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Monday, March 27, 2017

Gojira (1954) – Review

In 1953 Ray Harryhausen introduced the world to the first atomic created monster with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, spawning such follow up nuclear created beasts as the giant ants from Them and the towering menace of The Amazing Colossal Man, but the Beast’s most famous descendant was Gojira (Godzilla to those in the English speaking part of the world). Released by Toho productions just one year after Harryhausen’s creation stomped through the streets of New York City Ishirô Honda’s Gojira would go on to become one of the most famous franchises in cinema history.


The sight of a man in a monster suit stomping across miniature buildings has become the iconic standard for Godzilla films or any kaiju (giant monster) film for that matter, but that was not how special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya intended his monster to be, originally Godzilla would have been created with the same stop-motion animation techniques used for such films as the original King Kong and The Beasts from 20,000 Fathoms, but there was only one small problem, Tsuburaya informed the film’s producer that it would take him about seven years to produce all the effects shots required for the movie, thus “Suitmation” (opposed to Dynamation which was title Harryhausen coined for his stop-motion technique) was born. This of course would not be the first time an actor wore a monster suit but this would be the first time an actor would be portraying a beast that towered over buildings.


If your first viewing of director Ishirô Honda’s original Gojira is after seeing many of the rather goofy sequels that were made during the following years (1955-1975), known to fans as the Shōwa period, movies where Godzilla engaged in fights with various other monsters in a much more kid friendly and lighthearted way, you may be pleasantly surprised at how serious and dark the original film was. At no point does Godzilla dance a jig or fly across the terrain on his tail for super-dropkick, but instead you will see the embodiment of terror that the age of nuclear holocaust held over the people of Japan. The memories of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still very fresh in the minds of the Japanese people, and just eight months before the release of Gojira a fishing boat called Lucky Dragon Number Five found itself bathed in fallout from American nuclear testing off the Marshal Islands. In fact this true event is the basis for Godzilla’s first attack.


The movie opens with the Japanese freighter Eiko-maru being destroyed near Odo Island by a mysterious blast, and when a second ship meets the same fate, with few survivors this time, the authorities become very concerned. When local fishing drops to zero an old man claims that it is “Godzilla” an ancient sea monster who the islanders use to sacrifice girls to when the fishing was poor. Lucky for the virgin girls of Odo Island that is no longer the case but unlucky for the rest of the world this monster from the sea doesn’t seem to be appeased by anything, with wanton destruction its only goal. After a village is half destroyed during a storm, where some of the wreckage was clearly caused by being crushed from above and not from high winds, and with the addition of latent radioactivity, massive footprints and the finding of a previously presumed extinct trilobite in said footprint, things start to lend credence to the idea of an ancient monster. The question of this being possible is quickly answered when the village alarm bell rings and the head of a titanic dinosaur like creature crests a nearby hill.


While ship after ship is sunk being by the rampaging monster we are introduced to film’s four key main characters the first being Professor Yamane-hakase (Takashi Shimura) who presents his findings to the governmental officials stating his beliefs that Godzilla evolved from an ancient sea creature but has been disturbed from its deep underwater natural habitat by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. Yamane is of the breed of movie scientists who believes this new discovery must be preserved and studied and not destroyed but this philosophy becomes harder to defend when the beast wreaks unimaginable destruction on the city and its denizens. What’s unique here is that Yamane is treated sympathetically, unlike the somewhat similar minded scientist in the Howard Hawk's film The Thing From Another World, he isn’t ridiculed nor does he get an ironic death but instead we witness a man tortured by his beliefs and the horror of the current situation. This is a complex character not often found in this particular genre.

The remaining three that round out the cast consist of his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi) who is in love with local sailor Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) but has been long betrothed to Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) a colleague of Yamane’s. This love triangle is an interesting thread that weaves throughout the movie; its Serizawa’s scientific knowledge that will be key in destroying Godzilla and its Emiko’s tortured guilt over her affair with the handsome Ogato over the eyepatch wearing and emotionally scarred Serizawa.

 

He does rock that eyepatch.

It’s when Emiko visits Serizawa, with the intention of informing him of her love for Ogato, that Serizawa shows her his latest invention the Oxygen Destroyer, a device which disintegrates oxygen atoms causing the organisms die of a rotting asphyxiation.  Emiko is so horrified by what she sees that she recoils in terror. Serizawa tells her that he wishes he’d never discovered the thing and forces Emiko to promise to never reveal what she has seen to anyone. This is a promise that becomes harder and harder to keep as the devastation and death toll caused by Godzilla mounts.

The desolation caused by Godzilla reaches new heights when it’s revealed he breathes atomic fire, and to make matters worse those that survive the fires and collapsed buildings during the beast’s rampage find themselves suffering from radiation sickness. It’s at this point the idea of Godzilla being an allegory for the nuclear holocaust goes from being subtext to being just plain text. These scenes of carnage are both exhilarating to the viewer but also bleak and terrifying, this juxtaposition of what a typical monster movie consists of to the more serious message picture found is what makes Gojira such an endearing classic. Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is an incredibly fun monster romp, an adventure tale in the same vein of King Kong and 1925s The Lost World, while Gojira offers so much more than thrilling scenes of monsters destroying landmarks.

 

Though the film does provide plenty of that.

One of the more emotional devastating moments in the film takes place during Godzilla’s major rampage through the city, flames reach for the clouds as building crumble into dust, but then the movie cuts to a shot of a woman and her three young children as they cower in fear, the mother attempts to comfort her children in a most heart wrenching way telling them, “We’ll be joining your father in a moment. A little longer, a little longer and we will be with your daddy.” This is clearly implying that though they will most likely die here the bright side is that they will be with father soon, who one assumes died during the war. This kind of emotional heft will never again be achieved in the films to come, even when the franchise moves away from the goofier aspects of the Shōwa period it will never reach the levels of authenticity on display here.


While most monster movies of this genre would end with the hero/scientist figuring out a way to kill the giant menace this film takes that idea in a slightly different direction. After seeing the horrific aftermath of Godzilla’s rampage Emiko breaks the promise she made to Serizawa and she tells Ogata about the Oxygen Destroyer, believing this could be Japan’s only hope in defeating the creature. Serizawa is reluctant to allow his invention to be used as it could lead to a new devastating arms race, noting that even if he was to destroy the formula its secret would still lie within his head with the danger of him being “convinced” to use it again ever present. Of course Serizawa eventually agrees to use his invention, seeing the effects of the monster on the people of his country finally turning his heart, but when he and Ogata are lowered from a Navy ship to deploy it in Godzilla’s underwater lair Serizawa unloads the device and cuts off his own air support, taking the secrets of the Oxygen Destroyer with him to the grave. A heroic suicide isn’t something one expects in a monster movie and Serizawa’s tragic sacrifice is just another element that makes Gojira standout from amongst its brethren.

 

Godzilla dead at the hands of the Oxygen Destroyer.

Modern eyes may find the monster suit a bit quaint, and the puppet used for some shots to be rather goofy, but if you look beyond those elements you will find a powerful story that rightfully launched a decade’s long franchise and over thirty sequels. Toho has even licensed that property to Hollywood which has since resulted in the incredibly bad 1998 Godzilla but also in the quite decent 2014 Godzilla that is the beginning of a Hollywood franchise the Legendary Pictures is calling the MonsterVerse, which will eventually pit Godzilla against all his classic foes including a remake of King Kong vs Godzilla.

One element I would be remiss if I didn't mention is the iconic score by legendary film composer Akira Ifukube whose main theme for Godzilla is still one of the most recognized pieces of cinematic music to date.


Note: Toho licensed Gojira to be released in North America under the title Godzilla King of the Monsters and though many deride this version I considered it to be just another interesting take on Godzilla. The film noir technique of telling the story through flashbacks, highlighted by the melodious smooth voice of Raymond narrating the disaster, added much to the success of this version. The original Gojira is still my preferred version but the Raymond Burr edit should not be dismissed out of hand.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Review

As Disney continues with their trend of churning out live action remakes of their animated films it’s no surprise that they’d tackle one of their biggest hits, but with Beauty and the Beast this is the first time they’ve adapted one from the Disney Renaissance period. The 2015 live action Cinderella and the 2016 Jungle Book were based on animated classics from the 50s and 60s but the animated Beauty and the Beast only came out in 1991, and now with live action adaptations of Mulan, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid all in the works it seems the House of Mouse plans on adapting every single one of their animated hits to the live action format. The big question is, “Is this a good idea?”


To date these adaptations have been much very hit and miss with me, with the numbers favoring the misses over the hits, but I really enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Cinderella so I went to see director Bill Condon’s take on Beauty and the Beast with a decent amount of optimism, but what I was not prepared for was how much I would enjoy it. Much of this comes from Condon’s insistence that the movie remain a full musical like the animated version, all previous live action adaptation having at most given nods to the music of the originals, and also from his obvious love of the original story. Now this is far from the first live action adaption of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's eighteenth-century fairy tale; most notably is Jean Cocteau’s beautifully surreal film La Belle Et La Bete (1946) and then there was the less than successful 2014 adaptation of La Belle Et La Bete by Christoph Gans, but with this new version we get a very organic blend of both the original fairy tale and the Disneyfied version.

Though we still get Belle doing her Maria Von Trapp impression for some reason.

In the original tale Belle requested that her father bring her back a rose, when he found himself lost and inside the Beast’s castle he spotted a rose bush and took one, this of course was a big mistake.  The theft of the rose enraged the Beast who then imprisoned the man, and then later Belle offered to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. In the Disney animated version the “Enchanted Rose” worked solely as a ticking clock device while in this latest version it's still enchanted, with its petals dropping off to let us know when the curse will become permanent, but they also included her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) entering the castle unmolested until he dared pluck a rose as it was in the original fairy tale. This return to the source material makes the structure of the story hold together a little better, with less arbitrary plot points and rules popping up like there were in the 1991 film.


This new version also does its best to clean up the continuity messes that the animated film was littered with; the seasons no longer flit from spring to autumn to winter and back again within days of each other where now the Beasts castle is an area locked in perpetual winter, in the animated film the curse had been going on for ten years but as the curse deadline was the Beast’s 21st birthday this would have made him eleven years old when the Enchantress cursed him for being a dick. And how many eleven year old 18th century French princes weren’t dicks? Not many is my guess. In this adaptation there is no longer a hard timeline on the curse, the Prince (Dan Stevens), while hosting a massive debutante ball, snubs a poor beggar woman who offered him a rose for a night’s shelter, who of course turns out to be an all powerful Enchantress, and he is then cursed to remain a Beast until the last petal falls from the rose. Her curse also erases the castle's existence from the minds of the villagers, which nicely covers that problem the original had of “How could a village forget about a castle that is apparently one mob march away?”

 

I wonder where their tax dollars went during this time period.

In the original animated film Belle was a strong and smart character now in this version Belle (Emma Watson) is all those things also much more; she wants to teach the local children to read, she’s the inventor in the family not her father (he makes clocks), and she doesn’t dodge Gaston’s (Luke Evans) proposals so much as tell him to “Screw off!” We also have less of that Stockholm syndrome romance that plagued the animated version, with a running time of 129 minute we have a lot more time spent with Belle and the Beast getting to know each other while the original had enough time for one song and then they were in love.  A key element in making the love story work in this version is that the Beast is more educated now, he likes to read as much as Belle does, and he's also funny and charming when not in a bestial rage.


The relationship between Belle and the Beast are not the only thing tweaked as other key characters are also fleshed out more; we get a bit of backstory about Belle’s mother and the Beast’s family, we learn that Gaston and LeFou (Josh Gad) fought together in the war (Note: Lefou is given a role beyond just comic relief and Josh Gad was a delight), and even the Enchantress (Mattie Morahan) has a more realized character this time out. With talented actors like Emma Watson and Dan Stevens I was sure we were going to get characters with more width and breadth but I was floored by how much I adored Luke Evans and his Gaston. He’s still arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic, and a bully, he wouldn’t be Gaston if he wasn’t, but he’s also not as dim as his animated version was. He’s also quite a bit more dangerous.  In the 1991 animated version he didn’t really become a threat until the third act, but in this film a psychotic rage is clearly brewing below his facade of awesomeness for most of the film. Luke Evans is also incredibly funny in this role yet never letting the comedy lessening the threat he truly is.  That he goes from admiring himself in the mirror to thoughts of cold blooded murder without coming off as “cartoonish” shows just how good an actor he is.


As for the music we do get all the songs from the animated version, plus a few more added for good measure, and what is surprising is that the new ones, though maybe not as catchy and memorable as the original songs, do work towards getting us inside the characters a bit more, and I’ll admit to tearing up during some of these.

Visually the film is simply stunning from Belle’s quaint provincial town to the ruins of the Beast’s castle, a visual tapestry of delight, but my one small complaint is that a couple of the characters transformed by the curse are a tad over designed. Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) do great work here in their roles but the designs for the candelabra and clock I felt to be too cluttered, while on the other hand the changes to Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and Chip (Nathan Mack) were minor and quite good. The standout design I found was for Lumiere's sweetheart Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a feather duster with a dove motif.


I won’t get into anymore spoilers about the changes but I will say what changes they did make went towards creating a more compelling story and believable characters, and before you start saying “Oh my god the original was perfect, they’ve gone and ruined a classic!” this movie still has all the key sequences from the Disney animated version that we’ve all grown to love; the Beast fights some wolves, he and Belle will have a great ballroom dance, and the villages will storm the castle right on cue, and I can't think of any fans of the animated version not liking this take.  This is how one tackles a remake; you expand on the characters, keep what really worked in the previous version while ditching things that didn't, and harvest more stuff from the source material. That isn't as easy as it sounds but Bill Condon really pulled it off, and one should remember that the 1991 Disney classic will always be there for Disney purists I’m just glad we have this new, and a slightly more adult version, as a great companion piece.

Note: Bill Condon clearly loved the Jean Cocteau version as he often borrowed visuals from the 1946 film such as disembodied arms holding torches.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) – Review

There is something about seeing a giant monster rampaging through city streets that stirs the imagination, from as far back as the 1925 The Lost World where dinosaurs were let loose in the streets of London to Warner Brothers take on Japan’s biggest export Godzilla in 2014 we as a culture have loved watching such wanton destruction. Though The Lost World may have been the first movie to tackle that particular premise it was the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that truly gave birth to the genre.


 Science Note: One fathom equals six feet so that puts this Beast coming from about twenty-three miles down, but the deepest the ocean gets is about seven miles.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms itself was inspired by the success of 1931’s King Kong and it was producers Jack Dietz and Hal E. Chester who approached stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen to provide the titular creature as Harryhausen had previously worked with his mentor Willis O’Brien, the man who had created the effects for the original Kong, on the excellent giant ape movie Mighty Joe Young. The movie was based on the original short story by Ray Bradbury (originally titled "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" it was later changed to “The Fog Horn”) which told the tale of a sea monster mistaking the sound of a fog horn for another of its species.

 

The original artwork from “The Fog Horn” published in the Saturday Evening Post.

The movie opens with military doing atomic testing up in the Arctic, making The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms the first of many atomic fueled monster movies, as the narrator counts down to the detonation of an atomic bomb for something called “Operation: Experiment” (I’m assuming that the man in charge of coming up with decent code names was on vacation) we are introduced to our hero physicist Professor Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Hubschmid) who ponders such thoughts as, "What the cumulative effects of all these atomic explosions and tests will be, only time will tell.” I doubt a giant rampaging dinosaur was an effect he or any other scientist had foreseen but that is exactly what they got. The power of the atom was a very new topic, something the general public knew almost nothing about, so movies were able to capitalize on this by having atomic radiation do about anything the script required. There is a particular hilarious moment when Col. Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey) tells Nesbit and fellow scientist George Ritchie (Ross Elliot), who are about to venture out to where the bomb was detonated to take readings, “The moment your Geiger counter indicates heavy radiation, turn back.”

 

“I’m sure our parkas will keep us safe.”

Of course it’s not radiation poisoning that is the real danger out there as the blast melted tons of ice and awoken a dinosaur from its icy slumber. Nesbit and Richie separate to go and take their readings, which unfortunately for Ritchie leads him to the first encounter with the newly awoken dinosaur. Now I’m not at my best in the morning so I can’t imagine how I’d function if I’d been asleep for over 100 million years only to be jerked awake by an atomic bomb, thus when the dinosaur accidentally kills Richie by causing an avalanche I don’t blame the Beast at all.

 

He was probably just looking for some coffee.

Nesbit himself barely survives the encounter, staggeringly half blind out of a blizzard with the raving tale of a dinosaur killing his friend, and things don’t get much better for him as he’s subjected to ridicule and psychiatric assessments that inform him that the trauma of losing his pal caused him to hallucinate the creature. Later when he reads in the paper of a ship going down, and the sole survivor claiming it was caused by a giant sea monster, he rushes to the local museum to question paleontological expert Professor Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and to get his advice. Elson isn’t too sympathetic stating, “If all the items of seamen reporting monsters were placed end on end they’d reach to the moon," but when a second ship is sunk, with another survivor making similar claims, Elson’s assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) visits Nesbit at his office to encourage him to investigate further. The nice thing here is that Lee is clearly more interested in being with Nesbit on a more romantic aspect than she is for pursuing the whole extinct monster thing. The things a girl will do to get her man.  When they track down one of the witnesses to the monster attacks, and his description of the beast matches that of Nesbit’s, they are finally able to convince Professor Elson that they are onto something.

Note: The dinosaur that Nesbit and the seamen pick out is of the fictional Rhedosaurus, and that a world renowned paleontologist would take the testimony of just two witnesses as proof of a living dinosaur is bigger stretch than the actual existence of said creature.

Colonel Evans, along with the head of the Coast Guard, are able to plot the sightings of the Beast's appearances on a map which leads Professor Elson to propose that the Beast is returning to the Hudson River area where fossils of Rhedosaurus were first found. The evidence of the creature is basically the world of Nesbit, two seaman survivors, one of which had since fled the ridicule his claims garnished and is hiding up north, some coastal debris and one wrecked lighthouse, but I guess in the 1950s paleontologists had a lot of pull because soon enough Elson has a ship equipped with a diving bell and they begin to search.

 

Sadly Elson and another poor seamen find the Beast and are quickly swallowed.

At an hour and twenty minutes The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms does not mess around, the last twenty minutes giving us some of the best “monster on the rampage” stuff ever put to film, but what makes this film standout from many of its imitators is that the Beast feels like an actual animal and not some evil monster hell-bent on destroying cities. When he eventually comes ashore and enters New York City we are clearly seeing an animal that has no idea what happened to the world he last saw, and his first victim is a police officer that opened fire on him. A police officer who was either the bravest or dumbest man alive.  I vote for the dumbest as tries shooting at that thing with a .38 revolver.

 

That cop wasn’t even bite sized.

Another interesting thing about the Rhedosaurus is that unlike Godzilla he is not invulnerable to small weapons fire, when a group of police officers armed with shotguns open fires on the Beast it roars in pain and escapes by crashing through an adjacent building. The writers then came up with the brilliant idea that prevents the authorities from just bringing in big artillery to blow the Beast away, turns out the Rhedosaurus is carrying a "horrible, virulent" prehistoric contagion, and that contact with the creature's blood can be fatal, and that shelling the Beast would just spread the disease faster. That is damn clever but then we do get a silly moment when Col. Evan states they should have used flamethrowers and Nesbit admonishes him saying, “Flamethrowers? The smoke would have carried the blood particles just as far.” I’m no scientist but I’m not aware of any bacteria that can survive being burnt and turned into smoke. But that isn’t even the silliest moment for during the action packed climax, after being chased off by shotguns the Rhedosaurus somehow managed to elude the authorities for a good portion of the night.

 

“Someone call 911, a dinosaur just knocked over my trashcans.”

That a giant monster can somehow “vanish” amongst the buildings of New York City is pretty ridiculous, even a trench coat and a hat wouldn’t help such a creature stay under the radar for long, but what’s truly sad is that this has almost become a trope as its turn up again and again in other movies such as the 1976 remake of King Kong and the 1998 remake of Godzilla.

Eventually our heroes track the Beast to Coney Island for the film’s brilliant finale, Nesbit having figured out that shooting a radioactive isotope into one of the Beast’s open wounds should completely destroy all the diseased tissue, and in a nice change of pace the film’s hero does not get to strike the death blow as the filmmakers of this movie clearly understand if you need to shoot something maybe don’t hand the gun to a physicist. This doesn’t prevent Nesbit from going along for the ride but the actually shooting is done by army sniper Corporal Stone, played by a young Lee Van Cleef, and just how cool is he? Well when asked, “Ever use a grenade rifle?” he responds, “Pick my teeth with it.” And when Nesbit asks him, “You know what a radioactive isotope is?” he answers “No, but if it can be loaded, I can fire it.”  Lee Van Cleef is simply badass.


 

“This thing will never Escape From New York City.”

The visuals of the Rhedosaurus thrashing around the ruins of the Coney Island rollercoaster is some of the best and most poignant moments in the movie, as I mentioned earlier this creature has no animosity to us and like King Kong his death is tragic and not something to celebrate. We see Nesbit and Lee smile and embrace but that’s just the relief that this whole mess is finally over, later they will all probably head to a bar and drink a solemn toast to the fallen Beast.

 

The movie even ends on a shot of the dying monster and not the heroes.

Costing only $210,000 The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms went on to make $2.5 million dollars during its first year of release, ending up grossing $5 million overall, and not only did it spawn the era of the atomic monster movie but it also led to the direct inspiration for Ishirō Honda's Gojira which was released just 16 months later. Even the film’s director Eugène Lourié went on to remake this film but a few years later only with a rampaging Palaeosaurus in The Giant Behemoth, but nothing since has captured the pure blend of fun adventure and tragic beauty found in Ray Harryhausen’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Note: This movie's influence extended beyond the cinema as this 1956 issue of Batman proves.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Clash of the Titans (2010) – Review

There is no greater example of Hollywood’s love for “Brand Recognition” than the Warner Bros remake of the 1981 fantasy film Clash of the Titans, no one owns the copyrights to the Greek Myths so the only reason to use that title is that they were counting on the nostalgia people felt towards the original to bring them into the theatre to see this version, and sadly that could very well have been a factor as the film managed to make almost $500 million worldwide.  Though naming it after the Ray Harryhausen film didn’t stop it from being a pretty terrible movie that veered so far away from the source material that it made the campy 1981 original look like a scholarly treaties on Greek mythology.


The movie opens with narration by Io (Gemma Arterton), who in Greek mythology was a mortal lover of Zeus and would be Perseus' great great great great great great great grandmother, as she explains to us of how the gods defeated the Titans with the aid of a monstrous beast called the Kraken which had created by the god Hades, and that after that they divided the universe up with Zeus (Liam Neeson) taking the skies, Poseidon the seas and poor Hades (Ralph Fiennes) being tricked into getting stuck with the underworld. Some interpretations of the myths hint that Hades may have not been all that keen with his prize but he certainly was never the villain as he has been portrayed in many movies such as Disney’s Hercules for example, in fact he was the more altruistically inclined of the gods, even the famous story of his kidnapping of Persephone was done at the request of Zeus. His ruling of the underworld kind of got blended with Christian myth of Lucifer governing Hell thus turning him into an easy target.

 

Hades, the most misunderstood of gods.

Then we have this bit where Hades is the master of the Kraken, which is idiotic on so many levels, for one the name Kraken derives from Norse mythology and the beast in Greek mythology that Andromeda was to be sacrificed to was a sea monster known as the Cetus, a creature set forth as wrathful act of Poseidon when Queen Cassiopeia compared her daughter to the Nereids, sea nymphs most known for accompanying the sea god. This name change divergence from the myth first appeared the 1981 movie but they at least had the creature “let loose” by Poseidon and not the god of the underworld, and that is just the first taste of not just how far this remake goes to diverge from the Greek myths but on how much it completely abandons the plot of the movie it was supposedly remaking. In the original myth, and the 1981 movie, the basic story is of the hero Perseus having to save the fair Andromeda from being sacrificed to a monster. In this remake it’s about mankind warring with the gods, which if you understand the principle idea of gods, and especially the Greek gods, you’d know what a colossally stupid idea that is.

 

Early atheism at work.

We learn from Io that King Acrisius (Jason Flemyng) of Argos defied the gods and laid siege to Olympus. Um, how exactly does one lay siege to the home of the gods? We’re talking beings with unimaginable power, and apparently the very creators of the human race itself, so I don’t see any military force standing a chance. The film doesn't bother to show how these events went down because the very idea is beyond reason.  For this sacrilege our Zeus here decides to punish Acrisius by knocking up his wife Queen Danae (Tine Stapelfeldt), he does this by shape-shifting into the form of the King and if you’ve seen John Boorman’s Excalibur you may realize this is the origin of King Arthur was conceived and not that of Perseus. In the myth Zeus impregnated Danae, who was the king’s daughter not his wife, while in the form of a golden shower, and she doesn't die as she does in this movie but raised Perseus as a single mother. Director Louis Leterrier tends to borrow from multiple sources, without a care as to what mythology they are from, and he even has Perseus (Sam Worthington) to team up with some Djinn from the Arabian nights.

 

"Prince Ali - fabulous he - Ali Ababwa!"

The basic plot of this remake is that Hades wants to overthrow Zeus and as his brother gets his power from the humans who worship him Hades’ plan is to drive a wedge between the mortals and Zeus so as to weaken him enough for takeover. When idiot soldiers under orders of King Cepheus (Vincent Regan) topple a statue of Zeus the god of the underworld steps in and destroys them, unfortunately there is some collateral damage and Perseus adoptive family is killed. Zeus gives Hades permission to punish the mortals and when Queen Cassiopeia (Polly Walker) compares her daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) to the goddesses Aphrodite he uses that as grounds to kill Cassiopeia and demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to the Kraken in ten days or the city and all who live there will perish.  Then just before leaving Hades spots Perseus and outs him as being the son of Zeus, and this does not go over well with the people of Argos.

 

Sam Worthington as Perseus the Bland.

In this movie Perseus has real daddy issues and wants nothing to do with Zeus, he blames all the gods for the death of his family, and refuses any magical aid Zeus offers. Note: In this version Zeus is completely unaware that he fathered a child with Danae and when he learns of Perseus he invites him to move to Olympus as if that is something a demigod does. Perseus goes off on his quest to find a way to defeat the Kraken, along with him a group of soldiers led by Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), and they encounter the now mad and deformed Acrisius whose blood turns into giant scorpions (a nod to the original where the blood from the severed head of Medusa created giant scorpions), they match wits with the Stygian witches, enter the underworld via Charon the Ferryman, and battle the gorgon Medusa.

 

Oh, and everyone dies but Perseus.

Through the entire quest Perseus denies his demigod nature to such extreme and idiotic levels, when Zeus leaves him a magic sword he refuses to take it when something like that could clearly come in handy on a quest, and when Draco calls him out on this bullshit stating, “Your pride is killing my men. You were given gifts use them!” Perseus’ brilliant rebuttal is that he “Can’t become like them” as if using a magic sword is some kind of slippery slope to become a god, and he tells Draco, “If I do this I do it as a man.” Draco accurately points out that Perseus is in fact not just a man but the little twit responds, “I chose to be.” I’m not sure you can chose not to be a demigod and as he spent his entire life as a fisherman his ability to survive combat with numerous monsters makes it clear that his demigodness is what's keeping him alive. Then to prove just what a complete tosser he is after Draco and all his men are dead, and Io is murdered by a backstabbing Acrisius, he picks up the sword of the gods and kills Acrisius before riding off on Pegasus to fight the Kraken.

 

Apparently pride goeth after everyone else’s fall.

One of the strangest changes this movie does make, aside from making Perseus a complete tool that is, would be in the filmmakers decision to make Andromeda a minor character instead of the hero’s love interest. As changes go that’s a pretty big one, that’s like if Robin Hood wasn’t actually into Maid Marion or King Arthur didn’t give a shit about Guinevere. The only real screen time Andromeda gets in this film is when she offers Perseus a drink and a couple of shots of her wandering the streets of Argos helping the needy.  At one point her father jokingly calls her “A missionary” which is odd as this is centuries before Christianity was founded, and when it comes time to be sacrificed her father refuses to see his daughter offered up to the Kraken, but when a mob of city folk storm the palace she meekly goes with him. This is more in keeping with the plot of the movie Dragonslayer and not the story of Perseus and Andromeda. It’s so odd that a film that spends so much effort to distance itself from the actual myth seems to go out of its way be as unoriginal as possible.

 

Andromeda’s sacrifice looks like a lift from Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

This 2010 remake isn’t a complete garbage fire as the production designers do some really great stuff with the monsters put on display here, where Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations were limited by what he could do with clay models modern CGI makes the impossible possible, and though the film does borrow Medusa’s snake body from the Harryhausen design they took an interesting take on the gorgon by having her initially look quite attractive, that is until she strikes with her gorgon stare.

 

Medusa is kind of hot.

 

Until she’s not.

The sequence of Perseus and his men battling Medusa in the ruins of her temple is easily the best sequence in the movie, as it was in the original, the gorgon moves with the speed and grace of a striking snake, and when she does lose her head it is almost tragic.  She was just guarding her home and didn’t invite these assholes to come in and decapitate her, but sadly after this great sequence we still another half hour of petulant Perseus to put up with before the end credits roll.

Now aside from the wonderful Medusa the film does some interesting takes on the other mythologicals.


The Stygian witches are impressively ghastly, their gift of prophecy may suck and they don’t know a Titan from a whole in the ground, but they are definitely scary.


Charon, the ferryman who brings you across the river Styx, seems to be part of his boat and is also pulled through the water by the dead. Super creepy.


The winged horse Pegasus in this film is simply spectacular, and its flight during the battle with the Kraken is simply spectacular.

The Kraken itself is no laughing matter as it takes the tentacle aspects of the Norse monster and then amps it up to eleven, but that the residents of Argos place their sacrifice at the edge of the city, ensuring massive collateral damage, is just another example of many stupid moments in this film.

Unfortunately you could fill this movie with wall-to-wall cool monsters and it still wouldn’t make it any less terrible, Sam Worthington’s Perseus is so boring and terrible throughout that it sinks the film at every turn, the central plot meanders with no sense of urgency even though the hero has a deadline (that we don’t give a damn about Perseus and Andromeda is the key problem here), and the fact that this film made enough money to warrant a sequel still amazes me. Director Louis Leterrier took elements from the Greek myths, tossed them in a blender, mixed in plotlines from other movies and then hit purée. The 1981 original was no cinematic classic but it was full of fun and charm and had a fantastic supporting cast.  What good actors this film managed to lure in are poorly misused.

 

Throw as many nods to the original as you want it we are still going to call bullshit.

Note: According to the director, the movie was meant to end with Perseus and Andromeda ending up together, as it happened in the myth, however the studio disliked this idea and the movie was re-shot to have Perseus and Io end up together. Also the studio nixed his plans to make the film 3D but when Avatar made shit ton of money they decided to go with the post-conversion process, Leterrier has sense remarked, “It was famously rushed and famously horrible. It was absolutely horrible, the 3D. Nothing was working, it was just a gimmick to steal money from the audience. I’m a good boy and I rolled with the punches and everything, but it’s not my movie.”

Studio interference ruining a movie is nothing new but I doubt that if left to his own devices Leterrier's the result would have been much better as the central core of men rebelling against the gods is patently ridiculous in a world where the gods can smite you in the blink of an eye. A bland hero was just the cherry on this shit sandwich.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Clash of the Titans (1981) From Myth to Movie

If you have spent any amount of time reading about the Greek gods the one big takeaway you will most likely get is that they were a bunch colossal dicks. Take ever human foible, explode them way out of proportion, give them all various super powers, and that is basically the Greek gods, but they also made for some kick as stories. The Greek pantheon of gods is easily the best mythological creation, certainly kicking the crap out of Christianity’s boring “one god” theme, and so it’s no surprise that these stories have been adapted numerous times over the centuries. Once special effects in movie making reached a point where the impossible seemed possible we finally got to see these stories in movie form, and at the top of the heap would be the works of producer Charles H. Schneer and stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen.


This duo brought some of the greatest fantasy stories to life from the pages of One Thousand and One Nights and the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor to the fantastic tale of Jason and the Argonauts, and today we will be looking at their final collaboration Clash of the Titans. In all of the films these two worked on together they would take inspiration from these classic tales but they also never felt obligated to be all that faithful to the source material as the myths themselves have had varied versions and interpretations over the years. That all said I will now examine not only the film itself but the myths that inspired Clash of the Titans in the first place and we will take a look at just how far Harryhausen and friends drifted from the original stories.


First off the title of the movie is a bit of a misnomer as not one single Titan from Greek mythology makes an appearance in this movie, the Titans were a group of divine beings that preceded the Greek gods that most of us are familiar with. In fact the Titan Cronus ate all his children because a prophecy told him he’d be overthrown by his son, as he had previously overthrown his own father Uranus this was an understandable assumption, but if you know anything about prophecies you know they will always bite you in the ass no matter what you do to avoid them. The Titan Rhea, not wanting anymore children eaten took baby Zeus and swapped him for a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes, and of course Zeus later freed his swallowed brethren and they overthrew Cronus.

Note: If you check out the Disney animated movie version of Hercules you can get a peek at an even less accurate version of what the Titans were all about.  In Clash of the Titans we are treated to numerous mythological beings but there is no sign of the likes of either Cronus or Atlas who were actually Titans.

This movie opens with King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston) having his daughter Danaë (Vida Taylor), along with her newborn baby Perseus, placed inside a chest and tossed into the sea. His reasoning here is that her crime of get "knocked-up" out of wedlock has brought shame on her people and that by condemning her to the sea it will, “Purge her crime and restore my honor.” He also believes that this action will not put blood on his hands for if Danaë and her son die at sea then its Poseidon’s fault not his.

 

Somehow he thinks this will fly with the gods.

Needless to say Zeus (Laurence Olivier) does not take this well and orders Poseidon (Jack Gwillim) to make the king pay for this foul deed, “Acrisius must be punished and his people with him. Destroy Argos! And to make sure no stone stands, that no creature crawls I command you to release the last of the Titans. Let Loose the Kraken!” That does seem rather extreme, sure the King is a dick for trying to murder his daughter and grandson but what the hell did the people of Argos have to do with that? And anyway why is Zeus so hot and bothered about this particular action by a stupid mortal? Well turns out Danaë had caught the eye of "The Father of the Gods" and despite being locked in a tower Zeus impregnated her while in the form of a golden shower (one can only hope that this “golden shower” was not the kind President Trump was accused of partaking in), and thus her son Perseus is the also the son of Zeus.

 

And don't anyone dare play with his toys.

But why was Danaë locked up in a tower in the first place? Well in the movie we are told that Acrisius was jealous of her attracting suitors, which is all kinds of creepy being he is her father and not her husband, but in the myth the oracle of Delphi told the King that his daughter’s son would one day kill him and so he locked her up where no man could touch her let alone knock her up. Once again we have a character not really understanding how prophecies work and whose actions will in fact make them come to pass. In the movie Zeus uses his godly powers to crush the bones of Acrisius while the Kraken's attack causes a tsunami that wipes out Argos and all who live there, but in the myth Acrisius does not get his comeuppance until much later, well after Perseus has defeated Medusa and saved Andromeda from being sacrificed.  The King actually dies when Perseus accidentally kills him with a thrown discus, or in another version Acrisius stupidly accuses Perseus of not killing the Medusa so our hero shows him, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

 

Seriously, what idiot would ask to see the head of Medusa?

Clash of the Titans has two chief antagonists; the goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) and her son Calibos (Neil McCarthy) who are the ones constantly getting in the way of Perseus and his true love. In Greek myth Thetis was the goddess of water and mother of Achilles but here she is the mother of a Calibos, a dude that was betrothed to Andromeda (Judi Bowker), but he screws it all up by pissing off Zeus. When Calibos hunts down and kills all of Zeus’s sacred wing horses, until only the winged stallion Pegasus remains, Zeus curses Calibos by turning him into a monstrous satyr and exiling him to the marshes. Being a hideous satyr is a bit of a deal breaker for Andromeda and so the wedding is called off.  Thetis being just as spiteful as Zeus places a curse on the city of Joppa stating that only a suitor who can answer a particular riddle can ever win the hand of the fair Andromeda. The catch being if you get the answer wrong you are burnt at the stake.

 

“As Calibos suffers so will Andromeda.”

But cursing a city and ruining a girl’s love life isn’t enough recompense for what was done to her son so Thetis also grabs Perseus, who has been living the quiet life on a peaceful shore with his mother, and places him on the floor of an amphitheatre in Joppa. Of course this attempt to screw with Zeus’s kid will only backfire and result in the death of her own son. Some people just never learn.

A now grown Perseus (Harry Hamlin) meets poet/playwright Ammon (Burgess Meredith) who becomes his friend and fills the young man in on the actions of the gods. When Zeus sees that his son has been plopped down in a strange city, practically naked and completely unarmed, he orders the other gods to outfit his son with gifts to aid him on his destiny. Perseus gets a helm of invisibility from Athena (Susan Fleetwood), an indestructible sword from Aphrodite (Ursula Andress), and a shield from Hera (Claire Bloom). Sadly these three items he will proceed to lose on the course of his adventures; he drops the helmet in the marshes while fighting Calibos, the shield gets wrecked by Medusa’s blood, and the sword he just leaves stuck in Calibos's corpse. What a total git, but what’s worse is that after losing the helm Zeus orders Athena to give Perseus her owl because heaven forbid the guy not have a full complement of godly gifts at hand. Not about to hand over her beloved pet Athena has the god Hephaestus (Pat Roach) build the sap a mechanical owl.

 

Bubo, this film’s R2-D2

When Perseus learns of the curse that has befallen Joppa, and its beautiful princess, he immediately investigates which of course involves using the invisibility helm to sneak into her bedchamber to watch her sleep. I know that doesn’t sound all that heroic to you or me but Ancient Greece was a more liberal time, and hey it worked for Bella and Edward in Twilight so who are we to judge. When Perseus witnesses a giant vulture land on the balcony of Andromeda’s bedchamber, and then sees her spirit leave her body and depart with the winged monster, he realizes he will need some air support if he is to learn what the hell is going on. So with the aid of his sidekick Ammon, and the invisibility helm again, he manages to capture the winged horse Pegasus.

Myth Note: The winged horse Pegasus actually sprang from the severed head of Medusa which makes his appearance here quite a bit out of continuity with the Greek myth.

Perseus is able to use his winged mount to follow Andromeda on her next nightly excursion, learning the answer to the riddle by overhearing Calibos while wearing the helm of invisibility, which he then quickly loses. The next day Perseus shows up at the palace declaring he is a suitor for Andromeda’s hand and when given the riddle he promptly solves it, cause of the whole cheating thing, and then to be a complete drama queen Perseus whips out the severed hand of Calibos. Did no one tell this idiot that the goddess Thetis, and this monsters mother, is also the patron goddess of Joppa? But not to be outdone in the stupidity department Andromeda’s mother Queen Cassiopeia (Siân Phillips) declares during the wedding that her daughter is more beautiful than the goddess Thetis herself. These people really seem to go out of their way to piss off the gods for some reason.

Thetis is able to use this affront to get back at Perseus, she can’t directly harm him as he is still under Zeus’s protection, but she can go after those he loves so she orders that his new bride must be sacrificed in thirty days to the Kraken, and if that isn’t cruel enough she also throws in the stipulation that she must be a virgin as well.

 

“Alex, I’ll take celestial cock blocks for two hundred dollars.”

Thus an hour in to the movie and we finally get our big quest as Perseus must now find some way defeat a creature than even an army could not take down. Our hero decides to consult the Stygian Witches but as his winged ride has since been stolen by Calibos he, along with Andromeda and a group of soldiers, must wander around the desert for some time looking to buy a clue. Luckily Bubo the mechanical owl eventually shows up to give them directions. When the group eventually arrive at the lair of the Stygian Witches it's clear these blind hags hope to eat their guests but their plan is ruined when Bubo steals the one eye they all share. The ghastly trio are forced to tell Perseus that only the stare of the Gorgon Medusa could possibly destroy the Kraken, for alive or dead her stare will turn any living thing into stone.

 

“A Titan against a Titan!”

Once again I will point out that neither the Kraken nor Medusa are Titans, but let’s take a moment and discuss the Kraken. In the story of Perseus and Andromeda our hero had to defeat a sea serpent/leviathan because his mother-in-law-to-be compared her daughter Andromeda’s beauty as being equal to that of the Nereids, sea nymphs who happened to be favored of the god Poseidon. So unlike the movie Thetis had no beef with Andromeda but it was instead Poseidon who wanted her sacrificed due the slight against his subjects. This also makes the use of a sea monster more apropos what with Poseidon being god of the sea and all. In the movie Poseidon seems like a lackey of Zeus’ instead of being his all-powerful brother. Even the name Kraken is a bit weird as that actually comes from Norse Mythology.

 

The Kraken of Norse Mythology

 

The sea serpent Cetus from Greek Mythology.

 

The Kraken from Clash of the Titans.

Ray Harryhausen chose the Kraken because the sound of the name had a nice menacing ring to it, and I agree as Laurence Olivier shouting “Let loose the Cetus!” just wouldn’t have had the same impact, and the design of the Kraken for Clash of the Titans stemmed from Harryhausen not wanting to do another dragon like monster. It’s beak like mouth is very reminiscent of a squid which is what the Kraken in Norse Mythology resembled, and Harryhausen also gave it four tentacle like arms as well. It’s a wonderful design and a great threat to our hero, but as cool as the Kraken was the film’s most cinematic monster is easily hands down the Gorgon.


In the mythology Perseus went after the Gorgon’s head because he didn’t like the creep Polydectes who was trying to marry his mother.  Common enough problem with kids with a single parent.  At a banquet, where each guest was to bring a gift of a horse for this jerk, Perseus was unable supply a horse so he asked Polydectes to name the gift. In the hopes of getting rid of this obstacle to his affection he demanded the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa.


For such a dangerous task Perseus received an adamantine sword from Zeus, from Hades a helm of darkness to hide, Hermes lent Perseus winged sandals to fly, and Athena gave him a polished shield. Using the reflective surface of the shield Perseus was able to approach Medusa while she slept and cut off her head, and then used the helm of darkness to escape Medusa’s rightfully pissed off sisters.

 

So…um…that was super heroic.

If you think that's terrible the backstory to the poor woman is worse.  Medusa was once a ravishingly beautiful maiden who had served as priestess to the goddess Athena, unfortunately she caught the eye of Poseidon and was raped by the god in Athena’s own temple. Enraged Athena transformed Medusa's beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible that to behold it would turn onlookers to stone. Yeah, that sounds fair. Now the movie uses the version of the myth where Poseidon “seduced” the priestess but at this point we’re just splitting hairs. So basically a poor woman is horrifically cursed by a spiteful goddess, but nothing of course happens to Poseidon who is really the one at fault, and while living in seclusion she is hunted down and beheaded for a party gift by some young git.  In the case of this movie her severed head is to be used as a weapon to take down the Kraken.

 

Still not justified but certainly a better reason for murder than“I couldn’t afford a horse.”

Note: In the myth after beheading Medusa our hero Perseus proceeded to use it as a weapon for some of the worst reasons imaginable.  In the land of Mauretania the king there refused to grant hospitality to Perseus so the little sociopath turned the king to stone out of spite, and then later at his wedding to Andromeda he gets in a quarrel with Phineus, who Andromeda had been betrothed to before the awesome Perseus showed up (as she was to Calibos in the movie), and Perseus then used the Gorgon’s head to turn his rival into stone. What a dick.

In the movie he wraps the head of Medusa in his cloak, it apparently being immune to the poison of the Gorgon’s blood, and proceeds to head back to rescue Andromeda, but then he and his men decide to camp for the night without posting a guard and this allows Calibos to sneak up and stab the severed head of Medusa as it hangs from a tree branch. The blood drips out and transforms into three giant scorpions that Perseus and his two remaining soldiers must fight. My question is why in the hell didn’t Calibos just take the head? Without it Perseus would die fighting the Kraken, so that seemed to be the better play here, but then again I’m not the son of a pissy goddess so what do I know.

 Note: We see a soldier and Perseus each kill one scorpion so apparently the third one said “Fuck it” and wandered off because we never see what happened to it.

Calibos then learns that you shouldn’t bring a whip to a sword as Perseus sends his blade flying into the satyr’s guts killing the poor dumb bastard. Perseus leaves behind the sword because he has this awesome turn-things-into-stone head and what are the odds of every needed a magic sword again? Regardless things turn out fine as Perseus is aided by Bubo, who flies off to free Pegasus and makes us all wonder why they didn’t do this earlier, and the Kraken is given a good hard stare. Perseus and Andromeda get married and the gods place them in the constellations so that "Even if we are forgotten these two won’t be."  Wait...what? Are these the same egocentric gods we’ve been watching through this whole thing? The crux of the film seemed to be about a god who couldn’t keep it in his pants helping his own kid defeat the kid of another god, sure Perseus was kind of heroic but the nuts and bolts of the story is about a dysfunctional family infighting, with all the chaos and pain that is bound to result from such shenanigans.  When it comes to dysfunctional families there are none as fucked up as the Greek gods.

 

"Tonight on Fox, The Real Housewives of Olympus."

We even get this bullshit query from Hera wondering, “What if one day there are other heroes like Perseus, if courage and imagination become mortal qualities, what will become of us?” Was she not paying attention to what was going on? Perseus was getting help from the gods almost non-stop, so I don’t think the gods of Olympus have to worry just yet about being forgotten and left behind.

As much as the movie diverges from the source material it still manages stay true to the temperament of the myths; gods are vain and petty and we mere mortals are just pawns in their games. So good triumphs over evil and we also get to see Andromeda naked, a win for everybody. Clash of the Titans is far from the best work produced by special effects master Ray Harryhausen but it's still a lot of fun, and though some of the optical work in the film is just godawful the character animation of the mythological beasts is spot on fantastic, with the Medusa fight being the film’s highpoint. Director Desmond Davis does a serviceable job behind the camera, Harry Hamlin and Judi Bowker are both fine as Perseus and Andromeda, in your standard somewhat bland Disney Prince and Princess way, while Laurence Olivier was clearly a perfect choice to play Zeus the father of the gods.

In conclusion if you want to bone up on Greek mythology before taking an exam on the subject you may want to skip watching this film, but if you are up for some good popcorn eating fun than you could do a lot worse than a viewing of Clash of the Titans.

Final Thoughts:

• Thetis being the one to butt heads with Zeus is a bit odd when it’s his constant infidelity to his wife Hera that is the cause of most of the problems on Olympus. Hera is given almost nothing to do in this film other than to look exasperated that her husband is a sex maniac.
• Perseus has to pay Charon to cross the River Styx so he can find Medusa’s island. The River Styx is the boundary between our world and the Underworld and is governed by the god Hades, not the place to find the Gorgons.
• Guarding Medusa is a two-headed dog called Dioskilos, if this was the Underworld Perseus would have been facing the three-headed dog Cerberus. This change was due to Harryhausen finding a third head on the armature made the creature to awkward looking.