Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade BONUS: Godzilla –The Album (1998)

 

Godzilla_OST

TRAVIS:

1998 was certainly an exciting year to be a G-fan. The big guy was set to make his American debut in the Hollywood blockbuster GODZILLA, and to capitalize on the hype, stores were stuffed with more G-merchandise than ever before. Old titles were quickly reissued on VHS, books ranging from children's storybooks to cinema essays spotlighted the King of the Monsters, and there were aisles filled with TOYS TOYS TOYS of Godzilla, Mothra, and the rest of the gang. Of course, Sony wanted to prime audiences for this new version of G coming to theaters, and the tagline “Size Doesn't Matter” could be found plastered on posters, billboards, bus ads, and even your local Taco Bell! The countdown to this modern day Zilla came with all the usual trappings of big movie marketing: t-shirts, action figures, collectible cups.... and the pop soundtrack album.

Now, everyone's pretty familiar with what movie soundtracks are, yet it seems like the pop soundtrack album is being slowly phased out these days. To more clearly define it, the pop soundtrack album is a collection of contemporary songs that were featured in a particular movie. It's typically anchored by one or two radio-ready singles from big name artists, and the rest of the running time is usually supplemented by B-sides of other popular musicians or throwaway stuff from under-the-bubble bands. There's generally no rhyme or meaning to the structure of the playlist. It's just meant to invoke the general tone of the movie. Actions films had rock albums, romantic comedies had light adult compilations, horror flicks had metal records, and so on. Even though they were just another piece of marketing to support the movie, they could dominate the music charts as its own entity with huge sales comparable to top selling performers. These days however, this brand of soundtrack albums has become something of a rarity compared to their dominating heyday from the 1970s to early 2000s. Soundtracks generally today are for instrumental scores or collections of retro tracks (such as Wes Anderson's films or the massively successful AWESOME MIX from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Now if a pop song is created for a film's promotion, it's typically released as a single unattached to an album. Heck, even pop singles aren't as commonplace in movie marketing as they used to be.

For me personally, the pop soundtrack album is a nostalgic relic from my film watching youth. My GHOSTBUSTERS-loving self bought the CD to have the Ray Parker Jr. song, but I listened to the tracks from the Bus Boys, the Thompson Twins, and other 80s artists so much that they're just as identifiable to the movie to me as the iconic “Who Ya Gonna Call” theme. Many more CDs were added to my collection (MEN IN BLACK, SPACE JAM, NINJA TURTLES), and of course I had to purchase Sony's GODZILLA: THE ALBUM in anticipation for big G's blockbuster release. Like many 90s action flicks, its pop soundtrack had a general rock & roll feel and came packaged with not one but FOUR radio singles: the Wallflowers' cover of David Bowie's “Heroes”, Puff Daddy's “Come with Me” (which sampled Led Zeppelin's “Kashmir” and featured lead guitarist Jimmy Page), Jamiroquai's “Deeper Underground”, and Rage Against the Machine's “No Shelter”. Of course, me as the young G-fan listened to the album over and over again because hey, it's got Godzilla on it! I'm gonna love it! Woo hoo! Relistening to it today though, I recognize it as the empty piece of promotion it is. A mish mash of over-baked songs and bizarre oddities (and a good song here or there) that leaves no other impression than “well, that was the soundtrack to GODZILLA”. It's as soulless and commercial as the Roland Emmerich movie, but since it's supposed to be a commercial for GODZILLA anyway, does it seem even more empty? Luca, what can you make of the soundscape of 1998 and the Year Godzilla Tried to Rock?

 

YEAH. UH HUH.

LUCA:

Oh man, I too have some very concrete (if not always fond) memories of pop soundtracks. If you've stuck with us through this entire series without scrubbing your reading device clean of our filth, you'll probably have a pretty good sense of where we're both coming from on the pop culture front. Here, however, is where I must reveal my utter ignorance on all things musical. I grew up in a family that considered the only worthwhile music purchases things that were called "[Artist's] Greatest Hits" or "[Genre] Classics of the [Decade]". The few albums I bought as a kid were usually quickly skipped through once I found that I didn't like any of the songs as much as the radio single that prompted me to want this disk. And so, I quickly quit buying albums! Why spend all that money if you're just gonna listen to one, maybe two songs? For some EXTRA LUCA TRIVIA: I think the most successful soundtrack I ever bought (as in, I listened to at least five, six songs regularly) was SHAFT (2000). Note that I'm specifically talking about these pop song soundtracks as you described, Travis! Scores and musical albums were a whole different ballpark.

After a few listens in 2015, I'm pretty sure I would have disliked the GODZILLA: THE ALBUM as a 13 year old in 1998! The amazing Diddy song "Come With Me" captivated my imagination for months, whipping my young self up into such a frenzy that I was convinced I liked the movie for years afterward! None of the songs come close to the bombastic decadent energy so particular to Sean Combs at the height of his Bad Boy powers. I probably would have been slightly annoyed that, for some reason, the producers deemed "Heroes" by the Wallflowers worthy of the album opener position rather than Diddy, so that I'd have to pop in the disc and skip to #2 if I wanted a fix of YEAH... UH HUH! Now, I'm sure plenty of 1998 kids hadn't heard of "Kashmir", the song "Come with Me" was sampled from, but I'll do ya one better ont he musical illiteracy front, Travis! I had only the vaguest clue of the existence of a man named David Bowie, so "Heroes" being a cover only came to me years and years later. Heck, let me pile up the heresies here. "Come with Me" is SO ingrained into my mind that whenever I hear "Kashmir", it just sounds wrong to me. Where's the ad-libs? Where's the Godzilla roars?

Oh yeah, I hope you like Godzilla roars! Almost every single track on this album had its producers try and be cute, and mix Godzilla roars over certain phrases. Good to see that the wit and originality so typical of the cinematic incarnation carries over to its musical scion. The Wallflowers one-up all the rest, though, by also adding in some stompin' Godzilla sounds. Their video is hliarious too, with Jakob Dylan pouting and preening like a retro Edward Cullen, making sex eyes at a girl in a red hoodie who aimlessly (yet soulfully) wanders the streets of a G-terrorized New York in search of... something to drink? Which she then gets from a convenience store deserted by its owner in light of the kaiju kavalcade running rampant over the Big Apple? Hilarious sidenote: she still goes through the effort of dropping some change on the counter. Was this a producer note? "Sexy wet cleavage hoodie girl shouldn't be a filthy LOOTER in this great city's hour of need", some moral music producer says. Now, Sean Combs, a New Yorker born and bred, takes the fight to the G-man himself. After being woken up from a pleasant dream in which he was mackin' on a honey to the tunes of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa" by a giant iguana wrecking his block, Diddy does his civic duty as a true Noo Yoahkuh and just flips his shit at Godzilla UNTIL HE DIES FROM IT AND HIS GHOST HAS A GODZILLA DEFYING PERFORMANCE IN TIMES SQUARE. This was probably the best thing that ever came out of 1998's manufactured American Zilla craze and, I daresay, probably the biggest exposure to ANY kind of Godzilla for a generation. Even if you didn't go see the movie, man, MTV played that video a LOT. With our current day pop culture as fractured and compartmentalized as it is, Travis, do you think this album (or, more specifically, its videos) may actually have reached more people than even 2014's GODZILLA did?

 

Talkin’ about pale imitations of the original: here’s Bob Dylan’s son!

TRAVIS:

It's very possible that the ancillary stuff supporting '98 Zilla infiltrated the collective consciousness of the public more than the 2014 film since it was such a juggernaut of advertising. Heck, I even remember eating the special Eddy's ice cream flavor that came with Godzilla cookie crumbles (mmmm...). Comparing the marketing between the two films reveals how the times have changed. The promotions for the Gareth Edwards film were mostly dignified (except for that delightful Snickers commercial where G partied with some college bros), and its soundtrack release only contained the score by Alexandre Desplat. Roland Emmerich's flick was clearly trying to hit as many demographics as possible, including those hip, cool kids who love Jamiroquai! Like the videos from the Wallflowers and Puff Daddy, Jamiroquai's video for their song “Deeper Underground” has the artist in the middle of the big monster's rampage. In this case, he's trapped in a movie theater (that's showing GODZILLA! Meta!) as it collapses around him from the destruction of Zilla. The theater floods with water as cars and helicopters crash into the seats, but that doesn't stop ol' Jay Kay (the funny hat-wearin' guy) from dancing! It's as though they couldn't figure out how to do a Jamiroquai video without him dancing, so why not have him do his foot shuffling around panicked audience members and crushed taxi cabs? At least Puff Daddy was brave enough to stand up to that bully of a beast!

As peculiar as the sight of the Jamiroquai dude bouncing around Michael Bay-like levels of destruction is, it may not be quite as odd as a few of the other tracks found on GODZILLA: THE ALBUM. The fourth radio single came from counter culture rockers Rage Against the Machine, and it's pretty hilarious how they didn't change their tone at all for this commercial venture. In fact, the video for their song “No Shelter” doesn't have them facing off with Zilla at all! It's your average abstract RATM joint filled with totalitarian imagery for the sake of political satire. Not every 90s blockbuster can claim they have a music video that visually references the case of the Scottsboro boys (where nine African American teens were wrongfully accused of rape and sentenced to jail by a racist justice system)! The only shout out to Sony's monster in the song is with the lyric “Godzilla pure motherfuckin' filler/get your eyes on the real killer!” Stop watching the lizard adventures of Matthew Broderick and Maria Pitallo, ya sheeple, 'cuz Big Brother's actually watching YOU!

I could go on more about other out of place tracks on this soundtrack (who at Sony thought that Silverchair's reflection on anorexia and depression “Untitled” was a good inclusion?), but I need to wrap up with some of the songs I actually liked! I'm a fan of Ben Folds Five, and their track “Air” is a nice respite from the general hard rock feel of the album. Foo Fighters' “A320” is also good and shows signs of the more melodic tone that would be prevalent on their 1999 album THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE. And of all the oddity filler that makes up the back half of the CD, I gotta admit that Fuzzbubble's pop punk ode to aliens and UFOs “Out There” ended up on my play rotation more than some of the other tracks during the writing of this review. It's catchy, and if you wanna stretch it, you can pretend it's about Ghidorah or Gigan or whatever space kaiju you can think of! Lastly, of the few genuine nice things you can say about '98 GODZILLA, the two excerpts from David Arnold's score that are included on the album are good pieces of music that deserved a better movie. Luca, any other favorite tunes or bizarre novelties you wanna talk about before we put down the headphones?

 

Could do with some extra didgeridoo!

LUCA:

Yes, I would also like to point out the strange lounge-jazzy pop-rock song "Undercover" by one Joey Deluxe (who is only represented on Spotify by his presence on this here very OST). IMDb however also credits him as contributing to the EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS soundtrack with a song called "Itsy Bitsy Spider"... who is this mysterious gimmick man of the late 90s??? "Undercover" talks about the tough yet sexy lives of secret agents and detectives. I certainly don't recall the song popping up in the movie anywhere, and even though it's somewhat more appropriate to the tone and content of GODZILLA than something like "No Shelter" and "Untitled", its inclusion on the album as an organic whole is hilarious after all the bombast and bravado of the tracks preceding it. To make it even funnier, it's the final pop song before the two selected David Arnold score excerpts that cap off the album. Ponder if your life could mayhaps be a Mickey Spillane book hmmm? Okay, you done? Now please consider the majesty of the tragic hubris of man as exemplified by the short-lived Zilla species. Ironically, I think "Undercover" wouldn't be out of place in a Showa movie, especially a Jun Fukuda directed one with score by Masaru Sato*. You know what they say about monkeys and typewriters... somehow, somewhere in the pre-production to this massive Godzilla onslaught of the late 90s, someone managed to vaguely strike a chord that made an infinitesimal aspect of this media juggernaut be somewhat in the spirit of the property they were nominally adapting. Now, if only they could have had Jean Reno and his comedy bumbling spies infiltrate an army facility to this song!

 

Ze American music is as terrible as their coffee!!

*If you're following this series without ever having seen any Toho Godzillas, know that the song also very might have been on the OST to a mid-90s Mike Myers comedy, so please consider this strange intersectionality.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Derp Blog Into Darkness #29: MASH (1970)

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.

mash

Hello friends, and welcome again to Derp Blog Into Darkness, my blog series with the most instantly dated title of all! Today I present to you my thoughts on MASH, Robert Altman’s 1970 TotesNotVietnam-set anti-war comedy starring President Snow, Monica’s Dad and Captain Dallas Without The Stache. Sorry, I was being antagonistically millennial there. Could have been worse though! Could have referred to Tom Skerritt as Sheriff Brock!*

MASH tells the tale of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the Korean war, although it is perhaps wrong to say it tells a single tale. Rather, the movie shows the viewer a bunch of vignettes mostly centered around Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland), Duke Forrester (Tom Skerritt) and Trapper John McIntyre (Elliot Gould). They’re honestly so unrelated (from a trip to Japan to an inter-MASH football game) they might as well have been about a bunch of different doctors at a bunch of different army hospitals with some minor rewrites.

This is only my second Altman movie ever (check out my first – some vague memories of PRET-A-PORTER notwithstanding – right here) and I’m actually pretty interested in seeing more! I liked the ambling, improvisational nature of both PRAIRIE and MASH, and Altman does seem to have a knack for assembling really awesome casts.

The movie gets off to kind of a weird start, with an impressive aerial tracking shot scored to that evergreen hit “Suicide Is Painless” cutting to a barely audible short conversation between a colonel and his assistant. It later becomes a running gag that Blake (the colonel) and Radar (the assistant) constantly talk over each other, with the superior officer never really cottoning on to the fact that his subordinate pretty much always anticipates his needs. What a clever metaphor for military brass being far removed from the grunts in the shit!

The movie never really is in the shit, however, although it does get in the blood ‘n guts. Which I suppose probably does qualify as the shit for army surgeons! It’s an interesting artefact from a transitional age in cinema where the old Hollywood epics were starting to lose their luster (PATTON in the same year!) and we were heading towards SERPICO-land. People say fuck! There’s boobs! The operation scenes are bloody as hell!

I was pretty consistently entertained by this movie, but there’s definitely some cringe moments in there for a 2015 audience. Fred Williamson’s guy (a football player!) is called SPEARCHUCKER Jones and Trapper John at one point asks for a nurse that’s good at her job and “won’t let her tits get in the way” WHATTTTTT

For a movie that’s all about anti-authority shit, the white/male POV definitely still rules here. Understandable since we’re still not too great about it nowadays, but I just wanna warn anyone that hasn’t seen this yet that there’s definitely a couple of Michael Bay style jokes in there. But hey, I like Bay, so…

My good vibes toward MASH are probably also attributable to the depressing fact that AMERICAN SNIPER is currently the #1 movie of the year in the US right now. We could do with some type of “soldiers on the front not really diggin’ this war” movie, I think!

*Young Skerritt without a moustache looks weird as shit, and not a little bit creepy!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)

War_of_the_Gargantuas

TRAVIS:

In our review of FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARGAON, we talked about its fabled lost ending of Frankenstein grappling with a giant octopus that was added due to US producer Henry Saperstein's insistence. Though the tentacled beast didn't make the final cut, Saperstein still had octo-fever for the sequel, and thus THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (or FRANKENSTEIN'S MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRA in Japan) opens with the monstrous sea creature attacking a ship. But he ain't the only danger from the depths as he's soon dispensed by Gaira, a green, hairy humanoid of Godzilla-like proportions. He soon starts to make appearances on land, knocking over buildings and grabbing helpless humans to chow down on. The military responds and almost have him against the ropes with the use of the Maser Cannons (the laser-heat weapons that make their Toho debut here and would later appear throughout the Godzilla franchise). Gaira's nearly about to meet a bloody, roasty death when suddenly another Gargantua pops up to save him! Sanda (the taller, brown brother of Gaira) rescues Gaira from being killed, but after he revives his green sibling, he discovers that 'lil bro has been feasting on people, and that doesn't make him happy at all! And so the third act lives up to the film's title as Sanda and Gaira wrestle and toss each other around from the forests to the cities to the seas in this war of the gargantuas!

Though it's typically acknowledged that this is a sequel to FvB, GARGANTUAS itself doesn't make this quite clear when watching it. Various plot synopses always say that Sanda and Gaira were formed from the discarded cells of Frankenstein, yet no one in the film states this outright. In fact, the only direct reference to FvB made is in a scene shot only for the American version where a character mentions the disembodied yet still animated hand that fell off of Frankenstein. Otherwise, with all the talk throughout GARGANTUAS about how the monsters' cells could regenerate into new monsters, we're left to guess about the continuity between the two movies. It's probably made even more confusing as both films feature the same type of scientist protagonists: a Japanese doctor willing to side with the military's decisions, a female doctor with a maternal instinct for the heroic creature, and a Caucasian doctor who acts as a mediator between the two of them. Heck, Kumi Mizuno even plays the lady role in both flicks even though they're different characters! If all this is rattling your brain, try to think of the relationship between FvB and GARGANUAS like the one between Ang Lee's HULK and the Marvel cinematic universe-focused INCREDIBLE HULK: the sequel has passing acknowledgment of the first one yet softly reboots to tell its own story.

And if that still has your head swirling, just focus on the outstanding performance of Haruo Nakajima as Gaira. Nakajima is of course most famous for his iconic work as the original (and longest running) Godzilla suit actor in the G-series, but he also portrayed many other kaiju in his career as well as performed regular human bit parts and stunt work in more “reputable” films (try to spot him as a bandit in Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI!) Aside from the King of the Monsters, Gaira is his best role, showing a violent ferocity that really makes Gaira a kaiju to be hated. He grabs defenseless women to snack on and doesn't give a crap! How malicious! Credit is also due to Yu Sekida for his fine job as the docile Sanda. I really enjoy the scene where Sanda finds bloodied human clothes next to the resting Gaira, and Gaira barely gives him a shrug about Sanda's angry bewilderment over this horrific discovery. As they say, it's not Shakespeare, but Nakajima and Sekida are great at conveying such emotions in their silly creature suits. Did the offspring of Frankenstein impress you, Luca?

tumblr_mc03uxV3jq1qiyl8do1_500

LUCA:

At this point I don’t even think it’s a matter of “soft rebooting” as much as it is the screenwriters not really giving a shit from movie to movie. As you say, Travis, Mizuno Kumi is a doctor who seems to have had a history with Frankenstein, but she is NOT Dr. Togami from BARAGON, as she is called Akemi here. Her repeated implorations that the military take care not to hurt Sanda, aka the original Frankenstein (as he is a gentle creature that she knows well… somehow) also bump into some continuity headaches, since “retreating into the mountains” isn’t exactly what Frankenstein did at the end of last movie – and that’s even if we discount the amazing devil fish finale. Yes, we are in definite Showa IDGAF territory here, where sequels of movies were based solely on the previous entry’s revenue and not planned ahead by franchise-minded studios. Mind you, I’m sure Toho was franchise-minded as hell, but they’d just give the go-ahead to whatever did well in any given month, it seems. In this day and age of blockbuster universe-building it’s quite fascinating to see a sequel script written by someone who apparently only saw the previous film months ago, perhaps while on medication and while road works were being performed outside.

Russ Tamblyn! That’s probably the biggest Hollywood name after Raymond Burr Toho ever got their hands on! Even though he takes on the role of “international audience draw” previously inhabited by Nick Adams in BARAGON, the actors actually both give a very different interpretation of “concerned, well-educated white man”. Though Tamblyn gets to be a bit more of a man of action than Adams, attempting to save Akemi as she dangles from a cliff in a scene rather reminiscent of the old 1933 KING KONG, there is a bit more of an academic edge to him than his predecessor exuded. Adams seemed a dashing doctor in the field, whereas Tamblyn gave me the impression of being a scruffy academic. This is probably because Adams looks like a bit of a Captain America, whereas skinny, curly-haired Tamblyn in his oversized lab coat looks basically like pre-serum Steve Rogers. He’s a bit of a smug bastard too, whereas Adams seemed to genuinely want to help people. This might of course be the result of Adams getting a proper introductory scene consisting of day-to-day activity at his Hiroshima hospital, whereas Tamblyn gets thrown in the thick of it as the audience POV follows Gaira rather than the humans at the start.

Speaking of Gaira, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS has a whopper of a sentence – most every Toho movie I’ve seen so far has included a sentence (or more) that is just so full of nonsense yet spoken with a straight face and thereby completely encapsulates the silliness of kaiju movies. In WAR’s case, this would be the following radio dispatch: “Attention! The Minister of Defense has decreed that the sea-Frankenstein will now be called GAIRA, while the mountain-Frankenstein will be called SANDA!” I’m just picturing a slow adult informed that two Frankensteins are attacking the nation he is the defense minister of, and his first concern is that people won’t be able to separate the two. One being green and one being brown is just not enough dammit! Travis, were you at any point confused between the two gargantuas/Frankensteins/please-use-either-at-your-convenience-cuz-the-movie-sure-does?

war-of-the-gargantuas-1

TRAVIS:

Me being the kaiju fan, of course I had no problem properly identifying the gargantuas. Heck, I remember watching DESTROY ALL MONSTERS as a kid and getting mad that the English dub misnamed Baragon as the one attacking Paris when we clearly see Gorosaurus tearing down the Arc de Triomphe. Keep your monsters straight, people! Brad Pitt apparently didn't remember Sanda or Gaira's names, but they certainly left an impression on him! During the 2012 Oscars telecast, the program ran a montage of famous stars reminiscing about their most memorable movie watching moments. When it was Pitt's turn, he recalled seeing a film (“The Gargantuas” was his best guess at its title) where the good gargantua sacrificed himself to defeat the bad gargantua. So yes, fans of Brad across the world, you have Nakajima and Sekida to thank for inspiring him to be an actor.

Going back to the comparisons between GARGANTUAS and FvB, though I do like both movies, my choice narrowly edges towards Sanda and Gaira. Though Koji Furuhata gives a fine performance as Frankenstein and I always enjoy seeing Baragon in action, Nakajima and Sekida are simply too much fun to watch here. Especially when the wrasslin' starts as they really go at it since they're not constricted by clunky, stiff monster costumes. They even toss friggin' battleships at each other! Also, while FvB can be a fun grab bag of a Frankenstein tale, a Baragon flick, and whatever octopuses they can throw in, GARGANTUAS is a more traditional and collected story (as silly as it still is) that I can sit down and comfortably watch. Now, this is all personal preference, and as we've seen with the Godzilla films, there's a wide spectrum of tones for any viewer's accommodation. So if you enjoy the crazier FvB to the more conventional GARGANTUAS, go right ahead! It's all a fun monster mash!

However, I will concede that FvB is stronger than GARGANTUAS on two points. First, though you Luca read Tamblyn as an academic lead, I just find him boring. Say what you will about Adams and his “colorful” acting in FvB and ASTRO-MONSTER, but it fits in well with the genre, and he simply seems more at ease with the rest of the characters (I particularly love in FvB seeing him in a kimono while having tea with Mizuno then later in garish BBQ chef gear for their swanky party). Tamblyn may have climbed down a cliff to save Mizuno, but everything else he does seems so dispassionate. I always laugh when he awakens an unconscious Mizuno by stroking a rose against her face. It's supposed to be romantic, but his disinterest in the entire film makes him seem like a robot or alien figuring out human emotion and expression. Second, FvB's ending is really dramatic with Frankenstein slowly being pulled down to his death (sea animal or no sea animal). In GARGANTUAS, Sanda and Gaira continue their fight into the ocean until suddenly an underwater volcano erupts next to them, and they both disappear. The military assumes that they must have perished in the lava. The end. Man, I loved the war, but it really ends on a whimper. How do you feel about the various Toho-ensteins, Luca?

war-of-the-gargantuas-09

LUCA:

I’ll take the other point of view on this, Travis, and say that FvB was my favorite Toho-stein. You’re absolutely right in that WotG is a more “classic”, collected kaiju tale, but that’s precisely what pushes me towards FvB and its wacked out nazi opening and sort-of-King-Kong-ish tale of a misunderstood monster who just wants to be left in peace to eat delicious protein-filled boar puppets. I will admit that seeing two guys fight in minimally restricting prosthetics rather than lumbering rubber suits makes for a more exciting, visceral battle scene BUT! Sanda and Gaira only really start to fight near the end of the film. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me so much (King Kong and Godzilla only have 1.1 fight scenes in an otherwise really fun movie), but I couldn’t help but be somewhat disappointed at what I thought was a unique opportunity in Toho’s monster catalogue. And Nakajima really kills it as Gaira, too! I love his interpretive dance lunges and swirls as he dramatically looks around to see if there aren’t any treacherous JSDF masers hanging about looking to fry a poor innocent sea-Frankenstein looking for delicious hikers. Also a big fan of his “wade like I’m up to my nipples in a septic tank” THREATENING LUNGE.

Oh god, how could I have forgotten weirdo Tamblyn stroking Akemi with a rose? I’m sure David Lynch saw GARGANTUAS and thought “Yes… this man…”! Don’t get me wrong though, Travis, I like Nick Adams better as well – just a more sympathetic and warm lead overall, not to mention his enthusiasm for cultural exchange as evidenced by his gastronomic cosplay. WotG being the final Toho Frankenstein makes the anticlimactic finale even more hilarious, cuz it portrays the JDSF as just these tired yet pretty accurate predictors of kaiju behaviors. “Oh, uh… underground volcano? *burp* Sorry. Yeah… yeah, that oughta do it for a few years at least.” And in this case, it did it for all time!

With Toho’s gargantuas inspiring movie stars like Brad Pitt and cult directors like David Lynch (it’s headcanon now), one is reminded of how these silly, formulaic movies despite their faults spoke to the imagination of kids worldwide. Are there any that you have a particular fondness for and we’ve not yet covered in this wildly kareening kavalcade? Give us a shout in the comments, particularly if you are Eddie Redmayne!

 

His TRUE ROMANCE character obviously digging deep into childhood memories!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (1965)

 

Frankenstein_Conquers_the_World_1965

LUCA:

When Toho goes for broke...

FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON or mayhaps FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD if you will starts off in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII. A misty, corpse-strewn battlefield makes way for an eerie laboratory full of dials and switches and tubes and flasks full of mysteriously colorful liquids. It's actually rather reminiscent of the vibrantly colored productions of Hammer from around that same time period. Nazi officers come in to confiscate the good dr. Riesendorf's experiments. The allies are advancing and this top secret experiment MUST be spirited away. Where to? Why, our good friends the Japanese, of course! The credits continue as the secret cargo is budget-consciously transported by means of a line on a map towards the Pacific. At the handover spot, a Japanese sub officer asks what the mysterious cargo could be. Maybe a person... maybe... HITLER??? No cigar, but at least a self-rolled doobie: it's the indestructible heart of Frankenstein's creature that keeps regenerating, and the nazis were trying to figure out if they could make some unkillable supersoldiers out of it. The Japanese scientist that tells us this (via a wide-eyed military officer in need of exposition) is none other than Takashi Shimura, in a two minute cameo. Why so short? Because LOL the research facility is in Hiroshima and... well...

In CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, Marvel chose to downplay the nazi element to such a degree in order to focus on Hydra and the Red Skull that Hugo Weaving's baddie ends up killing more nazis than Steve Rogers. In contrast, FRANKENSTEIN not only goes all-out with nazi imagery and mentions of Hitler, it also rather callously reminds the audience (barely two decades after the facts) that their country was in league with them, AND that they got nuked. In the prologue! Ishiro Honda was serious about this shit, man.

Cut to 1965, and hunky American doctor James Bowen (Nick Adams of ASTRO-MONSTER fame) and his colleague Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno of EBIRAH fame) are treating radiation patients in the rebuilt Hiroshima. But there is something more sinister afoot... a DEGENERATE (hilariously referred to as such in a newspaper clipping) has been wandering around the city eating cats and dogs. My grandmother would say "who would notice in China" and then I would say "shush Nonna this is Japan!" and then she would throw her hands up and run into the kitchen going "aaaahhhh!" but I'd probably get some lasagna later anyway. Curiously, this degenerate WAIF is a... a white boy? A half-caste abandoned by a prostitute, one researcher asks? NO NO a full caucasian! Who would abandon a white boy in Hiroshima... what do you think, Travis?

frankensteincomposite

TRAVIS:

I think we're in a new world of gods and monsters, Luca, and these monsters are tall! The feral Caucasian child is eventually captured by Bowen and Togami and is studied for his anomalies, mainly his resistance to the radiation left behind from the Hiroshima bombing. Oh, and he happens to be growing in size at a tremendous rate until he's properly at Godzilla height. But how could that be? That... that Frankenstein heart... it couldn't have been mutated by the bombing and formed into the body of a human boy with the aid of protein intake?! Preposterous! And yet when the good doctors interview the elderly Dr. Riesendorf and that military officer who delivered the heart to Shimura, it all makes sense! I guess! Much like how KING KONG ESCAPES followed familiar beats from the original KING KONG, CONQUERS takes its version of Frankenstein on a journey similar to his classic Universal counterpart: his naive skills are tested under his caretakers; he's accidentally provoked into violence and breaks loose; he plays hide and seek with the authorities. Your basic Frankenstory stuff until OH YEAH this is a Japanese monster movie so here comes Baragon! You might recognize him from GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, and here he makes his Toho debut. It's assumed that he's probably an ancient dinosaur who burrowed deep beneath the Earth to escape extinction, but who cares because that means big Franky's gonna wrestle a big dino for the finale!

Hey everyone, it's time again for Travis's Toho Info Dump! And what a dump I got for this film! The long, winding road that eventually lead to CONQUERS could be its own blog post as the film (like the monster himself) was stitched together from years of script ideas and studio concepts, but here's the most condensed version. Toho always had an interest in a Frankenstein story, so much so that they attempted work on a never-materialized sequel for its sci-fi film THE HUMAN VAPOR where the titular character met Dr. Frankenstein. Meanwhile, American producer John Beck came to the studio with a script for KING KONG VS. FRAKENSTEIN (an idea originally conceived by KONG stop motion FX artist Willis O'Brien). Toho passed on it yet saw elements of the story they thought could be used for one of their own pictures. That “inspiration” eventually lead to KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (whose own behind the scenes story is also worthy of its own post). That movie's tremendous success prompted them to work on a script called FRANKENSTEIN VS. GODZILLA, which had the basic story of CONQUERS with Godzilla instead of Baragon. That project however stalled out, and G ended up fighting another famous monster with MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Soon though, US producer Henry Saperstein (who had handled the Stateside release of MvG) became intrigued by Toho's gigantic Frankenstein idea, and through a partnership between his company United Productions of America and Toho, FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON/CONQUERS THE WORLD finally was given life.

Not only was Saperstein responsible for the film's financial backing, he was also responsible for its most fascinating urban legend. The original ending as shot had Frankenstein killing Baragon and roaring triumphantly as the ground beneath them trembles and sinks. The human characters look on as Frankenstein is slowly pulled underground to his death. Saperstein however had another idea. He was apparently wowed by the giant octopus scene in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and asked director Honda at the last minute to include a giant octopus in the finale for the American release. Honda and the crew were puzzled by the decision, but they obliged and shot an entirely new scene where the mammoth marine animal randomly appears to attack Frankenstein and pull him underground to his demise. Despite Honda following through, the octopus scene was ultimately never added to either the Japanese or US version. This “lost ending” gained notoriety though as the magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND showcased black & white still images of Frankenstein and the octopus grappling each other, claiming that the film's title was FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE GIANT DEVILFISH. Of course, when CONQUERS was released and no devilfish was in sight, rumors were abound in the following years. Did Toho withhold a secret ending? Was GIANT DEVILFISH a separate Frank-film in production? What was going on? Eventually, Honda spoke on record on how UPA ordered the fishy sequence, and some subsequent VHS and DVD releases actually restored the octo-kaiju scene to the film. Man, I know I haven't given my personal thoughts yet, but there's so much going on on-screen and behind the scenes that it's hard to hold it all back!

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LUCA:

Oh ye gods, Travis! So FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON was an early case of Jon Peters syndrome? For those of you unaware of this lovely madman, Jon Peters is a producer who, in the stop-n-start period between SUPERMAN IV and 2006's SUPERMAN RETURNS, was adamant that in his (never-to-be-realized) vision for the Man of Steel, Kal-El would fight a giant spider in the final act. This never happened, although Kenneth Branagh's villainous Dr. Arliss Loveless did find himself at the helm of a giant steampunk tarantula in 1999's WILD WILD WEST (a Jon Peters production). Let me tell you, Travis, bless Saperstein's heart! That fucking giant octopus just slithering over the mountain pass out of nowhere literally three minutes before the end of the movie (there isn't any water in sight ANYWHERE) and dragging Frankie to hell now stands as one of my favorite Toho/kaiju/tokusatsu/movie/life moments of all time. When we embarked on this journey together, this is the kind of shit I signed up for, and by gum, I'm happy it's there. Arigato, Sapurushiti-san... arigato...

It's kinda funny (okay, depending on who you ask) that Kumi Mizuno here plays a respected doctor the equal of a white man, but the year after that she was a buxom bikini island babe in EBIRAH, HORROR OF THE DEEP. Toho: they'll film whatever! At least thirty-five years later she got to be prime minister of Japan in GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA. EBIRAH was, of course, the Godzilla debut of Jun Fukuda, Toho's resident partyman and the Zack Snyder to Ishiro Honda's Christopher Nolan, so different sensibilities shouldn't come as too big of a surprise. After reviewing KING KONG ESCAPES and FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON, though, I came to a horrifying realization... Not only was Honda making Godzillas year in year out for decades, with precious few reprieve years, Toho was putting him on other such nonsense whenever he wasn't -- just the off-brand versions! Poor Honda-san... he worked with Kurosawa, you know! I'm starting to think that the hilarious still from Miyazaki docu THE KINGDOM OF DREAMS AND MADNESS wherein a wistful Hayao is captured with the English subtitle "Anime was a mistake..." could easily have been applied to Ishiro Honda as well. Just imagine the poor man staring off into the distance, a half-smoked cigarette between index and middle finger as his head rests listlessly on his hand. "Tokusatsu was a mistake..."

While FvB does very specifically address WWII (also rather shockingly and explicitly, Japan's status as an Axis nation) and the spectre of the bomb, it doesn't reach the allegorical levels of Honda's own GOJIRA. What could be to blame? Well, for starters, Frankenstein is an import monster. One of the factors that made GOJIRA such an iconic parabel of nuclear annihilation was that it was very much the product of a specific place and time -- the only place and time in history that could actually attest to having suffered nuclear attack. The society that would come from this tragedy -- and the fictional monsters it created -- was destined to tell their story their own way. Secondly, and this may seem like an on-the-nose reason, but hey, what are we dealing with here? Baragon. While Hiroshima and radiation victims are part of the film's setting, the vague anti-nuke thematic wallpaper never really coalesce into a coherent thesis statement, as was the case in GOJIRA. Frankenstein is the giant monster we created in our hubris! It'll always be back to haunt us! But also protect us from subterranean monsters! Which are just naturally occurring! Watch out, a squid! Goodbyyyeeeee Frankenstein! Anything else to add, Travis?

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TRAVIS:

While Toho's Frankenstein may not be as strong of a war metaphor as Godzilla, Honda (always being the humanist in these silly monster mashes) still includes issues of scientific ethics in this movie. Specifically, even though Frankenstein is clearly a destructive mutant, he possesses a child-like mind with familiar emotions and motor skills. This causes a bit of a split among his caregivers, with Dr. Ken'ichiro Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) viewing him as an experiment that can be disassembled or even destroyed for the sake of research and Togami becoming a protective mother figure to him because she recognizes his humanity. The original Frankenstein films from Universal dealt with these topics (the question of true mortality, the danger of scientific arrogance, etc.) more directly while Toho-enstein merely uses them as flavoring for the proceedings, but never count out Honda for imbuing his kaiju with a little bit more substance.

Speaking of kaiju, though he never gained the popularity of Boris Karloff's legendary portrayal, Koji Furuhata does a fine job as the great monster for this version of the Frankenstein story. There's a rabid animalness he brings to the role that stands in contrast to the more rigid performance of Karloff. He's definitely a fun Frank to watch even if the enlarged forehead prosthetic can be a little distracting at times. And if we're bringing up cheesy SFX, I have to admit that the miniature wild hog that he hunts in the woods always makes me laugh. It's as though the FX crew randomly grabbed a plastic toy from a zoo playset and stuck it on a rod to move it around. Man, if something looks fake even in a kaiju flick, that's saying something! Luckily, the grand finale where Frankenstein and Baragon fight surrounded by a fiery forest is an impressive showstopper. Though they only have one battle together, they're pretty mean and vicious as Frank and Baragon (played by Mr. Godzilla himself Haruo Nakajima) flip each other around in the most fun, wrestling match ways. Going back to the parallels between CONQUERS and the American counterparts, Frankenfilms typically ended things in flames or explosions or whatever spectacular fashion, and here there's a goddamn inferno while Frankenstein punches a dinosaur! And in some prints, also an octopus! That's the Toho way!

Also in the same Toho fashion, there were sequels to be made! Bizarrely, Germany was already releasing “new” Frankenstein pictures in their own markets by taking Godzilla films and re-titling as Frankenstein films. Through redubbing of the characters' dialogue, Godzilla was now the original monster created by Dr. Frankenstein, and other monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah were new creations of the doctor. Think EBIRAH's only alternative title was GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER? In Germany you could watch it as FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM THE SEA! Back in Japan though, Toho made a proper follow-up to CONQUERS, yet even the connections between those two movies are little odd. Universal may have made SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but could audiences handle the twin, monolithic sons of Frankenstein? Prepare yourselves as we're thrust into THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein noble Sempai Travis Kirkland and meek Nanami-kun yours truly… watch some kaiju movies and report on them!

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TRAVIS:

Despite losing to his hairy adversary, 1962's KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a world-wide smash hit that propelled Godzilla to box office stardom. The King of the Monsters had successfully made his way into Technicolor and was soon off to battle butterflies in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Other Toho monster flicks began to invade theaters with movies such as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, GORATH, ATRAGON, and MATANGO giving us beasts of all shapes and sizes. Strangely though, the furry victor of the KKvG smackdown lay dormant for quite a few years. While big reptiles, bugs, and aliens decimated Tokyo, where was the Eighth Wonder of the World? Kong's fate was soon given fresh life in the hands of US animation company Rankin/Bass (best known for RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER and other beloved stop-motion holiday specials). In 1966, they partnered with Japan's Toei Animation to bring THE KING KONG SHOW to cartoon television, and the giant gorilla was once again in the spotlight. With success on the small screen, Rankin/Bass decided to license Kong to Toho for a return to the silver screen. By now, the big G was starting to settle down for a domestic life in SON OF GODZILLA, so maybe it was time for Kong to reclaim his glory with KING KONG ESCAPES!

Per usual Showa fashion, ESCAPES eschews the continuity of KKvG to begin the story anew. King Kong now lives on the mysterious Mondo Island where an American submarine has also conveniently landed. He soon encounters the sub's crew as they explore the island and in particular falls for the lovely Lt. Susan Watson. Now, this being a Japanese kaiju film, the story can't simply be a rehash of Kong/Ann Darrow relations, so they also throw in the nefarious mastermind Dr. Who (no, not THAT Doctor Who)! Who has created an exact robo-clone of Kong cleverly named Mechani-Kong to dig for the radioactive Element X deep down within the North Pole. If successful, Element X will be handed over to his financial overseer Madame Piranha so that her country (never named in the movie) can become the ultimate nuclear superpower in the world. However, Mechani-Kong malfunctions due to X's radioactivity, and Who and his henchmen head off to Mondo to kidnap and hypnotize the real Kong so that he may finish the job. Will Kong be able to break from his hypnotic trance? Can the beautiful Susan Watson tame the beast to fight for the forces of good? Will Kong and Mechani-Kong face off in Japan and destroy many building miniatures? If you don't know the answers to these questions, then you haven't been reading these reviews!

One fun way to watch this movie is to view it as though the original black-and-white KING KONG never existed, and Toho had created the Eighth Wonder from the ground-up instead of Miriam Cooper and RKO. It hits those familiar Kong beats (fights a dinosaur, crushes on a pretty lady, climbs a tall thing) but is spruced up by those fun tokusatsu tropes. Why should the humans simply reach Mondo Island by boat when they could use a sub that also has a flying transport ship? And Kong shouldn't simply grapple with a dinosaur either! The dino (in this case a pre-DESTROY ALL MONSTERS Gorosaurus making his debut appearance) should kangaroo kick him a lot to elongate the running time! Also, when Kong climbs the tall thing, he should be punching a big robot that looks like him! It's similar to all these modern fantasy movies that take old fairy tales and stretch them out into all-new re-tellings with a grim & gritty look and Tumblr feelz. Except here an enormous gorilla is hitting his mecha-clone in the face a buncha times. I'll take this over MALIFICIENT any day!

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LUCA:

Hey, at least Toho didn’t wuss out on having a female villain of some complexity (well, grading on a tokusatsu-curve here). Madame Piranha (that’s how big the curve is) as portrayed by Godzilla/James Bond veteran Mie Hama has a redemptive arc that, while simplistic, makes sense given the story and plays out in a satisfactory climax. Take that, MALEFICENT! Wait, why are we talking about MALEFICENT? If we must talk about FEELZ, I’ll admit that I was kinda touched by the captive Kong on the North Pole spotting his (inactive) metal doppelganger on the other side of the hangar and starts waving enthusiastically until he notices that he isn’t responding. Aw, man! I mean, I understand that Kong as the last of his species is something I’m bringing in myself as a viewer, but it was still kinda touching. Because LOL the movie doesn’t attempt drama at any point! Taken wholly without any cultural baggage, it’s just another dopey Kong moment (of which there are plenty).

I’d say King Kong is two for two in his Toho appearances. Between the lovely KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and KING KONG ESCAPES, director Ishiro Honda seemingly had quite a knack for realizing scripts with the big hairy guy in ‘em. It helps that, as you say, Travis, there’s no continuity between Toho’s Kongs, nor was the giant ape used in any more than these two outings. No time to get stale!

You’d think that with all the rehashing of OG KONG set pieces (Travis, you didn’t even touch upon the serpent delaying Kong and allowing the human heroes to escape, just like in Cooper’s film), KKE would be a bore for anyone with even a smidgen of movie monster knowledge. Not so! Greatest contributor to this not being the case is definitely the fact that the whole Sku—uh, MONDO Island sequence takes up all of fifteen minutes out of a hundred minute movie. Sure, he fights a T-Re—uh, GOROSAURUS and there’s a sea serpent, but Toho-Kong gets the fuck ON with it, man! Favorite part of the Mondo Island sequence for me was the ominous underwater shape approaching Commander Nelson’s hovercraft as Jiro, Susan and he all go back to the ship chased by Kong. In what appears to be a raging frenzy, Kong hurls a boulder at them. But I say thee nay! Kong just knows the miscreants of Mondo Island so well that he could accurately predict when the sea serpent would pop up and attack the hovercraft. Said monster’s reveal, followed a millisecond later with a boulder crashing into his face with a hilarious THUNK sound effect had me on board for this movie SO HARD. Any other winning moments for you, comrade Travis of an unnamed nation?

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TRAVIS:

For me it's amusing to see a Toho kaiju joint infused with the old fashioned views of American adventure serials. For instance at the UN press conference, Susan is asked why Kong didn't harm her. The pretty Ms. Watson demurs, but the dashing Nelson pipes up with, “It's very easy to understand. As ridiculous as it may sound, Kong is a male, and Ms. Watson is... [motions toward Lt. Watson] ...well, see for yourselves, gentlemen.” The gentlemen in the room of course laugh. Ha! Dames. It's also funny that we've mentioned James Bond, as the two Asian antagonists (or I guess one antagonist and one turncoat) are given that special foreign exoticness Western audiences might be used to in 007 movies. Despite the fact that Dr. Who is portrayed by Japanese actor Eisei Amamoto, he's given a wild-haired look that includes full, pointy eyebrows that you could surmise might highlight his natural slanted eyes. Hama as Madame Piranha meanwhile is a sultry figure, an idolized representation of the alluring seductress of the East. Is this a bit overreaching? Maybe, but when examining ESCAPES and its co-production between studios of different nations, observing the cultural differences can be interesting.

What makes ESCAPES most memorable of all though is the big ape himself. Of course everyone loves Godzilla, but he can mostly be recognized as a bit of a surely guy. Even when he's fighting for the forces of good, he can still be a destructive force if his brash temper acts up. Kong on the other hand is a roly-poly furry friend who generally doesn't smash anything unless he's intentionally provoked or swayed by the object of his affections. He's a tender soul that embodies our base instincts. Haruo Nakajima (best known for his many years inside the Showa Godzilla suit since GOJIRA) is excellent here as the giant primate, showing some nice pathos that he probably couldn't normally bring to his other kaiju roles. I particularly enjoy how he distinguished G and Kong by their walking. G could be lumbering but moved precisely when he was ready to destroy buildings in his path. Kong meanwhile has a carefree stride with his two big ol' arms dangling to the sides (though this may be because the costume's arms were apparently too long for Nakajima). This is clearly not a creature with annihilation on the mind.

Despite his popularity, ESCAPES would be the last time that Kong would appear in a Toho feature. He was originally part of the all-star monster cast of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS but was ultimately dropped because Toho's license for the character was about to expire. In the 1990s Heisei era, the studio tried to work around Kong's copyright by planning a Godzilla vs. Mechani-Kong movie, yet even using his robotic likeness was going to be difficult to clear with his American rights holders, and the idea was soon scrapped. It's a bit ironic that it would be so hard to bring Kong back to the Land of the Rising Sun when he could actually claim to be the first film kaiju in Japanese history! In 1933 following the release of the original KING KONG, Shochiku Studios quickly put out their own remake titled WASEI KINGU KONGU (or JAPANESE KING KONG in English). The film unfortunately wasn't preserved for history, and no copies are currently known to be in existence. However, a single still frame remains as the only remaining evidence of it, showing an actor in a Kong suit holding onto a miniature woman. Though GOJIRA would proudly claim to be the film to kick off suitmation SFX, it's clear that the Eighth Wonder of the World staked his claim in the man-in-suit business almost twenty years earlier. Maybe he deserved that victory over Godzilla after all!

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LUCA:

Coming back to your earlier statement, Travis, I gotta agree, there's absolutely no threat to Toho's Kong whatsoever. People complained about Peter Jackson's neutered beast, but methinks those people haven't seen KING KONG ESCAPES! Then again, maybe they have, and deemed a friendly Kong not worth the bother of complaining about when faced with a brisk 100 minute runtime. And then there's the fact that this isn't really a remake of the 1933 original, so who cares what they do with their big ape? Besides looking BLAZED AS FUCC at all times -- seriously, the "opening his eyes" close-up shot when we are introduced to Kong looks less like the awakening of an awesome leviathan as much as a gigantic stoner being roused from his Dora The Explorer marathon -- Kong just never does any damage to anyone who doesn't deserve it by being really, really cartoonishly mean. This THC-induced dopeyness extends to his titanium counterpart as well, as the screwhead eyes of Mechani-Kong remind me of nothing less than Kylie from FANTASTIC MR. FOX when he zones the fuck out. Also, the poster might SEEM to promise a robotic Kong who shoots lasers out his eyes, but in reality they're just some big headlights that make Kong throw his arm up in front of his face. "Ughhhh noooo wanna snooze some mooorrre!!!"

Dr. Who's appearance actually quite amused me, since his wardrobe and hair seemed to be a very deliberate "homage" (hmmm) to the BBC's good Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell, the very first of the titular Time Lords. It's somewhat disappointing that Who is a (very loose) adaptation of an actual cartoon villain, since Toho's always been very good at giving us goofy human villains, as far back as the greedy industrialists in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA in '64. This is largely academic, however, as Amamoto gives a wonderfully hammy performance nearly the equal of Akihiko Hirata camp-tastic turn in TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA! Speaking of that GOJIRA veteran, it's very nice to see Akira Takarada (the romantic hero Ogata from the first G-movie) back as the do-gooder Captain Jiro. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I felt at times like Jiro was actually the one hinted to be Susan's human love interest, rather than the more-appropriate-for-1967 Commander Nelson. INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER had already done an intercontinental (planetary, even!) romance, so it's not beyond Toho!

KING KONG ESCAPES, two opposable thumbs up from me! And stick around, my Mondo Island friends, for some exciting stuff is coming up...

Friday, January 16, 2015

I Live Near A Cinema: EXODUS: GODS & KINGS

I recently moved back to my hometown, within walking distance of a cheap movie theater. While this is a great amenity for anyone who likes movies, it also presents a conundrum for the ever-entertainment-seeking First Worlder. It turns the cinema into a really big TV set. “Maaaan, there’s nothing on… ugh god, I don’t wanna get up though… ughhhh FINE, I’ll watch MONEY TALKS.” So in this situation, sometimes you’ll walk to the cinema, realize you’ve actually seen everything that’s playing that you wanted to see, and you end up seeing…

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One of the delights of being with a person who was cut off from a large part of popular culture during her youth, is the ability to introduce them to movies that, in time, have perhaps gained a rose-tinted sheen borne from many a youthful, uncritical viewing. It’s wonderful to have films taken for granted by movie geekdom being examined freshly by rational adult eyes. It was during a viewing of Ridley Scott’s HANNIBAL that my lovely wife deadpanned:

“So ALIEN was a fluke, I guess…”

This caused no end of amusement for me, and actually triggered a more thorough examination of Scott’s work. Though I am not as harsh as to say I only like ALIEN, my opinion of him had shifted from “He’s fallen off a bit in recent years…” to “Holy shit, he only does care about a pretty picture, doesn’t he?”

Ridley Scott, not that far off from Tim Burton!

The latest must-see Sir Ridley, EXODUS: GODS & KINGS, had me hurrying to the cinema only a month after release and also because my sister bought us dinner nearby. That old Scott magic…

I also figured having a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness with me surely would result in some interesting running commentary on Biblical adaptation choices, and I was not proven wrong!

First, the bad news: EGK is a piece of shit of the worst kind. It starts off genuinely int—no, wait, hold up, it doesn’t. My bad.

It starts out as promising hilarious revenge porn, with title cards saying that the Hebrews had been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. But they had not forgotten their god… and HE had not forgotten them…

This was already pretty giggleworthy: Ridley playing to the cheap seats and just laying out the setting in the laziest possible way. Unfortunately, the movie gets sorta good for the next 15-20 minutes. Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and John Turturro make a compelling triumvirate as the two sons (natural and not) of an aging pharaoh and their father. Bale is actually jesting and smirking in this part of the movie. His Moses is a cocky prince who’s pretty happy with his station in life – wow, not since AMERICAN PSYCHO!

Joel Edgerton’s Ramses meanwhile is amazing! The young(ish) pharaoh is basically a trust fund bro who wants what’s coming to him and can’t handle any situation in any fashion other than “Uhhh hang more Jews!!” At one point Moses finds him posing like a male model with a white cobra draped around his shoulders as he wistfully gazes into the flames…

An Egyptian soothsayer (Indira Varma, too good for this shit) says that in a battle to come, one guy will save another. The saved guy will go on to have a high status, but the guy who did the saving will be the true leader. You know where that’s going!

After a battle with invading (or are they?) Hittites, Ramses is pissed because that very thing happened. This is a weird thing to put in, because it kind of shows us that either the god of the Hebrews isn’t the One True God, or that he was speaking through an Egyptian soothsayer, allowing her to falsely claim his words as those of Sekhmet. That doesn’t sound like our guy to me! It’s almost as if the film’s five credited screenwriters were just tacking shit onto an ancient  to adjust it for 21st century blockbuster viewers’ expectations… I must disappoint you: Moses did not turn out to have Super Blood.

A sekhment (hehe) follows where Moses is appointed to oversee a quarry and unmasks Egyptian corruption by an unscrupulous viceroy. It’s solid stuff, showing Moses to be a wily politician as well as an able warrior. It is here that his Hebrew lineage is revealed to him by Jew #1 played by Ben Kingsley. This movie is very good at wasting great actors on nothing parts, to the point where I believe a Director’s Cut not unlike Kingdom of Heaven is surely forthcoming.

This insult ticks Moses off so badly that he kills two soldiers who beckon him as “Hey you there, Hebrew!”. Now, the soldiers WERE sent to kill him by the corrupt viceroy, but they had not yet attacked him at that point. It’s pure white hot racist denial rage by Moses. I thought it was very impressive to have a mainstream blockbuster lead character exhibit such malevolence!

Alas, it was not to be.

The idea of Moses as a complex, maybe even bad man, is struck down when he is exiled from Egypt after Ramses learns of his heritage. He bullies some shepherds away from a well because he is more thirsty and has a sword. But these shepherd were actually bullies themselves, who bullied some hot chicks with sheep away from the water, whom Moses then gracefully invites back to the well.

The casting of Spanish actress Maria Valverde as Moses’ wife-to-be Sippora (after a mildly pleasant conversation in which he was apparently highly impressed by her weaving) is perhaps even more dubious than casting Australian/Welsh/American actors as Egyptians and Hebrews. Casting a latina as a Middle Eastern woman cuz…. Ridley scott he say “ehhh sorta brown”? Glad to see latina actresses in high profile roles but it’s a double edged sword here!

Speaking of female characters! Haha! Well, it’s always shaky ground if you’re gonna adapt Bible tales – often you can just give the character a NAME and you’ll have improved on the source material, but EGK has one scene where they hilariously rub your face in the off-screen story of a female character that maybe could have been interesting?

During the dramatic confrontation with Ramses and his mother (Sigourney Weaver, she of the five lines in the entire movie) about Moses’ heritage, Miryam (Game of Thrones’ Tara Fitzgerald), Hebrew handmaiden to Moses’ adoptive mother Bythia, reveals herself to be Moses’ real sister.

Years ago, a prophecy (another one!) was made that a great leader of Hebrews would arise and shake Egypt to its core (another CORRECT one!), so the Pharaoh had a bunch of Hebrew babies killed. Moses’ parents were clever though, and gave him to his older sister Miryam to hide. She put him on the Nile in a basket, placed cleverly so that he would end up at a spot where the barren Bythia bathed. Then, all she had to do was worm her way into the palace and become Bythia’s maid and presto! Moshe saved!

Wait, that’s some really fucking clever maneuvering from a teenage slave girl. How the hell did she do that? You’re really just gonna have her tell us this in thirty seconds?

Anyway back to the men!

Now here’s where all the god shit comes in, and I was actually still sort of on board here. Moses actually gets CONKED on the head while tending some sheep, and this is where he sees God, a whiny little English kid.

Clever, you movie you! Make it ambiguous as to whether or not Moses was a crazy man or if he was actually God’s chosen… but nope!

After some terrorist attacks on granaries, the whiny kid returns and tells Moses this shit isn’t going fast enough, so he’s gonna start doing it himself. Cue the ten plagues!

The ten plagues are actually a really fun bunch of setpieces where people are eaten by crocodiles and covered in locusts and stuff, and here’s where Ramses absolutely shines! He gets to do cartoon shit like stare angrily and scowl while frogs hop onto his head, and he gets covered in boils as he thwacks flies off his face. There’s even a running gag where he hangs advisors who have proven useless!

Now the movie AGAIN tries to have it both ways, with a scientist played by Ewen Bremner explaining away the first four or five plagues. But then God keeps coming and either you have to believe in a shit-ton of coincidence or just acknowledge that it’s God, guys.

While the ten plagues are a good bit of fun, they’re also pretty much where the movie dies like an Egyptian baby, as it resolutely takes the side of “God is real” and much more important than Moses, as Bale pretty much spends this portion of the movie going “oh no!” and “you sure, God?” if he’s on screen at all. This is where my wife’s later remark that “they took away Moses’ staff and gave him that stupid sword instead!” really hit me. Although the Biblical Moses is too firm a believer at that point to make a compelling protagonist, the staff/serpent throw down incident being completely erased from the narrative to make way for Moses just fretting and standing idly by as God takes care of shit is indicative of a boring, non-committal script.

After this CGI-and-lulz onslaught, the actual titular Exodus is an underwhelming affair. Moses is pretty much the only Hebrew we got to know a little over the course of the movie, so it’s basically a bunch of really expensive crowd shots of people walking away. There’s a final cool bit of empty spectacle a bit later, with a mass crash of chariots and the sadistic death of a weaselly Egyptian we’d been following the entire movie, but by that time any enjoyment you’re picking out of the movie is completely apart from what the filmmakers were intending.

Put it to you like this: EGK is a movie that has Moses and Ramses facing each other at the bottom of the Red Sea one on one, charging each other, but it DOESN’T end in a fist/swordfight. If you’re gonna go stupid, go all the way stupid! Not since THE PATRIOT and Emmerich’s disgusting refusal to have Jason Isaacs be impaled on the Stars ‘n Stripes have I seen such negligence…

The ten commandments also sort of happen in a half-assed way, with a hilarious shot of the golden calf far off into the distance, unacknowledged by either God or Moses who are too busy exchanging “hehe we made it bro” pleasantries on top of Mount Sinai. It comes across not as a dramatic illustration of the Hebrews’ faithlessness in the desert, but a wacky cultural tic we just hadn’t been told about, like the Egyptians and their love of Mascara.

“The Israelites have lives outside of Moses too, you know!”

E-40 once said “Imagine all the Hebrews going dumb, dancin’ on top of chariots and turnin’ tight ones”. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS sometimes flirts with being that movie, sometimes with being a decent, religion-free retelling of the tale of Moses, but never commits to either.

Keak Da Sneak probably would have made a better Joshua!

Friday, December 12, 2014

2014’s Biggest Disappointments

Come year’s end, many a movie or pop culture website will hit you with their best and worst of lists. Many will probably enjoy the latter more, as they fulfill the role of snarky bit of timewasting at work better than the former. However, I’ve found that many “Worst of” lists in any given year tend to focus on films that, well, no one in the readership actually saw. This is, of course, understandable – professional critics simply have to watch everything that’s out there. You may not think A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 looked any good and therefore avoided it, but there’s always some poor schmo out there that was paid to go and see it, resulting in it appearing on many such lists. And that’s not even taking into account all the crap that gets screened at film festivals that didn’t get distribution deals, so no one is likely to see them at all any time soon! With this in mind, here’s five of the most disappointing movies this year that you’ve probably actually seen!

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5.) GODZILLA

I actually quite like Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, despite some minor misgivings. However, the early trailers seemed to indicate a truly apocalyptic disaster movie, something meditating on mankind’s place on the food chain, and how a creature such as Godzilla would disrupt balance. The well-made adventure movie we got was a nice consolation prize, but it would have been cool to see someone attempt to do something in the vein of the original GOJIRA.

4.) X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

With all the good reviews this one was getting, the amazing cast it boasted, and that one trailer that used “Come With Me” by Diddy*, I was actually pretty psyched for this movie despite the return of Mr. Bland, Bryan Singer. True to form, Singer sucked out all the energy of DOFP’s predecessor FIRST CLASS and delivered a two-and-a-half-hour classic the Singer way – awesome set piece in the middle, nothing too fancy on the sides. Watch this back to back with 12 YEARS A SLAVE if you want to see the extreme ends of the give-a-fuck scale for actors.

3.) THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

A really cool ten minute Spider-Man short that somehow ended up two and a half hours, ASM2 wouldn’t really have been a disappointment to anyone who had seen the first ASM and knew to stay away. Unfortunately, reviews coaxed me into going by promising true hammy madness! Even more disappointing that there were a few minor actually good elements in this movie, like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, respectively. Spider-Man’s Times Square fight with Electro is also really exciting. Too bad the story doesn’t really go anywhere! The fetishistic build-up to the first “accurate” cinematic depiction of comics’ original girlfriend-killing without even bothering to establish an enmity between Spider-Man and the villain who kills Gwen is… unfortunate, to say the least.

2.) HERCULES

I love Dwayne Johnson and have been hoping for him to become a bonafide movie star for over a decade now. I had a lot of hopes for this one, but it was not to be. A movie populated with actors full of life undermined by a script that missed the bus by about ten years. This “realistic” take on Hercules sees the strongman as portrayed by Dwayne Johnson as the figurehead leader of a mercenary crew who greatly embellished the mythical 12 Labors. Unfortunately, Johnson cuts quite the mythical figure himself, and he is shown as very capable throughout the film (even punching out a horse at one point). So here’s a movie with a boring “real story behind the myth” angle undermined by having a main actor who sometimes does mythical stuff anyway… sort of? Either this movie should have been a full-on Greek myth fantasy extravaganza, or Johnson’s Hercules should have been a complete dimwit who relied on his old-timey pit crew for everything.

1.) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

A well-acted film with some pretty cool action, some humorous character moments and no major filming equipment visible on screen at any time throughout. WINTER SOLDIER squanders a potentially interesting premise regarding the need for security vs. privacy by absolving all our heroes from any wrongdoing, stating that basically only a double Nazi would be in favor of surveillance. It also squanders any fun pulpy “Who is a secret double Nazi?” potential by having literally no one of import be a traitor. If your heart wasn’t broken by the betrayal of those two guys who were introduced in this very movie and were accompanied with ominous music from the start, surely it was in pieces over those old Marvel stand-bys of “Asshole Senator from IRON MAN 2” and “Glasses Agent Who Sometimes Stood Around A Bit”. In a Phase 2 where every movie was a leap ahead of its predecessor, CAP 2 stands out like a sore bionic thumb.

You know, the actual worst movie I’ve seen in theaters this year was probably A WINTER’S TALE, but shit, who the hell saw that? Let me ruin its surprise cameo, by the way!

Whooooo! Ha-haaaaa!

*this is a joke I know of led zeppelin my friend