Friday, June 26, 2015

Turtle Talk #2: GAMERA VS. BARUGON (1966)


cf921c7d880463e59b915dea845f46d8

TRAVIS:

Now THIS is what I'm talkin' about.

A mere year after the original black-and-white GAMERA, the tortoise returns in full color for GAMERA VS. BARUGON! We pick up moments from the first movie with Gamera's rocket ship heading towards Mars WHEN SUDDENLY it crashes into a meteorite and the monster is freed. Gamera immediately beelines it back to Earth and destroys the power plant at the Kurobe Dam to suck up some more fire power. Meanwhile in Osaka, a tale of TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE-style twists and betrayals are afoot! WWII veteran Kano has gathered three men (his brother Keisuke, ship officer Kawajiri, and general scumbag Onodera) together to send them on a jewel hunt in the South Pacific. Years ago during the war, Kano discovered a giant opal on a tropical island and hid it in a cave to retrieve later. Now handicapped with a limp, he sends Keisuke, Kawajiri, and Onodera on a mission to travel to that same island and bring the opal back with the promise of fortune and riches. What could go wrong?

The men reach the island and run into the local tribe. Tanned complexions, flower and straw dresses, high energy dance routines.... yep, it's your atypical kaiju flick island tribe! And like all tribes, there's a fatal warning for those who dare upset the spirits. In this case, the men are warned not to venture into the “valley of rainbows” as only death awaits those who disturb it. But our group of mainlanders do not heed this warning and explore the secret cave. They do successfully find the opal, but Onodera pulls the double cross by allowing a deadly scorpion to sting and kill Kawajiri and detonating the cave to leave Keisuke trapped by the falling rocks. Keisuke is rescued by tribeswoman Karen, but both must race back to Japan! Why? Well, that opal Onodera stole is no opal! It's an egg containing the ancient monster Barugon! It soon hatches and Barugon begins his destructive rampage on Osaka!

Now so we don't confuse any novice kaiju fans, we're talking about Barugon from the Daiei Gamera series, not Baragon the burrowing monster from Toho's FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON and GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. I'll always have a place in my heart for the floppy eared Godzilla sidekick, but Gamera's rainbow villain is pretty fun too! As I said in the previous review, the Gamera films were fun when they embraced the sci-fi silliness, and the powers of Barugon are hilariously great. He's best known for the rainbow death ray that emits from his back, yet he also has a tongue nozzle that shoots freeze spray! Fun times! It's a small detail, but I also liked how he had vertical eye lids, giving him a little unworldly touch any time he blinked. He's definitely a great opponent for Gamera's first versus movie. What did you think of round two with Gamera, Luca?

Capture2

LUCA:

What a wonderful surprise GAMERA VS. BARUGON was, Travis! After the initial disappointment of Gamera's debut, I was a bit fearful as to how enjoyable a series on this monster might be. Luckily, my fears turned out to be unfounded (for the moment). To me this is just an all-timer of a Showa monster movie. You've touched upon how great and imaginative an adversary Barugon is, but let me focus on what dragged the movie kicking and screaming into Top Tier Kaiju for me: the asshole Onodera, as portrayed by Koji Fujiyama. More often than not, kaiju humans are pretty boring filler, meant to pad out scenes in between model city smashing and suit wrestling. Sometimes, however, there'll be a human(oid) villain to conjure up some conflict for our people-protagonists. This'll usually be a greedy businessman or an overly aggressive general or the like. Painted with the same broad brush strokes as our heroes, these antagonists are quite reliably hilarious in their one-dimensional greed/anger/general evil. It must be said, however, that Onodera is a cut above the baddies I've seen in kaiju movies so far. This mercenary's (?) evil is of such a venal, petty, cowardly, violent kind that I felt like I was reading an Elmore Leonard short story rather than a kiddie monster flick. Onodera just wants to get paid, and he doesn't really have a specific plan for that to happen. Instead, he just seizes the moment (like with the scorpion) when it's there or goes to bully people into doing what he wants. Some highlights include beating up a disabled man (not that Kano doesn't give as good as he gets, screaming "Die, you bastard!" in the brawl) and sabotaging the military operation to destroy Barugon because the diamond used to power the weapon is HIS BY RIGHTTTTT which it demonstrably isn't.

With all these great bad guys for the heroes to overcome, there's really no need for the good guys to be super interesting, as the villains have it pretty much covered. That being said, I still had to laugh at how haphazardly Gamera gets pulled into this movie. Oh, a meteor bumped the rocket on a course back to Earth. Oh, he ate a dam and then took off for parts unknown. Oh, he's back now cuz he just can't have Barugon smashing up the place. We've often talked about kaiju monsters being like wrestling matches for kids (well, moreso than usual), and in only his second appearance Gamera has the air of an old pro who has to show up to defend the championship title cuz none of these other guys really move any merchandise and it's just in his contract. I suppose the continuity nerd in me appreciates that the movie bothered to explain why he's back, rather than Toho's patented "Well, here's Godzilla I guess" approach. Still, pretty funny that they're already resorting to grafting their marquee monster on seemingly unrelated scripts two movies in. I at least hope they will keep explaining his presence! If not, okay, fine. I can deal with this now after 30+ of these!

Another tradition (if one can call it that after two movies) that is brought over from the first GAMERA is the strange exoticization of the English language. You have an island tribe full of Japanese actors in brownface, and their beautiful princess is called... Karen? Was she a stranded anglophone scientist's daughter or something and did I merely miss the line of dialogue that mentioned that? I hope not, because it'd be hilarious if the script features a fictitious group of Pacific Islanders where "Karen" is a viable woman's name. More hearty island-laughs: the dire warnings about death and doom that will follow anyone that enters... THE VALLEY OF RAINBOWS!!! I love that they just unabashedly went with that, rather than Barugon Gorge or something slightly more threatening. Now I've been an island adventure mark ever since EBIRAH, but how about you, Travis -- was the tropical or the urban half of the movie more entertaining to you?

Capture1

TRAVIS:

I have to give it to the urban half because that's where all the MONSTA WRASSLIN' happens. However, that half does occasionally drag when the army manages to subdue Barugon (twice!) by dropping artificial rain on him. Both times they're followed by ponderous scenes of the cast figuring out a plan to kill him. You'd think that if they've successfully stopped Barugon in his tracks that they might as well blast him with a bunch of fire hoses or something since water is supposed to be his weakness. Or heck, wouldn't all that artificial rain eventually melt him away? It's implied that the army keeps liquid dusting him for days, so shouldn't he be a little weakened at least?

I guess not, because it takes Gamera to straight up hold Barugon underwater and drown him until he erupts into a purple bloody geyser! One feature of the Gamera series that was distinct from Godzilla was the amount of monster gore that was sprayed and gushed about freely in these supposed kiddie kaiju flicks. What probably made it okay for children was that the bodily fluids were never red colored, and the Gamera monsters generally bled black or purple or some unnatural color. Compare this to later Showa Godzilla entries where the G-man sometimes garishly gushed bright red blood from his wounds, and it's not hard to imagine children being more comfortable with the safe fantasy of Gamera's muted colored violence.

Speaking of children, GAMERA VS. BARUGON is a unique film in the series because it's the only one that lacks a kid protagonist. Yep, even though Gamera's known as a “friend to all children”, it's hard to spot someone under seventeen years old in this film. Though the Showa movies were regarded as kiddie stuff, BARUGON has the most adult tone with its old yarn of treasure hunters and the mistrust between them. Even when the plot gets back to Osaka, serious themes of greed and man's disrespect of nature and myth are prevalent in between the moments of giant turtle vs. rainbow lizard. The filmmakers could've made a serviceable movie about these themes, but hey, that's not why you're watching this flick, right?

Capture

LUCA:

I’m gonna wuss out and say the urban/jungle portions were about equally good for me. One had the kaiju stomping as you say, but the jungle adventure also had the human betrayals escalating to the point of attempted murder (and originating hilariously with Onedara making the other two scrub the deck in their guises as skipper and sailors, respectively). The scenes build quite well, flowing logically from one to the next, with new obstacles popping up and leading to new complications in nearly each of them. That’s basic filmmaking, sure, but you’d be surprised at how rare it is in cheap monster movies like these! Or not, I suppose, considering they’re cheap monster movies. What I’m trying to say though is that the movie actually earns its 100 minute runtime – a real epic in terms of length when it comes to Showa movies, outdoing its predecessor by about half an hour and the distinguished competition at Toho by about twenty minutes. I must say that I didn’t feel this stretched runtime – even though it was (by my estimate) made longer because of the need to graft Gamera onto an already existing screenplay – as badly as I did with some Heisei Godzila films. Lookin’ at you, SPACEGODZILLA!

It was 1966 and the Gamera business was booming – or at least lucrative enough to be cranking them out at a pace to rival Toho’s. After ripping Barugon to shreds at the bottom of a lake like a rainbow lizard version of Jason Voorhees, it would not be long before our turtle friend returned to Japanese theater (and American TV) screens with GAMERA VS. GYAOS. Join us next time as Gamera takes on what appears to be its very own version of Rodan!

Monday, June 15, 2015

TURTLE TALK #1: GAMERA (1965)

 

the-giant-monster-gamera-movie-poster-1965-1020413586

LUCA:

The shadow of Godzilla looms large over Gamera.

Released in 1965, the same year as Godzilla’s sixth outing (that would be INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER), GAMERA’s lack of color immediately reminds viewers they’re watching a cheap cash-in on the giant monster craze of the Showa era. Now, lo-fi movies don’t bother me one bit, as some all-time classics were created on a shoestring budget. I must say though that while color film stock may have been an extravagant luxury that wasn’t in the budget, I did not notice any particularly bad model work – which ultimately is one of the most important things in these movies next to the monster suits themselves. If they had to cut back on the former to make sure they were able to guarantee decent work on the latter, hey, I’m all for it. So how does Gamera look? Decent, for the most part. One of the best things I could say about the suit was that when Gamera opened his mouth, there was something glistening inside, giving you the impression that he had working insides, with saliva glands and all. Great for immersion! Not so great for immersion were the occasional glimpses of the flamethrower’s nozzle you could see when Gamera used his breath weapon. I hope the glisten wasn’t kerosene – poor suit actor!

If there’s one thing we can give GAMERA credit for, it’s the pioneering of a child protagonist in a kaiju movie. Granted, GAMERA is a bit of an ensemble movie like GOJIRA, but Toshio the turtle fanboy (Yoshiro Uchida) is a type that will be immediately recognizable to those versed in big monster movies. Daiei Studios smartly realized the appeal of these movies to young kids and decided to get in on that action right away, as opposed to the decade and change it took Toho. Yes, giant monsters will appeal to kids with or without human actors their own age, but there is definitely a difference in something like GOJIRA as opposed to ALL MONSTERS ATTACK. I’ll give props to GAMERA for yet another different approach – though as to whether or not it’s a good one is questionable – director Noriaki Yuasa says, “Fuck build-up!” and just reveals the mighty fire-breathing turtle in the first five minutes as he crawls out of an arctic chasm after an aerial skirmish between American fighters and planes from “an unidentified country” (haha sure) cause a nuclear detonation. Not only do we get a full view of Gamera right away, we even get fetishistic little close-ups of scales and claws and eyes and teeth over the starting credits. Quite bold, Yuasa-san!

And here we get to the main problem of the movie: what is it actually going for? If you reveal your monster right off the bat, suspense is out the window – unless you construct a specific situation where a well-liked human character is in peril or some other ticking clock involving the monster has to be avoided. GAMERA does neither! After awakening, Gamera just ambles about causing random destruction. When he comes to Toshio’s lighthouse, he swipes the top of the tower away, but saves Toshio from falling to his death. Oh, so this is an IRON GIANT style tale of a misunderstood titan and his special relationship with one outcast little boy? Nope, Gamera fries dozens of innocent bystanders later in the movie with his fire breath! Despite this, Toshio constantly tries to convince the military that “Gamera is just lonely! He needs a friend!” but they sound more like the ravings of a child in need of some counseling than a clever movie tyke who’s gotten a far better grip on the situation than all those short-sighted bully adults. Were you in need of a friend, Travis?

Capture1

TRAVIS:

I'm always willing to be friends with kaiju, Luca, but Gamera's first outing falls pretty flat for me. Like you said, the movie's at odds with what kind of movie it wants to be. I mean, yeah, we're here for the monster smash stuff, but as we've seen with the Godzilla films, there are different approaches and tones you can do. GAMERA falls somewhere between “mythical creature awakened by man” and “kid understands misunderstood monster” without being interesting in either subplot. The most fun I've had with Gamera movies were when they fully embraced the sci-fi pulpiness. It's why the biggest laugh I got out of this particular entry was when the top secret Plan Z that all countries around the world (including Cold War enemies America and the Soviet Union!) collaborated on ended up being just a big ol' rocketship that'll trap the turtle and shoot him into space. You're already dealing with a fire-eating tortoise that came from Atlantis. Embrace the silliness!

The human characters don't help the proceedings either. Toshio's pretty insufferable, and I would've happily seen him shot off to Mars too. I know we're supposed to identify with this lonely outcast of a child, but seeing him continually endangering himself and others just to get closer to Gamera makes you want to smack him upside the head. While Toshio's just annoying, news photographer Aoyagi is a pretty big creep during the whole movie. He stalks and bothers poor Kyoko only because he followed her to the Eskimo camp and was spared from the attack on the ship Chidori Maru that killed everyone else. His “Goddess of Good Luck” is what he labels her. Ewwwwww......

Having not seen GAMERA in a very long while, I was reminded of my old Godzilla-influenced prejudices against the turtle. As ridiculous and stupid as the Godzilla films could be, there's polish to them and a sense that they've been given that Toho stamp of approval that makes them one of a kind among kaiju flicks. I know you didn't have a problem with the miniatures, Luca, but they look rather.... flat to me. Maybe it wasn't the smartest idea to open on the Arctic set with its Styrofoam-looking icebergs and Tinkertoy planes. It just sets this tone of cheapness that clashes with the serious tone of the rest of the movie. Again, it wouldn't be until Gamera fully embraced being that goofy friend to kids that the cheapness would become a signature instead of a blemish. He could be a lot of fun, but his first movie's just a bore. Am I letting my memories from Monster Island get in the way, Luca?

Capture

LUCA:

Maybe it was because the movie hadn’t established a tone yet that I didn’t mind the Styrofoam arctic set with toy jeeps and planes they decided to open with. There’s even more laffs to be found in the ice when Dr. Hidaka converses with a native Alaskan (?) chief, and it’s a poor Japanese actor given phonetic English to recite. I’m sure they didn’t cuz it was hard to tell in black and white anyway, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the fellow was in brownface! But we shouldn’t be too hard on the guy, since the native English speakers we are treated to only minutes later don’t fare much better either. From a colonel who is holding up reports (but is obviously just reading his lines off the paper) to radio operators who don’t understand how sentences or even subordinate clauses work (“Sir there seems. To be a strange object. On our screens!!!”). These guys are without a doubt the worst actors I’ve ever seen in a kaiju movie. Which is saying something!

I will give GAMERA this though: when Gamera attacks the Chidori Maru, we get a wide shot of the monster, the ship, and at the bottom of the screen people (or at least crude animations of people) fleeing over the ice. Then later there’s some tricky editing/compositing going on as Toshio boards a train that Gamera is pulling towards him. This human/kaiju same-shot interaction was something that was strangely missing from most Zilla movies. In fact, I made special notice of it in the Heisei relaunch that it was odd seeing two people in a collapsing building as they attempted to escape the monster. True, it doesn’t really look very good, but I’ll give them credit for at least trying technically complex things. Some random funny stuff that I also deem positive because it made me experience positive feelings aka laughter: an old grandfather sees the flying form of Gamera hurtling across the night sky. He doesn’t freak out, but rather says “Oh… a will-o’-the-whisp! Or could it be one of those modern YEW EFF OHS people are seeing nowadays? Ohhhh…” Later, as he and his wife read in the newspaper that a monster is terrorizing Japan, he states that “Well grandmother, if one grows old enough, one sees many terrible things.” “Oh aye…” his wife replies. They do no feature in the movie again! I’d also like to point out the line “Ah… a fire-breathing turtle… as described in the writings of Plato…”

You touched upon it already, Travis, but my favorite moment was also the reveal of what Plan Zettu actually was – just lure the damn turtle onto a platform that then snaps shut and is revealed to be the head of a rocket that promptly BLASTS OFF TO MARS. Hell, you’re not gonna pull off another Oxygen Destroyer like in Gojira, so might as well make it someone else’s problem – why not Barsoom’s? Lil’ idiot Toshio then says he’s gonna grow up to be an astronaut so he can go visit Gamera one day, to which Dr. Hidaka gives a great “Yeah sure kid…” response. Travis, I’m starting to think that Lane Pryce on Mad Men wasn’t completely sober when he declared this movie “a very good film!”

Capture2

TRAVIS:

To be fair, Mr. Pryce was most likely enjoying not GAMERA but GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE! Just like how GOJIRA made its way to America as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, World Entertainment Corp. took the original Daiei film and shot new scenes featuring American actors for the US release. Now titled GAMMERA THE INVINCIBLE (the extra 'm' was added Gamera's name to clarify the pronunciation), this knockoff of Godzilla was transformed into your standard B-flick from the atomic age of sci-fi. Along with the Japanese characters, we also focus on a group of army generals and U.N. officials as they too contend with the Gamera problem. And by contend, I mean sit around in drab soundstage rooms as they talk about communicating and collaborating with the Japanese government. They pretty much occupy the same role as Raymond Burr in GODZILLA, acting as observers to the crisis and putting up the image that they're actually participating in the action. There's some fun schlock to be had: the dame army secretary being hit on by her superiors, stuffy scientists arguing over the existence of the monster, a blustery senator outraged (OUTRAGED!) that the army isn't following the proper procedure to respond to a giant turtle.... standard B-picture stuff. Heck, I might take a cue from Pryce and watch this version with a stiff drink, because it might be the only way I could tolerate it!

Despite getting the American fix-er-up treatment, GAMERA didn't find theatrical success in the states and remains the only movie in the series to have a US theater run. But while he failed in America, Japan was still on a kaiju kick that required more, more, and more monsters! Don't expect Gamera to land on Barsoom anytime soon, because his course is about to get rerouted into a epic battle of rainbows! We'll find out that diamonds truly are forever in GAMERA VS. BARUGON!

Monday, June 8, 2015

TURTLE TALK #0: Intro

gamera2diagram

LUCA:

Konnichi wa, friends, and welcome to TURTLE TALK!

It was late 2013 when the inimitable Travis Kirkland and myself set off on a path of destruction through half a century of pop culture that started with a certain grim little monster movie from 1954 called GOJIRA. Over the better part of a year, we discussed every movie featuring the titular monster – and some ancillary crap besides (such as the short-lived 1999 animated series and the only album ever that featured both Diddy and Jakob Dylan). If you enjoyed our Kaiju Kavalcade blog series – or even bought the collection “Memories from Monster Island” off Amazon – we hope that our latest endeavor will bring you as much fun. You see, TURTLE TALK will delve into that other great purveyor of city-smashing: the friend to all children – GAMERA himself! Now, our angle on the Godzilla series was that I was the noob going in cold, whereas Travis was the old pro, coming to the movies from a place of rediscovery, ready to face the cold light of an atomic dawn if they didn’t quite hold up. For TURTLE TALK, this contrast has been sanded off a bit, as Travis isn’t quite so well-versed in Gamera lore as he is in Godzilla. Equals, finally? Almost! But I will let him elaborate a bit in a second.

What is my relationship to Gamera? Well, it’s fairly minimal. Even more minimal than my knowledge of Godzilla was when we started with Kaiju Kavalcade, in fact! From my general pop culture osmosis, I had gathered over the years that Gamera was

1.) A turtle
2.) Airborne (possibly robot parts?)
3.) A friend to all children

After the life-transforming/affirming experience that was compiling Memories from Monster Island, I can add another fact to this very short list: he never met Godzilla in any official capacity. With the thoroughness we applied to our Zilla-journey, it would be inconceivable we could have missed such a clash of titans. And isn’t that weird, if you think about it? Even eternal rivals DC and Marvel Comics set their differences aside to produce stuff like Amalgam Comics or that fan favorite one where the Joker teams up with Carnage. But Godzilla and Gamera? No dice! For fifty years, the two iconic monsters stayed completely separate. Just strict business practices, or an irreconcilable stylistic difference in tone and target audience? We hope TURTLE TALK may shed some light on this issue that is no doubt keeping the lot of you awake at night. Travis?

TRAVIS:

Here's a shocking revelation from this lifelong kaiju fan: I hated Gamera.

Yep, this dye-in-the-wool fanatic of giant creatures crushing buildings was definitely not a friend to the big turtle during my formative years. Godzilla, Rodan, Anguirus... all of the Toho monsters became beloved characters to me as I grew up. And yet... Gamera could not impress me at all, no matter how many gravity-defying somersaults he could pull off. This... this fraud... this hack... this RC Cola of a reptile compared to the classic Coke formula of Godzilla. Looking back, it's very odd to me how much I actively rejected Gamera. Sure, he was created by Daiei Film Company as competition for Toho's main G, but I was perfectly happy embracing dueling icons of pop culture. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, Superman and Spider-Man... they all had a welcome place in my fantasy world. But Gamera... if I had my way, I would've left his ass frozen in the Arctic while I enjoyed watching more reputable kaiju like Varan the Unbelievable.

But why? Why was I so prejudiced against the poor monster? Perhaps I wasn't introduced to Gamera in the right context. Instead of a magical late night marathon that transformed me into a Godzilla fan, my first glimpse of Gamera was via the television show MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Five of his movies were roasted by Joel Robinson and his robot pals during the third season, and I happily laughed along as they ripped apart the films' goofy, innocent tone. Stupid turtle. In all fairness though, MST3K also riffed on GODZILLA VS. MEGALON and GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, so the big man of Monster Island wasn't safe either. My blind hatred was also probably due to it being my first brush with geek brand loyalty. How could any monster dare stand up to the rightful popularity of Godzilla?! Heck, if you recall our review of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, I wrote about how outraged I was as a child to see some dumb ol' ape be victorious over my King of the Monsters. An outrage I say!

Many years passed however, and my unwavering allegiance to Godzilla became more relaxed. I eventually came around to watch a few Gamera Showa era movies and was amused the monster's antics. They didn't make me a convert, but I could now see his appeal. He's a flying, fire-breathing turtle who has a soft spot for protecting children. Of course kids would love him! Later on based on strong recommendations, I also checked out the incredibly awesome Gamera Heisei trilogy, headed up by director Shusuke Kaneko (who brought that same kinetic energy to GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK). So where does that leave me before I dive headfirst into the entire Gamera filmography? For me, MEMORIES FROM MONSTER ISLAND was my way of reconnecting with my childhood friend Godzilla to examine our long relationship and how it remains strong to this day. In this sense, TURTLE TALK will be me trying to make peace with an old acquaintance I've unfairly treated all these years. And Gamera, I wouldn't mind calling you my friend at the end of this. So sit tight, readers, because next week we're kicking off our coverage by blasting back to 1955 with (what else?) GAMERA!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: GODZILLA (2014) Hype-Free Viewing

TRAVIS:

When we first reviewed Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA upon its release in 2014, I wrote that it was foolish to argue Godzilla's relevance with this triumphant return to US cinema. One year later, the aftermath of the movie's success can still be felt. IDW Comics has been continuing to support their various G titles, and Bandai recently released a brand new video game featuring G, Mothra, Ghidorah, and the rest of the gang. Right now in Tokyo, Japan, you can spend a night in the recently opened Godzilla hotel featuring themed suites and a towering statue of G peering into the windows! Of course, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures are developing GODZILLA 2 for summer 2018, but Toho will also be relaunching G for their own new franchise in his Japanese homeland in 2016. And yet despite all of these accomplishments, the American film itself remains divisive among critics and fans. Some proclaim it a victory for kaiju worldwide while others find it lacking in spite of a few spectacular moments. On the movie's first anniversary, we'll muster our courage and take on GODZILLA to see if it's still the King of the Monsters.

Of all the things that hold up on repeat viewing, the fantastic opening credit sequence is definitely one of the highlights. Those worried that we'd see another long origin story for G should be pleased by the rapid fire montage of images that trace his roots from cave paintings of dinosaurs to tales of mythical sea monsters to classified government footage of G appearing in the 20th century. It's a wonderful encapsulation of his history done in a broad, exciting style. It's also great that even though G is no longer a metaphor for nuclear annihilation in the Legendary franchise that the atomic testing performed by the US is still tied to his past (this time explained as a cover up by the government to kill him). So what is Godzilla if he's been shed of the bomb in this new iteration? Though he's not the gravity defying Showa superhero anymore, he's certainly someone needed for our protection when a threat becomes too large. I think he's more akin to an old samurai, someone who's seen battles and confrontations for most of his life and only takes action when he's direly needed by the powerless. I like that even though he can still put up a good fight that he seems worn out and tired afterwards from years acting as a dominant predator. There may be a lot of mileage behind this version of G, but he's one that I want to follow for more films to come!

Though this current rendition of the character may not have been a problem for audiences, his seemingly short appearance time definitely was! One of the main criticisms against GODZILLA is that Godzilla himself doesn't show up in the majority of the film. In fact, one of the most popular YouTube videos related to GODZILLA actually collects all of G's scenes together and runs a mere eleven minutes compared to the movie's two hour running time. The point seems to be that there's nothing wrong with G; it's just that there's too little of him! However, I think this criticism doesn't actually derive from counting the minutes but from plot focus. In the pre-release marketing, we were being sold a movie that promised apocalyptic disaster from a gigantic monstrosity. Naturally, we assumed that G would be the harbinger of death, and we could guess that those MUTOs we heard about might be tangling up with ol' G. Yet when you examine the plot, it's really the MUTOs that drive most of the action. They cause the nuclear plant accident that widows Bryan Cranston's character and causes him to become a solitary lunatic. They're the threat that the government secretly monitors for years. They're the things that will (as Cranston puts it) “send us right back to the Stone Age” because of their destruction. Pretty much all of the characters except for Ken Watanabe concentrate on how to deal with the MUTOs while Watanabe rambles about G as the one to restore balance to nature (i.e. killing the shit outta some kaiju bugs). In this sense, G really is only a deus ex machina in the story since the humans continually fail to destroy them. Perhaps if G was more integrated into the story (maybe causing the plant meltdown himself) then the criticism of his diminished screen time could've been alleviated. Luca, how was your revisit of big G's return to America?

LUCA:

Well Travis, I’m glad to say that, free from the initial hype, GODZILLA manages to be a thoroughly entertaining movie on its own merits. As you’ve already mentioned, the opening credits are a masterclass in building up hype, be it in production design (oh man, who doesn’t like sinister medieval etchings?), editing and Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful throwback score. Having them end with a literal blast as Godzilla is supposedly defeated by the Bikini Atoll bomb keeps the sense of awe and wonder going apace. The film then segues to 1999, and brings us to the Filipino quarry with its strange finds, followed by the Janjira power plant being attacked – the mystery and tension here are still kept at pretty consistent levels. But alas! Juliette Binoche dies, Bryan Cranston makes that memeface and the movie takes a step back as we jump ahead fifteen years to witness the trials and tribulations of their son, now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. We talked about the boringness of Taylor-Johnson and his in-movie wife Elizabeth Olsen even a year ago, but now as then they didn’t bother me. I mean we can talk about Juliette Binoche getting killed early on and Olsen getting absolutely nothing to do than stare in awe at some monsters sometimes, but this is a problem the movie had a year ago as well.

The death of Bryan Cranston’s character early on (reminiscent of Captain Kirk’s falling off another walkway in STAR TREK: GENERATIONS) is yet another waste of good actors in nothing parts, but at least his absence is somewhat compensated for by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins joining the main story. While the Ford family is inoffensive, their beigeness is only highlighted by Watanabe and Hawkins, the kaiju otaku squad. I don’t know how I could have forgotten the hilarious extent to which these rational scientists praise our man G (“For all intents and purposes… he’s a god…”) and the completely logical solution to all our woes is to let the big radioactive dinosaur fight the flying bug monsters in San Francisco. Again I hope that the sequel focuses on a G-Force team of kooky scientists and military with these two in charge, rather than a bland audience identification character.

Easter egg I didn’t notice the first time: when the 1999 version of blandman goes to show Cranston the lovely banner he made for his birthday, he passes an old-timey Japanese monster movie poster in the style of Showa-Toho… featuring the two MUTOs from this very film! Most kaiju nerds probably noticed the little “Mothra” nametag on the terrarium at the abandoned elementary school, but I feel like this one may have sailed over the heads of many. I mean hell, how meta is that? A movie made about “real-life” monsters that nobody knows about yet. Or is this some clever worldbuilding on the part of Edwards and his screenwriters? Was a certain Japanese movie studio IN ON the existence of these atomic monsters that mess up everything we know about the food chain? Probably not, but hey, let me have this headcanon that nobody will ever bother to counter. Anything that struck you now that didn’t last year, Travis?

TRAVIS:

Watching it on Blu-ray a year later, what struck me most that I hadn't noticed before was Edwards' orchestration of the score and sound effects. No doubt what makes GODZILLA memorable are the monster set pieces, but Edwards is very masterful in what moments need to be underscored with music and when the foley should stand on its own. From what I could observe, Desplat's score is pulled back during moments of discovery and awe. As we search for and await the monsters we take in the silence and perk up when we suddenly hear a noise. Typically the music kicks in when the action gets, yet it still doesn't become more overwhelming than the imagery. The scenes where the music becomes more present than complimentary are the HALO jump (which mixes Ford's breathing with Gyorgy Ligeti's “Requiem”) and Godzilla's triumphant fanfare after his fire breath fatality on the female MUTO.

To talk further about the set pieces, even when viewed at home on TV they remain incredibly exciting to watch. On the Blu-ray special features, Edwards explained that he tried to ground his SFX shots in reality, as though they've been filmed at ground level, on top of a building, or up in a helicopter. To make it even more authentic, he always tried to fit in humans on the screen in those shots so that we understand the immense size and scale of G and the MUTOs. It can be pretentious to call any filmmaker “Spielbergian”, yet I think Edwards really does have that artistic eye for understanding how incredible it can be to watch the fantastic enter our reality in the way that makes Spielberg's work so distinct among popcorn films. As we've said before, the fact this movie still made Godzilla so wondrous and awe-inspiring to see after years of sequels is definitely a credit to Edwards' talent.

What can we expect in the future? Surprisingly, GODZILLA 2 will double down on the returning kaiju by introducing Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah into the mix. The Heisei and Millennium eras slowly integrated those characters into their continuities, so it's kinda funny to see Legendary go DESTROY--I MEAN--INCLUDE ALL MONSTERS and stuff the sequel with them. Heck, if they can recreate the scene from the original GHIDORAH movie where G, Rodan, and Mothra have a civil discussion about friendship, I'm sold. And considering how much Showa adventure there was in the 2014 film, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw some modern day equivalent of Toho monster talk. Even if there isn't, with GODZILLA 2 and Toho's reboot coming soon, I'm definitely looking forward to the future of G. Any other thoughts before we dive back into the San Francisco bay, Luca?

LUCA:

I agree that Edwards' doling out of spectacle and monster madness is judiciously done, even though some have come to criticize the Welsh director's reluctance to get to the fireworks factory. In particular, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) running away from the MUTO and Godzilla into a shelter in the nick of time before an unholy kaiju rumble happens outside. As the doors close, we see G and the MUTO run into each other, but as the camera remains with the refugees, we the audience are denied the spectacle. After cutting away from the first MUTO/Zilla fight in Honolulu (admittedly serving the movie's greatest visual gag as little Sam Brody watches it on TV but is told to shut it off by an inattentive Elle), this seems like monster-hiding overkill. It's not an unfair criticism, to be honest! During this rewatch, however, I noticed that the cut away from the monster fight takes us to the cargo plane that is about to drop Ford and the bomb squad into the ruins San Francisco... right amid the fighting monsters. If Edwards had chosen to intercut Elle fleeing with Ford suiting up for the HALO jump, the shelter doors closing wouldn't have felt so anticlimactic. Instead of "aww man, no monster fight AGAIN" maybe we would have felt "phew, Elle is safe, now to plant that bomb!" -- and it all could have been fixed at no additional cost in the editing room using footage that was already shot!

Regarding the Showa stuff, I wouldn't be surprised! I mean, the movie shows us that at after the fight American news stations dub Godzilla KING OF THE MONSTERS and we hear an entire football stadium cheering like crazy for this big fat lizard monster. I guess America loves an underdog! It's funny how everyone cheering for the Godzilla that just destroyed the city comes across as cute and silly in this, whereas everyone cheering for Superman making out with Lois amid the ashes of ten 9/11s in the background has everyone pulling at their collars in discomfort. I guess we cut big G a lotta slack cuz he's just an ole atomic dinosaur that doesn't know any better.

Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah being confirmed makes me very happy, as you might already guess, and I certainly hope that he relationships they had in the old Showa movies will be kept -- Rodan the rowdy brother, Mothra the caring sister, and King Ghidorah the big bully. Hell, I hope they throw in some good ole "guys with sunglasses who are really aliens or maybe ape men" for good measure. C'mon, Legendary, the public will have had three phases of Marvel by that point, they can take it! All in all, GODZILLA '14 pretty much holds up after a year, or at least its flaws have not become so magnified that I had any more problems with it than I had upon initial viewing. You know what they say in Project Monarch, the foremost kaiju experts of all: "Nature has a way... of restoring balance..." What do you mean, that makes no sense in context? Okay yeah I actually meant LET DEM FITEUHHHH

Free movie right here!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Weedin’ out the Whedon

 

1402664159502

If you hang around certain parts of the internet (and considering you’re deep enough to be reading this blog, you probably do), you’ve almost certainly heard of a little film that came out last week called AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON.

Directed by fanboy favorite Joss Whedon, the film details the larger-than-life travails of superhero team the Avengers against the evil robot Ultron, who plans to destroy humanity. What a simple plot! How can this engender controversy? Well dear reader…

One member of this team is Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, a former Russian spy and assassin. We also have Dr. Bruce Banner, a radiation expert who pelted himself with gamma rays and became an uncontrollable, rampaging green monster known as the Hulk.

In AGE OF ULTRON, it is revealed that whenever the team goes on missions, it is Widow’s duty it, on top of killing bad guys, soothe this rampaging rage monster with a carefully programmed series of trigger words.

Later in the film, it is also revealed that Widow is actually attracted to Banner, who soon shows signs of reciprocation, but is hesitant to commit because of the monster inside him. As a counterargument to Banner’s claims that there is no future with him, Widow states that there is no future with her either, as her spy training included forced sterilization.

Even later still, Widow is captured and imprisoned by Ultron and rescued by Banner. The imprisonment doesn’t last long and she is an active participant in the final battle, but it does happen.

The treatment of Black Widow – a character without her own film series – by writer/director Whedon in AOU was met with vocal disapproval from some parts of fandom. They believed developing her character by way of womb-based trauma was a reductive way to treat the only female Avenger. Additionally, having the one female Avenger be captured like a princess in a tower (no matter how briefly) seemed like an odd choice, to say the least.

Defenders of Whedon pointed to in-universe justifications for these story decisions, as well as there being no inherent sexism in the character of Black Widow being bummed out that she will never be able to have kids.

And that pretty much sums up Ultrongate!

My biggest personal gripe with the whole thing is that AOU reverted the Hulk back to a mute, unthinking monster after two movies evolving him to the point of a more in-control Banner and one movie where the most crowd-pleasing fun-time moments were all Hulk-related. Now he’s all “my power, my curse” again, for seemingly no reason?

While the Widow stuff didn’t bother me while watching the movie, I appreciated the critical views that popped up after. In fact, they caused me to further re-evaluate my appreciation of Whedon’s work, a process started after attending a panel discussion of the depiction of sex work in Whedon shows at 2014’s Nine Worlds Geekfest.

I haven’t seen Dollhouse, but aside from that, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen all of Whedon’s major output. I identified as quite the Buffy fan as a teenager and, in fact, own all seasons on DVD! So please, if you are reading this, know that this comes from a place of respect and appreciation.

Allow me to make a comic book movie analogy here! Have you ever tried rewatching Bryan Singer’s X-MEN* and X2?

Hailed at the time as the savior of comic book cinema after Joel Schumacher had tried so hard to destroy it for all time only three years previous with 1997’s BATMAN & ROBIN, Singer’s tale of mutants fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them was a breath of fresh air back in 2000. X-MEN and X2 took these larger-than-life characters seriously, and grounded them emotionally to an extent that audiences were invested in the success of its protagonists. Whatever else their flaws, I don’t think you can argue that watching those first two X-movies is a completely different experience to watching the campy pantomime of BATMAN & ROBIN.

But in 2015, a time where Iron Man, Thor, Captain America** and the Hulk have shared the screen in two movies, where an adventure comedy with a talking raccoon and his walking tree sidekick was the top grosser of its year, there are other aspects of those initial X-outings that stand out a bit. The fact that Singer chose dark, muted color palettes. Jokes like “What were you expecting, yellow spandex?”. The most celebrated action scene of the two movies being Wolverine vs. a bunch of nameless human soldiers.

I don’t actually dislike either X-MEN or X2. They are handsomely made with some great lead performances by Jackman, Stewart and McKellen. It’s just that a decade and change on, they feel like transitory movies. Welcome gulps of water in the barren wastelands of superhero cinema that were the post-Burton BATMAN 90s.

So, too, I have come to feel, is Joss Whedon’s status as pop-culture’s pre-eminent feminist voice. For years and years, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was basically “the girl power guy” in circles nerdy enough to have vaguely defined archetypes to go with directors and writers nobody knew personally.

In a world with rampant self-publishing, where fanfic is more accepted than ever, where Tumblr and Twitter and whatever social media you fancy make it easier than ever to have your voice heard and your stories told, it is not necessary to just swallow whatever the guy designated “the feminist one” is shoveling down your throat.

Since I am (completely coincidentally!) rewatching Angel at the moment, I am confident in saying Whedon’s work is still funny and entertaining to me. And let’s not forget the fact that he brought a show with an ass-kicking female lead to network TV in the 90s, with many female characters equally competent as the Slayer herself (be it as a fighter or otherwise). Heck, he even brought a gay relationship to network TV! I’ll even go on to say I tip my cap to the strategy of having them kiss on-screen for the first time in the episode where a major character dies, so that it the sensational hook the episode was advertised with was “[x] dies!” and not “these chicks kiss!” And let’s not forget that his sci-fi universe had legalised and highly respected sex workers in its fictional future world! Let us not forget that it had a happy, cheery female character that enjoyed casual sex!

BUT

Let us not forget that Buffy had a sordid affair with a person she didn’t like “just to feel” and to “punish herself”

Let us not forget that the first time Buffy ever had sex it turned the man into a KILL KRAZY monster***

Let us not forget that the gay relationship ended in tragedy, the widowed party going crazy with grief and needing to be talked down by a gentle white straight male ally

Let us not forget that the sci-fi universe with legal and highly respected sex work features one major character in this profession, and she is constantly the butt of “lol u a hoe” jokes by our NotHan Solo cool white straight dude. She is also abused by a client and in need of rescue by NotHan Solo so hmmm maybe this system isn’t so wonderful, eh?

Let us not forget that the happy, cheery female character that enjoys casual sex was threatened with rape (by a black man lol)

What I’m trying to say here is, Whedon can do good, and he can do bad. Some people are annoyed at him doing bad because of how much he purports to be a champion of good. Nobody really cares when there’s a baffling subplot about exactly how legal it is to fuck Nicola Peltz in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. When you sit at a trough, you expect to eat swill. But when you go for kaiseki at n/naka and one of the courses is carefully laid out vomit with a single hairy wart on top in between a dozen other, perfect meals, you may get angry for shelling out all that money!

You may have seen these t-shirts around:

yhst-78359274419338_2269_87495686

No, he’s not. No creator is. If you enjoy some media, the best thing you can do for it is to be critical of it when it fucks up, or listen to other people who have problems with it. Two things might happen:

1.) you don’t agree, and lay out your reasons for not agreeing, and both parties are exposed to a new point of view. This causes personal growth, however minor.

2.) you do agree, which causes a change of perspective. This causes personal growth, however minor.

If both options seem terrifying to you, perhaps it is time to evaluate exactly why stagnation is the best possible mode of life. But don’t come complaining when your nice little pond is suddenly upset by a lightning strike because

It’s Halle’s fault btw

*Which, ironically, had some Whedon script-doctoring going on.

**Please keep in mind that these three were absolute NOBODIES to the general public ten years ago.

***Hiya, Stephenie Meyer!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: MATANGO (1963)

 

Matango_1963_poster

LUCA:

For a movie called ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE stateside, MATANGO doesn’t feature a whole lot of said fungal persons on the attack. And it’s all the better for it! But let’s take it back a bit and talk about what this movie IS about. After GOJIRA’s Lovecraftian, unstoppable, unknowable beast from the depths, MATANGO provides us with that other classic trope of weird fiction: the doomed narrator who will recount to the reader/viewer their story from the bowels of a hellish institution for the mentally unstable. A fun way to break the tokusatsu mold, and who better to usher us into this bleak tale of humanity lost than Akira Kubo, that Toho stalwart Godzilla fans know from INVASTION OF ASTRO-MONSTER, SON OF GODZILLA and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. Kubo plays university professor Kenji Murai who, along with six others, undertook a doomed pleasure cruise deep into the Pacific. Murai’s ominous narration is actually quite intriguing, as it doesn’t promise viewers the tale of how EVERYONE DIED, but rather tells us that “they are all alive… and I am the one who is dead.” Okay, I’m down for this!

In a hilarious bit of classic Toho tonal shifting, this portentous statement is followed up by swingin’ 1963 big band music as we flash back to the ill-fated voyage. On board are other Toho mainstays Kumi Mizuno as Mami, famous actress, Hiroshi Koizumi as the skipper Naoyuki, Kenji Sahara as the first mate Senzo and Yoshio Tsuchiya as Kasai, the industrialist owner of the ship. Rounding out the maritime miscreants are novelist Yoshida and student Akiko. There’s a lot of faux-jolliness in the initial scenes, as it’s quite clear quite quickly that some of these people can’t really stand each other. A storm strands this ragtag crew of (mostly) 1%ers on an abandoned island, strangely bereft of all animal life and even edible plants. Tensions rise as the skipper warns everyone not to eat the ubiquitous fungi, as they may be poisonous. After some exploring, the group comes upon another stranded ship, overcome with rot and mold. Amazingly enough, this seemingly ancient vessel has only been here for a year, according to a recovered log book. With relations being strained ever thinner due to lack of food and no way to communicate with the mainland, along with the strange lure of the mushrooms, the group finds itself under great duress. But what will happen to them?

Well, Travis, I must say I rather enjoyed MATANGO as a hell of a detour from our usual Toho kid stuff! MATANGO is bleak. True, we weren’t very far from GOJIRA, which was no walk in a sun-drenched park, but we were also post-KING KONG VS GODZILLA, the definitive veering into comedy adventure. What I’m trying to say is, it’s refreshing to see director Ishiro Honda get to make a genre movie for adults again, and I have the feeling he must have enjoyed the experience as well. No Akira Ifukube this time, but music duties are most ably and atmospherically handled by Sadao Bekku, a fellow whose work I’ve not had the pleasure of hearing before this. What did you think of this tense island thriller, Travis?

matango

TRAVIS:

This is truly great filmmaking here, Luca. MATANGO is not only one of Toho's best tokusatsu movies, but it's also one of Honda's finest films. Though his career would be caught up and defined by the Godzilla machine, I suspect that MATANGO and GOJIRA were prime examples of the type of science fiction he was most invested in: human drama at the forefront while the supernatural threat looms ominously in the background. For G fans, MATANGO's also a great discovery to see Honda and some familiar Toho cast talent put on a tense, psychological thriller instead of the usual rompy kaiju fests. It reminds me of Joss Whedon's adaptation of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which is certainly a break from his action flicks yet retains many Whedon players like Amy Acker, Nathan Fillion, and Clark Gregg.

To go back to the MATANGO/GOJIRA comparison, a sense of fatalism permeates both films and each one ends on a bittersweet note. In GOJIRA, Godzilla is finally obliterated by the Oxygen Destroyer, yet Takashi Shimura's character still bemoans that the monster could arise again if mankind continues to tamper with nuclear weaponry. It's only a small victory in the fast growing atomic age. Similarly in MATANGO (SPOILER ALERT!), despite Kubo keeping a level head and resisting the temptations of the mushrooms during the entire ordeal, he reaches the mainland as the sole survivor with the fungus infecting his face. Was the struggle worth it if the disease was inevitable? MATANGO's even darker as a streak of nihilism runs through the film with the survivors constantly at each others' throats. Issues of class warfare and sex between the members of the shipwrecked crew drive most of the drama in the movie even before the mushrooms become a legitimate threat. Though Kubo is rescued at the end, he wonders if coming back to so-called civilized society is any better. “They're becoming inhuman,” he muses as he gestures to the Tokyo cityscape.

The fighting amongst the group drives so much of the story that the appearance of the mushroom people almost feels like a secondary threat. And yet in spite of the goofiness of kaiju performers in fungal makeup or over-sized toadstool costumes terrorizing people, the tension and reality of the situation never feels broken when such an odd, cosmic entity infiltrates the plot. It's to Honda's credit that he first establishes the survivors' predicament in such a serious, dire fashion that any silly Showa tropes would feel improper. Secondly, as the groups slowly descends into their own isolated madness, the walking Matango are introduced and shot in a very hallucinogenic way with a warped out soundtrack filled with child-like laughter. Ivan Reitman once explained that why GHOSTBUSTERS ultimately worked was because he started the characters in a familiar setting (the schlubs thrown out by the academic snobs) then slowly used it introduce very fantastic elements until the film climaxed with a monolithic marshmallow man. In the case of MATANGO, Honda used the old potboiler of stranded survivors to tell a monster tale, ratcheting up the human drama until the monstrous horror is unveiled. It's refreshing to find a kaiju flick that builds towards the kaiju scenes in a disturbing manner rather than ticking down the clock till the wrestling match set piece. Did you find anything else striking in MATANGO, Luca?

matango-3

LUCA:

I'm of two minds towards the mushroom people themselves, because I honestly think they look kinda gross, and the children's laughter and psychedelic sound effects do a superb job of creating an atmosphere of madness. The muted, earthy colors Honda uses for the island (no surreal splotches of color to indicate the radioactive life form) stand in stark contrast to the swingin' sixties garb the human cast is attired in, making them look like little islands in an unending sea of decay, almost pathetically attempting to stand out and affirm their individuality. Such decadence is not good for anything, as the film's final thesis statements lets us know! "Perhaps they are alive and I am dead" indeed...

Here's the problem with the mushroom people, however! The fungus is supposed to be alluring because of the castaway's hunger (and maybe on a more supercerebral level as well). The horror is in the loss of self, and the discovery of what happened with the crew of the research vessel that was stranded here before our jolly 1%ers . When we finally see the mushroom people, the shit should basically be pretty much lost for everyone: this is your new reality, the movie should be saying at this point. It's a real short story ending. MATANGO is, in fact, based on William Hope Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night", making it one of the few movies we've covered (along with the original MOTHRA) to be based on outside material. Being a 1960s monster movie, however, we need some physical threat -- lumbering monsters in dark hallways, people in physical peril. Credit to Honda for keeping the mushroom people MOSTLY out of frame and in the distance for a majority of the movie, but there are some key moments where I was more confused than unsettled because of this necessity of the times. I think there's at least two moments where people are cornered by a (admittedly well built-up and shot) mushroom man but... don't seem to suffer any consequences? They just scream and we cut to other survivors, but later they're okay? Was there something I missed here, Travis? Maybe the mushroom men dissolved into spores to be breathed by their new victims/hosts to spread the infection, but the budget/technology wouldn't allow for such intricate visuals?

Despite my sluggish human brain's incapacity to process complex mushroom motivations, I was a big fan of this movie as well, Travis! It has even slightly nudged me to check out some Hodgson short stories. It also makes me kinda sad Honda wasn't allowed to branch out a bit more -- I'm sure Fukuda would have gladly picked up some slack! It's funny how a completely bleak movie becomes a breath of fresh air after many, many jolly ones. And with Toho returning to Zilla soon (2016), why not give other types of movies a shot? Can you imagine the internet hype machine for something like TOHO STUDIOS PRESENTS THE CALL OF CTHULHU?

MatangoAttackoftheMushroomPeople196

TRAVIS:

Oh man, a Toho take on some proper Lovecraft sounds tantalizing! Since we've tied Godzilla to the Old Ones earlier, we could also connect the mysterious Matango to the amphibious creatures known as the Deep Ones from H.P.'s famous short story “The Shadow over Innsmouth”. Both are species of upright walking monstrosities from the sea that promise eternal life through assimilation (though for the Deep Ones it's through mating and reproducing with humans instead of consumption for the Matango). Quite a scary prospect, Luca, but I also understand the confusion you had over the nature of the mushroom people. I think having them suddenly disappear into thin air during their attacks on the ship is supposed to make the audience question the sanity of the group. Is there an actual threat or are they just hallucinating? It kinda works until we finally see for sure that, yes, the Matango are truly strutting around the island. Then it just makes those past incidents even more confusing! It's a substantial criticism, but it's only a small smear on an otherwise fine film.

And MATANGO truly is a fine film and a testament to the talents of Ishiro Honda. Though he couldn't escape the giant monster capers that defined his filmography, he could still infuse them with the humanity and fine craftmanship that one might not expect in such low caliber fluff. By the year 1963 when MATANGO was released, he was already swept up in the kaiju factory, and in fact that same year also saw the release of Honda's sci-fi adventure ATRAGON (which introduced sea serpent Manda). The small personal films he directed early in his career alongside his tokusatsu movies would eventually fade away, and he would only make only more monster-free film (the romantic comedy COME MARRY ME in 1966) before retiring from feature directing with 1974's TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA. In this historical context, MANTANGO is almost a bridge between the humanist stories he was personally invested in and the creature flicks that brought in the audiences. If you're a Godzilla fan that would like a break from the usual meat and potatoes kaiju diet, why not give in and try the mushrooms sometime?

 

Have a taste…

Monday, April 20, 2015

Derp Blog Into Darkness #30: CATS & DOGS (2001)

In Derp Blog Into Darkness, I take a plunge into the deep with movies I’ve never seen or (in some cases) never even heard of, with the only common thread throughout being that they were purchased by my partner in the years after the break with her religious upbringing. This gives me a wide variation in movies to explore, ranging from mainstream comfort food to more daring, “rebellious” stuff.

Because I’m a cruel bastard, my favorite types of movies to watch for my “Derp Blog Into Darkness” column are the ones that can be best classified as the “what the hell was I thinking when I bought this piece of shittt?” kind. So today was my lucky day!

CATS & DOGS is a 2001 movie, but it very much feels like a coda of the 90s: A bright, sunny color palette, an outlandish high-concept hook (yet not based on any source material!), and a mix of puppetry, CGI and Elizabeth Perkins. George Miller’s BABE would be the most obvious point of comparison here, but you can throw in a healthy dollop of the worst SHREK stereotypes to go with that. Slummin’ celebrity voice actors? Check. Lowest common denominator jokes at a breakneck pace? Check. Set pieces that are comedy chases mostly? Check.

It’s a shame, cuz the high-concept hook isn’t completely terrible. A millennia-long war between cats and dogs? Ancient Egyptians actually RULED by cats rather than simply worshipping them? This lore exposition dump happens in a little animated segment done in crude hieroglyph style, but I have to admit I laughed at the Flash player cat-pharaoh cruelties. I mean, a cat in a King Tut hat shitting all over a couple whimpering guys buried neck deep in the sand is good stuff.

The movie’s opening sequence, where a cat is being chased by a dog across an over-the-top 1950s suburban landscape is pretty good too. It’s mostly live animals running around*, knocking shit over and causing mayhem, since this is before the big reveal that cats and dogs are sentients and operate big James Bondian spy networks full of cartoony, over the top tech. There’s even a housewife who very loudly states “What a delicious pie! I shall let it cool off on this window-sill!” It’s basically a live action WB cartoon, and it made me a bit too hopeful for the rest of the movie.

The main plot centers on Lou (voiced by a pre-Spidey Tobey Maguire), a little puppy who is adopted by the Pollock family. Professor Pollock (Jeff Goldblum with hilarious sideburns and a soul patch) is close to finalizing a permanent cure for dog allergies. The cat armada, led by Mr. Tinkles (voiced by Sean Hayes), understandably doesn’t want this to happen. The dog faction had been shadowing Mrs. Pollock’s (Elizabeth Perkins) on her puppy-adoptin’ route and were ready to plant operatives in the litter she was bout to choose a new family member from. But oh no, adventure-hungry Lou had been GALIVANTING about and was therefore not part of the secret agent switcheroo. No doubt, he is adopted and is enrolled into the cause by default. His handler is Butch (Alec Baldwin, certain no franchises were waiting for him anymore at this point), a lab who warns Lou not to get attached to humans. Hmmm do you think mayhaps this dog has a traumatic experience and just needs to learn to… LOVE again?

The most egregious sin this movie commits is having absolutely zero trust in their audience. Mr. Tinkles sends a ninja death squad to kill Lou. Okay cool! They come in on gliders, at night, and drop into the garden to attack. I should note that I was finding some very basic amusement out of “pets doing non-pet stuff”** here, so a couple of CGI cats doing ninja shit should have been fine. But once Lou finds them out, they start squealing and screeching and tossing off bad jokes at 200 mph. If anything, they reminded me of the two Beetlejuice-like henchmen from ZEIST/the future in HIGHLANDER 2: THE QUICKENING. That sounds more fun than it is! For any chase or visual gag that sorta works, there’s a complete groaner/non-joke awkwardly ADR’d in. We need wall-to-wall laffs here!!! some producer says and the writers? They go ehhhhhhh okay main clauses qualify as jokes right?

When looking up the voice actors for this movie, its Wikipedia page also reminded me a sequel was released seven (!!) years later, with not everyone reprising their roles. Let me leave you with a hilarious bit of Wikipedia deadpanning:

Michael Clarke Duncan, Joe Pantoliano, and Sean Hayes reprise their roles as Sam, Peek, and Mr. Tinkles, while Nick Nolte and Wallace Shawn replace Alec Baldwin and Jon Lovitz as Butch and Calico; and Charlton Heston who voiced The Mastiff from the first film, died from pneumonia in April 2008.

Nobody believed in STAR WARS anymore…

*With the very strange exception of a paper boy tossing a fully CGI newspaper into a garden because…?

**Fake, stiff animal paws coming in from the edges of the screen will never NOT destroy me. Yes, this 2001 movie still uses that classic 1930s technique.