Monday, May 29, 2017

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Geekboy.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

On Free Comics...

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

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

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

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