Friday, February 25, 2011

La Vendetta Di Ercole (Goliath and the Dragon or The Revenge of Hercules) (1960)
--- fantasy

Dir: Vittorio Cottafavi

It's back to the peplum genre. To the time of ancient Greece where we find yet another adventure of our resident hero Hercules. This time, however, he's been rechristened Goliath and recasted to a new American bodybuilder named Mark Forest (real name Lou Degni) in his debut performance. Producer Joe Levine (Hercules/Godzilla) owned the rights to the name "Hercules", so this film's hero is now "Goliath". In addition to this, AIP even shot additional material with the help of the Italian crew. To prepare you or save you time, this film drops in the quality department about, oh, 25-30%. Those familiar with this genre should know this is nothing new. These films are replete with cheesy entries, assuring the MSTK and Something Weird Video folks stay in business for a few more years. This review ends up being more about the dubbed versions, as apparently the original negatives of the film were lost.

In this outing, Emilius the mighty (nicknamed the Goliath of Thebes or Pheobes but I will stick with Thebes) must find the blood diamond, which was stolen by King Eurysthesus a man bent on usurping Thebes for himself and killing Goliath. To accomplish this, Eurysthesus (played by Hollywood heavy Broderick Crawford) hid the blood diamond in the cave of horrors. The film opens with a rock cimbing scene, where we find Goliath has found the cave and no sooner battles what appears to be a fire-breathing Cerebus. If you haven't stopped watching after this laughable scene, we are introduced to the scar-faced Eurysthesus, who gloats like a Batman villian about his impregnable trap for Goliath. His counselor and allies want proof of Goliath's death before they take Thebes. Meanwhile, Goliath treks deeper within the cave to finds the skeleton of a man and the dragon who most likely did him in. Commanding him to continue on for the blood diamond, Goliath obeys the word of the pagan goddess.

Illus, Goliath's younger brother, secretly goes to meet with Thea who stays in the courts of Eurysthesus. He plans to return to meet her, but the soliders have another plan for him. Meanwhile, Goliath battles a Maurice Sendak looking Man-bat creature (i.e. expendable stuntman in a costume), just as he finds and secures the blood diamond. Back at the Eurysthesus' court, his shady counselor Tindaro (who strongly favors a 60's era Star Trek Romulan) plots to invade Thebes and soldiers capture Illus on his way out from sneaking kisses from Thea.

When Goliath returns home, he is disturbed to learn of his brother's intentions with Thea, as it was her father who killed his parents. Before long, Eurysthesus finds that this development can be used for his own plans to take over. He plots to have Illus poison Goliath, but the slave girl, Alcinoe, who he sent to do the job betrays him. Eurysthesus even goes so far as to wed Thea for himself. Eventually, Goliath's brother is abducted and snet to die under the foot of an elephant, that is until Goliath comes to the rescue. Things only worsen when they get a prophecy about his Illus ruling and a centaur kidnaps Goliath's wife Dejanira. He takes her to Eurysthesus, where he holds her captive in the cave of horrors. Ultimately, this typical peplum's convulted plot ends up making less and less sense the more you think about it. In addition to the bad special effects and laugh out loud scenes such as Goliath wrestling some dude in an unconvincing bear suit, this is still surprisingly entertaining.

There you have it. Another Velveeta-flavored peplum yarn. Well other than renaming the titular hero after a biblical Philistine villian, and having plotholes as big as the caves in this film, this film is something slightly enjoyable to watch. The cinematography is just bad, though you can tell they were trying to emulate Bava's style in select scenes. The low budget special effects have to be seen to be believed, and that's about it. "La Vendetta Di Ercole" is simply another Saturday afternoon matinee flick. Enjoy.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Heavy Metal (1981)
--- science fiction/ fantasy/ horror

Dir: Gerald Potterton

Fond memories of teenage years (though I wasn't one when this was released), "Heavy Metal" is a cult classic of the highest proportions. It is at once a collaborative, rebellious, raucous work of art toiled over a span of years and countries. For many an American GenX teenager, "Heavy Metal" holds an interesting fond place in our hearts. It was made in a time where animation was deliberately taking risks with more adult fare in cinemas like Ralph Bakshi's x-rated "Fritz the Cat", the dark age of Disney films, even "Transformers: The Movie" dared to kill off Optimus Prime.

National Lampoon magazine had bought North American distribution rights to a French magazine named Métal Hurlant ( translated roughly "screaming metal"). Renamed Heavy Metal, the magazine started in the 1970s and blended everything from dark fantasy, horror, science fiction, and oh yes erotica. Artists from all over the globe contributed their own stories and artwork such as H.R. Giger, Richard Corben, Moebius, and many many more. At this time, National Lampoon magazine saw the success on the big screen with a spinoff film "National Lampoon's Animal House" and it wasn't long before the idea to make a film based on Heavy Metal came to fruition. Produced by Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman, the film was to be animated by artists from France, Canada, the United States. The idea to make the film an anthology cemented the highly collaborative and unique hodgepodge style of Heavy Metal Magazine, as they adapt popular strips from that were featured in the magazine, as well as creating some new stories.

The title sequence opens with a story by late screenwriter Dan O'Bannon called "Soft Landing" which shows us an astronaut descending to earth in a 1960 corvette. This basically bridges the titles to the framing story of the film "Grimaldi", where we find the identity of the astronaut as Grimaldi coming home to his young daughter. He's also brought home a glowing green orb in a box. The orb ends up killing the Grimaldi as his daughter looks upon it in fear, just as the orb presents himself as "the sum of all evils." Called the Loc-Nar, the orb begins to show her the following tales in the film.

Based on Spanish artist Juan Giménez's "Harry Canyon", this vignette takes place in a dystopian New York City in the year 2031, focusing on the cynical taxicab driver, Canyon, who narrates. Inspired by a film noir, he reluctantly gets involved with the daughter of a scientist who has unearthed the mysterious Loc-Nar. When he is gunned down by a Casper Gutman-esque gangster, the girl is on the run and Canyon is in the wrong place at the right time. Helping her out, the daughter bargains with Canyon to give the Loc-Nar up to the gangster and split the spoils with him. In the end, Canyon realizes he should've never got involved in the first place. This piece has been highly influential, as you have seen many dystopian futurescapes since, in films such as "Blade Runner" or "The Fifth Element"; they have their genesis here.

The next segment (probably my favorite) is based on Richard Corben's popular strip "Den". Voiced by John Candy, nerdy teen Dan, finds the Loc-Nar and experiments with it for his own personal science project. During a lightning storm this inevitably teleports him to another dimension where he becomes a beefy bald grown man. Now as Den, he espies a group of cultists sacrifice a well-endowed young woman to a god called "Uhluhtc" ("Cthulhu" spelled backwards). After a safe rescue, she tells Den she's in reality Katherine Wells from the British colony of Gibraltar. Soon monster minions of Ard interrupt the couple's sexual acquaintanceship. They are brought to Ard, an effete immortal who puts Katherine in suspended animation and forces Den to steal the Loc-Nar from the Queen who tried to sacrifice Katherine in the first place. Den and Ard's beastly henchmen must infiltrate the Queen's palace and ultimately rescue Katherine. This is actually the second appearance of the character Den in animation. He originally appeared in a 1968 self-produced animated short called "Neverwhere" by creator Richard Corben himself. The backgrounds of this piece live up to the Corben art style, but the art (outside of the gratuitous nudity) don't capture Corben's thick pock oiled art much at all.

The next vignette is a comedic trip into outer space with Bernie Wrightson's classic ne'erdowell "Captain Sternn". We catch up to Lincoln F. Sternn on trial for a laundry list of violations against the law. Sternn insinuates that his attorney that he has an "angle". That angle turns out to be his witness for the defence, a scrawny guy named Hanover Fiste who soon transforms into a hulking brute who chases after Sternn. Turns out, in the end, Sternn really does have an angle. There was supposed to be a segment between this and the following one called "Neverwhereland" by animator Corny Cole which showed the Loc-nar landing on prehistoric earth and being responsible for all the evils throughout time. This was deleted for time management, but can be seen on the dvd.

"B-17" is basically a short EC Comics style horror tale involving a bomber pilot and his crew, when after perishing in a gun fight, suddenly become undead. This one was written by Dan O'Bannon and was originally to showcase a pilot against gremlins. The next segment is another comedic tale called "So Beautiful, So Dangerous" based on Angus McKie's story which first appeared in the October 1978 issue. This one is about an alien spacecraft abducting humans, and a very sentient robot putting the moves on a woman. This sequence is purely played for laughs before taking us into the final piece.

"Taarna" is an original story based loosely on French artist's Jean 'Moebius' Giraud comic strip "Arzach" which first showed up in the pages of Métal Hurlant in 1974. This tale begins with the Loc-Nar crashing into a volcano. The natives nearby are overcome by the Loc-Nar lava, but are mutated into vicious barbarians and as they go out to destroy a peaceful village. The village elders desperately seek their last refuge in summoning the lone survivor of a warrior race called, the Taarakians. They summon Taarna, a silent beautiful young woman equipped to avenge the peaceful race and seek out and destroy the ruthless mutants responsible. She heads out with her pterodactyl to the mountains to put an end to the mutants tyranny, and comes face to face with the source of the evil; the Loc-Nar. The film ultimately ties up with the revelation that this whole frame story with Grimaldi's daughter is tied to Taarna.

"Heavy Metal" is really an animated adult fantasy to end all adult fantasies. There really hasn't been any equal, and more than likely, will never be. Though a sequel was made years later, it still lacked the brash vision of this film. The fantastic score is provided by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, in what many of his fans proclaim is actually the absolute finest film score he ever did. The needle-dropped soundtrack is anything but in the genre of heavy metal, but peppered with soft rock and prog rock performers. The only real metal in the film is from Black Sabbath. Overseen by Ivan Reitman, you can see his influence throughout the film. Besides hiring composer, Elmer Bernstein, he made sure plenty of Second City performers got work in this. Not just in voice acting, but it almost seems the visuals were inspired by performers like Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis. For further confirmation watch a double feature of this film and "Ghostbusters" back-to-back and view the similarities, especially in the climatic cityhall scene of GB and the press conference scene in the segment "So Beautiful, So Deadly". Currently, there is a live-action Métal Hurlant tv series airing in France apparently under the name "Metal Howling" or "Heavy Metal Chronicles". News also confirms that directors David Fincher, James Cameron, and Guillermo Del Toro plan to produce a new live action anthology film.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Descent (2005)
UK --- horror

Dir: Neil Marshall

The heyday of British horror has long since passed, and I’m not really sure what they find interesting anymore other than romantic comedies, period pieces, and taut crime thrillers. I do know that they’ve never really been masters of the genre, outside of the Hammer films and the Amicus anthologies. Let there be no doubt, they are master thespians, but getting down and dirty into exploitative horror, was never really their forte. That being said, I found “The Descent” pretty scary, as the viewer quite literally gradually descends with the characters into the depths of horror.

The story focuses on Sarah as she and her outdoorsy adventuresome friends enjoy stuff like white-water rafting and spelunking. It’s returning from one of these trips that Sarah is in a deadly car accident with her husband and daughter; she ends up being the only survivor. To get her back into living and enjoying life, her friends plan another outdoor getaway in the Appalachian Mountains in the good ole’ US of A. Her friends don’t necessarily consist of the formula Facts of Life/Golden Girls set with a spunky butch chick, a sexpot, a stoic leader, and a complete ditz, but somehow I still got that feeling the character types were there, just underneath their brazen exterior. The one element that is thrown in for good storytelling is a traitor, pointing to an Asiatic mixed girl named Juno who seems is revealed to our heroine as someone who cheated with her husband. The trip inside the Appalachian Mountains is a daring one, as they really don’t know where they’re going, even with a map it’s unclear if anyone ever got out alive. But they’re professionals, and they give it a shot. The only thing they didn’t count on was a race of subterranean mole-like creatures, which actually look more human than anything else. They quickly remind any comic book fan of the Fantastic Four’s enemy The Mole Man, particularly his canon fodder.

Underground landslides eventually separate the group. One by one, the groups are mercilessly killed by the humanoid like mole creatures. Sarah, however plays possum in a pool of blood and bones from past victims. The film leads us to find some revelations about Sarah’s relationship with her friends particularly Juno who not only cheated with Sarah’s husband, but accidentally kills one of their friends underground and leaves her for dead. When Sarah finds the friend, she tells her the truth of Juno, and Sarah stealthily makes her way out of the tunnels, finding Juno in her path. But there’s very little time for soap opera revenge, as the mole creatures are hunting them down. But Sarah wounds Juno’s leg for poetic justice purposes. Now the film has two different endings, one where after fending off the creatures that are tailing her, she makes it to sunlight, and escapes. The other, is the same, only she wakes up in the caverns as we realize it was only a dream.

Director Neil Marshall has a visceral style to his filmmaking in this one, and a proven achievement in lighting with the use of very little light at all. Not only that, but the scenes with the creatures are fast-paced and action-oriented complete with gore and brutal knockdown drag’em out fights. Though the women of course are just no match for the mole men. The suspense builds in this claustrophobic film as we know something bad is going to happen, but not sure what. When we finally are revealed the lurking menace in the caverns, much like the girls in the film, we are genuinely frightened. The interesting aspect of the film tends to want to get the main character Sarah down to a very primal and scary level of human. She in a sense is broken down to an instinct-using creature just like the ones hunting her. It makes for great contrast in the end, as most horror movies tend to make women seem helpless and yet give them power through means of innocence, or ambivalent virginity against evil, this one gets the woman right down at the same level as her predator going toe-to-toe till the end.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Gulliver's Travels (1996)
UK/USA --- fantasy

Dir: Charles Sturridge

Never has a novel dared to look so close into the nature of mankind with an unflinching depiction of our inward being. Renown Irish satirist and clergyman, Jonathan Swift, placed a great mirror in front of 18th century society and dared everyone who would read his 1726 novel "Gulliver's Travels" to ask themselves the question "Who am I?". While this classic tale has been filmed on more than several occasions, it has almost always focused on one or both of the first two chapters of the novel being "A Voyage to Lilliput" and "A Voyage to Brobdingnag". The most famous version being the Fleischer's animated film in 1939. It wasn't until this 1996 television mini-series that Swift's fully realized vision came to screen with an appropriate international cast and note-worthy special effects.

A co-production of the UK's Channel 4 Television Corporation and America's Hallmark, Jim Henson Productions, and RHI Entertainment Inc, "Gulliver's Travels" stars Ted Danson (coming off of his long stint on the tv series Cheers) as Dr. Lemuel Gulliver. A man, due to financial burden decided to take his practice out to sea. Told in flashback, Gulliver returns to his home after nine years to his wife and young son. Unfortunately, the house has been purchased by a Dr. Bates who has allowed Mrs. Gulliver (played by Danson's real life wife Mary Steenburgen) to stay in the home to keep up housekeeping duties. They find Dr. Gulliver in the barn, as we learn that his strange voyage began with a shipwreck, which apparently landed him on the shores of a land called Lilliput. It just so happens however, Lilliput is entirely populated by human beings who are less than 6 inches high. A father and son discover Gulliver like a beached whale, and soon the military come in droves and bind him for safety. The loopy emperor (played perfectly by Peter O'Toole) welcomes the giant oddity with open arms, as he prizes him as not only an asset of fortune but of war. An almost nonsensical war at that, disputing over which side to break eggs on the little ends or big ends. When they feel they can longer control Gulliver, the Lilliputian military plot to kill him, setting him to flee and find refuge in another land. Meanwhile, Dr. Bates finds Gulliver's regaling of his adventure incorrigible and tiresome and has him committed to a local asylu; namely the infamous Bedlam.

Gulliver then recalls finding land again, this time in a land of giants, where it is he who is tiny and the giants are estimated (according to the novel) to be 72 feet tall. He is found by a farmer and is all too quick to profit from his new discovery as well. The farmer and his family use Gulliver as an oracle of the fields, until he comes to the attention of the Queen of Brobdingnag, who desires to have him for herself. The Queen invites the farmers daughter, Glumdalclitch, as Gulliver's nurse and her royal court marvels at the diminutive Gulliver. She even has a small "doll" house built for him. Her medical physicians poke and prod at him, while he assures them all the while that he is indeed human. The Queen's admiration of Gulliver comes to the quick dismissal of her former dwarf jester (Warwick Davis), and he spends his time trying to get rid of his replacement. Gulliver, however, has a hard time trying to convince the queen that his home in England is a civilized society. This film's version of Brobdingnag has no King, but their conversation of England carries over into this film. By comparison, Brobdingnag seems almost Utopian in nature, and casts Gulliver's descriptions of England's ruling class to be primitive. After evading a provoked battle with a bunch of wasps thanks to the Queen's former jester, eventually, Gulliver conjures up a way to please the Queen by giving her a firsthand demonstration of the practical use of gunpowder. When things literally blow up in their faces, Gulliver becomes dismayed, but is once again spirited away to another land. This time, a bird takes the box he's in and drops him out in the ocean.

The next chapter picks up with Gulliver being rescued by citizens of the floating island of Laputa. Powered and controlled by a giant magnetic lodestone, the hovering island is inhabited by male-dominated flighty intellectuals and dignitaries. Though they study astronomy, mathematics, and technology, they lack basic common sense. In fact, the Rajah of Laputa wars against his wife the empress Munodi (played by Geraldine Chaplin) on land when she refuses to send up brain taxes (food). The film version gives Laputa citizens an Indian/Middle Eastern ethnicity. When the empress disrupts the lodestone by counteracting it with her own magnet pulled by horses, it sends Laputa adrift and trying to help, Gulliver himself falls down to land. He meets with the empress and in their discussion learns of the Academy; an irresponsible collective of thinkers who have total disregard for the rest of the world. Gulliver leaves for the Academy in hopes to find directions home, but only finds more mad scientists so engrossed with their own strange experiments they care nothing of the real world. When Gulliver realizes he won't find any answers there, he leaves and is out in the desolate outskirts when he is picked up by a good Samaritan named Glubbdubdrib, (played by Omar Sharif) who offers him shelter and a ride out to the port where a Dutch ship is set to sail. Gulliver's stay at Glubbdubdrib becomes a little bit of a detour as he learns he has been drugged for days and used by Glubbdubdrib for his blood to resurrect historical figures from an enchanted mirror. Soon, he manages to escape the sorcerer's estate and continue on his journey, but he is captured by soldiers of the immortal struldbrugs. Once there, they invite him in after he offers the giant wasp stinger as a gift. They offer him a drink from their fountain claiming it will retain his youth and he too will be immortal. The one problem he discovers is that they are all blind. He manages to escape once again, making it to a ship bound for sea.

The final voyage is the most controversial and thought-provoking, as Gulliver arrives on the island of the Houyhnhnms (possible anagram for "you humans" and phonetically sounding like "whinny"). The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses who rule over a race of barbaric humans called Yahoo's. He converses with one of the Houynhnhnms, named Mistress, who goes on to explain to him the rituals and habits of the Yahoo's, while Gulliver once again tries to explain and not necessarily justify aspects of his society; such as wearing clothes. Gulliver spends most of his time learning the ways of the Houynhnhnms and growing ever so seduced by their culture, to the point of hating himself for falling short of his own human nature. Ultimately, the Hounyhnhnms begin to suspect that Gulliver is really no different from the Yahoo's and decide to banish him from the island. It is this section where Swift is accused of being an out-and-out misanthrope.

For anyone who has read the novel "Gulliver's Travel's" and is not so clingy to it with the attitude that a film can't do justice to it, I think they will find this film to be a pleasant tribute to Swift's tale. The tone of the film does go too far into the comedic direction rather than the satiric approach which the book took. Though that can be like walking a tightrope. The performances from most of the cast is top notch, and Danson's voice over firmly allows the audience that leeway of satire, as his credible inflections often feel like that from a man who speaks with authority. A great thanks goes to him for not attempting an English accent.

The film has taken more than it's fair share of liberties. The major addition of a parallel framing story of Gulliver being committed to an asylum is actually noteworthy for a couple of reasons. One, it is fitting that this book written in a time of Munchhausen and Quixote, lacks that fidelity of questioning sanity. Especially since Jonathan Swift himself became a strong advocate of the mentally ill, going so far to leaving his entire estate to Ireland's first Mental Institituion. Two, the nature of the book jumps from one place to the next haphazardly, and doesn't work all that well for film.

Swift's tale is one of great thought and reflection on religion, politics, and human beings in general. The aspect of lost societies was fairly popular and disputed in the time of "Gulliver's Travels" publication. Legends of lost continents have survived for centuries such as those of Mu, Lemuria, and the infamous Atlantis, as well mythical lands such as El Dorado or Shangri-La. His use of language is also interesting, as the common theme seems to give all of these societies and people names that rhyme with "drudgery". Even the hovering island of Laputa is a Spanish curse word.

Overall, this version of "Gulliver's Travel's" is going to be difficult to top. The CGI effects in this production is acceptable for its time, and manages to hold up thanks in part to the storytelling and aforementioned performances. Jim Henson's creature shop provided the animatronic giant wasp and some of the settings like Laputa. The sweeping score provided by Trevor Jones, thoroughly memorable as with most of his scores. If you love this classic tale, this is the one not to miss.