Thursday, December 06, 2007

Top 10: 80s Fantasy

Even with its newfangled three-dimensional gimmickry, Beowulf is a drag. A pair of wonderfully strange, kinky performances from Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie aside, Robert Zemeckis' film is a leaden affair, bogged down by Zemeckis' misguided allegiance to motion capture. The CG is so consistently plastic-fantastic that Zemeckis sacrifices texture, scale and depth in favor of instantly-dated kitsch - by the end, all I wanted was to look at a real sky, real faces, perhaps even a real nipple (or two).

The sad thing is, the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary could have made a hell of a movie were it made in a leaner, more practical fashion - in Ireland, say, on overcast days, with actors knee-deep in mud, blood and viscera. My hypothetical version of Beowulf would probably make about twelve dollars, but it would have more integrity. This got me thinking about the 1980s, that wonderful period in fantasy filmmaking, when the success of Star Wars led studios to throw enormous amounts of money at lavish, tremendousy geeky epics. These films took place in meticulously designed fantasy worlds built at places with fantastic names like Shepperton and Pinewood. They were usually earnest and self-important, and sometimes completely laughable. But for every Yor: The Hunter From the Future, there were a wealth of sword-and-sorcery tales that captured the imagination of many a young geek (present company included, of course). They were tangible in a way that most fantasy films today are mostly synthetic, and the list below could double as a primer for any of today's indoor kids who think that The Chronicles of Narnia is as good as it gets. It's not their fault.

1. Excalibur A serious retelling of the Arthurian legend, filled with blood, breasts and mayhem, that succeeds in making an oft-repeated story feel stunningly immediate. John (Zardoz) Boorman's greatest strength and failure is his willingless to show us the ridiculous with a straight face; the result is that the sword in the stone, the lady in the lake and other cliches that had already been brutalized by Monty Python suddenly felt relevant and even knowingly funny without falling into self-parody (largely thanks to Nicol Williamson's wry Merlin). It's a beautiful film, too, bathed in shadows and driven by Orff long before Carmina Burana became an action-movie cliche.

2. The Dark Crystal I'm only half-joking when I tell people that this movie is closer than any religion to my belief system. Directors Jim Henson and Frank Oz, along with artist Brian Froud, succeed in creating a world as fully realized as George Lucas', complete with a more developed philosophy - that it stars Muppets is all the more remarkable. Also, this movie scares the bejesus out of my wife.

3. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Criticized unfairly for its massive budget and dumped upon its release, Terry Gilliam's lavish tall tale transported me and many other small children who discovered it, unheralded, on video or cable (it's amazing to me how many of my friends can extensively quote an unqualified flop). The Baron's fabrications and delusions become the basis for a wildly ambitious farce that literally journeys to the farthest reaches of heaven and earth. Plus, Gilliam gives Robin Williams a role (king of the moon) that he cannot possibly overact.

4. The Neverending Story Revisiting this as an adult, I was shocked at how dark it really is. The villian is nothingness, the conflict a race against the death of imagination in the face of childhood's end. It's a must-see for any kid who'd prefer to hide in a book than put away childish things. Fantasia, the film's imaginary world, retains its immersive beauty even as the effects date, demonstrating that photorealism is not nearly as important as artistry. Plus, Falcor is soooo cool.

5. The Princess Bride A satire of sorts, but one that retains an affection for the stories (and movies) it pokes fun at. Plus, no list of sword-and-sorcery movies is complete without one of the very best swordfights in cinema (isn't it weird that Mandy Patinkin was once briefly cool?)

6. Conan the Barbarian An unapologetic display of pure phallic might directed by the inspiration for John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski (indeed, I imagine that Walter Sobchak's wet dreams are something like this). The Terminator is the better movie, but Arnold was never more Arnold than he is here. The tits are ripe, the decapitations are plentiful, Thulsa Doom is present and accounted for - few films make total idiocy feel so good. Also, Ron Cobb rules!

7. Labyrinth A little more kid-oriented than The Dark Crystal. But The Dark Crystal didn't have a spandex-clad, Goblin-ruling David Bowie (thus began my latency period).

8. Legend Strictly the Jerry Goldsmith-scored director's cut, not the choppy, incoherent theatrical version (though that Tangerine Dream score is pretty boss). Ridley Scott creates another world as fully realized as Blade Runner's future. It's embarassingly earnest at points, but is ultimately unforgettable thanks to Tim Curry's terrifying, sexy performance as Darkness (aided by Rob Bottin's excellent makeup work).

9. Dragonslayer The most direct ancestor of Beowulf, one that more enthusiastically embraces its unapologetic paganism. Made during Disney's attempt to change its kiddie-movie image, it's at points shockingly dark and gory - the baby dragons munching on a virgin is not only nightmare territory for youngsters, it also raises the stakes of the young hero's quest immeasurably. Deeply derivative of Star Wars, but in a good way.

10. Fire and Ice Frank Frazetta is the ultimate geek, and his jaw-droppingly insane illustrations come to life thanks to Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoping (a predecessor of mo-cap). And while the hand-drawn animation is often crude, particuarly compared to its 2007 incarnation, it has one thing that Zemeckis' film doesn't: balls.


Dr. Criddle said...

I had fun with Beowulf, but nonetheless it's not a movie I'd go out of my way to see again. I think you're right that what it lacks is heart. Its primary reason for being made seemed to be to push Robert Zemeckis's motion capture-fetishizing agenda, which sadly proved to be all talk: even though the human characters move more like real people, I still didn't think they looked any more realistic than those from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It definatley says something that the most successfully realized mocap peformance was Crispin Glover's wonderful Grendel.

The look of the film is decidedly plastic, as if the castles were all built that year, and all the helmets and swords purchased from the nearest Wal-Mart. Although meticulously detailed, the colors and textures seemed like they were inspired by D&D-esque computer games like World of Warcraft. If I had been in charge of this film, I'd have envisioned something that looked a lot more like Roman Polanksi's Macbeth, with a minimal amount of CGI and a reliance on practical effects created by someone like Weta workshop, or better yet, the Stan Winston studio.

Dr. Criddle said...

P.S. Andrew, I'm curious, did you see this in 3D or 2D? My friend and I had planned to go to the 3D version and I got tickets online, unknowing that they were for the standard one - it wasn't until we actually got to the theater that we learned the IMAX was sold out, so we decided to just watch the 2D version, and if we liked it enough, we'd go see it in 3D another time. Of course, I really didn't really like it enough to warrant seeing it again on any format.

Andrew Bemis said...

I saw it in 3D, which I wouldn't really recommend if you didn't like it all that much. With Monster House and The Nightmare Before Christmas it was a cute gimmick for already-charming films, but since I wasn't having much fun with Beowulf it just became sensory overload. Plus, those glasses become an isolating experience - there were points when I just took them off and looked at the collective dazed look on the audience's face.

PIPER said...


Excellent list. The addition of Fire and Ice caps it for me. I love that film.

And your evaluation of Beowulf is spot on. Watching it was like trying to eat plastic fruit. I looked real enough, but didn't feel real or taste anything like the real thing.

I might add a somewhat lesser movie that still holds a place dear in my heart. The Beastmaster. Is cheesy, drippy goodness.

Anonymous said...

fucking hell, Noel Murrary picked this movie as underrated! what the hell?

Andrew Bemis said...

I can't argue too strongly with his reasoning, and it was funny in places. I guess I can't get past the plastic breasts (story of my life).

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