Sunday, January 30, 2011
"Greetings, Starfighter! You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada."
Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a teen with ambition. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a fairly run down trailer park. Alex has two things going for him: his girl Maggie Gordon (Catherine Mary Stewart) and he’s something of a whiz with the Starfighter arcade box in the park. One night, Alex breaks the high score record of the game and some time later a strange man in a strange car arrives looking for Alex. His name is Centauri (Robert Preston in his last film) and he invented the game.
Centauri takes Alex up to Rylos where he gets recruited (with a lot of reluctance) into the Star League, which is fortunate, because Rylos is under attack by the renegade Xur (Norman Snow) & Lord Kril (Dan Mason) of the Ko-Dan Armada. Alex tries to quit and goes home, but after an alien assassination attempt, goes back to space to fight for the galaxy (a Beta Alex robot (also Lance Guest) is left behind to cover for him). Alex and his alien co-pilot Grig (Dan O’Herlihy) find that their entire squadron has been effectively destroyed, leaving their remaining Gunstar fighter the last starfighter (Dun Dun Dun!) capable of defeating the Ko-Dan Armada.
Directed by Nick Castle, the movie is for the most part a typical 80s kind of ADVENTURE! movie. On the other hand, it was also the first major movie to go for computer generated, photorealistic visual effects. Photorealistic is the key here, since Tron already had been out for two years, but the effects there were more abstract and surreal. Nowadays, the spaceships are quite obviously digital, but the designs are still solid and some of the digital shots are still quite nice, especially considering that they were pretty much figuring this stuff out as they went. And the Gunstar is still a really badass design.
Written by Jonathan Betuel, the plot follows a pretty standard Hero’s Journey storyline, but the writing is competent, the lines generally witty and the delivery is excellent, so hey, nothing wrong with that.
Original music by Craig Safan, and it is full of epic ADVENTURE! fanfares, but also some sweet down-to-earth themes too. Its fun when the two merge together.
Yeah. I love The Last Starfighter. I always have. There’s something about the goofy premise of a trailer park teen who’s good at an arcade game (and one specific one) being selected to join an elite fighting force to SAVE THE UNIVERSE! that appeals to me on a primal level. Star Wars knock off? Sure. But it’s a good Star Wars knock off.
Friday, January 21, 2011
“I was partial to tragedy in my youth. That was before experience taught me that life was tragical enough without my having to write about it.”
We are in Ancient Greece during the time of heroes and gods. Our particular hero of the day is Perseus (Harry Hamlin), son of Zeus (Sir Laurence Olivier) and as far as Greek heroes go, a pretty decent guy too. If you happen to lack a liberal arts education, Perseus’ mother was locked up by her husband and Zeus came to her as a golden ray of light or a shower (depending on your fetish, I suppose) and after the kid was born, he and his mother were put out to sea to punish her infidelity. They survive, the husband (and king of Argos) is killed by Zeus and Perseus grows up. Other gods are also present on Olympus, and its fun to note that the original Bond Girl, Ursula Andress, plays Aphrodite (and has all of two lines in this movie).
Zeus shows favoritism to his son, but punishes Calibos (played by Neil McCarthy when not a stop-motion puppet), the son of Thetis, a sea goddess (and played by Maggie Smith) for his wickedness by transforming him into a cloven-hoofed, horned and fugly monster. This is a problem, since before this, Calibos was to be married to the princess of Joppa, Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Put off by his ugliness, she calls the wedding off, and in punishment, Calibos makes her challenge any would-be suitor with an unanswerable riddle. In a fit of godly jealousy, Thetis plucks Perseus off of his own island and drops him in Joppa to see if he’ll get involved. In retaliation, Zeus grants Perseus a Helmet of Invisibility, a Mirrored Shield and a Vorpal Sword +3 against Gorgons. Naturally, Perseus falls in love with Andromeda. Perseus also gets guidance from the old poet Ammon (Burgess Meredith, who completely out-acts everybody else in the film and infuses everything he says with the right blend of gravitas and ham. Its incredible to watch him in this), and Thallo (Tim Pigott-Smith) a Joppan officer who turns out to be a real solid buddy.
The rest of the movie turns into one elaborate quest to get Perseus laid, as he has to find a way to slay the Kraken, a giant fish monster/Titan who will destroy Joppa if Andromeda is not sacrificed to Thetis. To do so, he has to tame Pegasus to fight Calibos and solve the riddle. Visit the Stygian Witches to find out how to kill the Kraken. Find Medusa, fight off her two-headed guard dog Dioskilos, then kill HER without turning to stone. Go for round two against Calibos (and three giant scorpions). Get back to Joppa with the help of Bubo, a clockwork owl crafted by Hephaestus, and THEN use Medusa’s head to kill the Kraken (oh like THAT’S a spoiler).
Directed by Desmond Davis, but really, this is Ray Harryhausen’s baby. Officially credited as Visual Effects (and co-produced), this is a special effects spectacular that is loaded to the brim with lovingly crafted monsters: Pegasus, Bubo, the Kraken, Medusa, Dioskilos the two-headed dog, Calibos, Giant Scorpions and a Giant Vulture. And they really are lovingly crafted. They move with incredible energy and life, with the Kraken being one of the most impressive, but in my opinion, the best one was Medusa. She’s really creepy, imposing and monstrous, but with a definite touch of sadness to her. Its subtle, but even more impressive since this is done frame by frame in a torch-lit dungeon.
Also worth mentioning is the punishment of Calibos, since we don’t see it directly. Zeus takes a clay figure and puts it in his Action Amphitheater Playset (figures sold separately) and the camera zooms in on the shadow cast of the figure as it writhes and warps into its monstrous form. Not exactly the most complicated effect, but easily the creepiest and most evocative of the movie.
Written by Beverly Cross, the film is an interesting mix of faithfulness to Greek mythology and a blatant disregard for it. Pegasus was the mount of Bellerophon, not Perseus (and yes, I was able to spell Bellerophon off the top of my head). Dioskilos is something of a poor man’s Cerberus, and the Kraken here is neither Scandinavian nor a giant squid. Perseus’ origin and Medusa herself though are pretty much spot on.
What the movie lacks in faithfulness to the letter of Greek Myth, it makes up for in faithfulness to the spirit of it. The gods are petty, vain and quarrelsome, and they use mortals like playthings for their own purposes. Mortals are, for their part, extremely flawed and weak, but with spirit, determination and the favor of the gods, they can achieve great things.
The original score by Laurence Rosenthal is a grand, sweeping ADVENTURE! filled soundtrack that perfectly fits the feel of the movie. No complaints there whatsoever.
Clash of the Titans was Ray Harryhausen’s paen and damn did he retire swinging. It doesn’t really hew close to actual mythology (krakens are traditionally giant squids, not Titans and Perseus had nothing to do with Pegasus, among other things) but its such an energetic love letter to mythology that deeply understands the draw of ancient myths (unlike the recent remake, from what I hear) and what they say about the human condition and presented in such a wide eyed, “gee whiz” manner that the camp elements are completely drowned out by the sheer fun of it all. If you hate this movie, clearly you have murdered your inner child and there is no hope for you.
Friday, January 14, 2011
“He had even lost his chair at Königsberg University, where for a long time his colleagues used to refer to him as "The Nut".”
Well, we have a disgraced academician, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) and his meek assistant Alfred (Roman Polanski) arriving in Transylvania in December in their quest to find genuine vampires. The village they stop in has a castle nearby and its pretty clear that there are vampires in the area. The innkeeper, Shagal (Alfie Bass), even hangs garlic all over his place to try to fend them off. Alfred falls for Shagal’s beautiful daughter Sarah (Sharon Tate) who is naturally taken away by the count one fateful night. With a vampire confirmed and Sarah’s life in danger, the two would-be heroes set out to the castle to rescue her from Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne).
Directed by Roman Polanski with cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (who had a long and storied career), the movie certainly looks impressive. The exterior locations are nicely done and the set design of the castle is fantastic. The movie looks great and there are some really great shots and great visual atmosphere.
Story and Screenplay by Gérard Brach and Roman Polanski. On paper, the plot sounds fine. In practice, things are tremendously uneven. The main characters are simply unlikable and worse for a comedy, not very funny. I understand that this is a farce and characters rarely develop past the second dimension, but honestly, Abronsius and Alfred are simply too incredibly stupid to be sympathetic. Alfred in particular is an egregious example of obliviousness and an inability to perform even simple tasks. Easily the best things in the movie are Shagal (who is actually very funny as a lecherous Jewish peasant who becomes a vampire) and Count von Krolock (who is actually very charming and threatening in that classic movie vampire way). Sarah Shagal is quite radiant, but a distant character who just kind of floats through the movie. Its not a good sign when the side characters would make much more interesting story fodder than the main ones.
The original music by Krzysztof Komeda is adequate, but not particularly memorable. There are some choral flourishes that add to the general creepiness, which is a nice touch. Overall though, its neither here nor there.
I, uh, didn’t like The Fearless Vampire Killers OR: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. Yes there are touches of great atmosphere and visual impressiveness. Yes there are some funny performances, but as a whole…its just not funny and just not scary. On the DVD, there’s a special short from 1967 promoting the movie that I got more laughs out of than the entirety of the movie itself. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood at the time of viewing, but there is no way I am going to recommend this movie.
And if you're wondering, the cheesy sound effects from the trailer are not in the final film. Thankfully.