Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spooks Run Wild, and the Five Thousand Blows. . .

Yep, that's Gomez Addams himself, the great John Astin as a Wild West spirit called The Judge.

I have deeply mixed feelings about Peter Jackson, as a director and as a man. Sometimes he seems to be two different people.

I'd never heard of him before the announcement that Lord of the Rings was not only being made, but was well under way. And yet some of the actors interviewed claimed that one of the main reasons they took the job was "to work with Peter Jackson." So I knew I had to look into this.

And I was really appalled by what I found. Meet the Feebles, Bad Taste, Braindead. . . the more I learned the more nervous I was about Rings. This man was not a director. This man was a Pornographer of Gore. How in hell did he get the job?

Of course the Rings movies came out, and were, largely, magnificent. But from there, with Hollywood in the palm of his hands, he started making one bone-headed decision after another. King Kong is clearly a movie that did not need to be remade (again!), and Jackson's version is an appalling waste of money.

Overlong by at least an hour, weighted down by ponderous pretentiousness and some really dim-witted plot points added into the mix, bludgeoning its audience senseless with gross shocks (even restoring a scene that was cut from the original film for good reason) and one braindead action setpiece after another, Jackson's Kong is the movie equivalent of a frontal lobotomy performed without anesthesia. Other than the obvious stylistic similarities, it's hard to believe that Kong was directed by the same man who made the Lord of the Rings movies. Again, what happened here?

My guess is that New Line assigned a very strong team of producers to the Rings project, who kept Jackson's excesses under tight control, whereas on Kong, Universal were so dazzled by Jackson's reputation that they cut him loose. And just look at what happened!

All of this is a long preamble leading to my viewing the other night of The Frighteners, the first of Jackson's earlier movies that I've been able to see (and quite possibly the last!). Was he as tightly controlled on this one? I'm not sure, but the movie is just about almost pretty good, and to put it in a nutshell, I'd say that it showcases Jackson's best and worst qualities in about equal measure.

It's too long, it has too many characters, it goes off on odd tangents at times when it should be narrowing the focus. At times it is borderline tasteless, with vulgar dirty jokes and sudden instances of gore that's just intense enough to be inappropriate for this kind of movie (it is, after all a romantic horror comedy).

In addition to the lapses in taste there are also lapses in consistency and judgement. And behind it all there's the same quaint, goofy Hollywood cosmology of Heaven and Hell that I'm finding more and more tiresome.

But --

Jackson gets really good performances out of his cast, especially Michael J. Fox, the very charming Trini Alvarado (whatever happened to her?) and the always-wonderful John Astin as one of Fox's Pet Ghosts.  Indeed, the results he gets from his actors seems to be a constant across all of his pictures.

There's also real charm on display here, not just in the romance element, but in Fox's friendship with his three Ghost Pals and the whole set-up in the racket they have going together.

There's a core mystery that's actually quite compelling throughout -- until the final act, when Jackson frankly sets aside suspense in favor of an abundant overflowing of modern horror tropes.

And Jackson's instincts about framing shots and combining live footage with special effects are, as always, right bang on.

I watched this picture from beginning to end without once stirring from my chair -- that hasn't happened in a while. The positives and the negatives almost exactly balance each other out, giving you a movie that's, you know, somewhere in the middle: good enough that you don't regret spending the time on it, not that you'd particularly care to sit through it again anytime soon.

And it did answer the question that so baffled me years ago and again at the beginning to this post, why would actors want to work with Jackson? Because he will bring out the best performance from you, and make you look good, even if you're wearing piles of fright make-up.


On a completely unrelated note, today the blog went over 5,000 hits. That may not seem like much to you, but it's flat-out astonishing to me. Many thanks to all of you who spend time here. . . except you, dad!

-- Freder.

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