Archive for the ‘fantasy’ Category

Carriger’s ‘Timeless’ makes Thorne Smith timeless, too

June 19, 2012

Strip away its steampunk spectacle and alternate history, and Gail Carriger’s tidy five-novel Parasol Protectorate series about polite sensitivities amid utter chaos is almost as retro-rooted in its charms as its 1890s London setting. That’s because its finale, Timeless, and four predecessors play like some earlier witty comedies of manners among a polite set beset by supernaturalism.
I’m speaking of1930s novels by Thorne Smith, whose ghost-haunted Topper became a popular 1937 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant.

Today, Smith’s Topper has morphed into Carriger’s Alexia Tarabotti, a parasol-wielding upper crust Londoner who falls in with a sexy werewolf in a stew of romantic-adventure plots broiling with vampires, “preternaturals” (you’ll learn all this), acceptance of such  creatures in British society (the alternate history part) and, not to forget, the appallingly poor-taste hats worn by Alexia’s clueless BFF, Ivy — whose role twists and turns quite a bit in Timeless. (more…)

DVD blog review: ‘Clash of the Titans’ remake is monstrous fun

July 25, 2010

The new remake of 1981’s Clash of the Titans has gotten little respect, which seems quite odd to me. The fact is, the original was one of the worst Ray Harryhausen special effects extravaganzas ever. The stop-motion master was fit to retire back in ’81, and Clash, in fact, was his last effort as creator of special visual effects. But many weren’t so special, including a juvenile mechanical owl character which was so bad it even gets a brief snide put-down in the remake.

Look, I don’t just admire what Harryhausen did. I revere it. I grew up loving Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island and the Sinbad movies. But times change. CG animation now rules, and with it you can do things far beyond the painstaking limitations of stop-motion work.

Others will grouse that this fable about man defying Greek goods amid much monstrous mayhem is as short in the narrative department as are the warriors’ battle-ready skirts. Excuse me, but when did this kind of thing presume to be Shakespeare (even if Hamlet’s Sir Laurence Olivier did play Zeus in the ’81 original)? This is a popcorn movie, purely and simply. So just pop some corn, sit back, savor the spectacle and don’t expect to feed your mind as much as you’re feeding your gut with freshly poppped kernels.

I’m not saying Sam Worthington as the heroic Perseus is the essence of charismatic heroism, but neither was Harry Hamlin in the original. Again, we’re not talking Saving Private Ryan here. We’re talking giant scorpions on the loose! As soon as I saw those in the trailer, I was ready to sign up with Perseus’ band of adventurers and take the fantasy ride. (And now, via Warner Bros.’ Blu-ray release, we can see how they did it, via the elaborate Harnessing the Gods.)

So go ahead and carp if you must about plot points, acting chops and Liam Neeson making a bland Zeus (though I thought Ralph Fiennes made a haunting, almost pitiable Hades). For me the bottom line is fanciful spectacle, and this Clash provides it, big-time. Give me snake-headed Medussa, the Scorpiochs and the Kraken and I’m happy. As in the old days, monsters are what this is all about, and this Clash gets the movie monster mash job done.

DVD review: More is less for ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian’

December 4, 2008

Some of the greatest movies ever made ran two hours or less. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian runs 2 1/2 hours — and it’s not one of the greatest movies ever made.

In fact, that’s due in part to the fact that it runs so long. Read what you will into C.S. Lewis’ mythology and its religious undercurrents, but this film is basically a fantasy-adventure at heart, and it’s tough to maintain the kind of soaring spirits to which Prince Caspian aspires for 150 minutes.

Instead, we’re too often left with action for the sake of action, and dialogue by charm-challenged lead players who look like Hogwarts wannabes, including Anna Popplewell, who seems to have been hired more for her gratingly cliched bee-stung lips (well, if they’re good enough for Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, etc.) than her acting chops. If movies know how to do one thing, it’s to exact a tyrannical standard of alleged beauty — and beat it to death.

The CG effects are masterful, and the film has a decided polish and sheen, but otherwise it’s an epic only in terms of pretensions, budget — and length. Face it: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter carved out and cornered this market in recent years, and no matter how hard their competitors try, they too often feel more recycled than inspired.

On the upside, Prince Caspian does offer some diverting extras on its second DVD disc, including an 11-minute on-set visit with good ol’ Warwick Davis and three minutes of amusing bloopers, one of which shows little Georgie Henley, in a Potter-echoing opening scene, telling her cohorts, “You’ve gotta come quick — ly!”

Bless her heart, she knew she’d blown the line by failing to supply the proper adverb in the script — not that many people use adverbs anymore. But on set that gets a laugh, as do many pranks and pratfalls. This long and lumbering movie may have lacked levity, but its shoot, clearly, did not.

‘Spiderwick’ is a product of meager imagination

June 24, 2008

I realize that The Spiderwick Chronicles, new on DVD from Paramount, is based on a series of books, and I realize it also follows hugely popular children’s fantasies such as the Harry Potter and Narnia movies, and all these things dictate that it play out in a certain way.

Nonetheless, while watching the film, I kept thinking about a comparable woodland fantasy involving children which, in a big way, puts Spiderwick to shame. I know it’s an unreasonable comparison given Spiderwick’s source novels and its marketing imperatives — I know, I know — but dang, the film pales next to a movie it clumsily evokes, Pan’s Labyrinth.

You see, that Spanish masterpiece spoiled me. Its impecable artistry, its haunting music and mood, its rivetting performances, its less feverish and more eerily compelling creatures — all combine to make Guillermo del Toro’s three-time Oscar winner a classic picture. Spiderwick? It’s product.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the cast and appreciated the setup, with flashbacks to David Strathairn as a charming scientist/dad who discovers unseen creatures roiling in the woods around his remote house. (His tragic back-story about Tampering Where No Man Should even reminded me of some beloved old Outer Limits episodes, such as Don’t Open Till Doomsday and The Bellero Shield.)

I was less enthused, yet tolerant, of the woefully cliched modern fractured family of a solo mom and three kids (Strathairn’s descendants) who are all about strident, bitter rancor and resentment. They are not about appreciating that they have food to eat, a roof over their heads, wondrous woods to explore and each other. What miserable folks with whom to spend a movie. But hey — at least they’re flesh and blood.

As for the creatures, they’re cartoons — well, CG — and thus have very little   impact in an otherwise live-action flick. I mean, they’re just too absurd — like Muppets gone bad. And once the creatures appear and the action begins, Spiderwick, for me, is just another empty CG-driven flick that’s all about flashy action and has precious little to do with storytelling, character development, mood, ambience or meaning — you know, the little things.

That said, if you’re a Potter/Narnia/you-name-it fan of child-geared fantasy, and you need a fix, Spiderwick will do. Heck, it’s even got a cameo by Lady Olivier, that is, Joan Plowright, whose former husband was perhaps the greatest actor of the 20th Century, and she’s still  going strong. But Freddie Highmore’s self-obsessed, reckless, resentful, hateful protagonist — and the absurd CG creatures he meets — well, you can have them.

As for me, I’ve got a good reason to watch Pan’s Labyrinth again, if only as a more heartening reminder of the huge difference between films that are slavish product and those that aspire to art.




‘The Invaders’ invades DVD

May 26, 2008

One of the creepiest of ’60s TV series, The Invaders makes its long-awaited DVD debut with a first-season box set from CBS Video. Since the show was a mid-season replacement, debuting in January of 1967, that first season, or half-season, ran 17 epsidoes, but by today’s standards that’s virtually a full season. The Invaders would return that fall for a full season and another 26 episodes.

Its premise echoed the “running man” setup of another series produced by Quinn Martin, The Fugitive. Only in this case, it wasn’t a man unjustly charged with murder but architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes), who was in the wrong place at the right time and witnessed a saucerlike spacecraft landing on Earth. (We’re told in offscreen narration it’s from “another galaxy.” Riiiight. Try “interstellar” or “another star system”. It would take the aliens millions of years traveling at light speed to cross the gulfs between galaxies.)

Naturally, hardly anyone believes Vincent, and it doesn’t help that the aliens, when killed, instantly disintegrate. Even so, Vincent utterly devotes himself to his mission to track down and thwart the furtive alien invasion.

This premise often echoes It Came From Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in that the aliens walk among us in human form. And the production is first-rate, including impressive guest stars such as Suzanne Pleshette, William Windom, Roddy McDowall, Ed Asner and Dabney Coleman. Thinnes also is a strong lead character, known more for steely resolve than frantic desperation. In other words, he didn’t overact. He also looks good — cool, even — as a dapper 70-year-old in onscreen interviews for the new DVD (which also offers commentary, network promos and an extended version of the original pilot).

Also impressive is the show’s first-season composer, Dominic Frontiere. He’s the same man who composed perhaps the greatest TV score ever, for the first season of The Outer Limits (1963-64). In fact, that music was so good that he used it again throughout The Invaders’ pilot episode (as he’d also done in 1965 film Incubus, and sometimes in The Rat Patrol). But after that he used mostly new music.

One piece of Outer Limits music persists on The Invaders. Just as the theme music to Star Trek: The Motion Picture became the theme to TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, Frontiere’s theme for a single Outer Limits episode became the theme for The Invaders as a series.

I’m speaking of the opening musical theme, used throughout Season One. That music was first used in the final Outer Limits episode of Season One, The Forms of Things Unknown. It was actually shot as a pilot for a new anthology show (which never was produced) called The Unknown (clearly geared more toward gothic fantasy than Outer Limits’ sci-fi). Since Frontiere never got to use it as an ongoing theme for The Unknown, he made it the theme for The Invaders.

By the way, Frontiere’s ex-wife, who recently passed away, was Georgia Frontiere, owner of the Los Angeles — then St. Louis — Rams.

At any rate, The Invaders is quality sci-fi TV from a time when the only other such worthy series was the original Star Trek (which also shares many Outer Limits elements). So savor Thinnes’ running man. He may not have won much support while defying invaders, but he’s certainly worthy of yours.

‘Beowulf’ goes for gory gusto

March 3, 2008

While Beowulf earned $195 million worldwide in theaters, it cost $150 million to make, so DVD and other sales down the line will have to bail it out financially. (Keep in mind that studios don’t take 100 per cent of box office dollars.) Part of the trouble may have been an identity crisis. The film was rated PG-13, but it was marketed with a so-called “red-band” trailer meant only for “restricted” audiences. Now on DVD from Paramount, it’s available in its original form as well as in an “unrated director’s cut” whose “more intense footage” skips the R and NC-17 entirely.

So, just how gory is it? Quite a lot — but in this case, director Robert Zemeckis is forgiven. That’s because his Beowulf exists in an artful middle ground between live-action and CG animation, so the gory gusto is distanced. And it doesn’t hurt that Beowulf — the tale of a hero who slays monsters but is staggered by his own weaknesses of the flesh — is sheer fantasy and pretends to be nothing else. In fact, if you loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ll find comparable elements of dazzling wonder — and melancholic woe — in Beowulf.

That’s not to mention a superb cast of actors (Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn) who are heard in all their glory while seen in CG reimagining. Cool headbands, too.

Beowulf may be a classic ancient poem rebooted for today’s moviegoers, but it retains a haunting sense of epic grandeur amid some of the wildest, bloodiest action (at least, in its unrated form) that you’ll find anywhere. It’s audacious, kick-butt and cathartic, but that’s not all this tragic yet rousing tale is about. Check it out and see — and don’t worry: There’s more than gore in store.