Unlisted: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

I really enjoyed the first entry into the Hobbit trilogy – it was slowly-paced and managed to capture of the tone of the book very well, faithfully rendering many of the memorable scenes in the fist six or so chapters of the story. The story of Bilbo Baggins, an unassuming homebody who gets shoved into a wild adventure by the wizard Gandalf and finds in himself a depth of bravery and cunning he never knew he possessed is much beloved for a reason – it’s a classic fantasy tale with an excellent narrator, this quaint little fish-out-of-water among a band of hardened warriors.

But since Bilbo managed to find himself at the end of the first film, apparently we can move on and do something completely different for The Desolation of Smaug.

The comfortable pacing that allowed for dwarven songs and character interaction is replaced with computer-generated roller-coaster rides, sections of the book skimmed over to allow more time for pointless asides to provide credibility for characters barely- or non-existent in the original text. For a film titled The Hobbit, there was a severe lack of hobbit for the first half, so much so that when Bilbo took prominence on the screen after a long absence (to find the hidden door into the Lonely Mountain) I nearly said out loud, “Oh, are you still here?” Taking the focus off Bilbo attempts to make the whole film just as serious an affair as The Lord of the Rings, and it’s… not. It’s not a story about events that shape the whole world but how one adventure affects an unlikely adventurer, and aside from his conversation with Smaug the dragon there was none of that story in this film. I don’t care about Azog the Defiler, I certainly don’t care about Tauriel and her silly love triangle with Legolas and Kili, and these additional elements stealing focus made me care less about the canonical-but-background elements like Gandalf’s uncovering of the Necromancer, Thorin’s quest to become king, and everything about Lake-town: they’re uninteresting if you don’t have that very quiet, very English voice providing running commentary on all of it and wishing they were back at home where they would have seven square meals a day, but also occasional being surprised at their latest feat of daring. Even if the third film manages to restore the tone, that can’t make up for the anemic second entry. Extremely disappointing.

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Unlisted: Solan og Ludvig – Jul i Flåklypa (2013)

Here’s a film few people will be aware of – it doesn’t even have an alternate English title. It would most likely be translated as Christmas in Flåklypa with Solan and Ludvig, or perhaps just as Christmas at Pinchcliffe if the translators remembered the English version of the film this is a sequel to. With a title like that, it sounds like it has the potential to be especially nauseating and childish – which thankfully is not the case, as it manages to replicate the charming tone of the original and transport it into a pleasant, non-standard Christmas film.

Returning characters from Flåklypa Grand Prix – inventor and tinkerer Reodor Felgen, speed-loving magpie Solan, and timid and pessimistic hedgehog Ludvig – are faced with an impending problem: the possibility of no snow for Christmas, despite insistence to the contrary from Frimand Pløsen, editor of Flåklypa’s local newspaper; Reodor builds a device that can generate enough snow for the whole town, but using it produces some disastrous results. The film touches briefly on the standard Christmas theme of not letting the pursuit of something immaterial overshadow the true importance of the holiday, the snow standing in for the all-too-typical materialism found in most other versions of the narrative, but doesn’t dwell on it – in fact, the film spends a lot more time attacking the media through Pløsen’s sensationalism and the hilarious Presserobot, a previous invention of Reodor’s that can conduct interviews through a series of inane and predictable questions, than imparting Christmas-themed messages. The humour is often quite sophisticated – not necessarily adult, but certainly mature, hitting an all-ages-accessible tone that contemporary children’s films often fail at and entertainment for adults never attempts, and the stop-motion animation very close in style to the original. Flåklypa Grand Prix holds a great legacy in Norwegian film, and Solan og Ludvig – Jul i Flåklypa is a worthy follow-up.

Unlisted: The Innkeepers (2011)

Part of the reason, I think, that I find it so hard to find good horror films is because what a viewer wants out of a horror film changes radically from person to person. Some people want blood and guts – but what kind of blood and guts, should it aim for realism or over-the-top splatter? Some people want a cool monster – but what’s cool, is it in the design, the presence, the stuff the “villain” does? Some people watch for the atmosphere, the scare factor, the chance to see an original twist on an old saw – some people just watch horror films to kill ninety minutes – it varies so much that what makes a good horror film is an almost impossible criteria to define. The Innkeepers is fairly divisive as far as horror films go – people either appreciate or can’t stand its slow pace – but it checks a lot of the boxes of what I want out of a horror film.

Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the skeleton staff of an old hotel slated to close at the end of a week; the pair are also amateur ghost hunters, convinced they can get some proof of the supernatural. Hotels are naturally creepy places – dozens of identical rooms and hallways that are occupied but never inhabited – and filling one with old artifacts that belonged to people who are probably all dead now doesn’t do anything to hinder the assumption of a place being automatically haunted. In addition to the great atmosphere, the film has excellent discipline when it comes to setting up scares – much of the first half of the film is fake-outs, long shots that hold focus on insignificant objects that last until you begin to convince yourself that nothing will happen, and it’s a great way of building tension but never releasing any of it. The plot and the big reveal of the exact nature of the hotel’s haunting aren’t groundbreaking, but the leads have an interesting and quirky chemistry that keeps the unfolding of the story fresh. A solid slow burn of a ghost story, original enough to be unpredictable but rooted well enough in the genre to hold together.

Unlisted: Monster House (2006)

No matter how much advertising companies would like it to be so, you can’t manufacture nostalgia. Without the actual investment of years of memory, such faux-nostalgia can only manage a lukewarm reception at best, a half-hearted, “Oh yeah, that’s kinda like this one thing I remember…” If Monster House had come out in 1986 instead of 2006 as a live-action feature, it would most likely be remembered fondly, a sibling to The Goonies, but by not even fully embracing its grab at emulating the kids-on-wacky-adventures mid-80s formula the final result is clumsy and awkward. Actually, “clumsy and awkward” describes almost everything about this film: the plot (three young teens discover their crotchety old neighbour’s house is not haunted but a literal monster that devours children, pets, and nosy police officers), the animation (the same motion-capture technique used in a previous Robert Zemeckis venture, The Polar Express, and though stylising the characters helps avoid the uncanny valley/dead-eyed feeling of Express the human movements ironically fail to ever look natural), the setting (it took me about halway through before I started question, “Wait, is this film set in the 80s?” and ultimately, the answer doesn’t matter as it adds little to the feel of the film and nothing to the story), the humour (a couple of lines here and there, but for the most part the jokes feel dated as the period the film is trying to timestamp itself with), the cinematography (just because you can whip the camera all over the place and jam things right into the “lens” doesn’t mean you should, 3D glasses or no). It feels like watching a film that was a part of someone else’s childhood but not yours, something you’ve heard talked about and referenced but ultimately ends up being a disappointment because you watched it after your brain had time to fully cook. It gets points for trying to harken back to a time where movie children were not expected to be as innocent as they are today, but it fails to carry the concept through all the way – not sure if that’s the fault of the filmmakers or the current climate in entertainment, but either way the whole experience feels watered down and inauthentic. Stick with the film you remember from your childhood instead.

Unlisted: The Fog (1980)

As I mentioned in my previous review of films for Halloween, I don’t like to know a lot about films going in, but I know enough about John Carpenter to be sure it’s a name I can trust; his films always have some fairly inventive angle to the plot, he makes a lot out of creative use of light and shadow, and I dig on the unsettling synth score he often provides, so even if the film isn’t perfect there’s probably going to be something memorable to take away from watching it. Which really sums up my feelings about The Fog in their entirity, but let’s run through the plot anyway.

In a small fishing town on the night of its centenially anniversary, a ghostly fog rolls in from the ocean, bring with it the ghosts of men betrayed by the town founders for their gold to build the town. The inventive setting – how many other nautical-themed ghost stories can you think of offhand? – combined with a lengthy build-up of completely random supernatural happenings creates a very non-formulaic horror plot, where it’s never clear just exactly what the ghosts are after even when their origins are uncovered and thus the audience can’t be completely sure who has plot immunity (if anyone). The dense fog that covers the town is incredibly effective, great for hiding vauge shapes that grow clearer and closer out of the distance – I wonder why fog isn’t as prevalent in the whole horror genre, since it instantly creates atmosphere and lends menace to anything just out of clear sight. However, although the film does manage a couple of tense moments with people surrounded by shapes in the fog, it never really feels all that scary – interesting, but nothing that would keep you awake at night.

Unlisted: Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters) (2003)

It’s All Hallows’ Eve as I write this, which is far and away my favourite holiday in the year – Halloween looks neat by day with the ground full of crisp orange leaves and spooky by night with bare trees in the wind, and I find it much easier to divorce from the gross consumerism that surrounds other yearly holidays. My biggest problem with it, though, is finding scary films to watch, because my definition of “scary film” seems to be orders or magnitude narrower than most of the film-going population. It can’t rely on blood, guts, and goo to get scares, which usually manages to be more off-putting than scary, and discounts perhaps half of the answers to the question of, “What scary movie to you recommend?” right away. It has to make sense, which you would think wouldn’t need to be a requirement for any film as it’s kind of understood that, outside of some very specific and recognisable genres, entertainment typically is required to make sense, but once you start messing around with any sort of supernatural element all bets are off. It would be nice if the acting and effects were halfway competent – doesn’t need to be perfect, but I shouldn’t burst out laughing when I’m not supposed to. It would also be nice to have some kind of ghost/haunting angle, but that’s not a hard requirement. Oh, and I’d like to not know all that much about it going in. Not to hard to find good films with that criteria, right?

So one of this year’s shot-in-the-dark Halloween blind watches is A Tale of Two Sisters, a Korean horror film based on a fairy tale/folk legend structured as a Gothic horror story where because of an unreliable narrator everything that happens in the film is questionable if it really happened. And the house is haunted, maybe. What begins as a glacially-slow tension-building mystery of just what is going on, as clearly something is being hidden from the audience, devolves into garbled nonsense with multiple horror sub-genres tripping over each other and complicating what doesn’t need to be complicated. Are we meant to be scared of ghosts? Then stick to ghosts. The isolated, claustrophobic environment? Then play that up. That we can’t trust anything we see? Then that should be the focus. The mix-and-match approach to genre dilutes the experience, leaving the big reveal at the end of the intentionally-obscured plot with a “That’s it?” rather than shock and awe and re-examining of all the previous events that clearly was the goal. Other than a really good strange-moving woman with long hair – no Asian horror film is complete without one, it seems – this whole experience felt like a waste of time.

Unlisted: Kokuriko-zaka kara (From Up on Poppy Hill) (2011)

It’s always interesting to me to see universal themes in storytelling as interpreted by cultures I’m not familiar with – it’s a little like a sociological version of a cover song. The basic structure of most genres is fairly immutable and recognisable no matter what national garb it wears, but it’s all the changes in nuances that make things interesting. From Up on Poppy Hill, second film under the direction of Goro Miyazaki, hits familiar beats about teenage love and destiny, but it takes some very weird diversions to get there that feel like they could only come from Japan.

High school student Umi Matsuzaki (Masami Nagasawa), intrigued by show-off fellow student Shun Kazama (Jun’ichi Okada), assists with the cleaning of the dilapadated Quartier Latin, the building home to many of the school’s clubs; she and Shun spearhead the movement to maintain the building, despite it being flagged for destruction. Meanwhile, she discovers she has a past connection with Shun through both their parents, which may complicate their relationship. The current of respect for the past runs strong in this film, depicting an era of change for Japan and a host of young people willing to fight to preserve a piece of the past that is beloved to them, and it’s a fine message – for if you tear down your past, how can you possibly know who you are? The chemistry between Umi and Shun is cute, the quirky members of the various clubs are a fun visual element, and the backgrounds are beautiful detailed scenes that are worth seeing the film alone for. I feel like I could say this of every film that comes out of Studio Ghibli, but I would be willing to watch just animate of people going about their day in whatever world they create, as it’s always so incredibly lifelike and detailed and pleasant, like watching a painting that moves and stretches far beyond the wall it’s hung on.