Quickie Review: Jason and the Argonauts (dir. by Don Chaffey)

While I have been buying and collecting dvds for some ten years now (collection around 2500-3000 titles) I have seen those purchases dwindle and wane to almost just a few a year now. I blame the convenience of Netflix and my resurgence in gaming with my Xbox 360 as the main cause for my slacking off in the dvd collecting. While  I still see myself collecting dvds and, most likely, moving onto blue-rays, I have seen why people love their Netflix accounts so much. Last night I was able to combine my love for my Netflix and my Xbox 360 and feed my need to always be watching a film. Using Netflix Instant I was able to watch streaming over my Xbox 360 one of the classic fantasy films ever made.

The film I speak of is the 1963 classic fantasy meets Greek mythology simply called Jason and the Argonauts. It is one of those films which has stood the test of time. I know of no film lover who hasn’t seen this at least once. It’s beloved and admired by millions of people of different generations for its simplicity and for the work of one man whose name overshadows everyone on the film from the director to the actors. This was the film which established for eternity the genius and imaginative creative of special effects guru Ray Harryhausen.

Jason and the Argonauts takes one of the more popular Greek myths about a son looking to re-take his father’s kingdom from a usurper but in the process goes through a journey that pits him against monsters, betrayers and the Gods themselves. The titular character and his crew must travel to the fabled island of Colchis at the edge of the world to find the legendary Golden Fleece purported to have magical properties of healing and even to grant peace throughout the land. I say that’s a piece of item worth fighting off a giant bronze warrior statue, screeching harpies, tempermental seaside cliffs and up to a many-headed hydra and skeleton warriors spawned from it’s teeth.

The acting is typical of most fantasy films of the 60’s and that’s they’re all bombastic, full of vigor and turns even the most simple dialogue into pronouncements of epic deeds to be done. Todd Armstrong leads a cast of British actors including such luminaries of their era like Nigel Green, Nancy Kovack, Honor Blackman and Douglas Wilmer. While the acting may seem quaint by today’s standards I still believe it’s what gives the film it’s timeless energy and quality. It makes the film flow like an epic poem that gave birth to it’s source material to begin with.

But what really makes this film stand out years after years and decade after decade since it’s release is the stop-motion animation effects created by the king of stop-motion effects himself, Ray Harryhausen. To say that the quieter moments where characters interact with each other almost feel like fillers to move the story along until it reaches one of several action sequences featuring Harryhausen’s work. It doesn’t diminish the work done by the actors or the efficient direction by filmmaker Don Chaffey. It just means that Harryhausen’s stop-motion work were so impressive that the audience just wants to see what new magic he has up next.

The climactic fight between Jason and his men versus skeleton warriors born from the teeth of a slain hydra (a stop-motion sequence which was in itself quite impressive) still goes down as one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking married with special effects today. There’s something to be admired about a four and a half minute action sequence where Harryhausen spent 4 months of meticulous frame-by-frame work to make the skeletal opponents come to life. There’s a reason why so many special effects magicians since then have pointed to this scene as one of their favorites and one reason why they got into the FX work to begin with.

Jason and the Argonauts may not have the technical wizardry of today’s fantasy epics and films with their million-dollar budgets spent on CGI-effects. It may not have the seriousness that today’s fantasy films have taken to heart (losing some of the fun, innocence of what makes fantasy films so great). What it does have is great storytelling which harkens back to a more innocent, hopeful and simple time. It also has the finest work of one of film history’s master magicians in Ray Harryhausen and that, in the end, is what makes this film of the the greatest of its kind and one every kid should be introduced to.

Scenes I Love: The Vampire and The Ballerina

I don’t really know much about The Vampire and the Ballerina, other than it was released in 1960 and it’s an Italian film, but — after watching a few clips on YouTube — this movie has become my new Holy Grail.  What that means, of course, is that King Arthur will continue to weaken and Mordred shall continue to conquer England until my freaky, mismatched, Irish eyes catch sight of this movie in its entirety.

If you’ve read enough of my previous posts, you can probably guess why this movie appeals to me.  First off, it’s Italian.  Second off, it apparently features at least one vampire.  And, of course, the main reason is that apparently it’s got something to do with ballet. 

Back when I still thought I was going to grow up to be a professional dancer, I have to admit that I went through a very long period of time where my *ahem* fantasies were pretty much dominated by dark, tortured men with fangs who drank blood to survive.  So just seeing the title The Vampire and The Ballerina is like a serious jolt from the past for me.

(Though from the clips I’ve seen on YouTube, the vampire in question is not exactly material for an erotic interlude…)

Anyway, from what I’ve seen of The Vampire and the Ballerina, here’s the scene I keep coming back to.  Yes, it is a dance sequence but it’s not exactly ballet.  In fact, I have yet to see any signs of ballet in any of the clips I’ve found on YouTube but I figure it must have a ballet subplot.  I mean, titles never mislead!

As for why I like it — well, there’s the endearing quaintness of the fact that leotards and tights were once considered to be daring and risqué.  There’s a shamelessness to it as well that I think perfectly defines everything I love about Italian films.  You can almost hear the director saying, “Did we get her ass in that shot?”  And the dance itself is such a combination of stupid and brilliant that it reminds me — in a good, nostalgia-filled way, of just about every modern dance recital I was ever featured in.

I have to admit that there’s a part of me that wishes I had been alive in 1960 so I could have caught a plane to Italy and been one of these dancers.  Why not?  I love to dance, I’ve been told I have a nice ass, and occasionally, I guess, I do kinda sorta maybe act out just to get attention.   Seriously, with all of that in mind,  I would have been great for this film.  Or, seeing as how I have yet to see the entire film, this sequence.

Unfortunately, I was born a good six decades or so too late.  However, even though it’s too late for me to star in the movie, I still believe that one day soon I will sit down and I will watch an entire, uncut showing of The Vampire and The Ballerina.

And on that day, the fate of England will be determined…