Tuesday, April 29, 2014

They can’t take this one away from ya, JJ.


JJ Abrams and his principal cast for STAR WARS EPISODE VII – an image you’ve been bombarded with for the past few hours, no doubt. 

John Boyega (Moses from ATTACK THE BLOCK)
Daisy Ridley (???)
Oscar Isaac (Mean Nurse from SUCKER PUNCH)
Adam Driver (Adam HNNGHHH GONNA JIZZ ON YER ARM from Girls)
Domnhall Gleeson (Bill Weasley from Tumblr)
Andy Serkis (All the CGI)
Max von Sydow (King motherfucking Osric from CONAN THE BARBARIAN)

All JJ Abrams movies have good casts. Say what you will about the uselessness of Khan in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, Benedict Cumberbatch as a supervillain is something that guy could do in his sleep. He wasn’t really able to do much else than sleep with what he was given, but that’s neither here nor here.

BIG IMPORTANT THING HERE: John Boyega is first named in the releases. This seems to imply that a black kid most of the world has never heard of is the protagonist of the new friggin STAR WARS movie. As soon as Fanboy Abrams’ Old ‘n Busted Pander Brigade shuffle off this mortal space coil by the next movie, that means he’ll be the hero.
He’s not the hero’s best friend. He’s the hero. In a 9 figure movie by Disney that comes pre-sold to every market in the world. It only took ‘em a short 40 years, folks!
I give you a lot of shit, Abrams, and you work hard to deserve that shit.

But on this day, I say kudos for giving this kid the opportunity that’ll hopefully land him a great career, and a whole lot of other kids the opportunity to look at the movie screen in a few years and see that you don’t have to be a handsome white Calvin Klein model looking motherfucker to swing a laser sword around or pew pew a blaster.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #17: GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

LUCA:

I wish the Heisei era had started with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. Travis, I ain't kidding that this may be my favorite Godzilla so far. First of all, G himself looks better than he's ever looked. His nemesis for the movie, Biollante, is a visually interesting foe who -- like G -- looks fantastic in execution. But Zack Snyder movies don't magically get good by looking good either, so what else does this movie do? Boy howdy, what doesn't it! With just a few dialogue tweaks, I would totally have recommended it as the first sequel to watch after the original GOJIRA! The cold open on a computer screen showing us the different stages of what appears to be DEFCON ZILLA draws you right in. It’s a tiny, inexpensive thing, but it’s so commanding and authoritative and immersive that it just makes you smack your forehead at nobody having done something like this in the 35 years of G history up to this point. Picking up right after Zilla's 1984 rampage, GvB shows us some American troops aiding in relief efforts, only to be revealed they’re in the pocket of special interest groups and charged with retrieving bits o' Godzilla. These American troops are so evilly portrayed that they even mow down Japanese soldiers once they're found out! But o cruel fate – they themselves are then killed by a mysterious lone assassin. One could argue that the American villains are reduced to a single evil corporation that employs mercs, but the Middle Eastern assassin (who also works for an evil company) is from a country called “Saradia”. Why keep the Americans American and then make up a fictional Middle Eastern country? Just a weird thing that struck me! And oh man, the phonetical English that is spoken in this movie by people of various nationalities made me roll out of my chair more than once! Look at me being an asshole though, and talking about the silly stuff in a movie I am actually quite unequivocally positive about.

Ishiro Honda would be proud of this one! GvB tackles Godzilla as a true plague on Japan, and everything that happens is fallout (no pun intended) from the mere existence of Godzilla. Biollante the sentient rose bush is created from DNA gathered from Godzilla cells that look like big burned omelettes. There’s the aforementioned DEFCONZILLA, there’s kaiju rampage memorial buildings, there’s the Godzilla Task Force (featuring the awesome Major Gondo) and – admittedly, I’m a huge mark for this – the first combined use of the Godzilla March, the Godzilla theme and the Self-Defense Force theme in one movie… to GREAT EFFECT! One scene that really sums up my love for this movie is Miki Saegusa, a teacher at the JAPAN PSYONICS CENTER (yeah sure), informing her superior that “the children have been having dreams…” When she takes her boss to a classroom, she cheerfully asks the children how they are doing and what they are drawing. The children happily raise their sheets of paper in the air to show it and BAM – dozens of different Godzilla drawings. The way it’s cut, juxtaposing the blissfully oblivious kids with the mounting terror on the women’s faces, the quick jumps from drawing to drawing timed with Ifukube’s (look, it’s his theme) pounding, insistent strings – this scene lets you know a dragon is returning.

And the people! Major Gondo and Miki are two people who stand up to their country’s bully Godzilla; Gondo by shooting a fucking rocket into G’s mouth, and Miki by facing off with G using her psychic powers. Two instances of lone humans against the reptilian colossus, and they feel earned both times. How often have we said that the human protagonists are “okay, nothing special” in these movies? How often have we said there were not one but TWO memorable heroes? Not very often, I’ll tell ya! Travis, am I exaggerating here?

TRAVIS:

You’re certainly not exaggerating, Luca, and I share your enthusiasm for this movie! It’s one of the best of the Heisei era, if not one of the most enjoyable entries in the series. I think the bizarre storyline of Biollante makes this unique in the Godzilla franchise and actually reminds me of the work of David Cronenberg! A scientist who preserves the spirit of his dead daughter in a rose bush that horribly mutates certainly sounds in tune with the body horror theme identified with the Canadian filmmaker. Those microscopic shots of the Biollante cells morphing and spreading accompanied by the tense score would also seem right in the director’s wheelhouse. Throw in a buncha tentacles that bleed acidic goop, and you might as well put this title alongside THE FLY and THE BROOD. The only non-Cronenberg note to the Biollante plot is the creature’s demise, which is pretty unbelievable and ridiculous to watch considering we just saw Biollante violently rip through Godzilla’s hand. I’ll leave the description to you, Luca, since you’re the best at excitedly talking about the finest LOL moments of cinema.

Man, the United States of America doesn’t come off too clean in the Heisei movies. First they’re trigger happy to deploy nuclear weapons in THE RETURN OF GODZILLA, and now in BIOLLANTE Americans are constantly attempting to steal Japan’s genetic discoveries. You’d think that such vitriol would be more prominent in the Showa era since those films were generated from the direct aftermath of WWII, yet aside from the greedy nation Rolisica standing in for the US and Russia in MOTHRA, America was never as big a target as they are in this portion of the G series. We’ll also see an odd, revisionist history beat in GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH that positions Godzilla as a victim of the US army! Though Japan didn’t participate in the Cold War, nearby countries like Korea and Vietnam saw ground combat during the escalation. Was this villainization of the United States due to their revived fears of nuclear annihilation?

FUN TOHO HISTORY TIME, FOLKS! Just as Jet Jaguar originated from a kid’s drawing, the original script for BIOLLANTE came from dentist Shinichiro Kobayashi –  the winning entry of a contest held by Toho to find a follow up for RETURN. The biggest supposed difference between Kobayashi’s concept and the final film was that a rat/fish creature named Deutalios created by Dr. Shiragami was to be the first act kaiju fodder for Godzilla before Biollante appears. The other interesting side note of BIOLLANTE’s production was the disagreement between Toho and Miramax. The two studios discussed American theatrical distribution of the film, but Toho ultimately sued Miramax over money disagreements. Miramax eventually settled out of court and sent out BIOLLANTE direct to video through HBO Video in 1992. All the legal action and delays might’ve scared other distributors from the G business, as the remaining Heisei films (GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH to GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH) would not reach the US until Sony gave them the DTV treatment in anticipation for the 1998 GODZILLA. For all you could say about the Matthew Broderick vs. lizard flick, it at least gave those films the green card for America!

LUCA:

Oh my goooddddd Biollante's EMOTIONAL demise that they botch so hardcore that even someone who was completely with the movie like me could do nothing but surrender to the tsunami of lulz! The idea of Biollante disintegrating into spores that bloom in space is a wonderful one, and seeing her as a flower orbiting the Earth is still kinda poignant but OH WHY DID THEY HAVE TO TAKE THAT MIDDLE STEP!!! You see, they were super worried that you might not feel sorry for our favorite giant rose bush, so they made sure that the heavenly golden spores briefly morphed into a glamour shot of poor dead Erica looking straight into the camera as she ascended heavenward. If it weren't for my noticing the wind briefly rustling her hair upon a rewatch, I'd have thought it was a still photograph. But still, these VAN HELSING flashbacks are not a good thing!

I think it says a lot about my affection for these silly movies (and the accomplishments of this one in particular) that bursting out in laughter at a climactic emotional moment doesn't really hamper my enjoyment or potential recommendation of GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. If you're signing up for a man-in-suit wrestling match, there's a certain amount of cheese you're gonna have to take, and a smiling Japanese girl's face floating to heaven arising out of a melting plant monster is one of them. Travis, I believe Toho should just farm out their scripts to contest winners every time if it gives them miraculous entries like JETTOJAGAA and BIOLLANTE! Any final words on your end, because thumbs up from me's all I have left to say!

TRAVIS:

All I gotta say is thumbs up from me too! One of the interesting aspects of the Heisei era is how we see Godzilla affect the real world on the scientific level. A unique creature such as G would be the boon of the century, and certainly his molecular structure could upset the balance of nature. I think that’s what makes Biollante such an interesting kaiju, as he’s derived from the realistic consequences of Godzilla’s presence and not  simply an adversary from space/underground/psychedelic dreams of a little boy. Unfortunately, BIOLLANTE’s box office was disappointing, and Tomoyuki Tanaka believed it was because ol’ G wasn’t facing off against a more familiar monster. As every generation’s Batman must battle the Joker, the King of the Monsters would again fight the three-headed astro-monster in GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #16: THE RETURN OF GODZILLA (1984)/GODZILLA 1985 (1985)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

TRAVIS:

A pattern to sense with Toho is how they use milestone years as opportunities to put some extra muscle behind their films. With the King of the Monsters dormant for almost a decade and his 30th anniversary coming along in 1984, they knew it was time for THE RETURN OF GODZILLA! Longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was at the helm again, this time with Koji Hashimoto (a veteran assistant director from the Showa era) taking on the directing duties. But how do you bring G into a modern, more cynical box office age? By doing a clean reboot of course! Ignoring most of the silly Showa stuff, RETURN restarts the timeline as a direct sequel to the original GOJIRA. Many of the story beats feel similar to the 1954 film too: a ship disaster signals the emergence of Godzilla, nuclear panic sweeps Japan and the world, G makes his stompy way into Tokyo and is finally defeated by EXPERIMENTAL SCIENCE!

Also continuing from GOJIRA is its dark, somber tone. No more fun victory dances or drop kicks! The threat of Godzilla is treated as an actual threat of world-ending possibilities. We see soldiers and citizens run for their lives or die in the destructive path of the monster. America and the Soviet Union squabble over using nuclear weapons to destroy him, while Japan solemnly refuses such warfare after enduring the scars of the past. Even though we haven’t seen Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, I imagine we’ll be seeing a similar movie to what RETURN was trying to accomplish.

One of the main goals of RETURN is to make Godzilla more animalistic and less anthropomorphic. He’s not here to save the world (yet…) but is a force of nature made wrathful and lethal by the arrogance of man. His design is also refreshed to look more menacing. Of particular note are his set of sharp, almost vampiric teeth and his upper lip that can animate into a snarl. He’s wall-eyed too, so as not to give a sense of trying to read his thoughts or actions. Gotta admit though, while I appreciate that effort, it kinda gives him DERP face in many shots. His height gets changed up as well, bumping him from 50 meters to 80 meters. He grew larger for the times, yet Tokyo had grown faster in the intervening years as even the mighty King of the Monsters was now actually dwarfed by the imposing skyscrapers that the fast growing Japanese had constructed. We’re certainly in a new age of kaiju, Luca. How does it feel?

LUCA:

Isn't it strange how, from a certain period onward, movies feel more "real" to you as a viewer? The aesthetic of movies from the mid-80s on is that of the ones made during my lifetime, so there's a more immediate, visceral connection to the material. So too with THE RETURN OF GODZILLA -- I was instantly captivated by the more “modern” sounding score by Reijiro Koroku and Kazutami Hara’s cinematography. This is also the first movie in quite a while where you really get a sense of Godzilla as a huge monster. His first (partial) appearance in the aforementioned ship disaster is from the POV of a poor sailor who later describes G as “an island that rose up from the sea”. Furthermore, I also liked that G’s presence is shown to have political ramifications. Both Russia and the US are very eager to nuke Godzilla off the face of the Earth and, in the early goings before Japan has made it public that Godzilla has returned, even threaten to escalate the Cold War into a hot one after Zilla destroys a Russian nuclear sub. Poor, long-suffering Japan – the initial secrecy was to avoid mass panic and a stock market crash, but the prime minister decides to make Godzilla’s reappearance public to stop a nuclear war from happening. Noble Japan, ever taking one for the team!

Were there actually two suits made for this movie, Travis? I think G looks decidedly different in some shots (for instance when the Super X is bombarding him on the plaza near the end), though always wall-eyed and derpy. I enjoyed the movie’s change of tone, but I have to say the quality of the actual monsters did not catch up with it. In the days after STAR WARS, THE THING, or even Dino de Laurentiis’ KING KONG, you’d think Toho’s creature people would deliver something on par with those movies. It completely took me out of the movie (after a mere five minutes or so) to see our hero grapple with a monstrous mutated sea louse that had very little articulation going on and indeed seemed to just be thrown onto the actor for him to struggle with. Conversely, G himself looks completely out of place in this more naturalistic looking movie with his shiny, expressionless plastic eyes. If inscrutable is what they were going for, “fake” is unfortunately what came out. Contrasted with the dreamy playtime vibe of the Showa era, the Heisei era is off to a shaky start with a more sophisticated narrative but without the technological advancements to reflect this. It’s a shame too, because Koji does really well in selling Godzilla’s scale and his impact on the environment.

Oh, and, like Godzilla, the continuity whore in me isn’t dead yet! So this is a direct sequel to GOJIRA, huh? How the hell did he grow the meat back on his bones after Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer turned him into a huge skeleton at the bottom of Tokyo Bay? There’s no mention of this being another Zilla than the one from 1954. There is, in fact, some pondering on the notion that G might be indestructible (which a scientist refutes by saying he’s “just an animal”). You’d think that a weapon that put him down for thirty years might be attempted to be studied for flaws or something. I’m aware that Serizawa destroyed all his notes at the end of the original movie and it seemingly didn’t work anyway, but not even a mention? “Godzilla attacked Japan thirty years ago and we made him go away somehow but now he’s back and he’s after all of our precious nuclear reactors but we’re pretty sure he can be destroyed.” Okay mang! Zilla feeding off of nuclear reactors was also a cool new wrinkle I enjoyed, actually. All the more frustrating that so much thought went into this new iteration of Godzilla, only to have his resurgence be so casually glossed over. How did the Heisei era start off for you, Travis? Was there less nostalgic attachment to this one?

TRAVIS:

The primary Godzilla-watching years of my youth were spent with the Showa stuff, and it was only later as a teenager that I discovered the Heisei movies. RETURN was the only entry of that era to be released in theaters (retitled and repackaged as GODZILLA 1985) while the rest were sent directly to video with very limited TV airings, so finding out about these new ‘Zilla flicks for me was almost like uncovering another book in the Bible! While the Heisei films may not hold as much nostalgia, it’s still an entertaining portion of the series and was part of how I started to research Godzilla (and Japanese cinema) beyond what I was given. Perhaps that fondness makes me not nitpicky with the continuity inconsistencies between GOJIRA and RETURN. By now I was used to such disparities. It’s also that fondness that allows me to not mind the low tech Man in Suit among the high tech backdrops and miniatures. Does it especially seem unrealistic in such modern times? Probably, but to me, I can always enjoy the reality of the situation despite the realism of the visuals. I think this mindset is important when enjoying and dissecting Godzilla. No doubt it’s fake, yet it’s not hard for me to find the fantasy to be naturalistic.

BUT HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS MOVIE, TRAVIS??? It’s a nice, little restart! Without another monster foe, we’re back to the “people vs. Godzilla” motif you mentioned in our GOJIRA review, Luca. I’ll admit that the characters aren’t terribly interesting, but I did enjoy the vagrant ransacking the restaurant of fine food and then shooing away G like he was a hungry dog! The perspective of Godzilla as a worldwide threat is handled very well. The tension of the Japanese prime minister and his cabinet deliberating each decision feels like one of those war movies where most of the action takes place in control rooms. I also thought it was pretty funny how the filmmakers try to “mature up” the franchise with the horror movie opening of dead bodies and scary music. They aren’t fucking around with no JET JAGAHHHHH nonsense.

Speaking of fucking around, as an echo of GOJIRA morphing into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS thirty years ago, New World Pictures acquired RETURN and released their own version of the beast a year later as GODZILLA 1985. As an homage to KING, Raymond Burr returns in new, US-only scenes as retired news reporter Steve Martin (referred to only as “Mr. Martin” to avoid confusion with the popular comedian/WILD AND CRAZAH GUY). And much like in KING, Burr is a spectator, never truly involved in the actions or decisions that impact the plot. He remains at the Pentagon to deliver eloquent monologues and musings on Godzilla and keep American viewers interested so they don’t have to only watch those odd Asians. Apparently, New World wanted to cut up and redub RETURN as a silly riff-raff spoof à la WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILLY, but Burr insisted that they need to preserve the seriousness of the film’s nuclear message. Props to him for still having affinity for a funny little monster flick he did decades ago! However, there’s a specific scene edit that the studio implemented that is rather politically controversial considering how heavy the Cold War hung during this time. How did you feel about the treatment of the Soviets in G’85, Luca?

LUCA:

It's funny how just by adding scenes with the Americans and giving the Americans jokes (even bad ones), the less-represented Russians feel more like villains. Hell, some dialogue tweaks in the US version made it look like those sneaky Russkies were just CHOMPIN AT THU BIT to get their nuclear rocks off with a hidden tanker in Tokyo Bay. BLACK EAGLE flashbacks in this one! I much preferred the RETURN version wherein the Americans looked just as threatening and bull-headed as the Russians, an interesting POV for a film from that period to a guy like me who was brought up on your ROCKY IVs. Let me talk about those American scenes for a second here! Boy howdy, they really didn’t try, huh? Whereas in GOJIRA they attempted to have Burr’s character interact with original characters like Emiko and Serizawa by making use of awkward cutting and blocking, G85 just has Steve summoned to the Pentagon where they sort of talk over the scenes of RETURN as they observe them on a viewscreen.

Besides the vilification of the Russians, the added American scenes in G85 could conceivably work as an alternate POV of the events of RETURN, just like KING OF THE MONSTERS and GOJIRA, but the added distance and Steve’s even greater uselessness to the proceedings make it feel like a far bigger hatchet job than KING. The generally lower quality of voice acting in the overdubbing of the Japanese actors certainly doesn’t help. Learning that they originally wanted to make it a silly comedy doesn’t surprise me one bit. Kudos to Raymond Burr for having the artistic integrity to preserve the original film’s environmental and pacifist themes. Couldn’t have been easy in a movie that features more Dr. Pepper product placement than THOR! I had a hearty laugh at the colonel popping a refreshing Dr. Pepper after G’s initial apparent defeat, only to be chastised by a stern-looking Burr. What a microcosm of that production! It’s even funnier that the colonel thought he’d really earned that cool yet energizing refreshment because he was such a diligent screen-watcher.

The Heisei era is off to a middling start, in my opinion. I liked the integration of the Cold War environment, the attempts to really put people in harm’s way (like our heroes stuck in a building with Godzilla rampaging around them) in the kaiju destruction scenes and the overall successful feeling of weight and size the Godzilla scenes have. Not too fond of the sub par puppetry in a film otherwise reaching for a greater degree of realism, some of the blander human protagonists so far, and the script ALREADY futzing with continuity even though they’ve freed themselves up to only follow the original. Perhaps adding another monster to the mix will spice things up? Join us again next week for GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #15: TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (1975)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

LUCA:

And so we come to it... the great battle of our age. Our age being Godzilla's Showa Era, and the great battle being that of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus! In a striking move, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA picks up right where GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA left off. This threw me for a loop, since, according to Toho protocol, we should be on a moon base where Anguirus got a job chewing on boulders with his extra strong jaw. But nope! An expedition of marine biologists are scouring Okinawa Bay in their submarine, looking for the space titanium remnants of MG. Disaster strikes as they are attacked by a marine dinosaur called TITANOSAURUS whose existence (and possibility for mind control) was suggested thirty years ago by Dr. Mafune. SCIENCE BROS Ichinose and Murakoshi are dispatched to find this man who has since disappeared. His mysterious daughter must disappoint them, however. Her father is dead, and she inhabits this mysterious mansion by her mysterious self. Suspicious? Indeed! It turns out that her father isn't dead AT ALL and is instead living in a secret lab under the mansion where he has perfected his Titanosaurus mind-controlling machine. Not only that, but he is evilly cackling and drinking wine with the dastardly APE MEN FROM THE THIRD PLANET OF THE BLACK HOLE DIMENSION!!!! That traitor! Their plan is to tire Godzilla out with a mind-controlled Titanosaurus so that a now-rebuilt MechaGodzilla may finish off the job.

It's interesting that it actually took Toho 15 movies and 21 years (!) before they touched upon the mad scientist trope. And who else to play him but Akihiko Hirata, who's been with us since GOJIRA as the (noble) scientist Serizawa whose Oxygen Destroyer killed the original beast? Hilariously, Hirata (a handsome middle-aged man in the previous film, released only a year before this one) is made to wear a big bushy wig, eyebrows and a moustache to play Professor Mafune. And what a treat the professor is! He cackles at least three times within the span of the first five minutes of his appearance. He has to be WRESTLED TO THE FLOOR in the flashback where he is told his Titanosaurus theories are bonkers. The tragic background regarding him and his daughter Katsura is a hilarious reveal of callousness not seen since Thomas Haden Church stumbled into a sand experiment and was brushed of with "eh probably just a bird nuke the sand already". And Mugal, leader of the ape men, is no slouch either! Favoring the B-Action movie shades where his predecessor enjoyed a nice stogey to chew on, he wallows in his superiority towards humanity and his own martial prowess ("Hahaha, do you think your bullets can stop MUGAL????").

All this, and I haven't even talked about the monsters yet! I like Titanosaurus' design, even though he must have been pretty OLD N BUSTED to the youngsters who wanted crazy mofos like Megalon and Gigan. He's just a throwback aquatic dinosaur (with hurricane-causing tail-flippers, granted)! You almost feel kinda bad for the guy, as he's repeatedly described as "gentle" were he not mind-controlled. You can also tell Ishiro Honda is back, cuz he actually manages to imbue Titanosaurus with some gravitas, something Fukuda was never much interested in. MechaGodzilla is superbly acted again, often simply standing perfectly still when not engaged in any attacks. It actually manages to make him look sorta creepy! And oh man, best Godzilla intro EVER? Takes 48 minutes for the big guy to pop up, but the silhouette of his head slowly rising in the distance from behind a skyscraper as Titanosaurus lays waste to Tokyo, followed by the signature blue flame entering the screen from the left, knocking Big T down... amazing. The whip pan back to the silhouette, a flash illuminating ole G, Ifukube's theme BURSTING out of my speakers... god-DAYUM! So uh... Travis, what did you think?

TRAVIS:

There’s a welcome feeling of old masters Honda and Ifukube returning to close out the Showa era. We’ve sung the praises of Jun Fukuda and Masaru Sato, but after all the groovy wackiness of the previous entries, it’s a nice homecoming to see TERROR handled with Honda’s traditionalist techniques. What I noticed most from his return are the widescreen establishing shots of mountains and forests, something him and friend/filmmaker colleague Akira Kurosawa seemed fond of. If one was to be more romantic about it, perhaps this kinship with nature reflected Honda’s gentle spirit. Indeed, it’s been written by Japanese cinema writers that if he didn’t pursue movies, he might’ve enjoyed a quiet life as a fisherman. I could go into more rhetoric and theorize that this was the inspiration for Titanosaurus, but I’ll back off the pedal. Going back to those wide shots, it’s very welcome to hear those scenes accompanied by Ifukube’s distant horns. Even though we’re watching rubber monsters, his music was key in delivering the majesty and power Godzilla and the kaiju possessed. Other composers could make it fun, but Ifukube made them human.

Titanosaurus is quite an active one! Much as GODZILLA VS. MEGALON felt like a disguise for The Jet Jaguar Show, the finned, aquatic dino is the true centerpiece of this film. He receives the most screen time compared to G and MechaG, and most of the plot is devoted to the humans and aliens and cyborg girl scrambling around to deal with him. This honestly is TERROR OF TITANOSAURUS instead of MECHAGODZILLA. Favorite moment: TitanO biting down and flipping G up in the air by the mouth. Tumblr, start shipping Titanozilla immediately! I’ll admit that delaying G so far into the movie probably hindered my enjoyment, but oh man that badass introduction! Almost worth it for that. I’ll also say that while all the kooky scientist and space ape business was fun, the characters felt too blank for me to engage. I don’t think anyone shed tears over Ichinose and Katsura’s doomed romance. Compared to the previous MECHAGODZILLA entry, it feels like a step down despite the assuring hands of Honda.

To put TERROR in historical context, though this would be the final Showa movie, it was never meant to be a finale sendoff as DESTROY ALL MONSTERS was designed to be. At long last, diminishing box office finally sent the King of the Monsters back into the depths to await a viable return for years. Maybe this phase of the series ran its proper course. After all, what could be a bigger foe for Godzilla than another Godzilla? What could be more imposing? An alien Godzilla? (Hmm……..) The Heisei era is just ahead, Luca, but before we depart Monsterland in a helicopter as we wave goodbye to our kaiju friends, do you have any final thoughts on TERROR, the Showa era, or how far you’ve come as a Godzilla watcher?

LUCA:

The one-two punch of GODZILLA VS MECHAGODZILLA and TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA feels like a decent send-off for the Showa era. Not just because I enjoyed both of them, but also because it made such a nice diptych of the two disparate styles that had been dominating the Godzilla series for its twenty-one-year existence (give or take a GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN and HEDORAH, two films I quite enjoyed). Let's go out with one funky-ass Fukuda Zilla and one dramatic, epic Honda Zilla. Where Fukuda seemingly tried his hardest not to have gravitas in any of his movies for even a second, Honda does his best to make the monsters feel big and weighty. Just contrast Godzilla's entrance here to, say, the researcher descending into the stalactite-filled cave in MECHAGODZILLA. A real location and everything, but Fukuda refuses to go beyond medium shots to give us a sense of scale and awe, instead opting for a couple POV walking shots of the ceiling in close-up. Honda would have thrown in some matte painting enhanced establishing shots (had the budget allowed, of course, which wasn't always the case).

Hilariously inappropriate shit VOLUME 2: after MEGALON's Playmate continuity gaffe, TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA goes all in on being weird about boobies. At one point, the cyborg girl needs repairs and we see the alien doctors fixing the wires in her belly in a pretty standard operating setup. The robot torso is obviously rubber, with the actress' face sticking out from under a sheet. But... why did they have to make rubber boobies? They could have just... covered more of the body under that silver sheet? It seems cheaper too! "Whoops, Honda-san, I cut too big a rectangle in this silver tarp!" "Baka!! Have props whip up some boobs!" This freewheeling spirit, to me, is as much a symptom of the Showa era's "just do whatever" attitude as much as the several different pop songs we've heard in full throughout the movies.

I'll miss superhero Godzilla, as those little humanizing touches were always very charming to me. The random insertion of those two kids in TERROR where G saves them from being stepped on by Titanosaurus was a great reminder of that. "Help us Godzilla!!!" *Godzilla rushes to the rescue in SECONDS!* Shit, even Godzilla's absence for the first 50 or so minutes contributed to it. Someone just reads off a radar that Godzilla is coming. It's like "Shit, monster trouble, lemme just get my ass in gear I guess!" If anything, I feel like an asshole for being frustrated about "continuity gaffes" for so long. I learned to appreciate the Showa era as basically one long wrestling match for kids, with returning faces (Godzilla, Mothra), heels (King Ghidorah, MechaGodzilla) and jobbers (Anguirus). It's just that, well, this Summer Slam was introduced by a stark black and white monster movie laden with social commentary! What are your feelings at the end of the Showa era, Travis? A pleasant stroll down memory lane, or some HARSH TRUTHS unearthed?

TRAVIS:

It’s easy to mention the disparity between the harbinger of radioactive annihilation in GOJIRA to the drop-kicking superhero in GODZILLA VS. MEGALON, yet throughout the Showa era, important issues of the quickly evolving Japan remained present. Environmentalism, corporate greed, nationalism, space exploration, and even bullying were topics that the filmmakers were concerned enough about to include in their simple monster movies. Even the shadow of nuclear warfare never truly dissipated. Groovy teens and G united to stop terrorists from building weapons in EBIRAH, and the kid-friendly MEGALON mentions how H-bomb testing has affected Seatopia. Like many icons, Godzilla carried the weight of tragedy but stomped around care-free in the world of pop.

Before we bow out, let’s give another mention to the directors who gave us a variety of Godzillas to enjoy. Honda will always be rightfully recognized as the definitive filmmaker as he understood how to give kaiju a sense of gravitas and pathos. Without the fun romps of Fukuda though, the franchise might’ve fizzled out early from being too staid, and that silliness remains one of the prominent features of G’s legacy. Motoyoshi Oda’s GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN might seem workman-like coming after GOJIRA, yet it’s still an entertaining entry imbued with the spirit of Japan rebuilding after the war. And what else can be said about Yoshimitsu Banno’s crazy GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH? It’s not an easy task to make the most bizarre G film ever after enduring twin fairies, alien slugs, and Minilla!

Personally, it’s been wonderful to revisit the classics of my youth. The Showa era was the Silver Age for Godzilla, and these films will always be the ultimate way for me to remember and enjoy my monster friends. Now as an adult, it was fascinating to watch the Toho team shape the series alongside the growing Japan. Just like the ever-bustling country, the G flicks ambitiously barreled forward with results ranging from interesting to strange, ceaselessly entertaining no matter what. I don’t think that’s my nostalgia talking either! The concept of “a kaiju fights and destroys things” can be stretched very thin, yet over fifteen entries, it’s never felt dull. It’s probably why some of my warmest movie memories will always remain on Monster Island.

Godzilla finally laid dormant. However, 1984 soon came around, and for his 30th anniversary, Toho revived the monster into a new age of cinema. A year later, both his silver screen resurrection from Japan and a particular, newborn baby from South Korea landed in America. Was it already written in the stars that this boy fresh to the world and the US would have a fate intertwined with the King of the Monsters? We’ll explore this and more with THE RETURN OF GODZILLA!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Derp Blog Into Darkness #28: WILD HOGS (2007)

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.

It’s been a while since I did a Derp Blog Into Darkness, what with Kaiju Kavalcade taking up so much of my blog time. My hand was forced, however, when last week Dissolve writer Nathan Rabin announced that the next entry in his delightful Forgotbusters column would be WILD HOGS. The intent of Derp Blog Into Darkness is for me to jump into movies I’ve never seen as blindly as possible, and having read a Forgotbusters on the movie would no doubt cloud my perceptions of it. So without further ado:

I always try to find out a few personal details surrounding the movie I’m Derp Blogging about: Was this a movie purchased for nostalgic reasons? Comfort food? A blind buy? Didn’t need to do it this time though, as my lovely fiancée was quick to point out sans prompting: “Why did I buy this movie? I only watched it the once. God…”

WILD HOGS makes many mistakes, but the principal one is giving us introductions to all four of our rambunctious porcines, complete with name title card and everything. Problem is, they’re all super well-off guys whose problems are pretty luxurious ones. Martin Lawrence took a year off to write a How To book but hasn’t managed to finish it. His horrible shrew of a wife dares to suggest he take his old plumber job back up. His daughter also looks like “an eskimo hooker” for wearing uggs and a skirt. She replies with “I’m supposed to!” which is either really weird or really cartoonishly conservative of the writer. Anyway, it made me go “Ha!” which, all things considered, is not a bad outcome for any given scene featured in the film WILD HOGS. John Travolta’s business is going south and his supermodel (implied gold digger) wife left him. We can all relate! Hilariously, Travolta’s business is vague enough that he’s a Vague Movie Big Shot guy who sits behind a desk in a tall building so you get the feeling that WILD HOGS is maybe an expensive AU fanfic of THE PUNISHER? Tim Allen’s problem is that he has to eat salads cuz of his high cholesterol. His skinny supermodel wife and cherubic movie son hilariously eat steaks with loads of gravy in front of his face all the time. Allen’s dentist job is also pretty boring. Man, I feel ya. I’ve said “hilariously” twice now but neither instance is a thing the movie finds hilarious. Ready for a third one? William H. Macy is a software developer who has trouble connecting with women because of his social awkwardness. He tries to impress a random lady in a coffeeshop with his new voice command program, but a glitch causes the program to search for “alternative sex”. I don’t know if the movie is trying to tell me that Macy is a guy with really bad ideas, or if this is its idea of the internet, but the program loudly states NOW SEARCHING FOR ALTERNATIVE SEX and brings up a bunch of pop up windows of fake porn sites who also immediately start playing sound files. The two I could make out were Sexy Grannies (“Granny is going to spank you!”) and Barnyard Love (“Moo! Moo!”). The “"Barnyard Love” pop-up window I found especially hilarious (see!) because as far as I know bestiality is illegal, and WILD HOGS suggests that a simple search for a keyword even vaguely related to it (Macy searched for “alternative sex”, not “animal sex” or anything) will bring up a page with a Playmate looking lady in farm girl clothes standing in front of a cartoon barn while farm animal .wav files start playing. Also lol old people fucking is in the same category as fucking animals.

Continuing down that lane, there’s also a gay panic running gag as John C. McGinley’s nameless gay highway patrolman character is inexplicably attracted to these saggy middle-aged dudes. Rather painfully, McGinley is actually pretty funny in a role that boils down to “get away from me mr gay man!!!”. He’s weird and enthusiastic and eager to take his clothes off. Doubly funny is Travolta’s character being super grossed out by male nudity. Speaking of weird, enthusiastic and gay, Macy’s character is the only one of the main guys who’s actually somewhat sympathetic because he’s so clueless and positive all the time. He’s also the one stuck with the Jar Jar Binks level “falling off of stuff” jokes. Mannn, you were in FARGO and MAGNOLIA, Macy! I add gay to that list of descriptors even though Macy’s character isn’t really supposed to be, but he does bear more than a little bit of Tobias Fünke DNA. AND IN FACT…

According to IMDb, WILD HOGS is not a written-by-committee movie. Only one writer, Brad Copeland, is credited, and he has six Arrested Development (!) episodes to his name. I suppose actors aren’t the only ones who can slum it, but this is really egregious. Gay jokes, slut jokes, Asian jokes. I laughed a couple times, I’ll admit, but two or three laughs in a 90 minute movie that fires them off at your average sitcom tempo ain’t exactly stellar.

The plot, what little there is of it, ends up being about the Wild Hogs being a small town’s unlikely saviors against the villainous Del Fuego motorcycle gang (featuring Ray Liotta, Kevin Durand and M.C. Gainey). A sort of unlikely MAGNIFICENT SEVEN type thing, like in A BUG’S LIFE, I suppose. The terrorized town is however not introduced until about an hour into the proceedings, and it’s a 90 minute movie. WILD HOGS is a movie that trades in the broadest of stereotypes for jokes and expects us to sympathize with rich dudes who are either bored or are upset at problems most of us would be pretty jealous of to have in our lives. If they’d skipped the whole first act with us getting to know these poor beleaguered, pampered rich men and centered more on the town, making its inhabitants a bunch of comedy misfits placing their hopes on boring suburbanites, a lot might have been salvaged. By focusing on the troubled lots of the Wild Hogs themselves, the movie starts off on the wrong foot and hops away to the valley of lost jokes to be beaten up by a tiny Asian man it thought it could take but turns out he could do kung fu.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (1974)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

TRAVIS:

Godzilla as a superhero was prominent in the Showa era, yet a few comic book clichés eluded him for quite a while. Despite all his various foes, he had never punched a robot, neither did he encounter an evil version of himself. For G’s 20th anniversary though, Toho decided to take care of both problems, and as Superman fought Bizarro Superman, it was natural that we’d witness GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA. And wouldn’t you know it, another race of pesky aliens wants to conquer Earth using a big monster. This time around, Black Hole Planet 3 Aliens (basically ape-men in human disguise) have constructed a spiffed-up, metal version of the King of the Monsters to rain down havoc. This seems bad enough, but strange natural occurrences foretold in an ancient Azumi prophecy are suddenly appearing and heralding the apocalypse brought by Robozilla. Luckily for us, the prophecy also states that two defenders will win the day, so it’s up to a lightning-charged Godzilla and Japanese lion-dog spirit King Caesar to punch the evil robot a lot of times.

The last few G films suffered from cost cutting and tight budgets, but Toho pumped in some big bucks for the 20th anniversary. Models of cities (originally scaled back for the sake of production costs) return to be smashed. In fact one of my favorite moments is when Mechagodzilla (concealed under fake Godzilla skin) comes upon a building and gives it whooping PUNCH just because he’s a bastard. The brilliant red blood spurts also come back in giallo-like gushes, with poor Anguirus receiving the worst of it by getting a painful jaw cracking from MG. Most notable in the bigger budget is EXPLOSIONS! Boy, Toho went pyro happy and were happy to set anything aflame. Buildings blow up, secret lairs blow up, mountain tops blow up, monsters blow up… it’s not Save the Earth this time, it’s Scorch the Earth.

Luca does a better job explaining these type of things than me, so lemmie set the beat before I pass him the mic. This is quite a funky G film! Masuru Sato returns to score GvsMG, and it’s one of my favorites. His work on SON OF GODZILLA and EBIRAH was definitely more modern than the traditional Akira Ifukube music, and here he’s at his psychedelic best. The score compliments the groovy, grindhouse-like atmosphere this film has, but as I said, I’ll let Luca go on about these details. Do you think Tarantino has this movie in his library?

LUCA:

Oh my god Travis, I've been saying this ever since Fukuda and Sato jumped into this series with EBIRAH but it would not surprise me AT ALL to see some Sato music pop up in any upcoming Tarantino movies. In fact, I'm shocked we haven't had some already! Ukeleles and funky git-tars and swingin' percussion and big band -- quite a turnaround from how big G was introduced to us in 1954 with Akira Ifukube's relentless, doom-laden march! Sato's music is, of course, a perfect match for the comic book insanity of the High Showa era, all swaggering brass announcing that it's time to rummmmmble (but not to take it too seriously please). I actually wondered with this film, Travis, could the Godzilla movies have reached a place of intentional camp here? They've been aimed at children for quite a while now, obviously, but Sato's funky, light-hearted music coupled with scenes of somewhat shocking violence (the aforementioned Anguirus jaw-snap, Godzilla at the end being absolutely DRENCHED in his own blood) made me think that there was a sort of meanness, almost spite to the proceedings. Was Fukuda tired of this series? He'd been spending quite a bit of his life on it by that point, after all!

The higher budget did not go unnoticed by me! I very much appreciated it. Not only did they have two new monsters, they even made two suits for MechaGodzilla! I had no idea about this "disguise" aspect of MG, which was a pleasant surprise. Much like the title GHIDORAH not telling you that it's actually a team-up between Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan to stop the titular space dragon, GvMG doesn't tell you that MG originally starts off all Terminator-like wearing a Godzilla suit, nor that there's quite an important subplot about the magical dog-lion guardian of Okinawa King Shiiiiisaaaaa... Shiiiiiisaaaaaaa... SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!! As you may have noticed, I am always delighted when a new monster must be summoned in song. Funky Sato even added 70s ballad percussion to this centuries-old Okinawan chant of the Azumi line. Or was it perhaps... always there? In a movie that has extradimensional ape men with tape worms coming out of their faces invading the Earth with a robot Godzilla ON TOP of a race to get a magic statue back on its pedestal so a giant dog-lion can be awakened, everything is possible!

I had heard of MechaGodzilla, and having a bit of kaiju experience now, I was a bit afraid that he would just be a guy in a suit (duh) stomping around, making no effort to appear robotic whatsoever. I'm happy to be proven wrong, as the movie has MG doing shit like turn his head around 180°, fire rockets from his hands, turn those same hands 180° with the wrist as the axis, and the capability to fly bringing to mind a pear-shaped Apollo rocket. Magnetic Godzilla (yeah) trying to pull a fleeing MG back to him at the end for a final beatdown is an amazing and hilarious visual, as the expressionless robot face suddenly seems to say "NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE". Which aspect of the story did you prefer, Travis? The fantasy ancient Okinawa part or the sci-fi black hole ape men part?

TRAVIS:

I enjoyed the mixture of both actually, but allow me to tackle the ancient legend aspect for a bit. We’re fourteen entries deep into the series, yet aside from Mothra who’s worshipped as a god on Infant Island, King Caesar is truly the first kaiju tied to the mythical tales of spirits and guardians. At this point, the monsters are pretty much divided up as either large animals, mutants, or aliens. In GOJIRA, the inhabitants of Odo Island perceive Godzilla as a creature of yore, but it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken filmmakers this long to reach into Asia’s mystical past for inspiration. Fun fact: King Caesar is actually based on the lion-dog guardian “shisa” of real Okinawa culture! You’ll often find statues (big and small) placed around homes to ward off evil spirits. So if you wanna protect your house from robo-kaiju, grab a shisa.

Back to the dueling mystics/sci-fi plot! Both are fun to watch, and in fact, the entire movie feels like a banana split sundae of various things the filmmakers wanted to haphazardly throw together. The statue subplot also brings back the James Bond-type action with INTERPOL agents and ape-aliens trading fisticuffs and bullets with each other. The fights are often shot in long takes, shakey-cam style too! It’s THE BOURNE SUPREMACY of Godzilla movies! You also gotta love the leader of the ape-men always sipping a glass of wine. Oh, and the INTERPOL agent chomping his cigar! Indeed, Luca, with that and the kaiju gore, it might be puzzling to think this was directed towards kids. I think a good comparison for GvMG would be the PLANET OF THE APES series, which had plenty of adult themes and intense violence but was pulpy and creature-stuffed enough to appeal to the children. This mixing of genres seems like an effect of the bigger budget. Toho simply had the confidence to pull a lot of resources, and GvMG feels like a more complete, well-rounded product than MEGALON or GIGAN. Even the stock footage utilized is real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (a recycled explosion here and there but no repeated action beats from previous SFX set pieces). Pair it all with Sato’s swanky score, and this is one fun G film!

LUCA:

Such educational value this series has! I'm ambiguous about spelling it "Caesar" now since "shisa" is an actual word, apparently, and spelling it "Caesar" even though they're saying the Japanese word "shisa" feels... insensitive? OH THOSE JAPS PROBABLY MEAN CAESAR I GUESS! King Sheeser (that'll do) is a pretty funny and campy monster too, with his flamboyant fur coat and fluffy tail. He doesn't really do all that much, despite having the main human plot almost fully centered around him. Certainly, Jet Jaguar had more of an instant report with Godzilla in their beatdown of Megalon and Gigan. I really feel like Godzilla took the biggest brunt of the MechaGodzilla damage here. Since we only have one Showa-era movie to go, I hope King Sheeser has a chance to redeem himself soon. Then again, he's not a Monster Island native, so he doesn't need to worry about awkward confrontations at the watering hole.

Tune in next week, true believers, as we say farewell to the kooky, kid-friendly Showa era of THU BIG G as original GOJIRA director Ishiro Honda returns for one final bow with... TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA!