Friday, October 29, 2010

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was produced, written and directed by Robert Rossen and released on March 28, 1956.  Rossen is best-known for writing and directing The Hustler.  The film stars 29 year-old Richard Burton as Alexander and Frederic March as his father, Philip.
The film begins in 356 BCE with Philip attacking Greece and Alexander's birth and takes us through his entire brief life until 323 BCE.   The film feels long at 136 minutes but Rossen's original cut was over three hours (including an intermission). Frankly, I think it would be difficult to sit through if it were any longer.
The camera barely moves during the film with the exception of the battle sequences. The stationary camera makes an already long, slow story feel even longer and slower.  Rossen went to great pains to make the film as historically accurate as he could.  All the major events of Alexander's life are in the film but sometimes they're presented in such a way as to make it seem like one is reading a history text rather than watching an epic film.
What I mean is that, for me, though the film seems authentic enough in design and detail, it lacks the realism or authenticity of actual emotion.  None of the actors seem to be giving their characters much range, with the possible exception of March as Philip who really anchors and saves the first hour of the film.  The performances are stilted and dry.  That, combined with the stationary camera, makes the film really stagey and dull.
Matters aren't helped by Richard Burton, who, at the age of 29, looks about 40. When he first appears on screen it is to play a teenaged Alexander which is totally unbelievable.  Alexander was only 32 when he died so Burton feels out of place the entire time.  He has an incredible voice that is brilliant for the stage but on camera, he lacks variation and emotion.  Also, his hair looks ridiculous.
The costumes and art direction are both solid, for the most part.  However, there's nothing stellar that we haven't seen before.  The gorgeous 2.55:1 aspect ratio means you can fill the frame with a lot of information and there are some beautiful shots in the film.  Stronger production design would have made the film look really impressive.
Alexander is portrayed as more of a tyrant than he usually is.  Some films tend to glorify him for uniting the world rather than focusing on the massive death tolls. This one is somewhere in the middle.  Again, like a history text book, it seems to be trying to remain unbiased and in the middle.  The result is that the audience doesn't really care what happens to Alexander or most of the other characters.
I would say that this is not a bad film, but it's also not a great film.  It's good.  I wonder if it had been allowed to exist at its original length if there would have been more breathing room for character development.  That might have helped it. Unfortunately, I think the rest of the footage has been lost so we may never know.

The DVD is also nothing to write home about.  It has only the film and the trailer.  I would love to have seen some behind the scenes content or at least interviews with film historians who could have discussed the film and its creator.  If you're looking for a strong historical account of Alexander's life and events then this is a good film to check out.  If you're looking for sheer entertainment, I'd look elsewhere.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Creatures of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

For The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Ray Harryhausen created his first stop-motion characters for a colour feature film.  They look fantastic and his animation work in this film is stunning.
The first creature to grace the screen in this film is the giant Cyclops.  This character, more than any other Harryhausen creation, has inspired movie-goers and filmmakers for generations.  He moves with life-like fluidity and his colouring is vibrant and memorable.
The magician Sokurah changes a lady in waiting into a dancing serpent woman.  Harryhausen did a great job of recreating the actress's facial features on his stop-motion puppet so the effect is seamless.
It must have been a great challenge to animate the giant mythological birds on the island of Colossa.  Harryhausen used real feathers on the Roc and its hatchling which would have been very difficult to control from frame to frame.
One of the most memorable sequences in the film involves Sinbad battling a living Skeleton Warrior.  Painstaking care had to be taken to memorize each move in the fight sequence so that the animation could be added later in the proper position.  This sequence would inspire the epic battle in Jason and the Argonauts a few years later.
Finally, for the epic finale of the film, a Cyclops battles a fire-breathing dragon to the death.  Harryhausen's skill in animating both of these creatures through their titanic struggle is incredible.  The fight terrified children and inspired a spirit of adventure that the film is remembered for.
Be sure to check out Ray Harryhausen's official website to discover more about the master and his work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

"From the land beyond, beyond; From the world past hope and fear, I bid you, Genie, now appear!"
Billed as the 8th wonder of the screen, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), was the first collaboration of Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer to be filmed in colour.  It was directed by Nathan Juran whose film career had begun in the 1930s as an art director.  He would go on to direct many episodes of Irwin Allen television series which also used unique and fun special effects.
The first time I saw this film I was about 13 years-old and it aired on TVOntario as part of a program called Saturday Night at the Movies with Elwy Yost.  Yost introduced me to all the great films of Hitchcock, Harryhausen and others.  The 7th Voyage really captured my imagination and was one of the films that got me interested in becoming a filmmaker.  I built a little studio in my parents' basement where I experimented with special effects make-up and model-making and sought out all of Harryhausen's other films on VHS to be my guides.
The 7th Voyage is definitely a product of its time.  Shot in Spain for about $650,000, it does bow to a lot inappropriate racial and cultural stereotypes of medieval Arabia that were prevalent in the 50s (and sadly, still are).  However, I think the filmmakers did try to be respectful of Islam.  They were at least conscious enough to include appropriate references to Allah.  The La Alhambra Palace in Granada provided a great location with architecture that at least feels like it's right for the period.  The costuming is elaborate and beautiful.  Unfortunately, no one is credited for it so we don't know who to thank!  One costuming criticism might be that Sinbad's costumes are a bit too clean-cut and elaborate for a medieval sailor but somehow, his look sort of works.
My major criticism of the film is in the casting.  The cast is so white-washed that it's a tad offensive.  Kerwin Matthews plays Sinbad.  He was under contract to Columbia Pictures and was probably the best choice at the time but he's clearly not from the Middle East.  Nor is his Princess Parisa, played by Kathryn Grant.  Matthews is a good actor.  He's athletic and handsome enough to play a hero and once you get 15 minutes into the film you can sort of forget that he's out of place.  Not so with Grant.  She's entirely too cheerful and bubbly throughout the entire film (even when she's in mortal danger!).  
The greatest casting, and my favourite character in the film, is the evil magician Sokurah, played by Torin Thatcher.  Thatcher is fantastically theatrical.  His grand gestures and command of his voice make him a perfect magician.  He's also great at conveying sinister darkness.  He's one of the all-time great screen villains and one of the reasons this film is as successful as it is.
Most people are familiar with the Saga of Sinbad from its inclusion in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.  The stories are actually much older and were heavily influenced by Greek literature like Homer's The Odyssey.  The 7th Voyage combines elements from a few of Sinbad's voyages with new elements from the screenwriters, Kenneth Kolb and Ray Harryhausen.  The story begins when Sinbad and his crew land on the island of Colossa and are attacked by a Cyclops.  They are rescued by Sokurah who uses a Genie from a magic lamp to help protect them.  In their escape, the Cyclops takes the lamp back to his treasure trove.
The amazing Cyclops is probably my favourite Harryhausen creation.  He's incredibly striking and his design and the animation are as wonderful today as they were in 1958.
Back in Baghdad, Sokurah performs great feats of illusion and magic to please the Caliph and continually asks for help in putting together an expedition to return to his island and retrieve the magic lamp.  The Caliph refuses on Sinbad's advice that the island is too dangerous.  Sokurah then sneaks into Princess Parisa's chamber at night and casts a spell which shrinks her to the size of a doll.  He tells Sinbad that he can cure her only with a potion for which the ingredients are on his island, thus launching the voyage.
On the island, Sinbad and his crew fight a giant Roc to get a piece of its eggshell for use in the potion.  They also have another encounter with a Cyclops.  Parisa is small enough to join the Genie in his lamp.  She befriends him and promises to help him gain his freedom if he will help them escape.  Together, they best the Cyclops and follow Sokurah to his underground castle that is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon.
There, Sokurah restores Parisa and then turns on Sinbad.  He calls upon a living skeleton that battles the hero in one of the all-time great fantasy sword fights.  This sequence would pave the way for the amazing skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts  a few years later.  Sinbad defeats the skeleton only to find the entrance to the cave blocked by another Cylcops.  Sinbad releases the dragon and there is a titanic struggle between the two monsters that is beautifully animated by Harryhausen.
Finally, Sinbad and Parisa escape and Sokurah is defeated.  The Genie is freed and joins Sinbad's crew as a cabin boy.  
The film moves at a great pace.  The story is engaging.  It's well-directed and the effects are masterful and groundbreaking.  Bernard Herrmann's score is incredibly memorable.  The whole package is really an amazing piece of entertainment that is as enjoyable today as it must have been in 1958.

The DVD that is part of the Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection is definitely worth checking out.  It includes some great old interviews with Harryhausen and Schneer, an original advertising trailer for the process of "Dynamation," and a great documentary called The Harryhausen Chronicles which is narrated by Leonard Nimoy.  If you haven't seen this film, you really must check it out!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eye Candy: David Kawena's Hercules

David Kawena is a fantastic artist who has done a series of images of Disney heroes as near nudes.  Here's some of his work featuring Hercules from Disney's Hercules.

Check out the rest of his work at Deviantart.