anime at times, which I know the story owes a lot to, but it was very distracting from a very fun film.

3 out of 5 midgets with specially designed spiked gloves for crushing your nutsack

© 2010 Tommy Salami

The Mad Max-a-Thon!

Movie Nights With Milky

Last week Milky and I decided to watch all three of the Mad Max movies. Some of the best of the post-apocalyptic genre, the movies that catapulted Mel Gibson to stardom, and some of the best car chases ever. However, it was a bittersweet moment. As a child of the ’80s, Milky was too young to watch the first two, and grew up on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. He recalled it fondly, reciting Max’s line of “I’m the one who keeps Mr. Dead in his pocketses!” You could watch his heart break as his nostalgic memories crumbled. Unfortunately, they follow the Star Wars Trilogy formula of: First movie is fun, Second movie is brutally awesome, and Third movie is a cash-in to attract kiddie audiences.

Mad Max exploded out of Australia in 1979- a bastard son of the biker exploitation flick, violent cop thriller, depictions of society’s breakdown straight from the ’70s zeitgeist. It recalls such classics as A Boy and His Dog, which the creators cite as an influence, Electra Glide in Blue, the motorcycle cop character drama, Westerns and revenge films. It was shot on a budget so low that they kept repainting the same police cars- the Ford Falcon XB sedans, the “last of the V8 interceptors”- and only Mel Gibson, then unknown, actually got to wear a real leather jacket. The smaller cop parts got vinyl. The plot is simple- Max Rockatansky is the cool as Steve McQueen member of the Motor Police, as society breaks down and the roads become more and more dangerous, with roaming biker gangs and maniacs joy riding. After he takes out a psycho called the Night Rider, his friend Toecutter, leader of an outlaw biker gang, vows revenge on the police.

Toecutter and his fearful flunky Johnny the Boy trap Goose in his flipped truck and burn him alive, which sends Max over the edge. The cops have to play by the rules, and the bikers don’t. Rather than go psycho and become “one of them,” Max takes his wife and infant son on a road trip vacation, but Toecutter and company stalk them and take their revenge. Now Max has nothing to lose, and takes his V8 interceptor, a sawed off shotgun, and his wits to finish off the gang. The crashes are particularly realistic and brutal, owing to the remote stretches of Australian highway and some excellent or very lucky stunt work. We see cop cars explode through mobile homes, vans twisted like tin foil, bikers explode like meatballs against tractor trailer grilles. The infamous ending, where Max handcuffs Johnny’s ankle to a burning wreck and throws him a hacksaw, making him choose whether to cut steel or flesh before the gas tank explodes, is one of the most brutal and memorable avengings ever filmed.

Today, the low budget of the film is quite evident in some of the make-up effects, the sound quality, and how some scenes are edited, but it still holds up very well. First time actors abound, but they are among classically trained fellows. It takes time to introduce us to the character of Max Rockatansky, as if the film makers knew he’d be coming back. Sure, some of his cop pals like Fifi- a big bald guy who wears a silk scarf- evoke some chuckles, and the lawyers who get Johnny Boy off are hilarious stereotypes, but as a whole this remains one of the best revenge pictures of the 70’s. So much that it would be released in the states with an American overdub to save us from Aussie slang and accents! I urge you to watch the original, it’s available on the Special Edition DVD.

Goodbye, Johnny the Boy!

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inevitable after the success of the first film, and unlike most sequels, it is superior in every way. It’s a marvel of concise film making, depending on a short introduction with narration to recall Max’s tragedy in the first movie, and the complete breakdown of society that transpired shortly afterward. It’s intentionally vague: “two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” It never mentions nuclear Armageddon, and I prefer to think that oil dried up and society devoured itself. We meet Max again on the road in his Interceptor, modified with huge gas tanks, booby traps, roll cage and supercharger; he’s got a Blue Heeler along side him. A Man and His Dog. With marauders in pursuit of his sweet ride and its tank of precious juice…

The bikers have gone full tribal, guns and ammo are scarce, so they wield bludgeons and crossbows. Reduce, re-use, recycle. A mohawked maniac named Wez gets shot in the arm by friendly fire, due to Max’s superior driving skills, and a silent feud begins between the two. They will meet again. The mood and theme of the story are told perfectly in this opening scene as Max faces off the wounded biker, antsy as he watches a bad guy’s car spilling fuel on the roadway. He’ll risk his life to sop up a few more ounces of the gas. For anyone who remembers the lines around the block at gas stations during the oil embargo, it hits home.

Coolest dog ever!

Max is as cool as they come, eking out a lone survival with his dog at his side. He barely speaks a word for the first half hour of the film. He comes upon a gyrocopter in the desert, with a poisonous snake guarding its fuel, but he’s fast enough to grab it before it strikes. Borrowing heavily from The Man With No Name of the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone films- he’ll actually be called this in the next sequel- Max is a little more human and vulnerable. It’s one of Gibson’s best roles, because he lacks that cocksure star power that sinks most action stars. I could recount every scene of the movie, because it’s that good, and so many are memorable. But if you haven’t seen this, it holds up incredibly well. Max takes the gyro captain prisoner, and they see the bikers Max fought earlier, surrounding a walled encampment around an oil refinery. They can’t escape, and the bikers can’t get the gas. Enter Max, who found a tractor trailer, that could haul their tanker of gas to freedom…

The leader of the bikers, The Humungous, is as iconic as they come. A masked, musclebound freak who looks like Jason Voorhees crossed with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his growled, Germanic taunts make him instantly fearsome. His men strap the wounded enemy to their vehicles as human shields. Inside the compound, the last vestiges of humanity are led by Papagallo (big chicken?) with flamethrowers, bow wielding warrior women, and feral children with razor-bladed boomerangs. Max is in between, mistaken for a marauder at first. He works a bargain- he’ll get the truck, for as much gas as he can carry. They want him to join them, but he refuses. Just the deal.

In post-apocalyptic films, children should not speak, but be spoken to

The set pieces with the tanker truck are still some of the best car chases on film. First, Max has to get the bobtail into the compound, and he plows through the biker camp like a juggernaut. Director George Miller- who’d oddly enough move on to 3D features like Happy Feet– inserts quick comic shots, like a tent being pulled away to reveal a naked couple, to keep the mood from becoming as brutal as the first film. He manages just the right balance. I told Milky that the Feral Kid isn’t annoying like Short Round because he can’t speak, and I hold fast to that statement. There’s a camp sense- one of the baddies drives a pink Chevy Bel-Air and has a pink beard- but it never gets smarmy or silly, as in the final chapter.

Once Max returns the truck he leaves alone, and loses everything once again- only the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence, the Mouth of Sauron among many other roles) manages to save him. So he decides to join up and help them escape, driving the tanker. Why? Because it’s suicidal; Max doesn’t want to be human again, even if he’ll never sink to the lows of the Humongous and his ilk. But a last mad dash through a swarm of psychos appeals to him. And the final chase remains a thrilling, insane update to Buster Keaton’s locomotive stunt film The General and has yet to be topped. It may also have been inspired by Race with the Devil, where cultists chase Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in an RV, and countless Westerns where Indians chase stagecoaches.

The stunts were incredibly dangerous, and the infamous ass over teakettle biker flipping through the air was an actual accident that broke the stunt man’s leg. The driver of the tanker was told to not eat for 12 hours prior to the crash stunt, in case he had to be rushed to surgery. Some of the footage is sped up a bit, but most of the road chase is at good speed, and the tanker demolishes many, many vehicles. What’s surprising of Mad Max 2 is that no one is safe; nowadays you know the paralyzed mechanic, and the hot chick are going to survive. Nuh-uh! They die horribly this time. And our hero is gets a very cynical trick pulled on him. It makes for a very memorable ending, and a “second entry” that stands on its own.

The Tanker Chase

The third time around they had a huge American-style budget and unfortunately, for the clumsily named Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, they tried to broaden the appeal by making it PG-13 and included a funny midget, a Lord of the Flies in the Outback, and Tina Turner as Auntie Entity, a name which makes no sense. The Humongous was obvious; he was … humongous! Toecutter, well I guess if you cross him, your toes would be cut. But Auntie Entity… say it three times fast, and if you’re a 12 year old boy you’ll be … tittering. Heh.

This one is half a reboot, because while Max is older with straggly gray hair, and a herd of camels are towing his truck, guns are more plentiful, radiation is mentioned, and when the Gyro Captain shows up, they don’t recognize each other! Oh, it’s infuriating. But the movie isn’t awful and does have its charms, especially if you fast forward from when Max is sent to the Gulag to the chase at the end. That leaves out the whole second act, the Lord of the Flies homage, which is utterly contrary to the mood of the series. The Airplane Kids are the Ewoks of the Mad Max world, and it’s a shame only one of them dies. It really would have been better if they all died in an explosion that sent Max into a murderous rage, but what can you do. It was 1985.

No, Pinkbeard doesn’t return for Thunderdome, sadly.

The Gyro Captain (cough, I mean “Jedediah the pilot”) steals Max’s caravan, so he tracks them to Bartertown- an aptly named place where people go to trade. Also, for the first time, Max encounters people without Australian accents. Must’ve been tourists before civilization collapsed, I guess. Max barters his skills as a killer, showing off his stuff by blasting the headdress off a knife-swinging tough with his sawed-off. Very Indiana Jones. The fat merchant who decides who can enter, The Collector, sees promise in Max for a sinister plan, and introduces him to the supposed leader of Bartertown: Auntie Entity. Played by Tina Turner in a chain mail dress, she’s actually believable and quite good. She shows Max why they need him by taunting the leader of the city’s underworld, Master Blaster, into putting the town’s pig-shit fueled power supply on Embargo, and her lip quivers with the sting of acknowledgement that she is beholden to the little man’s power. And she’ll kill to be free of his fetters.

To avoid strife, she wants a stranger to do it- so Max is recruited to pick a fight with the hulking two-headed behemoth, a helmeted giant with a midget on his back barking orders. Master is played by little person Angelo Rositto, who’d been in Tod Browning’s Freaks and the ’70s midget crime caper Little Cigars. Unfortunately, he speaks in broken English, spouting things like “him brain broken! my vehicle. You… pedestrian!!” This makes him a bit too twee for a guy who orders his giant to strangle people, and fight in the Thunderdome with chainsaws. But nevermind. Max wants his car back, and Master Blaster has it, so he picks a fight, and all disputes are settled in the Thunderdome. You know the story. Two men enter. One man leaves.

Max fights, and learns Master Blaster’s secret- that the murderous giant is mentally challenged. The score by Maurice Jarre swells with pathos as we look at his face, to make us forget that just moments ago, he stabbed someone with a spear and was trying to cut Max in half with a chainsaw! It does this twice, and it’s really sickening. Thankfully, Auntie’s men can’t hear the soundtrack, and shoot him with crossbows, put Master in tiny chains, and subject Max to the Wheel of Fortune. Break a deal, face the wheel. The possible outcomes on the Wheel are: – Death – Hard Labour – Acquittal – Gulag – Aunty’s Choice – Spin Again – Forfeit Goods – Underworld – Amputation – Life Imprisonment. I was hoping for “Lose a Turn” but no such luck. Max gets… Gulag.

Gulag is especially ignominous, because not only to they tie you to a donkey and shove you off into the desert, put they also put a humiliating Mardi Gras head on you. This way, if anyone sees you, they’ll be too busy laughing to rescue you. And it almost works. But as Max’s donkey dies of dehydration and is swallowed by quicksand, he is found by a wandering nomad. A child, who drags him back to her oasis. She thinks he is Captain Walker, the airplane pilot who abandoned them years ago. She and her Lord of the Flies tribe of cutesy-talking kids want him to take them to Tomorrowmorrow land, the place they’ll finded after the pockyclipse. Yes, they really talk like this. Between them and Master Blaster, there’s way too much baby talk in this movie for it to be a Mad Max story.

If only dingoes had eaten them all as babies!

And this sequence drags on forever, as Max refuses to lead them, and they go off on their own, and he has to save them, and then they’re so close to Bartertown that they just up and decide to free Master. To be generous I’ll say Max wants to steal Master away to destroy the town’s power supply and stick it to Auntie for crossing him, and this leads to what should be the best car chase of the series, but it’s just a rehash of Road Warrior on train tracks. Not horrible, but we’ve seen it before. And guess who shows up at the end? Bruce Spence as Jedediah, who captains a little cropduster instead of a gyro these days. And he has a son like Feral Kid, except he talks. He lives conveniently at the end of the line, so they can escape on his plane. I could have forgiven this vegemite ex machina if Max and Jed recognized each other. He could have just said “You again!” but no, another opportunity lost.

Now, I’ve complained a lot but it’s not that bad, despite being overlong and toned down. The Bartertown sequence is quite memorable and has become part of popular culture, at least on the nerd quadrants of the internet. It’s not quite an offensive end to the trilogy, but like Jedi, seems crafted to appeal to kids. Vernon Wells, so memorable as Wez the mohawked marauder, was busy playing Bennett in Commando and the evil biker in Weird Science and did not return. I wonder if they asked. Other than Max, he’s the most iconic star of the series.


Little Folks, Big Screen: The Terror of Tiny Town

Little Folks, Big Screen

I’ll admit, I’ve always been enamored with little people. I don’t know where it began, perhaps when I saw Billy Barty in Foul Play and Under the Rainbow. I don’t recall watching The Wizard of Oz fully until later in life, and I didn’t hunt down Tod Browning’s Freaks until I was a teenager who idolized the Ramones. I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve followed the careers of Warwick Davis, Michael J. Anderson and Peter Dinklage closely, and thankfully they are talented. In fact, I think The Station Agent is probably one of the best films with a little person star. But I like the exploiters too, and they still make ’em- I recently saw and reviewed Midgets vs. Mascots at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was hilarious. I have several running features lately; I’m still working on The Arnold Project and want to start a review of every film involving Vikings I can find, but when Turner Classic Movies played this bad movie classic, I had to watch it.
The Terror of Tiny Town has been infamous for a long time. In the early ’80s, pop culture mavens rediscovered obscure old films to fill the late hours of cable television, and it was included in Harry Medved’s book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and How They Got That Way. And let me tell you, this movie deserves to be in this book. It was essentially created on a whim by film maker Jed Buell, who worked for Mack Sennett as a publicist before making his own studio after the crash of ’29 hurt Keystone pictures. Buell went for low budget exploitation westerns, making “singing cowboy” pictures with opera singer Fred Scott and some all black westerns starring big band singer Herb Jeffries. Someone joked about making pictures with all midgets, and Buell thought it was a brilliant idea; and it may be boring as hell, but it’s what he’s remembered for.
The story is basic- a peaceful town beset by a gang of evil gunmen, pitted against our hero, Buck Lawson. Played by Billy Curtis, who’d later have roles in everything from The Incredible Shrinking Man to High Plains Drifter, he was one of many little people stars in this film who’d appear in The Wizard of Oz, that pinnacle of little people pictures. If that’s the pinnacle, this may be the nadir. The one thing it has going for it is that the cast is entirely little people, and there are no tallies to poke fun. Instead, it plays like we’ve found that myth of New Jersey urban legends, Midgetville, and this is the story of how it was settled. Everyone rides ponies, and the story plays out like any other western- we’re introduced to the townies as the blacksmith works, the folks sing in church, and so on. The attraction is the novelty of the all-little people cast, and that’s a tough sell for 62 minutes.
We occasionally get some visual gags like a short fellow playing a huge double bass, Nancy “the Girl” holding a big six shooter, or a mustachioed bar patron drinking huge goblets of beer like it’s water. The script tries to be funny with repeated lines like “I’m gonna be the biggest man in this county!” I suppose it’s better than the dubbing Weng Weng got in For Your Height Only (full review) the James Bond spoof from the Phillippines, where he’s complaining about “running so much with these tiny little feet!” So while this is an exploiter, it could certainly be a lot worse in how it treats its subject.

So come to think of it, it gets a bad rap- I’ve watched worse westerns, and they didn’t have the bonus of an all little people cast. The Hero, Billy Curtis, is the biggest name in the cast and this is one of his first movies. He’d go on to be the criminal mastermind in Little Cigars, the ’70s flick about a gang of midget crooks. The rest of the cast has little acting talent except for Bill Platt as Tex Preston, who comes off as natural. The Dancing Hall girl played by Nita Krebs has a German accent, which makes her seem like an evil little Marlene Dietrich. The Hero and the Villain have a fistfight that looks like they’re really slapping the hell out of each other, and I bet they are.
The version shown on Turner Classics is missing the introduction by an announcer, which sounds like it changes the tone of the film by having a big fella poke some fun. Still, this is an historic little people film, one of the few to have a cast entirely of them; but it hearkens back to the side show days, because the novelty of this film is to see so many of them at once. Now with shows like “Little People, Big World” and stars like Peter Dinklage getting screen time with standard parts- not just in dream sequences or with monster masks on- it’s just not there. I’d rather watch The Day of the Locust or even Freaks, where their stature may be noted but they are allowed some dignity. Even Midgets vs. Mascots (full review) gave them plenty. This is a relic best saved for bad movie nights. Dig up a Weng Weng picture if you want laughs.

If you must:

Tribeca Film Festival: Midgets vs. Mascots

I like to attribute the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie not to Johnny Depp’s inspired performance, but to the fact it contained monkeys, midgets AND pirates. This trifecta of awesome made it impossible not to fail. The sequels forgot the midget and the monkey were important, and that’s why they suck. So when Firecracker and I were sitting at an outdoor table at the Village Pourhouse, and a gal handed us tickets to see Midgets vs. Mascots (official site), we had to go. There was no other course to take.
Why? Because little people rock. Jordan Prentice, from In Bruges (“they’re filmin’ midgets!” full review) stars in this Tribeca film festival audience favorite, and he was fantastic in that comedy from last year. So is Gary Coleman- “the Shaquille O’Neal of little people” and a host of less-known but very funny people. The mascots are a bunch of pathetic slobs, but real enough that you believe them. Bunny, the fragile furry freak and Gator, the sweaty slob whose belly is hanging out of his costume.

The premise is that a famous Texas little person mascot named Big Red dies and wants to give $10 million to one of his two heirs, so he has them gather 5 little people and 5 mascots each, to perform a bunch of crazy challenges. It’s somewhere between Scavenger Hunt and Jackass– taking the tried and true “inheritance challenge” formula and throwing as much offensive humor as they can into it. Sometimes it tries a little too hard to be offensive, like when the little people argue that “midget” is as bad as the n-word in a crowded restaurant, but most of the time the low-brow humor hits the mark.
It has loads of gratuitous nudity, Jackass-level stunts such as alligator wrestling, and plenty of character-based humor from the mascots- who range from loser slobs and furries to a gut-bustingly funny silent bobblehead- and the “midgets,” including Gary Coleman, playing a delightful parody of himself, Jordan Prentice being crude and sarcastic, and relative newcomer Terra Jole getting clobbered left and right. That poor girl. The movie plays at being a documentary, so everyone plays “themselves,” and you really feel bad for her sometimes.
The ending is a tad weak, but it delivers on comedy most of the time. Nice to see Jordan Prentice again- he was hilariously depraved. I hope it gets wide release, but this is the kind of movie that will explode on DVD or cable.

Lord of the Rings Extended internet nerd nitpicks

I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy, don’t get me wrong. Don’t revoke my geek cred. I still think the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, is the best of them, and that Peter Jackson created as nearly a perfect adaptation as possible for the times. He had to abide by certain Hollywood blockbuster rules, yet managed to stretch them enough to get his vision across. The extended edition of Fellowship is excellent and worth the immense running time. Return of the King is depending on how much you like the first two, but we’ll get to that later. I revisited all 3 films with Milky, belly-slapper general, to keep me from dozing during the slow bits (12 hours of walking!).

So let’s pick them apart!
1. Deus ex machina airlines

Whenever there’s trouble, the eagles show up. There are more Eagles in Tolkien’s books than on a ’70s light rock station. They save them in The Hobbit, they save Gandalf from Saruman, they save Frodo and Sam. Why didn’t they just have the eagles fly the ring into Mordor and drop it into Mount Doom, and drop bird dookie on Sauron’s Cadillac? I stole the “airlines” from Mark E. Rogers, The Adventures of Samurai Cat, a very funny spoof of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Kurosawa, Conan, and more.

2. no little people!
All those hobbits done with CG and perspective. The only “dwarf” was Gimli, the six foot plus John Rhys Davies. The CG does give the hobbits an other-worldly look, unlike the dwarfs in Prince Caspian, played by little people Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis. It’s unfortunate. Maybe if there were more dwarfs in the story, they could have upscaled little people to be bigger than the hobbits. I’m hoping that for Guillermo del Toro’s version of The Hobbit, they do something like that for the dozen dwarfs. Let’s hope CG doesn’t make it harder for little actors to get a job, dammit. Prince Caspian may have sucked, but it wasn’t because of the little people.

3. Saying the titles

Actually this was probably an in-joke, and is sort of funny that way. Remember when movies felt like they had to say the title in the dialogue, if it was high concept, so people would “get it?” Man, I’m getting tired of all these star wars! Riggs, you’re acting like a lethal weapon of some sort! And we shall call you, the fellowship… of the ring!

4. Frodo’s slo-mo agony face

Hilarious TBS commercial, “Sucks to be Frodo!”

I think Elijah Wood is a good actor. Not great, but a good one. But Peter Jackson sure loved doing slow-motion whenever he suffered his myriad injuries, such as the Morgul blade, the spear from the cave troll, Shelob’s stinger, and when Gollum cavity-searched him for his precious. Watch the movies all in a row, and it will be burned onto your retinas.

5. Surfin’ Legolas

Charlie (and Legolas) don’t surf!

Seriously, what the flying orc was Legolas doing surfing all the time? First he surfs on a shield down the steps at the Battle of Balls Deep, and then again down an Olyphant’s trunk during the final battle. I mean, just because he has long blond hair doesn’t mean he’s one of the Beach Boys. It was silly and unnecessary- we knew he was the paragon of Elven agility when he stood on the snow everyone else was sunk in, or climbed the arrows he shot into the Olyphant’s hide. Maybe the surfing was to sidestep the obvious “light in the loafers” joke about him not sinking in the snow?

6. “Swords are no more use here”

Except for killing the Balrog, of course. At the end of Fellowship, Gandalfini tells the gang to “fly, you fucks!” when the Balrog from the depths of the earth bars their way, because “swords are no more use here.” Then in Two Towers, we get an awesome battle with the Balrog, and Gandalf kills it with Glamdring (a sword). This is probably an in-joke meant to catch over-analytic nerds, but it amuses me. Of course, Gandalf can come back from the dead, so he can probably kill balrogs with a sword up the ying-yang where anyone else would be stomped into something resembling a wet prune.

7. Goofball Gimli

It’s much funnier sped up.

Did we really need Gimli to be comic relief most of the time? He’s actually pretty bad-ass in battle. I like when he snaps the orc’s neck in Two Towers, and the battle with the cave troll remains one of my favorite fantasy combats in film. But stuff like the drinking contest was just a bit much. I know that he and Legolas really did try to kill more orcs than the other, and the movie handled their rivalry and eventual friendship really well. The rest of the stuff- “nobody tosses a dwarf!” and its payoff in the second movie, and boring Eowyn to tears when he tells her about dwarven women- is good, but the drinking contest always brings me out of the movie.

Well, those are the 7 things that bother me. What do I love best? Taters. They really handled the Sam-Frodo-Gollum substory well, including the parts like Stewed Rabbit that I thought might be left out. Sean Astin did a great job as Samwise Gamgee, but will forever be known as “Hell Bent for Taters” in my memory.

Oh, the Extended Editions are all out of print by the way; probably in prep for a big Blu-Ray release.

80s Trash of the Week: Willow

It was nice that after making Warwick Davis suffer the indignity of performing in an Ewok costume, George Lucas came up with the lighthearted fairy-tale fantasy of Willow to give a starring role with some real face time. Mr. Davis is quite talented, but unlike little people Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Find Me Guilty, Death at a Funeral) and Jordan Prentice (In Bruges) he has been saddled with make-up, sort of like Ron Perlman. Such is often the lot of the little actor. Warwick played the diminuitive Irish imp in all the Leprechaun movies, Marvin the Robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Filius in the Harry Potter movies; it’s rare that he see his face unlatexed, but most recently he and Peter Dinklage both had parts in the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian.

Ride of the Valkilmers!

But Willow is where he shines; it’s a big role with lots of character, and he fills it perfectly. The whole movie has a lighthearted tone plucked from The Princess Bride and a story taken from the Brothers Grimm, and while hardly original it still entertains. The story is a bit dark at times, just enough to get kids scared and really interested. In the late 80’s I rarely saw my young cousins not planted in front of a TV with Willow on. The story is simple- a child is born with a birthmark, fulfilling a prophecy portending the doom of Evil Queen Bavmorda’s reign. Ol’ EQB (Jean Marsh, looking like a killer nun) has people looking out for crumb-snatchers being born with goofy marks, and the child is to be put to death. Luckily the midwife takes the kid on the lam, pursued by shaggy wolfdogs and soldiers, feeding the brat on Enfamil infant formula for all we know.

Maleficent or Mother Superior?

When she knows her fate is sealed, she pulls a Moses and sticks the bambino basket in a floating mat of bulrushes, sending it downstream, and into the life of Willow Ufgood, who is a hobbit Nelwynn– a group of short-statured folk who live far from the lands of men. Willow’s kids find the baby and want to keep it, but times are tough- a grumpy fat farmer lent Willow money that he is yet to repay, and wants to send him to debtor’s prison. Willow is a magician, and performs at a local fair, and mucks up his disappearing piglet act in front of everybody. And just then, the soldiers arrive with their mutant dogs, and Willow knows that he can’t keep the baby. It’s too dangerous.

Gimme my bottle or I’ll break my stick off in yo ass, Peck!

After listening to wizard Aldwin (played perfectly by the justly ubiqutious Billy Barty), Willow and a few other hobbits Nelwynns decide to go on a quest to bring the baby back to the land of men. Shortly thereafter (no pun intended) they find a skeevy scoundrel hanging in a cage at an abandoned post. This is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who claims to be a great swordsman, and is sort of like a less charming, more Real Genius kind of Han Solo dude. He eventually cajoles them into releasing him, but not before a parade of soldiers off to war pass by- one of whom conveniently knows him, and mentions that he’s untrustworthy. Willow doesn’t have much choice, as his fellow hobbits Nelwynns flat-leave him out in the wilderness, satisfied that dumping the baby with some soldiers is quest enough.

Real Genius with braids

Madmartigan plays the lovable rogue with loyalties flicking about like a compass in an iron mine. They resume The Quest, only to be set upon by brownies- even smaller folk than the hobbits Nelwynns- who look like tribesman action figures come to life, capable of hijacking barn owls for aerial assaults, and shooting you with sleeping darts to perform Lilliputian indignities upon your dormant body. They have appropriately high-pitched voices and somehow manage to not get stepped on, despite all my wishes. When your Ewoks doff their costumes, you need something even cuter and smaller to fill their place, apparently. Thankfully they are not that bad.

Oh yeah this is how he gets out…

Madmartigan and Willow eventually find the good witch Fin Raziel, who has been turned into a possum by Bavmorda and is thus unable to help much. She gives Willow her wand and tries to teach him magic, so he can turn her back. Where there’s a willow, there’s a way (a line wisely not used in the film) and he manages to turn her into all sorts of other animals as the film goes on. As Bavmorda’s troops approach- led by the treacherous General Kael (named after film critic Pauline Kael, har har) and the queen’s hot daughter Sorsha (sorceress + Porsche, I guess) we remember Lucas’s penchant for fucking stupid names. Madmartigan likes Sorsha’s boobs, and this being a fairy tale, they of course betray their sides out of instant love for one another. Kilmer’s performance saves it, keeping everything on a ridiculous level. Madmartigan may not have Han’s charm, but he definitely has the early Kilmer manic energy.

Toothwang the dragon

Though it made no sense, I liked when a critter turned into a huge two-headed dragon called an Ebersisk, of course named after Siskel & Ebert. You know a movie isn’t going to be great when it insults critics as some sort of joke, like Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s shitfest Godzilla. Lucas and Howard should know better. But who cares, it’s a fire-breathing dragon! That looks more like a two-headed turd. The desgn is different, for sure, but not scary or interesting. The effects looked good for ’88, though. The rest of the adventure to save the baby from Bavmorda plays out predictably, and that’s the movie’s real weakness; it feels like something Lucas hashed out on cocktail napkins, and the memorable characters- Willow and Madmartigan- ride solely on the charisma of the actors alone. Even the score by James Horner leans heavily on Mozart’s Requiem, and everything else feels just as derivative.

“I am contractually obligated to show my chest to the 13-18yr female demographic.”

It’s a fine film for kids of the right age- some scares and blood, but nothing gory or too terrifying. And plenty of fun. They’ll be calling each other “peck” (the slur for hobbits Nelwynns) all day. Warwick Davis shows his chops, and hopefully will get to show them again next year, when he’ll be starring in a heist movie about 5 little people robbing diamonds. Named ShortFellas, it promises to be entertaining. It’s a damn shame that Peter Jackson didn’t use him (or many little people, if any) in the Lord of the Rings movies. Sure we needed big names for Dildo and Frito, but the smaller parts could have gone to folks sans CG enhancement.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Certainly
Quotability Rating: minor
Cheese Factor: Mad-havarti-gan
High Points: Funny Kilmer, Warwick as always
Low Point: Brownies
Gratuitous Boobies: just Val’s