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

 

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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?

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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?

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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.

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!