Saturday, May 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 - 1982): "Valley of the Man-Apes"

In “Valley of the Man-Apes,” Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla ride through Death Canyon when they spy intelligent ape creatures digging in the desert there. 

Led by the malevolent, human-hating ape creature called Simius, the apes unearth a giant robotic ape paw.  It is the hand of a mythological figure called “The Mighty One.” 

Worse, Simius and his minions are hell-bent on re-assembling the giant ape, and seek out the robot’s missing animatronic limbs.

Thundarr and his friends clash with Simius at an abandoned movie studio, but it is too late to stop him from completing his task. Simius puts together the Mighty One, a giant ape and movie prop from before the holocaust.  Worse, he still functions, and becomes a terrifying weapon.

Now Thundarr and his friends must defeat the giant mecha-ape using an abandoned World War II airplane, one flown (by Ariel) with magic.

“Valley of the Man-Apes” is another really entertaining winner for Thundarr the Barbarian  (1980 – 1982). 

The episode qualifies essentially, as a pastiche of Planet of the Apes (1968) and King Kong (1977).  To wit: intelligent apes attempt to make war against humanoid (or elf-in) villagers using a giant robotic ape. 

But the ape is defeated in a battle with a pre-holocaust plane, and that fate is reminiscent of King Kong’s death in his famous cinematic outings.

Even more delightfully, “Valley of the Man-Apes” stages much of is action at an ancient movie studio, and specifically a western ghost town there.  One battle sequence hauls out -- purposefully – every Western movie “saloon” cliché imaginable in about a minute long span.  Thundarr swings from a chandelier, there is fight over and across the central saloon bar, and even a piano in the corner comes into play..

There’s also some wicked, under-the-surface humor here.  Simius and his monkey friends are attempting to re-assemble, essentially, a giant prop of King Kong, one operated by robotics. 

In real life, Dino De Laurentiis never quite got his Kong robot to work on the set of the 1976 King Kong, but that robot (and his behind-the-scenes story…) is nonetheless the clear inspiration for this narrative.  “Valley of the Man Apes” thus functions both as action-packed adventure, and subtle satire of Hollywood, from its depiction of the cowboy milieu to Tinsel Town’s over-spending on special effects gimmicks that have no chance of working as intended.

Filled with clever allusions to Planet of the Apes, King Kong and Hollywood history in general, “Valley of the Man-Apes” is one of the best and smartest Thundarr episodes, one that stands alongside such efforts as “Stalker from the Stars” and “Island of the Body Snatchers.”

Next week: Trial by Terror.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "Music Man"

In this week’s installment of Monster Squad (1976), called “Music Man,” the monsters and Walt (Fred Grandy) watch a telethon being held for the “scourge of all scourges” and mankind’s “greatest ailment:” death by natural causes.

Unfortunately, the telethon is interrupted by a super villain, The Music Man (Marty Allen), who steals all the money raised and makes off with it.

The Monster Squad tracks the Music Man to the Lorenzo Music Academy, and Drac, Frank and the Werewolf pretend to be students seeking music lessons.

The Music Man sees through this ruse, however, and traps the Squad in a diabolical “Echo Chamber,” leaving Walt, back at the wax museum, to figure a way out of the crisis.

“The Music Man” is notable primarily for the central presence of Marty Allen (1922 - ), a performer who was an American hero in World War II, and later became part of the famous comedy duo, Allen and Rossi.  Marty Allen also appeared on The Ed Sullivan show more than three dozen times.

Genre fans may also recognize Allen from the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episode “Make Me Laugh,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

Unfortunately, Allen isn’t given much of a character to play here, and he comes across as one of the series more generic villains. No doubt, he deserved better. 

In fact, “Music Man” is one of the least interesting episodes of Monster Squad.  The heroes show up at the Lorenzo Music Academy (perhaps named for Batman writer Lorenzo Semple Jr.), and (ineffectually) attempt to go undercover there…even while donning their full monster regalia.  They are then, predictably, captured and held prisoner for the remainder of the episode.

“Music Man” reveals that the creative arteries of the series have hardened into an unchanging and unchangeable formula. Every week we learn of a new crime at the wax museum, meet the villain of the week, and the Monsters investigate him or her.  The monsters are then captured, and held in some diabolical trap until one of the squad (and sometimes Walt…) figures out a way to turn the tables.

Here, all the jokes about death by natural causes are a little mystifying. They play, perhaps, as a critique of telethons. In other words, people will raise many for any cause if the heart-strings are pulled, even dumb ones.  In my opinion, this is a bit ungenerous…

Only two other things of significance left to note in this review. 

First, when the Werewolf climbs the wall of the Music Academy, the visual is a retread of the famous Batman and Robin wall-climbing trick from the Batman TV series of the 1960s, yet another way in which Monster Squad apes that (far superior…) series.

And finally, there’s a nice bit of continuity here as Music Man notes that his favorite performing venue is Madison Round Garden, the city locale we saw in the episode “The Ringmaster.”

Next week, a slightly better episode: “No Face.”

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla Week: Final Post

Well, fifty-something posts later, Godzilla Week is done!  

I hope you had a good time with the special event, and enjoyed revisiting the classic films and memorabilia with me.

I certainly loved writing about the Big Green Guy, though wish I had more time to post about other Godzilla films too (including Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla [1994] and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus [2002]).  

At some point, I will feature them on the blog...

However, tune in Tuesday morning (May 20th), and I'll have posted my review of Gareth Edward's new Godzilla film. 

Tomorrow, regularly scheduled blogs resume!

Godzilla Week: Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Evil Inner Jaw Edition

Godzilla Week: Godzilla (1998)

Perhaps the most universally reviled of all 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 last decade, there was another production derided by fans as "GINO:" Godzilla in Name Only.

I first 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.  The movie also couldn't decide how audiences should feel about the monster.

Although I disliked the film vehemently, something about the American Godzilla 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 shelf ever since.

Alas, the passage of time has not made Godzilla look like a better film, alas, though I do appreciate the fact that Toho has integrated the monster here -- renamed "Zilla" -- into its continuity, at least for Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).

Blame The French

For all its 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 perhaps accomplished in terms of imagery and visual presentation. It captures a sense of foreboding, a documentary-like feel.

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 cheese-loving, Old Europeans who conducted dastardly and dangerous nuclear tests, opening Pandora's Box in the process.

Although it has certainly been fashionable for some time now 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 (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.

So, in his native country, Godzilla represented nothing less than an atomic bogeyman, a symbol of the 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 spooky because it on-going. 

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 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 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.  That's bad enough, but the conceit robs the film of deep meaning too.  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 boast 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 prevent further 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. One example: Godzilla: 1985.

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. 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 mispronunciation 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 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 tightly-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.  These scenes are economical, and effective, actually.

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!), yet 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. Remember the fate of the Charles Grodin character, Fred Wilson, in the 1970s remake of King Kong?

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. Nick 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 or no sense of perspective about what is actually happening in the world, vis-a-vis Godzilla's arrival. 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 would speak-up and talk about the importance of alien contact, or of 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 adviser, "Gene." Famously, these men are named after popular film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel. The characters are actually cast especially for their physical similarities to the two (late) 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 have been 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 might be upset with me for what I write next, but this Godzilla features some rather remarkable special effects. And I don't, by mere 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. 

What I'm arguing, perhaps without much eloquence, is that Godzilla here can look "different" from the Japanese original, and the film can still be judged a success. Assuming it 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. 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."

Embarrassingly, the screenwriters 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 opinion 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, like King Ghidorah or Space Godzilla.

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 narrative 

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 candy coats Godzilla's reign of 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: Apocalypse Lite: 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 soft-pedaling Godzilla's nature: If you take away Godzilla's violence and amazing might and he becomes just a...galloping nuisance.

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...I don't know why.

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, on a recent viewing that this is the very thing that has occasionally nagged me about the film. It is Godzilla's extreme and notable 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 simultaneously nothing here that legitimately holds up as art. 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.

Godzilla Week: Godzilla: "The Earth Eater" (September 16, 1978)

In “The Earth Eater,” the second episode of the Hanna-Barbera/Toho Godzilla cartoon collaboration for NBC, San Francisco is falling into the Earth.  Even the Golden Gate Bridge is imperiled.

Before long, the Calico arrives in the city because Dr. Darrien is scheduled to speak at a scientist convention there. 

When the ship arrives, the crew sees that the city is being evacuated, and that people are leaving it en masse. Godzilla arrives to shore up the bridge and save the refugees.

Meanwhile, Quinn and the crew note that some city blocks look normal, while others are now huge sinkholes. Quinn concludes that the city is being devoured one block at a time.

Godzooky and Pete go down into a sink-hole and find out that a light-sensitive goliath -- an “earth eater” -- is the monster responsible for all the destruction.

When the crew loses the Godzilla distress button, it’s up to Godzooky to call to him…and bring the monster to do combat with this new enemy.

“The Earth Eater” is set in San Francisco (not entirely unlike a game-play arena in Godzilla Unleashed, the 2007 video game…) and the most interesting part of the episode, perhaps, is seeing Godzilla stomp around in these particular American environs.  The episode features views not only of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Transamerica Pyramid building.  The city's trademark cable cars also make an appearance as a handy escape vehicle.

As seems typical of the series, there’s no explanation offered why the Earth Eater exists, or why he should appear at this juncture of modern history.  A key aspect of Godzilla’ legend, of course, is that he is an avatar for modern atomic warfare or power.

If the monsters in this cartoon series had similar origins, based on modern life, it would have been far more intriguing and worthwhile.  Today, the Earth Eater could be a byproduct of fracking, for instance, though in 1978, perhaps just irresponsible or aggressive mining.  At least such a story would have a point, a context beyond monsters appearing, and Godzilla pinch-hitting for the imperiled human race.

But the cartoon series never strives to offer much contextualization, even though Saturday morning, at that time period in history, often included didactic messages about the environment or appropriate moral/social behavior (see: Land of the Lost).  Here the monsters merely show up, and Godzilla battles them to a stand-still, and then defeat.

The exact nature of the Earth Eater threat is uncertain too.  The creature can shoot beams from his antennae that resemble those telepathic rings that emanate from Aqua Man on The Super Friends.  These beams -- which pulp buildings -- which goes unexplained. 

But weirder still than that touch is the fact that “water” is described as The Earth Eater's “natural enemy.”  When the Earth Eater goes into the bay, it is destroyed…transformed into a big mud-slick.  

So what does the creature drink, if not water? How does it hydrate itself?  The episode doesn’t do that much thinking about its central threat, and that seems a shame since the series heroes are mostly scientists, who show a curiosity for the world around them.

Finally, a weird adult joke, right under the surface: At one point, Godzilla battles the Earth Eater in front of a sign that reads Butz Root Beer.  Butz?


Godzilla Week: Godzilla: "The Firebird" (September 9, 1978)

In 1978, Toho and Hanna-Barbera combined forces to bring Godzilla to Saturday morning television on NBC. This animated or cartoon version of Godzilla, aired from 1978 to 1981, and was a ratings success.

This Godzilla TV series followed the adventures of the crew of a research ship called the Calico.  Aboard the Calico was a scientist, Dr. Quinn Darrien, her nephew, Pete, and her research assistant, Brock.  Running the Calico (think: Jacque Cousteau’s Calypso) was Captain Carl Majors.

The last crew-member was the strangest: Godzilla’s cousin “Godzooky.”

The crew of the Calico always traveled with a kind of distress signal, a Godzila “button” which the crew members could push to summon Godzilla, and get his (virtually immediate…) help.

When Godzilla appeared on the series, his trademark roar was missing in action, and his dorsal spikes didn’t quite look the same as they had in the movies.  In this iteration of the legend, Godzilla could also shoot laser beams from his eyes, as well as breathe fire at his enemies.

The series format in the Godzilla cartoon is fairly repetitive.  

The Calico inadvertently gets into danger and encounters a new monster or otherwise giant threat.  The crew calls for Godzilla, and the defender arrives to save the day.  As he fights, Godzilla is cheered on by his human friends (“Watch it, Godzilla…behind you!”).  

Then, when it is all over, Godzooky does his shtick, usually something comical...but juvenile.

In the first episode of Godzilla, “The Firebird” (September 9, 1978), the Calico – which is equipped with helicopter and hovercraft -- encounters a tidal wave and Earth tremor.  

The origin of this disaster is an island in the Pacific. A volcano there has been dormant for millions of years but now it erupts, and a giant pterodactyl (though not Rodan, alas…) emerges from it to wreak havoc.

When the tidal wave imperils the ship, the crew notes “We better call Godzilla, it’s our only chance!” Godzilla shows-up, on cue, and lifts the ship out of the water.

Before long, Godzilla ends up battling the giant pterodactyl for dominance. Quinn worries the creature may be seeking to reproduce, and lay eggs, but Godzilla traps it in a cave and is thus victorious.

“The Firebird” sets the tenor for the series, in large part.  Godzilla functions, drama-wise, as a pinch-hitter for the humans.  As soon as they are faced with a crisis they can’t handle, they press the Godzilla-button and the atomic lizards substitutes for them.

In animated form -- at least starting out -- this iteration of Godzilla doesn’t seem to have a lot of character or personality, at least in comparison to his live-action counterpart, who would occasionally do something nutty and exuberant, like perform a victory dance (Monster Zero).

Instead, Godzilla largely comes off as a friendly T-Rex.  We don’t know what really motivates him, or why he feels compelled to rescue the Calico.  We get no background on how he met Dr. Quinn or Pete, or how Goodzooky joined up with the crew.  All that material is set in stone by episode one and un-remarked on.  It might have been interesting to explore, during the series, Godzilla's origin, or history.

Thus, the episodes of the 1970s Godzilla cartoon are largely predictable and repetitive, and their prime value is as nostalgia.  It is neat, however, to see different locales (like San Francisco...) get totally in destroyed in cartoon form.

And, of course, the series theme song rocks.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Here Comes Godzilla (American Style)

Godzilla Week: Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

The last Godzilla movie leading up to the new Gareth Edwards movie of 2014 is the 2004 50th anniversary celebration, Godzilla: Final Wars.  

Even ten years after its release, this film from director Ryuhei Kitamura retains a reputation for being…highly divisive. The controversial nature of the film is due, in large part, to the movie’s schizophrenic storytelling approach. There are actually two movies here, fighting one another for supremacy. 

One movie is a down-to-the-angles, down-to-the-casting remake of The Matrix (1999) with (friendly) mutants battling deadly, evil Exilliens.  The compositions which reflect, specifically, The Matrix, occur in the last act. One mutant, Shinichi (Masahiro Matsuoka) self-actualizes in battle as a one-in-a-million super-being.  In doing so, he can stop laser blasts with his hand.  And in battle he can anticipate and defeat the moves of his opponents while putting up almost no effort.

It's impossible not to recognize these "tributes" to The Matrix. I don't necessarily object to them on grounds of homage, but rather than the grounds that these scenes have little business being in a Godzilla movie.  We don't see Godzilla movies to see super-powered humans and aliens in martial arts, wire-work action scenes.

The other movie in Final Wars is a good old-fashioned monster stomp that revives with affection the feel and personalities of the Showa Age. 

Alas, the film’s balance is often way off, and the human/mutant screen-time far out-paces Godzilla’s screen time. The scenes here in which the Kwisatz Haderach of mutants (imbued with the “M” gene) battles the Exillien leader in his spaceship control room (pictured above) seem to go on interminably. Meanwhile, poor Godzilla spends most of the film, alas, frozen in arctic ice, until awakened by a new version of the Atragon.

I have read that many long-time Godzilla fans, in addition to strongly disliking the film’s mutant/human story, disliked the (surprising…) return to Showa Era monsters, ethos, and fights. 

Personally, I found this aspect of the movie a delight, and when Joel and I first watched Final Wars together he practically jumped out of his seat in joy each time an old friend appeared on screen the first time.  

This movie -- a thinly-veiled re-working of the Destroy All Monsters narrative, resurrects Manda (the water dragon), King Caesar, Rodan, Minya, Mothra, Anguirus, Hedorah, Ebirah (The sea monster…) and even the giant spider, Kumonga and the preying mantis, Kamacurras of Godzilla’s Revenge (1969). 

Also, Gigan gets a fearsome, impressive new upgrade in Final Wars as an incredible state-of-the-art cyborg.  Quite frankly, this monster has never looked better or more terrifying  And after Godzilla decapitates Gigan once, he even returns a second time…equipped with chainsaw-extensions on his arms.

Also, as much as I disliked the American Godzilla film of 1998, I believe it a confident and gracious touch on Toho's part that Final Wars incorporates the character, now re-dubbed Zilla, into the  film's proceedings. 

As a character separate from Godzilla and his traditions, I don’t mind the giant, fast-moving iguana at all.

I also don’t mind seeing Godzilla kick his ass with one whip of his tail.

The final battle here, which features Godzilla vs. Monster X/Ghidorah, was also pretty thrilling in terms of the monster’s unexpected transformation.  There seem to be many different origins for King Ghidorah in the Godzilla franchise, but I didn’t’ expect for him to go from humanoid to lizard, Transformer-style.

Godzilla: Final Wars’ editing approach is sledge-hammer in style, and there is positively zero nuance in the film in terms of the cuts, the performances, even the color palette. Everything is just constant rock’em sock’em in your face action, and it’s a bit overwhelming, and finally, dull. If everything happens at warp speed, after a while, nothing seems to be happening at warp speed.

But again, there’s a double impact to discuss in terms of the approach. I happily admit that I loved the super-kinetic monster fights, and simultaneously hated the human-scaled martial arts battles, though the motorcycle duel could just go down in history as the most ridiculous, over-the-top fight scene in history. 

 But in terms of the monsters, I loved seeing Rodan wreak massive special effects havoc with his sonic waves, and also loved Anguirus’s depiction as a flying, ricocheting ball of spikes. Manda's attack on a human Atragon ship/sub also shows him in fine monster form.

In terms of Godzilla’s development, Final Wars posits the idea that Godzilla hates mankind (something we remember from such Showa Era efforts as Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster). Final Wars tells us that Godzilla can’t forgive mankind because the human race has harmed so much of the planet Earth.  

But Minya, finally, helps Godzilla to forgive us all in the film’s final moments.  Godzilla’s choice to forgive is oddly affecting, and one of the few moments of “genuine” not-hyped up emotions in the entire film.  I also like the fact that the moment is not hyped for super-schmaltzy super-sentimentality. 

Many Godzilla fans simply hate, hate, hate Final Wars, but I can’t quite bring myself to go there. A lot of the movie is subtlety-free nonsense, edited to within an inch of its life, but I cannot deny the pure sense of joy Final Wars evokes when it brings the entire Godzilla “gang” back to the screen for the first time in decades, only with better special effects than those that were available in the old days.

This wasn’t the 50th anniversary movie many Godzilla admirers hoped for, understandably, but Godzilla: Final Wars certainly has its moments of wacky inspiration. If the movie didn’t fall so low at points in terms of its humanity, its over-the-top heights might be better appreciated today.