Saturday, February 28, 2015

Fantastic February Quick Picks and Pans

Strings (2004) This Scandinavian/British production by director/co-writer Anders Rønnow Klarlund is a puppet movie like no other. Compared to the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows, the filmmakers are not attempting to create semi-realistic settings that mimic the human world, but take an approach in the opposite direction. Instead of attempting to conceal the strings, they become integral to the story, and are a literal and metaphorical element of the characters. The strings not only establish physical boundaries in the puppet world, but reinforce how each individual is bound to one another. With its themes of deceit, intolerance, hate and genocide, it’s definitely not kid stuff, but the film would make an excellent departure point for families to discuss these touchy subjects. Strings is a beautiful, mesmerizing and uniquely touching experience you’re unlikely to forget.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Santo Contra La Hija de Frankenstein (1971) Mexico’s favorite luchador is at it again, protecting citizens from those who would inflict evil on society. Although the movie features the legendary monster as Santo’s primary opponent (painted in a surprisingly sympathetic light), the real villain is the daughter of Dr. Frankenstein (Gina Romand). She must endure multiple injections of a life-prolonging serum, and targets Santo for the magical properties in his blood. Once again, the language barrier (the DVD wasn’t subtitled) did little to diminish my enjoyment.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Alice (1988) When a taxidermied rabbit springs to life in the first scene, and breaks free of its glass display case, it’s clear this won’t be a conventional adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. This profoundly disturbing Czech adaptation of the Lewis Carroll story from writer/director Jan Svankmajer, combines live action and stop motion animation. Svankmajer takes pains to make the creepy elements in the source material even creepier as the human Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová) interacts with dead animals and nightmarish creations. I couldn’t help but admire it on a technical level, but it’s hard to love. It’s still more enjoyable than Tim Burton’s misguided version, though.  

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Cool World (1992) It’s hard to find much to like about this misfire from director Ralph Bakshi, which combines live action with animation. As the result of a cosmic rift of sorts, cartoons and humans (or “doodles” and “noids”) become entwined in a bizarre universe called the Cool World. Brad Pitt stars as Jack, a human cop who keeps the balance between the two worlds by preventing doodles and noids from having sex. The movie invites inevitable comparisons to 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and suffers in the process, lacking the wit or charm of the earlier film. The interaction between the human and animated characters is awkward and unconvincing, and the parameters of the cartoon world are ill defined. Most of the animated characters are generic, full of frenetic activity, but without much purpose. The film’s main focal point, Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) is a hateful, unsympathetic character with a homicidal streak. Caught up in the mix is another human, Frank (Gabriel Byrne), the comic book artist who drew Holli and is subsequently seduced by his own creation. This flick didn’t do much for the lead actors’ careers, and it’s too unfocused and irritating to qualify as much of a cult film.

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Favorite Directors: Guillermo del Toro

“When people say, ‘Oh, fantasy’s a great escape,’ I reply, ‘I don’t think so.’ Fantasy is a great way of deciphering reality.” – Guillermo del Toro (from Guillermo del Toro – Cabinet of Curiosities, by Guillermo del Toro and Marc Scot Zicree)

It may not have been love at first sight when I initially watched a Guillermo del Toro film, but I knew there was a fertile imagination at work, suggesting a potential for something great. One viewing led to the next, initiating an interest that grew stronger with each subsequent film. And aren’t the relationships you build and nurture over time the most rewarding ones?

There’s nothing else quite like a del Toro movie. His particular brand of dark fantasy has become his trademark over the years. Even at his most moribund, there is an inherent elegance, where form and function go hand in hand. Everything is meticulously planned, stemming from journals filled with detailed notes and drawings. Del Toro cited numerous cinematic, literary and artistic influences in his book Cabinet of Curiosities, providing insight into his creative process. Nestled somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area lies his home away from home, Bleak House* (probably the closest thing our generation has to Forrest Ackerman’s “Ackermansion), where he pauses to reflect, plan new projects, and catalog his obsessions.

* Unfortunately, his amazing collection of artifacts, artwork and movie-related miscellanea is not open to the general public, although I would gladly make a pilgrimage to California for a chance to sneak a peek (are you listening, Mr. del Toro?). 

Del Toro started out with short films and the Mexican horror anthology TV series Hora Marcada, eventually graduating to directing his first feature film, Cronos, followed by a string of films that reflected his diverse tastes, but share a common thread. One dominant inspiration has been H.P. Lovecraft, whose themes resonate throughout many of his films, describing ancient, dormant civilizations, waiting to emerge again. Unlike Lovecraft, however, his films reflect the civilizations’ capacity for good as well as evil.

Over the past two decades, del Toro’s cinematic resume has barely scratched the surface of the concepts, rough sketches and story ideas trapped in his notebooks. For every movie that gets the green light, there are several others that will likely never come to fruition. For several years, he was attached to direct the Hobbit films for producer Peter Jackson, but decided to step down when the production became mired in development hell. What seemed like a career setback enabled him to pursue other notable projects such At the Mountains of Madness and Hellboy III, which sadly remain unproduced but could surface again someday. I anxiously await Crimson Peak, which appears to be a return to the basics, with its supernatural themes and ghostly imagery. It’s a bit disappointing that his next project in the immediate future will be a sequel to Pacific Rim, but any del Toro film is still cause for celebration. What’s next? Only time, and the willingness of film companies to bankroll his distinctive vision, will tell.

Key characteristics of a Guillermo del Toro film:

  • Gothic settings, reflecting a particular fondness for baroque architecture. Many of his settings have a lived-in, organic look, full of dark, hidden passageways, cavernous interiors and grand archways. Many of his films feature old ruins and crumbled remains of long-dead civilizations, conceived by an ancient intelligence we could scarcely comprehend. The Old Ones, from Lovecraftian tales, would have been right at home.
  • Infatuation with clockwork and time. The diabolical golden scarab in Cronos is a centuries-old device, comprised of an elaborate network of gears. Another example is the villain Kroenen from Hellboy, who has replaced his inner workings with clockwork to prolong his life beyond any natural constraints. In del Toro’s films, the turning gears not only reflect the ephemeral passage of life, but paradoxically suggest the perpetual, unstoppable motion of time.
  • Intentional use of color. Color doesn’t just set the mood, but becomes a character in his movies, as exemplified by the prevalence of blues, golds and red in Hellboy, green in Mimic, and red at the Pale Man’s banquet table in Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • Spirituality. Although his films are redolent with Catholic imagery such as crucifixes and rosary beads, it’s more indicative of the symbols that were important in his childhood and his own spiritual journey, rather than an attempt to convert the audience.
  • The intersection of Fantasy and reality. There is a hidden world, co-existing on the same plane as the known world, which is just as real but intangible to most people. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the young girl Ofelia is the only one capable of perceiving this otherness, and the fairy tale creatures that inhabit the space around her home. The Troll Market in Hellboy II is another example of a parallel world, just under the Brooklyn Bridge, in plain sight, but invisible to the ordinary individual.
  • Eyes as the window to the soul. Del Toro plays with our perceptions, with The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, with removable eyes resting on a plate, or his spiritual analog, the Angel of Death in Hellboy II, possessing multiple eyes in his wings. Kroenen from Hellboy, who had his eyelids surgically removed, provides a hideous reminder of the humanity he’s lost.

Ranking Guillermo Del Toro’s Films (note that his television projects are not represented here):

  1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Generally regarded as del Toro’s masterpiece, and who am I to argue with that? Alternately beautiful and terrifying, del Toro has constructed an elaborate dark fantasy world, contrasting the grim realities of life under a fascist dictatorship. The fairy tale creatures that inhabit his world are far from benign or safe, as evidenced by the ambiguous Faun or the fearsome Pale Man (both played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). But neither of these creatures can approach the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) for sheer loathsomeness. Rating: *****
  2. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) This exceptional film fits nicely, as a thematic companion to Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a ghost story and a mystery, set amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The orphanage setting underscores the collateral damage of war, as it impacts children and adults, and proves we have much more to fear from the living, rather than the dead. Rating: **** ½
  3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) This immensely entertaining sequel to Hellboy, reflects the influence of Pan’s Labyrinth with its heart and substance. It one-ups its predecessor by raising the stakes with an army of unstoppable mechanical automatons, but surprises by bridging the gap between the director’s more personal films and “popcorn” entertainment. Rating: **** ½
  4. Hellboy (2004) Mike Mignola’s comic book character springs to life, with del Toro’s inspired embellishments. Del Toro fought tooth and nail for Ron Perlman to play the title role – a battle that ultimately paid off. Tough to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role with such enthusiasm or conviction. John Hurt is memorable as Hellboy’s adoptive father and mentor Professor Broom, who sees his son’s redemptive qualities. Rating: ****
  5. Cronos (1993) Del Toro’s first feature film serves as a template for many of del Toro’s future projects, and contains many of the themes he would later explore, to greater effect. The title device holds the key to eternal life, but with a terrible price. The movie is also notable for establishing the director’s long professional relationship with Ron Perlman. Rating: *** ½  
  6. Mimic (1997) Through accelerated evolution, genetically engineered insects gain the ability to imitate human appearance. This ambitious film could have been great, but its production suffered from differences between a meddling film studio, which wanted a standard monster movie, and del Toro’s singular artistic vision. His director’s cut, though marred by a pat ending, is the closest thing we’ll likely get to what he intended. Rating: *** ½
  7. Blade II (2002) This sequel to 1998’s Blade gave del Toro to provide his own spin on vampires, involving an especially ugly and dangerous variant. There’s no time for romantic trysts with the undead here, just lots of action. While it’s a little short on substance, Blade II proved he had the chops to pull off an action-packed comic book movie, which would lead to bigger and better things. Rating: ***
  8. Pacific Rim (2013) Compared to several of his previous efforts, this movie was a step back for del Toro. I wanted to enjoy this more, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this brilliant director was deliberately under-achieving for the sake of box office expense. This great looking, but hollow exercise features lots of kaiju action, along with two-dimensional characters and over-the-top acting and dialogue to match. It’s a fun diversion, but not much else. Rating: ***

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Classics Revisited: Jason and the Argonauts

(1963) Directed by Don Chaffey; Written by Jan Read and Beverley Cross; Starring: Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack, Gary Raymond, Niall MacGinnis and Honor Blackman
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“In the early days I thought I wanted to be an actor, and then I got butterflies in the stomach on opening night, and I decided that wasn’t for me – I’d rather be behind the camera. But I’m grateful I took those lessons – a drama course at Los Angeles City College; because it taught me how to act and react with other people in the acting profession. So I have a sort of indirect way of acting through these models…”
– Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 1995 interview with John Landis)

With so many memorable creations to Ray Harryhausen’s credit, it’s nearly impossible to pin down a favorite. For many, it might be Pegasus or the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, maybe the flying saucers from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, or the Cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. For my money, however, it’s tough to beat the battling skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. Smack dab in the early ‘60s, amidst all the numerous sword and sandal flicks, producer Charles H. Schneer, director Don Chaffey and effects maestro/executive producer Harryhausen created something that made the other genre flicks seem run-of-the-mill by comparison. Filmed on location in Italy, the filmmakers concealed Jason and the Argonauts’ modest budget by filming on location in Italy, and utilizing real locations such as the Greek temple (which had been built to honor the goddess Hera) ruins near Naples.* The film’s episodic nature reflects a patchwork quilt, stitched together from numerous classical sources.

* One nitpick: As impressive as the authentic structures look, would they really have been ruins in the era that the film depicts?

After the despot Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) conquers Thessaly and kills King Aristo, he learns that his victory will be short lived, as a priest (Michael Gwynn) prophesizes that he will die at the hand of Aristo’s son Jason. The story skips forward 20 years later, when by chance encounter (or is it?) Jason saves Pelias from drowning. Before he realizes his mistake, he’s off on a quest to the ends of the Earth, searching for the Golden Fleece. He assembles a group of men, the Argonauts, to embark on his quest, while Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) observes Jason’s struggles from atop Mount Olympus. But Jason has an ace up his sleeve with Hera (Honor “Pussy Galore” Blackman), who’s granted him five instances when she can intercede on his behalf. He gets additional help from Medea (Nancy Kovack) who assists him with obtaining the Fleece, betraying her country in the process.

Let’s call a spade a spade; no one looks at the Schneer/Harryhausen movies for the stellar acting or plot hole-laden stories. Taken on these terms, Jason and the Argonauts is a creaky boat, full of hokey, contraction-free dialogue, and men running around in sheets. But no one’s come for the ancient political intrigue, or virtuoso performances. Nope, forget all that. We’re here to see monsters, and damn it, we’re gonna see ‘em! The main draw has always been Mr. Harryhausen’s marvelous animations.

Jason and the Argonauts’ stop-motion effects, or “Dynamation.” featured not one, but several unforgettable Harryhausen creations. The giant statue of Talos, which comes to life and threatens the crew of the Argonaut* Harryhausen noted that Talos, as depicted in the ancient legend, was actually the size of a person, but he decided to take some artistic license and base the film’s animated statue on the massive Colossus of Rhodes. In another sequence, the blind Phineas is tormented by a pair of harpies, until Jason intervenes. Harryhausen saves the best for last with the Hydra and skeleton warriors. The Hydra, as described in the original story, had only one head that regenerated itself when cut off. Because it was deemed too difficult to animate, he decided on the creature with seven heads** that appears in the finished film. Later, the teeth from the severed heads become skeleton warriors, leading to one of the most iconic animated battles in film history. Harryhausen noted that his father was responsible for building the metal armatures for the skeletons – they were assembled by the elder Harryhausen in the States, and shipped to his son in Italy.

* No thanks to Hercules (Nigel Green). He doesn’t really do much to help Jason and his men, but endangers all of them when he attempts to plunder some of the treasure guarded by the giant bronze statue.

** Why seven heads? According to Harryhausen, “Seven is a mystical number and recurs many times in our pictures, so seven heads it was, and none of them would be required to grow back.” (from The Art of Ray Harryhausen, by Ray Harryhausen & Tony Dalton)

Considering how beloved Jason and the Argonauts is today, it’s hard to believe the film wasn’t a big hit when it was released (hmmm… where have we heard that before?). It wasn’t long until the movie gained traction, however, as audiences came to appreciate Harryhausen’s painstaking effects. The movie’s conclusion enticed viewers with the promise of other adventures with Jason, but sadly, they were not to be. While it’s fun to speculate about what could have been, I’d rather enjoy what exists. Harryhausen’s technical wizardry sealed Jason and the Argonauts’ fate as one of the most visually compelling fantasies of all time.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Once Over Twice: Labyrinth

(1986) Directed by Jim Henson; Written by Terry Jones; Story by Dennis Lee and Jim Henson; Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Brian Henson, Dave Goelz and Toby Froud; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****

“When I see a film, when I leave the theater, I like a few things: I like to be happier than I was when I went in, I like a film to leave me with an up feeling, and I like a picture to have a sense of substance. I like it to be about something, about life, about things that matter to me; and so, I think that’s what we were trying to do with this film…” – Jim Henson (from the documentary Inside the Labyrinth)

February, to put it mildly, has been one doozy of a month. Due to a series of stressful events that converged on my family and me, conspiring to turn my remaining hair silver, this review has been delayed for almost a week. Okay, but what the hell does this have to do with this month’s theme? Well, my dear friends, I’m here to put the Fantastic back in Fantastic February. The fantasy genre serves as a constant reminder that no matter how bad things get, I can always return to my cinematic equivalent of comfort food. A great fantasy flick, such as the one described below, never fails to inspire my sense of wonder, feed my wounded heart, and nourish my sense of wellbeing… or some such claptrap. Fantasy picks me up, okay?

If  lack of critical acclaim or box office success was any indicator of worth, Labyrinth should have been relegated to a footnote in Jim Henson’s career, rather than one of his shining moments. Instead of fading away into the annals of time as an ambitious but failed experiment, it’s now regarded by many as a modern classic. But why the shift? The Dark Crystal, its spiritual and chronological predecessor, was arguably the more ambitious production by virtue of the fact it made no concessions to human characters, creating a world populated entirely by puppets. But the former film also felt more distancing, lacking the humor and sense of fun present in Henson’s follow-up. Also, in terms of dialogue, The Dark Crystal doesn’t hold a candle to Labyrinth.

Jim Henson (in a rare collaboration with executive producer George Lucas) left most of the puppetry to his talented staff, so he could focus on directorial chores. Conceptual designer Brian Froud,* who also worked with Henson on The Dark Crystal, helped realize the visually complex world of the film, steeped in numerous artistic and literary influences, including Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.. Monty Python alum Terry Jones (working from a story by Henson and Dennis Lee, along with Froud’s artwork) fleshed out the witty screenplay. Labyrinth features magnificent sets, filled with optical illusions. In the film’s climactic scenes, M.C. Escher’s lithographs, “House of Stairs” and “Relativity,” form the basis for an astonishing set, featuring stairs leading into nowhere.

* In the DVD commentary, Froud stated the look of the film was inspired in part by medieval manuscripts and gothic art that frequently included faces peering out at you.

Jennifer Connelly* does a respectable job in one of her earliest roles as the film’s daydreaming protagonist, Sarah. Stuck at home with her crying baby brother Toby (played by Brian Froud’s son Toby Froud), she wishes the Goblin King would take him away. To her surprise, he answers her plea, and does just that, whisking the infant to his realm. After the deed is done, however, she’s filled with regret. Her dilemma is readily identifiable to anyone who’s ever thought of something awful, only to instantly become ensnared in a web of guilt, as if our mere thoughts had become actions. She embarks on a quest to rescue her baby brother, marking a rite of passage as she transitions from a selfish adolescent to a conscientious young woman. Along the way, she meets an odd assortment of characters who assist or impede her progress: the capricious Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson, and played by Shari Weiser), beholden to his master Jareth, but with an undeniable soft spot for Sarah; the foxlike Didymus (voiced by Dave Goelz), bound by his unshakeable code of chivalry; and Ludo (voiced by Ron Mueck), a sweet, good-natured ogre – a bit dim perhaps, but loyal to a fault and handy in a fight.

* Fun fact: According to Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones, the director had considered several other young actresses for the role, including Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern and Ally Sheedy.

It’s tough to think of anyone but David Bowie occupying the role of Jareth, the Goblin King, with such authority and zeal. Bowie seems born to play the ruler of the labyrinth, as he prances about in tight pants like a rock star, tempting Sarah with the hedonistic fruits of adulthood (as symbolized by a poison peach). He presents her with a Faustian bargain: in exchange for Toby, he will give her the life she’s been seeking. Flamboyant, charismatic and enigmatic, he’s the embodiment of her struggle to reconcile the playful innocence of childhood with the carnal pleasures of adulthood. Bowie’s infectious songs including “Magic Dance,” “Chilly Down,” and “As the World Falls Down” enhance the mood, describing Sarah’s conflicted states.

Although Henson commented that the eponymous labyrinth is “…whatever you like to make it,” (from Jim Henson – The Works, by Christopher Finch) he indicated it was an internal manifestation, rather than a concrete one. The labyrinth signifies Sarah’s late-adolescent, convoluted mind, while her baby brother Toby represents the responsibility of adulthood. But far from a dry, overly intellectual exploration of existential adolescent angst, it’s an amusing romp, filled with riddles, and infused with absurd little comic touches (such as an elaborate tunnel cleaning device that leaves a bigger mess in its wake) that keep you smiling and guessing. In the labyrinth, nothing is as it appears. Sarah must endure a series of trials designed to obfuscate and divert her from her task of reaching the center of the Labyrinth and rescuing Toby. Along the way, she encounters numerous distractions that attempt to discourage her, including the brightly colored fierys, Id-driven monsters with a propensity for taking off their own heads, and a junk heap filled with artifacts from her childhood. They’re all chaotic manifestations of the push-pull that’s all part of growing up.  

Biographer Brian Jay Jones does little to dispel Labyrinth’s unearned reputation as a critical and commercial failure, dismissing it as “one of those dead ends,”* focusing on the film’s deficits, as opposed to its many formidable charms. Those expecting another innocuous venture with a cute and cuddly assortment of Muppets were set up for disappointment, while those who were open to a new experience were treated to a fantasy world like no other. While Henson was dejected by Labyrinth’s initial lukewarm reception, it’s clear he created the film he set out to make. Time has proven the film’s detractors wrong, attracting scores of ardent admirers. It’s too bad he didn’t live to see what an impact it had, but I’m certain he would have been pleased to discover he was right all along.

* To his credit, Jones acknowledges the film’s loyal following in his epilogue, but not before thoroughly trashing it with negative quotes from assorted critics.