Friday, June 29, 2018

My Top Favorite Filmmakers Pt. 1

Anyone who has followed Retro Revelations knows that I'm a man who loves movies. In fact, when I first started this blog back in October 2012, it was originally going to be a purely film-centric blog, focusing only on movies, TV shows and animation. Thankfully, I decided to expand, and chose the more generic "Retro Revelations" name/theme, because while I could certainly write near-endlessly about JUST that subject, the broader RR horizon means I've also been able to write about any OTHER kind of old thing that I happen to love, including but not limited to: video games, comics, books, toys, and even music.

But film has still always had a major focus, and I have previously done multi-part series on my favorite Comedy Films, my favorite Christmas Movies, and even my (more or less) Top Favorite Movies of All Time. I've also done a series looking at icons of Classic Horror films. Today, I'm here to talk about the people who make these wonderful bits of magic we call movies. Today, I'm here to talk about what I consider to be my personal Top Favorite Filmmakers. So let's get it started!

Ray Harryhausen - Ray was not a director, but in some ways he was far more important to the films he made. His works, his art-form of Stop-Motion Animation, was the main attraction that made the movies he worked on, special. It was his art that brought people to see those films, and very often, it was his vision and imagination that fueled the projects in the first place, especially later in his career. Starting his life as the young fan and student of Stop-Motion pioneer Willis O'Brien, he proved the old axiom true, that of the student surpassing the teacher. What O'Brien, someone Ray held very dear, had popularized with the movie-going public, Harryhausen took to the next level and beyond, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in film, and inspiring multiple generations of future filmmakers. My only complaint about Ray's work, is that there should have been even more of it. Meaning, I feel his career ended too soon, with 1981 being his last movie work. As his career went on, his ideas became more and more ambitious, and the more ambitious they got, the longer it took him to animate them. It became grueling and tiring for him, and that coupled with the seeming shift in Hollywood away from Stop-Motion effects, convinced him to retire, when I wish he would have made at least another film or two.  For more on Ray's life and career, refer to this tribute piece I did on him years ago.

The Master at work.

His work also inspired people of a myriad of other backgrounds, myself included. As a writer, particularly of fiction, Ray's films had an unbelievably huge influence on my own imagination. Especially as a child, his movies set my mind alight, and the creatures he brought to life, would become ingrained in my psyche permanently. It is no small statement to claim that I consider Ray Harryhausen to be, easily, my TOP-most favorite filmmaker of ALL time. Not my favorite DIRECTOR, mind you, as he (generally) didn't direct films, outside of his own very early Stop-Motion work. But his work as an animator, a special effects guru, a producer, and sometimes even writer/conceptualist on his films, is untouchable. His portrayals of the struggle of Good against Evil, his displays of the surreal and fantastic, his penchant for taking little metal and foam models, and giving them more life, more vibrance, and more personality, than any CGI creation cold ever hope to have, was his gift to the world. It was his gift to me, and he was a HUGE part of my childhood, and a major source of escape FROM that childhood.

Ray Harryhausen is a legend of the film industry, the likes of which was never quite seen before, and surely will never be seen again. Like his films, he was singularly unique.

My Favorite Works: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Clash of the Titans (1981), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964)

Other Works I Like: Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years B.C. (1966), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Ishiro Honda - As longtime readers are surely aware, the two biggest influences on my childhood, at least film-wise, were far and away Harryhausen movies, and Godzilla movies. While I appreciate the works of Akira Kurosawa and others, it goes without saying that my favorite Japanese director, and favorite non-American director period, is the man who was behind the camera for MOST of the classic "Showa Era" (50s-70s) Godzilla films: Ishiro Honda. A real life close friend and sometimes collaborator with Kurosawa, in his native country Honda was known for making a wide variety of films, from romances, to comedies, to war dramas, and beyond. But, of course, both nationally and internationally, he became best known, for his science fiction films for Toho Studios, most specifically his Godzilla films.

Having a chat with The Big G, on the set of "Monster Zero".

At a cursory glance, non-Godzilla fans, especially of today, are usually quick to point out how "campy" and "cheesy" these films are, especially the old ones of the "Showa Era". And the fact is, just as with most science fiction/fantasy/horror films made in Hollywood (until more recent times), these movies were rarely given the budget, or the production time, they deserved. That alone certainly never helped with the alleged "cheese" factor. And yet, the work that went into these films was enormous, and the best of them were considered to be pioneering in special effects work for the era. In their own way, Godzilla/kaiju films too, were highly responsible for pushing the boundaries of what was possible in film, and Ishiro Honda was one of the key figures responsible for that, along with special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya. The original 1954 film Gojira most especially, was a very dark and sombre work, a direct response/reaction to the horrors that Japan suffered at the hands of American nuclear weapons. While later films became lighter, more fun fare, the original was essentially a drama, with fantastical/horrific elements, and is rightly considered one of the best Japanese movies ever made, right up there with Kurosawa's top works.

Honda's output for Toho in the 50s and 60s was enormous, and even just in science fiction, he more or less single handedly defined the genre's output from Japan.

My Favorite Works: Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Destroy All Monsters (1969), Gojira (1954)

Other Works I Like: Half-Human (1955), Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), Mothra (1961), Atragon (1963), Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), King Kong Escapes (1967), Latitude Zero (1969), Space Amoeba (1970), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) 

Mel Brooks - As much as I love so-called "genre movies" such as sci-fi, fantasy and horror, a strange idiom unto itself considering EVERY film belongs to some kind of genre, I also have an avid love of comedies. And no filmmaker has given me more classic, timeless comedies that I enjoy pretty much every time I turn them on, than one Mel Brooks. Brooks was a man who started out in television during its early days, working with the likes of Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner, and went on to help redefine comedy films in Hollywood.

Hangin' with the cast of Young Frankenstein.

My first personal memory of a Mel Brooks movie, was seeing 1987's Spaceballs on television as a kid. In fact, instead of just buying a retail copy, my grandmother recorded it onto a blank VHS tape off of TV (which eventually saw the sound warp from time to time, which my grandmother stubbornly INSISTED was just part of the movie). My mother, who lived with us at the time, as she often did, glomed onto that movie, and watched it over and over and over, to the point that I got sick of it. But I still liked it, and certainly laughed a lot (even while not understanding all the jokes as a child), upon first seeing it. We also rented Robin Hood: Men in Tights when I was a kid, which I found absolutely hilarious. In my teens, I would encounter the likes of History of the World Pt. 1, Blazing Saddles, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Ironically, or perhaps unironically given my childhood history of films I missed out on thanks to my grandmother's eccentricity, I didn't wind up finally seeing the film of his that would become my favorite, Young Frankenstein, until I was in my 20s. That movie actually became a permanent top candidate for "Favorite Movie Ever", alongside the likes of the 1977 animated The Hobbit, The Dark Crystal, and Ghostbusters.

Mel Brooks was, not unlike the filmmakers preceding him on this list, a singular personality. And his works in comedy, helped completely reshape what American comedy films had been up until that point. And not unlike the men above, he is a filmmaker the likes of which will not be seen again.

My Favorite Works: Young Frankenstein (1974), History of the World Pt. 1 (1981), Silent Movie (1976), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), Spaceballs (1987)

Other Works I Like: The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), High Anxiety (1977), Life Stinks (1991), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

John Carpenter - My earliest memory of seeing a John Carpenter movie certainly left an impression on me, it just wasn't a positive one. For some insane reason, even though she wouldn't let me watch FAR tamer old Dracula or Frankenstein or Mummy movies (for example), my grandmother rented The Thing when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and regardless of what SOME horror fans (or parents) will tell you about how it's "totally fine to let a little kid watch scary movies" of this caliber, let ME tell you, AS a kid who lived it: no, it's NOT okay. Why? Because that movie is both disturbingly gruesome, as WELL as being incredibly dark and scary. For a little kid, that was a complete mindfuck to me, to put it mildly, and both the horrific visuals, and the horrific IDEA central to the plot, absolutely terrified and at least mildly traumatized me. I did NOT like that film as a child, with very good reason, and in all fairness to little me, no self-respecting parent should be letting their 8 or 9 year old KID, watch John Carpenter's The Thing.

Johnny C and Lo Pan, BFFs?

Ironically, as an adult, I came to love The Thing for many of the same reasons that I hated it as a kid. The ensemble cast is great, and the unbelievable, unrelenting sense of tension, from the very opening seconds of the film, to the closing credits, is almost unmatched, I think, in the history of scary cinema. It is, in THAT sense, his master-work in my opinion. My grandmother also rented the FAR less scary science fiction classic Starman when I was a kid. But I, again, wouldn't encounter most of his films until my teens and twenties. Films I came to love, like Escape From New York, They Live, and the one that would become my absolute favorite, Big Trouble in Little China. In this man's humble view, Big Trouble is one of the single greatest movies ever made, and while I do contend that Thing is Carpenter's master-work of HORROR, I feel Big Trouble is his strongest work overall.

One of the main reasons John Carpenter is one of my favorite filmmakers, is because regardless of trends, studio politics, or career pressures, he made movies that he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. Which is probably why in part, even though his talent was obvious and his films were often outstanding, that he never quite became the status of a Spielberg. But he was always true to himself, and honest through his art. And for that, he should always be honored.

My Favorite Works: Big Trouble in Little China (1986), The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), Escape From New York (1981), The Fog (1980)

Other Works I Like: Starman (1984), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In The Mouth of Madness (1995), Escape From LA (1996)

Joe Dante - I also experienced Joe Dante films as a child, and at least one of them, the most infamous one in fact, did also scare me a bit. But it also didn't have nearly the same effect on me, and I actually wound up loving it. That movie, of course, being his biggest hit, Gremlins. Just about the only work that advanced puppetry techniques and technology in that era that WASN'T made by Jim Henson and Co., Gremlins was not only popular, it was also revolutionary in more ways than one. Most notably, beyond special effects, would be something that would be a hallmark of most Dante films: charm and warmth, no matter the subject matter or genre. As originally written by Chris Columbus (who went on to become a great director in his own right), Gremlins was much darker and more violent, and would have basically just been a run of the mill horror film, with "black comedy" elements. But with Dante under the helm, and with input from producer Steven Spielberg, the gremlins, instead of being murderous monsters, were instead scary and threatening, but also more mischievous than anything, and kind of lovable in a messed up way. If you watch Gremlins, you'll notice that they only actually verifiably kill two people the entire movie, one out of revenge, and another dies because she's old with a bad heart (though she also DOES go flying out of a window into the street). But mostly, the gremlins just like to cause chaos, and that, while the film absolutely has scary moments, to me makes for a much more effective and memorable movie. Plus, as he always does, Dante put a lot of focus on the human characters, and their relationships. 

On the set of The 'Burbs.

The other two Joe Dante movies I saw as a kid, rentals naturally, were the sillier Gremlins 2, and what would become my favorite work of his, the Tom Hanks classic The 'Burbs. One part goofy mystery movie, one part satire on American suburbia, Burbs is pure Dante from beginning to end. It and Gremlins are fairly close as far as my love for them, but Burbs wins out just barely. Other movies of his I would discover later in life, include Matinee, a 1993 love letter to both his 1950s childhood, as well as classic sci-fi and monster movies of that era, and one of his 80s sleeper hits, Explorers. The latter is, at its heart, one of a series of 1980s "kids on the loose" type of movies, where you have a bunch of kids having adventures, more or less unsupervised by adults. Of course it also involves them getting messages from outer-space, which help them build their own spaceship to reach the stars, but that's just garnish, really. Plus it stars a young Ethan Hawke, and River Phoenix.

Much like John Carpenter, or even Mel Brooks, the 90s saw Dante's career tapering off, which is honestly a damned shame in all of their cases, because they are each some of the best directors Hollywood has ever seen. Dante has continued to make movies here and there in the 2000s, even popping out a solid but little-seen gem called The Hole. But his 80s body of work especially, like Carpenter, is almost legendary unto itself.

My Favorite Works: The 'Burbs (1989), Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), Matinee (1993)

Other Works I Like: Innerspace (1987), Gremlins 2 (1990), Small Soldiers (1998), The Hole (2009)

So that's it for Part 1 of my Top Favorite Filmmakers list. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!