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Austin Chronicle Video Reviews

FEBRUARY 7, 2000: 

Jason and the Argonauts
D: Don Chaffey (1963); with Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack (special visual effects: Ray Harryhausen; music: Bernard Herrmann).

Harryhausen's movies have sometimes been described as beginning-monster-monster-monster-end, and in spite of being an oversimplification, it's sometimes an apt description. Jason and the Argonauts certainly fits into that category, but in spite of its formulaic nature, it's a wonderfully engaging and entertaining film. The son of the former king of Thessaly, Jason (Armstrong) hopes to drive the murderous usurper Pelias from the throne by finding the Golden Fleece and returning with it to his kingdom. Along the way, he and his crew of Greek champions encounter a number of monstrous antagonists, including the bronze colossus Talos, a pair of ill-tempered harpies, a seven-headed hydra, and an army of living skeletons. Although Jason's mission is basically one of thievery, and the tale ends before his ill-fated love with Medea reaches critical mass, the storyline takes a backseat to the monsters. Each mythological creature was brought to life by the incredible stop-motion animation of Harryhausen, who painstakingly created the effects one frame at a time. Also worth noting is Bernard Herrmann's exceptional music, which perfectly underscores the almost-surreal presence of Harryhausen's creatures. The DVD of Jason and the Argonauts has a razor-sharp picture, better even than Criterion's outstanding deluxe laserdisc, and the image is letter-boxed to its original aspect ratio. The package also includes a trailer and a conversation between Harryhausen and John Landis about the making of the film. This was the first film from Columbia/Tristar's Harryhausen Signature Collection of laserdiscs to be released in DVD; with 7th Voyage also now on the video shelves, hopefully the rest of his work will follow soon. -- Bud Simons

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad
D: Nathan Juran (1958); with Kerwin Mathews, Kathryn Grant, Torin Thatcher (special visual effects: Ray Harryhausen; music, Bernard Herrmann).

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was the third film brought to the screen by producer Charles H. Schneer and effects technician Harryhausen, and broke new ground for the duo in a number of ways. The Arabian Nights adventure was their inaugural color picture, marking the first time Harryhausen brought multiple monstrosities to life through the painstaking process of stop-motion animation and was the first of several Harryhausen-Schneer films to be scored by legendary composer Herrmann. The story pits Sinbad (Mathews) against a malevolent sorcerer, an animated skeleton, a fire-breathing dragon, and a pair of Cyclops, all of whom he must overcome to restore his pint-sized princess to her normal size and thereby avert a war. It's pure Saturday matinee fare, elevated by Harryhausen's incredible technical virtuosity into first-rate entertainment. Particularly memorable are the classic sword fight with the skeleton, wonderfully punctuated by Herrmann's castanet-driven music, and the scenes with the Cyclops, a giant, goat-legged nightmare with a taste for human flesh and a perpetually hostile attitude. 7th Voyage is the second of Harryhausen's movies to find its way to the DVD format, and Columbia/Tristar has fashioned a great package for his many fans. The film is letterboxed and the image and sound quality are very good. In addition, there are a number of special features, including the featurettes This Is Dynamation and Richard Schickel's The Harryhausen Chronicles, seven trailers from other Harryhausen movies, and strangely, the same interview with John Landis that appears on the Jason and the Argonauts DVD. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is Harryhausen at the peak of his ability and remains one of the master's most energetic excursions into the realm of fantasy. -- Bud Simons

Lake Placid
D: Steve Miner (1999); with Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Betty White, Brendan Gleeson.

A sort of Ally McBeal meets Alligator. The only difference is that the giant creature is actually a crocodile and instead of the gaunt Calista Flockhart we get the equally lean Bridget Fonda. Aside from that, the same neurotic humor that drives David E. Kelley's hit TV show can be found throughout this movie (also produced and written by Kelley). The problem is that it doesn't really fit into the story, and the actors aren't capable of pulling it off (with the glorious exception of White). The story begins after a game warden in Maine has been gnawed to death by a mysterious creature. A plucky paleontologist (Fonda) is entranced by the huge molar left in the poor guy's body. Also interested are a local sheriff (Gleeson), a wealthy croc watcher (Platt), and a handsome game warden (Pullman). Everyone seems to be stumbling all over each other trying to find the giant reptile, and eventually, the trail leads to Dolores Bickerman (White), a foul-mouthed animal lover. With all the characters in place, awkward dialogue follows as well as the emergence of the monster. Effects are pretty good, and there is a degree of suspense. Aside from that, the film seems to be a comedy of errors, particularly on the part of the actors. None seems to comprehend how to play this flick. Straight? Campy? Funny? Only White (a real-life animal rights activist) seems at home in this mess. In fact, many of her profane lines are the film's highlights. Outside of the dramatic confusion, writer Kelley seems baffled as to what kind of message he's sending. Just check out the conclusion, which should appeal to both NRA and PETA supporters. Of course, there are several laughs to be had. All of which are unintentional and perhaps not worth some people's time. -- Mike Emery

Deep Blue Sea
D: Renny Harlin (1999); with Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J.

Nearly every sea creature movie since Jaws (save, of course, the San Marcos-filmed Piranha) has been quite awful. With that in mind, Deep Blue Sea comes across as quite a surprise, with its great effects and balance of suspense, action, and horror. We meet a group of scientists working on a cure for Alzheimer's, whose base is an oceanic research station. The guinea pigs? Three monstrous, great white sharks with vastly superior intelligence. Among the staff are a square-jawed diving stud (Jane), a sexy scientist (Burrows), a corporate observer (Jackson), and an affable cook (LL Cool J) with a pet parrot. Things go bad when a scientist's arm is bitten off and his helicopter rescue ends in a crash that devastates the station. From here, our trapped heroes must make their way up ladders and through flooded corridors with the nasty man-eaters nipping at their heels. Bad acting is abundant, but this film clearly belongs to Harlin's stern direction and harrowing sequences. There's more at work here than just super sharks with computer-enhanced facial expressions. The claustrophobic feel of the station's wrecked hull and rising water recall the tension of The Poseidon Adventure. Unlike that film, Deep Blue Sea has few memorable characters. Everyone's just talking fish food waiting to be devoured and forgotten. Nonetheless, Harlin's product succeeds as a superior yet undemanding monster movie replete with energetic pacing and unexpected thrills. -- Mike Emery

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