Saturday, October 14, 2017

Werewolf of London (1935)

Bet you thought I forgot what month it is, didn't you?

That's right, it's MONSTER MONTH.  I've been super busy for the past couple of weeks, but I couldn't let October slip by without doing at least one classic monster review.

So here we go: Werewolf of London.  1935.  Universal Studios.  Six years before it's much more famous younger brother 'The Wolf Man'.  As a monster fan it's fascinating to watch a werewolf movie that came before the werewolf movie that all the other werewolf movies got their inspiration from.

Our story starts out in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Our protagonist is Wilfred Glendon, a British botanist questing after a rare flower that only blooms in the light of the moon.  It's natural habitat is a secluded valley that is said to be haunted.  Despite the refusal of the native guides to continue and the warnings to turn back, Wilfred pushes on to the valley.  He discovers the coveted moon flower, but is attacked by a humanoid wolf creature!  And bitten on the arm!  Oh No's!  He manages to fight off the beast and return to England with his botanical discovery.

Turns out all is not well in the Glendon household.  Wilfred is a workaholic scientist you rarely leaves his lab, and he is neglecting his wife Lisa, a socialite who keeps trying to pry her husband away from his experiments and go to fancy parties.  Even though he is busy trying to get the moon flower to bloom with artificial grow lights, he agrees to leave the lab long enough to attend a botanical society gathering.  It is here that he meets Lisa's close childhood friend, Paul, and seeds of jealousy are sown.  He also meets one Dr. Yogami, a fellow scientist who mysteriously know all about the moon flower and the werewolf who attacked Wilfred.  Warner Oland, best known as film's famed Hawaiian detective Charlie Chan, is playing Dr. Yogami here.

Dr. Yogami reveals that the moon flower is the only known antidote for werewolfism, and that he was the werewolf who attacked Wilfred in Tibet.  He begs Wilfred for a sample of the flower before the next full moon.  Wilfred doesn't seem to believe his story, but Dr. Yogami leaves him with a warning: He two will become a werewolf - and a werewolf will destroy the thing it loves the most!

Prolonged exposure to the artificial grow lights brings about a change in Wilfred.  He begins to transform!  He quickly injects himself with fluid from the moon flower, and reverses the transformation.

Lisa continues to socialize with her friends - and Paul - and Wilfred grows increasingly jealous, feeling like he is unable to participate until he has sorted out the werewolf business.  Dr. Yogami breaks into Wilfred's lab just before the full moon and steals several of the moon flowers!  Now Wilfred can no longer stave off the transformation himself!

Wilfred's first real werewolf transformation is really well. done.  after his hands transform he stumbles down a hallway lines with pillars.  As he passes each pillar his face has more and more wolf features.  This does away with the stopmotion style transformation of 'The Wolfman' where Lon Chaney moves ever so slightly between takes, causing a slightly jerky transformation.  You could easily argue that the Werewolf of London has better Werewolf makeup as well, as they don't cover actor Henry Hull's entire face in hair.  Sometimes less is more.

Wilfred dons a hat and trenchcoat and begins to stalk the streets of London.  He ends up looking more like Jack the Ripper then your typical werewolf.  He ends up attacking Lisa's socialite aunt at a house where she and her friends are having a party.  He is scared off though, but ends up committing a murder elsewhere in London.

Human Wilfred is frantically trying to get the moon flower to bloom again.  His wife begs him to go out with her and Paul that evening, and he agrees out of fear of loosing her, but backs out of it at the last minute when the flower fails to bloom.  He gives the excuse that he has to leave town for a few days to do urgent, um, top secret science stuff, and she goes off with Paul in a huff.  Wilfred goes to a quaint little tavern/inn and locks himself in his room, but is unable to fight the transformation and once again stalks the night streets of London.

The urban setting is one of the big things that separates this movie from 'The Wolfman'.  'The Wolfman' has a chilling atmosphere of spooky mist filled forests, and like I said earlier, Wilfred with his trenchcoat in the back alleys of London gives off more of a Jack the Ripper vibe.  As most of Wilfred's victims are women I'd say this was an intentional comparison.

The police are baffled by these murders, and they eventually come to the conclusion that there are TWO killers, as the murders are happening in two separate locations.  Wilfred keeps sneaking off to his lab to check on the last moon flower bud, hoping it will bloom before he kills again - fearing that his next victim will be Lisa.  But Dr. Yogami is also there waiting for him...

This can't end well, can it?  Because werewolf stories always end in tragedy, and 'Werewolf of London' is no exception.

How is 'Werewolf of London'?  Well, personally, even though the transformation effects and werewolf makeup may be better, you just can't beat 'The Wolfman' in my opinion.  Henry Hull's acting is a little stiffer than Lon Chaney's - in the way that 30's acting just is a little stiffer than '40s acting - but I don't think his character is as likable.  'Werewolf of London' does have atmosphere, but it can't top the spooky forests of 'The Wolfman.'  Although, I suppose a monster stalking an urban area at night should be scarier than a monster stalking the woods at night.  I mean, nobody says you HAVE to go into a spooky woods at night, right?

Point is, I can definitely see why 'The Wolfman' is the preferred classic.  But if you love classic werewolves, give 'Werewolf of London' a try.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The 1940 version of 'The Thief of Bagdad' is a loose remake of the 1924 film of the same name.  Arguably, this version is more well known and influential.  Ray Harryhausen sited it as an influence for his Sinbad movies, and if you watch 'Thief of Bagdad' back to back with Disney's 'Aladdin' you'll notice more than a few similarities.  It was quite influential technically as well as it was the first color film to use blue screen effects.  If you want to know more about the evolution of matte effects in film this video essay is worth a look.

'Thief of Bagdad' has a unique narrative structure as well.  We're thrown into the middle of the story and brought up to speed with a framing device.  Of all the Arabian Nights style movies I've seen this one feels the most like a 'Scheherazade is telling us a story' type deal.  We're introduced to a man who likes to wear long black robes (Three guesses who the villain of this picture is!) a beautiful woman in an unending sleep, and a blind beggar who's only companion is his unusually intelligent seeing eye dog.  The blind man is taken to the house where the beautiful woman is sleeping and tells an incredible story to a group of harem girls.  He was not always a blind beggar but was once King Ahmed, ruler of all Bagdad!

Well, the puppet ruler at any-rate.  The Grand Vizier, Jaffar, is the one pulling all the strings, and he's a bit of a tyrant.  Ahmed objects to the way Jaffar is running his kingdom.  Jaffar insists that he is just in executing commoners for petty crimes.  Commoners are a treacherous lot who must be kept in check by fear.  Jaffar advises Ahmed to disguise himself as a commoner and walk among his people so he can see for himself how vile his people are.  Ahmed does this and after about two minutes of lingering with the crowds he learns that his people are rather upset with the leadership.  They even have a prophecy - some mumbo jumbo about the lowest of the low soaring among the clouds and the arrow of justice - regarding the downfall of the corrupt ruler.  About this time Jaffar takes his opportunity to seize control of the kingdom for good, and orders his guards to throw Ahmed in prison to face execution in the morning.

In prison Ahmed meets Abu, the titular Thief of Bagdad, and the two of them decide that escaping sounds like more fun than execution in the morning, so they do so, steal a boat, and sail off to the kingdom of Basra.  It is here that Ahmed meets the Princess, who seems to be named 'the Princess' and they fall in love at first sight.  But Jaffar also comes to Basra, with the intention of making the Princess his bride.  The Sultan of Basra is obsessed with clockwork mechanical toys, so Jaffar offers him a mechanical flying horse in exchange for his daughter.  The sultan sees this as a fair trade, and the Princess, horrified at the thought of marrying obviously-the-villian disguises herself and escapes.

Ahmed returns to the garden where he and Princess have been meeting in secret, but he and Abu are captured by the palace guards.  Brought before the Sultan and Jaffar, Ahmed and Jaffar recognize each other.  Ahmed challenges Jaffar to a duel, Jaffar uses magic to strike him blind and transform Abu into a dog.  The condition of the curse is that it can only be broken when Jaffar 'Holds the Princess in his arms.'

Which is about where we came in.  After escaping from Basra the Princess was captured by slavers and then bought by Jaffar, but she fell into an unending sleep, in which she calls out for Ahmed.  Jaffar reasons that Ahmed is the only one who can wake her, and after he does so, she learns of his blindness.  After being told of a doctor who can cure Ahmed she naively allows herself to be taken to a ship where the doctor supposedly lives.  That 'Doctor' turns out to be Jaffar, and once the ship is underway he tells her that the only way to cure Ahmed is to let him embrace her.  As soon as Ahmed's sight is restored he and Abu take off after Jaffar's ship, but Jaffar summons a magical storm to wreck their boat.

At this point the romance between Ahmed and Princess is really starting to remind me of an Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novel.  Two young lovers constantly separated by the trickery and betrayal of a dastardly villain who wants to spirit the heroine away and marry her himself.  It's like something out of 'A Princess of Mars'.

Ahmed and Adu are somehow separated in the storm, and while the story was most definitely focused on Ahmed and Princess up until now, the second half of the movie becomes 'The Abu Show! ...Staring Abu!'  Personally, I find the first half of the movie more interesting, but I suppose the movie IS called 'The Thief of Bagdad,' not 'The Adventures of Ahmed and Princess'.  A Genie bottle washes onto the shore of the deserted island Abu is stranded on, and when he opens it he unleashes a powerful force to be reckoned with.  This isn't one of your friendly Disney style Genies.  This is a violent and unpredictable being who would rather squish you flat than offer to grant you wishes.

But Abu takes a page from Arabian Nights 'The Fisherman and the Genie' and tricks the genie into going back into the bottle.  After Abu threatens to throw the bottle back into the sea the genie offers Abu three wishes in exchange for his freedom.  After squandering his first wish, Abu asks the Genie to take him to Ahmed.  The genie's power has limitations so he sends Abu on a side quest to find a magic crystal that the owner can look into and see what he desires most, so they can find Ahmed.  To get this crystal Abu must scale an enormous statue and fight a giant spider.

After Abu finds the crystal the Genie reunites Ahmed and Abu, and Ahmed uses the crystal to see the Princess.  Jaffar has just used a magic rose 'The Blue Rose of Forgetfulness' to give Princess amnesia.  She's forgotten her love for Ahmed, her own name if she ever had one, and even where she left her car keys!  Naturally she believes Jaffar when he tells her she's madly in love with him.

Abu accidentally his last wish to send Ahmed back to Bagdad, and is himself stranded by the newly freed Genie.  Ahmed managed to help Princess remember where she left her keys, but after a brief sword-fight with the palace guards he is captured by Jaffar.  Jaffar orders that the two young lovers be chained to opposite walls in the dungeon and executed in the morning.  Princess says that 'At least they are together at last' as they look at each other longingly from their opposite walls.  If you ask me, Princess has a funny definition of the word 'together'.

Abu is watching all this through the magic crystal, and frustrated that he can't do anything to help, he smashes the crystal.  But faster than you can say 'Deus Ex Machina' the camera spins around a bunch and Abu is transported to another realm where this old guy gives him a crossbow and a magic carpet and more or less says 'Have Fun Storming the Castle!'  So Abu flies off to stop the execution.  He manages to free Ahmed, but Jaffar tries to kidnap Princess and escape on the flying mechanical horse.  Abu shoots him in the face with his crossbow, fulfilling that prophecy from the beginning that you'd probably forgotten about by now about the lowest of the low and the arrow of justice.

So, the guy gets the girl, and Abu flies off on the Magic Carpet to have further adventures.  If you're a sucker for the Arabian Nights style fairy tale - like I obviously am - I definitely recommend you give this one a watch.

- Geekboy.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger' is the final installment of Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Shneer's Sinbad trilogy.  If they had made a fourth movie I bet the title would have been 'Sinbad and the Thrill of the Fight.'  'Eye of the Tiger' didn't do as well as the previous two installments, possibly because it features less impressive monster fights, but also because it had unexpected competition from a certain little indie space adventure called 'Star Wars' that was released the same year.

'Eye of the Tiger' is a fun movie with a story that holds together pretty well, but I doubt any fan of the series would call it their favorite installment.  It's great as an adventure movie...but as a Sinbad movie?  Not quite so much.  Only the first third feels like an Arabian Nights inspired story.  The other movies had monsters like the Cyclops, the two headed Roc, and a six armed Indian idol.  This time around Sinbad faces Bug People, a giant Walrus, and a Sabre Tooth Tiger.  The previous Sinbad movies had exotic locals evocative of the far east.  This time around they're searching for the mythic land of Hyperborea in the Arctic.  And while there is an evil Sorceress, there's a much bigger emphasis on science and alchemy then there is on magic.

The movie starts with a coronation.  Prince Kassim, brother of this incarnation of Sinbad's love interest Princess Farrah, is being crowned Caliph.  But the ceremony is interrupted when their evil stepmother Zenobia places a curse on the prince.  Turns out she's a Sorceress in her spare time - which should be obvious because she wears all black just like all evil Sorcerers do - and she wants her son Rafi to rein instead of the rightful heir.

We switch to Sinbad, who is coming in to port to see his Gal Pal, but is surprised to find that the city gates are locked and the kingdom is under curfew.  A 'friendly merchant' (actually Rafi in disguise) tells Sinbad that the city is under quarantine and offers to let him stay in his camp until the gates open.  He serves Sinbad and his men poisoned wine, but Sinbad realizes that it's a trap.  Zenobia shows up and summons three Bug People to finish Sinbad off.  Okay, apparently they are supposed to be Ghouls, which ARE from Arabian mythology, but the movie never comes out and says that, and I think they look like Bug People. 

So Sinbad escapes from the Bug People, and meets up with Princess Farrah who sneaked out of the city to see him.  She warns him of Zenobia's treachery.  Her spell transformed Prince Kassim into a Baboon, and if they don't reverse the transformation within a certain amount of time he: A). Can't be crowned Caliph, and: B). Will be stuck in a Baboon body forever.  So our heroes seek out the fabled Greek alchemist Melanthius to see if his powers can reverse the transformation.  One think I feel this movie actually does better than the other two Sinbad movies is the romantic relationship between Sinbad and Farrah.  For one thing Farrah is a more rounded character.  There's more to her than 'Being in love with Sinbad'.  Between her concerns for her brother and her relationship Zenobia she has a lot of emotional stake in this movie.

Zenobia catches wind of Sinbad's Voyage and she and her son build a clockwork Minotaur than they dub 'the Minoton' to help stop our heroes.  As far as Monsters go, the Minoton really should have a talk with his agent.  He has a brief encounter with the palace guards, but for the rest of the movie he's a glorified galley slave who spends most of his time rowing Zenobia's boat.  He's a walking wasted opportunity for a good monster fight.

So after sailing through a thick fog, our heroes land on the island where they hope to find Melanthius.  I recently heard that this film actually had the highest budget of all of the Sinbad movies, which surprises me, because in these scenes it's painfully obvious that our heroes are superimposed over the background.  The other movies look like they're filmed on location, but this one uses very blatant greenscreen effects that haven't aged well at all.  After a brief attack from the island locals, our band of heroes are met by Dione, who is the daughter of Melanthius.  Here's a bit of trivia I found interesting: Dione, played by a Taryn Power, is apparently the real life daughter of actor Tyrone Power who stared in a bunch of Swashbuckler and Pirate movies in the 1940s.

Melanthius is stumped as to how to reverse Prince Kassim's transformation, but agrees to try and help.  Dione takes sympathy on and Kassim, and the two form a bond.  Meanwhile Zenobia and Rafi are delayed as their ship is damaged when they try to trace Sinbad's footsteps through the fog.  Melanthius reveals some sort of Alchemy Mumbo Jumbo about how an ancient civilization in Hyperborea harnessed the power four elements and the Aurora Borealis, and that by going to an ancient Shrine of the Arimaspi they can cure Kassim.

So they set sail for Hyperborea.  Zenobia uses her powers to transform herself into a seagull, sneaks aboard Sinbad's ship, and changes back into a six inch version of herself so she can spy.  She's detected and captured by Kassim, and Melanthius puts her in a glass jar for questioning.  He deduces that she uses a vial of fluid that she keeps around her neck to transform.  Thinking he can use this fluid to cure Kassim, he tries it out on bee.  The bee grows to the size of a large watermelon, and starts chasing Melanthius around the cabin.  In the chaos Melanthius knocks over the jar holding Zenobia prisoner.  She transforms back into a seagull and escapes, but not before taking a peak at the map leading to Hyperborea.  Unfortunately, she doesn't have quite enough fluid to change 100% back into her human form.  Zenobia will be spending most of the rest of our story with one webbed foot.

So our heroes reach this ice tunnel that will take them right to Hyperborea, but their ship is too big to take the shortcut.  So they build a sledge and continue their journey over the ice flows.  And it's here that they meet up with that aforementioned Walrus, and we get our second real monster fight of the movie (The giant bee doesn't count in my opinion).  Sigh.  Like I said, the Minoton really needs to have a talk with his agent.

Meanwhile Zenobia and Rafi find the tunnel, and their ship is just the exact right size to go through, because life isn't fair sometimes.  So, our villain's get to take the shortcut to the shrine.  While that's going on, our heroes reach the semi-tropical interior of Hyperborea.  They run afoul of a giant caveman type creature, but it turns out that he's just as afraid of them as they are of him.  Because, we apparently REALLY DON'T GET TO HAVE MONSTER FIGHTS IN THIS MOVIE.  They communicate with the creature, whom they name 'Trog' - short for the Troglodyte - using pictograph line drawing in the sand, and he leads them to the Shrine of the Arimaspi. 

But Zenobia found the shrine first, she uses the Minoton to force the entrance open.  He's crushed by a rock in the process, and Zenobia heartlessly states that he's 'Served his purpose'.  WHAT?  NO HE HASN'T!!! MINOTON!  FIRE!  THAT!  AGENT!  NOW!!!  Anyway, forcing the entrance harmed the structural integrity of the shrine, and when the heroes enter it begins to collapse around their ears with giant ice-cycles falling from the ceiling.  They notice a Sabre-Tooth Tiger encased in ice at the foot of the shrine, and Melanthius comments that it must be a guardian of the temple. 

Some people speculate that the entire climax of 'Eye of the Tiger' is a tribute to the 1935 film adaption of H. Rider Haggard's 'She'.  'She' also features a lost city at the north pole and a Sabre-Toothed Tiger trapped in the ice.  Ray Harryhausen was an avid fan of 'She', and he one of his final projects was the restoration and digital coloration of the classic adventure film. 

Our heroes are attacked by Rafi, but he's bitten by Kassim and breaks his neck falling done the stairs.  Sinbad and Melanthius rush to restore Kassim to his true form while Zenobia morns the death of her son.  She uses one last spell to enact her revenge.  Transferring her consciousness into the body of the Sabre-Tooth Tiger, she breaks free of the ice just as Kassim is restored to his human self.  Fortunately Trog returns to fight the beast.  We FINALLY.  GET.  A.  REAL.  MONSTER.  FIGHT.  Trog is no match for Zenobia, but he sacrifices himself so the others can escape, and Sinbad is able to impale the Tiger using the Minoton's dropped spear.  The film ends with the actual coronation of Prince Kassim, who exchanges meaningful glances with Dione.

And that is 'Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger'.  Is it as good as the other two installments?  Well, that's obviously a matter of opinion.  Personally I think it fails as an Arabian Nights style Sinbad adventure, but that doesn't make it a bad movie.  It's a solid globetrotting adventure story set inside the Arctic circle, which isn't something you see everyday.  If you're a fan of Pulp adventure stories and swashbucklers, give this a watch.  But if you just came for the monster fights, you may be disappointed.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The first in Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad trilogy, 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' is filled with '50s charm.  That is to say, it's slightly cheesier than the later installments.  We've got a sense of innocence and wonder, but we also have stilted line delivery and a child actor.  The story is less of a globe trotting 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' style adventure like 'Golden Voyage of Sinbad' and more like a fairy tale with sort of a Classic Disney feel.

'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' is often considered the preferred classic of the trilogy.  Cheesy as it may be in spots, it's hard to argue with the '50s charm.  They call it '50s charm' for a reason I suppose.  It's charming.  And of all the movies in the trilogy, this one pulls the most inspiration from the 'Arabian Nights' source material.  It's a beautifully simplistic story that holds together well.  I think that's why it's many people's favorite, and how it manages to hold up in spite of itself.

The story starts with Sinbad and his beloved Princess Parisa on the return voyage to Baghdad.  They've been blown off course so they stop at the mysterious Island of Colossa to take on fresh water and supplies.  While there Sinbad and his crew run afoul of the monstrous Cyclops, who is chasing a mysterious man in black.  The mystery man, whom we'll come to know as the magician Sokurah, uses his magic lamp to summon a genie (that fore mentioned child actor) who helps ward off the Cyclops so Sinbad and his men can escape.  But in the escape Sokurah drops the lamp overboard, and it is recovered by the Cyclops.  Sokurah offers Sinbad a fortune to return for the lamp, but Sinbad drops a ton of exposition stating that if he doesn't return Parisa safely to Baghdad for their arranged marriage, her father will declare war on his people.

So they return to Baghdad, and Sokurah does his best to hire a crew to take him back to Colossa.  After the Caliph refuses to give him a ship Sokurah curses the Princess, causing her to shrink.  Her father is none too happy about this, and the threat of war looms large.  Sinbad isn't too keen on the prospect of marrying Thumbelina, so he goes to Sokurah begging him to lift the curse.  "Sure," says Sokurah.  "I have everything I need to break the curse in my laboratory back on that Island!"  Sinbad doesn't seem to suspect that Sokurah is the one who cursed Parisa in the first place.  Sinbad is a little slow sometimes.

Other than Sinbad's first mate, most of his crew aren't in a hurry to return to Colossa.  So Sinbad hires a crew of cutthroats and murderers, offering them full pardons from the Caliph if they sail with him.  Because Sinbad is a little slow sometimes.  Naturally the crew mutinies after two minutes, and Sinbad, Sokurah, and the First Mate are all locked in the brig.  But Sokurah knows they are about to sail through haunted waters and advises our heroes to stuff cotton in their ears, as the siren calls drive men mad.  The mutineers don't stuff cotton in their ears, and when they discover Sinbad and his men are unaffected, they let them out so they can steer around the rocks.

So, they eventually arrive on Colossa, and split in three groups.  Because splitting up is always a good idea.  The first group stays on the shore to man a giant crossbow in the event of future Cyclops attacks, and Sinbad and Sokurah lead the other two groups.  They need to find a Roc eggshell to complete Sokurah's curse breaking potion.  Sinbad's group stumbles across a cave filled with treasures.  Sinbad tries to convince the ex-cons that his girlfriend is more important than stopping to fill their pockets, and that works out as well as you might expect.  But it turns out that the treasure trove is actually the secret stash of the Cyclops, who likes shiny thinks.  Sinbad and his men are captured and put in a gigantic cage, and the Cyclops ties the First Mate to a pole to roast over a fire.

Sokurah hears the commotion and decides to investigate.  But it turns out he's less interested in saving the crew as he is in raiding the treasure cave in search of the magic lamp.  Sinbad gets the idea to use Parisa's size to their advantage.  She can slip through the bars and open the latch!  They manage to escape and rescue the First Mate  About this time the rest of the second group shows up and they all fight the Cyclops.  Most of the crew are killed, but Sinbad is able to put out the Cyclops's eye with a torch and lure it off the edge of the cliff.

Sokurah has found the lamp, but Sinbad learns that it was all he was after the whole time and takes it from him to use as leverage.  They continue up the nesting cliffs to find a Roc's nest.  They find an unhatched egg, and the crew are tired and hungry and their feet hurt, so they suggest just using that egg.  Sokurah advises them that it's safer to use one that has already hatched.  The crew refuse to listen, and crack open the egg so they can eat the baby Roc inside.  They are attacked by the baby creature, but manage to overcome it.

Sinbad continues to mistrust Sokurah, but Sokurah's the only one who knows how to summon the Genie.  Parisa decides to go inside the Genie bottle and talk to the genie.  She and the Genie become friends.  Turns out he wants to be a 'Real Boy' Pinocchio style.  So she offers to free him in exchange for his help, and he teaches her a cutesy little Genie summoning rhyme.  Basically it's the Green Lantern pledge, but for Genies.

About this time they are attacked by an adult Roc - presumably the mamma of the one they just killed.  Sinbad tries to use the Genie bottle, but it falls from his grasp.  Sokurah and the First Mate fight for possession of the magic lamp.  The First Mate tosses it to Sinbad just before Sokurah kills him.  Sinbad is knocked unconscious, and carried off by the Roc to it's nest.  Sokurah kidnaps Parisa to use as a bargaining chip later, and scurries off to his evil lair.

Sinbad escapes from the Roc's nest and uses the Genie to guide him to Sokurah's underground castle.  He has to sneak past a the dragon Sokorah keeps chained up at the entrance to keep the Cyclops out.  He catches up to Sokurah who offers to trade Parisa for the lamp.  He returns her to her normal size, but Sinbad, who learned a thing or two after all the double crosses he's been through in this movie, tells Sokurah he'll only get the lamp when they're safely back at the ship.  So Sokurah summons a Skeletal warrior to kill Sinbad, and we get a preview of what would become Ray Harryhausen's most iconic scene - the Skeletal battle from 1963's Jason and the Argonauts.  Sinbad and Parisa escape from Sokura's lair, and they fulfill their promise to free the Genie. 

Unfortunately they run into a second Cyclops on the shore.  Sinbad cuts Sokurah's Dragon free and the two monsters do battle as Sinbad and Parisa make a break for the ship.  (This kicks off that tradition of each of these movies ending with two monsters fighting.  It works much better in this one than the Centaur/Griffon battle in 'Golden Voyage of Sinbad.')  The Dragon overcomes the Cyclops, and Sokurah sics it on our heroes.  But Sinbad's crew still have an ace up their sleeves in the form of that giant crossbow.  They slay the Dragon, who crushes Sokurah as it falls.

Poetic justice served, they sail off for Baghdad.  Now the the Genie is a real boy he's decided to join Sinbad's crew, and he just so happened to load the Cyclops treasure in the hold by magic.  Give 'The 7th Voyage of Sinbad' a watch.  It's a classic, and if you're a Harryhausen fan, it's his first fantasy film, so you'll see how it shaped and influenced the rest of his career.


Monday, May 29, 2017

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad' is the second installment in a loose trilogy of Sinbad movies produced by Charles H. Schneer with stop motion visual effects by Ray Harryhausen.  I say a loose trilogy because the only thing these movies have in common is the title character, and the fact that they all feature stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen.  Each movie has a different actor playing Sinbad, each movie has a different love interest, and in each movie Sinbad gets the girl in the end.  So the way I see it there are five options to explain the inconsistency. 

Option #1.  All of these movies are about the same Sinbad, who has a harem.  Recasting the character is acceptable because they made the first movie 15 years prior to this one in 1958. 

Option #2.  Similar to Option #1, but Sinbad goes through a messy divorce in between each film.  This theory explains why Sinbad is constantly searching for lost treasure, because otherwise he has trouble paying that alimony check every month. 

Option #3.  Each movie is set in a parallel universe.

Option #4.  Each movie is a soft reboot of the franchise.  Somebody needs to go back in time and stop this franchise from happening, because apparently Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen invented the reboot. 

Option #5.  Each movie is set in the same universe, but that universe has three different sailors named Sinbad who go on separate adventures and fight monsters while searching for treasure independently of each other whilst opposed by three different evil sorcerers and winning the hearts of three different fair maidens.  In between movies they go searching for treasure that one of the other Sinbads has already found.  Arriving too late, they shake their collective fists in the general direction of the other Sinbads, who are equally skilled treasure hunters and monster fighters.  I'm sure there's some Sinbad fan-fiction out there where the Kerwin Mathews Sinbad, the John Phillip Law Sinbad, and the Patrick Wayne Sinbad all have to team up and fight Monsters and Sorcerers together (And if not there should be).

The movie starts at sea.  One of Sinbad's men sees a flying creature and he shoots at it with his bow for sport.  While he missed, the creature drops a golden tablet it was carrying.  Sinbad (Played by John Phillip Law) picks up the tablet and sees a surreal vision of treasure, a mysterious figure dressed in black, and a dancing girl with an eye tattooed to her hand.  The first mate is convinced that the tablet is cursed and urges Sinbad to toss it overboard.  Sinbad decides he likes seeing surreal images of dancing girls, so he ignores the council of his first mate.  From the get-go, the first mate is probably my favorite character.  He's the voice of wisdom who everyone ignores.  And he's very deadpan snarky and 'I told you so' about it the whole time.

Sinbad spies a distant figure watching them from the shore.  He decides to swim for it and confront the sinister cloaked figure.  Turns out it's the same cloaked figure from his vision.  He's a sorcerer named Prince Koura, but since he's played by Tom Baker and I grew up with the BBC version of 'The Silver Chair' I choose to call him 'Evil Puddleglum'.  Evil Puddleglum has and impressive skill set with the abilities to control little flying gargoyle creatures and cause statues to come to life, but unfortunately tapping into the dark arts is slowly draining his life forces.  Evil Puddleglum claims that the gold tablet is rightfully his and tries to take it from Sinbad, but Sinbad steals a horse from Evil Puddleglum's henchmen (guess that makes 'our hero' a horse thief as well as a tablet thief), and the two race for the nearby walled city.

The city guards try to capture Evil Puddleglum - even though Sinbad is the one we just saw commit a crime - but Evil Puddleglum uses magic to close the portcullis on the guards and escape.  Sinbad meets a gold mask wearing Grand Vizier who has been at odds with Evil Puddleglum.  Turns out that Evil Puddleglum cast a spell that horribly scarred the Vizier's face whilst trying to acquire the second fragment, which is in the Vizier's possession.  The Sinbad figures out that the tablet is actually a sea chart.  It's a treasure map that leads to the 'Fountain of Destiny' a magic spring that can restore Evil Puddleglum's youth, making him a presumably unstoppable evil.  Unfortunately Evil Puddleglum has sent one of his little gargoyles to spy on Sinbad, and he learns where they're going next, setting up a traditional 'Race to the Treasure' type movie.

Sinbad and company are about to set sail when a rich merchant offers Sinbad a deal.  He wants Sinbad to take his useless lay-about son to make a real man out of him as a sailor.  Sinbad refuses, even as the merchant offers him more and more gold to take the boy off his hands.  Finally the merchant offers Sinbad one of his slave girls, Margiana, in addition to the gold.  It just so happens that she's the dancing girl with the eye tattoo from Sinbad's vision.  Intrigued, Sinbad agrees to the deal. 
Personally I find the Merchant's son to be really annoying for most of the movie, as he's mostly just used as a punchline to jokes that may or may not be funny, but he does become a legit member of the crew by the end of the story, and plays a crucial role in at least one of the monster fights.

Our heroes set out to sea, but soon discover that Evil Puddleglum is following close behind.  They loose him in a patch of fog, but Evil Puddleglum uses magic to animate the ship's figurehead - giving us our first real monster fight - and uses it to steal the chart showing Sinbad's course.  Fortunately Sinbad has a photographic memory and they proceed as if nothing had happened.  They arrive at the island of the 'Oracle of all knowledge' who can give them the clue to the third and final fragment of the tablet.  By the way, the Oracle looks a bit like a cross between the floating green head from 'The Wizard of Oz' and the German folktale creature 'Krampus'.

The Oracle speaks only in riddles and Evil Puddleglum arrives just in time to overhear the clue.  He also blows up the entrance to the temple, temporarily burying our heroes alive.  I'm not sure I understand Evil Puddleglum's evil plan at this point, as he needs all three fragments of the tablet to find the Fountain of Destiny and he's just buried two of them under all that rubble.  But our heroes mange to escape through a hole in the ceiling as Sinbad taps into his inner MacGyver, using a lamp stand, turban cloth, and a bow to make a makeshift grappling hook.

But Evil Puddleglum arrives at the location of the third tablet first.  He's capture by green skinned (...???) natives who try to sacrifice him to a statue of Kali.  But he uses his powers to make the statue come to life, and now the natives worship him.  When Sinbad and company arrive he uses Kali to fight them off while he searches for the final tablet.  This scene is not only one of the most impressive stop motion sequences of Ray Harryhausen's career, it's probably one of the best sword-fights in movie history.  First Sinbad fights the six armed statue on his own, but as the creature proves too strong for him his crew-mates join in.  So we have multiple fighters barely holding their own against this six armed opponent.  The movie is definitely worth watching for this scene alone.

Eventually our heroes overcome the stone monstrosity, and discover that the third part of the tablet was hidden inside.  But Evil Puddleglum returns with his army of natives and says that our heroes must die as they destroyed the image of the native's goddess.  'Now excuse me while I find that fountain...' he cackles as our heroes are on a literal chopping block...

But Margiana, who really hasn't had much to do until this point, raises her hands to stop the sacrifice.  The natives catch an eyeful of the eye tattooed on her hand and decide SHE'S the one they should be sacrificing.  So they drop her in a pit where she's taken off 'King Kong' style by a one eyed centaur.  Centaurclops?  Cycentaur?  Something like that.  One really cool effect is how they show us things from the Centaurclops' point of view, and the camera switches to this fish-eye effect.  It's a fun detail I don't think everyone would have thought of.

So our heroes escape from the natives, using the Vizier's hideously scarred face as a distraction, and follow Margiana into the pit rather than stop Evil Puddleglum from finding the Fountain of Destiny.  Margiana calls Sinbad out on this when he saves her.  'You came after me?  And let Koura have the prize?'  'No. Not the Prize.'  Although Sinbad's romantic chemistry with Margiana has been rather lacking up until this point, the delivery here is actually really sweet.

So they rush to stop Evil Puddleglum, but after a fight between the Centaurclops and a Griffin that comes out of nowhere, they discover they are too late to stop evil Puddleglum.  He's gained eternal youth, and the power to make himself invisible.  This movie is filled with pretty good special effects for the time, but invisibility isn't one of them.  It's like they took an eraser and slowly removed parts of Tom Baker from the frame until a poorly superimposed floating sword is all that's left.  As far as invisibility effects from the 70's go, I think Wonder Woman's invisible plane is more convincing.  This is particularly depressing as it's following that awesome fight with the six armed statue.

Anyway, Sinbad defeats Evil Puddleglum, and they use the magic of the fountain to heal the Grand Vizier's face.  They all sail off into the sunset, and the merchant's son has proven himself as a true sailor, although they use him for one last unfunny punchline before the credits role.

And that's 'The Golden Voyage of Sinbad'.  It's a fun little adventure movie and most of the special effects that hold up pretty well, and those that don't have a retro charm to them.  If you check you brain and don't mind the occasional plot hole, you should have fun with this one.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

I just saw 'Kong: Skull Island' last night and  HAD.  A.  TOTAL.  BLAST.  As someone who was a little disappointed in both 'The Jungle Book' and 'The Legend of Tarzan' last year, I really think this is the best jungle adventure movie we've had in ages.

As you probably know, 'Kong: Skull Island' takes place in the same world as 2014's 'Godzilla' and is setting up a loose remake of the 1962 Japanese film 'King Kong vs. Godzilla'.  I for one was a little concerned when I heard that this movie would be taking place in the 1970s - I saw this as a potential tribute to the 1976 King Kong, a version that I have both seen and hated.  I was pleasantly surprised though, the Vietnam War era setting really worked well, and even though the jukebox soundtrack was constantly reminding you of how 70's everything was it really captured the feel of a classic adventure story juxtaposed with a war movie.  Also, casual references to 'That nuclear incident in 1954' cough, Godzilla, cough, show that bumping the story forward a couple of decades was necessary for the crossover to work.  Also, changing the setting to the south pacific was a stoke of genius, tying Skull Island to World War II, Vietnam, and in a geographically similar location to Japan (And y'know, Godzilla).

All that crossover stuff is nice, but if you're like me, you didn't come for Godzilla references.  YOU CAME TO SEE KING KONG!  And as this is the third King Kong remake it's nice to see that they shook up the formula a little bit.  Don't get me wrong, I adore Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong, but we really don't need another straight up remake of the original movie.  Gone is the empire state building and any reference to that fictional Arabian proverb about beauty and the beast.  We have many of the familiar elements, but they put them in a different order this time around.  The traditional King Kong ending - Kong swatting aircraft out of the sky - takes place close to the beginning this time around.  The climax is basically the Kong vs. T-rex fight, but this time around the T-rex is replaced with a new giant creature, a 'Skull Crawler'.

Spoiler warning.  If you haven't seen the movie but want to, proceed at your own risk.

The film starts during WWII with an American and a Japanese fighter pilot both crash landing on Skull Island.  As they are both on opposite sides of the same war their first inclination is to try and kill each other.  But as this IS Skull Island, they soon discover that they have much bigger problems than their personal allegiances.  As in, Kong Kong sized problems.  To this movie's credit, they don't monkey around - Sorry, couldn't resist - when it comes to showing us the monster.  One if the biggest fan complaints about the 2014 'Godzilla' is how little Godzilla actually appears onscreen.  Here we get our first look at Kong within the first 5 minutes, and I was on-board from that moment onward.

Fast forward to 1973.  We're introduced to professional monster hunter and government agent Bill Randa.  He's putting together a ragtag expedition to explore a Bermuda Triangle type skull shaped island.  Like any good expedition leader he's cryptic about his true motivations and how much danger is waiting for them on the island.  Other members of the expedition include hesitant tracker James Conrad - who is sort of your traditional 'great white hunter' stereotype - Mason Weaver, a photojournalist, which is the only pretty much the only available occupation for attractive heroines in classic adventure stories, and Colonel Preston Packard, who is here to handle the heavy artillery and order everyone around.

As well as playing the character types of classic adventure stories straight, they play dated and scientifically questionable elements of speculative fiction completely straight.  We've got an island surrounded by perpetual fog, hollow earth theory, giant spiders, and the movie is taking itself seriously the whole time.  Sure, the characters crack the occasional joke, but in general they take the lost world genre, update the time period, and do it without disrespecting the genre or losing credibility.  It's really refreshing, particularly after 'Legend of Tarzan' which didn't seem to understand that jungle adventure stories are supposed to be exciting and fun, rather than dull and soul draining.

It isn't long after arriving an skull island that the team runs afoul of Kong, and they've inadvertently (or perhaps not so inadvertently?) provoked him.  The survivors of this encounter are scattered.  Colonel Packard is seeing red after the loss of so many of his men, and his group sets out to find a way to take out Kong, while James Conrad, Mason Weaver, and company set out for the rendezvous point.  Conrad's team meet up with a group of natives and the long missing WWII pilot Hank Marlowe.

The natives have of course build huge wall around their village, but it turns out the wall is to keep out something EVEN WORSE than Kong - the Skull Crawlers.  Unlike the original King Kong, this wall is covered in spikes that are caked with the blood of past Skull Crawler attacks.  Marlowe warns the team against trying to taking out Kong, as he keeps the Skull Crawlers in check.  He also warns them against traveling at night, or taking that shortcut through the giant monster graveyard.  Our heroes primarily ignore all of Marlowe's warnings.  Poor Marlowe.

Our heroes eventually converge, but Packard is unwilling to continue to the rendezvous point.  Like Captain Ahab, Packard has become obsessed with a white whale.  A really hairy white whale that walks on two legs and is actually a gorilla.  Under the pretense of 'looking for survivors' Packard talks everyone to going back towards the helicopter where all the heavy artillery is kept.  On the way they have to cross that aforementioned monster graveyard, which just so happens to be where the Skull Crawlers hang out.  And here's where our heroes - particularly Mason and Conrad - get their chance to shine.

Side note: One problem I have with Mason, unlike Ann Darrow in previous versions, is that she isn't given much to do.  She doesn't have a big role in humanizing Kong - They only have about three scenes together - She'll occasionally wander off to take pictures, and you think she's about to be attacked by a big monster, but nothing happens.  She only appears to be in the story because it's traditional for a King Kong movie to have a pretty blonde girl who gets menaced by big monsters, but this movie did away with any of that 'Beauty and the Beast' damsel in distress stuff.  She does play a big part in some of the action scenes though, taking out Skull Crawlers with cigarette lighters and flare guns.  I love how resourceful she is in a fight.

Speaking of the monster fights - another thing that didn't totally work for me was the way they kept cutting away from our main characters to show Kong fighting a big monster.  The first example of this, we have a lone soldier separated from the others.  He stops by the river to wash his wounds.  Then Kong shows up and starts washing HIS wounds from that helicopter fight in the beginning.  It's a cool scene.  But then this big octopus shows up and they start fighting.  What?  Why is this scene in the movie?  It's random and kind of distracting.  The other place is where Marlowe is telling the team about how Kong protects the natives from the Skull Crawlers and we cut to Kong fighting Skull Crawlers.  I get the purpose for this bit, but it seems like an odd transition or something.

Anyway, back to the story.  Once our heroes find out Packard's plan to kill Kong, they are divided - our heroes are heeding Marlowe's warnings, and the soldiers are torn between following orders and doing the right thing.  Unfortunately Packard's attack both weakens Kong and awakens the biggest and baddest of all the Skull Crawlers.  Our heroes hotfoot it back to the river, but they're pursued by the Skull Crawler.  One of the soldier's bravely stays behind to take out the Skull Crawler, a live grenade in each hand.  Unfortunately his sacrifice is wasted as the beast knocks him out of the way with it's whip-like tale.  I had a bit of a debate with my sister about the scene.  She was a bit annoyed at this character's death, saying it felt pointless.  I countered with the argument that it highlighted that character's bravery, made the Skull Crawler seem that much more powerful, and made you more emotionally invested in the climax.  If not for the heroic sacrifice the ending would've just been two monsters punching each other.  And boy do those two monsters fight each other.  I had the biggest grin on my face when Kong grabs an anchor chain from a derelict ship and starts swinging it around like a mace.

And that's Kong: Skull Island.  It respects it's pulp adventure roots, but it's not afraid to shake up the formula and bring new things to the table.  Definitely worth a watch.

- Geekboy.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

On Free Comics...

Happy Free Comic Book Day everyone!  If you have a local comic shop I hope you took advantage of the free stuff/sales/artist meet ups.  I also hope you didn't have to stand in line for too long.  In years past I remember feeling like I was trapped in an elevator with about 60 other people, but this year the crowds weren't too bad.  I don't know if this was because of the rainy weather or if the cashiers have speedy checkout lines down to a science after so many years of experience.  Possibly a combination of the two.

My local store had their first ever costume contest!  I didn't participate.  Found out about the contest too late to whip anything together.  I considered making a black mask and going as Man Without Fear/Netflix Season One Daredevil, but ultimately decided 'Nope.'  I enjoyed seeing others in costume, however.  Present and accounted for were DC comics 'Bombshells' Wonder Woman, The Riddler, Han Solo, and a family of T-Rex and Godzilla.

As well as my free comics, I picked up 'Wolf Moon' by Cullen Bunn of 'The Sixth Gun' and 'Harrow County' fame, and the first two volumes of the Steampunk series 'Lady Mechanika'.

The free comics and sales are nice, but the best part of the experience - and this is coming from a super reclusive introvert - is rubbing shoulders (perhaps literally) with like-minded nerds.  In the year since last FCBD I'd forgotten the sense of energy radiating from the community.  If you missed this year, be sure to catch it the first Saturday of May next year.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Trailer Thoughs: The Mummy (2017)

If you're a big monster movie nerd like I am, then you've probably heard that Universal Studios is trying to make a shared universe mega-franchise using modern day remakes of their classic monster series.  The new 2017 film 'The Mummy' is going to be the first film in the series.  Now, the reaction of most people when they hear this is something like: 'Oh, they're just trying to be Marvel.  Just like everybody else is.'  And there is definitely some truth in that.  Pretty much everybody IS trying to be Marvel right now.  But if anyone has a right to try and be Marvel it's the Universal Monsters.  They did it first.  1943's 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman' was one of the first ever film crossovers, and then Universal brought Dracula into the fold with 1944's 'House of Frankenstein' and 1945's 'House of Dracula'.  There's a longstanding tradition for Monsters meeting up and fighting each other.

 Universal made headlines when they announced that the new Mummy was going to be female.  'First ever female Mummy!'  Somehow the news spun that as Universal is a champion for women's roles in Hollywood?  Like we didn't think women could play monsters before, or something?  (I feel like there's a Mother-in-law joke in there somewhere).  The thing is: Anyone who REALLY KNOWS MUMMIES should know that this isn't true.  One of the earliest and most influential mummy stories is Bram Stoker's 1903 novel 'The Jewel of the Seven Stars' which featured the vengeful queen Tera who was a FEMALE MUMMY.  Later installments in Universal's original series such as 'The Mummy's Ghost' and 'The Mummy's Curse' had Princess Ananaka, ANOTHER FEMALE MUMMY.

One thing to note is that this movie, and I assume the other movies in the series will be as well, is set in the modern day.  It'll be interesting to see how they pull this off.  So much of what makes Mummies in particular work is the backdrop of superstition and mysticism of an early 20th century setting.  All that 'Curse of the Pharaoh's' can come off as Saturday Morning Cartoon stuff so many years after the discovery of King Tut's Tomb. 

Let's talk about the latest trailer.  Looks like it could be promising.  We've got a variety of locations, a look at Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyll - who appears to have a wise-yet-judgemental 'How dare you unleash the ultimate evil on humanity?' role, a few glimpses of the action (That awesome flooded tomb!) and a look at Princess Ahmanet's powers.  I gotta say, the way she flips and scurries up that chain like a spider is awesome!  I'm a little concerned about her ability to make a giant flying head appear in the sky though.  That's the signature move of Imhotep from Stephen Sommers' 1999 Mummy series.  There are enough fans wondering why this movie stars Tom Cruise instead of Brendan Fraser as it is.  Personally I think this movie would do better if it avoids comparison to a popular film series that a lot of people grew up with.

That said, let's talk about the title, huh?  The 1932 Mummy, the 1959 Mummy, the 1999 Mummy and this new film are all simply called 'The Mummy'.  That gets a little confusing, doesn't it?  Maybe they should take a page from 'Kong: Skull Island's' book and give us a new title to go with our new mummy.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Unknowable Future

Over the past few years there have been some major changes in my family dynamic.  And there are more changes coming down the pipe in the near future.  It's inevitable at this point.  Maybe it's because of all these changes, but I've been thinking a lot about these two songs lately.  They both deal with family life and how it changes with time.

The first song is called 'Boats & Birds' by 'Gregory and the Hawk'.  My interpretation of the song is that it's about empty nest syndrome.  A mother is singing to her child about how she knows that they will have to grow up and someday and the child will live his or her own life.  'You can skyrocket away from me - And never come back if you find another Galaxy - Far from here where there's more room to fly - But leave me your stardust to remember you by.'  The song is about coping with the fact that sometimes you have to let go of the people you care about.

The other song is 'House of Gold' by 'Twenty One Pilots'.  It has sort of the same premise, but the roles are flipped.  This one is about a son who wants to have the means to provide for his mother in her later years.  She's provided for him after all, and it's only fair that he return the favor.  'She asked me, son, when I grow old - Will you buy me a house of gold - And when your father turns to stone - Will you take care of me?'  The son wants to care for his mom in the event of his father's death.  He worries that he won't be able to provide for her needs financially.  My favorite line in the song is 'And since we know that dreams are dead - And life turns plans upon there heads - I will plan to be a bum - So I just might become someone!'  This drives home for me the point that the future is unknowable.  We can't control it.

And what are our biggest fears?  The unknown.  And if the future is both unknown and unknowable it stands to reason that the future and the change it brings can be one of our biggest sources of anxiety.  And fear can be such an isolating emotion.  Fear of the unknown future is not something we have to face alone however.  Because the unknown future and the fear it brings are universal.  Everyone has experienced it or will experience it.  Everyone you come in contact with should be able to empathize with your worries.  That makes everyone you meet a potential part of your support group.  Or, if talking to other people about your worries is too scary, you can have you fears quelled vicariously through songs like 'Boats and Birds' or 'House of Gold'.  Songs help because they remind us that we aren't so alone.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Thoughts On: Shrek (2001)

'What did you do this weekend, Geekboy?'  Well, I watched the Dreamworks animated film 'Shrek' with my family.  Because about the only other thing I could muster up the energy to do was watch sword-fighting clips from Errol Flynn swashbucklers on Youtube.  That's right.  The party never stops when I'm around.

'Shrek' is pretty much beloved by kids and adults across the board.  Why is that?  What makes it tick?  Why is 'Shrek' hailed as the perfect modern fairy-tale for the 21st century?

Is it because there's enough princess stuff for the young girls, enough action and gross-out humor for young boys, and a nostalgic pop soundtrack for the grown-ups?  I think appealing to so many demographics is definitely part of the success.  As a kid I really dug the actions scenes with the suspension bridge over the pit of lava and the dragon chase through the castle (and still do as an adult).  My Dad liked 'Shrek' primarily for the jukebox soundtrack and Donkey's wacky antics.

But jokes and catchy music only go so far.  What is it about the story and the characters that resonates with all ages?  I think it's because it's a story about oddballs.  And let's face it, we're a society of oddballs.  Few things are more compelling than three individuals who come together, learn to see past their differences (or differences that are actually similarities in disguise) and become buds.

Let's take a look at the title character Shrek.  He's a loner who takes the whole introversion think very seriously.  As an introvert I can identify with this character right away.  But as the story goes on we learn that a big part of the reason Shrek hates being around people is that people hated being around him first.  They started it.

Then we have Donkey.  When he crosses paths with Shrek he has that whole 'We oddballs must stick together!' thing going.  Shrek, who is so used to being alone, is incredibly annoyed by this.  We identify with Shrek here because we all know what unwanted company is like.  We introverts will find all living beings to be annoying at some point in our lives.  Our family, our we don't ACTUALLY hate everybody, we just need a little space right now.  And the ability to hear ourselves think.  But on the flip side of this we also identify with Donkey.  Because we all go through that awkward stage where we desperately want someone - ANYONE - to like us.  Often this awkward stage is called puberty.  And as much as Shrek doesn't really want Donkey around, Donkey does slowly begin to draw Shrek out of his shell.

And to complete this trio we have Princess Fiona.  She's trying her hardest to behave the way a perfect Princess should act, because that's the role in society that she's expected to play.  But let's face it - that's just not her.  In addition to this she has an embarrassing secret: That whole 'turning into an ogre when the sun sets' thing.  This resonates with the 'Oh, nobody would like me if they knew about (fill in the blank) ' that most socially awkward people have going.  So, Fiona is basically pretending she's something that she isn't - twice over - in order to fit in.

These characters are all basically three sides of the same socially awkward coin.  So the narrative of these three people who don't fit in anywhere become friends - or in Shrek and Fiona's case fall in love - is the sort of story we oddballs need to hear.  Because deep down we know that there's nothing so wrong with us that we can't have friends or fall in love, but sometimes we need a reminder.

That may not be why Shrek resonates with everyone - I don't know what you extroverts get out of it - but I think it's why it resonates with me.  Leave a comment about why Shrek resonates with you.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Here we go again.  Last installment of the Seven Samurai vs Magnificent Seven series.

The 2016 version makes a few subtle changes to the story we should be pretty familiar with by now.  Rather than bandits stealing grain we have an evil robber baron 'Bartholomew Bogue' out to steal the farmers land and the valuable mineral rights that go with it.  The seed for this idea of 'Thar be gold in those hills!' was planted in the 60's version with Harry Luck's obsessive notion that the bandits must be after buried treasure rather than grain.

Rather than turn to the local wise old man for advice the townsfolk meet in the Church to figure out how to deal with this.  Bartholomew crashes this little party, and burns down the Church building.  All this is to show us just how evil he is.  As if this isn't bad enough Bartholomew's men quite literally kick the Pastor while he's down.  The husband of our female lead, Emma, rushes to the Pastor's aid and is shot in cold blood.

We now switch to our heroes.  Or at least one of them.  There are seven of these guys after all.  Specifically we switch to Sam Chisolm, who is quick to remind you that he's a 'Warrant Officer' rather than a bounty hunter (but he's basically a bounty hunter).  We're given clues to his character arc and motivation through the sort of bounties he collects.  He's after a man who has murdered fathers, sons, and raped wives.  You don't mess with families around Sam Chisolm.

Chisolm is approached by Emma.  Unlike Seven Samurai and the '60s Magnificent Seven, Chisolm doesn't agree to help simply because it's the right thing to do.  His interest isn't peaked until he hears the name Bogue.  He's got history with Bartholomew.  He asks Emma if she's out for revenge.  Her response?  'I seek righteousness, as should we all.  But I'll take revenge.'

Now that our heroic leader is on-board we go about the recruitment process.  To save time Chisolm already knows most of the men he recruits.  And the ones he doesn't have history with are all like, 'Hey, I have a buddy who's an expert knife thrower!  Can they come too?'  So, that's a subtle difference between versions.  Another is Chisolm's recruitment methods.  They occasionally border on blackmail.  For example, he buys the horse Joshua Faraday lost in a dice game and is all 'My horse now.  If you want it back you have to do a job for me.'  And then there's Vasquez, an outlaw he promises not to turn in, but only if he joins the suicide mission.

So.  On one hand this updated version feels a little cynical to me.  The storytellers decided to give most of the characters motivations to fight other than 'Yay!  Sticking up for the underdogs!  It's the right thing to do!'  Chisolm in particular feels a little jaded to me as we learn he's out for revenge on Bogue himself.  As leader of the seven he's the one you want to feel the LEAST jaded.  At times I feel like they were trying to make a Clint Eastwood western rather than a Magnificent Seven remake.

On the other hand we have themes of joining a common cause in spite of personal differences.  This message is downright humanitarian!  We have the Mexican outlaw Vasquez and Goodnight Robicheaux, whose grandfathers fought on opposite sides in the Battle of the Alamo, and we also have ex-Indian fighter Jack Horne and Comanche warrior Red Harvest fighting side by side.

The choice of the name Red Harvest - and this may be a bit of a stretch - seems like a clever Easter Egg to me.  Film Historians speculate that Dashiell Hammett's prohibition era mystery novel 'Red Harvest' may have inspired Akira Kurosawa's film 'Yojimbo' which in turn inspired the Spaghetti Western film 'For a Fistful of Dollars.'  And who directed 'Seven Samurai,' the film upon which 'Magnificent Seven' is based?  Also Akira Kurosawa.

Speaking of 'Seven Samurai,' the 2016 adaption doesn't seem to have a stand in for the Kikuchiyo character.  Not among the Seven at least.  I honestly think the closest equivalent is Emma.  She spends a good deal of the story trying to convince Chisolm to let her join the fight,  but not in a cheesy 'girl power' type way.  She doesn't have anything to prove, but feels as if they need every good shot they have, and wants an active part in bringing her husband's killer to justice.

I feel like Emma/Kikuchiyo parallel is particularly evident in the climax of the movie.  In a desperate attempt to escape from Chisolm's wrath, Bogue runs to the Church for sanctuary.  You know, that same Church that he burned down in the beginning of the picture.  Chisolm has him cornered, but like all dishonorable bad guys Bogue pulls out the backup weapon he had stashed on his person.  He's about to pull the trigger, and we hear a gunshot.  Not his gunshot, but Emma's.  She's avenging her husband's death and - like Kikuchiyo - becoming a full fledged warrior in the process.

And that's it for my Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven series.  Hope you enjoyed, and if you haven't already, check out at least one of these movies - if not all three.  Each one has its own merits and I think it's worth studying the differences and similarities between adaptions.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Welcome to spot the differences...Magnificent Seven addition!  Now, the most obvious difference between 'Seven Samurai' and the The Magnificent Seven' is that 'The Magnificent Seven' is 'Seven Samurai' but with COWBOYS!

Okay.  That's it for this post.  Lets see, what should I review next?

What, you were expecting a more in-depth compare and contrast?

>Sigh<  Fine.

Remember when I said one of the major themes in Seven Samurai is the class differences between the farmers and the Samurai?  That's not really the case here.  The Gunslingers pretty much treat the farmers as equals.  This is a story about sticking up for the underdog and fighting for a cause because it's the right thing to do, rather than for personal gain.  Seven Samurai is also about fighting for a cause because it's the right thing to do, but it's more about personal honor and less about underdogs.

The film starts in a small Mexican village in a similar manner to Seven Samurai, only this time around there is actual interaction between the farmers and the bandits.  When one of the farmers tries to fight back he is gunned down.  So the villagers consult the old man and he tells them to scrape together everything of value they have so they can buy guns to fight off the bandits.

So they head north to find guns.  As we're cutting out all of that class difference stuff, we're also cutting back on the process of finding honorable Samurai who don't treat the farmers as if they're the dirt beneath their shoes.  The first thing the farmers witness when they arrive in town is two gunslingers risking their lives to give a dead American Indian a proper burial.  These gunslingers are Chris (played by Yul Brynner) who will be your Sensei Kambei for the evening, and Vin (played by Steve McQueen).  At first glance Vin seems to fill the role of Katsushirō, except there is no mentor/student dynamic between Chris and Vin.  Again, they are treated as equals.

The act of heroism is also witnessed by a young Mexican wannabe Gunslinger named Chico (played by Horst Buchholz).  Chico seems to be Katsushirō and Kikuchiyo combined.  He has Katsushirō's youthful naivety, insecurity, and romantic subplot.  He has Kikuchiyo's pride, blustery goofball nature, and also plays the role as moderator between gunslingers and farmers.  Chris describes Chico as 'Young and proud.  And the graveyards are filled with young and proud gunslingers'.

So the farmers ask Chris to help them buy guns.  Chris advises them to hire gunslingers instead as 'Men are cheaper than guns'.  ...That's not cynical at all...  So they offer him all the money they could scrape together.  To which he responds: 'I've been offered a lot for my work...but never everything.'  Is that profound or what?

So after that Chris goes about hiring gunmen.  This section is more or less identical to Seven Samurai.  One think about Seven Samurai though, is after the main introduction of each of the seven only the three main characters get a lot of development.  In 'The Magnificent Seven' more of the gunslingers have defining characteristics.  We have Harry, the soldier of fortune, Lee, army deserter who caves under pressure, and Bernardo, who has a soft spot children in spite of his gruff persona.  Of course as we're spending more time with the gunslingers we're also spending less time with the villagers and the social commentary from the original.

One interesting difference between 'Seven Samurai' and 'The Magnificent Seven' comes in the form of 'Show Don't Tell'.  Seven Samurai has Kambei studying maps and surveying the land to determine the best way to defend the village.  Magnificent Seven merely shows us the gunslingers overseeing construction of stone walls and the placement of nets.  'Magnificent Seven' saves time in this manor, but 'Seven Samurai' shows us that Kambei to be a brilliant strategist.  Also in 'Magnificent Seven' Petra tells Chico through exposition that the fathers feared for the safety of their daughters and made them go into hiding.  She also tells Chico that her father will punish her for spending so much time with him.  In 'Seven Samurai' Shino's father forcibly cuts her hair so she'll look like a boy, and later gives her a beating after catching her with Katsushirō.  I don't know if Petra's exposition info-dump is to save time or because of the MPAA's stance on depictions of violence towards women at the time.

In general 'Magnificent Seven' is a lighter movie than 'Seven Samurai'.  For example, there's a scene where the gunslingers try to convince the wise old man to move into the village as they can't defend his home.  The old man refuses to leave.  In 'Seven Samurai' the houses on the other side of the river are burned to the ground and everyone but a small child is killed by the bandits.  In 'Magnificent Seven' the old man shows up again after the climax without a scratch.

Although the first half of 'Magnificent Seven' follows 'Seven Samurai' pretty faithfully, the second half starts to diverge.  Rather than sneaking off into the enemy camp to steal superior weaponry, Chico infiltrates the bandits to spy.  And instead of negative consequences for his reckless action, he is praised as a hero.  However, some of the farmers get cold feet after the initial skirmish and betray the gunslingers by letting the bandits into the village.

The bandit leader allows the gunslingers to live, but only taking there guns and force marching them out of town.  The seven decide to return to the town in spite of this betrayal, as they were paid for a job and that job is unfinished.  It's a combination of personal pride and sense of duty.

So they have a heroic last stand which many of the gunslingers die.  The most tragic is Bernardo, who dies protecting the three young boys who've adopted him.  Chico - and this is what I consider to be the biggest difference between the two versions - survives.  I was actually pretty disappointed about this the first time I watched 'Magnificent Seven'.  I hadn't seen yet 'Seven Samurai', but I knew from the anime series 'Samurai 7' that Kikuchiyo dies in the end and is buried with honor alongside his fallen comrades as a true Samurai.  Having Chico survive and stay with Petra to start a life as a farmer felt like the opposite of a character arc to me.

Watching it again, the change works pretty well.  The other gunslingers are predicting that Chico will die in battle because of his impetuous nature since the beginning of the movie, so it's kind of a plot twist when he doesn't.  Also part of what makes Kikuchiyo's death so effective is that he's atoning for his past mistake of deserting his post and getting people killed.  Also, Chico is a combination of Kikuchiyo and Katsushirō, and given the more optimistic tone of 'Magnificent Seven' it makes sense that Chico gets Katsushirō's happy ending.

Bottom line: 'Seven Samurai' and 'The Magnificent Seven' have a lot of similarities, but enough differences to keep things interesting.  If you watch one it is definitely worth your time to watch the other.