A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 563 – Thor

Thor – September 14th, 2011

I have read in a few places that Natalie Portman’s reaction to the concept of of this movie was something akin to “This is too bizarre to pass up.” The ‘this’ in question being a Marvel comics-based movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Anthony Hopkins as one of the leads. And I would have to agree. Aside from being more than happy to watch another Marvel movie leading up to The Avengers there was no way I was going to miss something like this. After all, even if I wasn’t all that familiar with the character of Thor outside of the more, shall we say, traditional mythos, I hadn’t been too familiar with Iron Man prior to its big screen debut and now I’d put the first movie up amongst my favorites. And I greatly enjoy Branagh’s work. So. Sure thing, right?

Now, I know reviews were mixed, but I loved this movie. It’s got flaws, sure, but what movie doesn’t? Aside from Iron Man, of course. The very concept of Norse mythology as done by Marvel tickles me, I admit. Powerful aliens inspiring myths of gods and giants and all? I love that idea. So I’m not fussed over the depictions of traditional Norse figures. And I’ve made my feelings known when it comes to Marvel and continuity and alternate realities and books vs. movies and the things done in the process of adapting a written work for the screen. So I won’t be wasting my time quibbling over anything like that. And not to put too fine a point on it, but anyone who’s bent out of shape about things like Heimdall being played by Idris Elba (who was fucking awesome) needs to do some serious introspection about just what their problem with that is.

This movie does feel a little divided to me, and consequently I found myself remembering it being longer than it actually is. The story is mostly Thor’s, of course, but because it takes place in two worlds – ours and his – and because before he arrives here he has to get kicked out of his world it all ends up having some very distinct sections to it. There’s an attempt to alleviate this effect by beginning with Thor’s arrival on Earth, whereupon he’s hit by a van driven by some of our other main characters. Then we head off into flashback territory to learn about the background of Asgard, Odin, Thor, Loki, the frost giants of Jotunheim and see the events that brought Thor to Earth. Eventually, once we meet Odin and his sons, Thor and Loki, and see Thor go to Jotunheim and start a war because he’s got an out of control temper and some fairly strong battle lust, Odin banishes him from Asgard. And we’re back to the beginning, with a naked Thor crash landing on Earth in just the right time and place to meet astrophysicist Jane, her mentor and her grad student assistant.

I don’t think it’s particularly important to go into the hows and whys of Thor ending up with Jane, Erik and Darcy. That section of the movie is good for some laughter and humor, but from a plot standpoint it’s not anything unusually interesting. Their reactions to him are fun, but the real good stuff begins when Thor tries to get his hammer back. Odin had cast Mjolnir down after banishing Thor, making it sort of like a less pointy Excalibur. Only someone worthy of it will be able to pick it up out of the ground it landed in. Of course S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up (as foretold at the end of Iron Man 2) and sets up camp around it and takes all of Jane’s research. It is a pivotal moment to see Thor try and fail to pick up Mjolnir. This is his lowest point, there in the S.H.I.E.L.D. camp. Mortal, unable to claim his hammer, told by a visiting Loki that his father is dead and his mother wants nothing to do with him, he really has nowhere else to go but up. That’s the arc here, showing his rise, his hubris, his fall and his rise again. It’s not a terribly original plot arc, but I think it suits the subject matter. After all, it’s an arc used by many heroic quest stories. Take a look at Hercules and his twelve labors, for example.

Back in Asgard Odin has fallen into a deep sleep and Loki, upon discovering that he’s actually a frost giant, takes the throne for his own nefarious purposes. Now, I know that the mythology here is very much a Marvel interpretation, and they’ve never really tried to claim that their version is “real” or whatever. So I can run with this version of Loki being evil as opposed to just a trickster (a cruel trickster who gets people killed, but still). But I think it’s worth pointing out that the traditional Loki is indeed a frost giant and was invited into Asgard by Odin. Anyhow, Loki’s now gotten rid of Thor and he’s sitting pretty on his throne (seriously, pretty, and bearing an eerie resemblance to figure skater Johnny Weir) and off go Thor’s friends (Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, all of whom are awesome) to find him and bring him back. Upon getting to Earth they find themselves attacked by a big metal dude sent by Loki and Thor saves a bunch of people and gets Mjolnir back and gosh there’s a lot that happens in this movie.

Because, see, after that battle, there’s even more in Asgard again, with a showdown between Loki and Thor and the breaking of the Rainbow Bridge and all. The distinct acts, the changes in location, the multiple action scenes, they all make this movie feel very full. Which is almost certainly why I thought it had to be longer than two hours. Well, that and I’m probably biased when it comes to Branagh and expect everything he does to be like his Hamlet. Anyhow, it’s not. And that amazes me. Not only is all the story and moving back and forth fit into a fairly short running time, but there’s a lot of characterization too. In my opinion, a lot of it is very elegantly done. Take Jane, for example, who gets instant backstory with a convenient change of clothes she has for Thor, left by an ex-boyfriend whose name they later use as Thor’s alias. The movie has lots of little things like that, seemingly throwaway bits and pieces that end up forming a cohesive whole.

I honestly don’t care what other people think of this movie. I found it highly entertaining, well cast, amusingly written and visually gorgeous. My only criticism is that the romance between Jane and Thor seems a little rushed. It’s not like they have a love at first sight sort of thing going, but by the end there’s a sense that this is supposed to be an epic love for the ages and there’s just not quite enough in the movie to support it. It’s entirely possible that the support ended up on the cutting room floor. But really, that’s it. That’s my only negative. Otherwise I love this movie and I think it’s more than worthy of being in the Avengers list. I do feel back for poor Clint Barton, sidelined into an uncredited (though lengthy) cameo, but them’s the breaks. At least he’s in here. And having seen it again, with the promise of Captain America in the near future, I’m absolutely pumped to see the whole team together.

September 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 529 – Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone

Neon Genesis Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone – August 11th, 2011

Honestly? I’m not even sure how to start to review this. Mostly because it’s a re-do of a series that I would never have attempted to sum up in a short space. But also because I feel like there’s no possible way I have anything new to say about this. The series this is based on has been around for a while and it’s rather famous for its bizarre ending and heavily allegorical plot. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a million times before by hundreds and thousands of anime fans? Nothing, that’s what.

It just feels silly, trying to recap the plot here, but then that is something I do have to say about this. It’s been a very long time since I last watched the Evangelion series but while watching it I remember feeling like there were always things I was missing. Meaning I should have gotten but which turned out not to be revealed until much later on. At first it’s basically a monster of the week sort of deal, and only later do we find out that there’s a hell of a lot more going on. In this movie remake the same events take place, but with more of the overall plot incorporated into them. Or at least that’s what I’m assuming. Like I said, it’s been quite some time.

I first watched the Evangelion series when I was in college. I’m fairly sure it was during my sophomore year, because I can remember the apartment Andy was living in at the time and the way it was set up. We grabbed the episodes two at a time from the video store we were working at and watched them every night for a while. It’s not one of those series that went on and on forever, but it’s not a concise miniseries either. To be honest, it’s very much like The Prisoner to me: Full of lots of allusions and messages and purpose, then ending in a blaze of what the ever loving fuck. And I don’t dislike what-the-ever-loving-fuck endings, but the series seemed to have spend so much time on the build-up that it just felt odd. I can’t speak to how this movie series will play out, but at least the beginning feels a bit more cohesive.

As in the series, our hero here is young Shinji, who’s been away at school for a while and is pretty convinced his father doesn’t care about him in the least. He’s wrong, but not in a comforting sort of way, because his father does care but as far as this portion of the plot is concerned he only cares that Shinji has the ability to pilot a giant mech called an Eva. And the Evas are needed in order to defeat a series of giant attacking monsters called Angels. So Shinji’s father cares that Shinji is now useful, but other than that he’s pretty distant. Which leads to the immense amount of whining Shinji does throughout the story. Shinji is famous for his whining. And you know, if the fate of the world wasn’t at stake, I’d be a lot more forgiving of his daddy issues. His daddy is a remote jackass and at least in the series it becomes clear he’s also pretty creepy. So I’d totally let Shinji’s whining go, but it’s so ever-present that it feels egregious, and this is not something that this movie fixes. Even knowing that a lot of what Shinji is whining about is perfectly valid, I still rolled my eyes.

So Shinji shows up in Tokyo and is immediately told that he’s not there for a loving reunion with his father but is needed to pilot a giant mech he’s never seen or heard of before and oh yes, he needs to do that right now because an Angel is approaching the city. The only other Eva and pilot in the area are disabled due to an accident and so it’s up to him. Is it any wonder that he has trouble piloting the damn thing? The Angel kicks his ass, at which point his mech goes berserk and freaks out, giving us a clue that maybe the Evas aren’t really just big suits of armor. There are other clues by the end. It’s made clear that there’s a much deeper game going on, with something imprisoned deep down under the city, even below the fortified underground space where the city exists when it’s all been retracted during an attack. It’s clear that Things Have Happened and will continue to happen. And it’s clear that there’s a lot that isn’t clear.

Really, I’m not sure what else to say here. I’m watching this movie somewhat tainted with a years-back experience watching the series it’s based on. Of course that’s bound to color how I see the movie itself and I freely admit that I am a biased viewer. I know a lot of what isn’t revealed in this movie, so perhaps my knowledge of what’s to come is affecting how I see what was revealed. I know the natures of some of the characters a little better. I know the ending, such as it was when I watched it way back when. Ultimately, I came out of this movie having enjoyed it, and it was certainly nice to see a good quality version with what were likely updated effects. But I also came out of it wanting to rewatch the series to check myself and my perceptions of it. I don’t know how someone with no prior knowledge of the story and universe would react to it. Perhaps it would be an easier sell than the series. Or perhaps it’s just as incomprehensible, just in slightly different ways, and if you’re going to enjoy it you’ll enjoy it either way and likewise if you’re not going to enjoy it. I wish I could review it better, but like I said, I’m sure other people have already done so.

August 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 452 – Muppet Classic Theater

Muppet Classic Theater – May 26th, 2011

The other night when we watched The Princess and the Frog Andy realized that we didn’t have the Muppet version of the story on our list. And he knew we owned it. I was sure we did too. On VHS. We’d bought a bunch of Muppet movies and specials on VHS early on in our relationship and we knew we hadn’t gotten rid of them so why weren’t they on the list? The answer is that they’d been stashed with a pile of other VHS cassettes in the shelves under the television in the living room and then other things got stashed in front of them and well, we forgot to inventory that stuff when we made our big list. Oops. So we dug through the tapes, added a bunch of things and aren’t we glad we did?

We’ve both got an early morning tomorrow and I’ve got to go to the dentist again and it’s hot and sticky here and I had a headache and I needed something short and familiar and easy and fun. And here this was! Just waiting for a night like this. We hadn’t seen it in a long while (as evidenced by its hiding place under the television) and it wasn’t rewound! Horrors! And then the unthinkable happened: Our VCR tried to eat the tape. That horrible, terrible, hideous noise of a tape being eaten is so painfully familiar and yet we hear it so infrequently these days. Fortunately both Andy and myself have plenty of experience fixing videocassettes. In fact, I still do it at work on a fairly regular basis, babying my dwindling VHS collection for the last few people who come looking for them. So we cracked it open, untwisted the poor magnetic tape and off we went to a land of fairytales and Muppets.

I’ve always enjoyed the Muppet version of parody. The Muppets take on stories we all know all the time. Familiar styles, familiar songs, familiar stories, all told with the Muppet twist. Which means plenty of singing and flailing and horrible puns and Muppet weirdness. The Muppets have done classic stories before. They did the Frog Prince and Cinderella, of course, and they do great jobs with short pieces, as evidenced by The Muppet Show, which is essentially sketch comedy. So this is a collection of stories, quick and fun, each with a song, each familiar enough that the send-up of it isn’t going to throw anyone off. And I’ve got to say, which overall I really do like this? A couple of them stand out as a lot better than the rest.

Rizzo and Gonzo take up the job of hosting a theatrical event. The conceit is that the Muppets are putting on a show of six short stories in the theater with Rizzo and Gonzo both introducing and participating. The stories are the Three Little Pigs, King Midas, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Rumplestiltskin, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Elves and the Shoemakers. I’d have to say Three Little Pigs, Rumplestiltskin and The Elves and the Shoemakers are the standouts for me.

It’s not that I dislike the other three stories. It’s just that they don’t catch my interest and make me remember them as well. King Midas’ only real twist is introducing Miss Piggy and her love of wealth to the story. I do love Gonzo and his herd of sheep in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and I admit I get the song “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” stuck in my head for no reason every so often. But I find the ending fairly weak and I’ve seen better twists on the base story. Though really, I want one of those sheep. I would snuggle it and pet it and use it as a pillow. And that leaves The Emperor’s New Clothes, which is a story I’m not terribly fond of anyhow. The song is slow and I expect more from the Muppet rats, so while Fozzie makes a great Emperor, I’m just not too into it.

The other three, on the other hand, are a ton of fun. Miss Piggy is an architectural genius in the Three Little Pigs and I absolutely adore her confidence and competence, which is so often ignored in favor of her love of clothes and money and fame. Maybe that’s one reason why King Midas doesn’t wow me when it follows a segment where she’s far more focused on building a secure house and making her foolish brothers admit that their sexist assumptions about her were horribly wrong and she’s super awesome. Anyhow, let’s move onto The Elves and the Shoemakers, which is out of order but I’m saving Rumplestiltskin. The Elves and the Shoemakers I enjoy simply for the horrible Elvis joke and the blue suede shoes. I know it’s silly and juvenile and obvious and I don’t care. I love the three Elvis elf Muppets.

And then there’s Rumplestiltskin. Obviously Gonzo plays the title role, with Piggy as the poor young maiden who promises him whatever he asks for in exchange for spinning straw into gold. There’s not much of a spin here. It’s the basic story except that Piggy admits the whole thing to her husband, the king, and the whole palace helps her try and come up with the name she needs. Which leads to the best number in the whole thing: Gotta Get That Name. It’s fast-paced, it’s catchy and it has the flaily ferret. I cannot not flail along with the ferret (who is center stage and goes wild during the chorus every time) whenever we watch this. He is exactly the sort of Muppet I love to see. Unnamed, only a bit line, yet stealing the scene. I believe Jim Henson would approve of him.

Overall I find this a lot of fun. Even if a few of the shorts don’t entertain me as much as the others, I do like them all. It’s just a matter of degree. There’s nothing revolutionary happening here, but there doesn’t need to be. Some of the moments seem to be a little slower than they should be, but others make up for it. It’s just a fun little bit of Muppet goodness that serves up some classic Muppets, some good villains and some well known stories so it’s easy to watch and easy to enjoy so long as you’re expecting just that. Oh, and Gonzo with goat legs. You should expect that too.

May 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 397 – Manos: The Hands of Fate

Manos: The Hands of Fate – April 1st, 2011

There’s been a lot of talk about this movie over the years. We first found out about it through MST3K, which is how I expect a lot of people found out about it. After all, it truly epitomizes the concept of indie filmmaking. Made by a fertilizer salesman on what amounts to a shoestring budget, it’s famous for being thoroughly unwatchable without riffing. The problem is that most people who watch this movie aren’t watching it in the right way. With the proper background, this movie takes on a completely different character.

The trick to this movie is interrogating it from the right perspective. As a horror movie it’s lacking a little something, but as a mythological allegory? It’s truly fascinating. Watching it with the MST3K jokes is all well and good, but it means that a lot of the little things get lost under comments and singing. And much as I love MST3K, that’s really a shame, because it’s given this movie a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve.

You do need to look closely to see the mythological implications in this movie, but once you look you can’t help but note them. And who wouldn’t think to look into the mythological content here once you know that the character of Torgo is a satyr? Really, I don’t see how anyone could miss it. It’s sort of like The Matrix, though, in that it’s not one single allegorical story. It’s combining many different elements from a number of myths. Which is really pretty masterful, when you think about it.

The story follows a couple and their daughter, lost in the desert and stranded at a remote house where the sinister Master lives with his brides and Torgo, his satyr assistant. The wife, Margaret, is clearly a Persephone figure here, wanted as a bride by the Master, who is the Hades figure. He represents death and fate and is inescapable and invulnerable. And yet he also seems to have elements of Zeus, what with the number of women he’s seduced. One of his wives is clearly Hera, loudly proclaiming her authority over matters when the Master appears to be contemplating taking Margaret for a wife. Just imagine if Hera had been let loose on all of the women Zeus impregnated over the course of Greek mythology. This movie poses that precise situation, set in what is clearly Hades’ realm, a remote realm only reachable by some.

The whole movie incorporates themes from the Persephone myth, which I mentioned, quest tropes like in the Odyssey, a touch of Orpheus. It’s fascinating to pick through the representations to see how they’ve all be recombined to relate to each other in what was at the time a modern setting in the desert outside El Paso. I wish I had more knowledge of the area at the time so I could look into Warren’s possible allegorical connections between his own personal experience and the mythology he was so clearly drawing his inspiration from. I hope that in the future more people will be able to look at this movie with a fresh perspective.

April 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 311 – Ponyo

Ponyo – January 5th, 2011

Since we did all those Christmas movies and then we had New Year’s and birthday and whatnot we hadn’t watched a subtitled movie since Morozko, which was right at the start of our twelve days of Christmas. It was well past time for another. Looking through our list of unreviewed subtitled movies we found that about half of what we have left is either anime or live action in one of three Asian languages (Japanese, Chinese and Korean). The rest is a mix of European languages, though at least four are from Central and South America. So we went with anime – our last remaining Miyazaki film (until we purchase Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro, that is).

This movie regularly crosses my desk at work, as do all the Miyazaki films. But while I had some prior knowledge of all of the others before watching them, this one was totally and completely new to me. As the opening credits played Andy told me “All I know about this movie is that it’s Miyazaki’s take on The Little Mermaid.” And that was well more than I’d known prior to that. If I hadn’t known that I think I still would have been able to make all the connections. After all, it’s got a fish girl who longs to live on land, her overprotective father who dislikes humans and the threat of becoming seafoam if things don’t go well. And I like that it’s got nods to the story without being too blatant. It’s all got its own spin on things.

We’re not dealing with a real mermaid here, for one. Ponyo is one of a vast number of little fish girls who live in a castle with their father, a wizard who studies the sea. Ponyo escapes from the submarine he’s taken her and her sisters out on and swims up to the surface on the back of a jellyfish. Once at the surface she meets a boy named Sosuke who becomes thoroughly enthralled by her. This is a fateful meeting, for after a short time together Ponyo ends up back in the ocean, told by her father to forget the surface and humans. But Ponyo wants to be human now. She wants to go back to Sosuke and live on the land. The rest of the movie follows her in her quest to be human and Sosuke’s quest to help her. Oh, I’ve got issues, but they’re issues with the basic story, not issues with this specific movie.

Part of my problem with the story as a whole is that it takes a lot of control away from the mermaid character. She wants to be human, but her fate ends up being dependant on the actions and emotions of the male lead. She’s basically handing control over her own life from one male (her father) to another. That being said, this movie does have its share of nicely powerful women to balance all of that out. There’s Sosuke’s mother, a bit wild with terrifying driving habits and a cheerful disposition. Her husband is out at sea and she and Sosuke live a very nice life in a fantastic house on a cliff by the sea. She works at a senior center in town and while she’s pissed when Sosuke’s father takes another job at sea instead of coming home as planned she also keeps things going, not depending on him in the least. There are the elderly women at the senior center, who are all fantastic and caring, even grumpy Toki who is the only one who seems to know what Ponyo’s presence on land might mean. And then there’s Ponyo’s mother.

In the credits Ponyo’s mother is referred to as Gran Mamare, but I couldn’t help but think of her as Tethys. She’s enormous, easily as big as Ponyo’s father’s submarine. But she can be small as well. She is beautiful and powerful and wise and dangerous. She’s referred to as a goddess of mercy, but as an ocean goddess really, mercy would only be one side to her. Yes, there are other possibilities (Kannon, perhaps, though the water association isn’t as strong in what I’ve read) but well, Tethys was the mother of the Oceanids, three thousand daughters who were the patrons of small bodies of water. And with all those little fish daughters following their titanic mother? She will always be Tethys in my head. And I like that. It adds to the mythic feel of the movie for me. And if she’s a mix of various ocean deities, then all the better. It’s Ponyo’s mother who intercedes for Ponyo and Sosuke, allowing them the chance to travel and work together and for Ponyo to decide what she wants and for Sosuke to decide what he wants.

There’s a dream-like quality to this movie. A lot of that has to do with the imagery, which is all rolling waves that might or might not be alive, flooded roads, prehistoric sea creatures, treetops sticking up out of the water. When Ponyo begins to use magic on land, causing chaos in the ocean and the sky, the visuals of the tidal wave and fish and storm are gorgeous and dangerous without being nightmare fodder. And the undersea refuge where Sosuke and Ponyo meet up with their parents and the elderly ladies (rejuvenated after their trip to the ocean depths) is a lovely mix of land and sea. But there’s also the mood of the village too. It’s clearly a tight knit community. Everyone knows Sosuke’s mother by name and therefore him too. When the village floods everyone cheerfully bands together to find refuge, with some villagers punting their way around as a casual outing. Sosuke’s mother accepts Ponyo’s presence without much question, simply saying that the world is full of wonders or something like that. It’s a world where magic exists and people might not see it regularly but they’re not shocked when they do.

Perhaps I enjoyed this movie as much as I did because of how steeped it is in the sea and how gorgeous the oceanic visuals are. Perhaps I liked that there wasn’t a villain so much as an obstacle. A movie doesn’t need a villain in order for there to be a quest, and I like that. There can be hardships and tasks without there being a bad guy, hamming it up and being nasty for the sake of being nasty. Life doesn’t always hand you a nemesis. Perhaps I liked it for Ponyo’s mother and her daughters who follow her into the ocean. Sure, Ponyo’s father’s background and role aren’t made super clear (he’s supposed to be safeguarding the ocean but he’s also making magic elixirs for some reason, to make new life – it’s not gone into in detail). And the whole role of Sosuke’s seafaring father is minor at most. But I don’t mind. They’re part of the details of the story and it all just works so well for me.

January 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ponyo

January 5, 2011

Ponyo

We decided today to watch a subtitled movie because we hadn’t done one in a while. But what to watch? Something in French? In Portuguese? Spanish? Korean? We kind of wanted to watch an Anime, but couldn’t settle on one to watch. As we pondered I was kind of saddened that we didn’t have any more Miyazaki movies left in our collection since we’ve already reviewed Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. But wait! We haven’t reviewed Ponyo yet – in fact before tonight neither of us had even seen it.

I really had no idea what to expect from this movie. I’d heard, of course, that it was Miyazaki’s take on the tale of the Little Mermaid, but what exactly did that mean? Was it going to be darkly tragic like the original story? Was it going to be romantic with a fairy tale ending like the Disney version? Well, this is Miyazaki we’re talking about, so it ended up being a gorgeous childhood adventure with a deep and moving mythological world built around it.

The star of the movie is a funny little fish-thing (somewhat like an aquatic version of Calcifur from Howl’s Moving Castle in appearance) that becomes curious about the world and leaves her mad scientist/magician father deep under the waves and goes up to the surface world. This preamble is told entirely in pantomime to a wonderful full orchestra in a sequence that reminded me very much of the Fantasia films in terms of its storytelling and lush appearance. Above the waves the fish girl thing is discovered by a five-year-old boy named Sosuke who names her Ponyo and is completely fascinated by her.

Sosuke lives on a forested island surrounded by water. His mother works in a home for elderly women right next to Sosuke’s school. His father is a captain on a huge ship at sea. Sosuke is at home in both worlds, communicating with his father using morse code and wearing a captain’s cap, but also lovingly talking with the old ladies his mother works with.

When Ponyo’s father takes her back to the sea she becomes determined to re-join Sosuke – so determined that she uses magic to grow legs and hands, then she stumbles upon a well full of power that her father has been accumulating in his own quest to usurp mankind and re-make the world into an aquatic garden. She uses this power to return to the surface and seeks out Sosuke, becoming a human girl in the process. Unfortunately all this power unleashes all the might of the ocean. Tsunamis and monsoons. The waters rise up and all manner of extinct life returns. The moon begins to fall and everything becomes involved in a dream-like magical clash with the modern world.

The mythic imagery that fills this movie is awe inspiring. During the storm that Ponyo unleashes the waves are whipped up into mighty swells capped by white froth that look like animated Japanese scrollwork. Gorgeous. Then there’s Ponyo’s mother, a goddess of the sea. Ponyo and Sosuke set out after the storm in a toy boat to find Sosuke’s mother and I couldn’t help thinking of the Owl and the Pussycat in their beautiful pea-green boat. And there’s the astonishing variety of oceanic life that Miyazaki and his team fill the movie with. It’s pure magic.

More than that though is the effortless blending of worlds. There’s Sosuke and his family, the magic and wonder of the ocean, and the childhood friendship of Ponyo and Sosuke, all happening simultaneously and all meshing effortlessly with each other.

Many of the themes I’ve become familiar with in Miyazaki’s work are here. The pollution of the ocean around Sosuke’s home island is part of the reason that Ponyo’s father wants to use his magic to revive the diversity and wonder of the ocean to end Humanity’s dominion of Earth. There are themes of old gods and legends rising up to re-claim the world. In many ways this feels like a child-friendly version of Princess Mononoke.

The only thing I could find in the entire movie that slightly irritated me was that the squid in the film seem to swim backwards. It jarred me somewhat. I just wanted to mention it because with all the other gorgeous sea life on display it seemed odd that there were giant squid swimming tentacles first with the tentacles pointed straight out. But that’s it – one tiny minor flaw in a gorgeous, deep, simple tale of childhood friendship. As always with Miyazaki I am in complete awe.

January 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 254 – Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010) – November 9th, 2010

Every so often someone decides we desperately need to remake a classic. Sometimes it’s obviously a money thing. Sometimes it’s a well-meaning nostalgia thing. But it’s a rare thing for it to be done well. Oh, it can be done. But it wasn’t done here. They made a concerted effort, and a lot of time and money and work went into this remake of the 1981 classic. Big name actors were cast as the gods and apparently a good deal of research went into the costumes and architecture. But for all of that? The best I can say is that it was a very pretty movie and the acting was fine. As remakes go, it’s not great. As movies go, it’s a whole lot of package and very little content.

Sadly, the movie started out fairly well. For about thirty seconds. The opening narration talks about constellations and how they tell ancient stories and whatnot, and then we hear about how Zeus overthrew his father and he and his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, ascended to power. And we were super excited because that right there is not bullshit! And then, as if this movie has something to prove and decided to do so by stating up front that it cares not about mythological integrity, we launch straight into how Hades made the Kraken from his own flesh and from there into something about how the world of men is tired of the gods. This is all to set up the plot of this movie, which differs a good deal in motivation from its source. It’s all about men rising up against the gods and the gods smiting them for being idiots.

I know there was motivation given to Perseus at some point. I suspect it had something to do with Io, who is totally not turned into a cow in this movie, which bothers me a lot more than it should. But Io shows up to confuse the mythology buffs and tell Perseus that she’s been watching over him his whole life, waiting for the right time to something something overthrow the gods something destiny something something. There’s a lot of heartfelt talk in here, about great destinies and the gods and it’s all more than a little confusing. Because, see, Perseus is a demigod, which he only finds out once he’s in Argos, and so he should be all super powerful and help the folks in Argos save their city from Hades, right? Except he doesn’t like the gods because the gods killed his mortal family. But he helps them anyhow. And you’d think Zeus would be all about helping his son like in the original movie, and he is, but he also gets all pissy and rants about how Perseus doesn’t pray to him. So no one likes anyone but they’re all off to see the wizard or destroy the one ring or whatever. Whatever in this instance being getting Medusa’s head to turn the Kraken to stone so the folks in Argos don’t have to sacrifice Princess Andromeda to save the city.

And okay, hold on. Let me get something off my chest. If a god showed up in my palace and said “Sacrifice Princess Whatsherface or I’ll have my monster destroy your city,” and then I trussed up Princess Whatsherface and dangled her like a cat toy for said monster? I’d be kind of miffed if said monster DESTROYED MY CITY even a little when it showed up for its snack. The deal was a princess for no city destruction. I delivered on the princess end of the bargain! That was to keep my buildings standing and my people not crushed. If the city was going to get smashed up anyhow, I’d have just evacuated, okay? Okay.

Back to Perseus. He has ever so many adventures along the way to Oz. I mean the underworld. He faces off with Calibos, who isn’t Thetis’s son in this movie, thank goodness, but is instead Perseus’ mother’s husband, transformed by Hades into a monster so Hades can stop Perseus from defeating the Kraken. Because Hades wants to rule Olympus. Which kind of makes me wonder if the folks who reworked the plot/script for this remake were reading the Percy Jackson books at the time. Anyhow, Perseus fights super giant scorpions and then rides one, and he meets up with the Stygian Witches and they’re nice and creepy. He fights Medusa and cuts her head off, of course. But before that, the movie seems to have yet more to prove. I mean, we can’t have a movie from the 1980s mucking with mythology more than the remake, can we? And we’ve already got the Kraken. Might as well add some djinn! I honestly started wondering if we’d get an appearance from Quezalcoatl or maybe the Ki-lin? And they’d have been gorgeous, but just as ridiculously unnecessary to the movie as the djinn were.

I know I’m bagging this movie pretty hard. I found the plot to be messy and self-contradictory and there were speeches and conversations that just made me tune out completely. The whole idea of men rising up against the gods is good fodder and all, but the movie never really follows through in one direction or another. Do we want to overthrow Zeus, or not? Do we care? The movie doesn’t seem to. And really, it shouldn’t have bothered to try a high-ish concept like that. Because the point of the movie isn’t the morals of power and divinity. It’s about the action and the fight sequences and the special effects and the monsters. And the actions and fight sequences and special effects and monsters? Are fantastic.

Now, speaking personally, they can’t top Harryhausen for charm and single-handed skill. Three people on the animation crew for the original made all of that amazing work, and there’s a certain touch to it that isn’t in modern computer animated movies. But the modern movies, like this one, are fantastic all the same. Medusa? Awesome and definitely pinged my ophidiophobia. I’m absolutely in love with the sort of winged cloak thing that Hades had following him everywhere. The Stygian Witches were supremely bizarre. And the Kraken. Oh my goodness, the Kraken. Take the Watcher in the water from Fellowship of the Ring and multiply it by a gajillion and you’ve got the Kraken, and well. While I prefer Harryhausen’s animation for its personal touch, I think I like this Kraken better for sheer terror factor. This is a monster that is the stuff of nightmares.

So yes, it is a visually stunning movie. I would expect it to be, really, given the special effects standards of the day. The fights are exciting and the action is great in general. There’s some real tension built in here. I wasn’t blown away by any particular actor in the movie, but I wasn’t displeased with anyone either. But then there’s the plot. And the fact that this was supposed to be a remake of the 1981 movie. And I get the nostalgia factor. I get that remakes get made to cash in on people’s fond memories of the original. I know. But if they’d ditched the remake concept and simply started from scratch, building a new Greek mythology based action epic, perhaps it would have gone better. Or perhaps they’d have ended up with Percy Jackson, and since that only came out a few months before this did, that’s a little soon for a remake.

November 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Clash of the Titans (2010)

November 9, 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Aside from the title, the Kraken and some of the character names from the 1981 movie this one bears very little resemblance to its forebearer. I kind of thought as we put this in tonight that I knew what I was going to be watching. I thought it was going to be the same basic movie as yesterday, but with modern big-budget effects. In truth it bears more resemblance to the God of War series of games – but with a slightly less unlovable hero.

The core quest – to slay Medusa and use her head to stop the Kraken from destroying a city and save Andromeda remains the same, but all the motivations have been changed around, and the mythology is far crazier than even in the first movie. Right from the beginning it’s established that there’s some big conflict between the gods and mankind in this movie. Humans are sick of being playthings for the gods and have decided to just stop worshiping them. Perseus’ adoptive father Pete Postlethwaite says that men have “declared war” on the gods when he sees a giant statue of Zeus being toppled into the sea, but really it’s more like men have just kind of decided it’s too much bother all that burning sacrificial cows and whatnot and are kind of hoping if they ignore the gods that the gods will just leave like unwelcome party guests. Of course they go too far and start bragging about how they’re the gods now, which kind of upsets the big folks on Mt. Olympus.

Then things get even more muddy. It seems that Hades has a plot to depose Zeus by forcing people to fear him, thus depriving Zeus of his worshipers. It’s like the writers of this movie learned everything they know about Greek mythology from the Disney Hercules movie. I don’t actually recall much quarreling between Zeus and Hades in the myths. Most of the time it was Zeus and Poseidon (who here is played by some guy who REALLY wants to be Brian Blessed, but only gets about two lines.) Or Zeus and his jealous wife Hera – because he was always sleeping around with mortals. Hades was the quiet guy with his own entire kingdom to rule who fed pomegranates to visiting princesses or something. I never got the sense that he was dissatisfied with his lot aside from maybe being a little lonely.

Anyhow – Hades is going to release the Kraken (who in this version was a tool used to defeat the Titans who begot the gods.) He gives the people of Argos (which in this movie has not been destroyed already) the choice of letting their city be destroyed or sacrificing their princess Andromeda. Our lumpy hero Perseus in this movie doesn’t really care either way. He arrives in Argos all pissed off because he has just seen Hades kill his entire adoptive family in retribution for the destruction of Zeus’ statue – which they didn’t even participate in. We can tell he’s the hero because he’s the only man in all of Greece who doesn’t have tragically awful hair – everybody else has sort of dreded out braids but he has a buzz cut. Anyhow, he doesn’t give a damn about Argos or about Andromeda (who seems like a nice enough girl who is fully willing to sacrifice herself to save her people) and he’s not too thrilled to find out that he’s the son of a god. Along comes Io – who here is the scrappy female companion and romantic interest for Perseus – and she somehow convinces him that if he doesn’t get off his ass and make with the quest ting this whole movie is for nothing, so he becomes a reluctant hero and along with a rag-tag band of lovable caricatures who are clearly doomed he sets off. There’s the laconic old guy, the gawping new recruit, the bitter commander who only wants to spit in the eyes of the gods, a couple of local hunters for comic relief and a bunch of cannon fodder besides.

You know what? Who cares about the plot. The motivations aren’t there, the hero can’t decide if he wants to be a hero and has this complex about being just a simple fisherman, the entire conflict between Zeus and Hades seems contrived and the “romance” between Io and Perseus seems almost laboured. Perseus has absolutely no reason to want to save Argos so it’s odd that he just keeps on going through all these obstacles to do it. After the group on their quest defeat some giant scorpions in a big action set piece a bunch of undead Djin show up and I had to just throw my hands up in submission. Now it seems that this God of War inspired Clash of the Titans movie is throwing in stuff from the most recent Prince of Persia game – it’s just silly. After a while I just stopped caring about anything in the movie except for the action scenes, and maybe that was what the creators intended. The action scenes are fun, I suppose. There’s the scorpions and there’s Medusa, and there’s the climactic chase scene through the streets of Argos with Pegasus and a bunch of flying demon-things that have stolen Medusa’s head, and there’s the Kraken, which is big and breaks a lot of stuff. It’s nice to look at, I suppose, but when you don’t really care about anybody involved it loses some of its impact.

Ultimately I feel like this movie is simply forgettable. It’s a soulless effects laden summer blockbuster with none of the charm or heart of the movie it was based upon. It will be remembered mostly as a footnote. Its most memorable feature I suppose was that it started a sad trend of slapping 3-D effects onto a movie in post production at a time when 3-D was perceived as being the next big thing in cinemas. (Don’t get me wrong – I love 3-D movies and fully intend to get a 3-D television in the next couple years, but post-production fiddling is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.) Amanda tells me now that there’s a sequel to this in pre-production. I hope it involves an ash-covered bald Spartan and his quest to kill his father Zeus… or maybe time travel and steampunk robots – at this point I’d believe they’d throw in just about anything.

November 9, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 253 – Clash of the Titans (1981)

Clash of the Titans (1981) – November 8th, 2010

A little over 100 movies back we reviewed Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which was okay in general and a fairly decent adaptation of the book. It was based on Greek mythology, but not on any one particular story. It’s more about taking elements and figures from the ancient myths and bringing them into a new setting. This here, on the other hand, is a wee bit different. For one, it’s the story of a particular figure: Perseus (Percy Jackson’s namesake, but I digress). For two, it’s telling what appears to be an adaptation of the story of Perseus, but it’s wildly different from every version of the myth I’ve ever read.

I mentioned at the end of my Percy Jackson review that I’m a sucker for Greek mythology. When I was little I read a lot. Like, a hell of a lot. And my parents practically threw books at me in hopes of keeping me busy. One such book was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire. I love this book. I could probably recite bits of it from memory. I read it and re-read it and memorized it and lingered over the illustrations for years. So while I wouldn’t ever presume to call myself an expert in Greek mythology, I do know some things. And one thing I know is that this movie is not precisely true to the original legend.

Since the movie follows Perseus, of course there’s a good deal of Perseus’ story. But the thing is, it’s all be altered here and there to make for more action and tension and epic vastness. After all, why just have a sea monster when you can have a supposed Titan? And why just have a Titan when you can steal the Kraken from another mythos? You can’t be too picky about the mythology here. If you are, it sort of ruins what is otherwise a fun movie. Personally, I do find it harder to handwave the alterations made here than those in many other movies (like last night’s), but I manage. What does it matter really? The root of the story isn’t all that dissimilar to the one I knew from my childhood.

Perseus, the son of Zeus, sets forth to slay Medusa and collect her head. His motivations in the movie are new and different, but still, off to Medusa he goes. And he does indeed meet the Graeae with their one eye, and he does indeed use Medusa’s head to turn a sea monster into stone, thereby saving Andromeda from being sacrificed. So what if he did it all specifically for Andromeda, instead of stumbling upon her just in time? The point is that the story does indeed follow some of the same arc as the myth, just with more sensationalism and divine bickering and Ray Harryhausen.

So here we are at the heart of the matter. While I do enjoy the sort of mix-and-match mythology of the plot, and I can appreciate why certain changes were made for the story to follow a good cinematic arc, the point of watching this particular version of this movie is the special effects. And they are indeed special in the non-ironic sense. They are so very memorable that they have become iconic. The Kraken is one of those things that gets shown in montages of memorable monsters. Medusa is amazing with her head full of snakes. There’s so much in here that is so much fun to watch purely from a technical point of view, it makes the cheese factor of the rest of the movie totally worth it. And there is cheese. This is a fantasy epic made in 1981. Of course there’s cheese.

But there are also a number of amazing actors involved, like Lawrence Olivier and Maggie Smith. There’s the fantastic Harryhausen effects and animation. Despite the cheese and the comic relief mechanical owl (fun to look at, but a real Scrappy Doo sort of role much of the time) and the sometimes odd changes in the details of the myths, it’s still fun. There’s something about the combination of it all that makes it enjoyable. You just have to put the Greek mythology books on the shelf and pretend you’ve never looked at them before.

November 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Clash of the Titans (1981)

November 8, 2010

Clash of the Titans (1981)

You know I don’t think I have ever seen this entire movie in one sitting. At least not without commercial interruptions and considerable editing for television. In my experience this has been strictly part of the domain of grainy UHF television broadcasts (probably on channel 38 or 56) in the bygone days of my youth. It feels almost sacrilegious to watch it now as a full movie with no ads for Jordan’s Furniture or whatever cheesy local TV ads would have gone into it. The movie has a fairly episodic feel to it which is a natural fit for syndicated viewing on late night TV. And I was rather shocked by the couple of bits of nudity that I had never seen before (tame though they are) because they had no place on a broadcast network.

This movie is many things. It is great Shakespearean actors standing around in togas and not really doing much acting. It is a mash-up of several Greek myths into a single story. It is vapid pretty boy Harry Hamlin waving a sword around at nothing and posing a lot because all the enemies were added in post production. And most of all it is the absolute pinnacle of the great film career of stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen.

The plot involves the epic adventures of young Perseus, son of Zeus, as he woos the gorgeous Andromeda. It has the general feel of the old Steeve Reeves Hercules films in that it uses characters and situations from several myths and kind of mashes them all up together. (Perseus pays a skeletal ferryman to cross the Styx river for example, which should properly be in Hades but is not in this particular movie.) But nobody is watching it for the plot or for any accuracy to the myths. You’re watching it for the fantasy, for the thrill and for the adventure of it.

Well do I remember my classmates in third grade animatedly describing the confrontation with the gorgon Medusa in her lair. These were moments of great cinema for us growing up and defined the myths for my generation. If ever anybody from my age group pictures Perseus with Medusa’s head facing the Kraken then it is from this movie that the pictures directly come.

Really I’m watching it tonight for the Harryhausen magic. The bluescreen techniques of the day might be kind of primitive, and the animation of today’s all CG big budget films may look smoother or cleaner, but this movie right here is the absolute peak of what can be done with stop motion. There’s just so much special effects work here. The giant Vulture, the Kraken, the Gorgon Medusa, the little golden owl, the two-headed dog (for some reason), the giant scorpions… it just goes on and on. My favorite bits of animation involve Pegasus the flying horse. There were a few shots where I couldn’t really tell if they were using a complex puppet or a stop-motion miniature, and there are a whole lot of shots that involve Pegasus struggling with human figures which must have involved painstaking work. I’m amazed by how natural the movements of Pegasus are and how, well, horse-like. Considerable reference and research must have been involved.

What’s more amazing is that all of these effects, all of these complex miniature shots (of which there are hundreds in the film) were done by three guys. THREE! The credits for the movie list Harryhausen and two assistants (Steven Archer and Jim Danforth.) According to IMDB the movie’s budget was $15 million, which even adjusted for inflation is only a little bit more than $36 million 2010 dollars. Compare that to the $125 million 2010 Clash of the Titans which had a couple hundred digital technicians working on the effects. There’s a charm to this 1981 film. A sort of disarming cheesiness and playfulness that you don’t find in Hollywood these days.

I’m really not sure how they got Maggie Smith, Lawrence Olivier, Ursula Andress and Burgess Meredith to appear in a cheesy eighties fantasy adventure film, and from the performances they give you get the impression that they’re not too sure either. I’ll bet there’s some great stories there. Olivier in particular has a charming glint in his eye as he hams it up as Zeus. It’s almost as though he’s winking at the audience, inviting them to find it as amusing as he does that he’s playing this role.

So mix swords and sandals adventure, a bunch of great actors who play their roles mostly for cheese, an epic adventure based on Greek mythology and some of the lowest budget and yet most amazing animation ever and you have… what? Not a great film, but an extraordinary one. An iconic clash of unlikely extremes. A colosal fish-ape doing battle with a burbling mechanical owl. A movie simply MADE for the vivid imagination of a nine-year-old boy – which is convenient since I was nine years old when it came out. We simply must get our hands on the Harryhausen Sinbad movies and Jason and the Argonauts. But before that we’re now doomed to watching the 2010 re-make of this movie. Wish us luck!

November 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment