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Monday, October 19, 2020

GODSPELL

The official DVD for the movie version of Godspell (© David Greene/Columbia Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

As many of you know, raised by parents (especially Mom) who loved musicals I grew up to love them too, and down through the decades I have seen virtually all of the classics either on stage or on screen, and sometimes both - all but one major exception, that is. And that major exception was Godspell – until today [15 November 2019], when I watched on a recently-purchased DVD the 1973 movie version of this very famous stage musical, which was first performed off-Broadway in 1971, and whose songs were written by musicals maestro Stephen Schwartz (his subsequent successes include Pippin, Wicked, and the stage version of The Prince of Egypt).

Godspell is directly inspired by the Gospel According To St Matthew from the New Testament of the Holy Bible, but it is set in a flower-power New York City of the late 1960s, and the movie, directed by David Greene, was actually filmed entirely on location there. Yet, incredibly, for almost the entire movie the only people visible anywhere in NYC are the actors and actresses. How the movie crew managed to clear the streets, parks, buildings, etc of all other people in one of the world's biggest and most bustling cities is anyone's guess, especially as many shots are panoramic, filmed overhead from either helicopters or light aircraft and thereby taking in huge swathes of NYC simultaneously.

Just as the slightly later Jesus Christ Superstar musical by Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber attracted its fair share of controversy at the time, so too did Godspell, particularly as Jesus and His disciples are all portrayed as face-painted, gaudily-garbed hippy-type/flower-power children. Yet somehow, inexplicably, it works, and the result for me was an enormously joyous paean to God, to the teachings of Jesus, and to the power of love.

No overly famous stars appear - perhaps the most notable are Victor Garber as Jesus, and David Haskell who, in keeping with Godspell tradition but never explained and sometimes potentially confusing when viewing this musical, plays a dual role of John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot. Tragically, David passed away aged only 52, meaning that he was already halfway through his life when playing this role (which he had also previously played on stage), as he was then aged about 26, but his exuberant performance is preserved forever here.

Prior to watching this movie version, I was only familiar with the two most famous Godspell songs - 'Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord' (click here  to view it performed in the movie), and 'Day By Day' (click here), both of which are in the traditional evangelical, gospel style. So I was totally unprepared for the extraordinary diversity of music genres that appeared in it. These included a 1920s flapper-style number, 'Turn Back, O Man', sung by one of the disciples as a veritable Mae West doppelganger (click here). And, in particular, 'All For The Best', a wonderful 'top-hat, tails & cane' song-and-dance vaudeville routine (but without the top hat and tails) redolent of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly but performed instead by Victor Garber as Jesus (wearing the Superman vest) and David Haskell as Judas/John the Baptist (wearing the circus ringmaster outfit), plus some spectacular panoramic views (click here).

Apart from the interspersion of various parables from St Matthew's Gospel acted out in humorous but affectionate and not in any way blasphemous manner, the entire musical is in the Grand Opera style of performance, inasmuch as it is sung throughout, with no dialogue other than a few familiar Gospel-quoted statements here and there by Jesus. The betrayal and crucifixion scene is harrowing, as would be expected, and the ending, in which His disciples carry the lifeless body of Jesus through a suddenly repopulated New York City, again caused some controversy back in the day, because there is no unequivocal representation of His resurrection. However, the accompanying music is a joyous reprised medley of 'Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord' and 'Day By Day', which to me seems to be this musical's way of confirming that He has indeed been reborn and should be followed once more.

All in all, Godspell is for me a very enjoyable and engrossing if unquestionably offbeat take on Jesus' adult life, teachings, and ultimate sacrifice, with some very memorable, hummable songs, and even an actress (Robin Lamont) who both looks and sings uncannily like a young Agnetha from Abba. What more could anyone ask for?!!

An effective overview of this very varied but always compelling movie can be readily obtained by clicking here to watch its official trailer on YouTube.

[This review's earlier, shorter version was originally written by me on 15 November 2019.]

A still from the performance of 'All For The Best' in the movie version of Godspell, featuring David Haskell and Victor Garber (© David Greene/Columbia Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

 

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Publicity poster for The Golden Compass (© Chris Weitz/New Line Cinema/Ingenious Film Partners/Scholastic Productions/Entertainment Film Distributors – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Earlier today [18 November 2019], I watched on DVD The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Derek Jacobi among others (plus a host of famous thespians voicing various of the daemons).

Directed by Chris Weitz, The Golden Compass is the 2007 movie version of Northern Lights (retitled The Golden Compass in the USA), which in turn is the first book in Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. It makes for interesting comparisons with the ongoing 8-part BBC One weekly TV mini-series of the same book (but entitled His Dark Materials, which is strictly the collective title of the entire trilogy), which I'm also watching. Obviously the approx. 8-hour length of the mini-series enables it to provide much more detail and storytelling than can be crammed into the movie's mere 1 hr 40 min, but visually the movie looks better – much more fantastical, colourful, and stunningly beautiful than the often dark and dreary-looking mini-series.

The story is set in an alternate Earth to ours, ruled by the authoritarian quasi-religious Magisterium, but it is also an Earth in which every human is irrevocably linked from birth to an animal companion – a daemon – whose species reflects the human's inner nature. Indeed, the daemon is a physical manifestation of the human's soul. So, for instance, a brave, bold person may have an eagle or a lion as their daemon, whereas a timid person's daemon may be a mouse or some innocuous bird, and an evil, dangerous person's daemon a snake or a venomous insect. Sometimes the daemon can talk, and will converse freely with its human as a friend and guide, but certain humans' daemons cannot, or do not, talk. The golden monkey daemon of the ostensibly affable but ultimately terrifying Mrs Marisa Coulter, for instance, is seemingly mute. In both the movie and the mini-series, the daemons are brought to the screen as computer-generated creations rather than using real animals, but they are extremely realistic – the snow leopard daemon of Lord Asriel Belacqua is absolutely breathtaking, as if it has just stepped down from the snowy slopes of the Himalayas.

The principal storyline (there are many subplots too) sees Lyra on a journey of discovery, not only seeking her father and the answer to why a mysterious substance called Dust is of such interest to the Magisterium, but also striving to track down a series of secretly-abducted children, apparently stolen away by the equally secretive Gobblers. She is assisted by a diverse range of companions, including a war polar bear and his aviator acquaintance, the nomadic Gyptians (some of whose children are among those who have been kidnapped), and an aloof order of sky witches – plus an arcane device called an alethiometer (i.e. the golden compass of the movie's title) that foretells the future and which Lyra is inexplicably able to utilize, even though the most learned of scholars cannot. Eventually she discovers the horrific reason why the children have been abducted and what is being done to them, under the auspices of Mrs Coulter.

Both Nicole Kidman in the movie and the mini-series' Ruth Wilson are suitably chilling as Mrs Coulter. However, the child actress playing Lyra Belacqua in the movie (Dakota Blue Richards) scores major points over the mini-series' Lyra (Dafne Keen) inasmuch as I could clearly understand every word that she said, whereas in the mini-series I've finally had to resort to subtitles in order to comprehend everything that its Lyra says.

Various plot variations between the two versions. For example, whereas Lyra learns who her father is quite early on in the mini-series (Lord Belacqua, played by James McAvoy) thanks to a tempestuous outburst from Mrs Coulter, in the movie Coulter doesn't reveal this crucial fact until much later on in the story and in a totally different location (Lord Belacqua is played here by Daniel Craig). No passing of characters back and forth between Lyra's version of Earth and ours occurs in the movie, whereas it does feature in the mini-series. And so on.

Overall, however, both versions for me are equally enjoyable, but from a purely visual point of view The Golden Compass movie unquestionably trumps His Dark Materials TV mini-series. But don't take my word for it. Click here to watch an official trailer for the movie, and here to watch one for the mini-series, and make up your own mind accordingly.

Interestingly, the TV mini-series has proved so successful than a second series has now been produced, covering the second book in Pullman's trilogy in 7 episodes. It is due to be screened later this year, and I'll definitely be watching it – but meanwhile, here is a trailer to whet your appetite!

[This review's earlier, shorter version was originally written by me on 18 November 2019.]

I now own the official DVD of His Dark Materials the TV series, shown here (© BBC Studios/HBO/Bad Wolf/New Line Productions/Scholastic Productions – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

 

 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

THE INCREDIBLE MR LIMPET

Publicity poster for The Incredible Mr Limpet (© Arthur Lubin/Warner Bros – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Having a multi-region DVD player is very useful, as it has enabled me to purchase and watch movies in Region 1 (USA/Canada) format that will not play on a British Region 2 DVD player but which are not available in Region 2 format either. Last night [7 July 2020], I watched one such movie, The Incredible Mr Limpet, which is a famous, much-loved fantasy film in the USA but is scarcely known here in the UK.

Directed by Arthur Lubin, released in 1964, and based upon a 1942 novel by Theodore Pratt, The Incredible Mr Limpet is a superb mix of animation and live-action, and is set during the USA's entry into World War II following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

It tells the decidedly surreal story of an archetypal nerd, Henry Limpet (played by Don Knotts, again a famous name in the States but far less so in the UK), who has a passionate, abiding fascination for fishes. Sadly, Henry fails the enlisting process due to his poor eyesight, much to the disappointment of his very patriotic wife Bessie (Carole Cook), who has no time for her husband's ichthyological interests. One day while visiting Coney Island with her and their successfully signed-up navy friend George Stickle (Jack Weston), Henry daydreams about how much he would love to be a fish and inadvertently falls into the sea – where for reasons that are never explained, he duly transforms into a fish.

This mystifying metamorphosis marks the beginning of the movie's first of several well-executed animated segments, all of which were produced by Warner Brothers' celebrated cartoon studio as its very last project before it closed for good at the end of 1963. However, because Henry does not reappear in human form and they have no inkling about Henry's extraordinary transformation into a fish, Bessie and George inevitably if erroneously presume that he has drowned.

To cut a long and convoluted story short, Henry the fish then volunteers to seek out German U-boats in the Atlantic for the US Navy, and he proves exceedingly successful in this capacity, becoming the Navy's greatest top-secret weapon in the Battle of the Atlantic. Moreover, he is even assisted by George once they encounter each other at sea and Henry reveals to his astonished friend who – and what – he is now.

Henry remains a fish, meeting up with Bessie just once to reveal his new form and that he didn't drown, after which they say their goodbyes, Henry having previously rescued and fallen in love with a lady fish and Bessie having become very enamoured with George. So everything ends happily for everyone, and serenading this strange yet charming tale are four very catchy, melodious songs by famous Hollywood songwriters Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson.

The Incredible Mr Limpet is indeed incredibly weird but also totally wonderful, as will be confirmed if you click here to watch this delightful trailer for it on YouTube. (If you don't want to watch its lengthy opening advertisement, featuring American radio/TV broadcaster Arthur Godfrey publicising an available 45 rpm record of one of this movie's songs, skip to 1 min 45 secs and start watching the trailer from there onwards.) Incidentally, there have long been plans for a fully live-action remake, but as yet this has still not transpired.

[This review's earlier, shorter version was originally written by me on 8 July 2020.]

 


 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

DRAGONS IN THE MOVIES

A montage of movie dragons, as interpreted by fantasy artist Anthony Wallis (© Anthony Wallis)

Today here on Shuker In MovieLand, I thought I'd try something a little different for a change. So instead of reviewing a single movie, or even a couple, I'm presenting a survey of a single very specific movie subgenre – namely, dragon movies!

With the coming of the movies, the visual arts – and dragons – came alive! For the world of the cinema is also one of dragons, threatening to burst forth from the big screen into the real world at any moment, especially with new advances in 3-D cinematography! Thankfully, however, they never quite succeed.

Instead, we can experience from the safety of our own armchair or the cinema seat the vicarious thrill of modern-day knights confronting their deadly reptilian foes, masterfully engendered by the imagination and artistry of animators or the technical wizardry of live-action and CGI adepts. Their skills enable us to enter realms of fantasy and virtual reality that at least for the running time of the film are no less vital than our own world – and sometimes are even more so. Here, anything is possible - even dragons.

 

DISNEY DRAGONS AND OTHER BIG-SCREEN CARTOON VERSIONS

Given the limitless possibilities of expression available in animation, the dragon was always going to be a popular subject for film-makers to bring to life via the cartoon medium – but none can surpass Walt Disney Studios founded by Walt Disney himself for the sheer genius and cinematographic sorcery of its best productions.

The first dragon conjured up by Disney was Kenneth Grahame's rather fey specimen from his short story 'The Reluctant Dragon'. A 20-minute cartoon that remained relatively faithful to Grahame's tale (though St George was replaced in the cartoon by St Giles) was part of a full-length feature film also entitled The Reluctant Dragon (click here to read my review of it on Shuker In MovieLand). Released in 1941, this film centres around a live-action tour of the Disney studios by American wit and radio comedian Robert Benchley, where he is shown various complete cartoon shorts, ideas for future animated features, art and animation classes, plus much else. Although the film itself was never re-released in cinemas in its full-length version, its 'Reluctant Dragon' segment was later released separately as a 'mini-classic' cartoon.

Originally, there were plans for the Jabberwock to appear in Disney's animated film Alice in Wonderland (1951), but its sequence was deleted before the film's release, together with its song, 'Beware the Jabberwock'. Illustrations taken from this unused sequence, however, later appeared in a Disney-published illustrated book of Lewis Carroll's poem 'Jabberwocky' – and, very incongruously, the supposedly ferocious dragon in question was depicted wearing a purple sweater!

In 1959, Disney's next major dragon set the big screen aflame, metaphorically if not literally. This was due to the spectacular animation featured in Sleeping Beauty, vividly portraying the transformation of the evil fairy Maleficent into a huge, fire-breathing dragon ablaze with incandescent, bat-winged fury, seeking to incinerate Prince Philip as he bravely strives to rescue Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty of this film's title.

A much more comical, purple-haired dragon, yet just as eager to gobble up its antagonist - in this instance a somewhat scatter-brained Merlin the magician - is one of many forms assumed by the decidedly deranged witch Madam Mim in Disney's zany adaptation of T.H. White's popular Arthurian novel for children, The Sword in the Stone (1938). Disney's animated version was released in 1963.

The biggest dragon star from the Disney studios, however, was Elliott, from the live-action/animated musical feature film Pete's Dragon, first released in 1977. Elliott is a huge pot-bellied green dragon with a shock of pink hair and a pair of unfeasibly small wings (yet which nevertheless enable him somehow to become airborne should he need to be). However, he is generally visible only to his young owner, a small orphan boy named Pete. Elliott accompanies Pete, as his friend and protector, to the coastal fishing town of Passamaquoddy in Maine, USA, where the boy has fled in order to get away from his abusive adoptive hillbilly family, and the two soon become embroiled in all manner of amusing slapstick scrapes and general chaos. In 2016, a Disney remake of Pete's Dragon was released, in which Elliott looks very different indeed – no longer a huge pot-bellied cartoon dragon with tiny wings, he is dramatically reinvented as a smaller and much sleeker, decidedly mammalian dragon, complete with green fur instead of scales and proportionately much larger wings.

One UK-released DVD edition of the original Pete's Dragon movie included as an extra feature a little-known Disney documentary entitled Man, Monsters and Mysteries (1974). This included a delightful animated segment featuring Nessie, the Loch Ness monster – considered by some to be a bona fide water dragon. Far removed from the dark, sleek, mysterious entity of cryptozoological fame, however, Disney's version is an affable multi-coloured beastie adorned with red polka-dots and voiced by Sterling Holloway. In 2011, Disney released a new cartoon short, The Ballad of Nessie, featuring a green and rather more dragonesque monster.

Just as Disney's celebrated animated film Fantasia (1940) consisted of a series of cartoon representations of famous pieces of classical music, Musicana was planned to be a comparable film showcasing via cartoons a series of folktales from around the world, backed once again by classical music. Sadly, this potentially spectacular film, whose development began during 1982-1983, was never produced. However, preparatory drawings and other preliminary artwork created for it still exist, giving a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. One particularly striking series of full-colour pastel artwork is from a sequence by artist Mel Shaw designed to illustrate Meso-American folklore, and includes beautiful renditions of Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican plumed serpent.

A selection of my animated movie DVDs (+ 1 videocassette) that feature dragons (photo © Dr Karl Shuker / movies © Walt Disney/Touchstone/Rankin Bass/ Warner Brothers/DreamWorks/Studio Ghibli/ – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

In 1997, the Disney animated feature film Hercules was released, and, befitting a movie based (albeit loosely) upon tales from Greek mythology, it included an epic battle between the young demi-god hero and the Lernaean hydra. This multi-headed dragon has been summoned by Hades to destroy Hercules, but when he successfully kills it by causing a landslide, our hero finds himself elevated to celebrity status among the general public.

A year after Hercules, Disney released Mulan, a full-length animated musical that retold the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the daughter of elderly warrior Fa Zhou, who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to take her ailing father's place and battle an invading Hun army. Assisting Mulan in her endeavours is a small red Chinese dragon, Mushu, ostensibly her guardian but not overly brave. Voiced by American actor/comedian Eddie Murphy, Mushu is the film's principal comic-relief character, and reappears in the direct-to-video sequel, Mulan II (2004). Sadly, however, he does not appear in the live-action/CGI Disney remake of Mulan.

Dragons have appeared in big-screen cartoons made by other film production companies too, all over the world, but especially (as might be expected) in the Far East. For example, Little Nezha Conquers The Dragon King (1979) was a sumptuously-produced Chinese animated film that drew upon ancient Chinese mythology and followed the exploits of young warrior-deity Nezha. Thanks to his training by the immortal teacher and reincarnated Shang emperor Taiyi Zhenren, and after many trials and tribulations along the way, Nezha successfully defeats Ao Guang, the mighty Dragon King of the East Sea, thereby bringing peace to the Zhou Dynasty.

In 2002, the Academy Award (Oscar) Best Animated Feature was won by Spirited Away, a remarkable Japanese fantasy film produced by the celebrated Studio Ghibli, and both written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, in which a young girl, Chihiro Ogino, becomes trapped in a bizarre alternate reality populated by spirits and monsters while seeking her parents. One of the principal characters is Haku, a river spirit, who sometimes assumes the form of a young boy, but for much of the time appears as an enormous white Oriental dragon, who can fly without wings in the manner of many such dragons from the Far East.

In 1972, Australia released its first home-grown animated film musical, Marco Polo Junior Versus The Red Dragon. Voiced by American singer and former teen idol Bobby Rydell, Marco Polo Junior is the fourteenth heir of the famous Italian traveller whose name he shares, and journeys to the legendary Chinese kingdom of Xanadu to unite the two halves of a mystical medallion. While there, he rescues the beautiful Princess Shining Moon from a forced marriage, outwits a pair of bumbling spies, encounters a hypochondriac dinosaur, and confronts Xanadu's comically despotic ruler, the Red Dragon.

Vera Chapman's Arthurian novel The King's Damosel (1976) was the basis of an animated film entitled Quest For Camelot, produced by Warner Brothers and released in 1998. Telling the story of the quest for King Arthur's legendary sword Excalibur by reclusive blind youth Garrett and plucky teenage girl Kayley (whose bold ambition is to become a Round Table knight), it features for comic relief an amusing two-headed dragon called Cornwall (the uncouth head) and Devon (the sophisticated head). Voiced by Don Rickles and Eric Idle, its two heads ostensibly dislike each another, but ultimately come to realise that they are happier together than apart.

More recently, a female dragon with a passion for Donkey (hilariously voiced by Eddie Murphy) appears in the Shrek series of animated movies released by DreamWorks, their eventual romantic liaison resulting in a flock of winged donkey foals; a diverse series of dragons including the black-scaled Toothless, the multi-horned Stormfly, and the sparkly-white Light Fury feature in the How To Train Your Dragon movie franchise; and Therru the mighty Black Dragon embodying everlasting life in the 2006 Studio Ghibli masterpiece Tales From Earthsea (based upon the famous quadrilogy of Earthsea novels by Ursula LeGuin).

A number of 'made for television' cartoon films have featured dragons, but the most significant of these is The Flight of Dragons (1982), produced by Rankin/Bass. It was primarily inspired by Gordon R. Dickson's novel The Dragon and the George (1976) and its various 'Dragon Knight' sequels, but was also influenced by Peter Dickinson's speculative natural history book The Flight of Dragons (1979) and its evocative illustrations by Wayne Anderson. The central theme of this very vivid, colourful film, filled with warring wizards as well as spectacular dragons of several different types and behaviour, is whether the worlds of magic and science can co-exist or whether one is destined to supplant the other.

 

LIVE-ACTION AND CGI MOVIE DRAGONS

Creating a realistic live-action dragon on screen is clearly a more difficult task than simply drawing one for an animated film, but thanks to stop-motion special effects and the marvels of modern-day CGI (computer-generated imagery), some truly breathtaking successes have been achieved, which include the following examples.

The undisputed master of special effects achieved via the use of expertly-constructed models in conjunction with painstaking stop-motion animation was the late Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), who personally developed an extremely effective, advanced version known as Dynamation. His meticulous work in this field turned films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the Sinbad trilogy (1958, 1974, 1977), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), and Clash of the Titans (1981) into cinematic masterpieces of fantasy and science fiction.

Ray's spectacular seven-headed, twin-tailed hydra model that is utilised in Jason and the Argonauts (photo © Dr Karl Shuker)

In April 2018, I was fortunate enough to visit a special exhibition held at Valence House in Dagenham, Essex, England, in which a sizeable number of the original models that appeared in various of his movies were on display. Entitled 'Dinosaurs, Harryhausen and Me', it was staged by expert model-maker Alan Friswell, a longstanding friend of mine, who had been officially commissioned by Ray and his estate to repair certain of his models that over time had become damaged due to their fragile nature, so he had unrivalled access to and knowledge about these iconic creations by Ray. Click here to access on my ShukerNature a detailed, fully-illustrated account of my very enjoyable visit to this exhibition.

Many famous mythological beasts featured in Ray's fantasy films, such as a roc, griffin, centaur, harpies, cyclops, winged homunculus, and snake woman, as well as two different dragons. One of these latter was a guardian dragon that appeared in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). A typical wingless classical dragon that breathes fire, it is sent to kill Sinbad and his men by a villainous wizard called Sokurah. Fortunately, they are able to slay it using an enormous crossbow-like ballista, and as it falls, mortally wounded, it crushes Sokurah to death beneath its huge body – two enemies duly dispatched for the price of one!

In Jason and the Argonauts (1963), the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and his men is guarded by the Colchis dragon. Although this is usually depicted as a winged classical dragon, for maximum visual appeal Harryhausen represented it in the film as a multi-headed hydra-like version instead. It kills one of Jason's men, the treacherous Acastus, before being slain by Jason himself, who is then able to steal the Golden Fleece, and later returns with it in triumph to Thessaly.

Greeted by Godzilla! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

There is no absolute consensus as to whether Godzilla (aka Gojira) is meant to be a radioactivity-engendered mutant dinosaur, a giant amphibious lizard, a modern-day dragon, or a combination of all three, but there is no doubt that its arch-enemy King Ghidorah is a dragon – a limbless, two-winged, twin-tailed, triple-headed, golden-scaled, fire-vomiting, laser-spewing dragon, to be precise! Ever since Godzilla debuted in the 1954 Japanese film of the same name, he has faced a daunting array of monstrous antagonists, but King Ghidorah is the most impressive, and has appeared in five Godzilla films so far. The first was Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), in which it reaches Earth inside a meteorite from Outer Space, and proceeds to decimate Japan until finally sent packing by Godzilla, Rodan (a mutant pterosaur), and Mothra (a giant moth).

Dragons on the silver screen took an enormous step – or wingbeat – forward in 1981, with the release of Dragonslayer, a co-production between Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures, which featured what was then the most realistic and visually stunning dragon ever seen in the movies. Bearing in mind that a quarter of the film's entire budget was spent upon designing and breathing life into its reptilian star attraction - a fire-breathing winged classical dragon called Vermithrax Pejorative who is appeased only by being fed two virgin maidens each year until sorcerer's apprentice Galen sets out to destroy it and its nest of rapacious dragonets – it is little wonder that the results were so eye-popping. Several highly complex, multi-part models were created, including one of its head for close-ups, a flying model, and a walking model, thereby eliminating the need for stop-motion cinematography by using a new technique called go-motion, in which the model was moved slightly while the camera was filming (rather than the camera filming a frame after the model had been moved).

One of the quirkiest dragon films ever released was director Larry Cohen's Q – The Winged Serpent (1982), in which a cult in New York City successfully resurrect the ancient flying serpent deity of Aztec mythology, who proceeds to swoop down from Manhattan's skies and skyscrapers to seize, dismember, and devour unwary city dwellers. In appearance, this odd-looking entity is not serpentine at all, instead resembling a rather gangly, long-necked quadrupedal dragon with wings, but its smooth skin seems devoid of typical reptilian scales or spines, and does not sport any feathers either (despite the original Quetzalcoatl being a plumed sky serpent).

Artist Anthony Wallis's interpretation of Q – the Winged Serpent (© Anthony Wallis)

Very different but no less memorable is Falkor the luck dragon, represented on screen as an Oriental-looking example with an inordinately lengthy body, an extremely large, heavy head, and a curiously canine face. He features in The NeverEnding Story (1984), based loosely upon the first half of the eponymous 1979 novel by Michael Ende, and also in its two sequel movies. The first of these sequels, The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter (1990), loosely covers the novel's second half, but the second one, The NeverEnding Story III: Return to Fantasia [aka Escape From Fantasia] (1994), features an entirely original story, though it does include characters from the novel.

By the mid-1990s, on-screen dragons had begun to go digital, as evinced by the CGI-created specimen voiced by Sean Connery in Dragonheart (1996). When Draco, the world's last dragon, encounters Bowen (played by Dennis Quaid), the world's last dragon-slayer, it initially appears that only one of them will survive their meeting. Happily, however, some enlightening conversation convinces them to join forces instead, and the scene is set for a dynamic confrontation with the evil King Einon.

Perhaps the epitome of the modern-day dragon film, however, is Reign of Fire (2002), directed by Rob Bowman, and starring Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. Set in the year 2020, this post-apocalyptic film reveals the devastation that has resulted after a sleeping dragon was inadvertently chanced upon and woken in an underground cave during some construction work on the London Underground shortly after the beginning of the new millennium. The dragon forced its way to the surface, swiftly multiplied, and within a dozen years humanity was virtually wiped out by a worldwide plague of flying fire-breathing dragons. Finally, however, a brave survivor, Quinn Abercromby (played by Bale), and his isolated community hiding out in a Northumberland castle reluctantly join forces with a band of American fighters led by Denton Van Zan (McConaughey) to bring to a decisive end the dragons' literal reign of fire. Although the story's premise seemed decidedly far-fetched, the special effects were truly astonishing.

A Reign of Fire dragon as interpreted by artist Anthony Wallis (© Anthony Wallis)

The same is true of Dragon Wars (2007), a South Korean film released in the West. In it, a benevolent imoogi and a malevolent imoogi (Korean serpent dragons) battle for supremacy, the latter employing an army of Western dragons, humanoid warriors, and dinosaurian monsters, and razing much of Los Angeles in the process.

An intriguing update of a classic story is the premise of the 2011 film Age of the Dragons. Here, Herman Melville's timeless novel Moby Dick is reinvented as a search by an alternate-world Captain Ahab (played by Danny Glover) and his crew not for a great white whale, but rather for a great white dragon.

So far, the dragons and dragon-riders of the planet Pern, chronicled in the extensive series of novels by Anne McCaffrey, have not been portrayed on the big screen. However, an equally outstanding set of space dragons that have been portrayed are those of Pandora - a lush verdant moon orbiting an enormous gas giant planet, Polyphemus, in James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar (2009).

One of the most dramatic Pandoran species is the ikran or mountain banshee. Somewhat pterodactylian in superficial appearance, this is a huge mountain-dwelling aerial carnivore with two pairs of leathery wings (larger fore and smaller aft, boasting an average wingspan of 45.5 ft for its fore pair). It can be ridden by only the bravest Na'vi warriors (the Na'vi are the 9-10-ft-tall blue-skinned humanoids native to Pandora). A smaller relative is the ikranay or forest banshee, inhabiting rainforests and sporting a 23-ft wingspan. Most spectacular of all, however, is the closely-related toruk or great leonopteryx, a brightly-coloured iridescent behemoth of the skies, which is the apex aerial predator of Pandora. Possessing a stupendous 75-ft-plus wingspan, it has even attacked human aircraft, believing them to be competing predators invading its territory. At the opposite end of the size scale is the riti or stingbat, a butterfly-like dragon indigenous to the rainforest canopy, with a wingspan of just 4 ft, and of only very limited intelligence. Although very aggressive and armed with lethal tail spines, these small creatures are treated almost as pets by some Na'vi, who feed them fruit by hand.

A rich variety of dragons have also featured in the 21st-Century screen versions of J.K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' novels and her newer 'Fantastic Beasts' movie series, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the three-part The Hobbit (all directed by Peter Jackson), and Christopher Paolini's Eragon in his 'Inheritance Cycle' series.

A selection of my recent CGI movie DVDs that feature dragons (photo © Dr Karl Shuker / movies © KOAN/The Asylum/MediaPro/High Octane/Metrodome/Dragon Fire Productions/Sci-Fi Channel/Showbox/Brightspark Productions/Universal Pictures/New Line Cinema/Sci Fi Pictures/Bazelevs Production– reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Even more recently, a veritable phalanx of CGI-driven dragon movies have appeared on DVD, some directly, others following either a cinematic or a TV release. My own DVD collection includes such examples as The Adventures of a Dragon Hunter, The Christmas Dragon, Dragon, The Dragon Chronicles, Dragon Crusaders, Dragon Hunter, Dragon Mountain, Dragon Quest, Dragon Soldiers, Dragon Storm, Dragon World, Dragonheart: A New Beginning, Dragons Rage, Dungeons and Dragons: The Movie, Dungeons and Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God, George and the Dragon, and I Am Dragon, to mention but a few!

All in all, there is every reason to believe that the age of the dragon will live on and attain even greater heights of awe-inspiring wonder in future generations of films on the big screen.

This Shuker In MovieLand multi-movie review is an expanded, updated excerpt from my book Dragons In Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture.

Dragons In Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (© Dr Karl Shuker/Coachwhip Publications)

 

 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

HYDRA: THE LOST ISLAND

The official DVD for Hydra: The Lost Island (© Andrew Prendergast/CineTel Films/Syfy Universal/First Look International/Sunfilm Entertainment – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

In 2009, CineTel Films released a made-for-cable-television movie entitled Hydra: The Lost Island, directed by Andrew Prendergast. It was subsequently made available internationally on DVD, which is what I watched last night [21 June 2020].

A slick blend of thriller, horror, action, and mythology, Hydra tells the tale of how the legendary many-headed Lernaean hydra is reawakened from countless centuries of dormancy by a major seaquake near its previously-uncharted, undiscovered volcanic Mediterranean island domain. (The minor detail that it had already been slain long ago by Hercules aka Heracles in the classical Greek myth of his twelve great labours seems to have been overlooked here!)

No doubt hungry after its prolonged fasting, the bloodthirsty mega-beast proceeds to chomp up everyone who sets foot on its island. These include a party of vicious man-hunters, some of their ex-convict targets (one of whom, Tim Nolan, is played by Hollywood/TV actor George Stults), and even one of the film's two leading protagonists – female archaeologist Dr Valerie Cammon (Polly Shannon) seeking the fabled sword of Hercules.

If wielded against the hydra, this mighty blade can not only successfully decapitate the monster's heads without enabling them to regrow and duplicate but also kill it, the only weapon with the power to do so. Despite Hydra being a low-budget movie, its special effects breathing life into the polycephalic predator – whose heads, incidentally, are startlingly reminiscent of gargantuan Venus flytraps – are in my opinion every bit as impressive as its rapacity for its human prey is unrelenting.

For multi-headed monster movie buffs everywhere (the monster being multi-headed, that is, not the movie buffs!), Hydra: The Lost Island is well worth a watch. So here to whet your appetite is a trailer for it, which, aptly enough, shows the horrifying hydra very much on the trail of its hitherto-secluded realm's human interlopers. And for more information concerning the classical Lernaean hydra, please click here to read all about it on ShukerNature.

[The earlier, shorter version of this review was originally written by me on 22 June 2020.]

Publicity poster for Hydra: The Lost Island (© Andrew Prendergast/CineTel Films/Syfy Universal/First Look International/Sunfilm Entertainment – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

 

 

Friday, October 9, 2020

ROCKETMAN

 
Publicity poster for Rocketman (© Dexter Fletcher/New Republic Pictures/Marv Films/Rocket Pictures/Paramount Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

After reviewing the Queen/Freddie Mercury music biopic Bohemian Rhapsody just a couple of days ago here on Shuker in MovieLand (click here), it seemed only appropriate to follow it up with a review of the biopic of another major league music act that followed it into the cinemas just a few months later. This later movie is Rocketman, and its subject is Elton John. So here is an expanded version of what I originally wrote shortly after watching it on the big screen in the UK just a few days after its cinematic release in 2019.

My visit today [14 June 2019] to the local cinema was to see the no-holds-barred Elton-John-fuelled extravaganza that is Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher. Inevitably, there is an immediate temptation to attempt a compare-and-contrast coverage featuring last year's Freddie Mercury/Queen-inspired hit movie Bohemian Rhapsody, especially as both films have as their focus an internationally-renowned rock megastar famed for lifestyle excess and a flamboyant persona. Yet whereas the former movie is by and large a straightforward biopic, Rocketman is more comparable to a deluxe cinematic version of the very popular jukebox genre of stage musical showcasing the major songs of some specific artist or group. And just like the latter genre, it does so via a series of visually and aurally spectacular set pieces, chosen for their aptness in relation to a particular scene or incident in Elton's life story. It also adds to the mix a sizeable helping of visual fantasy, including one scene where he soars high into the air, and another where as an adult he meets himself as a young boy playing the piano at the bottom of a swimming pool – more about which later.

Elton is played with enormous energy and charm by Taron Egerton (who also sings all the songs in an uncannily Eltonesque tone and manner), though it has to be said that Taron, as well as Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy who had both been previously in the frame to play him, have the kind of physique that I can't personally recall for Elton at least from the videos and concert footage that I've seen. Never mind – bearing in mind that Elton himself was an executive producer of the film and his husband David Furnish one of its producers, you can hardly blame them for selecting as photogenic a star as possible to portray their main man. Also, to be fair, when suited and platform-booted in his famously flamboyant and OTT stage outfits, Elton's own physique was always doomed to take second place to his performance persona anyway, as with Bowie, Mercury, Kiss, and other similarly larger-than-life superstars.

Equally likeable is Elton's longterm lyricist partner and friend Bernie Taupin as rendered by Jamie Bell, although it's quite a shock to see Jamie as he is today, all grown up, when images of his breakout role as the angelic ballet-dancing boy in Billy Elliot still readily come to mind. Richard Madden from the smash-hit TV shows Game of Thrones and Bodyguard plays his real-life manager John Reid (who was also Queen's manager for a time, and in Bohemian Rhapsody was coincidentally played by another former Game of Thrones star, Aidan 'Littlefinger' Gillen), with whom Elton was in a relationship for a time. He is presented very much as the villain of the piece here, rather more so than he was in Bohemian Rhapsody. Yet as Rocketman is such a slick melange of fact and fantasy (even its official advertising tagline is 'Based on a True Fantasy'), how close or otherwise this may be to reality is anyone's guess (unless of course you were there when it all took place, which I wasn't, so I'll never know).

Giving viewers a taste of what to expect right from the very onset, Rocketman's opening scene is nothing if not memorable. Decked out in a full devil-inspired orange jumpsuit outfit, complete with horns and huge scarlet wings (not sure if there was a tail), Elton is seen stalking purposefully down a corridor in what turns out to be an addiction centre, where he duly sits down in a group meeting and tells his life story to the others gathered there, with the movie coming full-circle almost at the end when it shows him arriving there in his devil outfit, determined to turn his life around after it had spiralled almost out of control and existence.

Indeed, a major contrast between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman is whereas Bohemian Rhapsody largely shies away from documenting Freddie's excesses, Rocketman presents extensive, unflinching coverage of Elton's, relentlessly portraying at the height of his fame Elton's descent into a tragic, deeply unhappy existence fuelled by addiction to drugs and alcohol that on two occasions take him to the very brink of death itself (the scene featuring him at the bottom of the swimming pool portrays one of these occasions). It also depicts his seemingly less than easy relationship with his parents, his greatest support as a young Reginald Dwight yearning for music success apparently coming from his Nan (played with great warmth and empathy by Gemma 'The Duchess of Duke Street' Jones).

Naturally, many of Elton's most famous, classic songs, generally co-written by Bernie Taupin, are featured in Rocketman – including 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road', 'Crocodile Rock', 'Daniel', 'Benny and the Jets', 'I'm Still Standing', 'Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting', 'Pinball Wizard', 'The Bitch Is Back', 'Your Song', 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart', 'I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me', 'Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest World', and, obviously, 'Rocket Man' ('Candle In The Wind' appears as an instrumental). Moreover, a special song written especially for this movie by Elton and Bernie, entitled '(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again', won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony.

I've never been an Elton John fan as such (although I do like some of his songs a lot – I wish that 'Sacrifice', my all-time favourite, had been included), but I did enjoy Rocketman very much, and I greatly admire Elton's considerable bravery and candour in revealing so much of the downs as well as the ups that have shaped his life and career. Fittingly, the movie ends on a very positive note, or notes, with Taron as Elton launching into a near-identical version of the original video that accompanied Elton's upbeat 1980s hit song 'I'm Still Standing' – because he is indeed, as we are also reminded afterwards via a series of captioned pictures of him in much later years with David Furnish (not portrayed in the film) and their two children, as well as with Bernie Taupin.

My one major quibble – which has nothing to do with the movie itself – is that Taron's absolutely mesmerising performance as Elton did not earn him as much as a Best Actor nomination at the 2020 Academy Awards, let alone the actual award itself, which to my mind is a gross injustice. Perhaps, however, as Rami Malek had won this selfsame Oscar (and deservedly so) at the previous year's Academy Awards for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, the judges may have baulked at the possibility of a music biopic star winning this same award for a second consecutive year? Who knows? Happily, though, Taron did win a Best Actor Golden Globe for his performance, so he was by no means entirely overlooked, which is excellent.

It has apparently taken around two decades from original concept to final release for Rocketman to appear on screen, but it's been well worth the wait, not only for Elton fans but also for anyone like me who enjoys and appreciates showmanship taken to the nth degree.

No question about it, Rocketman is a great film, visually and aurally – but if you aren't convinced, just click here to check out a superb trailer for it on YouTube!

[This review's earlier, shorter review was written by me on 14 June 2019.]