15 August 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Despite Narrative Flaws, Kong: Skull Island is a Rip Roaring Good Time
by Kristin Battestella

Without a doubt the 2017 MonsterVerse cum 2014 Godzilla prequel Kong: Skull Island has its flaws. One shouldn't expect perfection or deep thoughts with this fun jungle ride brimming with action and big monsters. But heck yeah let's over-analyze the shit out of it, shall we?

Bill Randa (John Goodman) recruits ex-SAS tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to join the secret government group Monarch's expedition to the elusive Skull Island alongside Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard's (Samuel L. Jackson) elite helicopter escort. Landsat officials and mission science teams use seismic charges to map and study the island – awakening ancient monsters friend and foe, government conspiracies, and personal vengeance as the team rescues crashed World War II veteran Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) from the fantastic isle protected by King Kong.

Kong: Skull Island's opening World War II crash transitions to newspapers, archive footage, and period photography on the mysterious Monarch organization as audio quotes from Truman and Kennedy lead to bleak 1973 DC protests and ironic quips about the screwed up time in Washington. Monarch needs funding to mount this satellite mapping expedition and its under the rug search amid ominous whispers of ship eating monsters and Bermuda Triangle fantastics surrounding this uncharted Pacific island. Fiery explosives reflect in the aviator glasses, animals flee the seismic bombs, and distorted music is drowned out by the destruction. People who think they are so big are made small by Kong's giant hands and teeth – an excellent introduction with superb monster graphics and motion capture. Warped gunfire and thumping helicopter blades add foreboding to the mighty monster silhouettes as separated civilians, stranded scientists, and angry military argue who takes orders from whom. Nixon winks, geek references, and “Hold on to your butts!” keeps the old school cool coming early and often alongside minute to minute action montages with diegetic classic rock, first person shooter video game angles, and intriguing camera shots. Skull Island is an embarrassment of riches with too much to see in one viewing thanks to wild giant spider impalements and more well done personal horror vignettes with blood, gore, and brain splatter nods to Cannibal Holocaust and Evil Dead. Slow motion over the shoulder fears, creaking animal approaches, that giant log come to life – aren't walking sticks bad enough?! The rush to repair a salvaged airplane turned riverboat adds more flying monsters and aerial fatalities to the adventure. Kong is an angry mother, but he didn't do anything wrong in protecting his home from the dangerous creatures man has stirred, and the mission only has its bombing in the name of science to blame. Fortunately, culture shock jokes create lighthearted fun, since it's more of a cold war with summers off, a man on the moon is eating Spam after sipping Tang, and The Cubs are never going to win the World Series. Likewise the excellent graveyard sequence combines all Skull Island's divided and united people with scene stealing visuals, action, and monsters. Retro picture flashes and rewind clicks accent gritty zooms and intense monster filming with green gas heightening the sense of smelly vomit, skulls, bones, and gas masks. Deadly cigarettes, flames, lighters, and fumes add to the swords and machine guns poised atop the triceratops skull as man comes to regret the cruel and violent destruction he has caused.

Of course, Skull Island is also a very messy movie with an uneven dual focus. This should be either a Vietnam, horrors of war, military monster Apocalypse Now with a photographer and a scientist OR the scientific monstrosity adventure a la Jurassic Park with one ex-SAS tracker but not BOTH plots giving nobody their fair share. The us versus them scientists in blue and military in green sitting on opposite sides of the briefing is never capitalized upon but redundantly introduces everyone by name after the port of call arrivals already suffice. Likewise, conflicting, convoluted information dumps on hollow earth inklings, monsters exist proof, nature taking back the planet subtext, and more conspiracies are lost amid who's doing the suspicious underground mapping or using dangerous seismic charges – and none of it is as important as the visual destruction despite precious little time to enjoy the awe-inspiring views. Increasingly intrusive hip highlights and filler montages distract viewers with busy, loud hyperbole, and fine jokes aren't needed to alleviate tension because intercutting between separated characters walking to and fro for action fodder never leaves the audience with anyone long enough to appreciate their peril. Casual wonder, superficial dear family letters, and featherweight Icarus speeches can't keep up with the up up up piecemeal quest, soldiers rightfully spazzing over the giant monkey are paid dust in favor of repeated clicks west or evac north fluff, and one trek in the wrong direction for a dead man proves pointless on top of unnecessary revenge. What should be somber shipwreck history and ancient monster worship become tossed aside double talk, and the science dialogue, monsters, and mission objectives change as people act stupid from scene to scene as needed. Littering the narrative with so many excuses that we just don't care how each group of people and their monster attacks tie together is incredibly annoying because there is so much more potential to the friend or foe ominous and native people glossed over with photos and peace signs. Slo mo hold me back man tears turn laughable thanks to all over the place point of view voiceovers with no time for a breather properly addressing the nonsensical. Quotes about an enemy not existing until you make one get squashed between more meandering, on the nose rock montages while blow torches are convenient in one scene but forgotten the next. Our two women never talk to each other, and Skull Island can't stick to telling its story well because it's so desperate to appeal to as many bang for its buck viewers as possible – leaving the World War II radiation and ancient cave paintings hodgepodge to do nothing but set up the inevitable sequel.

All the people should have been listed in the blurb at the bottom of the Skull Island poster because no one character is fully developed – least of all top billed Tom Hiddleston as tracker James Conrad, who spends more time giving repetitive exposition on clicks, radius, or distance and unnecessary let's go, no time to waste obviousness. It's also noticeable that the character concept was changed when T. Hiddy was cast – perhaps in a Legendary twofer contract with Crimson Peak or during filming, for the grimy shirt jaded and gritty bearded wanderer is traded for a sunshine blonde matinee idol buff. It's like a different guy shows up for the mission! When meeting Conrad in the bar, he's ruthless with a cue stick. However, on the island, he's the team negotiator, going from a rugged bad ass asking for five times the mercenary money to...Tom Hiddleston. Viewers see him as himself in Skull Island and The Night Manager rather than his Loki visage – maybe because it looks like he's wearing his own clothes again onscreen – but someone should have been in charge of his eye candy fitness as his increasing muscles or shrinking wet shirt vary throughout the adventure. The mysteriously decommissioned tracker also suddenly cares, sneaking into restricted areas to check out the bombs and question the mission even though Conrad never gets to use this seemingly new found good guy muster. His great line, “I suppose no man comes home from war, not really,” and brief mentions of his lost father – Tom, please, no more characters with daddy issues! – go unredeemed save for dad's handy lighter to rectify a lifetime of searching for something you can never find. Instead of calm, problem solving Conrad challenging Packard, our expert tracker gets lost and seeks higher ground before taking charge anyway after useless self sacrifices. Despite his name, there's very little Heart of Darkness to Conrad, yet the character remains overly serious and that divine accent feels out of place – taking longer and prettier to say his exposition in a different, formal rhythm amid all the fast, casual slang. Although he has the best gas mask glory moment in Skull Island and some of the samurai choreography is reminiscent of the first advance in 300, our would be hero has no winking Indiana Jones moment nor does he take off his shirt. Why hold back when you can go all the way? But hey, those biceps aren't enough to forgive the fact that Conrad wears a gun in a shoulder holster and never uses it!

With our rugged man and Brie Larson (Room) as anti-war photographer Mason Weaver, Skull Island feels very The People That Time Forgot. However, Weaver doesn't cry out for her camera's safety or click away as much as she perhaps should. She never runs out of film and such gear perils or mishaps could have been an ongoing gag, but Conrad seems to look out for her camera more than she does. There is rightfully no overt romantic plot further crowding Skull Island with unnecessary saccharin, yet their feeling each other out banter should have been utilized more – Weaver interrupts Conrad's hero zoom by motioning for him to move over on the helicopter seat and he does. All these charming, award winning thespians have so little room to breath, leaving Weaver with lame one liners and nothing to do. The “Bitch, please!” retort for her to have several seats isn't the right response, but her trite platitudes won't get all these macho men pointing guns at each other to stand down either. Fortunately, her outfit isn't uber skimpy, and Larson's modern earthy look is perhaps the most seventies style in the cast. Weaver goes from skeptical equals Pulitzer to island believer saving injured animals too quickly with no depth to her island connections if any before ending by saying she will expose their information rather than keep this precious ecosystem secret. She could have been a hippie tree hugging activist woman alone in tune for peace with Kong, but Weaver's touching moments with the ape are too few and far between. Whether there is some kind of native spirit and island good to counter the evil creatures below isn't explored, and while all the scientists pick up guns, Weaver shoots with her camera only – a nice statement that just leads to her getting rescued by Conrad in every dangerous situation. A brief moment of her refusing a gun and more of her resourceful ingenuity as with Conrad's handy lighter would have added better character strength and humor. Sadly, Skull Island has both Weaver taking pictures to expose Monarch and John Goodman's (The Big Lebowski) underutilized Bill Randa recording film for his secret organization's posterity. What is the point of having both such rival documentarians on the trip when they never even have the chance to object to each other onscreen?

But why you gotta be mean like that to Kong, Nick Fury? Despite the Vietnam withdrawals underway and orders to head home, Samuel L. Jackson's Colonel Packard isn't ready for the war to end. He wonders what this the fight was all for – accepting this final mission without considering the families and day jobs waiting for his Sky Devils stateside. Packard resents the camera and the media's influence on the war as more dangerous than a gun, and objects to calling the battle lost. He's upset at Kong for destroying his helicopter team, blaming the ape and demanding payback when he's the one who ordered them to fly through the island's nonsensical storm front. There's room for more psyche, but other plot contrivances compromise Packard's fanatical. His insistence on taking out Kong instead of the more deadly skull creature continues even when his reason for pursuing one over the other is proven more fatal, and Packard gets around the island just fine without the obligatory SAS tracker, gutting any tension the two are apparently supposed to have. After aimlessly walking for half of Skull Island, Packard needlessly divides the group when they actually come together, and any deeper hates the monster because he hates himself guilt about man's supposed superiority is never fully explored. Certainly the Lieutenant Colonel did nothing wrong in ordering his men and defending his homeland from the horrors of war, but he takes the extinguishing the wrong monster too far and doesn't learn from any of the mission's bureaucratic stupidity, ultimately using napalm to flush out more creatures than he can handle. Likewise his soldiers – family man macguffin Toby Kebbell (Control), headband wearing Thomas Mann (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), and letters to his mama Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton) don't listen to local information on avoiding island perils. At once they decide it's all for one and one for all while telling others they will be left behind if they don't like the plan, and none of them go against the Colonel even when he is wrong and the chain of command has broken. Although dead pan Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) eating in the face of giant apes is good levity, the too crowded Skull Island keeps these military men stereotypically hip with shirtless photo sessions and no questions asked until after the fact rather than developing any killer edge e.g. Predator.

There are simply so, so, so many superfluous people in Skull Island that you can argue almost anyone doesn't really need to be here. Landsat fraidy cat John Ortiz (Fast & Furious) deserves more than ticking the Hispanic check box with his own personal homage to Jurassic World. This looks like a diverse ensemble with representation from all walks of life, but it isn't diversity if each monster fodder minority has five cliché lines while the white people save the day. Geologist Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) and biologist Jing Tian (The Great Wall) look like they filmed their scenes separately from everyone else. Their brief conversations happen with no one else around and they don't really interact with anybody on the island – simultaneously missing the opportunity for statements on the struggles of a well educated black man with a radical theory while nonetheless desperate to appeal to Asian markets with an intelligent but meek biologist who barely speaks. Hawkins' Houston Brooks objects to the titular craziness with almost the exact same words as Mann's Slivko, and eventually, the scientists are told to go back to the boat – which they easily find and operate without Conrad holding their hands. The post-credits scene likewise has them repeating Randa's words on the monsters to come while again telling us not much of anything on Monarch's intentions. Fortunately, John C. Reilly's (Chicago) kooky World War II castaway Hank Marlow is the most dynamic character in Skull Island. He's happy these new found people are real because he's more than ready to get home to beer, hot dogs, and the Chicago Cubs, becoming the only fish out of water in this crazy habitat that receives any narrative payoff. I also dare say Marlow's opening cross cultural duel turned bond with Japanese singer Miyavi as Gunpei Ikari and their subsequent hear tell eight attempts to leave the island during their forced twenty-eight year sabbatical may have been the more dramatically interesting tale – “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and all that.

Fine gunfire, brief World War II designs, aerial action, and impressive photography also pepper Skull Island. A variety of cool ships accent the beautiful, tropical, misty, hot locations from Hawaii, Australia, and Vietnam amid lovely waters, deadly swamps, and killer jungles keeping everyone good and sweaty. There are dangerous rocks, mountains, vegetation, and animals, too – but that giant water buffalo thing has a cute nose! Unique patinas, golden sunsets, neon, bright blues, red lighting, and choice zooms set off every frame in Skull Island, and a fiery haze makes the night time battle with Kong befitting of the island's devilish face shape. However, despite all the old school touches, Skull Island doesn't feel as aged as it could be. A 1973 Life Magazine and a record player don't a la the past when everybody looks so today. The money here is rightfully spent on the badass ape kids will dig, but younger audiences probably won't notice the early computers, retro televisions, dark room photography, old reel frames, slide projectors, or rotary phones and period references. Fortunately, these creatures are so big that director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) must pull the camera back – we can see the well choreographed rumble without hiding behind panoramic swoops and hectic editing. Kong breaking free from a shipwreck's chains is a fine homage, and the deleted scenes with more platoon camaraderie and a bristling introduction between Conrad and Packard should have been kept. Of course, Skull Island is available in different video editions with seller and regional behind the scenes exclusives. An official comic book also continues the adventure, but I wish the background material or what happens next wasn't relegated to extras or waiting on another picture in the franchise. Although, ironically, Skull Island might have made a great limited television series with fulfilled episodes dedicated to our mad military man, lost tracker, photographer, castaway, or scorned scientists.

Kong:Skull Island seems like it began with storyboards of cool things for Kong and company to do with everything else as filler to meet the feature length duration. There's no time to stay on Skull Island and explore its myths or monsters, and this does indeed feel like one mere stepping stone toward the inevitable Godzilla vs. Kong anticipation in 2020 thanks to postscript MonsterVerse revelations. Though entertaining, the forties bookends are abrupt and in between viewers are spoiled for choice of eye candy. Skull Island is meant to be a monster money maker and it shows with this sweet but shallow action. It wants to be man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself, but superficially potlucks all the deep possibilities. Thankfully, Skull Island is not a film meant for critical eyes and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Despite its narrative flaws, there's just so much fan service that Kong: Skull Island was bound to be an enjoyable success.

11 August 2017

Top Ten: Hitchcock!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten Alfred Hitchcock Reviews!

Please see our Alfred Hitchcock and Horror tags for more suspense or visit our Classics label for more of our critiques thus far!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


04 August 2017

More Early Hitchcock Gems!

More Early Hitchcock Gems!
By Kristin Battestella

It's Round Two featuring more early British fare and young Hollywood Alfred Hitchcock diamonds in the rough!

The Lady Vanishes – Only one lovely train passenger has seen the titular dame, causing rail car mayhem for Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra) in this 1938 mystery. Travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle as our ensemble is humorously introduced – from the governess rambling about her past charges and country songs or dances to cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the line from London for the cricket scores. All the rooms are let out in this hectic hotel save for the maid's quarters, and she comes with the room, wink! The bellhop is trying not to look at the scandalous bare legs as our bachelorette orders caviar and champagne, but the men in bed together is gay in both senses of the word with jolly good innuendo. This quirky inn comforts the audience yet there are whispers of pretty American girls and the almighty dollar getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. A hit on the head at the train station leads to a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, magic tricks, and slight of hand illusion. Everyone's interconnected – incognito affairs, musicians, a famous doctor, magicians, and foreign diplomats. Some genuinely don't recall seeing the woman in question, but others have an ulterior motive for not wanting the train delayed, willful gaslighting compounded by lies, lawyers watching their own back, and that unreliable bump on the head. Tea in the dining car alone, suspicious wine glasses – complaints about non-English speakers, nationalism, political secrets, and conspiracies. Who's really on who's side? Train whistle harbingers pepper the constant hum of travel, matching the rail montages, impressive rear projection, and black and white photography. Despite the confined setting, the pace remains fittingly on the move with perilous comings and goings between cars. There are stoles and divine hats, too, but that giant monogram scarf looks more like a napkin stuck in her collar! Humorous bunging in the cargo with magician's rabbits, trick boxes, false bottoms, and contortionists is good on its own, however, perhaps such fun should have happened earlier before the serious mystery escalates. There are some contrived leaps as well – it's amazing how all the Englishmen can shoot to kill and do it so easily – and though not naming the enemy country is understandable thanks to political relevance then and now, the obligatory bad guys are just nondescript. Likewise, one can see why the sardonic comedy teams and shootouts were included, and Flightplan really steals from this right down to the writing on the foggy window. Fortunately, the ticking clock race to the border, wrong track turns, gunfire standoffs, and international chases roll on right up to the end. But seriously, what it is with Hitchcock and trains already?

Lifeboat– Journalist Tallulah Bankhead is stranded on the high seas with torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and Nazis in this 1944 self-contained thriller nominated for Best Director, Story by John Steinbeck, and Black and White Cinematography. There's no need to waste time on spectacle with the in media res sinking – flotsam and jetsam with everything from English playing cards to dead Germans heralds the nationalism and wartime grays to come amid damp passengers, dirty sailors, famous dames, mothers, babies, and injuries. Tallulah's in furs, smoking a cigarette, and dictating what junk to bridge aboard, and despite the tiny boat space, multiple conversations happen fore and aft thanks to strategic intercutting between the immediate wounded and more self-absorbed survivors. Fog and windswept water sprays accent the superb rear projection, and the strategic filming captures everyone from all angles with foreground zooms and background silhouettes. Natural ocean sounds and the rocking of the ship, however, might make sensitive viewers seasick. There are numerous colloquialisms as well as accents and translations, but conversation is all we have – a stage-like talkative jam packed with insinuating layers, interrogations, and double meanings. Can you make your own law in open waters and toss the Nazi overboard? Everyone feels the need to establish who's American, Christian, or had relatives in Czechoslovakia and France, and the black cook is surprised he's included in all the decisions. It's unfortunately expected that Canada Lee's (Cry the Beloved Country) Joe is the least developed character, yet he's also the most genuine person starboard. This is also a more diverse ensemble than often seen in today's movies, and three women talk to each other about shell shock and lacking supplies but nobody knows the right prayers for a burial at sea. Cold, wet, sleepless individual vignettes allow the refreshingly flawed stranded to come clean, and at the time having a Nazi officer as a realistic character rather than an evil archetype was understandably controversial. Testy questions on who's skipper, united sympathies, and diplomatic delegating drop the formalities, as after all “we're all in the same boat.” However, information is not always forthcoming and no one knows the course to Bermuda – except Herr Kapitan. Can you trust his seamanship? A compass, typewriter, watches, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers with Sir Alfred in the classifieds add tangibles and some humor alongside baseball talk, debate on the superior rowing capabilities of the Master Race, and other unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” Repeated “Some of my best friends are...” quips also address differences as rambling on past regrets becomes veiled talk about shocking revelations and amputations. Lost material possessions give way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, and tattoos, but there's time for intense poker, lipstick, and flirtation. Bermuda is the macguffin, and storms, hunger, delirium, suspicion, and men overboard get in the way of getting there. Rather than just special effects cool, wet and wild action heightens the internal boat suspense as beards grow and tables turn. They're surrounded by undrinkable water, rain is precious, fishing bait is nonexistent, and sudden twists happen with nothing but a splash. Violent mutinies and shellfire are surprising to see in a forties movie, but Bankhead is a stunning, strong, sexy older woman able to be kissing or angry in the same scene – a multifaceted female role few and far between these days. Once stripped bare by the consequences of welcoming your enemy, do you accept your fate, continue to row, or laugh at the irony? Perhaps this warning against fatally lumping all together and the guilty lessons learned in such a no win situation can only be appreciated in retrospect, as this tale tries to see everything from both sides, remaining gripping from beginning to end with nothing but eight people in a boat in the middle of the ocean intensity. It makes one wonder why nowadays everything is so gosh darn bombastic.

Sabotage – Buzzing light bulbs go dark in this 1936 caper based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – not to be confused with Hitchcock's previous Secret Agent or later Saboteur. Whew! Crowds are both confused and giggling in this blackout, singing or arguing by candlelit and wanting their money back from the down picture show. Flashlights, the silhouetted skyline, shadow schemes, and askew camera angles add to the power tampering suspicion, and suspenseful notes follow our mysterious man in black as he returns home, washes his hands, and claims innocence – despite his neighbor's claims to the contrary. He talks of money coming soon yet doesn't want to draw attention to his cinema business, but the professional, public, and domestic are intertwined with families living above the bustling marketplace. Fine dresses, fedoras, and vintage cars add to the quaint, however no one is who they seem thanks to grocers with an angle, Scotland Yard whispering of trouble abroad, and shadowed men with their backs to the camera conversing over promised payments. The innocuous movies, aquarium, and pet shop host seemingly innocent ingredients used for making bombs, and onscreen days of the week lie in wait while the public is occupied by the picture show, hoodwinked by what's in plain sight. Creepy packages, trick bird cages, and threatening “sleeping with the fishes” coded messages become a tongue in cheek nod to the nature of cinema and hidden observations as covers are blown and men scatter. Our wife is clueless abut her husband and oblivious to her family being used for information, creating an interesting dynamic for her between the handsome detective and a damn cold, cruel husband. Who are behind these plans and why? Despite several great sequences, convenient plot points leave too many unanswered questions. The busy start is rough around the edges, meandering for half the movie before becoming eerily provocative as a child delivers a fatal ticking package in the middle of the crowded market. We know the route and the time – delaying for street sales, demonstration detours, and interfering parades ups the suspense alongside traffic jams, stoplights, and montages featuring clock tower gears, dangerous flammable film, our innocuous brown papered package, and the puppy on the bus next to it! A clock on every street corner checks each five minutes passing amid town criers, newsboys, crescendos, and clues in the film canister that go for the big shocker while silent visuals bring the threats home to the dinner table. Although I don't think today we'd have a cartoon singing “Who killed Cock Robin?” but that might just be me.

Love It or Hate It?

Jamaica Inn – Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII) and Maureen O'Hara (The Quiet Man) star in this 1939 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel – Hitchcock's last picture before his stateside huzzahs. There's nineteenth century lawlessness, shipwrecks, and the perilous Cornish coast with rocky buildings to match the blustery and unforgiving waters and storms. The opening montages are ye olde well done, and the crashing waves, sailor screams, and squawking seagulls accent the bleak Gothic mood. The unforgiving start continues with bumpy carriage rides, dangerous roads, and a spunky niece warned off the titular lodge only to be wooed with Byron quotes. Creepy uncles, more lecherous men, and racketeering add more brutality – is someone double crossing the scheme or pocketing a percentage? Eavesdropping, spying from above, and perspective camera angles are early Hitchcock hallmarks along with up close knives, a wrongly accused man, and winding stairs. Marriage is rough, women both help or hinder the crimes or remain helpless, and blossoming opposites attract banter sets off the rescues, ironic twists, surprises, and enemies in disguise. Unfortunately, it's tough to tell the pirate-esque but RP speaking henchmen apart, and the back and forth smuggling is overly chatty plodding delaying the better parts. This should be more scandalous or scary than it is, and apparently years worth of crime is just so irrevocably disrupted by a nosy girl in less than two days? Laughton's fake nose likewise takes over the ham – it's not quite Doctor Evil with the pinky smirk but close – and those ridiculously obvious eyebrows are not the kind of hiding in plain sight we had in mind. Using this villain for some kind of comedic effect misses the mark because we are so excruciatingly aware of the scene chewing, which is doubly surprising from the otherwise always on point Laughton. There is some suspense if you aren't familiar with the story, but the book is better thanks to the uneven cat and mouse here. The standard thirties period drama never rises to truly Gothic ominous, but it can be bemusingly watchable fun if you don't expect perfection on the scale of Hitchcock and Du Maurier's next venture: Rebecca.

28 July 2017

Top Ten: Documentaries!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in alphabetical order...

Our Top Ten Documentaries!

Please see our Documentary tag for even more and visit our Television page for all our documentary viewing lists!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review

25 July 2017

Early Hitchcock Round Up!

An Early Hitchcock Round Up!
By Kristin Battestella

Let's spend a stormy day nestled in with these early mysteries, spies, and thrillers from Mr. Suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock!

Murder! – The 1930 print is jumpy and sometimes tough to see, but the Beethoven overture adds to the eponymous screams in the night as a ridiculous amount of people talk over each other or point fingers while hysterical others pollute the crime scene. Town gossip on which actress didn't like the other adds to the messy as households high and low unite in shock or up turned noses. We get the facts second hand – a fireplace poker, bloody dresses, a brandy flask – and opinions on the case are mixed with common domestic scenery, wry British humor, and no Code wit. A man can't talk about the neighborhood crime until he puts his teeth in his mouth, and folks rush to dress as police knock, winking at the regular people in extreme circumstances and ordinary places with the scandalous behind closed doors. The back and forth kitchen settings create a stage-like design as prop doors, police questionings backstage, pantomime theatre, and cross dressing innuendo match the pomp and circumstance trials, wigs, and robes. The fanfare moves fast as jurors deliberate on our lady killer's well bred family, possible fugue state, or if hanging her is too barbarous. We don't know who the jury members are but can deduce much by their opinions – the pipe smoking alpha male, maternal older ladies, the cowering man fearful of prison, a sophisticated psychology woman, and the dirty old man who thinks a good looking actress should get a free pass. A woman's place in the home serving her man and men versus women aspects feel old fashioned, and there are still silent holdovers with onscreen cursive notes amid the low production values. The obligatory transition and exposition scenes feel roundabout and overlong, lagging with foolish old ladies and crying kids. Some twists are also obvious – regular folks have absurd access to evidence and the whole town has clues yet the police somehow dropped the ball. However, there are progressive undertones, too, with well edited jury room interplay as devil or angel on the shoulder camera cuts and layered voiceovers close in with intense zooms pressuring the lone holdout. The dames are decked out in serious hats, furs, and pearls for jury duty while men look in the mirror over their guilt or doubts with Wagner on the radio becoming a preliminary score. The case should be open and shut, but the court of public opinion lingers and arm chair investigators proceed on the whodunit to prove one's innocence. Such surprisingly modern spins and a fitting circus topper make this an interesting little study with pieces of Hitchcock to come and caper within a caper analysis.

Secret Agent – Madeleine Carroll (The Prisoner of Zenda), Peter Lorre (M), John Gielgud (Arthur), and Robert Young (Father Knows Best) star in this 1936 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's tales alongside Great War funerals, one armed soldiers, empty coffins, and a whiff of German Expressionism. Assumed names, false passports, and ominous figures in the doorway create an intimate one man mission amid distant bombs, nearing explosions, fake headlines, and big wartime scale. Hotel meetings, double agents, secret codes inside the chocolate wrapper – it's almost Bond before their was Bond with an opening twist and a debriefing from a man named “R” leading to glum church organs, candlelight signals, mysterious strangulations, flirtatious suitors, and button clues. Our charming novelist cum spy travels to exotic continental casinos with a thrill seeking doll in the bath and a whimsy to their marital farce. When she slaps him, he slaps her back! However, some of the prerequisite over the top humor for Lorre's Hairless Mexican General who's chasing “not only ladies” is unnecessary. His repeated long name and subtle sardonic are much better – he exasperates, “I have anxiety,” and when asked “Do you know any prayers?” he answers, “Don't insult me.” His killer hand should not be underestimated, but the touchy sidekick banter borders on bickering couple, and there's a ménage feeling with our spy trio when up close men whisper how they will be alone without the lady for hours. The women, by the way, are suave thirties glamorous even though it's 1916. Fortunately, the intense factories, train confrontations, and telegram intertitles with their translated codes remain unique. Telescope shots, howling dogs, and mountain photography add suspense with very little, as do later Hitchcock touches such as staircase motifs, reluctant heroes, fatal mistaken identities, and the wronged man on the run. One can tell Sir Alfred has outgrown some of the lower production values and is ready to move on to bigger Hollywood fare, but this precursor formula moves smoothly without underestimating the viewer. Who is the rival agent we're seeking? Have we met him already? Suspicions on who speaks German and understands it or not escalate into a tense finale despite mild obviousness and a slightly abrupt end. I'd almost like to see this redone with a proper budget – not a ridiculous spectacle, just a polished potboiler – but this fun cast and fine story are neat for anyone who likes to compare Hitchcock notes and spy thrillers. And wow, look at those telephone operators! 

The 39 Steps – Like Maugham's Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don't need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who's picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.

Your Call!

Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense – This documentary looks old with dated graphics, sliding photo frames, and low quality movie clips. The dry narration takes time to get rolling with Hitchcock's early childhood, first studio work, and small art direction credits, yet the voiceover also often moves at double speed amid talk of The Lodger and Hitch hallmarks such as the innocent man on the run, macguffins, cameo appearances, and trick shot filming. Brief mentions on family life pepper the transition to talkies, and this spends a surprising amount of time – maybe too much time – on Hitchcock's lesser known pictures including Blackmail, The Skin Game, and Number 17 before detailing the 1934 The Man Who Knew to Much, The 39 Steps, and the controversial Sabotage. Strangely, the forties successes also skip around with The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Suspicion, or Cary Grant and Grace Kelly stardom between Lifeboat facts, studio freedom with Spellbound and Notorious, and the technical achievements of Rope. Likewise, the fifties are unevenly packed with Warner Bros and Paramount moves, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Hitchcock's drool television heights. By time we get to the Vertigo innuendo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, this overlong hour and forty minutes plus is practically over with little time for Marnie or any other reflection thanks to filler from Hitchcock's lengthy film trailer tours and random hosting moments from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The narration never gives way to any other talking heads, only quoting “Hitchcock said” and other sources for a somewhat boring, amateur, one-sided book report mood. Rather than serious film study, this poorly paced generalizing of Hitchcock's techniques ironically makes it seem like he did nothing but make the same movie over and over again. Some out of place mentions are insignificant, other sentences are spoken too quickly while other topics linger too long and give away spectacular cinema moments. For hardcore fans, this will be nothing more than a chronological clip show, however such simplicity can be a good starting point for audiences new to Hitchcock – so long as you've seen the movies spoiled here.

21 July 2017

Top Ten: Montgomery Clift!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten Montgomery Clift Movies!

Please see our Montgomery Clift label and our Classics tag for yet more Old Hollywood Reviews!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


18 July 2017

Lady Horrors and Thrillers

Lady Horrors and Thrillers
by Kristin Battestella

Moms, cops, daughters, or scientists – our latest round of contemporary horror ladies must battle family terrors, tigers on the loose, cult ghosts, and bad aliens. Oh, my!

Burning Bright – Suspicious animal sales and “Never touch the cage” warnings make for a shady Gulf Coast mood as a young woman is trapped in a boarded up house during a storm with her autistic little brother and a hungry tiger who has an evil streak and a taste for pretty things. The family argues over their overdosed mother's will, our step-dad is silencing everybody with his Benjamins, and there's a life insurance policy afoot, wink. Big sis does care – the smothering dream is unnecessary – but deferring her scholarship to raise her frustrating brother is not what she had in mind. Fortunately, blue shadows and the tiger silhouette on the wall accent the animal perspectives and predatory camera panning. Sinister growls, attack sounds, and banging on the door frights pepper the little dialogue in tense solo scenes while cat zooms, giant paws, and a bone crunching teeth create fear. He's a beautiful orange, electric predator, but it's downright terrifying when he looks up and you’ve caught his eye. How do you defend against a tiger roaming your household? Where can you go with an unaware autistic child that a tiger can’t? At times, obvious horror clichés and plot contrivances detract from the unique animal siege. Padding opening credits waste time on whirlwind effects when the hurricane a'comin news on the radio would suffice. The drinking step-dad and college bound daughter in her wet white tank top and tiny shorts also don’t look that far apart in age – or we're annoyingly accustom to seeing older leading men romancing ladies decades younger – and “No inmigración!” is the bare minimum diversity in a sea of white people. We know the internet is down without seeing outdated computers and under the bed is not the place to hide despite a tiger that is apparently unable to smell sweating humans. Baiting the tiger with hamburger laced with mom's old pills or spreading perfume to deflect scents are underutilized while the kid is left roaming alone. Nobody searches for tools or household weapons, a late revolver with precious few bullets does diddly, and hello flammable alcohol and you know, fire. We can't really see any way out of this, and viewers shout at the TV recoil despite apparent composite trickery and forgivable CGI tweaks for the intimate tiger scenes. Mirrors and glass doors add to the tiger leaps and desperate chases, but our still child not reacting keeps himself off the tiger’s radar. One older autistic protagonist using a hidden wit to survive might have been intriguing, as the heroine's family doubts feel hollow. They nor the tiger get realistically beat up in the battle, there's hardly any blood or gore, and lengthy end credits skimp more time off the so-called eighty-six minute duration. Our desperate dad could have been more sadistic with a generator and surveillance cameras to watch the pussyfoot – seeing him damage the tiger cage or rehearse his animal alibi might have clarified some of the thin veneer. This isn't trying to be deep, but it could have something more, perhaps with a trio of soul searching adults drawing straws or aligning to sacrifice one, and opening evil talk or any potential paranormal autistic connection between boy and beast remains unexplored. Thankfully, the well filmed trapped animal intensity carries the weaker moments, and the twists don't overstay the welcome. That tiger however certainly has enough personality to be a franchise star – a ne'er do well tomcat roaming the coast in search of supple ladies. I can dig it.

Last Shift – A phone call gets the viewer up to speed for this 2015 rookie lady cop on the night shift. Dad was killed in the line of duty and mom's worried her baby's alone in her closing precinct, but the incoming calls are rerouted to the new station a block away and cleaners are coming to discard leftover hazardous material. What could possibly go wrong? The rules and uniforms add formality but there's also hardened language and attitude resisting the ticking clock and boring desk – not to mention icky food, gross bathrooms, creaking pipes, a nasty vagrant, and a prostitute with tales of a Manson-style cult family hung in this very lock up. Buzzing lights, strange voices, banging doors, and mysterious calls disrupt the quiet while blackout scenes force the viewer to pay attention to how many people may or may not be present amid radio static, sirens, and fallen flashlights. The camera moves with officer Juliana Harkavy (Arrow), letting the unexpected simmer build with long hallway tracking and slow zooms. Internal televisions and cameras likewise create spooky eye witnesses and ghostly interrogations. References to pigs the animal, the nasty female nickname, and cop slang pepper unhelpful conversations with male colleagues on the other end of the line. Our new gal is alone, but equipped and capable despite eerie spins on night sticks, tasers, and handcuffs – the usual occupational hazards. She's scared but calm, reciting police codes to combat phantom sing songs when most of us would get the heck out of there. Is this a haunting, imagined hysteria, an occult set up, or a rookie prank? Every person is suspect amid men versus women toughness, flirtatious fellow officers, and layered female roles – good girl daughter, mother, whores, victims, and willing cult women. Ties to a previous police raid and anniversary clues help us piece together what is fact or paranormal, yet meta within meta supernatural redials keep one and all questioning what is really happening, including an apparent acknowledgment that suspicious activity may be the reason for the station house move. Gruesome photos, gunshots, bodies, and choice horror visuals don't over rely on fake boo jumps, allowing the poltergeists, hangings, and shootouts to escalate the entire ninety minutes as the confined location becomes a disturbing house of horrors with twisted revenge and room for post-viewing discussion. Of course, the spinning chairs are a bit silly and the haunting versus prank or dozing unreliability herrings are obvious, however the well filmed suspense avoids mainstream horror cliches and found footage gimmicks by using very little for a fine sense of unease and edge of your seat atmosphere.

Orphan – Grieving couple Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) and Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) adopt the precocious Isabelle Fuhrman (The Hunger Games) in this 2009 thriller with bloody pregnancy gone wrong dreams, snowy landscapes, a frozen lake, isolated woods, tree house perils, and mod cabin architecture. These yuppies eat off square plates, but nun C.C.H. Pounder (The Shield) is stereotypically reduced with the same old black person in horror sage and sacrifice treatment. Other trite genre elements such as evil foreigners, the internet research montage, useless police, and false jumps complete with the cliché medicine cabinet mirror ruse are lame and unnecessary – as are the dated Guitar Hero moments and a jealous son with a porn magazine stash like it is 1999. The twisted horror suspense builds just fine with realistic threats and mature family drama amid the escalating child shocks. The Sign Language and silent subtitles create a sense of calm and innocence for the youngest deaf daughter, contrasting her mother's drinking temptations as the old fashioned dressing Esther says everything their parents want to hear. She wants to sleep next to her new daddy, and the couple is intimately interrupted with who's watching photography and peering perspectives – not to mention that is some luxury playground equipment with crazy bone-cracking injuries! There's Russian roulette, razor blades, vice grips, vehicular close calls, and fiery accidents. The adoption history doesn't add up and the children are clearly terrified by their titular sister, but of course dad doesn't believe his wife's theory that Esther is at fault. Do you confront your new daughter or take her to a therapist? At times, the adults act stupid just to put the kids in peril, and these two hours feel a little long – how many disasters are going to happen before someone gets a clue? This isn't as psychological as it could be, dropping its uniqueness for a standard house siege and apparently leaving more pushing the envelope elements on the page to play it safe. However, the female familial roles are an interesting study with surprises and an unexpected reveal. Choice gunshots and broken glass accent the silence and maze interiors, using the home, weapons, and weather for full effect. Though partly typical and not scary, the dramatic interplay, thriller tension, and wild performances give the audience a yell at television good time.

Don't Waste Your Time!

Moontrap: Target Earth – This 2017 unrelated science fiction sequel to the 1989 Moontrap doesn't have its own Wikipedia page – the first indication of its college film project quality before a terrible opening dream sequence, embarrassing special effects, and shitty intergalactic props. Poor acting, dumb pillow talk, and obnoxious phone calls make it tough to hang on in the first five minutes. People keep talking about presenting alien relics newly discovered in Navajo country, but what could be interesting SF ends up late on its pseudo science capitalizing with bad dialogue actually quoting Ancient Aliens, Chariots of the Gods, and “Fake News.” The attempted science is ridiculously unrealistic with no archaeology teams, digging equipment, or research documentation yet killer shadow government agents know all the details thanks to easily read love letter hieroglyphics that keep promising “But wait, there's more!” hyperbole combining Stargate and Prometheus. Nineties music video visions allow our lady scientist aptly nicknamed “Scout” to magically contrive answers – she's not strong or intelligent, just bossy with an obnoxious attitude joking that this was so easy Ray Charles could translate it without needing a Rosetta Stone. The messy plot and fast moving editing are ridiculously presumptuous with its science on top of some sort of esoteric statements, and the bottom of the barrel performances and fly by night production look like a soft core movie without the actual porn – but there's nudity of course. This is the absolutely wrong way to make a shoestring picture; proof that not everything with crowd source funding is going to be good or even watchable. After skipping ahead, I ultimately quit before she even got to the damn moon.