Saturday, May 23, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #74: Battlestar Galactica: "The Man with Nine Lives"

I could have picked any number of good, solid Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) episodes to write about for today's cult-TV flashback. The original series roster includes such epic two-parters as "The Living Legend" and "War of the Gods," plus the outstanding, gripping series finale, "The Hand of God."

Yet today, I was in the mood for something a little lighter; a little bit more fun...and I struck again on one of the installments I have enjoyed so much over the years: "The Man with Nine Lives" starring the late, great Fred Astaire (1899-1987). The episode originally aired January 28, 1979...over thirty years ago.

Now first off, I'm a huge fan of the classy Astaire, and I count Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936) as two of my most beloved movies of the 1930s (alongside such titles as Things to Come, Bride of Frankenstein, King Kong and Dracula).

But secondly, this episode of Battlestar Galactica, written by Donald Bellisario, remains a real series highlight, thanks to some clever writing, some good character dynamics involving Starbuck, and the inclusion of a new (and strange) series villain: The Borellian Nomen.

"The Man With Nine Lives" commences some "twelve sectons" after Baltar's surrender and the rag-tag fleet's encounter with Count Iblis and the Light Ship populated by the "Mysterious Ones."

Those aliens provided the Galactica with the coordinates to planet Earth, and now the Colonials -- for the first time since their exodus -- are beginning to express real hope that their odyssey will soon be at a happy end.

The warriors of Blue Squadron are sent on a weekend "furlon" to the Rising Star, where Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) tests a new gambling system that he considers "foolproof" (and oddly, he is allowed to actually use a computerized-calculating device at the casino gambling tables...).

At the same time, however, a mystery man named Captain Dmitri (Astaire) is also aboard the Rising Star, attempting to escape the wrath of three Borellian Nomen on a "blood hunt." It seems Dmitri double-crossed these fearsome men on a live-stock deal and in the process learned that the separatist Nomen were hording weapons and foods for a pitched battle with the fleet.

Instead of informing authorities, however, Dmitri -- who now calls himself Chameleon -- instead claims to be Starbuck's long-lost father. Given his relationship to the orphaned lieutenant, Apollo, Boomer, Sheba and Starbuck escort Chameleon off the Rising Star (and right past the seething Nomen...) to conduct genetic tracing tests. In dedicated pursuit, the Nomen attempt to get aboard the Galactica by enlisting as warriors...

"The Man with Nine Lives" offers a lot of good material for this spectacular Glen Larson series, from a Galactica Recruitment Commercial starring Omega ("We Need You!"), to welcome details about Starbuck's mostly-unexcavated youth.

In particular, we learn how -- after an early Cylon attack -- a young Starbuck was found wandering in the Thorn Forest near the agro-community of Umbra.

Even better, the Borellian Nomen make satisfying and creepy villains in this episode (and they also re-appear, to good effect in "Baltar's Escape"). These strange humanoids -- who don't often mix with the Colonials -- are heavy-browed ascetics who physically resemble, well, Neanderthals. The Nomen imply, by their very costume and appearance, that the 12 Colonies of Man were not "uniform" in population or ethnicity; that there were strange sects and off-shoots that also survived the devastating Cylon attack.

Also, these "fringe" Nomen resemble some of the weirder extremist militia groups we've seen sprout up over the years in America. In particular, they are paranoid and suspicious about the central government and rather...uh...survivalist in nature...preparing for an eventual final war with the establishment.

Another point: The Nomen also live by "The Code," a strict doctrine of "honor" that champions discipline, preparedness (it's against the code to be unarmed...), and patience (the patience of the "Scorpius, in fact..."). Those who break the Nomen Code see their ceremonial sashes stripped from them, and their names stricken from "the Code of the Nomen" for all time.

Now before you stop and say, "Hey, that description sounds just like the Klingons," remember your Star Trek history. Before Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979, Klingons were actually just swarthy human-looking aliens with bad manners (and no heavy brows or bumpy forehead ridges...). These original Klingons boasted no sense of honor whatsoever. They loved war ("it would have been glorious!"), and they believed that rules were made to be broken.

The Klingons were described this way in The Making of Star Trek, co-authored by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry: "Their only rule in life is that rules are meant to be broken by shrewdness, deceit or power. Cruelty is something admirable, honor is a despicable trait." (page 257). [Italics mine.]

So it wasn't actually until The Motion Picture, and then The Next Generation in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and after "The Man with Nine Lives") that the Klingons mysteriously transformed into the now-familiar "honorable" race we associate with Worf and others. So Battlestar Galactica wasn't ripping off Star Trek with these colorful and interesting Borellian Nomen. I thought that might be worth mentioning for those who don't have a good familiarity with the original Battlestar.

The only aspect of "The Man with Nine Lives" that rings false is Starbuck's extreme sense of indignation over Apollo's decision to run a security check on Chameleon behind Starbuck's back. I can understand being angry, but Starbuck basically terminates the friendship, when it's pretty clear that Apollo's intentions are sincere...and arise from a desire to protect, not harm, his friend.

Overall, "The Man with Nine Lives" is also tremendous of fun because Astaire proves so utterly charming and affable as the scoundrel, Chameleon -- a real rascal who boasts Starbuck's way with the ladies, not to mention the gift of gab.

In the end, we learn that Chameleon and Starbuck are not only from the same planet, same tribe, and "related within 10 generations" but actually father and son. Much to Chameleon's surprise. One can easily imagine that if Battlestar Galactica had continued beyond a first season, Chameleon would have returned to make more mischief, but -- alas -- the show was canceled before that could happen...

Friday, May 22, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Godzilla (1998)

With Star Trek successfully -- for the most part -- re-imagined and re-booted (and make no mistake, J.J. Abrams' film is a re-imagination...), I thought it might prove an interesting and illuminating exercise to turn our gaze here on the blog towards other movie re-imaginations of recent vintage.

Unlike Star Trek (2009), most such efforts (almost universally big-budgeted...) have met with fierce resistance from critics, audiences and the fan base alike. That fact makes this year's Trek re-imagination success the exception rather than the rule.

Consider some of the infamous titles that leap to mind here: Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001), Will Smith's The Wild, Wild West (1999), the movie version of Lost in Space (1998). Even last year's Speed Racer (which I thoroughly loved...).

Yet perhaps the most universally reviled of all the recent re-imaginations/remakes remains Dean Devlin's and Roland Emmerich's 1998 extravaganza, Godzilla. The movie made a huge profit worldwide, but was despised by critics and hardcore Godzilla aficionados.

Indeed, we should recall that before Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica came along, there was another production derided by fans as "GINO:" Godzilla in Name Only.

As for me, I screened Godzilla -- a film advertised with the tag-line "Size Does Matter" -- upon theatrical release in the summer of '98. At the time, I felt intense disappointment. My initial complaints were that it was overlong, inconsequential, and a betrayal to the noble legacy of the legendary Toho monster. Although I disliked the film vehemently, something about it still nagged at my mind. I purchased the laserdisc for one dollar in a clearance bin roughly a year after the theatrical release, and have kept it on my video shelf ever since.

So I wondered: has ten years of "distance" from the Devlin/Emmerich film ameliorated my initial dislike of Godzilla? Taken on its own terms, is this ultra-expensive re-imagination a worthy film in any light? Are there good qualities present in Emmerich's film, ones that might successfully rehabilitate this particular work of art? Or was my initial assessment the correct one?

Blame The French: A Dishonest Betrayal of Godzilla's Heritage

For all its various and sundry flaws, Godzilla (1998) actually opens with a series of canny and memorable visuals, not to mention a driving narrative pace.

We begin our journey with grainy yellow film footage, cut in overlapping, successive form as a montage. We see, in short order, various views of nuclear tests being conducted on a lovely island in French Polynesia.

On the soundtrack, we are treated to a countdown to French.

The resonant images of total destruction -- of nuclear mushroom clouds -- are soon super-imposed over images of several hapless iguanas blinking and reacting to the searing light and heat of the deadly atmospheric blossoms.

The final shot included in this brief credits sequence is of an iguana egg perched upright upon a sandy shore. We push towards the nest with a sense of dawning anticipation, and the clear implication is that the nuclear testing has mutated the very nature of the creature within. This is the birth of the movie's Godzilla.

Again, this brief sequence is quite adroit and accomplished in terms of imagery and visual presentation. In terms of meaning, however, the scene's other implication is staggering: the fault for Godzilla's creation rests with those pesky and immoral Frenchmen; those bad, bad cheese-loving, Old Europeans who conducted dastardly and dangerous nuclear tests, opening Pandora's Box in the process.

Although post-911, it has certainly become fashionable to blame the French for everything we don't like about the rest of the world -- and this Godzilla was surely ahead of its time by featuring this perspective -- this plot-point is such a blatant and craven example of "let's blame the other guy" hypocrisy that the thoughtful audience member will shudder at the sheer audacity of the conceit.
So let's just do a little factual tally here, and let the numbers speak for themselves. In our long history, America has test
detonated nuclear weapons 1,054 times. And France has done so...a meager 210 times by comparison. And let's see, which nation is the only one in the world to ever use atomic bombs against a civilian population?

Let me give you a hint: It isn't France.

The original Godzilla films, of course, understood this fact very, very well. When Godzilla: King of Monsters (1954) was imagined by Ishiro Honda, it was forged as a cautionary tale, as an allegory for the very real dangers of the Atomic Age. Between 1946 and 1958, America conducted 20 nuclear tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, for instance. Critic J. Hoberman, writing in the New York Times, describes the context of the original film this way: "
After a 15-megaton American H-bomb test on Bikini atoll irradiated 7,000 square miles of ocean, the entire crew of the Japanese tuna boat Lucky Dragon developed radiation sickness."

So, in his native country, Godzilla represented nothing less than an atomic bogeyman, a symbol of the arrogant West laying waste to Tokyo and other cities just as America's bombs had laid waste to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And the threat -- as evidenced by the Bikini Atoll tests -- was spookily ongoing. The brilliant original film also dealt with the idea that the world would soon see even more destructive weaponry arise during the nuclear age, in this case, the fictional "Oxygen Destroyer."

Given this history of symbolism and social responsibility, for the 1998 film to brazenly point to the French as the progenitors of "the nuclear monster" is not only hypocrisy...but pandering of the worst order. One senses that the filmmakers wanted to avoid -- at all costs -- confronting the core American audience with such unpleasant truths. I mean, if people were really to stop and consider America's role in this life-and-death matter, they might not feel like visiting Taco Bell after the movie. Or buying the movie soundtrack (featuring a hit by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs!)

But imagine, just imagine, that the makers of the American Godzilla had decided to be truthful and even just a little bit courageous instead of pandering and dishonest. Then their movie would have concerned something important, the idea of America suffering "blow back" from its bad behavior. Godzilla -- rightly a product of American nuclear testing -- would have literally been a representation of our international "sin" come home to roost: angry, destructive and all-but unstoppable.

This cogent, powerful idea (which would have carried even deeper resonance after 9/11...) would have granted the U.S. version of Godzilla a larger, overarching purpose, and a corollary seriousness to the brilliant (and searing...) Japanese masterpiece. But by taking instead an easy and dishonest route, by making the French (!) the culprit in dangerous nuclear shenanigans, this Godzilla succeeds only in passing the buck. As a result, the entire film is built upon an intellectually dishonest and shady foundation. Accordingly, it is wholly lacking in any sort of deeper or relevant meaning. Godzilla's reign of destruction in Manhattan means absolutely nothing now...America is just a random victim of a random destructive spree.
Again, the Japanese Godzilla films -- for all their miniature city scapes and men-in-monster-suits -- often boasted a powerful sense of social commentary or responsibility, whether the issue was the Nuclear Age or even, in the 1970s, environmental pollution (Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1971]). By shifting the blame to France for Godzilla's creation, the 1998 film makes two grievous mistakes. First, such a shift betrays the very legacy of the original Godzilla film (missing an opportunity to be interpreted as "faithful" to what came before and thus garnering the support of existing fans...). And secondly, the U.S. film cuts itself off from the possibility that its narrative could carry a larger, more relevant sense of meaning and importance.

Welcoming to the dumbing down of Godzilla...a world where point A need not connect with Point B. Or C. Nuclear weapons testing is the cause of Godzilla's birth in the U.S. film, but by movie's end, nobody even remembers or cares about the test. The ashamed French don't vow to stop testing in the future; and the U.S. has no accountability for Godzilla, so it certainly isn't going to stop testing. The nuclear testing of this Godzilla is not a legitimate plot point, nor a carefully considered "context," just a gimmick by which a giant Iguana can be born.

Mass Destruction as a "Once in a Lifetime Opportunity"

Following the opening credit montage (and shifting of the blame to the French...), Godzilla quickly transforms itself into a fast-pace, globe-trotting "mystery."

In short order, we see a Japanese fishing vessel in the South Pacific Ocean attacked by a deadly beast of gargantuan (but unseen) proportions. This sequence, in particular, appears faithful to the spirit and content of the Toho series, as it features a sort of ocean-going "early warning" that a monster is fast approaching civilization. Often times in Toho's Godzilla films, the productions would similarly open with a lonely ship at sea and an encounter with monstrous terror.

Then we're whisked off to Chernobyl to meet our hero, "Worm Guy," Nick Tatapoulos (Matthew Broderick), a scientist (and former anti-nukes activist...) who believes that nuclear mutations are responsible for the creation of new species the world over. The epitome of bravery and daring (not!), this hero works hard to effect "change" from within the system, from inside a nuclear regulatory agency.

Nick's introduction in the Ukraine serves as an opportunity for the filmmakers to extrude an unfunny joke about his foreign-sounding name (and the continued inability of the people around him to pronounce it correctly). This joke (the mispronounciation of "Tatapoulos") is repeated four times in approximately twenty-minutes, and adds nothing to the story, characterization, or overall entertainment in Godzilla. It's an in-joke, since Patrick Tatapoulos is the artist who created the design of Godzilla for this film, but one might rightly ask: what's the point?

If you were going to craft an in-joke such as this, why not one related to the Godzilla franchise's history (which fans could have appreciated a bit more). Nick Tatapoulos could have been Nick Raymond (after Raymond Burr...), for instance. If the makers of the film so desperately required an in-joke about "funny names," they could have even named Tatapoulos "Steve Martin," since that was the moniker of Burr's character in the Americanized version of the original 1954 film. This way, you could have had people cracking up over a nuclear scientist named after that "wild and crazy" comedian and star of The Jerk. Again, not really necessary in a Godzilla movie, if you ask me...but better than the masturbatory and pervasive references to Patrick Tatapoulos.

Regardless, Next stop Tahiti. Then off to Panama. Then to Jamaica. Then to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We find ourselves following -- again and again, with great anticipation -- Godzilla's progress from French Polynesia to Manhattan. These tightyl-edited sequences are brief, sharp, and portentous, fully engaging our imagination as we see "evidence" of Godzilla's handiwork and presence (footprints, claw-marks, etc.), but don't actually get a view of the monster. Honestly, these scenes were economical and worked for the film, overall. Nothing to complain about.

By the thirty-minute point, however, the movie has landed in Manhattan permanently, and the pace suddenly slows to a crawl following all the international action. After about fifteen minutes in NYC, the sense of anticipation, pace and excitement drains away and a feeling of malaise sets in. Instead of focusing on the mystery or origin of Godzilla, for instance, the film lingers on 1990s workplace sexual politics as an aspiring reporter, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo) attempts to advance her career, but must deal with the sexism of anchorman boss, Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer). Her friends, including receptionist Lucy (Arabella Field) and Lucy's camera man husband, "Animal" (Hank Azaria) tell Audrey she is just too nice to make it in New York.

The arrival of Godzilla in the Big Apple, however, provides Audrey just the ladder-climbing opportunity she has long sought, since she once dated Nick and so has an "in" to interview him again. She does so, and illicitly steals Nick's top secret cassette-tape of a Godzilla survivor...which she promptly airs on television. Afterwards, because of Audrey's behavior, Nick loses his job hunting Godzilla, and must team with a French group of secret agents (led by Jean Reno).

Concerning Audrey -- As Mick La Salle put it, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle --
"in the '90s, the apocalypse is just another career opportunity..."
Now, I'm not a firm believer that movie characters need be of high moral fiber or do "good things" to be worthwhile or interesting to watch, but Audrey is awful, petty human being. She betrays Nick's trust, and she transmits secret information that could jeopardize soldiers in the field and citizens too. I mean, the world is falling apart around her (the Chrysler Building is destroyed! American citizens have died by the dozen!), and she's just jockeying for a superior position at work. Audrey has no sense of loyalty to anybody outside herself; not even the man she ostensibly "loves."

In generations past, such qualities would have assured that such an immoral, selfish character pay dearly for her considerable trespasses. Think about the fate of the Charles Grodin character, Fred Wilson, in the 1970s remake of King Kong (a film I admired, despite the ubiquitous bad reviews...), Or for a more contemporary example, remember the fate of Saffron Burrows' "Frankenstein"-style character in Deep Blue Sea (1999). Monster movies have almost always boasted a sense of cosmic justice and morality, but again, this Godzilla plays as a betrayal of genre history. This film wants Audrey to be Nick's love interest, after all. So after she sins, Audrey spends the film's last act whining and wallowing in self-pity about what a lousy person she is.
But, importantly, the film doesn't even seem to believe that Audrey has really done anything wrong, or even unusual for that matter. She's just a good person who made a "mistake," according to the dialogue. Yes, but quite a pre-meditated one: Audrey deceived Nick by playing on their intimate relationship, waited till he left his tent, and then stole his top secret property. Then she recorded her own video introduction to the taped material (in which she was the "star reporter") and then passed the tape off again to her superiors at the news station. Then she waited for it to air with excitement. Not until Audrey saw Nick again (leaving the city in a cab, tail between legs...) did Audrey even consider the possible negative ramifications of her behavior. It's one thing to make a little mistake, but if Audrey was just a good person, why didn't she -- at any time during the shooting, editing or waiting for broadcast of her report-- reconsider her actions?

Personally, I think Godzilla should have stomped the shit out of Audrey...

The film's other protagonists are also difficult to like. Take Nick. He is a brilliant scientist dedicated to studying new species...but not once does he seem to recognize how amazing, or how wondrous, Godzilla is. Not once does Nick stand up to the military and state that at least one of the Godzilla hatchlings should be preserved from destruction for future study.

Nick is smart, but like Audrey (and like the film itself...) he seems to boast no moral compass. Nick figures out a way to attract Godzilla (with a pile of smelly fish...) but never stops to consider that he is leading a new species to total annihilation. At least in the monster movies of yesteryear, a wrong-headed scientist (an egghead communist, usually...) would speak-up and talk about the importance of alien contact, or preserving the last representative of a species before he was dismissed out-of-hand as a pacifist Russkie by military heroes. The point was that -- even if you didn't agree with the scientist -- at least the viewpoint was heard. This Godzilla doesn't even offer that much. Nick seems to have no perspective at all on Godzilla, his reign of terror, or the monster's place in the modern world.

Finally, yet another grievous character miscalculation. Two major characters in the film are "Mayor Ebert" (Michael Lerner) and his balding campaign advisor, "Gene." Famously, these men are named after popular film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel. Indeed, the characters are cast especially for their physical similarities to the two film reviewers. Apparently, the characters are included in the film as sort of filmmaker's "revenge," since both critics gave thumbs down ratings to previous Emmerich-Devlin pictures, Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996).

I must stress, these are not throwaway characters who appear once or twice, or only briefly. These are supporting characters in the film with flourishes of dialogue and a presence in numerous scenes. Despite this, they are merely one-note jokes, offering thumbs up, thumbs down and little else of value. The Godzilla screenplay takes cheap shots over Ebert's weight (two of his scenes involve the mayor's love of candy). But again, what's the point? Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel don't like your you make fat jokes? Is this really the best way to deflect attention from your putting them up on a pedestal and featuring them in major roles in your movie?
Do you know what might the best way to get revenge on Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for their negative reviews? Make a good movie,of course; one that they would have had to acknowledge as a superior example of the form. Instead, we get Roger and Gene as cardboard figures of ridicule, and the whole thing is just ugly, not to mention exceedingly juvenile. Again, this Godzilla settles for the stupid and obvious when a degree of wit is called for. Put bluntly, when the filmmakers introduced these Ebert/Siskel characters for purposes of revenge, they weren't thinking about the history or tradition of Godzilla. They were thinking about themselves; about ego. Again, not really a great way to show fans of Godzilla that you are taking their cherished icon seriously.

Size Doesn't Matter If It's "Only an Animal"

I realize that some long-time original Godzilla fans are going to be upset (or perhaps enraged...) with me for what I write next, but this Godzilla does feature some rather remarkable special effects (indeed, the best ever in a Godzilla movie up to 1998). And I don't, by reflex, disapprove of the new design of the titular monster, either.

In essence, this is like arguing that the revamped design of the Enterprise in the new Star Trek invalidates that entire film. General audiences in America in 1998 would simply not have accepted a man in a suit as the movie's Godzilla. It made sense to change the monster's appearance. And though certainly different than Toho's design, it seems to me that the monster design of the 1998 film is entirely serviceable and even borderline interesting. For instance, this Godzilla does boast a rather heroic jaw-line, one even more square than Superman's. What I'm arguing, perhaps ineloquently, is that Godzilla here can look "different" from the Japanese original, and the film can still be judged a success. Assuming were true to the spirit and history of the franchise.
Of course, it isn't true to the spirit and history of the franchise.

Indeed, that's the very reason this Godzilla fails so egregiously and thoroughly. It does not in any way, shape or form respect Godzilla's past. There seems to be no respect on the part of the filmmakers -- or the characters in the drama, for that matter - for the titular "monster." Indeed, there's even a line spoken at some point in the film that suggests "he's only an animal."

Yes, but a rather remarkable animal, wouldn't you say? Measuring 400 feet tall and all...
The shark in Jaws was only an "animal," but look at the myriad ways Steven Spielberg successfully mythologized it utilizing shark lore, the true story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and his careful presentation of the beast.

Unfortunately, the only thing this Godzilla gets from Jaws is one line of dialogue. "We're going to need bigger guns," instead of "we're going to need a bigger boat."

Damningly, the screenwriters here provide their movie not a single moment of wonder; of characters expressing awe or even real horror at the presence Godzilla in the modern world or his destructive actions. This is the one flaw the film simply cannot overcome: it doesn't know what to think about Godzilla, and therefore the audience doesn't know what to think about him.
In King Kong, Carl Denham (and later Jack Prescott) had a viewpoint about Kong: he was dangerous, but ultimately pitiable...he was taken from his land and defeated. The Jurassic Park films boasted an opinon about their monsters too (genetically engineered dinosaurs...): that the beasts were simply doing what dinosaurs would do; and that the destruction they caused was the fault of man, who had foolishly resurrected the beasts. Going back to the original Godzilla in Japan -- depending on the point in history -- Godzilla was either a fearsome representation of the Nuclear Age (a villain to be destroyed), or later, Japan's savior from even more grave threats.

Without exaggeration, you could remove Godzilla (the lizard) from every scene in Emmerich's film and replace him with a swarm of killer bees, a Category 5 Tornado, a giant robot from outer space, global warming or absolutely any other threat imaginable...and it would make virtually no difference at all to the characters or storyline. In the final moments of the film, you have no idea if you should root for Godzilla, or for the U.S. Military. Are we supposed to like Godzilla? The human heroes? What should we feel?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Unforgivably, this film candycoats Godzilla's reign destruction so that he doesn't seem "evil" or villainous (as he did in King of Monsters), and yet no human character ever stands up for Godzilla and proclaims, "he's just a parent trying to protect his young," either. The beast is neither fish nor fowl, apparently.

In one scene, the Godzilla offspring are played as silly comic relief, tripping and stumbling all over gum balls and basketballs, and yet in the next moment, they are being viciously blown apart by American bombers without a word of sorrow or regret. Again, there is no coherent attitude towards the creatures. Not even, "I hate to fire these missiles, but it's them or us. And I choose us...!"

This is what Salon Entertainment's Gary Kamiya thoughtfully wrote about the presentation of violence in the film: "They [Emmerich/Devlin] have perfected the depiction of consequence-free violence, suitable for all ages: ApocalypseLite: All the thrill of Death (TM) with none of the finality! "Godzilla" features the biggest and most realistic collisions of all time, with nary a drop of icky and disturbing blood. No corpses are seen, barely even an anguished shriek is heard as Godzilla runs wildly through the streets of Manhattan, smashing 20-story holes in the Pan Am building. The team's universe is as utterly artificial as that of Wile E. Coyote..."
In the original Godzilla, viewers might quite rightly have felt overcome or sickened with the lingering horror of the monster's attacks (the survivors looked positively agonized...) Here, the filmmakers can't be bothered to feature a single death in terms human beings would recognize as realistic. But here's the thing that they missed in blanderizing the beast: take away Godzilla's violence and amazing might and he becomes just a...galloping nuisance -- Johnny Depp wrecking his hotel room, writ large. A nuisance, but not a villain, and certainly not a grave threat. This empty hole in viewpoint and directorial perspective leaves Godzilla to dwell in a strange, uninteresting place: neither villainous nor heroic; neither good nor bad; just a big lizard tearing up jack because...well...he's big and unwieldy.

When Godzilla's radioactive eyeballs finally fade out in close-up at the film's finale, we feel nothing at all -- not even relief -- because the film has never bothered to develop a coherent point of view about the creature. All the good special effects mean nothing in light of this thematic void. We might as well have watched two hours of a hurricane toppling skyscrapers.

Size does matter, and thus we must conclude that the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla fails on a colossal scale. Some scenes in the film are quite accomplished -- like the giant lizard's chase of a taxi cab near the finale -- but because we don't care about the humans or monsters in the drama, much of this good work is just the equivalent of a train wreck. And we're the rubberneckers, slowing down to watch.

I realized, this time around, that's the very thing that has occasionally nagged me about the film. The extreme technical proficiency in the face of a total lack of immediacy or human feeling.

Hey, there's a huge lizard over there eating helicopters!
There's this almost irresistible (but momentary...) desire to stop and gawk at the sights of Godzilla, but nothing that legitimately holds up as art. Or entertainment, for that matter. Again, for the mighty, long-lived Godzilla to be reduced to the equivalent of a meaningless amusement park ride is a direct betrayal of the monster's history and tradition.

If nothing else, this movie succeeds in making me want to watch two better monster movies instead. The original Godzilla, and 2008's Cloverfield. Those movies aren't afraid to let their monsters (and our monsters) be...fearsome.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dead Silence (2007)

"Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams. Be sure to never ever scream..."

Do you suffer from automatonophobia -- an unhealthy fear of dolls and other self-operating...things? Well, I do suffer from it a bit. One of my most vivid night terrors of recent years involved my wife's collectible Pee Wee Herman doll skittering to life and attacking me while I slept. Although -- now that I think about it -- I'm not certain if I was terrified because a doll came to life and assaulted me in that nightmare, or because it was Pee Wee Herman doing the attacking. But never mind: I just don't like dolls. I'm still traumatized from that moment in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) with the clown doll under the bed...

If you suffer from this pre-existing condition -- a fear of dolls -- I suppose the effectiveness of the 2007 horror film, Dead Silence gets ratcheted up by quite a few degrees. This horror film from the producers of Saw involves, among other things, a ventriloquist's dummy named "Billy" who has an uncomfortable way of staring you down. And that's just when he isn't popping around doing the murderous bidding of his mistress of the damned, a dead witch named Mary Shaw. In Dead Silence, these villains combat a young man named Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), who, after the death of his wife, Lisa, hopes to learn the secret of Mary Shaw in his desolate, half-abandoned home town, Raven's Fair.

Dead Silence opens with the old-fashioned, black-and-white logo of Universal Pictures from the 1940s, and this is an entirely appropriate touch. For much of its running time, the film plays out like a good, scary horror film of that historical era. To heighten the connection, the makers of the film have de-saturated the movie's
color palette to such a degree that mostly silvers and grays pre-dominate. Oh, and blood red too...which comes in handy in the final act.

But when the much-too courageous Jamie walks a lonely graveyard by moon light, the image on screen is almost entirely black-and-white, and again, successfully evokes the chilling style of yesteryear. This visual approach reflects the specifics of the narrative, because 1941 is the year of Mary Shaw's debut at a "Lost Theater" in Raven's Fair. We see this event played out in an ultra-creepy flashback; one in which a child heckles Mary Shaw and her "dummy" on stage, only to face the witch's wrath.

And that brings me to another point about Dead Silence that I admired. The plot (and the scares, too...) seem to reach right down in the well of childhood; to that dreamy, half-forgotten place where irrational dread lurks..and flourishes. It's the fear that -- as you sleep -- your human-looking toys actually have a life and agenda of their own. And that they are watching you, as you shiver under the bed covers and contemplate their presence just feet away...

The film even provides a childhood poem that, much like Freddy's jump rope song in The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (One, two, Freddy's coming for you...) tells of a "real" terror in terms a child understands: a fairy tale, a song, a lullaby. Unfortunately, Dead Silence also steals Freddy's back-story and motivation for Mary Shaw. After she is murdered by the towns-people for her bad behavior, her evil spirit returns (along with the monstrous dolls...) to avenge her; delivering the sins of the fathers and mothers upon the heads of the children.

The third act of Dead Silence is disastrously and inextricably bad given what has led up to it (too much Donnie Wahlberg, if you ask me...), but despite this, many aspects of the film still achieve a real sense of grotesque horror. The opening twelve minutes of the picture -- in which Jamie and his wife Lisa are interrupted by the delivery at their doorstep (not a baby, but a ventriloquist's dummy named Billy...) -- are superb: a mini-classic set-piece that elicits real chills and goosebumps. The director, James Wan, proves remarkably skilled at manipulating foreground and background elements in his compositions in a manner that will make you anxious and disturbed. The movie's sound design also assists enormously in generating a mood of terror . The "Dead Silence" of the title is a sort of "draining away of all noise," a phenomenon that occurs at the inauguration of all supernatural events in the film. The sound slows down, fades away, and we're left in still, portentous quiet, aware that the next strike is due any second.

Another scare scene in a motel room -- lit neon red -- and the virtuoso surprise ending also significantly boost the film's quality, even though the central performances are only adequate, and the storyline drags badly in the final third of the movie.

If you're looking for an interesting modern companion piece to Devil Doll (1964) or the non-supernatural Magic (1978), Dead Silence delivers. If you're not really bothered or unnerved by ambulatory, big-eyed dolls, however, your mileage may vary.