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

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.


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.