Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Movie Reviews 465 – The Wizard of Oz (1939)

January 15, 2021

I have to confess that I’ve never watched The Wizard of Oz until now. To some this may sound shocking given its popularity and taking into consideration my fondness for all things quirky and surreal, especially science fiction. Part of my disinterest is because it is such a famous film and original story and, as such, I’ve been exposed to snippets, stills and general discussions regarding the film as well as homages and parodies for as long as I can remember. It almost felt like I had seen it without actually sitting through a viewing. Other factors that have fuelled my indifference include the adolescent target audience of the story (it is based on a series of children’s books), and the fantasy aspects as I’ve always been more a fan of (hard) science fiction and horror when it comes to genres. Lastly and more tellingly, this film is a musical above all else, which again is not my cup of tea when it comes to films. (I have never watched The Sound of Music either to put it in context.)

Given its universal awareness, I won’t bother retelling the salient aspects of the story because it would be a wasted effort for the most part. Suffice it to say: Little girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) living on remote Kansas farm is swept up in a tornado with her dog Toto, land in a surreal fairy tale territory with Munchkins and wicked witches (Margaret Hamilton), acquires a set of ruby slippers and is soon joined by a cowardly lion (Bert Lahr), scarecrow without a brain (Ray Bolger) and tin man lacking a heart (Jack Haley) as they all follow a yellow brick road in search of a wizard overlord of sorts. Google the rest to fill in the blanks.

What I can say now having watched it is that, as suspected, there was not much new for me to enjoy. I had already seen the entire Munchkin sequence at some point or another and in fact was surprised that there was only that one sequence. I was under the impression that there would be a lot more than what amounts to little more than a song and dance routine. As for those ‘songs and dances’ for the movie as a whole it appears that with the exception of one (the tin man introduction), I had also already seen and heard them all. Not surprisingly, the one sequence I never saw was the weakest, which may explain why I had never come across it. The only major scenes that have never come up in film documentaries and such was the final meeting with the wizard, which was fairly anticlimactic given the lengthy build up to it. (Spoiler Alert: the Wizard was not omnipotent after all and does little more than give everyone a pat on the head.)

On a positive note, I can easily see why the film is so beloved to some, especially given the era it was released and the state of film-making at the time. The sets are glorious and imaginative and are as colorful as ever. I should point out here that my DVD was the 70th Anniversary  edition which was released after a lengthy, exhaustive restoration, and discussed in a featurette on the set. (No, I did not try out the ‘sing along’ feature on the DVD.) Even the makeup and special effects sequences (flying helmeted apes!) still hold up.

One aspect that I reflected on as I watched was how the film has been so ingrained in the arts and media, more so than I realized. Aside from some of the obvious attributions, my previous review of Zardoz in the post prior to this post one being one, and Under the Rainbow a bit earlier (both of which reminded me I should finally get around to watch Oz proper), there were some I had not really picked up on before. Only now do I see how the H.R. Pufnstuf kiddie show was a riff on Oz in so many ways. Or how the animated voice of Snagglepuss was just an imitation of Bert Lahr’s lion. (Truth be told, Bert Lahr used that voice and intonation all the time, so the lion was really Bert, not the other way around).

The question that I sought to answer when I watched this, namely do I ‘Need’ to see this, comes down to a resounding No. I was not bedazzled or surprised by anything I saw. There was little that was new, and those parts were not particularly entertaining. That is not to say it was a bad movie in any way, rather a victim of its own success, the pervasive media references slicing away at the significance of the film.

Oddly (to add one more oddity to such an odd movie to begin with), my DVD set has another film, The Dreamer of Oz, on the second, extra disc. This was a 1990 TV movie based on the life of L. Frank Baum who wrote Oz. I do recall watching it at the time, one surprising sequence of how Baum got to call it “OZ” being particularly unforgettable. I honestly have more interest in rewatching that than The Wizard of Oz.

One final note. The famous line “Click your heels three times and say ‘There’s no place like home.’ “ has much less of an impact in our current pandemic homebound state.

Movie Reviews 396 – Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

June 14, 2019

For decades Ray Harryhausen was a household name when it came to stop motion animation sequences in feature films. Having been inspired by Willis O’Brien’s King Kong in 1933, the teenaged Harryhausen began creating his own household menagerie of creatures that he then crudely filmed in 8mm. Before his career ended he had given us science fiction classics that include It Came from Beneath the Sea (based on a Ray Bradbury story) and  H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. But Harryhausen will forever be remembered for the creatures he created for his fantasy films including three Sinbad the Sailor films and the original Clash of the Titans. Jason and the Argonauts may not have been his best overall film, but it is certainly as creature crammed as the rest and notably contained his most challenging and visually stunning achievement, the incredible skeleton pack battle.

The story, based on Greek mythology, has the heroic Jason (Todd Armstrong) round up a crew of brave, athletic and skilled men (Hercules among them) in a quest to find the Golden Fleece as they sail the seas in their trireme, the Argo . It’s actually an overly complicated setup that includes prophecies, roman army sieges, slaying of royal offspring, but most importantly all under the influence and meddling of Greek gods playing chess in Olympus (as they always tend to do in such films). In fact Jason’s fate lies in the hands of the god Hera (Todd Armstrong) who guides Jason throughout the journey and is ever present for consultation as the rear figurehead on the Argo that occasionally comes to life.

Their journey has them doing battles with Talos a gargantuan bronze statue, two winged, shrieking Harpies endlessly aggravating a blind man, and a seven headed serpentine Lernaean Hydra. One of the lesser special effects in the film (not involving Harryhausen I should add) does have us endure a ridiculously mundane looking Triton (nothing but a man shot against a miniaturized background) holding back the so called Clashing Rocks to make way for the Argo.

But the spectacle of the film will always be the finale featuring the famous skeleton battle. Seven bony bipeds emerge right from the ground and clash with Jason and two cohorts among Grecian ruins next to an ocean cliff. Brandishing swords and shields Harryhausen painstakingly choreographed every swing and counter save bringing what in reality were no more than 12 inch miniatures to life. The shooting is all the more impressive because the battle included three humans, requiring miniatures of them for some of the shots and more impressively coordinating the battle to blend with the moving, live action actors for most of it. Harryhausen’s finest few minutes that took months to shoot.

This film is particularly memorable for me as I was not only able to see it on a large cinema screen in 2005, but at a special viewing in which Harryhausen himself attended and where I met him personally, however briefly.

With modern computer generated special effects today any imaginable creature or scene can be realistically rendered so, sadly, younger contemporary audiences relegate Harryhausen films as archaic and perhaps ‘cute’ novelties. But to myself, and a lot of other more appreciative fans, this will always be nothing short of cinema magic.

Movie Reviews 335 – The Beastmaster (1982)

March 9, 2018

I recently lent my DVD of The Beastmaster to a friend – one of many movies I own but haven’t gotten around to viewing myself – and upon return I happened to notice two things on the cover that caught my eye. The first was that this was directed by Don Coscarelli, the man responsible for the Phantasm series of movies. The second was that John Amos had a role. Both surprising to me because as far as I knew this was just some cheap ripoff trying to cash in on the success of Conan the Barbarian which was released earlier the same year. I began to wonder if this film had a bit more substance than I thought and this hope was bolstered by a vague recollection that there was a TV series spinoff at one point.

The concept behind this pre-biblical fantasy centers around a prophesied unborn child of a king that will thwart the attempt of a sorcerer Maax (Rip Torn) to take over the realm. Exiled by the king, Maax sends one of his sultry bodied Stygian witches to transfer the unborn child from the womb of his sleeping mother into the belly of cow. The transference complete, the witch later begins the ritual to extract the baby from the cow when a wanderer comes across and inadvertently interferes, but rescuing the baby at the same time.

Adopted by the wander, the young Dar, now part of the family has a normal childhood but he is taught how to fight by his adoptive father, and it is during those sessions that the young lad exhibits an arcane ability to interact with all manner of beast, an ability that his father counsels him to keep himself. The father does this without telling the boy of his unnatural beginnings a reminder of which is a scarred symbol on Dar’s hand.

As the boy grows up to be a virile man (Marc Singer), his hard working daily farming duties are shattered one day as his village is pillaged and destroyed by a band of roving warriors, the Jun, led by none other than the exiled sorcerer Maxx. On his own now, he adopts a wild black panther (a ridiculously evident dyed tiger) and an eagle, both pets and animals which he can see the world through their eyes. Upon encountering a beautiful slave (Tanya Roberts) he sets out to rescue her with the help of a pastoral  (John Amos) only to find that once again, Maax is at the root of the evil.

As much as I fully expected a cringing, bottom barrel, bargain-basement counterfeit Conan, I have to admit that this was entertaining from beginning to end. While Singer is no muscle monstrosity compared to Schwarzenegger in the day, he was no slouch either the athletic department and of course was not as tongue tied as old Arnie. Roberts was both a feast on the eyes and more than a fair maiden worthy of rescue. Ironically it was Amos’ role that was pared down from my expectations. Dyed tiger aside, there was plenty of cool visuals and some unique surprises like the appearance of mouthless, bat winged humanoids to complement a fair fable.

Almost as interesting as the film itself was the hour long documentary “Saga of the Beastmaster” as an extra feature on my Anchor Bay DVD. One of the most interesting things I learned was that Coscarelli made this movie based on his childhood love of an Andre Norton novel of the same name. While not particularly a great fan of the famed author of the  Witch World series myself, I did check to see if this was one of her books I had sitting somewhere on my shelves as it peaked my interest in reading it. (Sadly I did not have the book). Just about every aspect of the production was discussed including the hardships encountered during filming, particularly the cold temperatures they had while filming people running around in not much more (and sometimes less) than loincloths. I also learned that there were a number of sequels, all staring Singer, that were made in the years following this movie. But quick check in IMDB indicates that these were far inferior and not worth me trying to seek these out. Too bad.

Movie Reviews 333 – 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

February 23, 2018

I’ve watched all kinds of bizarre and uncategorizable movies over the years but the one that always stuck out first for me was 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Is it a western? A fantasy? A comedy? A fable? It’s all of these and more.

The movie begins with the elder chinaman Dr. Lao (Tony Randall) riding on a golden donkey who flicks his thumb to produce a flame that he then uses to light his yandaiguo pipe as a precariously balanced fishbowl rests on the saddle front. Dr. Lao, owner and operator of a travelling circus, has ridden in from the dusty great plains and enters the old western town of Abalone. His first stop is the local news printshop where he wants some of his circus event posters to be printed. As he awaits being served he overhears the first rumblings of trouble in the town as the newspaper owner/editor/writer Ed Cunningham (John Ericson) is visibly angered by a visit from Clint Stark (Arthur O’Connell) who chides the editor for some negative press he has been writing. The local business man Stark has buying up all the houses and real estate that he can lay his hands on while having the mayor in his pocket. Cunningham fears for the towns future although is isn’t quite sure what game Stark is really playing. And while Cunningham seems to be the only one who wants to hold the town together, the only person that seems to have the same mindset is Angela the lovely, widowed town librarian (Barbara Eden) who is cold to Cunningham’s advances.

The movie plays out as a sequence of scenes played out in the confines of the tent circus. The stars are Dr. Lao’s menagerie of mythical figures and creatures including the Abominable snowman, Merlin the magician from King Arthur’s court, three ancient Greek figures; Pan (god of love), Medusa the Gorgon who turns all who look at her into stone and blind fortune teller Apollonius of Tyana, and finally a slithering, talking serpent (whose face looks exactly like Stark).  Most of these play out scenes with the cast of human characters, digging deeper into their real issues and problems. Angela for example loses her inhibitions after being mentally aroused when she stumbles upon Pan, while the root of Stark’s greed is deconstructed by the serpent. Viewers will be quick to note that all of Dr. Lao’s charges are in fact played by Randall which was quite a formidable feat for the actor.

Unsurprisingly, this movie was directed by George Pal best known for his special effects laden classics of the era that include The War of the Worlds, Destination Moon and The Time Machine. Also notable is that Charles Beaumont was the writer, a man very familiar with the bizarre as a Twilight Zone regular. Alas, this is one of those movies in which my memories were better than my recent viewing experience. Most of the special effects are still fine but the overall story and the delivery now suffer a bit with my more mature adult assessment. But the movie is really a comedy which excuses the candy coated ending. Still a fun watch even if only for the the special effects and gags.

Movie Reviews 55 – Conan the Destroyer (1984)

August 16, 2012

The movie Conan the Barbarian was enough of success to spawn a sequel featuring the formidable Arnorld Schwarzenegger, but now that his character was introduced to audiences, a good follow up story was needed to expand on the character. Unfortunately the producers of the follow up Conan the Destroyer seem to have opted to just throwing in a bunch of quasi-stars to boost audience appeal. We’ve got the talentless Sarah Douglas, “Ursa” of Superman II fame, who looked a lot hotter in leather and talked a lot less in that movie which we now know was a good thing. Next, we’ve got retired basketball superstar Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain, who was one of the few men on the planet at the time that could actually make Arnold seem puny by comparison. Then there’s pretty-face teen actress Olivia D’Abo would would later appear in The Wonder Years, and finally disco queen Grace Jones prancing around exposing her arse to the wind and using her 100 pound light frame to throw around 250 pound men in combat. You’d think she was the heavy in the movie instead of Arnie. With that kind of fluff for supporting start power it’s no surprise that Mako, reprising his role in the first movie, steals the show despite having a smaller role. Conan/Arnold are nearly insignificant in the typical Quest to save the Princess story where the voyage and characters in the journey are the real story. The few good scenes and battles are barely worth the sterile supporting actors and some of the flimsier fantasy effects. Only for Arnie completists and people who have a stomach for actors who can’t act. Not surprisingly, this was the end of the Arnold as Conan movie series.