Monday, September 22, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - Clash of the Titans (1981)

I'm not here to convince you to take a gander at the original Clash of the Titans (the 1981 release—NOT the eyeball-searing 2010 remake), though I'm a huge Ray Harryhausen fan and can enthusiastically recommend Jason and the Argonauts or Golden Voyage of Sinbad for almost any occasion. Clash of the Titans, while aiming high and definitely enamored of Greek mythological tales, is not as narratively successful as those earlier films. The live-action and animated scenes are not as seamless as in Harryhausen's past work, especially for the post-Star Wars age. The pacing by director Desmond Davis is often turgid, partially saved by some twinkly character-acting by Burgess Meredith. But Meredith can't be in every scene—he's just one man. And the film's leads, Harry Hamlin and Judi Bowker, are not burning up the screen with swashbuckling energy, more like walking through in a Valium haze.

Which is why I'm spending my precious, valuable time on Earth presenting this here. Because, upon watching it 30 years after its release, I had a realization—Clash of the Titans may be one of the most drugged-out movies ever made. I'm not on drugs. I'm a clean and sober Mom these days, unless you count melatonin for my sleep issues, but while watching Clash of the Titans, I got a contact high. Maybe it's the weird choppy story throwing Perseus across geographical time and space. Maybe it's the Gods tinkering with their human offspring and assorted masses as pawns in a game (a concept first explored in 1963 in Jason in the Argonauts). Maybe it's that elusive Harryhausen magic that makes otherworldly creatures somehow mesh into the mythical world we think we know. Let the visuals convince you. And now...

There's this:

And this:

And this:

Disco Zeus

What a trip! Then of course there's the Kraken, of "Release the Kraken!" fame.

The Kraken myth is actually of Norwegian origin and was most likely based on giant squid sightings by freaked-out sailing men, so what's he doing here in ancient Greece? It's a mythological mish-mash.

Look at Poseidon's face (Jack Gwillim) when he gets to Release The Kraken.

Clearly, he's a god in need of an intervention.

The Kraken wreaks all kinds of havoc for the city of Argos. Lots of death and destruction when you let the Kraken out of its undersea lair. And all because Perseus' mother, the gal-pal of Zeus, is sent to sea in a coffin with their baby Perseus by her uptight creep of a father. Zeus protects his earthly family and crushes her father in his powerful Laurence Olivier hand, so that takes care of that. Unfortunately the people of Argos are squished, drowned, and run screaming only to be crushed by marble columns.

The gods are a vengeful, sadistic lot. As played by a truly god-like roster of esteemed thespians, including Olivier, Claire Bloom and Dame Maggie Smith, they're directed to stand around like statues, looking mostly irritated with one another. Certainly Olivier, who was suffering serious health issues, was not in the best condition to portray unbridled infallibility. He comes off as a cranky despot with a fine mellifluous voice. These gods are portrayed as, dare I say it, middle-aged in appearance and demeanor. They look tired. Gods aren't supposed to get tired!

Claire Bloom as Zeus' long-suffering wife, Hera. Ursula Andress as world-weary goddess of love, Aphrodite, and Maggie Smith as sea goddess Thetis, mother of Calibos, part man/part animated creature thingy.

And who is this Perseus, now grown and ready for adventure? It's Harry Hamlin—you may think of him as Jim Cutler on Mad Men, ruthless accounts executive and speed-freak, but here he is in his youth and he's darn pretty and ready for mind-expanding adventure.

Harry Hamlin - a long and illustrious career

Which brings us back to drugs. Want to take a ride to the center of your Greek Mythology mind? Come along if you dare...

This is the bustling and cursed city of Joppa, with its visible matte lines. I bet when Harryhausen saw this shot, he winced. It needed a little more "massaging" before completion.

This is a giant vulture who shows up at Princess Andromeda's bedchambers while she sleeps and steals her somolent soul for a while (her soul enters the little cage here—are you having a bad trip? sorry).


This is Perseus taming Pegasus, only Perseus is wearing a helmet that makes him invisible, so he's just a rope in mid-air. Whoa.

This is Calibos. He was a handsome guy but he killed everything in sight, including Zeus' prized flying horses (except for Pegasus), so Zeus turned him into a monster-guy. This is actually close-up-Calibos, nicely played by Neil McCarthy, who suffered from acromegaly, which is a form of gigantism.

But wide-shot-Calibos looks like this.

Wide-shot-Calibos in close-up reveals a disparity between the look of his close-ups and his action shots, which are animated with Harryhausen's usual flair for the dramatic, especially his thrashing alligator-like tail.

These are Calibos' only friends and they all live together in a swamp and write riddles to Princess Andromeda's sleep-soul, who has to memorize them and take them back to her kingdom to present to would-be suitors. Failure to solve the riddles (and there have been some failures) results in death. It's a total bummer.

Dang, Calibos' hand is creepy.

McCarthy's close-ups add a welcome dose of pathos to his otherwise despicable character. I believe the original idea was for an animated-only Calibos but it was decided that he needed more of a personal story, so McCarthy and dialogue were added.

Typical Calibos, *tsk*.

The problem is that while both versions of Calibos were fine on their own, they didn't mesh with each other, which creates a jarring effect. This fighting Calibos has a different face going on. Hence, audiences really have to suspend their belief above and beyond the usual Harryhausen outing.

Thetis talking through a beheaded statue of herself like something out of Disney's Haunted Mansion (which I like, by the way). It's OK, man. I'm here for you. I'm your guide through these bad parts...

Perseus and Andromeda are the dullest love-pairing in fantasy-cinema history. Hamlin wasn't up to scenery-chewing in his youth and Bowker in this role has all the allure of a preschool teacher-in-training. Hamlin had more of a connection with his off-screen lover, Ursula Andress, Aphrodite herself.

Poor Bowker, in polyester Easter-egg pastels throughout the entire film

Burgess Meredith loved playing playwright and thespian, Ammon. Here he is, all merriment and joy, with goofy mechanical owl, Bubo.

Meredith, having a blast
I'm not a fan of Bubo. His clumsy, blooping shenanigans seem forced to me. Owls are cool but Bubo looks awkward when he flies around, like RT-D2 with wings, Still, you can order your own Bubo costume accessory for the next Comic Con, so what do I know?

Back to the fun! These three blind cackling Stygian witches always cheer me up. True comic relief.

She's the absolute best

Perseus messes with the witches a bit but it's all in good fun. Until he takes a ferry ride to the Isle of Medusa with the boatman Charon. Bad vibes all around.

Low-budget, but it works

And then, JAWAS!

OK, not really. It's a two-headed guard dog. Harryhausen said three heads would have been too complicated to deal with and as it was, keeping the fur smooth throughout the shot was a big problem for the animators. Consequently, not a great action sequence—kind of like a stuffed animal gone berserk. I told you it was druggy.

Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Owhooooooo! Ruff! Ruff Ruff! etc.

As you probably know, Medusa has the power to turn men to stone, with just one look. Thus, her decorating scheme is...intimidating.

This is very Return to Oz

Now here we go. This is it. The Medusa sequence. This is where Harryhausen poured his heart and soul. I think it stands up to many monster-movie confrontation scenes. Just A+ work all around. And Hamlin steps it up too—perhaps the creepy set gave him the proper heebie jeebies. He looks scared out of his mind. AS HE SHOULD BE.

Shadows from the firelight, multiple snakes moving around—can you imagine animating this?

What an entrance

Medusa is a badass archer and formidable foe


More visual complications for Harryhausen. What a master he was.

Hooray! But also, darn, I liked Medusa, in a way

And then there's more Kraken. Can't have too much Kraken.

Kraken hand

Mr. Kraken

Pegasus and animated Perseus going down

Disco Medusa

And there it is. You're back now—how do you feel? Was your mind expanded? Was it inner-eye opening? Would you do it again? I did and I turned out fine. Hail, Harryhausen—he loved fantasy storytelling and created so many memorable creatures to haunt us forever. Oh, I forgot to mention the giant scorpions. They go clackity-clackity-clackity-clack! when they attack. Sorry if I harshed your mellow.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Everyone Covers The Chantels' "Maybe"

OK, maybe not everyone covers "Maybe." Just a few notables. Why? Mainly because "Maybe" is a great song, combining the yearning of a 50s love ballad with a smooth soulfulness that was to become more prevalent throughout the 60s and beyond. Throughout the ages, singers have risen to the challenge of the hopeful heart of "Maybe."

The Chantels, 1957 - Arlene Smith draws out that Maaaybe to beautifully inspirational effect.

The Shangri Las, 1964 - Betty Weiss (sister of main lead singer, Mary) sang lead on this one. Listen to her plead—she's 100% young and in love.

Janis Joplin, 1970 - Mercy! I really really really wish Janis had lived a long life. She had the kind of voice that only gets more evocative over time.

The Three Degrees, 1970 - I am always knocked out by this one. The video storytelling only adds to the luster. Wait for the song to (finally) kick in—you'll be glad. It's not easy giving an effective soliloquy into a studio mic and I don't throw around the word "epic," but this soliloquy is that and more.

Dave Edmunds, 1975 - One of a few solo wall-of-song homages. Bet you didn't see this coming. You'll have to view this video-maker's 1986 muscle-car collection. This is trial by fire, people.

John Frusciante, 2003 - Taking an all-by-himself moment at the Red Hot Chili Peppers show at Slane Castle in Ireland.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - 24 Hour Party People (2002)

I wanted to feature a trio of underappreciated films that perfectly capture the energy, excitement and unpredictability (and absurdity) of popular music. I thought about it for weeks and I admit, I was stumped. Pop-music movements are the hardest and most elusive to emulate in the time-consuming, costly film/video medium. Only live comedy is more difficult to realistically reimagine. Both require in-the-moment spontaneity and occur as a result of fleeting cultural moments in time.Try to capture that on film—I dare you.

[Note: Ondi Timoner managed nicely in her documentary, Dig!, because she filmed her rock-band subjects for seven years and spent God knows how many hours honing that down to a cohesive musical story for the time--the 90s--but that's for a future article.]

Director Michael Winterbottom must have thought about this problem long and hard when he made 24 Hour Party People, because he made damn sure the story of the rise and fall of Manchester's Factory Records was fresh, spontaneous and postmodern, like the scene it fictionally documents. How did he pull it off? I don't want to over-analyze all his methods here—it would DESTROY THE MOMENT. And that's the opposite of what this film accomplishes.

24 Hour Party People celebrates the time when the economic and social upheaval of 1970s western-European culture fostered the borderline-insane creativity of the prematurely embittered and underemployed youth of England's Northwest. The result was a new sound that you could dance to. Punk was the catalyst—the spark, if you will, that set it off. The result: controlled chaos, musical mayhem, applied chemistry—a new scene.

And now:

From the moment the titles appear, you know you're in good hands (or maybe you're afraid—this isn't for everyone, I admit). The bleached, chemical-vat colorization and purposefully distressed splendor of the title sequence is classic Experimental Film-School 101 from the era. And consequently the sequence was created by the design team behind the original Happy Mondays. More on the Mondays eventually.

I've never been to England and had to rely on Keith to fill me in on Factory Records and the Manchester scene. There's photographic proof that Keith roamed the streets of the Northeastern U.S. while wearing red skinny-legged jeans and a white blazer. Plus he spent a semester or two living in England in the early 80s, so he's my go-to source of British new-wave history. Meanwhile, I was just buying New Order records at Tower Records in California because of the pretty, pretty packaging and hypnotic qualities of the songs. I didn't know the story behind the innovative album design, or New Order, or anything of relevance as recreated in this film. So, I came to it as an appreciator of its audacity and wry deadpan wit. Keith was the one who clued me in to its authenticity. And when it's not authentic, the film playfully lets you know, several times over. Winterbottom's not a Wikipedia editor. He's a filmmaker.

Onward. 24 Hour Party People is about music but its narrator is a fan and supporter, not a musician. This is Tony Wilson, played with wry panache by Steve Coogan. Wilson was a local newscaster on Granada Television who attended the now-legendary 1976 Sex Pistols Manchester gig, with an audience of around 40 locals who were inspired to form Joy Division, The Smiths, The Fall, The Buzzcocks, and so on and so forth. (Legend, truth—whatever—"How many people were at the Last Supper?" asks Coogan/Wilson, proving less is more.)

One of many times Coogan as Wilson breaks the fourth wall to address us personally

Wilson visualized a rise of amateur misfits who could potentially shake up the bombastic guitar solos and stagnant sameness of the era's bloated music industry. Here was kinetic movement of a different sort. He started featuring new bands and artists such as Iggy Pop , Patti Smith, The Clash, The Jam, and Siouxsie and the Banshees on his television show, "And So It Goes." He then opened a club where he booked Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and his own management project (poked fun at throughout), A Certain Ratio.

All of this was very exciting. And Coogan makes a fabulous and improvisational host to the era, placing his hands in church-steeple fashion while pontificating about artistic genius throughout the ages. The guy intellectualizes everything, reminding everyone he has a Cambridge degree ("I never did that," insists the real Tony Wilson on the DVD commentary), and deserves better news assignments than interviewing midget elephant keepers and octogenarian canal builders. These re-created (and somewhat fictionalized) news segments are interspersed throughout and are the perfect contrast to the absurdity of "real life" media alongside underground culture, which is, of course, just as absurd in its own way. Anyone who has straddled the musical and working-stiff worlds simultaneously will appreciate the contrast. Also used: actual footage from the era, cut into recreated scenes, and the weathering of the new footage, so it fits the media look of its era.

Where does absurdity spring? I'd say wherever trouble lives. And Manchester youth had troubles. Major unemployment, a bleak non-future—they might as well have picked up guitars and strummed the blues. The cast of characters are true characters, from Joy Division and Factory co-founder, Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine--an eerily spot-on performance according to those who know), music producer and self-proclaimed genius, Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis—you know him as Gollum), and the intense and talented band, Joy Division, who would go on as New Order after the tragic suicide of front man, Ian Curtis.

Wilson and Gretton (Considine) negotiate a blood oath at the local pub

Winterbottom doesn't frame it pretty—just keeps it real and "in the moment"

The brilliant Serkis playing the brilliant Hannett

The live shows and recording-studio scenes are hyper-realistic, albeit with fourth-wall breaking asides, fictionalized timelines, and the occasional cameo from actual scenesters of the era. Joy Division's actual instruments were used in this scene of the recording of their first album. The actors playing musicians do an A+ job walking, talking and playing like budding musicians who are figuring out what they're doing as they go.

John Simm as Bernard Sumner

Peter Hook's bass

Ralf Little as Peter Hook

Howard Devoto as Howard Devoto.

Sean Harris as Ian Curtis is intensely mesmerizing. His live-music scenes are like being in an drunken, sweaty, but reverent audience, watching fresh live music unfold. That is a near-impossible task for a filmmaker—kudos. Note the electrician's tape on the mic stand. The little details add up to so much authenticity.

This is John the postman (Dave Gorman). Every basement-level scene has a super-fan like John the postman. At least they used to.

This ragtag group forms the Factory label, with its die-cut record sleeves and artful design schemes, opens a club—The Hacienda—and proceeds to drive themselves into economic ruin. The signing of The Happy Mondays, whose front man, Shaun Ryder, truly believes in the gospel of sex, drugs, rock & roll, hastens the decline. But the mood never sours. Coogan's narration is dry and light, as if looking into the deep past from a place of Zen wisdom. Money, fame, success—all ephemeral. What matters is the art. Scenes of mayhem, drug-addled confusion, violence, and baleful business decisions are played deadpan. To Wilson, the music, and the place it came from matter. This makes him an endearing buffoon and heroic anti-hero. It's such a strange and wonderful combination and reflects the process of the creation of pop music, which uses poetic, as well as analytic and observational regions of the brain. And, as I mentioned before, you can dance to it.

Split-screen portrays the packaging design alongside its product (in this case the huge single, Blue Monday)

Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham) in the streets of Manchester

It wouldn't be much of an cult film without a vision of God, would it?

Camaraderie at the Factory

The punk ethos shines through the grit and gray skies of Manchester. The film is a love letter to Manchester. Coogan says so.

Manchester as seen on high

An interesting aside—the Hacienda, purportedly the birthplace of acid house and rave, abruptly closed in 1997 and was meant to reopen once financing was secured. It never was, but when making the film, Winterbottom had the club recreated exactly to specs and filmed the "last night" closing party. Locals played the crowd and simply partied during the entire shoot. So you can't go to The Hacienda (it was torn down for condos—the story of modern cities), but this last hurrah looks and feels like the real thing. And apparently at the time, it was.

Trailer with dumb U.S. narration overriding Coogan's idiosyncratic narration.

The DVD has commentary from the late Tony Wilson, who points out the untrue bits, including the gold records hanging on the Factory wall. "We would never have gold records on our walls," he lectures, miffed. Punk, forever. A second track has commentary by Steve Coogan and producer, Andrew Eaton. Michael Winterbottom prefers to remain silent, so that you may absorb and enjoy. It's like trying to explain music...