Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011)

It’s fair to say that you’re going to see just as much, if not more, adulation for Ray Harryhausen in this review than in Gilles Penso’s documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan.  My first love as a monster kid was the 1933 version of King Kong followed closely by Toho’s Godzilla films, so stop motion animation was already one of the greatest things in the world for me (though my love for men in rubber monster suits ran a tight second).  Seeing Harryhausen’s Sinbad films was like eating your favorite food, and every time you did it was liking eating it for the first time all over again.  The thing which links Harryhausen with Eiji Tsuburaya, who pioneered the effects for the Godzilla franchise (which was directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms), beyond the tactile, expert care and craftsmanship put into the work is the sense of wonder that these films embody and instill in the viewer.  You cannot look at these pictures and not feel awe to some degree or another.  These are paced stories with fantasy elements that are brilliant in their technical virtuosity and their ability to spark the imaginations of young and old alike rather than just deliver spectacle (though they do this as well).  

Harryhausen’s films are simple without being simplistic, hewing to the pulp traditions from which they sprang: something happens, people are pulled into these events, people discover extraordinary things/obstacles they must conquer/overcome, people conquer/overcome them.  It’s as meat and potatoes as you can get, but this is the groundwork which supports the elements that Harryhausen adds.  The clash between the mundane and the exotic is what fuels these films and makes them compelling, something I believe guys like Stephen King took to heart (it’s been postulated that his stories are so popular because his protagonists are the type of people who buy their underwear in a ten-pack at the local K-Mart, something with which I agree).

Pensco’s film mixes a chronological overview of Harryhausen’s work with comments and opinions from a host of luminaries of fantastic cinema (Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, Phil Tippett, Dennis Muren, James Cameron, Joe Dante, to name just a few).  It is formulaic in structure, feeling a bit more like a featurette on a disc than a strong doc in its own right.  For example, as we move from film to film, we get the year of its release, a shot of the original poster art, footage of the original theatrical trailer, and then some discussion on it interspersed with shots from the movie along with what I feel is the real cream of this film: copious amounts of archival footage and photos, showcasing behind the scenes activities, concept and storyboard art, and animation tests.  And yet, the formula works for what this film is.  This isn’t documentary in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman or Errol Morris.  We’re not following a day in the life of a Harryhausen production or investigating the depths of the man’s soul (man, what would those films have looked like in regards to this subject?).  Instead, here we’re given the opportunity to share in the adoration of a film pioneer and vicariously bond with the professionals he inspired.  We’re never told about the hardships of Harryhausen’s life, the conflicts he ran into in the course of his career.  We simply drift along on a scenic tour through his achievements.  Consequently, this, and docs like this, appeal to both novices and acolytes alike.  It’s as much overview as it is fanboy gushing.  Something for everyone, so to speak.

There are also hints at deeper conversations going on throughout the film.  Harryhausen is credited with being the person who influenced how we, as a society, think dinosaurs moved.  This points to a truth (or a perceived truth) inherent in all of Harryhausen’s performances (and they are performances; each of his characters, and any animator’s, are a performance from the animator as they, to paraphrase the words of Henry Selick, take the journey with their characters from first frame to last).  I found it interesting that the filmmakers never talked about Harryhausen’s signature shoulder roll in this regard, which just about every single character of his capable of doing so did, but that’s a small quibble.  Likewise, the issue of auteurship comes up.  I believe it’s Joe Dante who raises the fact that something like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is never discussed as a Nathan Juran film.  Cinephiles, of course, recognize that Harryhausen didn’t technically direct these films.  Nonetheless, they are his, in part because his was the driving vision behind them and in part because the technical demands of his craft insisted upon a level of control if the live action and the animation were to meld together onscreen.  As John Landis avers, he is the technician as auteur.  

Naturally, this all leads to the inevitable CG versus Stop Motion conversation, and Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan peppers this across its runtime.  As you can imagine, the vast majority of people, even those who work extensively with CG, are very clear in their preference of Stop Motion over CG.  Personally, I agree with guys like Tippett and Muren who know that there is an unnatural fluidity imposed by the nature of CG.  Gilliam and Steve Johnson perfectly sum up CG’s lack of charm.  Gilliam calls it cold, while Johnson elaborates that CG puts the audience at a distance from the effects/film, because you know precisely how it was done, whereas Stop Motion is like a magician who you know has tricked you but you can’t figure out the means with which it was accomplished.  Relating back to the discussion of auteurship, Muren states that there are no longer many films of singular vision due to the massive budgets and the size of the animation departments.  In other words, individuality has been more and more bred out of special effects films, and homogeneity has taken over.  Ironically, and in one of the film’s more humorous (to me, anyway) moments, James Cameron hypothesizes that, if Harryhausen were still working, he would absolutely be using CG and not puppets, as it’s the newest, most streamlined tool in the special effects arsenal.  This is followed by Harryhausen stating that he would still use puppets, as he finds it unappealing to sit and push buttons in order to get an image onscreen.  For me, this sums up the difference between an artist of Harryhausen’s skill and a technocrat like Cameron (don’t misread this: I have a great amount of respect for Cameron and his work, but he has always been more about technological advances than anything else, in my opinion).  It’s ruminations like these that stayed with me beyond the joy of reveling in the filmography and accomplishments of one of cinema’s greatest creators.

Arrow Films’ bluray is typically lush and loaded with extras, including unused interviews with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Peter Lord, and Rick Baker, outtakes from the interviews used in the film, Q&As with the man himself, a commentary track with the filmmakers, and more.  Whether you love Harryhausen’s work or have never seen a single one (I honestly don’t know how that’s conceivable if you consider yourself a lover of cinema, but whatever), you owe it to yourself to get on this film.

MVT:  The archival material makes this something special.

Make or Break:  Admittedly, the opening title cards/intro felt a little amateurish, but I don’t think they’re anything that will put off viewers enough to skip out on this paean to a cinematic genius.

Score:  7.75/10       

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Saturday the 14th (1981)

I really can’t stand the word “panties.”  I get that British folks call underwear “pants,” and I assume this is the feminine variation of that, but it just bugs me.  Some words just sound wrong to me, and I avoid saying them.  The same can be said for certain foreign words that can only be properly pronounced by adopting an accent I don’t have, and I can’t decide if I sound like more of an ass pronouncing it like some haughty continental jerk or just some low grade ugly American.  Back to the point, I think the reason why I don’t care for the aforementioned word is the “-ies” at the end of it.  Maybe it makes it just a little too dainty for me.  Maybe it augments the bilabial and alveolar aspects of its pronunciation beyond my breaking point.  Either way, I usually strain to elude the word’s usage.  Daughter Debbie (Kari Michaelsen, perhaps best known for her work on the Nell Carter sitcom Gimme a Break) spends some of her onscreen time in Howard R Cohen’s Saturday the 14th in her undies, and I must say that these moments and her bathing scene are what have stuck with me all these years since this film came out (hey, I would have been about eight years old).  For better or worse, they’re still a highlight in a film that’s not as godawful as it could be but also isn’t nearly as good, either.

Vampires Waldemar (Jeffrey Tambor; is it possible the creators were making an oblique reference to Paul Naschy’s Waldemar Daninsky character, even though that one’s a werewolf not a vampire?) and Yolanda (Nancy Lee Andrews) get screwed out of the dilapidated house that they simply must buy for some nebulous reason (okay, it’s to lay their hands on the Book of Evil hidden inside), because it has been willed to John (Richard Benjamin) who immediately moves his family into it.  Will there be strange goings on?  You betcha!  Will hilarity ensue?  Well…

The movie starts off with a credit sequence that involves some of the worst animation possibly ever committed to film.  It tells the “story” of a bat (replete with cool shades) who repeatedly flies into a tree outside the house until he dies and gets dragged under the ground by a pair of hands.  Ho.  Ho.  The rest of the film’s humor teeters between not bad (but definitely not gutbusting) jokes and true groan-inducers.  For example, after hearing a scream, John suggests maybe it was an owl.  Wife Mary (Paula Prentiss) lifts the window shade, revealing a fake bat smacking into the glass and confirms that it is, indeed, an owl.  Her delivery makes this pleasantly amusing.  This joke is then driven into the ground by being repeated like a catchphrase, beating this dead horse into glue. John is constantly bewildered by things going on around the house, like who washed the dishes, and he keeps bringing this up as if repeating it will somehow make it funny.  Tambor is his usual dry, tense self, and he and Severn Darden truly make the most of the premise, delivering signature performances that stand out for how much they work (in fairness, Prentiss does a good job with what she’s given, as well).  When asked if he and Yolanda have children, Tambor retorts with, “As often as we can.”  It’s the humor that doesn’t “mug” to the audience that works best.  Son Billy (Kevin Brando, who for some reason reminded me of the kid from Troll 2) is the smartest member of the family.  After being in the dark upon their entrance to the house, the lights mysteriously come on.  John asks where Billy was, and he says he was fixing the fuse box.  The comedy is just hit and miss enough that it never elevates the film, but it never drags it down.

The film is not a parody of a specific horror franchise (as is suggested by the title) or trope.  Instead, it’s a story told with horror elements.  One of the more interesting facets of this narrative is the concept of legends coming to life.  The Book of Evil contains photographs of various creatures (who took them is an enigma never explained), and as each page is turned, the monsters in the pics disappear from the page and appear in reality.  Monsters already exist in this world, but I have to wonder if they all initially sprang from the Book’s pages?  There is some evidence of this being the case later on in the picture.  This connection between the creation of fiction and the creation of reality is intriguing, as it is in films like I, Madman, though it’s not played up here as much as it possibly could have been (then again, the Book is nothing more than a MacGuffin and a means of explaining the appearance of the monsters, so you can’t really blame the filmmakers for not going all deep on this aspect).

One of the other reasons that the film both succeeds and fails, and in fact, one of the reasons why it’s as engaging as it is, is the relationship between violence and humor.  As has been postulated for a long time, the link between Horror and Humor stems from the same primal core of human beings.  Both attempt to elicit extreme physical reactions from an audience (screaming for Horror, laughter for Humor), and both have a way of being very individualized to a specific viewer.  The way that Saturday the 14th mixes the two is odd.  There are scenes that are shot and edited to be particularly horrific, with nary a chuckle in sight.  For example, Mary is attacked by a bunch of bats in the belfry (get it?), and they draw blood, leaving her injured and shocked.  A monster is shot in the head, and it bleeds.  A rather realistic severed head is mistaken for a roast in the refrigerator.  Conversely, there are broad comedy elements that strike like a pie in the face.  A giant, three-fingered rubber glove is discovered in relation to the washing of the dishes.  The family lawyer chokes to death while talking about the curse on the house.  The film is such an oddity in the balancing (or non-balancing, if you like) of its tones, it charms more for its ambitions than for its successes.

MVT:  Darden and Tambor shine when they’re onscreen.  The monster makeups are cheap but appealing, as well.

Make or Break:  The title credits may break some viewers’ will to go on (with the film, at any rate).

Score:  6.5/10       

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Directed by: Jack Starrett
Run Time: 89 minutes

She has a license to kill like James Bond, she has John Shaft's attitude, and if you sell drugs in her home town you better expect to die. This is Cleopatra Jones.

The movie opens with footage of camels and Bedouins. You know because the title character is named after an Egyptian pharaoh and the movie opens in Turkey. Which as we all know is a famous secondary location for all the wonders and sights of Egypt. Now I have gotten the sarcasm out of the way, there is a group of military officers waiting for Cleopatra Jones. As she is needed to give the order to launch the airstrike on a rather expensive poppy field.

The field was the property of the drug kingpin Mommy (Shelly Winters). An L.A. based lesbian drug baron who is having all sorts of problems keeping her empire running. Her street level lieutenants are not paying her and making noise about going independent. Then there is Cleopatra Jones, when she's not traveling the globe waging a one woman war against drugs she is funding a youth outreach detox clinic run by her man Reuben (Bernie Casey). Being three mustache twirls away from being a cartoon villain Mommy gets her corrupt police contact to raid Reuben's center and orders a hit on Cleopatra when comes to Los Angles because of the raid on Reuben's center.

The police raid on Reuben's center "finds" drugs in the place and start the bureaucratic headache to shut the place down. This act brings Cleopatra back to L.A. and into the waiting arms of Mommy's assassins. Unfortunately for the assassins Cleopatra is ten steps ahead of them and ambushes the assassins.

This is where the plot splits into three sub-stories. The first story deals with Mommy, her struggle to keep her empire working, There Doodlebug's (Antonio Fargas) story were he is getting ready to quit working for Mommy and setting his own empire. Finally there is Cleopatra Jones who is destroying the drug trade, getting into an impressive car chase, and ending the career of gangsters with guns and karate.

Overall this movie feels like a low budget Roger Moore Bond script. Cleopatra is always a well dressed, can walk away from a bloodbath shootout just by flashing a badge, there isn't anything with an engine that she can't operate, and is loved by everyone who isn't in the antagonist camp. It doesn't have the dark undertones, gritty backdrop like Shaft, Coffy, Three the Hard Way, and other blaxplotation films made at the similar point in time have.

It's a fun and slightly insane movie. Not one that should be hunted down and watched the hell out of but if it's available for rental or streaming is worth your time.

MVT: The car chase in the Los Angles spillway is one of the few things that leaps out at me with out the aid of notes. So I am going to go with that.

Make or Break: The movie came close to points breaking me out of the film with the constant jumping from one character to another.

Score: 5.4 out of 10

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Darkside Blues (1994)

Let me see if I can get this right.  The Hazuki family run a corporation called Persona Century that basically owns most of the world.  A group of resistance fighters (the Anti-Personas) struggle against them and their Enhanced Human assassins.  Mai (Kotono Mitsuishi) and Kenzo (Akio Otsuka) are a couple of mercenaries (?) who call themselves Messiah, and they are hired by a wounded revolutionary named Tatsuya to protect him.  Meanwhile, the nebulous Darkside (Akira Natsuki) comes on the scene in his intergalactic carriage, and there’s a young boy named Katari (Nozomu Sasaki) who may be more than he seems (but what does he seem to be?).

If ever a nation embraced the whole Goth thing (and embraced it early), I would suggest from an outsider’s perspective that it was the Japanese.  At least partially inspired by the punk movement, Goths love their eyeliner, puffy shirts, and late Eighteenth/early Nineteenth Century outerwear.  While, Noboyasu and Yoshimichi Furukawa’s Darkside Blues showcases at least two out of three of these things, it also combines them with the other thing the Japanese seem to love: science fiction.  Perhaps the best example of this melding of aesthetics is the Vampire Hunter D franchise, but unfortunately, we’re not discussing those.  So, for example, the Hazukis live on an asteroid that orbits the Earth.  The aforementioned Enhanced Humans are basically psychotic cyborgs.  There is a machine that turns people into gold statues.  Mai has a wrist blaster.  On the Goth side, the Hazuki manse is baroque and grotesque like Dracula’s castle is typically portrayed.  The first shot of the film is a clock with thirteen hours on it.  A gross-looking spider swings off it and drapes it in red webbing.  Darkside dresses like Baron Frankenstein (though I would contend the biggest influence on the character is likely Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, another Goth icon), and his horse-drawn carriage moves through time and space (he enters the film via a ripple in the fourth dimension, which I always thought was Time, but what do I know?) like the Silver Surfer’s surfboard or The Doctor’s TARDIS.  Like everything else in the film, however, the two artistic tastes just kind of float around in each other’s proximity.  They don’t combine with each other, they don’t really define anything in the film, and there’s so much left unsaid about almost everything having anything to do with them, it’s confusing as hell.

Add to this the fact that Darkside is also a drifter cowboy figure (he does wear boots and spurs) in the tradition of Yojimbo, High Plains Drifter, A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing, et al (and please note, I’m fully aware that two of these are remakes of another of them).  He appears in a town that needs him, does something to save them (this is extremely arguable in this case), and then kind of fades away.  He stays at the local small time hotel with the “colorful” proprietor (here an old woman and her cat).  Mai naively falls in love with him, even though this love can never be requited (he’s a loner, Mai; a rebel).  What Darkside doesn’t have like a cowboy is a six-shooter.  Instead, he does this thing where he transports whomever he’s with into another dimension.  There, they can battle, relive past traumas, and so forth.  Darkside refers to what he does as “Renewal,” like he’s an amalgamation of a shrink and some New Age bullshit guru.  Instead of dueling in the streets, Darkside forces people to face the truth about themselves.  That said, he’s not above actually fighting and/or killing people in this dreamtime realm of his; it’s just not his go-to maneuver.  

Doorways play a large part in the film.  Everything from windows to mirrors to, yes, doorways are employed, and they relate to the idea of portals.  Katari carries around a small glass globe, and he uses it to open doorways to (I’m assuming here) the Fourth Dimension.  This same portal manifests in the gigantic mirror in the Hazuki compound.  It also appears in the entrance to Tamaki Hazuki’s personal torture chamber.  Darkside makes his arrival through all of these simultaneously.  The doors to the Mirage Hotel where our protagonist stays are focused on at great length, and the lobby itself is a portal to the individual rooms, which I would imagine is really convenient if you’re a lodger there (or a bellboy).  I believe all of these in some way or another involve the concept of Renewal that Darkside keeps hitting on, because they all deal, diametrically or obliquely, with time, mistakes of the past, and the opportunity to change oneself.  The darkness in which Darkside envelops his “patients” and/or enemies is Truth.  Some will be transformed by it, others will be destroyed by it.

Nonetheless, for all that I think the film is trying to do, it fails fairly miserably.  The primary reason for this is because the film is so hellbent on the bigger picture that the details which should support it are indistinct, undeveloped, and, in many cases, unresolved.  The world the movie tries to set up is hinted at just enough to give us a rough idea and nothing more.  There is no resolution to the Mai/Darkside relationship.  There is no resolution to the conflict between the revolutionaries and the Hazukis.  We never even see the patriarch of the family, and there is a sister who is shown very briefly in the beginning and then totally written off with a throwaway line.  Brother Enji Hazuki shows up but never interacts with the rest of his family.  Darkside is likely one of the most passive characters in the history of storytelling, despite the importance implied by his appearance in it.  Katari is introduced as a character who will be integral to the story.  He isn’t.  At all.  The film only settles one storyline, and even there, we’re left hanging with where this is going.  In fact, the film doesn’t really end at all.  It just stops.  Was there supposed to be a sequel?  Is there a series?  Is this based on a manga that explains any of this crap better than this film does?  If you care about the answers to any of these questions, I really can’t help you, because I found myself not giving the slightest of shits (okay, I did do some digging just for the sake of curiosity, and the manga this is based on was created by Hideyuki Kikuchi, who also created Vampire Hunter D, so there’s one mystery solved).  Darkside Blues is so sketchy it should have been animated in pencils only.

MVT:  The film has all the elements for a fun, interesting tale.

Make or Break:  If you can make it through the first five minutes of this movie, and you like what you see, you’ll be fine.  If all you’re doing by the end of that time is squinting at the screen and scratching your head, you’ll be better off tuning out.

Score: 4/10