The Netflix Queue: Ray Harryhausen

Until this year, I had never seen a movie with visuals by Ray Harryhausen.

Approximately half of you gasped in abject horror, that an admitted film fan has not seen a single movie with which Mr. Harryhausen was involved.

The other half of you went, “Who?”

Ray Harryhausen is a film producer and “special effects creator,” according to Wikipedia. Between 1942 and 1981, he made 23 movies, including Mighty Joe Young, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C., and Clash of the Titans. He’s most famous for his use of stop-motion animation, creating movie monsters and special effects that were mind-bogglingly cool for their time.

Harryhausen’s work (particularly in Jason and the Argonauts) inspired a lot of our most famous and accomplished filmmakers (including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sam Raimi, and James Cameron) so it’s absolutely unforgiveable that I haven’t seen any of his movies until this year.

Well, I made up for my lapse in April, with not just one, but THREE Harryhausen movies in the queue from Netflix.

Jason and the ArgonautsJason and the Argonauts

Considered by Harryhausen (and others) to be his best movie, Jason and the Argonauts has one of the most famous special-effects scenes of all time: the skeleton fight at the very end.

The plot is the classic hero story: evil king takes over a land, attempts to kill the real king’s heirs, and fails. Twenty years later, the real king’s son (the titular Jason) assembles a team of the best men from all over Greece to travel in search of the Golden Fleece, which will allow him to regain his rightful place as king.

I am a ridiculous fan of any and all things involving ancient Greece, so it’s probably not a huge surprise that I enjoyed this movie. What did surprise me what how much I enjoyed it. Jason and the Argonauts was easily my favorite of the three movies I watched.

The visuals were fantastic. One of the best parts was the fight against Talos, the giant bronze Titan. The way they integrated Talos with the ship (the Argo) and the crew itself was really impressive. Plus, it was a total trip to see Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor!) show up briefly as a blind prophet. I barely recognized him.

And, of course, the skeleton fight itself lived up to the hype. It’s a sequence of only a few minutes that apparently took months to film, and it’s amazing.

I also loved the way they handled the gods in this film. Although you see all of them chilling out on Mount Olympus, the two most active gods are Zeus and Hera. They’re essentially playing a game of chess, and it’s interesting to see how each chooses to make their moves.

The film ended a little abruptly, though. I thought they were actually going to have Jason showdown with King Pelias, but alas, they do not. Then again, maybe somebody read how the Jason and Medea story actually ended and decided to wrap it up while it was still happy.

The Golden Voyage of SinbadThe Golden Voyage of Sinbad

In this one, Sinbad and his crew are after three pieces of a golden puzzle, which will give them a map leading to the Fountain of Destiny. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones after this: Koura, an evil magician bent on domination, wants the Fountain of Destiny as well and will stop at nothing to get it.

While Sinbad was also a lot of fun, particularly at the end, I didn’t like it as much as I did Jason. It was still funny and adventurous, and Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor!) was particularly excellent as Koura. I liked that Koura lost some of his youth each time he used powerful magic. It was good to see magic having a cost.

(Also, Wikipedia tells me it was Baker’s performance in this movie that helped land him the role of the Doctor. Who knew?)

The slave girl subplot fell a little flat. The eye thing was cool (she had an eye tattooed on her hand), but it didn’t really go anywhere except to get her sacrificed to the one-eyed centaur. (Then again, I was starting to fall asleep at this point, so maybe I missed something.)

What I really liked was the final fight in the cavern between Koura and Sinbad. But then, I’ve always been a sucker for the swashbuckling part of movies like this.

Clash of the TitansClash of the Titans

I saw the remake when it came out in 2010 (and liked it), so I was excited to see the original. As much as I liked Clash, it was obvious that the stop-motion animation was dating this movie far faster than the previous two, especially since it was made in 1981. It was also Harryhausen’s last film.

Perseus is the half-human son of Zeus, and he falls in love with the princess, Andromeda. When Andromeda’s mother brings the wrath of the gods down on her city, it’s up to Perseus to find a way to save them all before Andromeda is sacrificed to the Kraken.

I liked Perseus well enough, but Zeus was a massive hypocrite. He deformed one of the other goddess’s human sons for a (relatively) minor infraction, but turned around and demanded that all the gods and goddesses help out his own son. Frankly, I didn’t blame Athena for having Hephaestus make a mechanical owl instead of sending her own.

And speaking of, Bubo the owl was GREAT. Just absolutely adorable. I didn’t expect to like him even half as much as I did. Then again, I apparently have a thing for small mechanical creatures in sci-fi and fantasy shows. (See: K-9 from Doctor Who. I love that little tin dog.)

Plus, though it was cool to see certain monster effects — like Medusa and the Kraken — the animation just wasn’t as seamless as it had been in Jason.

After finally watching some Ray Harryhausen films, all I can really say is…damn, I’ve got to get Jason and the Argonauts on DVD. That movie was GREAT. (Also, I look forward to indoctrinating young nieces, nephews, and cousins into the awesomeness of the fantasy genre with these movies.)

Have you guys seen any Harryhausen movies? Which is your favorite?

Summer 2008 Movie Reviews: Part 1

I’m almost ashamed. I didn’t get a chance to catch nearly as many movies this summer as I normally do. (I missed Speed Racer, The Incredible Hulk, and The Happening, to name a few…although from word of mouth, I imagine missing the latter was a good thing.)

However, I did catch most of the ones I really wanted to see, and for the most part, I have to say this summer was well-spent. There was only one movie that I really disliked, while the others ranged from “liked but had problems with” to “loved unconditionally and want to bear celluloid children with them.”

Without further ado, my summer 2008 movie reviews:

Get Smart: I’d never seen the old TV show that spawned this movie, so maybe I have a bit of a different perspective. Personally, I love Steve Carell and think he’s a comedic genius, so Get Smart already had that going for it. Alan Arkin, who was fantastic in Little Miss Sunshine, was great as the Chief in this. Dwayne Johnson was surprisingly funny as superstar Agent 23.

The plot itself was nothing to write home about (but then again, what spy spoofs really are?), but it was consistently funny and the actors rocked their roles. And really, what more do you want out of a comedy? Definitely catch it when you get the chance. Oh, and a major bonus? A random Bill Murray cameo.

Run, Forrest, run!

Run, Forrest, run!

Iron Man: There is but one word to describe this movie, and that is: AWESOME. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical about Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, but he absolutely NAILED this role. There is no other who could be Tony Stark. Jeff Bridges? He was a fantastic villain. I didn’t recognize him when he first came on the screen. I loved Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Tony’s robots, and the various suit-testing sequences. I loved the awesome ending line. I loved that they had a solid story, the post-credits scene, and S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, there was very little that I didn’t love about this movie.

The only part I wasn’t absolutely crazy about was the fight between Iron Man and Iron Monger, and that was mostly because I couldn’t figure out why Stane died and Stark survived. But the rest of the movie was so damn amazing that I really don’t care. This is easily on par with Batman Begins and X2 for sheer superhero movie badassness.

Hail to the king, baby.

Hail to the king, baby.

Sex and the City: Sue me; I was a fan of the TV show. Thus, I was pretty excited when they managed to get everybody together and finally make the movie. And the movie was one of those rare beasts: a beloved TV show that actually translated into a decent movie. These were the same characters we’d grown to love over the show’s run. I liked that they stayed true to that, and that the friendships between the four women still stayed strong.

I wasn’t as crazy that Charlotte had very little by way of a story arc. Also, the “love” theme was handled a bit heavily. People who didn’t like the show won’t be converted, but it was good for what it was. And I like it when a movie can do that: embrace what it is.

Did somebody just fart?

Did somebody just fart?

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Welcome to the only movie of the summer that I truly disliked. I had pretty high expectations, but I knew we were in trouble from the moment the CG prairie dog hit the screen.

Now, I love Indiana Jones. The Last Crusade is my favorite. This just didn’t feel like an Indiana Jones movie to me. It felt like they took beloved characters and put them in a crappy 1950s sci-fi movie. Indy is at his best when he’s hunting classical Christian mythological treasures.

The transition to the South American mythology was pretty cool, and I would’ve been okay with that. And the actors themselves did a really good job. But come on. Aliens? A flying saucer? Surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator that got blown four miles? This, my friends, is not Indiana Jones. This is a story that more closely resembled horse poop than a decent plot. So help me God, I hope they leave it at this one and let us recall the originals with fond nostalgia.

At least it's not snakes.

At least it’s not snakes.

That’s it for now. Check in tomorrow for part 2, wherein I discuss Wall-E, Hellboy II, Mamma Mia!, and everybody’s most anticipated movie of the summer, The Dark Knight.

The Barenaked Archives: Batman Begins

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Batman Begins

batman_begins_webBuzz has been building for the fifth Batman installment since Warner Bros. first announced they’d selected Christopher Nolan as director. It continued to build with each bit of casting news: Michael Caine as the butler Alfred, Liam Neeson as the mentor Ducard, Morgan Freeman as the Q-like Lucius Fox, and Christian Bale as the Dark Knight himself.

It really sounded like Warner was trying desperately to erase the vile aftertaste of the much-maligned Batman and Robin after seeing that, when done right, comic books movies can be both good and lucrative (see: Spider-man 2, X2). Now, the movie is here, and the inevitable “does it suck?” question can be answered.

Batman Begins not only doesn’t suck, but is easily the best Bat-flick of the bunch and arguably the best comic book movie to date.

Unlike the previous installments, where Batman was already a fixture in Gotham, this movie starts out with Bruce Wayne (Bale) in prison halfway across the world, having been traveling for years in search of a way to assuage his guilt and rage over his parents’ murder. He’s recruited by Ducard (Neeson) and taken in by the League of Shadows, a mysterious vigilante organization led by the equally mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), where he learns to fight. It’s only after he discovers his values and the League’s conflict that he returns to Gotham to take back his company and his city.

The first third of the movie is Bruce Wayne honing his fighting skills with the League of Shadows, interspersed with flashbacks that detail his parents’ murder and Bruce’s hatred for Joe Chill, their killer. When he leaves the League and returns to Gotham, he has to reenter a society he’s been away from for seven years, and learn about the company that his father left.

Some might think this part is “slow,” because the movie is about Batman, but Nolan and writer David Goyer really put the emphasis on the “begins” part of the title. We know that Batman is an ass-kicking vigilante badass, but this is about how he becomes an ass-kicking vigilante badass. They show us where he learned to fight, how he learned to be stealthy, how he learned to strike fear in the hearts of villains everywhere, how he got his cave, and how he came into his famous gadgets and gizmos.

Christian Bale is the best Batman, hands-down (sorry to all you guys who love Michael Keaton). He has a handle on the dual personality, both the billionaire playboy and the ass-kicking crimefighter. You can practically see the anger that fuels him in his quest to save Gotham, as it moves from the uncontrolled rage of a boy searching for vengeance to the righteous wrath of a man determined to bring justice to a city. With Bale, it seems that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is his true persona.

Although it seems that Gotham is overrun with crime and corruption, there are still a few idealists, people who would also like to see Gotham restored, just like Batman. There is police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few good cops in the department. He’s seen a lot, and it wears on him that nothing he does seems to make any difference because of the opposition he faces, but he’s still a good cop.

Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is the assistant district attorney and Bruce’s childhood friend, who’s the only person with the guts to prosecute the heavy-hitting criminals that overrun the city. (And surprisingly, she did not annoy me.) Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is a scientist/inventor within Wayne Enterprises, and it is he who provides prototypes (originally developed for soldiers) of the tools that Batman uses. And, of course, there is Alfred (Caine) the butler, both a servant and a worried father figure to Bruce who will not let him give up, ever.

Mention must be made of the villains, because every superhero is only as good as those he fights. Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) had a bigger part than expected as the mob boss who owns half of Gotham. He’s arrogant and completely assured of his own power, as we see when a pre-Batman Bruce angrily confronts him in a restaurant on the seedy side of town.

However, Falcone is small potatoes compared to the man who seems to be one of his flunkies, the head psychologist of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Johnathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). At first, Dr. Crane looks like a milquetoast pawn, paid by Falcone to declare his thugs legally insane so they don’t go to jail. Then, it becomes clear that Crane is smart, dangerously smart, and it’s more likely that Falcone is his pawn rather than vice versa. Although some might miss the fun and flamboyant villains of Bat-films past, this one deserves to be Bruce Wayne’s show. And what a damn good show it is.

Another thing to point out is this is not a kid-friendly PG-13. The trailers promised dark and scary, and the movie delivers. With a villain whose main weapon is a hallucinogenic gas that makes people see what they fear, how could it not?

When Batman makes his first true appearance, it’s like watching a short horror movie, except the bad guys are the ones being stalked by an unseen menace. We catch glimpses of Batman, hear the fluttering of his cape, but we don’t see him.

Under the influence of the fear gas, Scarecrow’s mask drips with maggots and his voice sounds like a demon’s. Batman’s eyes glow red and his mouth oozes black goo. This is one scary comic film, and probably not for younger kids the way previous incarnations were.

Batman Begins is an example of a film where everything clicks: from the casting, to the directing, to the setting, to the story. We’ve moved from a neon-cartoony Gotham and a Batsuit with nipples to a believable metropolitan area and a hero whose barely-checked rage makes him almost as dangerous as the criminals he fights. Realistic? Yes. Dark? Yes. Good? Fantastic.

Batman begins, indeed.