Thursday, December 21, 2017

Best Vs. Favorite: Geekboy Ranks the Star Wars Movies

So 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' just recently came out, and audience reaction has been pretty divided.  There are those who are saying that it's the best Star Wars movie since 'Empire Strikes Back,' and those who are creating online petitions for Disney/Lucasfilm to call a mulligan and REMAKE IT, BUT DO IT RIGHT THIS TIME.  If you ask me, it's pretty ridiculous for an audience to think they have any right to demand that storytellers tell a story the way that they think it should go.  I've yet to see it, so I can't way in on the 'best ever or the worst ever' thing.  I've just been trying my best to avoid spoilers, which is hard because I apparently spend 25 hours a day on the internet, and that's the place spoilers call home.

What I can do is ask a simple question: Who ever said that 'Empire' was the best one in the first place?  And yeah, before you say "Like, Everybody? Duh?" it's a rhetorical question.  What I mean to say it that 'Best' is a OBJECTIVE term.  It's a universal truth, rather than a preference.  'Favorite' is always a better way to describe a movie, because 'Favorite' is a SUBJECTIVE term.  Odds are good that that somebody out there really really hates your favorite movie.  Therefore your favorite movie cannot be the 'best movie ever' because best is a universal truth.

Think of it like you would your favorite ice cream flavor.  Is Mint Chip the best ice cream?  As far a universal truths go, that one is pretty debatable.  Is it one of my favorites?  Yup.  And I try to apply the same logic to movies.

And before you try to tell me that 'Empire' is the best from a critical standpoint, or from as storytelling standpoint, let's take a quick look at one of the first scenes in the movie.  It's the first scene where two of the characters we'll be spending way to much time with (AKA Han and Leia) interact.  And I find this scene really painful to watch EVERY SINGLE TIME.  So Han comes back from a scout trip and informs his superior officer that he's leaving the resistance to go pay off his debt to Jabba the Hutt.  Hey, good use of foreshadowing right?  Right.

 The problem is that Leia clearly shown within earshot and is presumably eavesdropping.  So anyway, Han goes over to say goodbye to Leia, and she gives him the royal brush-off.  So he leaves in a huff, and the next thing you know she's chasing after him, acting shocked that he's leaving even though she clearly overheard that he was leaving, heard him give his reasons for leaving, and he basically said 'Bye Leia, I'm leaving now. Here's lookin' at you, kid.'  The way this scene is written and edited together, in my opinion, makes Leia look really really dumb.  And we know Leia's not dumb.  So, tell me again how 'Empire' is the best from a storytelling standpoint?

A lot of Star Wars fans like 'Empire' best, and that's their prerogative.  There is this mindset though, that if you don't think 'Empire' is the best, you're somehow a not a real fan.  Except, going back to my ice cream analogy, there's no such thing as a best movie.  So, is 'Empire' really your favorite, or do you just like it because somebody else said it's the best one?  Because if it's only your favorite because a lot of people say it's the best, well, quite frankly that makes you a sheep.

Here's a list of the Star Wars series in the order of my favorites.

#1: Return of the Jedi: I love a good ending to a story.  'Jedi' isn't a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination but that doesn't stop it from being my favorite.  In any good trilogy the final installment SHOULD be the most satisfying, because we've traveled with the heroes on their journey and have watched them grow into the characters that they're supposed to be.  Lately a lot of third installments have felt like disappointing cash grabs, like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, but in the Original Star Wars trilogy and in Indiana Jones, this rule holds true for me.  My favorite part of 'Return of the Jedi' is the way our attention is divided between the Luke's fight with Darth Vader and the Emperor, Lando Calrissian's space battle, and Han and Leia's struggle on the Moon of Endor.  We cut back and forth between these three battles, and I'm equally invested in all of them.  It's pretty intense.  And the themes of redemption and the culmination of Darth Vader's relationship with Luke is so satisfying.  'Return of the Jedi' gets top spot from me.

#2: A New Hope: Hey, it's iconic.  The movie that stated it all.  It's hard to think Star Wars without thinking of Jawas, Obi Wan mentoring a young and naive Luke, twin sunsets, Leia's cinnamon roll hairstyle...the list goes on.  A well earned #2 spot, and if I wasn't more interested in the ending of story arcs then the beginnings, it would be an easy #1.

#3: The Force Awakens: Yeah, this is hard.  As something of an original trilogy purist, I was rather disturbed when I realized I liked this movie more than 'Empire.'  I have major problems with 'Awakens,' such as 'Starkiller Base' aka, 'we're too lazy to come up with an original plot device!' but I have more fun WATCHING this movie than I do 'Empire'.  And as this is a favorites list, not a best list, how mush fun I have watching a movie is pretty important.

#4: The Empire Strikes Back: Um, I enjoy all the parts that have Luke in them?  Here's the deal: Some of the SCENES in 'Empire' are my favorite SCENES in a Star Wars movie.  The fight with the Wampa, the battle with the AT-ATs, the stuff with Yoda...and then there are all the parts that have Han and Leia in them.  At least all the parts before Cloud City.  I really cringe at most of the romantic stuff in this picture.  And we spend so much time with Han and Leia, that Luke's scenes kind of make him feel like he's a minor character in his own story.

#5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: This is the best Star Wars movie we didn't need.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this movie.  But when it was announced it felt like Disney was just making more Star Wars to make more Star Wars.  Your getting a new Star Wars movie shoved down your throat every year for the next six years whether you want one or not.  Oh, and we just canceled Tron 3.  That movie you actually wanted to see.  Because we're too busy making more Star Wars.  What I like about Rogue One is that they made it definitively a stand alone movie.  I respect Disney/Lucasfilm for not trying to create a dozen spin-off franchises with Rogue One.  That said, part of what I likes so much about 'Force Awakens' is the way it opened up new story telling possibilities.  It makes you excited for what comes next.  Rogue One is a good movie in it's own right, but it doesn't leave you wanting more.  It's biggest strength is sort of it's biggest weakness.

#6: Attack of the Clones: ...Is not a good movie.  It's a bad movie with a good movie trying to get out.  It's my favorite of the prequel movies because of it's potential.  Every now and then I remember how much I really hate the Anakin and Padme love story, and C3PO's awful string of one-liners in the climax - "This is such a drag!" and think of the parts I like - such as the assassination plots, the web of intrigue Obi Wan is slowly unraveling, that part where Padme is trapped in a crucible that's about to fill with molten metal, the dumb fun flying car chase, the dumb fun booby trapped conveyor belt, and the dumb fun arena fight.  If you're looking for a dumb fun action movie, this might just be the Star Wars for you.  If I turn off my brain and put on Nostalgia Goggles, there are parts of 'Attack of the Clones' I really enjoy.

#7: Revenge of the Sith: ...Is a better movie than Attack of the Clones.  A better Star Wars movie too.  Too many of the parts I enjoy about 'Clones' don't really belong in a Star Wars movie - they're more like a Cyberpunk B-movie version of Minority Report.  'Revenge of the Sith' is the only movie in the prequel trilogy that feels like Star Wars.  But refer back to my 'How much fun do I have watching it?' point from 'The Force Awakens' - I find 'Attack of the Clones' much more fun to watch, even though I think 'Revenge of the Sith' is a better movie.

#8: The Phantom Menace: ...Introduced Jar Jar Binks, Midi-Chlorians, and a child actor who does his best with the material he is given.  Qui-Gon-Jinn is a good character, but his introduction as Obi Wan's mentor seemingly contradicts the original canon - Yoda is the one who trained Obi Wan.  So much of this movie is either pointless, (like pod-racing) annoying, (like Jar Jar, Anakin, the Jedi Council, and Boss Nass) or contradictory to the cannon (like Midi-Chlorians and Qui-Gon).  Phantom Menace doesn't bring enough new stuff to the table to make re-watching it ever again worth my time.  It's the only Star Wars movie I can say that about.

So, That's my list.  At least until I see 'The Last Jedi.'  And I'd have to really love it or really REALLY hate it for it to replace my top or bottom slot.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

 You know that feeling when you first find out that a story you really like is going to be turned into a movie?  And there's a part of you that's really excited, but another part of you remembers having seen movie adaptions of other stories that you loved, but the movie turns out to be horrible?  And so you don't know if you want to put yourself through the torment of seeing another awful adaption?

This is more or less how my siblings and I felt way back in 2004 when the 'Series Of Unfortunate Events' movie was released.  We had been going through the books together as a family.  Having started reading them when the series was in full swing (I think I started on them when Book 8: 'The Hostile Hospital' was the current release, so 2001ish) we had caught up to the current books and were eagerly awaiting the annual releases as they began ending in cliffhangers.

We had every right to be concerned.  They were squishing three books into one movie.  How were they going to handle Sunny Baudelaire, an infant who spoke only in gibberish, whose siblings could understand?  And that casting choice of Jim Carrey as Count Olaf - loved him in 'The Mask' but he's been in some real stinkers since then.

In short, we didn't see the movie right away because there was no way we thought it would work.  And by all rights it shouldn't have.  But it did.

It's not a perfect movie.  Squishing the first three books together - or rather, chopping 'The Bad Beginning' in half and inserting 'The Reptile Room' and 'The Wide Window' between the two halves, could be viewed as a mistake.  The movie is barely over an hour and a half, and it moves along at breakneck speed.  Re-watching it, I checked the time stamp and they only spend about 17 minutes on 'The Reptile Room', which is a murder mystery, and they kind of skip over the solution of the murder.  I haven't seen the new Netflix adaption of the books but as they spend two episodes per book the stories probably have more time to breathe.

As an adaption though, it is true to the spirit of the books.  The story is framed with narration from Lemony Snicket, chronicler of the many misfortunes that have befallen the Baudelaires and writer of the books.  He's every bit the character in the movie that he is in the books - a mysterious shadowy figure who's face is never clearly seen - who interrupts the story every now and then to apologies for just how woeful the tale is and to show off his vocabulary.  Fun fact: If I hadn't read the books when I was a kid there's a chance I wouldn't know the meaning of words like schism or penultimate.  When I saw the promotional material for the Netflix show and saw the character of Snicket front and center instead of lurking in the shadows I was horrified.  How could this show that was supposed to be more faithful to the books get wrong what the movie got so right?

The kids are handled well in the movie too.  Sunny's gibberish is translated with subtitles, and this solution works well.  I feel like they didn't give Klaus much to do - perhaps because of that aforementioned murder mystery element in 'The Reptile Room' that they downplayed: Klaus really shines in the climax of that book.  He does get to decode a secret message later on, (which is from the third book) so that's something.  Violet (played by Emily Browning who would go on to star in 'Suckerpunch') is like a steampunk teenage girl version of Macgyver - so I'd say they nailed her character.  It's fun to see Emily Browning in an early role and see her future promise.  She's got a very expressive face here, and so much of her character is portrayed through expressive reactions.  In the books these three are practically super-geniuses, and by relying on each other's strengths they can take on anything the world throws at them.  Some of the bits of the stories that they cut are the parts where the kids are showing off their individual talents - like a scene in 'The Wide Window' where they use a peppermint allergy to escape from a nasty situation.  There are some added scenes where they really capture this though - like the sequence where the Baudelaires are locked in a car on the railroad tracks and the train is a-coming.  They manage to escape only by using their combined talents, and this is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

And how is Jim Carrey as Count Olaf?  He's sinister.  He's hilarious.  You love to hate him.  In short, he's just about perfect.  There may be a moment or two where he takes things a little too far - a little too Jim Carrey and not enough Count Olaf - with the silly faces and funny noises, but for the most part he's great.  And as Count Olaf is a master of disguise (well, sort of.  He'll never fool the kids, but the adults fall for it every time.)  Jim Carrey is really playing three different characters, and he makes each of them his own.  It could be argued that Count Olaf gets too much time in the spotlight, and the story is supposed to be about the Baudelaire orphans, not the villain.  But hey.  I love to see a great villain.

Things are changed around for the ending a little bit.  One thing that happens from time to time in the books is the siblings get separated and either Klaus or Violet has to pick up the slack as they are down one of the skill-sets they need to get out of a sticky situation.  The movie has that too, with Klaus tapping into Violet's talents and inventing a grappling hook to rescue Sunny.

Some of the main themes of the books are how bad things happen to good people.  That's just how the world works.  How we wish things could be are not the same as how things are.  The movie captures 'How we wish things could be' vs. 'How things really are' well in two scenes near the end.  One where Lemony Snicket says that he wishes he could end the story with 'And then they caught Count Olaf, and he was forced to endure all the hardships that he inflicted on the Orphans.'  We get a hilarious montage of Count Olaf getting run over by a train and attacked by carnivorous leeches.  And then we learn that in actuality he escaped justice and would be back once again to torment the Baudelaires.  The other is where the Orphans visit their childhood home (which had burned down in the beginning of the story) and see it as they wish to see it - in it's former glory - as the camera pans over it and the beauty fades to ashes before their eyes.  It's a beautiful and sad scene.

I'd be shirking my duties as an amateur film discussing person if I failed to mention that this movie is really gorgeous.  Seriously, it's just really nice to look at.  It's got a quirky Gothic/German Expressionistic/Steampunk type feel to it.  A bit like a Tim Burton movie, but it's not just copying Burton, it's doing it's own thing.  It doesn't quite capture the feel of Brett Helquist's illustrations from the books, but it knows what aesthetic it's going for and stays true to that aesthetic.  It's a good movie to pop in of you're in need of some creative inspiration.

The themes of family sticking together and relying on each other to get through hard times are really strong in this movie.  As a fan of the books, I don't mind that they changed things around a little bit.  They captured the spirit of the books but they weren't afraid to be their own thing.  I think I'd miss all of the scenes they added if they weren't there.  And honestly, if this were an adaption that were 100% faithful to the source material, what would the point be of making an adaption?  If a movie is identical to the book, you may as well just read the book.  This captures the feel of the books and brings something new to the table as well.

Good movie.  Check it out.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Geekboy's Movie Poster Collection: Part 1

So I just spent the last two weeks doing a massive remodel of my bedroom.  Throwing Spackle around, repainting, building new shelves, tearing out old carpet, and rearranging my furniture.  I decided I wanted some new wall art to go with the new paint job.  I'd found a dealer on Ebay who specializes in the reproduction of vintage posters at reasonable prices, and I'd been drooling over them for a while.  I finally took the plunge and purchased some of my favorites.

First up we have the 1941 Republic serial 'Jungle Girl'.  If you know me you know that this is my all time favorite serial, so picking up this one was an obvious move.

As this dealer also had the 1942 follow up, 'Perils of Nyoka,' I bought it as well so I'd have a complete set.

Third we have 1949's 'King of the Rocketmen'.  This is the first of four Republic serials to feature the Rocketman suit - the others being 'Radar men from the Moon' (1952) 'Zombies of the Stratosphere' (1952) and 'Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe' (1953).  Each of the Rocketman serials uses a significant amount of stock footage from the previous installments, so watching them back to back can get pretty redundant.

Fun fact: The Rocketman serials are the primary source of inspiration for Dave Steven's comicbook hero 'The Rocketeer'.

George Lucas also named one of the Clone Troopers from Star Wars 'Commander Cody' as a tribute to the character from 'Radar Men' and 'Sky Marshal'.

And finally we have the 1968 science fiction film 'The Green Slime'.  This is kind of the odd one out in a collection for Cliffhanger Serial posters, but it's an awesome poster and I wanted it, okay?

It may be an awesome poster, but the movie that goes with it is slightly less awesome.  It does have a rocking theme song though - give a listen here:


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954)

Happy Monster Month.

'Creature of the Black Lagoon.'  This is very special movie for me.  One, because I was at Wakulla Springs Florida (where portions of 'Black Lagoon' was filmed) when I was seven or eight years old.  Two, this is the first monster movie I saw (excluding the '33 King Kong) when I was about 16 or 17, and that kicked off my classic monster movie obsession.

As it was my first monster movie, I didn't know at the time just how impressive the Gill-Man costume was.  The two actors portraying the creature (Ben Chapman on land, Ricou Browning underwater) were covered head to toe in rubber, yet moved naturally.  The Creature moves gracefully underwater, and when he's on land gasping for breath you can see his gills moving as well.  Compare with the Ro-Man costume from 1953's 'Robot Monster' released just one year prior to 'Black Lagoon.'

Yeah, no contest, right?

'Creature from the Black Lagoon' is less a monster movie, and more an adventure movie that happens to have a monster in it.  It begins with geologist Carl Maia's discovery of a fossilized webbed hand belonging to an undiscovered creature in a rock deposit deep in the Amazon jungle.  He returns to civilization to assemble a team of scientists in the hope of discovering the rest of the creature's skeleton.

The newly assembled expedition includes Ichthyologist David Reed (played by Richard Carlson) his girlfriend Kay (Julie Adams) and their boss Mark Williams (Richard Denning).  Fans of classic Mystery shows may recognize Richard Denning as the male half of detective duo 'Mr. and Mrs. North.'

The team of scientists theorize that the fossilized could belong to a lungfish style fish/man hybrid.  So they hire a boat and set off down the Amazon river.  David is in it for the science.  Kay is mostly just along for the ride.  Mark is very obviously coming for the money and fame that comes with discovery.

They return to Carl's base camp and discover that it's been attacked.  The two men guarding the camp have been ripped to shreds.  Amusingly, the scientist tell Kay to 'go stand over there' while they investigate.  So she's standing by the bank of the river and this webbed hand starts creeping towards her ankle.  The music is building all sinister-like, and then SHE MOVES!  The sinister music fizzles and the hand slinks back into the water in a dejected 'Aw, rats!' type way.  That's right, the Gill-Man can be foiled by taking two steps forward.  Hilarious.

So the team spends several days digging in the rock deposit where Carl first found the hand without finding anything.  Theorizing that part of the rock deposit could have broken off and washed down river.  So they follow the tributary to where it ends - the titular 'Black Lagoon'.  The scientist go searching for rock samples, and Kay decides to go swimming.  Yep, this is probably the most famous sequence in the movie.  Scratch that.  This IS the most famous sequence in the movie.  If you ask anyone on the street if they've seen 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' they'd say: "Isn't that the one where the pretty girl goes swimming with the monster?  They really should've posted some 'no swimming' signs!"

So the Gill-Man, fascinated by Kay, follows her from a distance and gets caught in the ship's fishing net.  After putting up a struggle that very nearly sinks their ship, the creature breaks free, and the scientists know they're after a big find.  Mark decides he wants to kill the creature and bring it back as a trophy, while David argues that they should leave it alive to study.  They devise a plan to drug the water and force the Gill-Man to surface.  Unfortunately the Creature is only groggy when he surfaces, and he attacks and kills one of the members of the expedition, and tries to carry off Kay before he is captured.

The cage the team built to contain the Gill-Man proves insufficient, and the creature breaks free that night.  He attacks and injures one of the crew members, but is scared off by the light from a lantern.  After an argument between David, Mark, and the Captain, the team decides to cut their losses and head for home.  But they soon discover that the Creature build a dam around the entrance of the lagoon.  They're trapped.  Mark sees this as an opportunity for one last chance to try and kill the creature, and tensions between Mark and David come to a head.  And can they stop the Gill-Man from carrying Kay off the his underwater cave?

I was big into Crypt-zoology as a kid.  I read just about everything I could get my hands on about Sasquatch lore, the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti...
This movie really captures that feeling of heading off into the uncharted wilderness to find something that may or may not exist.  'Creature from the Black Lagoon' really taps into that romanticized idea I had as a kid of adventure and the thrill of discovery.  So, yeah, it's not so much a monster movie as it is an adventure movie with a monster in it.  But it's a GOOD adventure movie with a monster in it.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jack 'O Lantern 2017

I decided to carve an actual pumpkin this year instead of a gourd.  I know what you're thinking:  How does one live 20+ years without making a proper Jack 'o Lantern?  Well, carving pumpkins was never a part of my childhood.  Why?  Because my mom didn't believe in growing pumpkins unless she could use them for pie.  So for my formative years the only pumpkins I really had access to looked something like this ----------------------------------- >

< ---------------- I picked this pumpkin up for a dollar at a local fruit stand while shopping for apples with my family.  I wasn't 100% sure it was big enough to suit my purposes, but I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.


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.