Friday, June 27, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #26: GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001)

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.

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TRAVIS:

GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK is only the third entry in the Millennium series, yet like the previous two movies, it wipes out any existing continuity to reboot from GOJIRA. In this new timeline, the original Godzilla was unquestionably killed by the Oxygen Destroyer back in 1954, but the big guy has mysteriously returned after all these years to once again decimate modern day Japan. Though his true revival is unknown, Ancient Legend Exposition Old Man warns that the countless souls lost during World War II have manifested into the King of the Monsters to punish today's society for forgetting their pain and sacrifices. Luckily for us, benevolent spirits have risen to protect us in the form of Guardian monsters Mothra, Ghidorah (as a hero for the first time!), and Baragon (long dormant since his cameo decades ago in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS).

GMK is such a joy to watch, and much of the credit goes to director Shusuke Kaneko. By the time he came to the G franchise, he already was acclaimed for his kaiju work after directing the critically and financially successful Heisei era Gamera trilogy (GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE, ADVENT OF LEGION, and REVENGE OF IRIS). His genre work is typically identified by his kinetic energy and strong ties to mythology, and GMK is a great example. The fight scenes are amped up to have the camera swoop and race around the monsters, and even the human scenes get some nice pans and zooms to liven them up. The CGI still isn't going to fool anyone, but Kaneko (who also personally supervised the SFX) throws in a lot of exciting visuals that keep the pace really animated. There's a fun liveliness to GMK that stands in contrast to some of the more static Heisei and Millennium flicks. It's also cool that the kaiju are closely tied to Japan's past and are essentially the wrathful ghosts of yore. It's very amusing to see rowdy teenagers (one group almost drowns a dog!) get their moral comeuppance via death by Guardian monster, slasher film-style.

The true specter of death in GMK though is Godzilla, who ditches the green G2K look for his most menacing design ever. His old gray, radiation-irritated skin is back, and his neck is slightly elongated, giving him a serpentine, dragon-like appearance. It's his eyes however that are his scariest feature. His irises are removed to give him a terrifying, blank stare, akin to the Deadites from EVIL DEAD. This truly is an apocalyptic abomination! Not only does he look frightening, he also is the deadliest he's ever been in the entire series. In previous G flicks, he's only been in the “bad monster” role because his presence could be a threat to mankind, or he was in conflict with “good monsters” like Mothra and King Kong. In GMK, he's truly the villain. He destroys without remorse, and it's clear that hundreds of innocent civilians are left dead in his wake. One scene even has G peering down on the people fleeing before him (including women and children) and deciding to charge up his nuclear breath. A minute later we see an ominous mushroom cloud eruption of smoke in the distance. Horrifying stuff, Luca! Could you handle such a radical change to the ol' Godzilla we know and love?

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LUCA:

MIX IT UP ALREADY is what I always say when it comes to these movies, Travis, and Kaneko certainly delivered a Godzilla tale unlike anything we’ve seen so far. In this here Millennium series we’ve now had aliens, time travel and mystical bullshit spread out over three movies. I’ve found magic to be an underutilized plot device in the Godzilla series, especially since the science we’re dealing with here is such hokum that we might as well all call it the work of fairies and goblins anyways. The closest they got to pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo was Godzilla’s weird connection to Japanese forces in GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH – now he’s a straight up incarnation of Japan’s war crimes come to haunt them! Holy crap! And, as you say, this is the most malicious G’s ever been since probably 1954. The image of the school kids getting up to see a huge mushroom cloud in the distance is haunting, and especially so since it follows G’s atomic breath charging up. In many previous instalments (and even in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version), G’s fins glowing blue is a sure sign of badassery about to happen. Here, Kaneko cuts away just as the actual blast is about to burst forth from G’s mouth, to the aforementioned classroom full of kids seeing the mushroom cloud. Horrifying!

And yet, I can’t help but feel Kaneko has a dark sense of humor about it all. The Guardian monsters all taking care of rowdy teens, for one. Did those teens drown the dog, by the way? I wasn’t given a reassuring shot of the dog paddling away cockily, so I wasn’t sure. How am I supposed to take Baragon crushing a bunch of rude bikers (led by a flaming gay stereotype)? Or a tourist lady saying “Oohh what a horrible monster! But it’s also kinda cute!” The party girl brought to hospital after Godzilla first lands at a seaside town during a stormy night, seeing Godzilla rampage through Tokyo freezes in utter terror, only to breathe a sigh of relief when G passes the hospital she’s laid up in without incident. She exhales in relief… only for Kaneko to cut back outside and show G’s tail carelessly lay into the building, destroying it utterly! Man, that’s some some Sam Raimi shit!

Kaneko really is one of the best directors this series has had, upping the pace considerably from its usual… deliberate, let’s say, Godzilla tread. The fights are absolutely ferocious and make you feel sorry for those poor Guardian monsters that have to go up against Deadite Godzilla. Especially Baragon, who’s about 1/3rd of G’s size, gets a rough deal! This is the first movie where the monsters’ eyebrows have articulation (that I’ve noticed, anyway), so seeing poor Baragon’s eyes widen in panic as he tries to climb up that cliff to get away from Godzilla… Maaaaannn! You know, I don’t mind directors doing their own thing with the material, rather than slavishly following some pre-established canon. In fact, I highly support it! I’m one of those that actually really likes that Christopher Nolan “wasted” Two-Face as a third act result of the Joker’s actions in THE DARK KNIGHT. Do what ya want! That said, I don’t know if I like King Ghidorah as the hero. First of all, Godzilla kind of kicks everyone’s ass anyway, and second, I think Ghidorah is kind of a chump. He looks like a big derp I can’t ever take seriously (as opposed to all the other, serious monsters in this franchise). They got perilously close to my finding Ghidorah cool with his ice castle imprisonment in this movie, but once he got out, it didn’t take very long for me to go back to “Oh yeah that’s Ghidorah”. Which is a shame, cuz he’s in a cool movie!

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TRAVIS:

I'll go ahead and alleviate anyone's fear for the dog's safety. There's a quick blink-or-you'll-miss-it shot during the news broadcast about Mothra's attack that shows the cute 'lil hound happily being petted by rescuers on the beach. Countless lives may have been lost in GMK, but we're at least spared the sight of canine-icide. Speaking of adorable animals, I love that of all the obscure kaiju that were picked to be in GMK, Baragon made the cut (his name didn't make the title, but hey, Baragons can't be choosers). Considering that FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and his ten second DESTROY cameo are his only on-screen appearances, Kaneko really shows how deep of a G-fan he is. He originally planned for Anguirus and Varan to be the other two guardians, but Toho insisted that they be swapped out for the more recognizable Mothra and Ghidorah. It's too bad we couldn't see those Showa-tier monsters revamped, yet I'm glad that Baragon was kept as a concession.

Of course you can't have a Godzilla movie without Godzilla, but what he represents in GMK is rather interesting. Here, instead of being the unstoppable result of mankind's tampering, he's the wrathful spirit of history forgotten. We've doomed ourselves by separating the blood of our past from the carefree freedom of the present. There's a grim reminder when we see a photo of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 ship (the tuna boat contaminated by American nuclear testing in 1954 that inspired GOJIRA) hanging from a wall as G first comes ashore. Though the film goes out of its way to show off the teenagers as assholes deserving of their fate, is it a coincidence that the first victims of the kaiju are partiers? Have we as viewers even been too caught up or numbed by all the monster wrestling matches to remember that Godzilla was born from the mournful meditation of a damaged nation?

Still, Kaneko doesn't bog down the proceedings that much and keeps the film so energetic! We've talked before about how kaiju TV shows forced Toho to stuff their movies with more elaborate monsters, but GMK feels like a movie influenced by the style (not substance) of Japanese television. Kaiju rush at each other with such speed that you might expect anime action streaks to break out! The fight scenes never reach Michael Bayish incomprehension, but there's a sense of immediacy to the choreography and editing that recalls the WIZ-BANG tone of kid shows. It truly is a Godzilla for the MTV generation. Just wait till it gets ratcheted up in FINAL WARS!

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LUCA:

You know, I’m actually surprised that anime hasn’t been a bigger influence on the G series so far. Godzilla and Astro Boy are about the same age, so it’s not like anime would be the new kid on the block that Toho gets to be all huffy about. No, we shan’t adopt any of your stylistic tics! We are a proud piece of Japanese cultural heritage that would never adopt elements from other genres or series or even steal sequences wholesale! Nope! Kanuke’s kinetic style coupled with Millennium’s new mission statement that everything stands on its own is a great boon to the film, but knowing he’d originally planned to have the Guardian monsters be Anguirus (!), Baragon and Varan I can’t help but be bummed out at least a little bit. Those guys are (mostly) blank slates you can do anything with! You see, besides my aforementioned ambivalence towards Ghidorah, I was a bit saddened that Mothra is really reduced to an almost anonymous giant moth (!!) here. When she first flies over Tokyo, we get a reaction shot by a couple of twins, which was a nice nod to the fairies. On the other hand, I’ve also written about how Mothra-starring movies tend to follow the same basic plot a lot of the time, so maybe I shouldn’t complain as much as I am. Argh! How is it that I start nitpicking so much with movies that generally do a good job (see also: GOJIRA) but start looking for the positives in low-effort panderfests like ALL MONSTERS ATTACK? Cart me off to Seatopia’s funny farm, Travis – these movies are starting to get to me!

And they’re not letting up! Join us next week for GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA! Thanks guys, that’s certainly not a thing I’ve seen before. Goddammit, Toho! When I say “Mix it up!” I don’t mean new prepositions, you assholes!

    Saturday, June 21, 2014

    Kaiju Kavalcade #25: GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS (2000)

    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.

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    LUCA:

    [Before we start off this week’s Kaiju Kavalcade, I’d like to show you all a lovely Godzilla watercolor made by Wholly on The Level friend and ally Doug Slackvisit his Etsy store here!]

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    [And now, on to this week’s Kavalcade!]

    Well, I was wrong in predicting Megaguirus would be a roided out version of Anguirus, but one thing the big dragonfly beastie has in common with ole Angy is that he provides Godzilla with one of the most exciting fights in the series. GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS, the second instalment of the Millenium series, starts with old-timey newsreel footage of G’s original attack on Japan in 1954, complete with overly excited newscaster voice. It departs from the original movie in that there is no mention of Serizawa and the Oxygen Destroyer, instead opting to portray Godzilla as just having fucked off back into the sea after his initial Tokyo raid. Interestingly enough, the movie then posits an entire divergent historical timeline for Japan, the capital being moved to Osaka while Tokyo is rebuilt. A 1966 Godzilla attack on Japan’s first nuclear power plant causes the government to look for “clean, sustainable energy sources that will not tempt Godzilla”. Prophetic words indeed for this decade-and-a-half old movie!

    Having such an exposition dump at the start of your movie may be lazy screenwriting, but it tickled the continuity nerd in me something fierce. The Oxygen Destroyer at the end of GOJIRA was a weapon of such magnitude and finality that it’s simply insane to me that it never even featured into any of the sequels. The first sequel RAIDS AGAIN in 1955 kind of washes its hands of it by saying this is another Godzilla, while the 1984 and 1999 reboots RETURN and G2K don’t address it at all. The Millennium series’ approach of every movie just being a sequel to the original without interconnected continuity is a wise one, letting every movie just tell its own story. This movie’s anti-Godzilla squad is rather hilariously called G-graspers, a name I have added a hyphen to just now for clarity’s sake. That’s right, all of the human heroes’ uniforms say GGRASPERS in what is clearly a pre-Twitter world that had no worries about hashtag confusion.

    The GGRASPERS have devised a new weapon to be used against G, a black hole cannon called Dimensional Tide that oughta suck the big guy into another dimension, new galaxy – intergalactic planetary. Among them is Lt. Kiriko Tsujimori, a former military woman who lost her CO and friend in a previous Godzilla attack in which their squad rather foolishly (but pretty awesomely, I must admit) were deployed against G on foot (!) armed with rocket launchers. She has a score to settle with big G and will stop at nothing to destroy him. I loved this character! She was basically female Maverick who gets assigned to a unit devoted solely to killing the radioactive dinosaur that killed Goose. She’s also the first human in the entire series to friggin’ CLIMB GODZILLA and shoot a tracking device between his fins! Travis, how is the Millennium series treating you so far?

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    TRAVIS:

    I like MEGAGUIRUS just fine, but I can understand why other fans find it to be a little weak or middling. A large part of this is probably due to the workman-like direction of Masaaki Tezuka (making his helmer debut after years of assistant directing on the Heisei G-films and the REBIRTH OF MOTHRA trilogy). He unfortunately seems to have bad luck with the franchise as this and his later entries (GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA and GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S.) had disappointing box office, causing Toho to turn to more kinetic filmmakers like Shogo Tomiyama and Ryuhei Kitamura to re-energize the Millennium era with more outlandish G-flicks. Comparatively, MEGAGUIRUS sticks to the standard kaiju formula pretty well. Now, G2K also stuck to formula, but the eye of Takao Okawara and his great visuals made that film a welcome return after the Sony GINO debacle. Tezuka seems like a nice enough guy, yet his competent work pales in comparison when examining the M-era as a whole.

    It already sounds like I'm giving MEGAGUIRUS a bad rep, and I'm not! In fact the human characters make this a nice one to sit through. You already mentioned the awesomeness of Kiriko, and I'll second that motion! In the female department, it's also cool to see G-veteran Yuriko Hoshi (previously seen as photographer Junko in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA and reporter Naoko in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER) return to the series as Prof. Yoshizawa. I was also fond of Shosuke Tanihara's geeky inventor and his nerd crush on Kiriko. How sweet was it for him to base his software repair program and its avatar likeness after her! Probably the funniest acting moment though comes from Masatoh Eve as the latest evil Lord Business. Yoshizawa is speculating why Godzilla is searching for nuclear power, and since the government imposed ban, there shouldn't be any sources of plasma energy hidden in the city... right? She looks up at Business, suddenly smoking a cigarette with a silent, stone face, shrouded in the dark and tobacco fog. No music cue, but a villainous sting would've been very appropriate!

    As for big G himself, I think one of the issues many fans have with MEGAGUIRUS is that he's not very prominent in the first two acts. Of course in act three he gets caught up in all the buggy madness, yet aside from the 1966 opening and Kiriko's G-riding adventure, he's more talked about than shown in the film's first half. I didn't keep a record, but I might even guess that the Megaguirus insects rack up more screen time than Godzilla. When G does show up though, he engages in some fun behavior that recalls his Showa days. My favorite: after being rammed into a building by Megaguirus, he stands back up to get his bearings. He suddenly senses the big dragonfly nearby and quickly does the most wonderful, sped-up double take I've ever seen Godzilla do! Maybe after all these years of victory dances and levitating kicks we've under-appreciated the King of the Monsters as a master of physical comedy. Any other memorable fight moments for you, Luca?

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    LUCA:

    They’ve really been putting their ankles into the fights so far in the Millennium series, with MEGAGUIRUS possibly containing my favorite Godzilla fighting move in ANY of the films so far. After having been stung in the chest and drained of energy by Megaguirus’ tail earlier, Godzilla is downed at one point and he scrambles to get up. Meanwhile, Megaguirus takes a running (flying?) start to finish the job on Big G. Just as G gets to his feet, Megaguirus’ stinger hits him… right in the face! The camera is behind Godzilla’s back, and everything goes quiet. Both monsters are dead still. The camera slowwwwly pans around to Godzilla’s face to reveal… he clamped Megaguirus’ stinger between his jaws – and promptly snaps it the fuck off, to the agonized screeches of the prehistoric dragonfly monster! Fuck yeaarghhhh!

    You didn’t mention it, Travis, so lemme take this opportunity to nerd out a bit about Toho lore. The Carboniferous insects that hatch out of the time-displaced egg are called Meganulon. The first appearance of Meganula in the franchise was wayyy back in 1956’s RODAN. The miners that accidentally excavate Rodan’s egg first stumble upon a bunch of these big larvae who proceed to terrorize the small nearby mining town. It’s cool that they’d go for such a deep cut for a new Godzilla adversary, and I feel a small (yet still shameful) amount of pride for spotting the reference! I think the Meganula are indeed more prevalent than G throughout the first two acts, but I didn’t mind as much since it’s not like we haven’t seen tons of Godzilla in all these movies so far. Mix it up is my motto always!

    You know, this movie had a strong finish, but I can’t help but sort of agree with its detractors in that it’s a bit too long anyway. Not necessarily because of any lack of Godzilla, but because, after two dozen movies, I’m really starting the feel the limitations on the amount of stories that can be told about giant monsters fighting in all-ages appropriate ways, on a (relatively) low budget and in production cycles that cannot exceed a couple of months. You mentioned the US cut of G2K was a tighter film, with 9 minutes excised from the Japanese running time, and I don’t think that’s too egregious at all. Ever since the Heisei era, Godzilla movies have been hovering around 100-110 minute runtimes, as opposed to the brisk 80 minute (and sometimes less) schlockfests of the Showa era. I really do think that, with few exceptions, these expanded runtimes haven’t served the movies at all. What say you, Travis?

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      TRAVIS:

      First of all, Luca, way to go for pulling out the Toho trivia with the Meganula/RODAN connection! You've come quite far in your kaiju studies since we started this series. We're almost nearing the end, and you have raised a good point: how many interesting Godzilla stories can you do? Certainly no one complains about the fight scenes, and let's face it, that's truly the appeal of G-flicks. A few critics have even compared kaiju films to softcore porn; essentially a buncha human blah blah filler between the money scenes. With the low budgets and hurried production schedules, that's frankly not a bad comparison!

      I think a detriment to the Heisei and Millennium eras compared to the Showa era is the lack of variety with the protagonists. Scientists, reporters, and soldiers are always commonplace, but the Showa movies could focus on people not directly involved with the creature action. The Jun Fukuda entries had teens and bohemians who lead carefree lives until they happened to drop into whatever crazy alien scheme was going on. ALL MONSTERS ATTACK works as a commentary on the franchise as we see the world through the eyes of young, geeky G-fan. In this sense, the Showa movies give us a more rounded or lived-in view of how everyday people deal with everyday monsters. Since the H- and M-era movies were going against modern blockbusters imported from the US, they tend to focus on clean-cut action heroes ready to do battle. By focusing on making Godzilla more realistic for popcorn flick standards, Toho may have accidentally made him a little blander.

      MEGAGUIRUS was a financial disappointment, and Toho whipped out that old band-aid of reviving old monsters for the new era. However they decided to really double down their luck and cram in THREE returning foes for the ludicrously titled GODZILLA, MOTHRA & KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK! Will you be able to handle all this and a Baragon too?! We'll see!

      Wednesday, June 11, 2014

      Kaiju Kavalcade #24: GODZILLA 2000 (1999)

      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:

      Though Sony's GODZILLA ended up making big profits, audiences ultimately rejected the monster's blundered attempt at US dominance. Though his films were often perceived as cheesy by the general public, this was the first time that one of the entries had potentially sullied the franchise forever. Of course, box office was G's oldest foe, and Toho knew he had to come back swinging... and fast! Only one year after the Americanzilla debacle, GODZILLA 2000 roared into Japanese theaters to reclaim the title of “King of the Monsters”. Thus begins the Millennium era of the series, and like the Heisei era, the timeline is again given a clean reboot starting from the original GOJIRA. Unlike THE RETURN OF GODZILLA however, G2K loosely implies that kaiju sightings have been a regular occurrence in the intervening years. In fact, the movie begins with a ragtag team of G-enthusiasts named the Godzilla Prediction Network as they attempt to locate the next appearance of the big guy. They soon tangle with the government when G's recent activities coincide with the discovery of a mysterious UFO sunken in the ocean. It all comes down to a good ol' fashioned brawl in Tokyo as the UFO extracts some of G's DNA to create the mutated clone Orga so he can punch and bite G into city-destroying oblivion.

      The Millennium films (G2K to GODZILLA: FINAL WARS) similarly restarts the series in Heisei fashion, yet there's a fun, adventurous malleability that recalls the Showa era. We'll see traditional stories, old friends, and new villains, as well as a few interesting experiments with the G film formula. There's a breeziness to this period that might've been missing from the more serious Heisei movies. Godzilla himself gets another makeover too. His height was boosted in RETURN to match the modern day skyscrapers, but he gets reduced back down to his Showa stature to seem less imposing. He's given a more stocky build (oddly comparable to his 2014 beefy look), and his dorsal fins are enlarged and more pronounced too. The most notable change is that for the first time in his history, G's skin is now green colored. Though pop culture often refers to him as a green animal given his reptilian background, he's actually had a gray, charcoal-like hide since GOJIRA to reflect the changes from his radiation exposure. Along with a new set of pearly, sharp teeth, this is a fresh-looking kaiju that's ready for the year 2000!

      Originally released in Japan in 1999, G2K received a US theatrical run (appropriately) in 2000. Its middling box office would send the rest of the Millennium flicks direct to video in America, but it holds a special place for me because it's the only Toho-produced Godzilla movie I've seen in theaters. Coming down from the CG dreariness of G98, it was reassuring to watch men in rubber suits pummel each other in widescreen. It's a refreshing recharge from the GINO abomination, and its back-to-basics approach makes G2K a fine romp. Suitamation Godzilla, an enemy monster, evil aliens, army attacks, crumbling cities, and scientists and reporters running around are typical, yet bringing everything back old school style makes for a good time (even down to the traditional Toho logo!). This is also a rare case where I recommend the English dub over the uncut Japanese version. Nothing is substantially deleted or altered (no Raymond Burr scenes to be found), but the US cut actually tightens up the action considerably by reducing some ponderous moments and beats, resulting in nine minutes excised from G2K. That might seem like blasphemy for foreign cinema purists, but c'mon, this ain't Bong Joon-ho here. It's “GODZILLLLLLLLLAAAHHHHHHHHHH!” (as exclaimed by the villainous Katagiri before falling to his death). Were you happy to be back in Tokyo, Luca?

      LUCA:

      Immeasurably so, Travis! G2K is a blast after Emmerich's debacle, with Godzilla carrying some weight again, and human protagonists you don't wanna see strangled by alien tentacles. A step up, to be sure! Now, I'ma be honest, and say that G2K has a lot of modern Hollywood "influences"/”homages” yet again, just like DESTOROYAH's big ole ALIENS set piece. The first Godzilla encounter has our intrepid trio of heroes, professor Shinoda, his cute little girl Io and spunky reporter Yuki being chased in a suspiciously familar Land Rover that at one point even teeters over the edge of a cliff. Godzilla even takes the time to peer through the window and narrow his pupil. That's right, Emmerich isn't the only Spielberg fan on the planet! Later on, the alien craft destroys a building in (ironically) a clear nod to INDEPENDENCE DAY. But you know what? It didn't matter.

      Unlike in Emmerich's movie, there's a sense of danger, high stakes and a couple of pleasant characters. Maybe it's because of the target audience for these movies, but I find myself quite charmed whenever there's a kid protagonist, and Io did not disappoint in this respect! I was highly amused by her banter with Yuki, calling the twentysomething reporter an "old maid" and shakin' her down for membership fees for the Godzilla Prediction Network. Also, the burgers she was frying looked delicious. Up there with Jack Burton's sandwich, I'd say! So many different emotions this movie calls up, from laughter to hunger! Big fan of Katagiri, the asshole government villain and his screaming death as well, yes. Toho is quite good with human baddies, I've found. I haven't been bored by a single one, and have often found them near or at the top of things to praise in each entry.

      The true star of G2K is director Takao Okawara, though. Guy has a real eye for composition, and the advent of computer technology allows him to throw some really awesomely framed shots on screen. I was not surprised to hear he also did GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA with its beautiful night-time ferris wheel fight. Now, CGI elements look pretty bad in this movie sometimes, but obviously that's a result of rushing this movie out in a year and having a severely limited budget compared to the US version. One might say that explains crappy visuals but doesn’t excuse them, but hey, you’re watching the 24th entry of a series that cranks them out one-a-year. You gonna be an asshole about shitty CGI? Can’t stand the shit, get out of the truck-stop restroom, I say! Some anti-CGI advocates will claim that bad CGI looks a lot worse than bad puppeteering or model shots, but at some point you’re just hungry for stuff to get shaken up a bit, and Okawara certainly uses the technique in a noticeable but not overpowering way. There's another thing to praise in this movie: the cool alien villains! What did you think of our monolithic friends, Travis?

      TRAVIS:

      The alien species of G2K are really interesting because they're quite mysterious compared to previous invaders we've seen. The usual MO for evil space people is to either announce their domination plans to the world or infiltrate the public as peacemakers or in human disguise. With the G2K aliens however, we never see them outright explain their intentions. Heck, we never even see them outside of their UFO! You might even surmise that the spaceship itself is the sentient extraterrestrial being since its energized by the sun and possesses great powers like data assimilation and DNA extraction. Orga himself is a pretty neat kaiju even though he only appears in the final act. He kinda reminds me of the Emmerich GINO creature all 'roided up. A more agile clone of Godzilla that ultimately is defeated by the big guy himself... hmmm...

      I mentioned before how G2K's back-to-basics approach makes it a good time, and I particularly enjoy how we don't dilly-dally with G's return. You'd think that after his grand finale of a death in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH that G2K would be another slow, methodical re-emergence of Godzilla into the real world akin to RETURN, but nope! The movie opens with G already tearing shit up with the implication that he's been on the stomping scene for quite a while. Perhaps the hurried production schedule meant they didn't have time for a reboot origin story and relied on the tried and true “monster vs. monster” clobber match, but hey, it works! After the dreariness of G98, us G fans needed some of that reliable kaiju medicine.

      And man, that medicine came with quite an ending! The third act contains so many joyfully odd/inexplicable/awesome things that it seemed like the silly Showa spirit was still alive. In a last ditch effort, Orga's jaw opens wide to reveal… a hypnotic, rosebud orifice to swallow Godzilla whole. G then charges headfirst into the vagina-like opening, and suddenly we can add Freudian imagery into the various academic readings of the G movies. He promptly roasts Orga in a gigantic explosion and sets his sights on Katagiri. Realizing his failure, Katagiri accepts his kaiju-assisted seppuku by lighting a cigarette and shouting that final “GODZILLAAHHH!” before G smashes the floor underneath, sending Katagiri plummeting to his death. As G makes his way out of Tokyo, the soundtrack is silenced except for the haunting, final score while he continues to leave a smoldering path in his wake. The characters watch in wonderment and ask each other why he always saves us even when we try to destroy him. Shinoda pauses, then wisely states that maybe “a piece of Godzilla is in all of us”. Before we're able to comprehend that line, G blasts a goddamn ring of fire around the city. That's how you end a movie! Were you caught up in all these weird codas too, Luca?

      LUCA:

      GODDDDD "There's some Godzilla in all of us" followed by Godzilla just wrecking and burning the shit out of Shinjuku while the credits roll is just too perfectly timed a joke for me not to think it was intentional. It's such a hilarious send-up of the usual finale where the human protagonists all stand on some vantage point and one of them utters a gentle platitude on the environment or co-operation or something as Godzilla swims off into the sunset. And so simple too! Let's just do the same thing as usual only Godzilla isn't done with wrecking shit yet. Together with Katagiri LIGHTIN UPPP and screaming "GOJIRAAAAAAAAAAA", this ending is surely an all-timer.

      The aliens were definitely my favorite ones so far, if only because they truly seemed alien. I also assumed that the ship itself was their organism, so why they specifically needed Godzilla's cells to adapt to the Earth's atmosphere (especially since the ship seemed perfectly capable of flying around, issuing communiqués via Sony Vaio hand-held devices equipped with Windows 98 SE and even blasting the fuck out of Godzilla), I do not know. Maybe I'm just being disgustingly cisnormative and a silver spaceship was simply the identity they were assigned at birth, and they had been identifying as a crustacean rancor for the last seventy million years. Who are we to deny them their true identity! Well, we don't have a problem with it, but... let us add transphobia to the already cyclopean list of crimes Godzilla is guilty of!

      Next week, Godzilla will take on a wholly new villain -- or maybe Anguirus has been hitting the protein shakes? Join us then for GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS!

      Friday, June 6, 2014

      Kaiju Kavalcade #23: GODZILLA (1998)

      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:

      This movie wasn’t necessary.

      Well, no movie is necessary in the strictest sense, but this one really puts its ankles into its own obsolescence. Where GOJIRA was the primal scream of a nation suffering decades-long unimaginable horrors finally finding release in a silly little monster picture, Roland Emmerich’s GODZILLA was the primal scream of one man getting back at a couple of movie critics who were mean to him. Michael Lerner as “Mayor Ebert” and his assistant Gene bumblin’ and stumblin’ through the movie seems to be the only subtext GODZILLA has going for it. America was never victim to any worse radioactivity than Three Mile Island, and this particular Godzilla is spawned by French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Sure, there are some French stereotypes walking around in the movie, but they mostly act like cannon fodder for the third act chase sequence. So here we have a Godzilla movie from the POV of a nation neither the victim nor the perpetrator (in this case) of atomic aggression. Well, not all good Godzilla movies need such commentary, so I’m sure there’s a lot of fun monster smashing in this one, eh? How about a subplot about a reporter trying to catch that ONE BIG STORY but is being held down by Kent Brockman himself cuz she’s a woman? I swear, it at least took Toho a couple of movies to start throwing in filler non-Godzilla related plotlines.

      It’s not helped by the fact that pretty much all the actors are mugging like crazy. Not only does it feel like TV, it feels like pre-Sopranos TV. Pre-Sopranos network TV. Matthew Broderick, an actor I hold no specific ill will towards otherwise, is stuck delivering speeches about the majesty of Godzilla, or the extinction level event that will occur once Godzilla spawns, but it all has the gravitas of an IT guy telling you you might want to turn it off and on again. Maria Pitillo? Never act in another movie, this one! Jean Reno does okay with (again) the nothing role he’s given. He’s sort of a badass? But because this is JURASSIC PARK you can’t really shoot any of the dinosaurs? At least he gets to grouse about YUCKKKK AMERICAN COFFEEEEE

      And yes, this is JURASSIC PARK! Emmerich totally took the visual language of the biggest dinosaur movie in history and produced a dumb knock-off of that. That, more than anything is what’s so insulting here. Let’s be honest, Godzilla movies are more often than not, less than great/good/contain 60% new footage, but they do have their own charmingly dumb vibe. Emmerich totally approached this with a “Ha ha I know what ze Hollywood wants!” attitude and turned it into a big T-Rex movie. You know, I think EmmerichZilla even looks kinda cool! I have no problem with the design! But it’s basically nothing more than a “T-Rex rampages through NY and then there’s a raptor scene at the end as these things have” movie. In fact, once they first start fleeing from the Minillas, and bar themselves into a room, my partner actually went “Surely they wouldn’t dare…”. I asked what she meant, and it turns out she really expected the movie to have raptor-evading in a kitchen for its third act. How did you re-appraisal for GODZILLA IN NAME ONLY GINO go, Travis?

      TRAVIS:

      Before I get into how GODZILLA fails as a Godzilla film, let me delve into why it simply fails as a popcorn flick. Say what you will about how dumb INDEPENDENCE DAY (Emmerich's previous film) is, but it's a fun, bombastic kind of dumb that knows how to hit the right notes with audiences. The grand images of the immense alien spaceships dwarfing cities around the world effectively sells the scale and enormity of the threat, while the plot lines of the various characters across the US struggling with the invasion gives us a sense of the panic everyone's swept in. In GODZILLA, people are of course fleeing when Zilla stomps around, yet for the most part, the citizens of NYC don't seem particularly alarmed by the presence or consequences of a radioactive dinosaur tearing up the town. Now, you could process this detachment as Emmerich's commentary on the "seen it all" attitude of New York (similar to how blasé residents are around the strange alien behaviors in MEN IN BLACK), but it doesn't convey the danger that should be felt in your average disaster movie. An appearance of an anomaly like Godzilla has potential Earth-shattering consequences, and we still have scenes of people packing into diners or clogging up traffic trying to re-enter the city. The monster is no more a nuisance than cockroaches and taxi drivers.

      The broadly written protagonists don't help this matter either. They're pretty much reduced to one comedic trait that gets repeated over and over again. No one gets Tatopolous's name correct, Hank Azaria and his wife are NEW YARKAHS, the soldier has a stuttering problem, etc. You're right, Luca. This is 90s sitcom acting! Barely sketched out roles aren't new to Emmerich's stuff, but at least he's been wise to cast charismatic actors like Will Smith, Mel Gibson, and Kurt Russell to sometimes alleviate it. Reno seems to be having the most fun in GODZILLA, even though his open mouthed gum chewing and Elvis impressions support that odd FUNNY FOREIGNERS humor that creeps up in Emmerich's movies (it's even odder since he's German; does he think it appeals to American audiences?). And despite the awful jokes, it's a little comforting for the SIMPSONS fan in me to watch Azaria and Harry Shearer do their best with the material (Nancy "Bart" Cartwright makes a cameo too!)

      But let's examine THE performance of the film – the big G himself. Over the course of these reviews, we've discussed what qualities make up an enjoyable G movie. Luca, you began this article by explaining how there isn't a real point to GODZILLA, and that ultimately is the biggest problem with the movie: Godzilla does not stand for anything. This version of G may have been born from French nuclear testing, but he doesn't represent science terribly left unaccounted or nature wrathfully exacting revenge. Even when he's been a silly superhero, he's the world's defender when it needs protection from forces too powerful to handle. Whether the situation is dramatic or a farce, Godzilla has always been at the heart. What is he in this American version? An accident that needs to be taken care of. He comes ashore; he's killed by our missiles. Life goes on. Did this monster ring hollow to you too, Luca?

      LUCA:

      Boy, did he! I’ll be nice and mention a thing I did like: the build-up at the start with the Japanese fishing trawler and the trail Godzilla leaves throughout the Caribbean is pretty effective. It’s exciting and portentous and gets you all hyped for what’s coming. Then, of course, Emmerich undercuts Godzilla’s appearance by focusing on a hobo gone fishin’ who is mocked by his hobo friends for never catching anything. Some levity to undercut upcoming tension/danger is great, but let it be somewhat ironic or related. Let it be an asshole who gets stepped on by Godzilla! Nope, a poor doddering old homeless man who is mocked for never catching anything then scampers away as Godzilla rises up, destroying the pier. The shot is so emblematic of this movie’s problems. It’s a dumb, unfunny, one-note comic relief character running away from CGI mayhem and ending up unscathed. So there’s bad humor, no physicality to the spectacle, and not even the base pleasures of death and destruction for entertainment.

      Emmerich must have gotten his subtexts mixed. Majestic Godzilla dying at the hands of the human military in a tragic conclusion to his rampage is right out of the KING KONG playbook. But it doesn’t work cuz Godzilla didn’t connect with any humans previously (unless you count staring at Matthew Broderick for a few seconds as connecting). He’s not even a “natural” animal, he’s a mutation from atomic testing by a government that doesn’t seem TOO concerned about him. I’ll be generous and say the scene where Godzilla walks into the trap to eat the military’s fish is also halfway successful. David Arnold, while no Akira Ifukube, does a good enough John Williams imitation to lend the moment some gravitas. Tellingly, Zilla doesn’t really interact with anything throughout this scene.

      What interaction Godzilla does have with the world as presented in the movie is smashing an entirely evacuated city and evading the military. Those stakes are far too low for a Godzilla movie with just Godzilla in it! Oh ohhh and you know what I hated??? When they’re running away from the Minillas, Broderick’s Niko Tatopolous inexplicably looks back to see them running and stumbling about. They’re all running for their lives, and there’s absolutely no reason for him to do this. It’s almost as if this is a movie designed to show off computer generated imagery cee gee eye… Well, at least it really has me chompin’ at the bit to get back to Toho!

      TRAVIS:

      Before we travel back to Japan, I'll admit that the ancillary stuff surrounding the release of GODZILLA was a lot of fun. For a young kaiju fan in the 90s, you couldn't easily find toys and whatnot to satisfy your fix. With the Sony film on the way, Godzilla suddenly flooded the market. I couldn't believe that the local Toys R Us had action figures of Biollante and Rodan! Bookstores had displays of literature that took G from kid storybooks to film/culture essays. Heck, I even remember munching on Eddy's Godzilla special edition ice cream (vanilla with “Godzilla” cookie crumbles! Yum!) Oh yeah, and GODZILLA: THE ALBUM was one of the first CDs I ever purchased. The Wallflowers, Puff Daddy, Jamiroquai, Rage Against the Machine.... What a time capsule for 90s music! G was definitely a hot commodity.

      And that may be what doomed this endeavor in the first place: Godzilla was merely a product. Sure, all franchises are company products, and G already had a history of being pulled in commercial directions. Yet without the unique touches that made him memorable, he suffered the homogenized fate many foreign properties endure when chasing popularity in America. The GINO/Godzilla In Name Only moniker isn't just a reaction to his appearance. The remodeled monster before us could run, swim, and burrow in spectacular fashion, but like many newcomers to Hollywood, it cost him the price of his soul.

      Overall, GODZILLA made big bucks, but the damage was done. Negative reactions across the board killed G's launch in the US, and the promotional tagline “Size Does Matter” became an ironic statement of bloated hubris. With the third millennium soon approaching, was the King of the Monsters going to begin the next era as a cursed failure? Not if Toho had anything to do with it! It's the dawn of a new age as we return to Tokyo with GODZILLA 2000!