Let’s look at the dwarves as depicted in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy.


The Dwarves of The Hobbit Trilogy.

When viewed as a group, the thirteen dwarvish warriors on their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain look quite fetching. I applaud the design of their clothing and weaponry. These elements suggest something about each dwarf’s personality, his background, his skill set, and his relative socio-economic status. For example, Bifur – with his shaggy appearance and massive spear – appears to be some sort of hunter or trapper. Thorin Oakenshield, on the other hand, wears fine furs and polished armor that befit his role as an exiled king.

I have no issue with their costumes nor with their props. My problem resides in the make-up design, because too many of these dwarves just don’t look like dwarves.

Continue reading ‘On Hobbits and a Matter of Design, Part II’


It’s no secret that I’m disappointed with Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth. So far I’ve been let down by The Hobbit trilogy. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, left so little impression on me that I honestly forgot that it existed until I saw a display case advertising it at a local Wal-Mart. The sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, was a more entertaining viewing experience in the moment, but the more I reflected upon it, the more the movie withered beneath my pitiless glare.

I don’t want to kvetch about the story elements that displeased me. Other critics have already examined the narrative with a fine-toothed comb, cataloging all of the flaws and inconsistencies, all of the shortcuts and embellishments and studio-logic that gave the films their current shape. Instead, I’d rather discuss where these movies stumble in terms of creating a convincing visual aesthetic, because I believe one of the greatest weaknesses of these films stems from a matter of design.

Continue reading ‘On Hobbits and a Matter of Design, Part 1’


Full disclosure: I’m an off-again, on-again Shadowrun fan. I’ve owned the core books for every earlier edition of the Shadowrun tabletop role-playing game, up to and including 4th Edition. (I don’t own 5th Edition yet.) I never played the video games for the Sega Genesis or the Super Nintendo, but I did read several of the novels, including “Never Deal with a Dragon” by Robert N. Charrette, which left a favorable impression on my young mind. I’m reasonably familiar with the lore, which is why it was so surprising to me to revisit the setting after a number of years and discover that I’d completely underestimated the dramatic potential of the franchise.

Originally, I was quick to dismiss Shadowrun as something rather silly: a mash-up of Tolkien-esque fantasy elements with cyberpunk science fiction. In the Sixth Age world of Shadowrun, magic is just as real as advanced technology. It’s possible to be a street shaman slinging mana-bolts at your enemies, or a troll mercenary decked out with the latest cybernetic implants, or an elf hacker that breaks into heavily encrypted corporate data-stores with the aid of a neural interface “datajack” and the hottest Mitsuhama cyberdeck.

Wizards with machine guns, what could be cooler than that? Right? Right?

Eh, maybe not…

But recently, I watched a Let’s Play of the PC game Shadowrun Returns, and it forced me to radically re-evaluate how I thought about the setting.

Continue reading ‘Reconsidering Shadowrun’


Title: Night of the Cobra Woman

Genre: Horror

Subgenre: Erotic Supernatural Thriller

Vintage: 1973

Director: Andrew Meyer

Netflix’s Lying Description: “A scientist in the Philippines must tear her boyfriend away from the clutches of Lena, a seductive jungle priestess who feasts on snake venom and constant sex to remain young and to prevent herself from turning into a cobra.”

What I expected: A steamy, sensual horror flick with a sultry femme fatale in the lead and boatloads of nudity. It says it right there in the Netflix description: constant sex! Hurray!

What I got: A rather bland co-production published by Roger Corman’s company, New Concorde. The sex scenes were few and far between, and their staging was about as erotic as a trip to the county fair. The special effects make-up was primitive. The acting was limp and bloodless. The story wasn’t anything like what I anticipated: the victims of the transformative venom of the ‘firecrest cobra’ are treated sometimes like drug-addicts, sometimes like cancer patients. Ultimately, the Cobra Woman comes across not as a manipulative villainess, but as an unfortunate soul who is merely doing what she needs to do to in order to survive. The movie shifts perspectives in the middle and concludes with Joy Bang blithely munching on a poisoned mango. It’s a weird one.

What was the best part: This movie is largely terrible from start to finish, but there was one scene in which Lena, the titular Cobra Woman, sheds her skin after making love to an unsuspecting Phillipino fellow. The imagery of shucking off spent skin like so much dirty clothing was surprisingly effective, despite the overall cheapness of the special effects. I also liked the scene in which Lena offers a prayer to her patron snake-deity and explains that she doesn’t want to return to her human form and that she prefers to live as a reptile.

What I learned:

  • A shot from a Ruger pistol leaves no discernable bullet wound and as much blood as half a packet of ketchup.
  • Wandering through the jungles of the Phillipines requires bare legs and a fuzzy, yellow hat.
  • After being assaulted by the mentally handicapped, the best way to assuage your feelings of terror and confusion is to eat Cheerios straight from the box.
  • “Eagles don’t require too much attention.”
  • When making love with your lady-friend, the presence of creepy snakeskin is NOT a huge turn-off.
  • It wouldn’t be a Phillipino movie without at least one cockfight.
  • Joy Bang delivers every line like she’s trying to saw through a log with her voice.

What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next adventure shall be…


The Mighty Peking Man.


Title: Evolver

Genre: Science Fiction

Subgenre: Killer Robot

Vintage: 1995

Director: Mark Rosman

Netflix’s Lying Description: “In this engrossing sci-fi tale, teen computer genius Kyle Baxter is thrilled when he wins the chance to play a live version of his favorite video game. But Kyle doesn’t realize that he’s pitted against a robot programmed to kill.”

What I expected: Chopping Mall.

What I got: Lawnmower Man 2: Job’s War. There were a surprising number of those trippy, computer-generated virtual reality sequences that were all the rage in the early Nineties. The movie also features some delightfully suspenseful sequences as the killer robot upgrades its programming and quietly rearms itself, transforming everyday tools (ball bearings, kitchen knives, gasoline) into deadly weapons. It was also fun to see John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Discord from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) as a slightly befuddled scientist who seems genuinely surprised when his repurposed kill-bot goes haywire and embarks on a murderous rampage, even though he left the original “seek and destroy” programming intact. Gee, what could have possibly gone wrong?

What’s the best part: By far the standout feature of this film is the design, puppetry, and voice-acting that combine to create the character of Evolver, the titular military-robot-turned-children’s-toy. Jim Salvati is credited with the conceptual design of the robot, which adapts and changes as its programming evolves, becoming more visually menacing as the movie progresses. Steve Johnson and Eric Fiedler bring Evolver to life as the robot special effects artist and lead puppeteer, respectively. And William H. Macy provides Evolver’s warm, friendly voice, a detail which makes the automaton antagonist all the more unsettling as the violence escalates. All things considered, the Evolver robot is way more charming than the sneering meat-bags who mock and torment it with their continued, carbon-based existence.

What I learned:

  • The cyberpunk future is gangs of hooligans with New Wave haircuts placing bets while some goober flails around with a clunky, VR helmet on his head.
  • Every teenager’s bedroom is invariably decorated from floor to ceiling with crazy movie posters.
  • The girls’ locker room of any high school is conveniently and clearly labeled.
  • For meathead jocks, the preferred choice of undergarment is ‘commando’.
  • Marijuana and virtual reality are a DEADLY COMBINATION.
  • Rubber alligators are not intended for use as a flotation device.
  • Even if you’re an unlikeable, computer-obsessed, anti-social shit, if you’re the protagonist, you’ll get the girl in the end.

What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next adventure shall be…


Night of the Cobra Woman.


Fair warning: I feel no qualms about spoiling a film based off a book that was published in 1937. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You’ve probably read the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. You’ve probably seen the Rankin-Bass animated film from 1977. You’ve probably, god help you, read The Silmarillion. Maybe you had an Elvish wedding. Maybe you named your firstborn Aragorn, son of Arathorn, even if she was a girl, and now she’s old enough to resent you for it, you hapless nerd.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading ‘Chekhov’s Dwarven Windlass: My Thoughts on the 2nd Hobbit Film’


Title: Tales from the Hood

Genre: Horror

Subgenre: Anthology Film

Vintage: 1995

Director: Rusty Cundieff

Netflix’s Lying Description: “In an experience more frightening than their worst nightmares, three friends tour a funeral home with a creepy mortician (Clarence Williams III) in this Spike Lee-produced horror anthology. Along the way, they hear a story about each of the corpses. From cops turned bad to a child with uncanny powers, a bigoted politician tormented by voodoo dolls and a drug dealer who undergoes sensory rehab, all of the spooky tales have racial implications.”

What I remembered: I’ve seen this movie before, but all I recollected was Clarence Williams III chewing the scenery and the trick ending, in which – OMG! SPOILERS! – it turns out we were in Hell all along! AAAAAAAAAH!

Why I was pleasantly surprised: This movie is fabulous. Recently, I haven’t had much luck with horror movies in general and horror anthologies in particular. Too often, these films get so wrapped up in trying to make the audience squirm that they neglect to make the audience think. Tales from the Hood is a horror movie with a message, and the real boogiemen of the film are the specters of institutionalized racism represented in the film by corrupt cops, bigoted politicians, and marauding gangs of disaffected youth. The imagery isn’t  subtle. For example, in one hallucinatory montage director Rusty Cundieff juxtaposes a violent gangster rap song against photos of real life lynchings, while in another psychedelic sequence he draws visual parallels between American prison culture and slavery. In a third sequence a terrified bigot attempts to ward off the nightmares that confront him by pummeling them with the American flag. It’s not subtle, but it sure packs a heck of a punch.

What’s the best part: The movie has a great sense of humor. Tales from the Hood is a film that realizes how goofy some of the subject matter is, and it has no qualms about mixing in gags among the grotesqueries. The dialog is crisp and snappy, especially among the trio of gangsters trying to pretend that they aren’t unsettled by the spooky surroundings of the funeral parlor. And while Clarence Williams III plays his role for high camp and melodrama, other actors play their parts straight. Particularly noteworthy are David Allan Grier in a chilling turn as an abusive step-father and Lamont Bentley as Crazy K, a criminal who comes unhinged when confronted with the spirits of the innocent people he has slain.

What I learned:

  • Everybody, regardless of their ancestry, thinks that dolls are creepy.
  • This is not, in fact, the Terror Dome.
  • Even hardcore gangsters scream like little girls when confronted with Clarence Williams III, maestro of the diabolical.

What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next adventure shall be…




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