Friday, May 31, 2013

Silver Screen Stories: Super Mario Bros.

So this week, exactly 20 years ago, a landmark moment occurred in the history of cinema. For the first time ever, a movie was released by Hollywood, based on a video game. There had been a handful of films in the past that heavily FEATURED the concept of video games, such as Tron, The Wizard, etc., but there had never before been a film that was an adaptation of a video game. There had been plenty of games turned into cartoons in the 80s and early 90s: Pac-Man, Dungeons and Dragons, Donkey Kong, Q-Bert, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, etc. But Super Mario Bros. was such a popular franchise (still to this day the single highest selling game franchise in video game history, and that's not even counting all the spinoff titles), that it had the distinct honor of being the impetus for uncharted territory on the "Big Screen". And thus "Super Mario Bros.: The Movie" was born.

"This ain't no game.....but why are we holding Super Scopes?"

Now, this isn't going to be your typical look back at this movie. It is infamous in film history, for both being so damn weird, but also for being a greatly hyped blockbuster film that nosedived and bombed at the box office. Most people tend to look back on this film with scorn and sarcasm, treating it like a punchline. Because to some people, I guess it is. But me, I'm going a different rout. Any of my readers who've stuck around and followed my work for awhile now, probably know that I generally tend to write about things I like, with few exceptions (such as the Shitty Sequels series I have going). I just figure that, honestly, it's both more fun and more interesting for me to write about things that I actually like and am passionate for. But's kind of just played out, people criticizing and hating on things for entertainment value. It's become an internet meme all it's own over the last several years, and while there are some who do it well, the right way, and I find some of that entertaining, I just don't see the need to join the crowd. So for the most part, I'll be sticking with a more positive approach, and this won't be much different.

The first time I saw this movie, was renting it on VHS (remember those?) when it finally came out. I'm sure I might have mentioned this in a previous entry at some point, but being raised by a grandmother whose philosophy was that it was a "Waste of time and money to go see movies in the theater", it basically goes without saying that I missed out on a lot of cool theater experiences that other kids my age enjoyed. I basically missed an entire era of film, between E.T. and Power Rangers: The Movie (which I do believe was the first film I got to see new in the theater, ever). I know that's pretty sad, but sadly I had no control over that, and had to wait till things came on tape so we could rent them, if we rented them at all. AS such, it's not too much of a stretch to say that seeing as Super Mario Bros. was my major obsession in the early '90s, I had a lot of anticipation built up over finally seeing this movie. Even though I had seen pictures in magazines, and likely seen ads on tv for it, and knew it wasn't quite like the games, I was still excited. And honestly, I don't necissarily remember feeling let down or disappointed. I just remember thinking how weird the movie was. And still is.

Two of the best characters in the film, "Iggy and Spike".

I will say, for it's time, I was certainly not as into it after having seen it as I would be a year and a half or so later when "Mortal Kombat: The Movie" came out. I got to see that in theaters, one of the first new films I actually did get to see, after Power Rangers. The MK film still holds up to this day, in my mind, as the best video game adaption movie ever made, and it certainly wins points over Mario or practically anything else in the "staying true to the look and feel (and story) of the game" department. Much more so than it's contemporary films, like Street Fighter, Double Dragon, and Mario. BUT, I think that's the place where people need to draw the line, and realize that "Super Mario Bros.: The Movie" simply is not a good, direct game adaptation. And really, how could it have been, in live action, when such a thing had never been attempted before, know.....Hollywood?

Standing on it's OWN, as it's own entity, and setting aside it's lack of accuracy to the source material, the honest truth is that the SMB movie is a pretty damn good film. Not GREAT, not amazing, not "classic" in most uses of the word. But it IS good. It's weird, it's funny, the main characters (Mario and Luigi) have good chemistry, there's a lot going on, it never lapses or has terribly dull moments, and it's quirky enough that it's actually kind of endearing. That is how I choose to look back on it now, and I think more people need to try and see it for what it is, and less for what it's not, as well.

"Where's my pizza!?"

The plotline, at it's core, is still pretty much Super Mario Bros. There's a girl named Daisy (instead of Peach, which she wasn't called in the U.S. yet), who happens to secretly be a princess of a magical, alternate world. There's a bad guy, called Koopa, who sends his minions to kidnap her. There's two Brooklyn plumbers, named the Mario Bros., who find out about all this, and go after her. Badda-bing, badda-boom. That's about where the hardline similarities stop, sure, but still. Daisy (Princess Toadstool), was raised as an orphan in our "real" world, seemingly safe from King Koopa, who wants a mystical piece of meteorite that he needs to merge the two worlds of "Mushroom Land" and Earth, together. Because as the movie tries to explain it, the same meteor that theoretically wiped out the dinosaurs, also created an alternate pocket dimension where some dinos survived, evolved into basically humans (don't ask),and there you go. Yup. The Marios meet Daisy when she's in trouble, Luigi falls for her (Mario is older and has his own squeeze in the film), and they go on a date. After the date, she shows him around her paleontological dig site, which just so happens to also be the spot where the two dimensions blur a bit, and BAM, she's kidnapped by the two guys pictured with her a couple two pictures up (named Iggy and Spike, two actual characters from SMB3, but not). The Marios follow, get trapped in this weird Dinosaur/Mushroom Kingdom, and set out to try and save the day.

And that's basically it. Except a whole lot of weird in between. But it's not a BAD, or even off-putting kind of weird. It's the kind of weird that made something like "Pee Wee's Playhouse" fun to watch. Two things that explain partly how this film turned out as odd as it did, is the fact that the production designer was the same guy who worked on  the movie "Blade Runner" (city even looks similar), and the co-directors were also the co-creators of weird-as-hell '80s show "Max Headroom". So those two facts alone really explains a lot. The film had it's share of big stars, especially Dennis Hopper as Koopa, and Bob Hoskins as Mario. Those two specifically, have been quoted in the past as saying that it was the worst film either of them ever did, in part because the actual production was a constant mess, and because of the way it wound up bombing and being critically panned upon release. But others, such as John Leguizamo who plays Luigi, look back on it a bit more fondly, and appreciate that the movie has it's "cult" fans such as myself. And for their part, Mr. Hopper and Mr. Hoskins (especially Hoskins) do a really good job in their roles, proving that great actors can make the most out of anything. Up until Super Mario 64 came out in 1996, where he was voiced in a game for the first (real) time, by Charles Martinet with the "It'sa Me!" business, Mario had been portrayed in all sorts of media, from cartoons, to comics, to Choose Your Own Adventure books, to this movie, as more of a Brooklyn tough guy type. And that might have even the tiniest bit more of why I think this film is alright in the end, because I grew up with "that Mario", and am still rather fond of him.


If I had to name off the things that make this movie likeable to me, I guess I'd start with the fact that, as mentioned before, it has a good sense of humor. The Mario Bros. have a great chemistry together, Koopa gets in a slew of cheesy bad guy lines, and the film just has a lot of more subtly funny moments throughout. Another thing I'd say I like, is the fact that while the film doesn't ever at any point try to take itself terribly seriously, it also doesn't seem as if it's making FUN of the source material either. It basically just tried to be it's own thing. And even so, it still manages to squeeze in a lot of names/images/elements from the games, from Goombas (kinda), to Yoshi, to Bob-Ombs, to guns that shoot fireballs instead of bullets, Big Bertha (in the form of a tough black chick instead of a giant fish), Shy Guy/Sniffits, "Toad", etc. etc. But ultimately, it's kind of hard to say why I like the movie. It's not something I could explain to someone else who didn't "get it", as easily as I could tell you why I love Harryhausen's movies, or old Godzilla films, or Mel Brooks' classic "Young Frankenstein". I could tell you exactly why I love those. With this? I just kinda like it.

I think if this movie had come out exactly as is, but removed any name-drop references to the Super Mario Bros. franchise, if it was just called "Plumbers Save the World" or something, I think that A) it would be far more obscure than it is), but B) it would also be looked upon far more kindly by wanna-be critics and film fans. Because really, it has all of the elements of a "cult classic" that make people love other films such as "Buckaroo Banzai" or "Big Trouble in Little China". It's weird, it's funny, it's fun to watch. But it carries a negative stigma because it was held up to a standard which it never could have reached. If they had really wanted to do a "real" Mario movie, it should have just been a cartoon film, similar to the cartoon shows that came before it. That's the only way a REAL Mario movie could be pulled off, because in live action, there's just no way. But having said all of that? I'm still pretty glad they tried and failed anyway, because even in failure, they came up with something that I think is pretty entertaining, and deserves to be remembered for that.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Unnecessary Sequels: Jaws and Gremlins

So after getting sadly sidetracked by the passing of Mr. Ray Harryhausen, and then being randomly inspired to write about "Matinee" after finally seeing it, I am now back to give you another delicious slice of "Why the hell did this get a sequel?" pie! Last time we looked at two seminal and influential classics, in "Psycho" and "Planet of the Apes". Today's selections will be not be the same kind of film-history milestones, but they are still significant in their own way, and regardless, both great, classic movies.

And before I begin, a reminder that the criteria by which I judge a "movie that didn't need sequels", is just what it sounds like: a film that was great, and a stand-alone piece that was self containing and wrapped up nicely on it's own, that needed no sequels whatsoever to dilute it or even in certain cases detract from it's greatness. And away we go!

Film: Jaws
Year: 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Unnecessary Sequels: Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1983), Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

A film that, like Psycho, most people are at least generally familiar with, even if they haven't seen it, they know what it is. And similarly to Psycho, Jaws contained an iconic musical strain (in this case by the great John Williams), that would embed itself in popular culture for decades. Jaws was a phenomenon when it released in 1975, one of the first of what would become Hollywood's true "Summer Blockbuster" approach, even though compared to today's fare of that same branch, it stands head-and-shoulders above much that would follow it. Not really the "blockbuster" type of material, while it has it's tense and active moments, Jaws is not an action film, nor even a true "horror" film as most would likely assume or label it. The premise of course being that of a sleepy little coastal town, located on "Amity Island, Massachusetts", a remote location generally as normal as you please, being suddenly terrorized by an enormous, man-eating "Great White" shark. But underneath what could have been a stereotypical "monster on the loose" fare, or even a contemporary of it's mid-70s gore-filled exploitation movies, Jaws was, like much of Spielberg's later work, a quieter, more thoughtful film. In fact most of the film is built on what you don't see, on tense moments, quiet brooding, and human drama.

"The Guys", Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss.

The principle characters in what would be Spielberg's first major motion picture, were an all-star cast just among themselves. Classically trained British actor Robert Shaw played a shark hunter simply called "Quint". Roy Scheider, who had already had an enduring career beforehand, would play perhaps his most iconic role, that of Police Chief Martin Brody. And Richard Dreyfuss, a television actor whose career in motion pictures had just recently started to take off with George Lucas' "American Graffiti",  plays marine biologist Matt Hooper. After considerable hemming and hawing over the prospect of shutting down the popular beach due to shark attacks, the local mayor Larry Vaugn (played by Murray Hamilton), hires the somewhat unstable Quint to rectify the problem, and Brody and Hooper join the expedition to hunt this phantom beast. The story itself is very basic, and as I said, under many other directors it probably would have been played as a straight horror flick. But under Spielberg's watch, the story became more about the three principle characters, as he has had a career-long penchant for focusing on human subplots embedded within his grander concepts. And as such, the film has it's share of quite moments, not only tense, but even a few laughs. Robert Shaw's performance as "Quint", a former navy man who survived a shark attack that killed most of his former crewmen, in particular is a rather good dramatic turn, as he essentially becomes Captain Ahab, hunting his own "Great White", to the point of destructive obsession to the detriment of his boat and his crew. The final product was and is a classic piece of cinema, that launches the career of arguably the greatest director of our modern era. So much so that in 2001 it was included in the National Film Registry.

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."

But, naturally, with colossal box office success also often comes a certain gleam in studio producer's eyes, that whispers one solitary word into their rich little ear: "Franchise". Thus was the case with Jaws, as they decided to make a sequel almost immediately, without Spielberg's involvement. While he was busy making yet another film (that thankfully DIDN'T ever get a sequel) that is now today considered to be a quintessential classic, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", Universal Pictures brought in b-movie director Jeannot Szwarc to make "Jaws 2". A perfect example of a sequel that not only didn't NEED to happen, but SHOULDN'T have happened, J2 went on to be everything it's predecessor wasn't. Where the original went for a thoughtful, tense approach that plays more on human emotion and a fear of a more concealed monster, the sequel does exactly what most bad "creature features" do, especially by the 80s. That is to show too much of the monster, up the gore factor and body count, and otherwise just have a nonsensical sequence of events that leads up to a pointless finale. Poor Roy Scheider agreed to do this sequel, a decision he would regret for the rest of his career, and while he tried his best to salvage his own role, he was sadly set adrift amidst 70s horror movie cliches and honestly just a fairly poor script. Taking everything the first movie had wrapped up with, the giant menace being killed, everything on the quiet island going back to normal, etc., and not only discarding it with the magical appearance of ANOTHER similarly sized and tempered giant, but this time making it even worse, by the Mayor and town's people outright refusing to believe Brody even though they'd already BEEN through all this nonsense and the horror that followed the first time around.

But alas, "Jaws 2" wasn't enough. Like some shitty cash-in sequels tend to do, it made quite a lot of money, enough at least to justify further milking of the property. And in 1983, right at the height of the 80s resurgence of "3D", came "Jaws 3", or more accurately "Jaws 3......D", because that's clever (hey, they're still doing it today, with the CURRENT 3D resurgence). Now, just to key you in on how stupid things would get, the tag-line for this summer blockbuster, I shit you not, was "The Third Dimension is TERROR!" A cheesy tag-line/concept it shared with equally crappy cash-ins of the time, "Friday the 13th III" and "Amityville 3D". As if being in 3D wasn't enough, they decided to go full on ridiculous with the third film, setting it in San Diego, at the SeaWorld park there, and yes, a brand NEW giant monster shark shows up in a timely fashion to terrorize the brand new (and ill advised) underwater tunnels they're debuting. You can imagine how this movie plays out, so I won't get too deep into it. But sufficed to say, as with most drawn-out horror franchises, the installments tend to get crappier and sillier-by-the-sequel, and that remained true here. I will say that as he would continue to intermittently do his entire career, Dennis Quaid made the poor choice of starring in this turd, and he would go on to alternate between great and "why?" roles to this day.

Yes....those are "3D" shark teeth exploding at the screen. Technology aside, things haven't changed much.

Last but certainly not least, even though I'd rather not mention it at all, was the fourth installment. And it absolutely takes the shit cake when it comes to "bad sequels", as 1987's "Jaws: The Revenge" actually makes "Jaws 3-D" look pretty swell by comparison. If you think Jaws terrorizing SeaWorld is bad, just wait. The plot, in a nutshell, is that Martin Brody (thankfully not played by Scheider again), has died of a heart attack. His wife, Ellen (played by Lorraine Gary in Jaws 1, 2, and this thing), believes his heart attack was induced by a shark. She goes to live with her son Sean and his fiance. Her son, a police deputy, after surviving shark attacks in the first two films, magically also dies, this time directly at the hands of the damn shark. So now (oh....SPOILERS), the poor lady is left with only one surviving son, her family killed, she is convinced purposely targeted, by this fuckin' shark. So what does she do? Naturally, what any leading lady in a crappy horror sequel would do, she sets out for revenge. Hence the subtitle of the movie. Right? Not quite. She goes to stay with said surviving son (Lance Guest, Alex from "The Last Starfighter"), and people keep on dying, it would seem, because the shark is actually trying to get HER, so it's the SHARK'S Revenge. Because a totally unrelated shark would totally know about Brody's wife who had zero interaction with the first "Jaws". Regardless, she figures she better offer herself in sacrifice to this cruel movie-sequel god, to stop further killing, because that totally makes perfect sense. And the rest plays out about as nonsensical and silly as you'd likely imagine.

Much like Psycho, the original Jaws is a great, dramatic, and very "against-type" film. A true classic in every sense of the word. And just like Psycho, Jaws' unneeded sequels do everything they can to completely shit all over that, and drag the franchise down to mediocre depths (pun intended). The only cure, also like Psycho, is simply to pay the "sequels" no mind, and only watch the original film. Because unless you just really love silly, nonsensical bullshit, they're basically just chum floating on the waves.

Film: Gremlins
Year: 1984
Director: Joe Dante
Unnecessary Sequel: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Another Spielberg related gem, this time with ol' Steve acting as producer, 1984's "Gremlins" may not be considered a classic by some, and certainly not to the level that a movie like "Jaws" is regarded. But honestly, it's one of the best films to come out of the 80s, and it's a steadfast classic that still holds up today. This was the product of some serious talent, produced by Spielberg, written by future big-hit director Chris Columbus, and the film that would really launch the career of former Roger Corman protegee Joe Dante. And as a bonus, it even had a great score done by the great Jerry Goldsmith. Gremlins was a mega-hit of the 80s, and in fact was such a good film that it even made a shit-ton of money despite the fact that it released the same exact week as even-bigger-hit "Ghostbusters". And like that movie, Gremlins was a deft combination of horror and comedy elements.

Just two dudes, hangin' out.

The feature creature of the film, so to speak, was the tiny, cute little dickens pictured above, a creature that the Chinese shop owner where he was found called a "Mogwai". This particular little fella received the name "Gizmo", after his buyer Randall Peltzer's penchant for inventions. But like Peltzer's own gizmos, this seemingly innocuous situation, bringing a strange critter home as a gift for his son, goes awry. Not due to Gizmo, of course, as that critter is one chill dude, with nary a care in the world beyond comic books, television, and humming his own iconic theme tune. His owner, Randall's son William "Billy" Peltzer (played by Zach Galligan), is an aspiring comic artist who works as a bank teller to help support the family while Randall tries to sell his (usually dodgy) invention ideas. Well, "Mr. P" leaves on a business trip to go and try to do just that, leaving Billy and his mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain), home alone and ripe for some untimely Christmas-season disaster. The Mogwai have three major plot points....ahem, RULES, that must be followed to the letter, or else all hell will break loose. 1. Keep them away from bright light, because it'll kill 'em. 2. Don't get them wet, because who needs water to live, right? And 3. Don't EVER feed the rascals after exactly midnight (regardless of time zone issues), because JUST DON'T THAT'S WHY.

Regular party animals, rocking out to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves".

The film manages to find a nice balance of outright silly and genuinely creepy, and while it certainly has some more violent/gruesome moments, past a certain age I'd say this still works as a "family film" as much as it does a "horror" movie, something you can't say about Jaws. The idea of Gremlins in the first place, stemmed from World War II, as soldiers would blame tiny critters no one could actually see (whether truly serious or not) for mechanical failures, untimely mishaps, and general pandemonium. And while deadly, that's what the title characters of this film really specialize in. Naturally, the plot points (RULES) are broken, at least the second and third (in order), starting with Billy's teen friend Pete (80s kid/teen star Corey Feldman) accidentally spilling water all over Gizmo while trying to hold him (because he's just so damn cute you HAVE to hold him). A half dozen little Mogwai inexplicably pop out of poor Gizmo's back, and while all equally cute, unlike their "father" they seem to have a natural mean-streak. Most especially the ring leader "Stripe", so named for the funny 80s mohawk he was born with. Well, it isn't long before dad leaves on his trip, and well meaning sad-sap Billy is suckered by those devious Mogwai into feeding them after midnight. Next thing you know, they're cocooned in Xenomorph eggs (if you got that, high five), and about 12 hours later, they all hatch as the not-so-adorable persons you see above. Well, shit goes down, (SPOILERS) Stripe jumps in a YMCA pool, and from there it's off to the races, as Gremlins overrun the fictional quiet little town of Kingston Falls. So it's up to Gizmo, Billy, and Billy's girlfriend Kate (played by the gorgeous Phoebe Cates), to fight these fuckers off and take back Christmas.

This pretty much speaks for itself.

So, all in all, Gremlins was a really awesome movie. Well made, well written, well directed, well acted, well.....everything. It had cool pop-culture references, great music, funny moments, memorable characters....pretty much everything you could ask for in your run of the mill holidays horror/comedy. But again, with success, often comes people at the studio who want more money. Now a couple of things should be pointed out. The first being, that not ALL great successes at the box office automatically churn out cash-in sequels. Great examples of movies that stayed great, stand alone pieces, would be the aforementioned "Close Encounters", or another iconic 80s film, Richard Donner's "The Goonies". Secondly, not ALL sequels are bad, or even unneeded, as proven by many hits like "Back to the Future Part II" or "Aliens". And there are even a few certainly unneeded sequels that STILL turn out pretty great, as would be the case (at least in MY opinion) of "Ghostbusters II".

And to be perfectly fair, the movie I'm not about to discus, "Gremlins II: The New Batch", falls more into that latter category than it does into a genuinely "bad sequel". Because honestly, really looking at it, it's NOT "bad" by any means. It was directed once again by Joe Dante, scored once again by Jerry Goldsmith, produced again by Spielberg, and features at least a few of the original main cast (the others thankfully just being omitted, not replaced). I honestly think that over the years I have gone back and forth on whether or not I like or dislike this movie, and after recently watching them both again, I have to say, that while I can state unequivocally that it is a sequel that REALLY didn't need to be made, and that it doesn't even work as WELL as a sequel as Ghostbusters II did, I do find it ultimately likeable. The plot in a (very quick) nutshell is that Billy and Kate have moved to "The Big Apple", New York City, where they both work in an enormous (and ridiculous) skyscraper office building. Meanwhile Gizmo's owner Mr. Wing (the Chinese Shop owner from the first film) dies of old age, and he is left to be kidnapped and taken to the same building as a lab-rat. Madcap of course ensues, leading ridiculously to more little Mogwai, also bad-tempered (including a NEW ring-leader with a mohawk, this time named.....well..."Mohawk"), they eat after midnight, wham-bam-thank-ya-Sam, and "Here we go again!".

On paper that all sounds like a recipe for something potentially worse than "Jaws: The Revenge", but because to lure Joe Dante back to make this sequel (that he originally didn't want made), Warner Bros. had to give him a large budget and full creative control, while it's not GREAT or by any means a classic like the original, it does honestly turn out alright. The movie even features cameo appearances by quite a few character actors and "cult" film favorites, such as Christopher Lee, Dick Miller (returning as Mr. Fudderman), John Glover, Henry Gibson, John Astin, and even Hulk Hogan. It also brought animator Chuck Jones out of retirement for some "why not" bumper bits featuring the Looney Tunes characters. All in all, Gremlins II is a film that certainly didn't need to be made, as even Dante originally felt that the first film wrapped up nicely and that a sequel might detract from that. But on the other hand, it is entertaining, and manages to have at least a bit of that "get to see what the characters are up to" feel that Ghostbusters II more successfully achieved. So yeah, Gremlins should have stayed solo, but I would also say that Gremlins II is just silly enough in the right ways to merit seeing.

So until next time, stay out of bright lights, don't eat after midnight, and whatever you do, DON'T go swimming off of seemingly innocent beaches! Cheers.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Silver Screen Stories: Matinee

 With these entries, I usually look back at movies from the true "classic" period (30s-70s), but there will be exceptions and this is one of them. I've been a Joe Dante fan for years, in fact Gremlins and The 'Burbs (starring Tom Hanks), are two of my favorite films. But up until the other night, I had never seen his 1993 film "Matinee", although now of course I wish I'd seen it years ago. It's a very good film, with a nice little mix of everything (something Dante has always been good at), comedy, drama, satire, teen romance, etc. And considering my avid love of classic horror/sci fi/fantasy films, it makes it that much better for me personally, as that is the basis for the film. In fact you could call it a love letter to that classic era.

"If I could be serious for a minute...."

The film stars John Goodman in another great performance, this time as Lawrence Woolsey, a "B-movie" producer who is an absolute sendup/homage of classic horror director William Castle. He employs the same style of showmanship and movie promotion that Castle (and Alfred Hitchcock before him) did, as well as the same types of "audience involvement" gimmicks used in-theater while the movie is playing, such as electric buzzers under the seat cushions and people dressed as monsters popping out and scaring the audience at the right time. He gives a few great pep-talk type speeches in the movie, talking up the magic of cinema, even making getting people to pay for cheap scares sound like a sacred art. It's great stuff, and for an old film buff like me, it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling for the way cinema used to be. 

That classic movie-going experience.

 The main character of the film is actually a young teen named Gene Loomis, whose family lives on a naval base in their small Florida town of Key West. The film is set smack in the middle of the of the early 1960s "Cuban Missile Crisis", with Gene's father serving on a ship that is part of the Cuban blockade. Gene is, like me, a massive monster movie fan, having several issues of Forrest J. Ackerman's "Famous Monsters of Filmland" scattered around his room, and he loves to take his little brother Dennis to these movies, both to share the experience but also to try and scare him. The basic plot set-up is that Woolsey's new film "MANT" is going to be playing at their local theater, and Woolsey himself is going to be there live and in person to promote it (along with his special gimmicks). The Cuban missile tension is going on through all of this, which Woolsey thinks is great for business because "they're already scared, now we're gonna scare 'em even more". A perfect send-up to the fact that 50s era horror and science fiction films often played on people's fears of nuclear terror. 

MANT! Part Man! Part Ant! All Terror!

The film features two "movies-within-a-movie". One being a lesser scene when Gene's mother asks him to take his brother to "something that isn't scary", so they go to see a family film called "The Shook-Up Shopping Cart", a send-up to Disney movies of that era like "Herbie the Love Bug". The other of course is the featured subject, the atomic horror film "MANT", about a man who, over-radiated by his dentist's x-ray while an ant crawled onto him, transforms through the "horror of science" into first a human ant (similar to the mixed up Fly-Man from 1958's "The Fly"), and later fully into a gigantic ant who terrorizes the city (an homage to "giant insect" films of the day). "MANT" even features an appearance by Kevin McCarthy (the doctor from the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") as a stereo-typical army general straight out of those 50s sci-fi schlock films. The film itself also features character actor Dick Miller (Mr. Fudderman from "Gremlins"), who as it turns out was cast in every single one of Joe Dante's films.

Amidst teen angst and budding entangled romance, the town gripped in panic at impending nuclear annihilation, and Lawrence Woolsey trying to impress a theater-chain owner to sell his movie and gain great success, the film's final act plays out. With the town selling out the theater, after having their interest properly aroused by Woolsey's promotional tactics, the packed audience marvel's at the cheesy horror of "MANT", all while being thrilled by seat-buzzers and special gimmick effects set up in the theater. And of course, meanwhile, madness ensues. I won't spoil how it all wraps up, but sufficed to say, it's a great ending to a very good film. 

 A true love letter to a by-gone era, both a satire of how silly people often were during those early "Cold War" days,  as well as a loving homage to a simpler time, of both society and the cinema that entertained them. I would highly recommend this film to anyone, movie buff or casual viewer alike. Joe Dante, when at his best, was a master of his craft, and I'd love to see him make a big theater comeback. So check "Matinee" out, you'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An Animated Life: A Tribute to Ray Harryhausen

On May 7th, 2013, one of my greatest personal heroes passed away, Mr. Ray Harryhausen. It's very sad to me that many people don't even know who this man was, or just what he meant to the movies they watch today. But to me, I've been an avid fan of his, and he has meant an awful lot to me since childhood. Not only did I gradually get to witness his great works as I grew up, but I also remember getting a book from the library at one point that talked about movie special effects that had a part on Mr. Harryhausen and stop-motion animation. I was enthralled not only with the magic that he weaved on the screen, but the magician's secrets he employed to bring these wonders to life. I can honestly say that Ray Harryhausen and his films were just as important and impactful a part of my childhood, and helping to shape who I am today, as were dinosaurs, Godzilla, and Nintendo. And I can also honestly say, with great sadness, that I actually teared up a bit when I found out that he had passed.

Ray with Mr. Mighty Joe Young, his first big film.

To truly understand what Ray Harryhausen has meant not only to me, but to so many, including other major figures who have shaped the film industry, such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tom Hanks, Tim Burton, etc., you also first have to understand who the man was himself. Raymond Frederick Harryhausen was born in Los Angeles on June 29th, 1920. From an early childhood, much like yours truly, he had an avid love of film, as well as all manner of dinosaurs and monsters. The seminal event of his life, that changed him forever and set him on his course of destiny, in 1933 at the age of 13, was when he first saw the now-legendary film King Kong. He was so enthralled with what at the time was still a relatively new medium (film) and an even younger art form (stop-motion animation), that he went back to see the film many times, becoming obsessed. Back at this time, film's magic secrets were simply not as open and available to the public as they are now in interviews and special features on DVDs. Back in the "Golden Age" of cinema, most film secrets were indeed as well kept as those of a stage magician's tricks. And as such, including to young Ray's eyes, the animated monsters in King Kong were truly alive, and the secret of their life was a complete mystery. Many people theorized on how it all worked, as people of course knew the monsters weren't truly real. But it wasn't until years later that Ray stumbled across a magazine that featured the secret finally coming out, that Kong and his pals were in fact small models called "armatures", jointed metal skeletons with foam mold and skin or fur coverings. And it was then that he also learned that the man who would become his hero, Willis O'Brien, had been the one to create and animate this process.

A very young Mr. Harryhausen working on Puppetoons.

Unlike most of us, Ray actually got to not only meet, but work with his hero, as he contacted Mr. O'Brien who invited him to come down to the studio where he was working, to see how it all worked. Ray brought with him some of his own armature models that he'd been making with the help of his parents, and while impressed, O'Brien pointed out the unrealistic look of them, and told young Ray that he needed to study anatomy. That he did, as he got better and better at this new hobby of his over time. His first major work was with producer George Pal's "Puppetoons", a series of theatrical cartoon shorts done with stop-motion, and based on old fairy tales and Mother Goose type stories, amongst others. Ray then got drafted during World War II, in which he worked on films for the military, along with such people as famous director Frank Capra, and even the man who would go on to become "Dr. Seuss", Ted Geisel. Once the war was over, he had collected up a bunch of discarded 16mm surplus film, and used it to create his own fairy tale based shorts, originally 5 in all (the 6th finally being completed with help in 2003).

But it was after all of this, after the war, that he got the opportunity of a lifetime, contacted by O'Brien to help him make his newest project, another "giant ape" film, called Mighty Joe Young. So, now getting to work side by side with his hero and mentor, while O'Brien was mostly busy handling the technical issues of the special effects for the film, Harryhausen as his assistant actually wound up doing most of the animation work himself. The film was a major success, and it was off to the races from there on. For Ray, it was a case of the student succeeding the teacher, for his own career flourished while O'Brien's gradually faltered (for many sad reasons that will be explored another time), and while there were other stop-motion artists who would come along over the decades, for roughly 30 years, Ray Harryhausen more or less single-handedly kept O'Brien's art-form alive on the silver screen. Years later, in homage to his friend and mentor, after his death, Ray took up the shelved project that Willis O'Brien had dreamed of, a fantasy-western film featuring cowboys and dinosaurs, which he would complete as 1969's "The Valley of Gwangi".

A major scene straight out of my childhood.

Now Ray went on to have many major hits, such as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms", "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers", and perhaps his most famous work, "Jason and the Argonauts". But for me, personally, the first Harryhausen film I remember seeing, was "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad". Now I'm quite sure that I had perhaps already seen King Kong as a child before this, and it too surely captivated me and was one of my favorite films. But 7th Voyage really had a profound effect on me. Between this and a non-stop-motion, unrelated film called "Captain Sindbad" (which is non-the-less still a great movie), I was actually inspired at the age of 6 years old to name my first dog "Sinbad" after the titular hero. It is, quite simply, just a fantastic piece of cinema, and while I'll certainly give it it's own entry down the line (because it deserves it), it to this day is still my favorite Harryhausen film, and one of my Top 5 favorite films of all time. Mr. Harryhausen certainly made more technically impressive films down the line, such as Jason and the Argonauts, and what I consider his greatest work (and final one), Clash of the Titans. But to me, while I love all of his movies, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is still the one I love best, it's just perfect to me, the story, the cast, the acting, the great score, the amazing monsters. You name it, there's nothing not to like about it, and it really had a profound impact on me growing up.

Ray with some of his final creations, Medusa, Dioskilos, and Calibos.

It needs to be said before I go on, that while Mr. Harryhausen was not a director in his lifetime, outside of the fairy tale shorts that he made early on, there is still a reason why his fans (myself included) refer to the films he worked on as "HIS films". Because honestly, they are. Almost every single movie he worked on was a good movie on it's own merit, and would have still been at least decent if not even (a few) great films on their own had he never worked on them. But it WAS his work, his magic, specifically, that brought them to life in a way that literally almost no one else was doing, for decades. It was his stop-motion work that made these films come alive, made them unique, and thus emblazoned them into the minds of many young people who would go on to have major impact in the world of film themselves. Willis O'Brien created the concept of detailed armature models for use in stop-motion filming, but it's fair to say that Ray Harryhausen perfected and in many ways even innovated it during his career. And as such, because he literally "owned" the films he worked on with his signature magic, they really are, for all intents and purposes that matter, HIS films. He was also more than just a special effects man, as especially later into his career, he also got his projects off the ground, was the main idea man behind them, co-produced many of his own features, and even wrote the story for his three Sinbad films.

His most enduring and infamous scene, the Skeleton Warrior fight from Jason and the Argonauts.

As already mentioned, the first Harryhausen film I'm fairly certain that I ever saw was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. It was certainly one of the first VHS tapes (remember those?) that I ever owned. A little later into my childhood, thanks in large part to the subject of one of my very first articles here, namely TNT's Monstervision in the early '90s (I revisit those Monstervision memories in more detail here), I also had the distinct pleasure of seeing such great works as Jason and the Argonauts, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, First Men in the Moon, his other two Sinbad films "Golden Voyage" and "Tiger's Eye", and of course Clash of the Titans (which originally released the year I was born, 1981). In fact I was literally able to see most of his catalog, even more obscure films like It Came From Beneath the Sea, One Million Years B.C., and The Valley of Gwangi, all because of Monstervision.

So Monstervision absolutely had a massive impact on my early life (also introducing me to many of the Godzilla films I had never seen), and it was through Monstervision that Harryhausen's work had a profound impact on me as well. It was literally through his films, as well as others I had seen, and Godzilla, that in my later childhood years I developed an avid fascination/obsession with monsters and mythology. I had been obsessed with dinosaurs for as long as I can remember, but it was mostly due to Harryhausen's films that I also later became interested in mythology, folklore, and fantasy. So the man not only entertained me, he also helped educate me. As I said......he was a personal hero of mine, and his works have colored my life with a sense of wonder and happy memories that I'll always cherish, no matter how rough (and downright shitty), adult life can be.

Much like lifelong friend Ray Bradbury, he always remained a kid at heart.

When I heard of his passing, I became quite sad. He was 92 years old, and had lived a full, in fact rather legendary (at least to other people who admire him) life. And certainly he had been retired from his work, actively, for several decades (since 1981), so it's not as if I'll be missing out on new Harryhausen productions. No, my biggest reason for being sad at his passing, is perhaps a slightly selfish one. That being, that while I am a writer at heart, and that is the career I want to succeed in most of all, I have also long harbored the dream of someday being able to work in film as well, and I had thus also harbored the "longshot" hope for many years, of someday getting to meet the man, and be able to shake his hand, tell him what his work meant to me, and hopefully get to sit and talk with him for hours, pick his brain, get his advice, hear his stories. And now, of course, I'll never get the chance to do that. Something I'll always have a small bit of regret for, I'm sure, as I never even got the chance to meet him just as a fan.

But regardless, he will always mean the world to me, in a way that very few (JRR Tolkien, Stan Lee, etc.), ever have. And I will always, always not only personally love and cherish his works, but I will also spend my life continuing to champion them to others, and to champion the survival of a (still-surviving) art of stop-motion animation that he dedicated his life to. His two best friends, author Ray Bradbury and fan/historian Forrest J. Ackerman, had both passed on before him, and now I'd like to think that he's where they are, all sitting around and chatting it up like old times, sharing that passion I also share, for the wondrous and spectacular. Rest in Peace, Mr. Harryhausen, you were one of the absolute greats, and you will be missed.

Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Unnecessary Sequels: Psycho and Planet of the Apes

I come to you today with what will be the first installment of another little "series" of mine, in all of my sub-series of articles that this blog has developed in it's short life thus far. The theme this time around, is yet another that is near and dear to my heart. However, unlike most of the Retro Revelations catalog, which if you hadn't noticed by now remains almost strictly positive in nature, covering things that I have an avid and unabashed love and passion for. That certainly won't ever stop, and will more often than not be the case. But this new bit is going to have a slightly different flavor, bringing you a mix of my usual "I love it so here it is" formula, and an equal helping of "God damn I hate it why did they ever make it". In short, as the title already clearly explains, this is going to be dedicated to movies which I personally feel (quite strongly I might add), were great as stand alone films, but NEVER should have received sequels. To elucidate a little further, Hollywood for many decades (almost as long as it has existed, in fact), among it's many bad habits, has had the bad habit of loving money, so much so that when certain films become a "box office hit", the studio sees that as a cue to possibly make even MORE money by squeezing out a sequel. The logic, of course, is always that if it made money once, it'll make money again, and if a studio can create a cash-cow "franchise" out of a film, then that makes the corporate studio heads all the happier. Unfortunately, however, as I'm sure many of you fellow film buffs are aware, these sequels often wind up being not nearly as good as the original, and in some cases even manage to drag the original film down with them, either by overshadowing it, or simply being so bad that people always associate a certain film with it's shitty sequel.

So without further adieu, here is the first set of "Unnecessary Sequels".

Film: Psycho
Year: 1960
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Unnecessary Sequels: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

Most everyone who is even vaguely cognizant of film lore, whether they've actually seen it or not, is aware of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic "Psycho". Based on the 1959 Robert Bloch novel of the same name, it was a bit of a turn for Hitchcock, stylistically, who had done many murder mysteries and thrillers, but had never quite stepped fully over into the "horror" genre before this, which wound up becoming arguably his most famous film. Starring a career defining turn by Anthony Perkins as the creepy hotel manager Norman Bates, the film actually was promoted as a vehicle for actress Janet Leigh (mother of Jamie Lee Curtis), and indeed the first good chunk of the film starts off focusing solely on her character, Marion Crane. But (SPOILERS) that was done purposefully as a ruse by the genius of Mr. Hitchcock, for not twenty minutes into the film, Marion Crane is murdered by that nice-yet-awkward man Mr. Bates. This was of course the now infamous "shower scene", complete with equally infamous shrieking violins, a scene and image that has endured in film history to this day. What followed for the rest of the film was an expertly crafted piece of psychological thriller by Mr. Hitchcock, complete with an ending that not only leaves you chilled, but actually makes you think. And there you have it, one of the greatest movies of all time, so highly regarded that it was included in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1992 for being an important and historical landmark film.

The iconic Bates home, creepy as ever.

But of course, as this article posited in the beginning, with the good must also sadly come the bad. In this particular case, it was a bit of dastardly work on the part of the movie studio indeed, for Universal Films actually waiting two decades until Alfred Hitchcock had died, finally started producing sequels that no doubt Mr. Hitchcock would have disproved of. First off, it goes without saying that some films simply do NOT need sequels, and Psycho was one of those films, a great and chilling stand alone piece. But what really makes the grade, as if often the case with needlessly long-running series, is that each successful unnecessary sequel just gets worse and worse, further and further making the "cannon" of the first film more deluded and dumb with each successive attempt to "flesh it out". In Psycho II, Norman Bates is let out of the mental institution after many years, being proven "cured" of his insanity and multiple personality disorder. He goes back to his old home and hotel, which is being run by some shitbag now, gets a job as a cook at a local diner, tries to prove he can have a normal life, meets a girl, etc. But naturally, shit happens, conspiracies abound, he goes (or gets driven) nuts again, and boom, more sequels. Psycho III gets even better, introducing a disturbed former nun that he falls in love with, and even more ridiculous intrigue involving just who his "mother" was and his family history, etc. etc. etc., which again naturally all ends in madness and murder. And if that weren't enough, they even made ANOTHER "sequel", this time having Norman once AGAIN "cured" and living out in the world, now married, and calling into some radio show to reveal through flashbacks his own accounts of his personal history. After some more BS and intrigue, he finally (SPOILERS) burns the goddamn house down, something they should have done after the events of the FIRST movie (let alone NOT keeping the Bates Motel where all the damn murders took place OPEN after his incarceration), and tidy-as-you-please he's finally better.

This is just, in my view, a PERFECT example of a classic film absolutely in no way needing a sequel of any kind, and what's more being dragged down by the outright silliness and stupidity introduced in the plots to said sequels. So anyone who comes along, sees them all, and takes it all as serious "cannon" (meaning taking for granted that all the silly shit in the sequels actually counts), would have what was a great and chilling mystery in the first film, at least in MY view absolutely watered down and ruined by not just BAD attempts at explaining everything with the sequels, but re-attempts at OVER-EXPLAINING and even "retconning" ("retroactive continuity, IE making shit up), what they'd already tried to pass off. Which equals horrible writing and just plain money grabbing nonsense. Sure, it gave the late Mr. Perkins more acting jobs and that's nice....but unfortunately it also helped to try and ruin a role that he had already made immortal and iconic. Thankfully, if you're able to outright IGNORE the existence of the shitty sequels, the original is such a sterling piece of film that it survives untarnished.

Film: Planet of the Apes
Year: 1968
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Unnecessary Sequels: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)

Based on a 1963 French novel entitled "La Plan├Ęte des singes", this 1968 film is, again, a complete classic in it's own right. The film was a major event of it's time, the screenplay being co-written by "The Twilight Zone" creator/writer Rod Serling, and of course starring one of film's most famous leading men, Charlton Heston, in what would go on to be one of his best known roles (and was in fact one of many science fiction films he did in a several year period, a genre he had not previously been known for). The movie of course, for the uninitiated, deals with a team of astronauts traveling in hyperspace, in cryo-sleep, and upon awakening crash land on what they think is a far-distant alien planet, which turns out to be ruled by apes, with humans being the equivalent of wild animals. Of course (SPOILERS) this turns out late in the film to be inaccurate, as it is revealed that the "alien planet" is actually Earth, and instead of traveling light years through space, they actually somehow space warped two thousand or so years into Earth's own apocalyptic future. This original film was a true classic, complete with great acting, a great cast (including one of my favorite character actors, Roddy McDowall as the ape "Dr. Cornelius"), a great score, great and very evocative cinematography, you name it, the film had/has no real blemishes to speak of. In fact it too was placed in the National Film Registry in 2001.

Apes and humans, living in....harmony?

But, again, studios like money. And the original Planet of the Apes indeed made a decent sum for it's day. So without undue haste, 20th Century Fox started producing 1970s direct follow-up, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which while not in the STARRING role, did see a return of Charlton Heston's character George Taylor. The new lead character was astronaut "Brent" (probably last name, as Heston's character was just known as "Taylor"), who had come on a second mission to find out what happened to the first. Brent, played by James Franciscus in a decent turn albeit more than a little "Heston-esque",  finds Taylor's mute female companion Nova, and goes off with her in search of his lost friend, and so the story goes. The thing about the Apes sequels, I must say, is that it's a different beast than the Psycho sequels, or many other unneeded sequels, in that they're none of them outright BAD films. In fact, for the most part, in spite of the fact that it's budget was halved by Fox, leading to shittier special effects and other assorted nonsense, "Beneath" is actually a pretty solid film. It isn't so much an issue that these sequels were horrible, but mainly just that they were utterly unneeded. The original film ended with such an iconic, thought provoking scene, that it literally never should have had a sequel of any kind, just standing on that scene alone for all time. Instead, they made a somewhat progressively sillier-by-the-sequel franchise out of it (and also later a short lived TV show). "Beneath" ended, quite literally, with a bang, as (SPOILERS) the astronauts discover an underground society of mutant nuclear war survivors, who worship an "Omega Bomb", that is powerful enough to wipe out an entire planet. And as madness ensues with mutants and apes in all-out war, Heston does the only logical thing (obviously), and blows the Omega Bomb up.

So naturally, you'd think after they blow future-Earth up, they can't possibly go anywhere else with the story, so no more sequels right? Wrong. Magically enough, friendly ape scientists Dr. Cornelius and Dr. Zira, husband and wife as it were, along with new inserted ape scientist Dr. Milo, somehow managed to recover Taylor's sunken spaceship from the "Forbidden Zone", and have repaired it enough to attempt space flight, which they do, right at the point in which they witness Taylor blow up their world. They somehow space-warp back in time to 1973, where we now get the role-reversal of civilized apes stuck in a world ruled by violent Man. "Escape" and "Conquest", were much different beasts than the first two films, with Escape seeing the apes in modern day 70s Earth, fairly low budget, etc., and Conquest set in a semi-futuristic point where their son Milo (or renamed "Caesar" to hide his identity as an intelligent ape from the humans), grows up to become an ape slave, as all apes have been made slaves of humanity to prevent them from taking over the earth. The series finally ends with "Battle For", and while again not a TERRIBLE film, it is the worst of the bunch, with probably the lowest budget, seeing Caesar lead a new post-nuclear society in which apes rule, humans live somewhat as prisoners, and some (what do you know) mutant survivors from the destroyed cities plan to make war on the apes. Shit goes down, lessons are learned, and apes and humans (SPOILERS) try to learn to live in harmony at the end.

All in all, not AS bad as the Psycho sequels by any stretch of the imagination. On their own, each one of the Apes sequels is at least a decent, and watchable film. They just shouldn't have been made, and they were, at the end of the day, just (literally) cheap cash-ins. All in all, the film world would have been a better place, had Psycho and Planet of the Apes never received unnecessary sequels (let alone eventually get remade, but that's a story for another time).

So that's all for now, folks! I'll return again at a later date with far more "Unnecessary Sequels". For now, cheers, and happy reading!