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Posted : 1 year ago on 21 November 2016 04:38 (A review of Sicario)

The best thing going in Sicario is Roger Deakins’ masterful use of light. Deakins is such a high-level artist in his field that he can transform the most mundane and muddled of scripts into top-flight entertainments. He uses his consummate skills to make Sicario a beautifully murky, tension filled action-crime-thriller and elevates the weakly written material into something much better. It’s this persistent conflict between top-shelf technique by all involved smashing into a poor script that keeps Sicario in some strange state, locked in-between a serious triste on the War on Drugs and a popcorn entertainment.


I lean harder towards thinking of this as a popcorn entertainment with A-level craftsmanship. The longer the film goes on, the more director Denis Villeneuve’s technique brings more attention to itself. He never coheres the script into a whole, but he makes individual set pieces thrilling and memorable, palpable with enough tension that a trip wire in your mind could cause chaos to ensue for the characters on the screen. Shame that so much feels more like Grand Guignol horror sutured to escalations of violence and existential terror in the face of an unwinnable war.


If the film dips into overwrought, although spectacular, artistry, your senses never entirely hit mass saturation due to a series of anchoring performances that try to keep the film grounded even as it dips into melodramatics. Emily Blunt’s character is an improbable creation on the page, seemingly too naïve for the work she’s dedicated her life to and consistently finding herself in situations which strain credulity, is given more depth by the actress’ great work. Just as solid is Josh Brolin as a government contractor who recruits her for a shadowy mission and Daniel Kaluuya as her partner, both of whom are forced to deliver trite dialog like it is brand new information. They both succeed.


Towering above all, or maybe it’s quietly lurking in the shadows is Benicio del Toro’s supporting work. He’s withheld for much of the film, keeping a low profile and stalking in the background with only a few brief moments of violent outbursts to reveal the depths of his true character. He’s starred in several movies about cartels and the drug wars before, so he’s clearly in familiar terrain but he never repeats his work in Traffic or Savages here. The final scenes, which transition from Blunt’s heroine to his morally questionable avenger, are the crescendos as we submerge into the despair and horror that Sicario has merely flirted with thanks to del Toro’s impressively cruel work.


In the end, Sicario reveals itself as yet another violent film and not a film about violence. The script holds our hand too much, stymying any message and deeply felt atmospherics on display. Perhaps we should take a clue from the script and best not ask too many questions, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Sicario isn’t about moral complexity, it’s about Roger Deakin’s gorgeously twisted cinematography lingering over Emily Blunt’s facial reactions and exquisitely photographed gun battles between undercover agents and the cartel’s soldiers. 

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The Three Worlds of Gulliver

Posted : 1 year ago on 20 November 2016 07:15 (A review of The 3 Worlds of Gulliver)

One of the least known entries in Ray Harryhausen’s canon, The Three Worlds of Gulliver keeps a lot of the sarcasm while spinning out an “all ages” piece of fluffy entertainment. It’s relatively light on the stop-motion maestro’s creature creations, but heavy on the glossy fantasy spectacle with loads of scenes of Gulliver interacting with the denizens of Lilliput and Brobdingnag. It’s a damn shame that this film wastes his talents, but there’s other reasons to watch and enjoy.


The Three Worlds of Gulliver is an incredible example of matte work done right, with scene after scene of Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Mathews) either towering over five-inch tall Lilliput citizens or being dwarfed by the giants in Brobdingnag. Either way, Harryhausen was in charge of all the effects on his major films, and one can be forgiven for composite work not immediately defaulting into your mind when you hear his name. While Gulliver only gives him two creatures to animate, a gigantic squirrel and a miniature alligator, they are exceptionally done, with the sixties being the decade during which Harryhausen’s artistry was at its peak.


Chiefly a matinee movie for a bored afternoon, Gulliver has several solid actors giving the material a wealth of pedigree and weight that it wouldn’t otherwise hold. This mainly rings true for Basil Sydney, Grégoire Aslan, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Mary Ellis, while June Thorburn is wasted and awkward as the love interest. For all the scenery chewing of the British character actors, Kerwin Mathews is a bit too staid and a bit too self-righteous in a few scenes. He’s more good than bad, but while his bland handsomeness worked effectively for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad because he was merely a cipher for the succession of monsters, it doesn’t work as well in delivering this snappy dialog or monologues about knowledge and civility.


The script is stronger than many of Harryhausen’s other works, mainly thanks to that literary pedigree. There are bigger character developments at play here, with clearer goals in mind and strongest personalities. There’s also a strong sarcastic streak, borrowed over from Jonathan Swift’s original work and missing none of the political allegories or swipes at English culture. The ending is a bit of a heavy-handed let down though, as it involves Gulliver telling his love Elizabeth that inside of all of us is the capacity for pettiness and arrogance. After so much airy, colorful, humorous, special-effects heavy film making, we’re smacked with social messaging and our lovers running off into the sunset. The Three Worlds of Gulliver is a charming throwaway that is smarter than it has any right to be, while still perhaps justifiably left in the lower-tier of Harryhausen’s work.

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The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad

Posted : 1 year ago on 20 November 2016 07:13 (A review of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)

There’s a liberating sense of wonderment and child-like awe in this adventure yarn, picking up with his story on a return home voyage with a fiancé and a promise of peace between kingdoms. This simplistic framework is the perfect vessel for Ray Harryhausen’s stellar effects work and imaginatively designed creatures. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is a non-stop spectacle of exotic sets, strange creatures, magical curses, a beautiful princess, and a handsome sailor. It’s the stuff of warmly nostalgic movie matinee memories.


If the prior films in Ray Harryhausen’s canon were fairly breakneck in their pacing, populated with a few wooden actors and far more memorable monsters, then The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is the first in a series of triumphs that bring in better actors, better scripts, and more monsters. Harryhausen’s films are best when they focus in on mythology and folklore, his science fiction films were fine and entertaining, but these films based on legendary characters are something truly special. Prior films featured maybe one or two creatures, but The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad would be the first to parade several in front of the camera.


We don’t focus on any one particular event for too long before we’re off to the next one, and this densely packed narrative is all the better for it. Think of it like the original King Kong, we fire through extraordinary set piece after another in the name of entertainment. There’s more going on in this film’s slim 90-odd minutes than in a vast majority of modern day blockbusters. After all, we have encounters with a raging Cyclops, a cobra-woman, a fire-breathing dragon, a skeleton with a sword and shield, the two-headed roc bird, and those are just the ones that Harryhausen created.


If that list sounds exhausting or somehow overburdened, then you’ll be surprised just how fleet and nimble Sinbad is. Much of that credit needs to go to director Nathan Juran and the stars Kerwin Mathews and Torin Thatcher. Juran knows that the spectacle is the main attraction here, and provides ample amounts of it including the impressive sight of a Cyclops wading into the ocean to hurl rocks at an escaping Sinbad. Or the off-kilter way he imagines the inside of the genie’s lamp. Juran’s aided immeasurably by Mathews as Sinbad, knowing he’s a swashbuckling hero, a swoon-worthy matinee idol, and second-fiddle to the extravagance on display, he creates a stoic and appropriately heroic Sinbad. While Torin Thatcher slowly boils his performance from even-keeled and into straight-up theatrical hysterics as the magician Sokurah, who begins the film as an ally before becoming petty and spiteful over losing the magical lamp.


The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad is the first truly pleasing Arabian Nights fantasy since the 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad. While it cannot compete with the perfection of that creation, it holds its own a lower-tier piece of whimsy and a bumper-crop of bang-for-your-buck entertainment. Look past leading lady Kathryn Grant’s stiff performance, ignore the fact that the film is light plot but heavy on ostentation, in fact, indulge in the fact that there’s a lightness of plotting and a heaviness of action-spectacle. It is all the grander and more engrossing for its simplicity, rightly stepping aside to make way for a series of Harryhausen creations that belong to the ages.

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20 Million Miles to Earth

Posted : 1 year ago on 20 November 2016 07:13 (A review of 20 Million Miles to Earth)

Despite being made of a wire armature and a clay exterior, the creature from 20 million miles away is the most expressive and unique performer in this routine science fiction adventure story. Strength of story and acting are not the primary reasons anyone watches these Ray Harryhausen films, but even by the permissive standards of these pulp works the story and acting in 20 Million Miles to Earth are mundane and perfunctory. Harryhausen has stated that he preferred making movies based upon mythological stories in romantic pasts over his earlier science fiction amusements, and it shows in how anemic everything but the Venus-born reptilian monster are.


Make no mistake, it never mattered what name appeared in the directorial or screenwriting slots, these films all had one true auteur and that was Harryhausen. Granted, some directors knew better how to cover over the weaknesses in the scripts or populate the cast with theatrical character actors who could either earnestly play this material or spin it off into grand heights. Nathan Juran, director here, brings back Joan Taylor as the leading lady, and creates some memorable details, but knows its best to just stand back and let Harryhausen unleash. While this one is a bit of a mess, their next collaboration, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, would bring out the best in both men.


Truthfully, the script problems are no more egregious or noticeable than the ones in any of the prior films, it’s just that William Hopper is possibly the worst leading man in any of these vehicles up to this point. He’s a charismatic vacuum and a steep comedown from Hugh Marlowe’s grounding, earnest work in Earth vs the Flying Saucers. Joan Taylor’s once again a smart, tough cookie, but quickly and unfairly sidelined through too much of the film AND sacked with a chemistry-less, totally unnecessary romantic subplot. Her earliest scenes have her calling out casual sexism, proving her smarts as she patches up wounded soldiers, and is the first person to run into the freshly hatched monster. If 20 Million Miles had proceeded to follow her around it would only improve as a film, but we’re sacked with the personality-free G.I. Joe instead.


So that brings us back to the whole point of this ridiculously overheated B-movie, the monster. Ymir, although never named properly in the film, exhibits the most personality and growth (both literally and figuratively) throughout the film. He emerges from a gelatinous cocoon about twenty minutes in, then continues to grow increasingly larger and destroy more and more property. Many of the images echo Mighty Joe Young and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, with the final scene being a direct lift from King Kong but without the deep empathy and air of tragedy that film invested into its fabric. Yet Harryhausen still creates a most impressive creature, capable of wagging its tail, breathing, thrashing under a net and exuding more natural charisma than many of the interchangeable human players.

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Earth vs the Flying Saucers

Posted : 1 year ago on 20 November 2016 05:46 (A review of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers)

In light of Mars Attacks! it’s a bit difficult to watch Earth vs the Flying Saucers with a straight face, since Tim Burton’s homage/parody hybrid used it as the most obvious foundational subject. Still, once you get past that first batch of giggles, buckle up for a briskly paced piece of pulp science fiction in which death rays destroy D.C. and loads of military men. Please don’t come around here looking for brainy, politically-loaded science fiction around here, Earth vs the Flying Saucers merely wants to entertain and titillate with its steroidal B-movie charms.


While smarter contemporaries like Invasion of the Body Snatchers took Cold War paranoia (and good ol’ fashioned McCarthyism, which is making a disturbing resurgence of late) as a building block for a heavily symbolic nightmarish thrill-ride, Earth vs the Flying Saucers looks at that paranoia and imagines it ending in a parade of explosions and destruction. Rocket ships intended to collect information about the earth keep being knocked out of the atmosphere, and numerous locations around the world are reporting the appearance of UFOs hovering in the sky. Mounting dread and questions of “what if” lurk over these appearances as they’re quickly proven accurate and not the fevered imaginings of a hysterical public.


While prior Ray Harryhausen features played flirtatious with their monsters, keeping them hidden away until the money shots in the final reels, Earth vs the Flying Saucers lives up to its title by trotting them out within the opening minutes and routinely thereafter. From the knee-jerk military’s shoot-first reactions to the national monuments-go-boom finale, the flying saucers and aliens rain down death, destruction, and charm with their herky-jerky whirligig movements. The blueprints for future UFO invasion films like Independence Day is right here, although Harryhausen’s simplistic designs and creations are more memorable than many of those special-effects extravaganzas. 

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The Animal World

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 13 November 2016 01:38 (A review of The Animal World)

The major problem with The Animal World, which which renders the film practically unwatchable today, can be traced directly back to this quote from Irwin Allen, the writer-director-producer of this nature documentary: “We don’t use the word “evolution.” We hope to walk a very thin line. On one hand we want the scientists to say this film is right and accurate, and yet we don’t want to have the church picketing the film.”


You can’t play this information both ways, especially if your goal is to show the progression of life over time. Allen is injecting something that is very much not scientific into something that is purely scientific theory and fact. For every moment of the beautiful images and narration detailing the hard scrabble evolutionary chain from aquatic single-call organisms to the more complex fauna we currently find, there’s thrown in a section about Jonah in the body of the whale, a snake described as the first great villain of society for the way it tempted Eve.


The Animal World is only notable by modern standards for a ten-minute sequence involving stop-motion dinosaurs animated by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. We various dinosaurs eating, laying eggs, fighting, and generally engaging in routine animalistic behavior, this sequence was Walking with Dinosaurs or Jurassic Park before either of those properties were even glimmers of artistic inspiration. This is the only part of the film anyone talks about or remembers, and with good reason. Harryhausen and O’Brien bring energy and true awe-inspiring artistic brio detailing these creatures and their ultimate destruction. Watch The Animal World for this section, that’s what everyone else does.

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It Came from Beneath the Sea

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 13 November 2016 01:38 (A review of It Came from Beneath the Sea)

The acting and directing are a step-up from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in It Came from Beneath the Sea, but its Ray Harryhausen’s quirky effects work that’s the real charm here. Another run through “giant radiated creature destroys the city,” It Came from Beneath the Sea is another fast-moving piece of cinematic junk food. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I mean it as a sincere piece of positive criticism.


Ray Harryhausen’s films are memorable for his various creatures; no one watches them as challenging or deep-thinking cinematic exercises. They’re fun, they’re ridiculous, they’re equal parts fantasy and theme-park attraction. So if the plots are riddled with logical holes and the dialog is pure pulp, then they’re all the better. The more propulsive they are, the more entertaining they become.


It Came from Beneath the Sea is still working out the problems of consistent pacing that something like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad has worked out, so that keeps it from reaching the loftiest heights in Harryhausen’s canon. Doesn’t mean that the final attack on the city, and the gigantic octopus doing the attacking aren’t memorable. In fact, much like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea is best when it drops these special-effects heavy scenes at more frequently intervals.


The budgetary constraints do show here, and they trickle down to Harryhausen’s main attraction. A certain jerkiness is evident, and a few sequences feel rushed in order to keep the time and budget under control. At least Donald Curtis, Kenneth Tobey, and Faith Domergue are on-hand to play this purple material with a straight face. Domergue’s brainy-but-sexy professor is a refreshing heroine in that it’s her smarts that frequently save the day. There’s plenty to admire and like in It Came from Beneath the Sea, even if the entire package is a bit sloppy by even the admittedly loose standards of a B-movie.

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The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 10 November 2016 03:42 (A review of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms)

The faux-dinosaur at the heart of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (dubbed Rhedosaurus) is the twisted atomic heart of an entire genre of films about gigantic monsters created or awakened by nuclear bombs. For all of the stilted dialog, slumberous pacing, and wooden acting, those big set pieces make the journey worth it. It’s brief running time taps into the Atomic Age paranoia by unleashing this super-beast to destroy civilization, only for civilization to eventually prove its undoing.


One of the best things about The Beast is the simplicity of plot and character development. There’s no moral quandaries here, just a zippy race through the big plot dumps and science pseudo-jargon to get us back to the big monster tearing shit up. It’s innocent nonsense and clearly in love with Ray Harryhausen’s charming lo-fi effects work.


Those special effects are a little dated, but they radiate with a curious imagination and dream-like terror. You can see how Jurassic Park’s T-Rex attacks echo the Rhedosaurus’ rampage through New York city, especially a bit where it leans down to eat a passerby, jerks its head from side to side, then swallows the poor guy. The Rhedosaurus is kept at a distance for the first 2/3 of the plot, then in the final act, all hell is unleashed. This last act makes the entire trip worth it, flaws and all, for the artistry of Harryhausen’s stop-motion creation. Its ultimate destruction in the ruins of a roller coaster ride is practically symbolic of the film itself, for what else could best describe this film than a thrill ride gone off the rails?


It is undoubtedly a classic of the genre, but a deeply flawed one. It’s charming to watch not just for the ways it lays the groundwork and all of the pieces for this genre, which Harryhausen made some of the best but by no means the majority of films in, but for its special effects. It’s wonky, but lovable in its giddy hokum. I frankly adored this dinosaur, and felt a child-like joy in watching it destroy a theme park. It was just too perfect and symbolically loaded for words.

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Mighty Joe Young

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 7 November 2016 01:01 (A review of Mighty Joe Young)

Sixteen years after King Kong frightened the masses, several of the primary players reteamed for this novelty, yet another film about a gigantic ape and the pretty young woman who can tame him. Whereas King Kong was all about scaring the daylights of its audience and sending them on a thrill-a-minute adventure story, Mighty Joe Young plays like a children’s film, a perfectly fine rainy weekend charmer that doesn’t have much ambition besides being a vessel for some impressive stop-motion effects work.


Dusting off his King Kong persona, Robert Armstrong once more ventures into the jungle to find animals to exploit for his own financial gains. This time around, he’s opening an African-themed nightclub and wants a piece of realism to engage the masses. While on expedition in the jungle, he comes across a young girl and her gigantic pet gorilla named Joe. It’s a strange mixture of cowboys, apes, studio-bound jungle sets, kitsch nightclubs, and several chase scenes.


The characters are barely written (Ben Johnson and Terry Moore engage in the limpest love story I’ve seen in a while), the actors are wooden, and the whole thing is rather inconsequential. The real reason to watch Mighty Joe Young is for the special effects. Willis O’Brien came up with the storyboards and techniques to make it all work effectively, but a majority of the animator was handed over to Ray Harryhausen. He manages to give Joe a lot of personality, more playful and sweet than King Kong. Hell, Joe even spits at his attackers during a car chase in the final stretch. Joe engages our deepest sympathies and empathy during scenes of his mistreatment while working as a nightclub act, literally becoming a performing monkey. He lacks the pathos and range of Kong, but he’s still a glorious artistic achievement.


Joe is clearly the strength and focus, look no further than the title but it’s a damn shame that the rest of the movie is so inadequate in comparison. O’Brien won an Oscar for his efforts, and they were richly deserving of the honor. Mighty Joe Young clearly lingers in the popular consciousness, as much as it does, more for historical value than its own merits. It’s the first major work from Harryhausen, even if he’s merely a hired-hand here, and a glimpse of the ensuring wit, charm, and individuality he would breathe into his future movie monsters. 

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The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 6 November 2016 06:15 (A review of The Story of 'The Tortoise & the Hare')

First, a little bit of background information is in order. Begun as the sixth entry in his fairy tale series in 1952, “The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare” was abandoned once Ray Harryhausen realized there was more money in making movie monsters than there was in making short films for schools. Flash forward to 2002, two Harryhausen disciples, Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero, contact the master after hearing about his incomplete film, and ask to finish it for him. Despite this pronounced gap and change in directorial hands, the three men managed to make something charming and seamless.


“The Tortoise and the Hare” is a lively, positively lovely little movie with an adorable array of characters and detailed landscapes. It’s also worth noting that not only did this thing take fifty years to produce, but Harryhausen hadn’t worked on a film in twenty years by this point (Clash of the Titans being his swan song up to this point). For all of the history potentially working against the film, it makes like it’s slower hero and ends up a winner by the end.


Yes, the hare does have a strikingly similar appearance to a certain Looney Tunes brand character, and the fox looks quite a bit like he stepped out of Pinocchio, but no matter. That tortoise is an adorable little thing giving credence to Harryhausen’s defense of stop-motion animation; it’s both a real object and a clearly artificial construct creating a sense of fantasy built into the fabric of the film. The prior completed four minutes and the newly constructed six are indistinguishable from each other, and that is a high compliment. This would prove to be Harryhausen’s last completed work, and it’s nearly poetic how his career began and end with these fairy tale shorts. He was a maker of dreams, a creative genius in his field who inspired countless imaginations with his penchant for soulful terrors and frights. It’s nice to see a creator return to his gentler roots to say good-bye. 

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