Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mom's Famous Chili Recipe

Tadabailey about to announce the door prize winners...

...and the crowd gathers in anticipation.

A most enjoyable day of caching yesterday, mostly in the Randleman area, just south of Greensboro. Cacher Tadabailey hosted a nice chili dinner, featuring... yes... his mom's famous chili recipe. And whoa! Was it ever good! Did some caching on the way down and, afterward, got with some old friends (and made some new) for a cache run around the area, picking up a new, chili-themed series that had us all chuckling (we found lots of meats and vegetables growing in the woods, which are distinctly not their native habitat).

I don't know if I got in enough exercise to work off all that chili (and some fantastic homemade cookies), but last night, just for good measure, I made Thai basil and tofu, which turned out right tasty. And hot! Yes, very, very hot....

Caching partners Spring1......and RTMLee, LadyLeo191, and Suntigres.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Three Giant Monsters: The Greatest Battle on Earth

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
(San Daikaiju Chikiyu Saidai no Kessen, 1964)

DVD Description:
Released by Classic Media; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, trailers, Eiji Tsuburaya documentary, commentary

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Yosuke Natsuki, Yuriko Hoshi, Akiko Wakabayashi, Takashi Shimura, Hisaya Ito, Akihiko Hirata

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For better or for worse, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster made for the single biggest directional shift in the history of Godzilla films, as in this movie, the biggest, baddest, and meanest monster of them all began his unlikely transformation into a heroic, if not exactly all-around good dude.

Despite some very cool monster scenes and a fairly engaging human story, Ghidorah registers pretty low on my daikaiju-meter. As anyone who's read these reviews knows, in my book, giant monsters ought to be giant monsters; I was never fond of the anthropomorphizing of the critters, which became a trademark of the Godzilla series after Ghidorah. Toho's rationale—more specifically, Eiji Tsuburaya's and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa's—about the trend was, well, we've got to appeal to the younger set. Hey, I was the younger set in those days, and every member of the younger set I knew who enjoyed monster movies wanted his beasties big, bad, and impressive. Who knows...maybe for Japanese kids, this was just what oisha-san ordered. But for some of us, it felt like the beginning of the end, monster-wise.

Still and all, Ghidorah was—and is—an entertaining monster romp. In my old age, any Godzilla movie is an enjoyable movie, no matter what form it takes. Even Godzilla vs. Megalon has its charms, and that's saying something; in 1977, I took my little brother with me to the theater to see Godzilla vs. Megalon, and 33 years later, I don't think he's ever forgiven me for it. Some horrific experiences just imprint themselves on the youthful mind, you know? Some of us adapt, while others do not.

On the positive side, in Ghidorah, Godzilla is less the willful messiah than a monster doing what he does best: messing up other critters that transgress on his rightful territory. His first appearance is memorable: Under a peaceful, midnight blue sky, an ocean liner makes its way toward a pod of whales. Then, behind them, a telltale churning of the ocean hints that something monstrous is about to happen. Akira Ifukube's now-familiar score rises along with a dark, beastly shape, and with dorsal fins alight, Godzilla unleashes a stream of fiery death on the ship, which immediately bursts into flame. It's a great scene, one of Godzilla's best ever. And shortly thereafter, he makes landfall in the harbor district of Tokyo, followed by a handful of highly impressive daikaiju-rampage scenes.

Ah, if only the rest of the movie had been made in this mode.

Rodan's appearance from Mount Aso is impressive enough, but of all the monsters, he's the one who most rapidly devolves into class clown. The Rodan suit design is among the worst ever, a far cry from the evil-looking reptilian beast from his origin film. In the commentary that accompanies the U.S. version, author David Kalat makes a reasoned case for why the monster buffoonery could be taken as a good thing, particularly in that the associated financial boon assured a new Godzilla film from Toho every few months. Be that as it may, once the monsters start mixing it up, the movie becomes an oftentimes tedious wrestling match between rubber suits. For the rest of the Showa series, the majestic, fearsome, awe-inspiring moments so prevalent in the earlier films become fewer and farther between. As a kid, this didn't sit well with me, no sir, not at all, and though I love the Godzilla movies these days more than ever, I still can't help but cringe a little when I watch the ridiculous volleyball match between Godzilla and Rodan.

Ghidorah's birth and attack on Tokyo goes a ways toward setting things right, at least for a time. Many of the destruction scenes rate among Eiji Tsuburaya's most spectacular work, and Ghidorah's design really is awesome. He, at least, is played straight, even during the more comical battles.

Then there's the "conversation" between Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, as the big caterpillar attempts to convince the other two to join up as a tag team and whomp Ghidorah's twin-tailed ass. Obviously, there are those who find the scene humorous and even endearing. I, as you might surmise, am not one of them.

On this very nicely presented Classic Media DVD, we have both the original Japanese version and the dubbed U.S. version, which is more radically edited than one might expect upon viewing it without the original for comparison. Dramatically, some of the alterations work quite well, while others are completely superfluous. Lots of scenes are shuffled around, particularly those that involve Godzilla and Rodan's initial appearances; the Venusian prophetess (Akiko Wakabayashi) in the U.S. version becomes a Martian prophetess; and—quite inexplicably—much of Akira Ifukube's excellent score has been replaced by unremarkable film library music. However, a few changes are actually beneficial to the film, such as the deletion of a reprise of Mothra's song, which slows the pacing of the Japanese version down to a merciless crawl. And near the end of the film, during the scenes of Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) rescuing the prophetess/Princess Salno from killer Malness (Hisaya Ito), the sounds of the monster battle are heard in the background—which only makes sense, since they are obviously fighting in close proximity.

Like the rest of the Classic Media DVD Godzilla releases, this one is an absolute must for the avid Godzillaphile—whether you believe that Ghidorah is a classic among classics or the beginning of the devolution of a once-fearsome atomic horror.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ravishing a Universe for Love!

Mothra (Mosura, 1961)
DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Columbia Pictures; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, commentaries, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, Jerry Ito, Ken Uehara, Emi & Yumi It0 (The Peanuts), Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata

4 out of 5 stars

Mothra has always been one of my least favorite of Toho's giant monsters. It's a bug; depending on its incarnation, either an unremarkable, big honking caterpillar or a terribly unreal-looking giant moth. Yet Mothra has also starred in some of Toho's best Showa-era epics, from the original Mothra to Mothra vs. Godzilla (1963). Later incarnations of the critter, such as those in Godzilla - Mothra - King Ghidorah: All-Out Monster Attack and Godzilla: Tokyo SOS have been outright impressive. Go figure. Of course, then there was the 1992 Godzilla vs. Mothra. Eh. Not so much.

After the dark, somber moods set in Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and Rodan, the Flying Monster, all of which were based on the disturbing premise of science gone too far, Toho opted to produce a friendlier, fantasy-based daikaiju movie. Mothra introduces a giant monster who wreaks havoc but is essentially gentle, driven to destruction only because of its loyalty to the benevolent Shobijin (which means "little beauties"): a pair of one-foot-tall young women from the radiation-blasted Infant Island, who are exploited by a greedy entrepreneur named Clark Nelson. In his zeal to make money, Nelson abducts the Shobijin and forces them to perform in an exotic nightclub act in Tokyo. However, unknown to him, the Shobijin are using their performances to telepathically summon Mothra to their rescue, and when the big bug eventually does appear, Eiji Tsuburaya and his special effects crew get a chance to more than go to town.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Toho monster movie without spectacular scenes of miniature city destruction, and on this count Mothra definitely delivers, especially during its rampage in larval form. Several different larva puppets of various sizes were constructed, as well as a suit (only of the caterpillar's fore section) worn by actor Haruo Nakajima, which allowed for the use of very large-scale, super-realistic miniatures. Unlike in some later appearances, in this movie, the larva's movements appear very natural and lifelike, and the mottled tan and brown skin texture looks far more realistic than most of the subsequent puppets', which were a more uniform, glossy brown.

The adult "imago" Mothra doesn't fare nearly as well. For scenes of the flying Mothra's assault on Newkirk City, the capital of the fictional nation of Rolisica, the miniatures are smaller and less detailed, resulting in a far less satisfying look. Much like Rodan, Mothra is able to generate typhoon-force winds with its wings, but most of the shots of miniatures whirling around like paper confetti leave much to be desired.

The musical score is provided not by either of Toho's most frequent composers—Akira Ifukube and Masaru Sato—but by Yuji Koseki, who scored relatively few films but provided a distinctive and exotic musical backdrop for Mothra. Koseki wrote the song that the Shobijin use to summon their guardian, but it was later re-orchestrated by Akira Ifukube for use in subsequent films, such as Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster.

Although little good can be said about Sony's packaging job (see comments in the Battle in Outer Space review), the DVD presents generally fine prints of both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the film. During the film's initial release in 1962, Columbia inexplicably trimmed a considerable amount of footage from the film, including some impressive special effects scenes—presumably just to shorten its running time. Unless one has a serious aversion to subtitles, there's not much point in watching the (reasonably well-dubbed) U.S. version except to listen to the insightful commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski. Despite the poor packaging, this set is a good value for any kaiju eiga fan on this side of the water.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Molecular Man Terrorizes the World!

The H-Man
(Bijoto Ekitainingen, 1958)

DVD Description:
Released by Columbia Pictures; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, commentaries, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Hisaya Ito, Akihiko Hirata, Yoshifumi Tajima

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

At long last, Toho's 1958 foray into the more horrific side of science-fiction, The H-Man, is now available on DVD, as part of the Columbia Toho Collection package that also features Battle in Outer Space and Mothra. The story is openly based on the 1954 Lucky Dragon incident—oftentimes referred to as the third nuking of Japan—when a Japanese fishing boat strayed into waters contaminated by nuclear fallout, resulting in the crew succumbing to radiation sickness. The H-Man goes a step further, in that the radiated crew members are transformed into green, blob-like entities who prey on other humans by dissolving and consuming their bodies. Their ship drifts into Tokyo harbor and the H-men (short for "hydrogen-bomb men") escape into the city and are soon making a grim and gooshy mess of things.

Noted Toho regular actor Kenji Sahara plays Dr. Masada, an up-and-coming nuclear physicist who deduces the origin of the H-men but has a tough time selling it to skeptical police investigator Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata). Yumi Shirakawa plays nightclub singer Chikaku Arai, the girlfriend of gangster Misaki (Hisaya Ito), who the police believe is in hiding—though in reality, he has been dissolved by the H-men. Masada, understanding what has actually happened to Misaki, becomes involved with Chikaku, but she is abducted by a rival gangster who, like the police, believes she is actually hiding Misaki. At the climax, the H-men intervene in their own gruesome way; Masada rescues Chikaku; and the authorities, in their efforts to purge Tokyo of the slimy, radioactive invaders, leave a large portion of the city's harbor district enveloped in flames.

With its grim atmosphere and suspenseful plot, The H-Man succeeds as a horror thriller, while retaining plenty of the trappings of standard, 1950s-vintage science-fiction melodramas. The early scenes aboard the abandoned, radiated ocean vessel are outright creepy, and Eiji Tsuburaya's unique special effects bring the mutated humans to life in very convincing fashion. The "dissolving" scenes were accomplished via life-size balloons created to resemble the actors, which were rapidly deflated, filmed at high speed, and optically enhanced, so that when replayed at normal speed, the illusion is of a human being dissolving into an oozing blob.

Composer Masaru Sato offers an enjoyable, somewhat frenetic orchestral score, occasionally accompanied by staccato, pinging percussion that adds an unsettling mood to the visuals. In the U.S. version, the opening theme is edited to accompany an abbreviated credit sequence, but thankfully is otherwise left intact, unlike too many other Japanese imports from this period.

The prints of both the Japanese and U.S. versions of the film are very good, though the American version is edited somewhat. Stick with the Japanese to get the fullest, best viewing experience.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Thundering Out of Unknown Skies

Rodan, the Flying Monster
(Sora no Daikaiju Radon, 1956)

DVD Description:
Released by Classic Media; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, Japanese and U.S. versions of War of the Gargantuas, commentary, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata, Yoshifumi Tajima

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Much like Godzilla Raids Again (Gigantis, the Fire Monster), the American version of Rodan, the Flying Monster, released by King Brothers in 1957, was substantially re-edited, with obligatory scenes of atomic tests inserted at the beginning and endless narration by Chinese actor Keye Luke added to the soundtrack. Numerous scenes were re-arranged or excised altogether, occasionally to good effect, though mostly to the film's detriment. Apart from the tedious narration, the most notable alteration is the elimination of the greater part of Akira Ifukube's somber musical score, which was replaced with mediocre stock library music. Regardless, Rodan performed well for King Brothers, and the giant, radioactively mutated flying rubber critter became a very popular addition to Toho's parade of daikaiju.

The first half of the movie dwells on suspense and fear of the unknown, resulting from the gruesome mutilations and murders of miners working deep underground. The killers are revealed to be Meganurons, a species of giant prehistoric insect, presumably revived after millions of years. (In the American version, blame is laid directly upon the aforementioned nuclear tests, while in the Japanese version, the nuclear angle is less prominent, with volcanic activity being the direct catalyst.) Unfortunately, the giant insect suits and puppets appear more whimsical than menacing, though several distant nighttime shots of the creatures make for fairly spooky visuals. It isn't long, though, before disasters and bizarre phenomena begin to occur far beyond the borders of the Kyushu mining town, such as airplane crashes, ship sinkings, and sightings of gigantic UFOs. The same seismic activity that brought forth the Meganurons has also resurrected not one but two giant winged reptiles, similar to Pteranodons, known as "Radon" in the Japanese version, "Rodan" in the American. "Radon" is obviously a contraction of the syllables in Pteranodon, but would probably have caused American audiences to wonder if the monster were a ferocious cloud of radioactive gas.

With the significant alterations of the soundtrack, the American version frequently comes across as much "noisier" than the Japanese, in which there are long spells of deathly silence, particularly in the early portions of the film. On occasion, the more frenetic soundtrack serves to enhance the action, such as the attack by the military on the Meganurons inside the mine, which culminates in protagonist Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) dispatching them by ramming them with a coal tram, and the hatching of the first Rodan, which in the American version is accompanied by its screeching roar.

In the Japanese version, a single Rodan first appears and is joined by the second only during its attack on Fukuoka, whereas in the American version—simply by means of reversing the frame—the second Rodan appears immediately following the first. The appearance of the second in the Japanese version is more subtle, but adds a somewhat greater element of surprise. And in the American version, there's an attack staged on the Rodans prior to the final assault at Mount Aso (called Mount Toya), accomplished by means of splicing various bits of footage together, to a most unsatisfactory effect.

Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects are frequently superb, particularly during Rodan's attack on Fukuoka, with actor Haruo Nakajima performing in a beautifully designed, very evil-looking Rodan suit. (Would that subsequent incarnations of the monster appeared so impressive.) Rodan was the first of Toho's daikaiju films to be shot in color, and the exquisitely detailed miniature work oftentimes appears as impressive as that in the original Godzilla, which had the advantage of black-and-white cinematography to help disguise flaws in the special effects. The finale of the film, in which the military launches a massive artillery barrage on Mount Aso to bury the Rodans beneath the volcano, plays out a bit long, with one explosion after another, but if nothing else, the result is spectacular, and the ending, with the Rodans perishing in the volcanic eruption, elicits a bit of pathos atypical of most giant monster films of the day. This is the one point in the American version in which the poignant narration adds something other than tedium to the film.

As mentioned, Keye Luke provides the voice of Shigeru in the American version; you'll also hear the familiar voices of Star Trek actor George Takei and the ubiquitous Paul "Boris Badenov" Frees, each playing several characters and providing numerous background voices. While the voices oftentimes match the actors' lip movements reasonably well, their faux Japanese accents have a tendency to leave one in stitches, which can't help but undercut the serious tone of the film.

On the Classic Media DVD, the Japanese version is easily the better quality of the two. The print is clear, if occasionally a little dark, and the soundtrack is far richer in tone. The American version is horrendous—frequently washed out so badly that it's difficult to discern detail. The fact that the original, unedited Japanese version is the superior of the two anyway makes it the one to most appreciate in this package. Still and all, given that the set includes four full movies at a reasonable price, Rodan/War of the Gargantuas is another winner from Classic Media.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

It's Hardly Lon Chaney's Wolfman...

...but I rather enjoyed the new one, which stars Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, and Emily Blunt. It's beautifully photographed, and I liked the performances of all the main characters well enough—though I must say, none were sufficiently sympathetic to give this movie the heart it really needs. The atmospheric setting makes for the greatest part of its allure, most evident in scenes of the grand but dilapidated Talbot manor and the gypsy camp in the woods. Danny Elfman's music sounds like, well, Danny Elfman music, which isn't half bad, if rather generic, and Rick Baker's werewolf make-up is excellent; I appreciated the return to the critter's more man-than-wolf style of the original movie, though some of its more animalistic traits—such as running on all fours at top speed—worked nicely via reasonably decent CGI.

Though the story departs significantly from Curt Siodmak's original, it doesn't offer any real surprises. Now and again, it feels a bit too much like Van Helsing (which, despite its vile reputation, I didn't especially dislike), such as the werewolf's rampage through London and the father-son confrontation at the climax. Anthony Hopkins plays Sir John Talbot with his characteristic style, and though I much prefer Claude Rains's portrayal, Hopkins offers a dark variation on the character that I somewhat admire. Conversely, his cooler relationship with son Lawrence adds yet more distance between the characters and us as viewers. Rains and Chaney brought some authentic warmth to their respective characters; there's precious little of that to be found here, although Emily Blunt plays Gwen Conliffe with enough sensitivity to keep the people palatable, so to speak.

Del Toro is a fine actor, but though his character is hardly despicable as a human being, it's hard to feel much sympathy for his plight. The grueling scene of his torture in the insane asylum serves more to show Dr. Lloyd (Michael Cronin) as a bad man than to inspire any deep feeling for Talbot. His best scenes are his early interactions with Gwen and his first encounter with Inspector Montford (Nicholas Day), when he shows deeper emotion than just fear and anger. The tragic climax of the original film far surpasses the almost too-pat death scene here; however, the clear insinuation that the curse will now be perpetuated via Montford works well. It opens the way for new horrors, but doesn't simply scream "bring on the sequel," even though it might, should the box office numbers add up.

For my taste, there are a few too many sudden jumps at the camera, just to make you come up out of your seat—a poor substitute for true suspense—but at least the pervasive, somber atmosphere goes a ways toward making up for it. The gore scenes are plentiful and generally realistic, so it doesn't all come off as pure cheese.

Despite a ton of reservations about this movie, I still came out of it feeling satisfied, and I suspect it'll end up in my collection when the time comes. Four beers out of six.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Back to Cachin'

With the weather having been mightily uncooperative over the past few weeks, I've not managed to get in much geocaching, but this past week has been decent enough, and today, it was outright warm. So I've been out and about quite a bit—hiking, climbing, parking-n-grabbing, and even hiding a few caches. Such a nice tonic after a long, bitchy work week....

Last night, went to see The Wolfman at the theater (see review, which follows) after a fine Thai dinner with a couple of friends. Enjoyed it rightly, and this morning, I had bacon, which put me in an excellent mood for the day. My friend Wayne lent me season 2.5 of Battlestar Galactica, so I think I know what I'm going to be doing for several evenings this coming week...

Couple of new Daikaiju reviews in the works, to be posted very soon. Till then.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Space Wages War on Earth!

Battle in Outer Space
(Uchu Daisenso, 1959)
DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Columbia Pictures; additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, commentaries, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Ryu Ikebe, Koreya Senda, Kyoko Anzai, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Minoru Takada, Leonard Stanford, Harold Conway, Hisaya Ito, Malcolm Pearce

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This release of Battle in Outer Space is part of Sony/Columbia Pictures' Toho Collection three-pack that also features The H-Man and Mothra, all of which were originally released domestically by Columbia in the late 50s/early 60s. The DVD includes both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the film, along with commentary by Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle. The prints for both U.S. and Japanese versions are fairly good, if not excellent. The packaging, unfortunately, is severely lacking, with the discs all being crammed into one side of a single-width case. To remedy this, I just put the discs in separate cases and fixed them up with reproductions of the original Japanese one-sheets.

If Battle in Outer Space is not a direct sequel to The Mysterians (Chikiyu Boeigun, 1957), it certainly shares common characters and plot elements. It's unclear whether Dr. Adachi, played by Koreya Senda, and Etsuko, played by Kyoko Anzai, are intended to be the same characters from The Mysterians (played by Takashi Shimura and Momoko Kochi, respectively), but Dr. Immelman, played by Harold Conway in both films, is obviously meant to be the same individual. More as a result of budget limitations than creative intent, the alien spaceships are slightly modified holdovers from the former film, and the same sound effects are used while they are in flight.

Whereas The Mysterians built slowly, setting up a grim, brooding atmosphere before introducing the giant robot Mogera and then progressing to a massive artillery/aerial battle, Battle in Outer Space opens with an alien attack on a space station, immediately followed by several other violent assaults on the earth. The film moves at a fairly brisk pace for the duration, with two Earth rockets, called the SPIPs, making a journey to the moon to combat invaders from the planet Natal, concluding with a major battle as the Natalians make a desperate final attempt to conquer Earth.

Though technically not a daikaiju film, Battle in Outer Space features many of the trappings that would eventually come to permeate the Godzilla series—invading space aliens, high-tech spaceships and aircraft engaged in spectacular battles, and the graphic destruction of major miniature cities. Eiji Tsuburaya's special effects certainly take a front seat in this film, mostly involving battles between spacecraft. The effects work succeeds to varying degrees, with the best taking place on the surface of the moon. The design of the SPIP rockets is typical of those from the 50s and 60s—tapering, needle-like fuselages with large base fins—and they appear quite convincing, especially during launches and landings. For the most part, the lunar surface miniatures and sets work exceedingly well, and the ground cars used by the SPIP astronauts appear functional; cuts between miniatures and full-size mock-ups are oftentimes flawless.

While anything resembling respect for the laws of physics might be rare in outer space movies—whether then or now—Battle in Outer Space makes only a few token nods to the concepts of weightlessness, effects of acceleration in gravity, et. al., and these are particularly odd at that. Most of the time, under said weightless conditions, the characters carry on as if they're in normal Earth gravity, except that—from time to time—one of them might rise unexpectedly in the air and then joke "he forgot." And one line, uttered quite ironically, is "Doesn't this weightless feeling feel odd?" even as the characters are hoofing through the spaceship's corridor as if they're on a sidewalk in downtown Tokyo.

Because the story is so fast-paced and plot-driven, none of the characters are very well-drawn or memorable, though Yoshio Tsuchiya plays a fairly tragic character who succumbs to the Natalians' mind control—the kind of role for which he came to be well-known in numerous Toho films, such as Dr. Otani in Destroy All Monsters and Masafumi Kasai in Matango. The romance between handsome leading actor Ryo Ikebe and Kyoko Anzai is understated—almost to the point of superfluousness—but further development would needlessly slow the pace of the picture.

Most fans of Toho science fiction films tend to rate Battle in Outer Space as inferior to The Mytserians—as do I—but also find it exciting and engaging. Despite the packaging, which hardly does justice to these DVDs, a decent presenation of both the Japanese and U.S. versions of the film—with very perceptive commentary by Messrs. Godziszewski and Ryfle—is a most welcome thing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Monsters Are in Revolt...

Destroy All Monsters
(Kaiju Shosingeki, 1968)

DVD Description:
Released by Media Blaster/Tokyo Shock; additional material: International English dub/AIP English dub, commentary by Steve Ryfle & Ed Godziszewski, trailers, photo gallery

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Akira Kubo, Yukiko Kobayashi, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Jun Tazaki, Kyoko Ai, Kenji Sahara, Yoshibumi Tajima, Hisaya Ito

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Destroy All Monsters is probably my second favorite Godzilla movie after the original (though it's certainly neck-and-neck with 1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla). It's the last entry in the Showa era Godzilla films made in the inimitable style of Ishiro Honda's most classic daikaiju outings, and is, in fact, Honda's penultimate directorial job of the Godzilla series. The film is literally a gathering of most of Toho's monsters, and they are given plenty of quality screen time. Similarly, the human cast includes many familiar, noteworthy faces, with Akira Kubo, Yoshio Tsuchiya, and Jun Tazaki playing prominent, memorable roles. Akira Ifukube's musical score remains one of his all-time best, reprising several well-known themes, from his traditional Godzilla theme to motifs used for Rodan and King Ghidorah, as well as a distinctive military march, all beautifully arranged and orchestrated.

Destroy All Monsters utilizes the now timeworn premise of space aliens—specifically, the Kilaaks, who come from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—saying politely to Earth's leaders, "Please hand over your planet, or these monsters will bust your ass." The storyline is similar to Monster Zero, made a couple of years previously, but in most respects, Destroy All Monsters goes about it on a grander scale, with daikaiju showing up all over the world to wreak havoc. However, in Monster Zero, the Xians have some motivation for conquering the earth: the acquisition of natural resources (water, in this case), which is scarce on their world. (In fact, it's rather ironic that the villains in that movie in some ways reflect Japan's expansionist philosophy prior to World War II.) In Destroy All Monsters, there's no insinuation of motive; only that, for the Kilaaks, a little conquest makes for an enjoyable day's work.

The Kilaaks themselves are interesting enough; in their terrestrial form, they appear as beautiful, silver-clad women—or at least holographic projections of beautiful, silver-clad women. In their natural state, they are living minerals, which resemble snails made of glittery stone, and they can only survive in an environment of extreme heat—which begs the question, how do enslaved humans share their living space without being burned to death? Perhaps the bodies of the human slaves we view are actually Kilaaks who have merely taken their forms, but this little point is never addressed in the script. Of course, in a movie such as this, one doesn't expect scientific plausibility, although it's certainly nice when events adhere to at least a modicum of internal logic.

Ah well, in Destroy All Monsters, it's the monsters themselves we paid to see, and in this regard, the movie doesn't disappoint. This is the movie that introduces us to Monster Island, a.k.a. Monsterland on Ogasawara Island, where most of Toho's daikaiju have been collected and confined, for security purposes as well as for scientific investigation. (We'll have to take it on faith that, in actuality, the monsters have been there for a while because, though the movie is set in 1999, films that were made after Destroy All Monsters but ostensibly occur at an earlier date, such as Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. Megalon, also feature Monster Island.) Unlike the Xians in Monster Zero, who showed some restraint and didn't unleash the monsters until we ungrateful Earthlings refused their kind offer of enslavement, the Kilaaks start off on the right foot and send the monsters to the four corners of the earth to do some whooping on miniature cities. Godzilla invades New York! Manda slithers through London! Rodan swats down Moscow! Baragon burrows under Paris!

But wait...that's not actually Baragon.'s Gorosaurus, from King Kong Escapes. This little gaffe is in the original Japanese version as well as the English, and this is because, originally, Baragon was scheduled to destroy Paris, and the dialogue stating this had already been recorded. However, when the scene was filmed, Toho found the Baragon suit beyond repair—largely from multiple uses (in disguise, of course) in the Ultraman TV series. So Gorosaurus was hastily substituted, but that's even Baragon's roar you hear when the Arc de Triomphe crumbles. In general, the monster suits are very good, although King Ghidorah appears a bit more scraggly than he did in Monster Zero. The Godzilla suit is well-proportioned and has a ferocious demeanor—a monstrous improvement over his distinctly frog-like appearance in his previous film, Son of Godzilla.

In late 2011, Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock finally gave this landmark film the respectable release it deserves. For years, the bare-bones ADV edition, featuring only the disastrous Hong Kong English dub, was all that was available domestically. The Tokyo Shock DVD offers the choice of the original Japanese language version, the International (Hong Kong) dub, and the AIP-Titan Studios dub, which is the one most fans on this side of the Pacific will remember from its original U.S. release. Sadly, the AIP soundtrack is not well mastered, with lots of background noise, erratic volume shifts, and other problems that tend to be grating. There are bootlegs of the ADV DVD that feature a high-quality version of the Titan dub, and you'd think Tokyo Shock could have at least done as well. Fortunately, that's the only major down side of this release, and the commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski is entertaining and spot-on.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

DARK SHADOWS: BLOOD DANCE Scheduled for April Release

Just received from Big Finish: cover art to Dark Shadows: Blood Dance. It's scheduled for April release and will be available for pre-order shortly.

"Blood Dance is written by returning author Stephen Mark Rainey, and features Quentin in prohibition-era Chicago, plunged into a supernatural mystery at the shady Arcadia Club. 'We learn about a chapter of Quentin’s life never revealed in the show itself,' says Rainey. 'There’s new insight into the people, places, and events that shaped one of the show’s most endearing characters.'"

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ebirah, Horror From the Deep

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster
(Nankai No Daiketto, 1966)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony Pictures; additional material: trailers for Sony Pictures' DVD releases

Directed by Jun Fukuda

Starring Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Chôtarô Tôgin, Hideo Sunazuka, Tôru Ibuki

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Sadly for us poor westerners, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster never received a domestic theatrical release; instead, in 1967, it went straight to television, courtesy of the Walter Reade-Sterling Organization. The original U.S. version begins with footage swiped from later in the film of the titular sea monster (uber lobster Ebirah) destroying a yacht, ostensibly owned by Yata, the brother of our young protagonist Ryôta. However, it’s clearly the same yacht later commandeered by Ryôta (its name, Yahlen, is visible on the hull). The film then cuts to a dance competition, where Ryôta hopes to win a boat so he may go and rescue his lost brother. Missing is the actual opening from the Japanese version, in which the siblings’ mother goes to a medium, who tells her that her son cannot be found in the land of the dead, which motivates Ryôta to embark on his quest. Thankfully, this Sony release offers the full-length Japanese version, in anamorphic widescreen, with a choice of subtitles or English audio. The English dub, however, is the horrendous made-in-Hong-Kong international version rather than the superior Titra version from the original U.S release (which featured Hal Linden, TV's Barney Miller, as the voice of Yoshimura, the bank robber played by Akira Takarada).

The financial hardships that had begun to plague Japanese movie studios in the mid- to late-'60s—which would eventually lead to a near-total collapse of the Japanese film industry—began to reveal themselves in the production of Sea Monster. Rather than the intricately crafted miniature city sets that effects director Eiji Tsuburaya had overseen in earlier films, most of the monster action takes place on the much sparser Letchi Island set. Still, the monster scenes are generally well-directed and include a few superlative moments, such as Godzilla's attack on the base of the Red Bamboo (the military organization, presumably communist, that has enslaved the natives of Infant Island and is secretly building nuclear weapons) and the MIG jet assault on Godzilla.

To this time, most Godzilla movies—and the bulk of Toho's daikaiju and science fiction releases—had been scored by Akira Ifukube. For Sea Monster, Composer Masaru Sato provided the musical score, which made for a very different experience for those accustomed to Ifukube's familiar style. Sato had scored Godzilla Raids Again (Gigantis, the Fire Monster) and The Abominable Snowman (Half Human), but his greatest claim to fame was providing the the musical soundtracks for numerous films by Akira Kurosawa. His work for Sea Monster is highly enjoyable on its own, yet as a Godzilla movie score, it oftentimes seems too playful—particularly during the MIG attack on Godzilla. It's a rocking, guitar-driven piece, its riffs reminiscent of the Ventures. Some of the incidental music for scenes on the island rings of Mondo Exotica, a la Martin Denny and Les Baxter (not that this is a bad thing, said the confirmed old lounge lizard). Sato would go on to score most of the Godzilla films directed by Jun Fukuda, and while the mood his music sets deviates significantly from anything Ifukube might ever have imagined, it in its way, it certainly keeps the scores from coming across as stale retreads.

This DVD release is pretty much bare bones, with just a few trailers as extra features, but the very nice, anamorphic print of the original full-length film is certainly a coup for Godzilla completists.

That Time of Year...

...for the friggin' cold bug to hit. It's been tickling at my throat for several days. Now it's got me big time. Sucka-fraggin-riggin-grumble-ding-dong-blasted crap...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Monster Zero

Invasion of the Astro Monster
(Kaiju Daisenso,

DVD Description:

Released by Classic Media; additional material: commentary, trailers, Tomoyuki Tanaka biography, still gallery

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Nick Adams, Akira Takarada, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Keiko Sawai, Jun Tazaki, Yoshio Tsuchiya

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Classic Media presents another first-class release with Invasion of the Astro Monster (a.k.a. Monster Zero, its 1970 U.S. theatrical release title, used on the English version here, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, its U.S. television/video release title).

Back in those wonderful days of monster movie matinees and drive-in grindhouse shows, I caught the double-feature release of War of the Gargantuas/Monster Zero at our local theater, and the pair made a more powerful impression on me than just about any other film experience to that time. Perhaps strangely, given my special fondness for Godzilla, I found that I much favored War of the Gargantuas (and still do, for that matter). Like all of Toho's fantasy-oriented daikaiju films of the 1960s, Monster Zero is quite silly, and ever since childhood, I've preferred my monsters played straight, as in the original 1954 Godzilla. But Monster Zero is undeniably a colorful, action-packed, superbly crafted monster flick that features some of Eiji Tsuburaya's most accomplished special effects work (if also, sadly, some of his least). Much as its predecessor, Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, the greater part of the movie revolves around its people scenes, which can be most disheartening for a young monster enthusiast; fortunately, in both films, the human story plays out as fun and engaging—even more so in Monster Zero than in Ghidrah.

In the same way that Ghidrah maintained some direct continuity with Mothra vs. Godzilla, Monster Zero's script, by veteran screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, builds on some of the dramatic cues from Ghidrah, such as the Godzilla-Rodan tag team that previously defeated King Ghidorah (though there's no mention of Mothra, who played a pivotal monster role in the earlier film). Toho had already used the space-aliens-invade-Earth theme in prior films, such as The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space, but Monster Zero is the first that directly involves Godzilla. When Monster Zero came to the theater in 1970, I had already seen Destroy All Monsters, whose similar but somewhat grimmer storyline and distinctly superior depictions of the monsters—Godzilla in particular—made Monster Zero seem lacking in comparison. In retrospect, however, Monster Zero contains many finer elements, particularly the great chemistry between Nick Adams as Mister Astronaut Glenn and Akira Takarada as Astronaut Fuji. Although this film boasts fewer special effects scenes than Destroy All Monsters, the beasties' rampages, particularly King Ghidorah's, stand out as among Toho's all-time best.

In Ghidrah, the monster battles were played for laughs to a greater extent than in any previous Toho daikaiju film, with the possible exception of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Monster Zero continues the trend of anthropomorphizing the terrestrial monsters, although the humorous moments tend to be somewhat more palatable here than in Ghidrah—particularly since the monster interactions contain a few more "straight" moments. Design-wise, the Godzilla suit constructed for Monster Zero doesn't fare as well as the "Mosu-Goji" costume used in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidrah, but the Rodan suit works somewhat better, especially when shown in the distance and in flight. In the audio commentary of Classic Media's Ghidrah release, author David Kalat posits that the original, "demonic"-looking Rodan suit from 1957's Rodan, the Flying Monster would have appeared out of place in such a light-hearted fantasy, and there may be some merit to this argument; however, if it were up to me, I would have happily seen the original Rodan costume duplicated for these films, and the whole tone played more seriously. Then again, they didn't ask me—possibly because I was a wee lad at the time and didn't work for Toho.

The lighter tone for these films was established by screenwriter Sekizawa and effects director Tsuburaya, whose penchant for entertaining young people was, by this point in their careers, so firmly cemented that their days of making monster movies with grim, semi-realistic undertones were long behind them. Yet director Ishiro Honda felt—as I always have—that the monsters should have maintained the dignity of their great stature. He was pained by scenes of Godzilla acting a clown and bouncing ludicrously in a "shie" dance after overcoming King Ghidorah on Planet X. Would that Honda's attitude might have prevailed. I mean, I was a young people back then, but I was also the most fervent possible advocate of very monstrous monsters.

Although the Japanese and American versions of Monster Zero are almost identical, the Japanese version is arguably superior, with a couple of possible exceptions. In the U.S. version, Akira Ifukube's opening theme—a rousing military march based on the depth charge attack motif from the original Godzilla—has been replaced by the far more ominous-sounding track titled "The Electromagnetic Capsule" from later in the film, and to much better effect. During Godzilla's aforementioned "shie" jig, the roars and booming sound effects in the American version offer at least some slight improvement to the otherwise ridiculous and utterly useless scene. However, a handful of special effects scenes—good ones—were excised from the American cut, and, more significantly, a number of lines in "X-ian" language, improvised by Yoshio Tsuchiya as the Controller of Planet X, were also cut.

Both the U.S. and Japanese prints on the Classic Media DVD are of very good quality, far better than the one used on the Simitar release of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero from 1998. As for extra features, the most noteworthy is kaiju authority Stuart Galbraith's informative commentary on Henry Saperstein/UPA's U.S. cut. Additionally, the bio documentary of Tomoyuki Tanaka, narrated by Mr. Ed Godziszewski, is highly enjoyable. For Godzilla fans, this release of Monster Zero is a necessity, and I suspect that even more casual monster movie viewers will have a rocking good time with it.