Saturday, December 24, 2011

Clash of the Titans (1981) (Movie Review)

        Every Kid has that movie experience that’s beyond comparison to anything else they’ve ever seen before, an epic adventure film that’s only a big budget B movie and no masterpiece like “Gone with the Wind” or “Casablanca”, but in our minds it's an A+ masterpiece that goes above and beyond standard B movies. For some people it’s “Star Wars”, and for others it’s “Raiders of the Lost Arch” but for me, one of my favorite movies that I often consider a classic is the 1981 adventure masterpiece “Clash of the Titans”. There are plenty of great movies just like this including “Jason and the Argonauts” and the Sinbad Trilogy, but "Clash of the Titans" came to me first, and had a huge impact on my youth. This is the classy Greek adventure that captured my imagination, brought me into a mythical world, and got me fascinated about Greek Mythology. I became such a nerd on the subject that I had to get my hands on every novel on Greek Mythology I could find. Seriously, if a movie makes a child want to read, then you know it’s doing something good. The film first grabbed my interest with the poster alone, it’s awesome, with hand drawn illustrations and none of that photo shop stuff that’s used all the time today. With that lousy 2010 “Clash of the Titans” remake out, and the sequel "Wrath of the Titans" on its way, lots of people may forget about the original, so it’s my job to make sure that one of my favorite adventure movies doesn’t become a forgotten gem.

         We begin on Mount Olympus, were we learn that Zeus had once traveled to Earth in human form and fell in love with a woman, which led to the birth of our lead hero Perceus. As a boy, he and his mother were cast out at sea, but Zeus protected them, and watched over them knowing that his son would have a great destiny to fulfill. One of the Goddesses named Thetis (played by Maggie Smith, who you might recognize as Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series) is jealous of Perceus and puts him to the test by transporting him to the kingdom of Joppa. He soon falls in love with the Princes named Andromeda, and he learns that the Kingdome is under a curse. So he bravely embarks on one adventure after another to save the kingdom and the Princes from the evil that threatens it. Well, that’s the clip note version, the story goes a lot deeper but I won’t spoil too much. Zeus is played by Laurence Olivier, who is outstanding in the role, it’s one of those perfect and unforgettable casting performances were I don't even see an actor. It's kind of like with Ian McKellen as Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings” movies or Richard Harris as Dumbledore from the Harry Potter Series. Olympus itself is stunning to look at, there’s a room full of wooden sculptures representing every living person on the planet. Then there’s Zeus’s throne with a big shining blue light behind it, and golden animal statues on either side.                     
       The films incredibly rich in the visual department, and it fully allows you to submerse yourself into the time and culture. Every shot has rich landscape, temples, statues and sculpture. You begin to feel like you’ve been transported to ancient Greece. It's actually on par with films like “Star Wars” or “Avatar” where I feel I’ve completely left my world behind. The costumes are all great and the musical score is unforgettable. The music track may not be as awesome as the music from “Pirates of the Carrabin” or as classic as the Indiana Jones score but this one has such a memorable melody that I’ve always considered it a classic movie score in it's own right. 
The films worth watching just for all its memorable moments. There’s a scene when the statue of Thetis comes to life with a dooming message for the Princes Andromeda. There’s the part when Perceus consults with the three blind witch’s. Then there’s the scene when our heroes have to cross a poisonous river, with the driver of the boat being a skeleton in a black cloak. There’s also a dream sequences when Andromeda’s sprit is taken away in a cage, and it's all the memorable moments like these that make a movie feel so timeless.

       The characters may not be the most complex ever put to screen, but their still the classic archetypes that I know and love so well. Perceus is the noble hero we cheer for every step of the way, and actor Harry Hamlin dose a fantastic job bringing his image to life. He remains calm but you can always feel his emotions through the tones of his voice. Princes Andromeda is a fantastic damsel in distress character, and personally one of my favorite movie princess of all time. She’s just so innocent and pure that despite being a stereotype, she’s still very lovable, cute, and obviously quiet attractive. The same can be said for her relation with Perceus, while there not 100% believable, they at least look great together and do share some good chemistry, which is just enough to help you care. Finally there’s the classic wise old mentor character named Ammon played by the always terrific Burgess Meredith. Now if you’ve seen any of the "Rocky" movies, you should know just how awesome Burgess Meredith is in the role of the old mentor character.

       Things aren’t going to be easy for our hero, so Zeus and the God’s bless him with special gifts, in other words, magical weapons. There’s an indestructible sword that can slice through anything, whether it be marble or rock. 
Next is his shield which allows him to speak with his father Zeus. Also, he has a helmet that can turn him invisible, much like Harry Potters invisibility cloak. There’s this golden robotic owl named Bubo, which can be annoying at times, but he's very useful to our hero's and he eventually becomes a memorable mascot just like how R2-D2 is to "Star Wars". Finally, there’s the winged horse named Pegasus who makes traveling a lot easier. I remember when Disney’s “Hercules” came out, I always had to let my friends know that Pegasus was Perceus accomplice before Hercules.

      The villains are also very memorable, and monstrous. Calibos is the primary antagonist and mortal enemy to Perceus. He was once a handsome man who was suppose to marry Princess Andromeda but for his cruelty, Zeus struck him down and deformed him. Now he’s a half man half monster that’s out for vengeance against Perceus who ruined his plans to control the kingdom and for taking Andromeda. There’s actually a lot of development that goes into his character and he makes for such a fun enemy to mingle with the hero’s. One of the biggest highlights of the film is the Gorgon Medusa, a half woman half serpent with snakes for hair and the ability to turn people to stone when they look into her eyes. Before I had even seen the movie, I was fascinated with the Greek character Medusa and it was such a treat to see such a frightening and menacing portrayal of her on film. I love how sinister they made her look and her introduction scene was done so well. It actually terrified me as a kid, there’s a strong atmosphere, music building up, great lighting, shadows and it’s such a closterfobic location that to this day, this scene still keeps me on the edge of my seat. The following shot of Perceus holding up her head is one of the most triumphant and unforgettable moments to be viewed in a film.
       The real show stoppers are the charmingly archaic stop-motion animation techniques of Ray Harryhausen. He is the master of Stop-Motion monsters and personally, I think this film was his greatest accomplishment. People today seem to prefer CG effects, and to be fare CG makes creatures look far more realistic but I’m one of the phew people today that still love stop-motion animation. There so awesome to look at because they come from an age before computers and it’s really impressive to see how they brought all these different creatures to life. 

There’s a bit of mystery to this craft, it still makes me wonder how they did most of this but with CG you know it was all done in a computer. The remaining monsters in this film are all pretty awesome, there’s a massive vulture, giant killer Scorpions and a two headed wolf. 

      But best of all, this movie features one of the greatest giant movie monsters of all time, the ancient sea monster known as the Kracan. It is so firkin cool, I never get tired of seeing this. All of Ray Harryhausen’s monsters are fun to watch but the Kracan was brought up on a grand scale, with a fool orchestra boasting its size. It’s certainly a youneek design, with an eagle head and four arms. Certainly not the original Kracan design of Greek mythology but who cares, this was such a spectacle to see as a kid that it’s still far more impressive then both CG Kracan’s seen in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and the 2010 “Clash of the Titans” remake. 

     The last highlight to mention is at the closing of the film. We get a look at the star constellations that were named after these characters by the Greeks mixed with an amazing narration from Zeus, it’s so subtle and it leaves me with chills every time. Final words, this film isn’t deep or enlightening and it’s a goofy, old-school sword-and-sandal epic at best but it’s done so well. If you’re someone who loves Greek Mythology or are very young and want a good adventure flick, then this is a film I highly recommend. But if you’re someone who doesn’t appreciate the art and enjoyment of stop-motion photography then you’re probably better off with recent adventure films (not including the remake because that was such a wasted opportunity). Usually films like this just get 4 stars or 3 ½ stars but for my own personal nostalgia, I give the original 1981 “Clash of the Titans” 5 stars, I loved it when I was a kid and it’s still one of my favorites. 
                                                      The End

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Top 10 Christmas Villains

Aw Christmas, the most peaceful, joyous, and loving time of year … what an ideal occasion to talk about villains. “Ha, Ha”. All joking aside, some of the most famous holiday characters are either evil do-ers trying to end the holiday, or grumpy misers who just don’t understand the meaning of the season. Weather they reform or just remain bad is all on the table, but my one condition is that I won’t be including any Christmas Horror movie villains … in other words, no “Krampus” or “Gremlins” here, although I was very tempted to include the ladder. With all that said, lets take a look at my favorite holiday characters who are most deserving of a lump of coal.

#10 King Winterbolt from “Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July

Rankin Bass’s holiday specials have featured some of the most famous animated Christmas villains ever, including The Abominable Snow Monster of the North, Burgermeister Meisterburger, Ben Haramed, Professor Hinkle, Winter Warlock, Kubla Kraus and of course The Miser Brothers … who both came very close to making my countdown. However, if I had to single-out one personal favorite for my countdown, it would have to be King Winterbolt without question. He’s an evil snow sorcerer who creates blizzards, snowstorms and is voiced by the late Paul Frees ... I’m sure he was casted just for the irony of his last name. Aside from his malevolent presence, he’s also got all the good stuff, or bad stuff, like snow dragons, a genie of the Ice Scepter, flying ice snakes, and a diabolical plot that’s got more layers then an onion. I think the writers may have enjoyed their vileness creation a little too much, because he gets more screen time, backstory and motivated plot then any other character in the film. Keep in mind, this is a special packed with iconic Christmas characters like Santa Clause, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red Noised Reindeer, and even Jack Frost … and yet it’s the villain who somehow steels the whole show.   

#9 Pitch from “Rise of the Guardians

I didn’t feel right including Oogie Boogie on this countdown, as I’ve always viewed him as a Halloween villain first, so here’s a different kind of Boogie Man to compensate. The villain Pitch is about as evil and creepy as holiday villains get. The design is really good, and voice actor Jude Law is terrific in the role. While the character himself admittedly feels like a jumble of other popular villains rolled into one, he certainly has just enough original marks to stand out. His encounters with our hero’s do lead to some exciting action scenes, and some stylishly dark imagery that you’d normally never see in a Christmas film. I certainly don’t think the movie ever went too dark or too scary, it’s at just the right level where it will excite kids, without ruining the fun holiday experience.

#8 The Mouse King from “The Nutcracker Prince” (1990)

The Nutcracker was a common Christmas tale read to me by my parents during the holiday season, and as such, the Mouse King always stood out to me as a memorable Christmas villain in his own right. My favorite portrayal of him was in the 1990 animated movie “The Nutcracker Prince”. His design was very Don Bluth-esk, and didn’t quiet resemble his book illustration … this version just has one head as opposed to several. Never the less, he was menacing, deadly, and this was the version of The Nutcracker I watched the most frequently as a kid. The highlight comes near the climax, in which the Mouse King is near death, yet still clinging to life in an effort to do-away with Clara. The animation on the Mouse King during this confrontation is the stuff of nightmares for little kids, which made him all the more memorable.  

#7 King Herod from “The Nativity Story

Of all the bad men to be associated with the holiday, King Herod is perhaps the most nefarious of all, as he aimed to kill Jesus Christ himself while just a baby in a manger. It’s CiarĂ¡n Hinds portrayal of Herod from the 2006 movie “The Nativity Story” that always comes to mind first when I think of him, and he gives the role his usual stamp of both menace and class. He was everything cruel, heartless, and the most dangerous villain to nearly end the holiday season itself from ever taking shape. 

#6 Evil Robot Santa from “Futurama

In this shows odd-ball setting of the future, Christmas is a time when families and friends are brought together, not through peace or love, but because there’s a crazy, laser gun shooting robot Santa who’s determined that everyone’s holiday is a real “BLAST”. However, the boy from the past named Fry is feeling nostalgia for the original spirit of Christmas and is determined to go out and get his girlfriend Leela a present … even if that means battling an evil robot Santa in the process. It’s a hilarious concept with no shortage of funny quirks, like how a mistletoe is no match for robot Santa’s toe-missile. John Goodman is fantastic as the evil Santa robot, and it’s pretty surreal hearing him as the voice of a villain, as opposed to all the nicer cartoon characters he usually voices

#5 Scut Farkus from “A Christmas Story

Enter a generic, a yellow eyed, school bully, who despite his basic character status … somehow leaves a memorable impression, and just owns every scene he’s in. Yeah, he’s as one-note a bully character as they get, and yet he’s a strong addition to the film. He’s all for show, and has no real guts of his own, but man does he love spotlighting himself as the ultimate tough guy on the block. One little detail that always stuck out is that Scut Farkus sinister theme music is lifted right from Disney’s “Peter and the Wolf” cartoon. Seriously, watch that short and tell me it’s not the wolfs exact music score, and heck, even Scut Farkus’s introduction scene mirrors how the wolf was introduced in that short.

#4 Forte from “Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas

Voiced by the distinguished Tim Curry ... need to say any more than that? I mean … it’s Tim Curry as an over the top cartoon villain, and he livens up everything. You could have the most passive, one dimensional character in the world, and he’ll still make the performance a lot of fun to watch. I especially love the design of this guy, as he’s basically a giant pipe organ with a scary face. The animation on the character is great, and while he’s obviously CGI in a 2D setting, the effects are still cutting edge for the time. In fact, he just looks like something that should be CGI, and it’s also cool to have a villain that’s just towering over our heroes. While the motivations are by the numbers, and really don’t make any logical sense, he still has an engaging presence, and steels every scene. It really is Tim Curry who redeems this otherwise shallow character, just by acting so deliciously over the top.

#3 Hans Gruber from “Die Hard

I’ve always viewed Alan Rickman as one of the most charismatic villain actors to ever live, and this is the performance that stands in the Hollywood hall of fame as one of the absolute greatest. He’s suave, charming, laid back, yet extremely ruthless and unsympathetic. He’s also a villain who’s self-aware, as he knows he’s just a common robber, but wants to be viewed as someone of class and high stature. So, he puts on a show, dresses up, is well versed and postures like he’s a brilliant mastermind with greater ambitions then the situation would suggest. The back and forth between he and John McClain is one of the greatest hero/ villain relationships I’ve ever seen. The two don’t even meet face to face until the very end, and the majority of their conflict is conveyed through conversation on walkie talkie’s, yet it’s still extremely engaging. Just watching these two one up each other with their own distinct mannerisms and witty comebacks is highly entertaining, as well as brilliant film-making.

#2 Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol

No matter which version you go by, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most enduring and downright heartwarming redemption tails of all time. This grumpy old miser just couldn’t get into the spirit of the holiday and made sure that everyone was just as miserable as her was. Through some serious soul searching from his past, present and future he was finally able to let the warmth of the holiday touch his soul, and everyone turned out better for it. It’s such a timeless tail, with a rich message and he remains both a famous literary character and one of the all-time greatest Christmas villains. He could have easily been number one, but … of course there’s one other I haven’t mentioned yet

Before I reveal my #1 favorite, here are some Honorable Mentions … 

Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life

Harry and Marv from "Home Alone

The Miser Brothers from "The Year Without Santa Claus

Toy Santa from "Santa Clause 2

Granville Sawyer from "Miracle on 34th Street"

#1. The Grinch from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas

He was as cuddly as a cactus, as charming as an eel, and the biggest monster that would stop at nothing to ruin everyone’s favorite holiday, just for the sake of being nasty. Of course, he reaches an epiphany in the end and realizes just how wrong he was in judging the holiday and those who celebrate it. Seeing this miserable creature open up to the light of Christmas is simply one of the warmest feel good moments I’ve ever seen any character go through. Just like Scrooge, the Grinch has had his share of film portrayals, and for the sake of this countdown, things don’t get any better than the original classic voiced by the Frankenstein monster himself Boris Karloff. Although, I do still admittedly have some fondness for Jim Carry in the role. Either way, he’s one of the all-time greatest holiday characters, and absolutely my favorite Christmas villain.    

The End

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Christmas Story (1983) (Movie Review)

      No holiday season is complete without Christmas specials, in fact viewing them is as big a tradition as opening presents, and there’s no shortage of Christmas specials out there to select from. Even the lousy ones can add some flavor to the season, but naturally it’s the classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” that you can expect to turn up every year. My personal favorite Christmas special of all time by far is the 1983 comedy classic, “A Christmas Story”. This for me is the Christmas movie that just seems to have everything, heart, innocence, nostalgia, great characters and a lot of hummer. Don’t take my word for it, this film shows up at number one on just about every Christmas list I’ve ever seen. But why is that, what is it that makes this such a treasured Christmas gem for everyone? Let’s find out ... 

     It was based on two novels, the first book titled “In God we Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, but the real predecessor is “Red Rider Nails the Hammond Kid”. Both of them were authored by Jean Shepherd, who actually provides the narration in this film (as well as a little cameo as that guy in line saying “The line ends here, it begins there”.). These two stories were the bases for the film, while the task of directing was supplied by none other than Bob Clark. Previously, he directed a Christmas horror movie titled “Black Christmas”, so it’s no wonder he infuses this family film with a little bit of an edge, and no shortage of dark comedy. The film takes the axe to the common three act structure, and highlights the various experiences of one boy during the Christmas season. It doesn’t get any simpler than that, as the whole movie is basically the life and times of this boy spending Christmas with his family, the goofy situations he gets into, and truthfully, that’s all you really need to have a good film. “A Christmas Story” was one of the first films that proved to me the magic of simply showing someone live their life at a certain time is almost more compelling than a laid-out story with a proper three act structure. Life is interesting, life is fool of conflicts, drama, comedy and genuineness. The thread that holds it all together is that our lead character named Ralphie is obsessed with getting a “Red Ryder BB Gun”, and he’s got several schemes in the works on how he’ll obtain it.     

     I really like Ralphie, as he doesn’t feel like a generic kid character, in fact he almost represents how most little kids are around Christmas, which is self-centered, impulsive, but also genuine, innocent and loving. 
All the emotions, dreams and actions seen in this character are brought to life very well by young actor Peter Billingsley. Interestingly, he would go on to be the executive producer of smash superhero blockbusters like “Iron Man”, and try his own hand contributing to another Christmas comedy titled “Four Christmases”. I especially love all his silly daydream sequences, which I think every kid fantasized about when in certain situations like getting in trouble with parents and so forth. Joining him are his brother Randy and occasionally his two best friends Flick and Schwartz. My absolute favorite characters who in my opinion completely steel the film are the two parents played by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin. These two goofs crack me up every time their on screen, and they both seem to be this serial combination of a dysfunctional, yet still loving couple. Actually, the family is very wholesome in just how real they feel. They have their heated moments with one another, but the love and feelings still remain regardless. Enter Scut Farkus, a yellow eyed bully character who likewise owns every scene he’s in. Despite being a one-note bully, he’s an unforgettable addition to the film, as he’s all for show, and has no real guts of his own. One little detail that always stuck out is that Scut Farkus sinister theme music is lifted right from Disney’s “Peter and the Wolf” cartoon. Seriously, watch that short and tell me it’s not the wolfs exact music score, and heck, even Scut Farkus introduction scene mirrors how the wolf was introduced in that short. 

    I must admit, this is a hard film to do justice in a single review, because there are things to talk about in every seen, and countless individual highlights. There’s the decoder ring, the pink bunny costume, the soap punishment, and the kid getting dared to stick his tong to a flag pole (which is something I’ve always been curious about but never dared to try it myself). 

I’ll always remember that cranky mall Santa Clause. I was actually one of those kids who was terrified to go see Santa, so seeing that hilarious, wide-angle lens shot of him going “HO-ho-ho!” was simply the stuff of nightmares. The whole scene with the mall Santa is just comedy gold, and the Santa himself might just be my favorite off-beat variation of the character I’ve ever seen. Then there’s that goofy leg lamp, and personally, if I could own any one prop from a film, I’d want that lamp. I’d gladly put that thing in my living room, and read by it while all lit up. However, the funniest scene for me has always been the part with the Chinese Turkey, (it’s actually a duck). That scene was so funny I was still laughing at it when the credits were rolling, and it still cracks me up to this day. Of course, there’s no shortage of quotable lines, like (Dad) “FRA-GI-LIE, it must be Italian?” (Mom responds) “No, I think that says Fragile”, and the always classic quote “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!”. I’ll admit, this film isn’t quite as funny as something along the lines of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, but it has so much more going for it than just the comedy.   

     Watching “A Christmas Story” from beginning to end is like reliving a dream, or a memory. Even though it takes place in the 1940’s, this is a childhood that a lot of people can identify with. Some may argue that this film represents child hood more than the actual holiday, but one of the biggest attributes of Christmas is memories, and that’s what this film is. Everything is told through narration from the point of view of Ralphie as an adult reflecting back on his youth and sharing with us his experiences during this cherished time of his life. This is the magic that I’ve never experienced in any other Christmas film, as it speaks to me as an adult, while also taking me back to that time when Christmas was a magical thing to experience with friends and family. It goes even further comparing who we were then, too who we are now, and who we will be in the future. Just like the narrator, I too plan to share my holiday experiences with my close family. There’re also many genuine and subtle moments in this film that are just as memorable as all the comedy, like the kids pressing their faces against the window of a toy store, or Ralphie waking up to a beautiful snowy morning. Perhaps my favorite little holiday moment of all is when the father and wife sit by the lit up Christmas tree, while watching the snow fall, and with soft Christmas music playing in the background. That to me is just Christmas is its most true form. 
    That’s what makes this film such a timeless holiday gem for me, it’s both warmly nostalgic and darkly humorous, giving you a splendid blend of every wonderful feeling you could have while watching a Christmas movie. It’s for these reasons and more that I look at this movie as the greatest Christmas special of all time. While the amount of praise and marketing for this film may be a bit overboard, I still can’t say that I love any other holiday film more then this one.

I give the 1983 holiday classic “A Christmas Story” ... a perfect 5 stars out of 5.

       And Merry Christmas!