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Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979) – Review

Due to his amazing powers Spider-Man was mostly relegated to the pages of the comics or with the occasional foray into animation, web-swinging and wall-crawling was not something easily pulled off in live action, and so aside from his silent appearances on The Electric Company he seemed destined to remain in two dimensions. Then in 2002 Sami Raimi gave us a live action Spider-Man, which one could argue is the film that truly started the current superhero boom, yet there was another live action version of Spider-Man that predated the Raimi trilogy by over two decades. Enter CBS and The Amazing Spider-Man.

Long before Marvel Studios teamed up with Disney to create the Marvel Cinematic Universe Stan Lee and Marvel Comics were selling the rights to a host of their intellectual properties to anybody with a cheque book. This resulted in a couple of ludicrous Captain America television movies, a Fantastic Four film by Roger Corman, a Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie and Captain America theatrical release that managed to be even worse than the Reb Brown TV version. The only real success out of this was The Incredible Hulk series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno for CBS.  Now there was the Wonder Woman series with Lynda Carter, which was very successful, but it was from DC comic property.  So with this track record it’s no surprise that they’d want to take a crack at Marvel’s flagship character.

The one problem was that CBS wasn’t too keen on the whole “superhero” aspect of it, and if you’ve ever seen an episode of the 70s The Incredible Hulk you'd know what I’m talking about as that show was basically The Fugitive with Bill Bixby turning into the Hulk twice an episode, and that was just to throw some gangsters around or stop an abusive parent. There was not a lot of “incredible” going on in a show called The Incredible Hulk, and when it came to produce a Spider-Man series it should have shocked no one that though it was called The Amazing Spider-Man it wasn’t all that amazing.


For starters the costume kind of sucked.

Once again we have a show being produced by people who have no love for the character, who one must doubt had even read a single issue of the comic, and sure they have Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) being bitten by a radioactive spider to gain his powers but then they completely jettison the character of Uncle Ben so there is no “With great power comes great responsibility” epiphany when his uncle is killed. Instead Peter Parker uses his powers get a job at the Daily Bugle and then thwart the occasional mad scientist because I guess that seemed like the logical thing to do with spider powers.  To prevent the show from being “too kiddie” Spider-Man doesn’t encounter a single villain from his infamous rogues gallery, in fact the only “super villain” Spider-Man encounters is an evil clone of himself that was created by an evil clone of disgruntled scientist.


Neither one of these guys ends up becoming Ben Reilly.

Now this version of Spider-Man does have super-strength, the ability to climb walls, and is outfitted with web-shooters, and to be completely fair this is still the only live action Spider-Man to use his little spider-tracers for tracking down enemies, but they completely screw up his Spider-Sense. In the comics his Spidey-Sense is what warns him of oncoming dangers and along with his amazing spider-reflexes this allows him to dodge most attacks, but in this show his Spidey-Sense works more like a psychic vision. In the episode “Night of the Clones” a bomb is placed on an elevator cable that when detonated critically injures the two occupants, later when photographer Peter Parker arrives at the scene, after hearing about on his police scanner, he uses his Spidey-Sense to see back in time and witnesses the bomb being detonated. Goddammit, that is not how this power works!


Is he Spider-Man or an escapee from The Village of the Damned?

As to the shows ability to depict his other powers, well every shot of Spider-Man climbing a building looks like a dude being pulled up by cable while the stuntman waves his arms and legs up and down as if he’s climbing, and the reason it looks that way is because that's exactly how it was done. I’ll admit that stuntman/stunt coordinator Fred Waugh did some pretty harrowing work for this show, but unfortunately no matter how tricky and dangerous it was to be dangled down the face of a building, or be swung between two structures, it still looked like crap.


“Can he swing from a thread? Take a look overhead...or better yet don't.”

Digital effects were decades away so Spider-Man’s webbing looked like thick white rope and the method they used to show him catching crooks was to have someone from off camera throwing said rope as a net over the bad guys. They`d have been better off using Silly String.  For this reason alone it was in the show's best interest to limit the amount of screen time with Spider-Man in costume. That and the fact that in said costume he looked like a dude on his way to kids birthday party.

What is most surprising is that the show was not cancelled due to poor ratings but because CBS thought they were in danger of becoming known as the “Superhero Network” and so they pulled the plug after two seasons and only thirteen episodes. Aside from the stigma of being known for superhero fare the show was also not hitting the key demographic of 18-45 years that the sponsors were targeting, so despite good ratings I can understand why the cancelled it, but what makes no sense is that it could have hit those demographics if they'd bother to put in some good writing and stayed true the character from the comic. Instead we got Saturday morning style writing but without the fun stuff kids would associate with their hero, and then there was the lack good drama which would have kept adult audiences interested.


"Did I put film in my camera?"

Nicholas Hammond is a fine actor but he wasn’t given much to do as either Peter Parker or Spider-Man, while this version J. Jonah Jameson (Robert F. Simon) would bitch out Parker one minute than be an avuncular type uncle the next for no apparent reason, but most bizarrely is that this version of Jameson praised Spider-Man instead of going on a one made crusade to expose the webbed menace. So not only did they ruin one of the great characters from the comic but it also took away one of Spider-Man’s chief antagonists. Sometimes you really wonder what went on in those Network boardrooms as it seems they changed stuff just for the sake of changing things, and not for the better.

Not only did they ditch Spidey’s rogue’s gallery but they also jettisoned Peter’s love life as well; there is no Gwen Stacey, Mary Jane Watson or even Betty Brandt. In fact they create a totally new character in the form of Julie Masters (Ellen Bry) as a love interest for Peter, and they also introduce Rita Conway (Chip Fields) as secretary to Jameson with no earthly reason to not just call her Betty Brandt as she was in the comic.  Sure Rita here is African-American but if they show wanted to go with a little racial diversity I doubt many fans would have complained if Betty Brandt was black.


What a fun looking group.

There have been many versions of Spider-Man, and the road to live action was never going to be an easy one but in this CBS offering it was a case of a Network having a project they had no real interest in making and thus the result was less than memorable. I do enjoy the first two Sam Raimi movies but to date the best version of the character outside of the pages of the comic book can be found in the 2008 animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man, but after his excellent cameo in Captain America: Civil War maybe we can look forward to more fun live action adventures with everyone’s favorite web swinger in this future.

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.