Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hell on Earth

Night caches are among my favorites. You go out into the woods, armed with flashlights, and follow reflectors set up at intervals until you reach the cache's hiding place. These are especially satisfying when the setting is fairly creepy—such as The Devil's Tramping Ground in Chatham County, NC, which was our destination last night. My friend Bridget (Suntigres) and I grabbed a number of hides around Siler City and then drove down to Ye Olde Tramping Ground, which I had visited once before, almost a year ago, to hunt a cache in daylight.

It's a bit more intriguing at night.

The site actually is just off Devil's Tramping Ground Road, a few miles west of U.S. 421. Ground zero is quite unremarkable; just an ordinary-looking clearing in the woods, but which shows the unmistakable signs of much partying—the remnants of a campfire, bits of trash here and there, a number of scorched trees where wisenheimers have left their marks. But the Tramping Ground has a long history, with lots of associated legends. For hundreds of years, nothing has grown in the approximately 40-foot-diameter circle, for reasons that have baffled scientists. If you leave something in the circle, come daylight, it will likely be gone because the devil rises up nightly and clears the ground as he tramps around, making his plans to subvert humankind.

To find the night cache, called Hell on Earth (brainchild of caching maestro Vortexecho), you stand in the middle of the circle and shine your light into the woods, looking for a glowing cyclopean eye staring back at you. Once you find it, you venture into the darkness, searching for more eyes...sometimes pairs of them. At one point, I spotted a large cluster of brilliant green eyes and went to investigate...only to find it was a wolf spider staring back at me. Choruses of Whippoorwills, which I haven't heard in years—and which actually frightened me as a kid—wailed mournfully in the darkness, accentuating the eerie atmosphere, and more than once, Bridget and I heard distant voices in the woods. But no one came after us with torches and pitchforks, and in fairly short order, we had found the cache and scrawled our John Hancocks on the log sheet.

Fortunately, I marked our progress on my GPS so we could backtrack easily because, once we left the rut that passed for a trail, it was difficult to keep our bearings. When we finally arrived back at our starting point, there was no one else around...and no sign of the devil dancing. The excursion was a hoot nonetheless, so our thanks to Vortexecho for a most...enchanting...evening.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Those Black Hole Guys Are At It Again

Terror of MechaGodzilla
(Mekagojira no Gyakushu, 1975)

DVD Description: Released by Classic Media (2008); additional material: audio commentary, poster gallery, trailers

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring Katsuhiko Sasaki, Tomoko Ai, Katsumasa Ichida, Akihiko Hirata, Goro Mutsumi, Toru Ibuki, Shin Roppongi, Tomoe Mari, Masaaki Daimon

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

After a string of juvenile, budget-strapped Godzilla movies in the early 1970s, the big G's 15th film was touted as a "return to greatness," with veteran director Ishiro Honda at the helm and maestro Akira Ifukube providing the score. Without question, the film has more going for it than several of Godzilla's previous outings, but as for a "return to greatness," just kind of ain't. It is, overall, an entertaining if still highly juvenile monster romp.

Those ugly space aliens from the doomed Third Planet of the Black Hole system (from the previous film, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla) have returned and created a new mecha-monster with the head of the original robot, which Godzilla had destroyed. However, to avoid the prior pitfalls of a purely robotic construct, they opt to use a living being as its control center, in the person of Katsura Mafune (Tomoko Ai), the daughter of disgraced scientist Shinzo Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), who was cast out of the scientific community because of his radical beliefs about mind control and the existence of a dinosaur called Titanosaurus. Mafune is happy to help the aliens because they have saved Katsura's life on more than one occasion—in effect, turning her into a cyborg. Katsura herself is ambivalent until she finds herself attracted to Professor Ichinose (Katsuhiko Sasaki), who is leading the search for Titanosaurus. The Black Hole guys unleash MechaGodzilla and Titanosaurus on Tokyo, but Godzilla appears to tangle with them, and Katsura is electrocuted. Once again, the Black Hole guys restore her, but now she is more mechanical than human. Ichinose has faith in her humanity, however, and in the end, she kills herself, allowing Godzilla to destroy MechaGodzilla II. Dr. Mafune is killed as Ichinose and Interpol destroy the aliens' base. Titanosaurus falls into the sea, and Godzilla returns to Monster Island, or wherever he happens to reside at this go-round.

The people scenes in Terror of MechaGodzilla to some extent mark a return to the familiar Honda style of direction, with a far grimmer atmosphere than any of the films since Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Akira Ifukube's score adds an element of the eerie in numerous scenes, and his powerful MechaGodzilla and Godzilla themes, the latter of which is based on motifs from the original Godzilla, inject a note of seriousness completely absent from other entries in the late Showa-era series. While the scenario is completely outlandish, an undeniable air of tragedy hovers over Katsura, who is at once villain and unfortunate victim of the story.

Sadly, a disproportionate number of the monster scenes fall back on the goofball antics of the previous films with effects directed by Teruyoshi Nakano. Time after time, Godzilla appears as nothing more than an empty suit, getting tossed and bounced around like a helium balloon, to such embarrassing effect that even Ifukube's majestic score can't salvage the scenes. In fact, they're prevalent enough to spoil the entire picture, leaving such a bad taste that it's hard to appreciate many of the finer scenes, such as Godzilla staggering against the powerful wind whipped up by Titanosaurus's tail; or MechaGodzilla II and Titanosaurus marching side by side, razing everything in their path; or MechaGodzilla II unleashing an awesome barrage of missiles that blow a city block literally sky-high. The laughable scenes are so incompatible with the tone of the movie that, even having some understanding of how Japanese audience's expectations differ from their western counterparts, I still find the reasoning of the moviemakers utterly inexplicable. A touch of comic relief is one thing; total incongruity is another.

It doesn't help that the Godzilla suit, while a little fiercer looking than its previous incarnations in Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, still resembles a Muppet more than the King of the Monsters, with big, balloon-like dorsal fins and oversized, rounded feet. Titanosaurus's design is interesting enough, with fish-like fins that give it the distinct appearance of a sea animal. MechaGodzilla II, similar in appearance to the original, with a few modifications, certainly makes for an impressive mecha-monster, and in most cases, its movements are convincingly mechanical.

The Classic Media DVD includes the original, uncut Japanese version and the extended U.S. version originally released by Henry Saperstein directly to television. The Bob Conn Enterprises theatrical version, which saw only limited release in 1978, was originally known as Terror of Godzilla and was significantly edited to excise scenes of violence (and the infamous scene of Katsura's naked, obviously artificial breasts)—so much so that the ending makes no sense whatsoever. Interestingly, Saperstein's television version retained these scenes, which runs counter to expectations from that day and age, when it was typically television releases that were so heavily edited.

The Classic Media DVD release, of course, is a big winner. It does the movie justice and then some.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Barugon: A Rare Gem

Gamera vs. Barugon
(Gamera Tai Barugon, 1966)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2010); additional material: publicity gallery, still gallery, trailer, commentary

Directed by Shigeo Tanaka

Starring Kojiro Hongo, Kyôko Enami, Yuzo Hayakawa, Takuya Fujioka, Kôji Fujiyama, Akira Natsuki, Yoshiro Kitahara, Ichirô Sugai

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

The Shout! Factory releases of the Gamera series are easily among the best—if not the best—of any daikaiju films in the United States. They're reasonably priced, present beautiful, widescreen prints of the original Japanese versions of the movies, and offer several extras—including booklets in the package with additional info on the films, in this case a retrospective of his involvement with Gamera vs. Barugon by star Kojiro Hongo. Furthermore, the upcoming Gamera releases are double features—Gamera vs. Gyaos/Gamera vs. Viras and Gamera vs. Guiron/Gamera vs. Jiger. This release of Gamera vs. Barugon also offers an insightful commentary by August Ragone and Jason Varney.

Originally presented as a television release, titled War of the Monsters, by AIP-TV in 1967, Gamera vs. Barugon is arguably the best of the Showa-era (1965-1970) Gamera films. With a far more mature plot than the rest of the series, superior special effects, and a fine musical score by Chuji Kinoshita, the movie offers a lot more for daikaiju fans than fodder for MST3K, which certainly can't be said of most of the Gamera series.

The film opens with a flashback to the original Gamera and his voyage into space via Plan Z. But as the story proper begins, the rocket crashes into a meteor, and Gamera returns to Earth, initially attacking Kurobe Dam in Japan to satiate his craving for energy. Next, we meet a rather shady group of adventurers, who are plotting an expedition to New Guinea, to recover a giant opal that their leader, Ichiro Hirata (Akira Natsuki), found during World War II and hid in a cave. Three of them—Hirata's younger brother Keisuke (Kojiro Hongo), Kawajiri (Yuzo Hayakawa), and Onodera (Kôji Fujiyama)—make the journey, landing in a small village of natives, where they also meet a Japanese doctor named Matushita (Ichiro Sugai) and his assistant, Karen (Kyoko Enami), who implore them to stay away from the cave. Ignoring the warnings, the three find the cave as well as the opal they seek. However, a scorpion kills Kawajiri, and Onodera attempts to kill Keisuke by blowing up the cave. However, Keisuke escapes with his life and is brought to the village, where Karen nurses him back to health. Here, he learns that the opal is not a gem but the egg of the monster Barugon, which will bring great tribulation to Japan.

Keisuke and Karen travel to Japan to find Onodera, who has arrived in Kobe. However, the egg hatches, and the monster Barugon begins a rampage through the city. Its tongue emits a subzero vapor that freezes anything it touches, and it can unleash a lethal "rainbow ray" from its back that disintegrates matter. Gamera, attracted by Barugon's ray, attacks the monster, but Barugon is able to freeze Gamera solid. Karen tells the military that Barugon, being a land monster, is vulnerable to water and can be lured into Lake Biwa using a huge diamond, which will attract it. The effort is almost successful, but Onodera, infuriated by the loss of the "opal," steals the diamond—only to be killed by Barugon as he tries to escape.

Now, the military endeavors to turn Barugon's rainbow ray back on it via a giant parabolic mirror, but the effort only wounds the creature. However, Gamera has now thawed out and once again attacks the monster, finally dragging it into Lake Biwa, destroying it. The big turtle flies away to await a role in his next adventure, and Keisuke ponders how to make amends for his part in so much death and destruction.

Although ostensibly the star of the film, Gamera is actually a secondary character, spending most of the movie in frozen hibernation. The greater part of the plot is about the massive undertaking to defeat Barugon, which, sadly for the Japanese, just isn't in the cards. In the end, it is up to Gamera to reappear and drag Barugon into the water. Gamera's long absence isn't much of a failing, however; much of Barugon's rampage is visually exciting, the attempts to counter him rather novel. Unfortunately, Barugon itself is not that impressive-looking a creature. While its design is suitably lizard-like, the man-in-suit technique by nature is not conducive to rendering a creature that walks on all fours. At least on occasion, the cinematography overcomes the problem by showing the monster behind rows of buildings or from angles that de-emphasize the body of the actor inside the suit.

Unlike the rest of the Showa Gamera series, including the original 1965 film, little kids play no part in the story, which is really how it ought to be anyway. The protagonist is among the most flawed in daikaiju movie history, and his part in the awry scheme to retrieve his brother's opal results in his suffering visible, almost unbearable guilt. Onodera, as a calculating, greedy, and thoroughly cold-hearted bastard, is a far darker character than most of the cartoon-like antagonists from the majority of that era's daikaiju films. Alas, despite my personal preference for it, the film's serious tone didn't go over quite so well with Japanese audiences—so many of whom were youngsters back in the day—and thus the subsequent Gamera films became more and more juvenile, deservedly earning the ridicule they so often received from western audiences.

I can't say enough good about the Shout! Factory DVD of Gamera vs. Barugon. It's a real treat, and showcases one of the most deserving giant monster movies of the 1960s. Go grab it. Go on.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Endless Shadows at Elder Signs Press....

A blog about a blog....

Endless Shadows....
"I’ve always loved Dark Shadows, the horror/fantasy/SF/gothic/romance ABC-TV soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1971—not to mention the pair of movies the series spawned (House of Dark Shadows [1970] and Night of Dark Shadows [1972]), as well as the 1991 NBC-TV revival series. Now, a new cinematic adaptation of the franchise is in the planning stages, set to star Johnny Depp as the infamous vampire, Barnabas Collins (though whether the project will actually see the light of day is anyone’s guess). In its day, the original series drew fans of all ages; many of the show’s actors achieved something akin to superstar status; and the property became a merchandiser’s wet dream, generating everything from trading cards to board games to a series of paperback novels...."

Read the whole article at Elder Signs Press: Endless Shadows

Monday, July 19, 2010

Japan's Urban Renewal Program

Godzilla 1985
(Gojira, 1984)

DVD release: none currently; available on VHS only (OOP)

Directed by Koji Hashimoto

Starring Ken Tanaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yosuke Natsuki, Keiju Kobayashi, Shin Takuma, Eitarô Ozawa, Taketoshi Naitô, Hiroshi Koizumi

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

So far, I've reviewed only daikaiju films that are available domestically on DVD; however, there are a couple in the Godzilla series that, due to complicated licensing situations, have never been released in the U.S. on DVD. Godzilla 1985 (a.k.a. Godzilla and Return of Godzilla) is the most significant of them, in that it launched the Heisei Godzilla series (the films from 1984 to 1995) and was a direct sequel to the original Godzilla (1954), ignoring all the prior films and creating an entirely new continuity. It's ironic that even the American version is not available on DVD since, during the mid-to-late 1980s, it was so ubiquitous on VHS (and even Pioneer laser disc) that you never thought you'd see the end of thing. But now, as far as I know, no one, including Toho, has any plans for a U.S. DVD release. Still, bootlegs of both releases are not uncommon, and though it's out of print, VHS copies of the U.S. version may still be found.

After the near-collapse of the Japanese film industry in the 1970s, occasional rumors of a new Godzilla film would surface, but it wasn't until 1984 that Toho produced the first new Godzilla film in almost a decade. Originally titled simply Godzilla (though subsequently most often known as Return of Godzilla), the film was made with a budget far larger than any of the previous entries in the series, and featured a much-hyped twenty-foot-tall animatronic Godzilla—if only in a handful of scenes. For the better part of the film, Godzilla was still played by a man in a suit—Kenpachiro Satsuma, who had played Hedorah and Gigan in the Showa series—which was a very good thing because the "cybot" Godzilla appeared artificial and moved very awkwardly. For the special effects, Toho relied on the talents of Teruyoshi Nakano, who had been an assistant special effects director under Eiji Tsuburaya and chief special effects director from Godzilla vs. Hedorah to the end of the Showa series.

The story is simple enough: a volcanic eruption gives rise to a new Godzilla (though the American version insinuates that it might be the original, since "no body was ever found"), who sinks a few ships and a submarine. This monster is bigger than the original—eighty meters, rather than fifty—and has a distinct taste for nuclear reactors, for it homes in on Japan to attack them and consume the radioactivity. As Godzilla makes landfall and begins to trash Tokyo, a scientist named Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki, who starred in Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster and Dagora, the Space Monster) observes that Godzilla responds to the calls of birds. Therefore, he devises a contraption that, via sonic waves, lures Godzilla to Mt. Mihara on Oshima Island (the same place where Gamera succumbed to Plan Z in Daiei's Gamera in 1965), where the monster topples into the volcano, which by the use of explosives has been made to erupt.

Unlike the later movies of the Showa era, Return of Godzilla is played straight, made much in the style of the ubiquitous disaster movies of the period—which really was a wise move. Admittedly, the film tends to plod quite a bit in the middle, with a significant amount of debate about whether Japan should allow nuclear weapons to be used against Godzilla. Japan does not, at least willingly, but an accident renders the argument moot. Well, it's an accident in the Japanese version; in the American re-edit, the Russians are shown to launch a nuclear missile on Tokyo on purpose, which in effect makes them no less the villains than Godzilla.

As a matter of fact, the American version, released by New World Pictures in 1985, under the title Godzilla 1985, contains more alterations than just about any other Godzilla movie since the original. In an interesting move, Raymond Burr, as reporter Steven Martin, reprises his original role, and while he plays his relatively few scenes completely straight, the rest of the American cast members are nothing more than buffoons, and do more than their share to reduce to U.S. version to pure camp. In addition, numerous scenes are rearranged or abridged, few for any discernible reason, and Reijiro Koroku's musical score suffers from merciless editing and rearranging. Regardless, Godzilla 1985 does offer a handful of improvements in the pacing department, and a few of the edits tighten a scene or two that in the original seemed clumsy, most notably during the appearance of the giant "sea louse," which precedes Godzilla's appearance.

It really is a shame that Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985 has yet to see a legitimate DVD release on this side of the Pacific. Despite its many problems, in some ways it's a respectable follow-up to the original Godzilla, and is generally entertaining in its own right.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Major Monster Meldown...

Godzilla vs. Destroyah (Gojira Tai Desutoroya)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Tristar; additional material: trailers

Directed by Kazuki Omori

Starring Takurô Tatsumi, Yôko Ishino, Yasufumi Hayashi, Megumi Odaka, Sayaka Osawa, Saburo Shinoda, Akira Nakao, Masahiro Takashima, Momoko Kôchi, Shelley Sweeney

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I've always gotten a chuckle out of the name "Destroyah," since it's simply a too-literal translation of the Japanese Katakana characters that represent the English word "Destroyer." Toho tends to trademark its monster names using whatever odd spellings its resident linguists come up with, so "Destroyah" actually is Toho's official name for Godzilla's ultimate foe of the Heisei series. But because I find it all a silly thing, you will never see me refer to the monster as anything but "Destroyer"—which is, after all, what the damn name means. (Similarly, you will never see me use the spelling "Anguirus" for Godzilla's first foe and later ally; I'll accept Angilas or even Angurus, which are both valid pronunciations of the Katakana characters, but official or no, that "gui" syllable simply doesn't exist in the original name. Call me stubborn. If we relied on Toho for official spellings, we'd be flying "Japan Air Lens" across the water.)

But Angilas isn't in this movie, so enough of that. Godzilla vs. Destroyer is the Heisei Godzilla's swan song, and Toho went a few extra miles to make the movie visually and dramatically superior to its previous offerings. Some of those efforts paid off; some of them didn't. On the good side, we have Godzilla Junior, no longer a bouncy, cute little thing but a full-fledged Gojirasaurus that very much resembles its larger and fiercer dad. We have a cameo by Momoko Kochi, reprising her role as Emiko Yamane from the original Godzilla, as well as a couple of younger members of the Yamane family who show a firm grasp of their family history and its relationship to Godzilla itself. Akira Ifukube contributes one of his all-time best scores, ranging from the most powerful to the most reflective. On the bad side, we have...Destroyer.

Destroyer is the result of a compound called micro-oxygen, which has destructive properties similar to the oxygen destroyer invented by Dr. Serizawa in the original film. A mutated prehistoric organism, Destroyer undergoes several metamorphoses, growing larger with each successive stage. In addition, similar to Hedorah, the Smog Monster, lots of little Destroyers can combine to form a single giant creature. Unfortunately, in its final stage, the creature is so big and ungainly that it appears more ludicrous than impressive. When a horde of small Destroyers make a massive assault on Tokyo, the insect-like creatures are no more animated than a bunch of Bandai toys, ruining what might have otherwise been a memorable scene. (In 1996, Daiei put Toho to shame with a similar sequence in Gamera vs. Legion, and Toho finally redeemed itself with the impressive "swarm" scene in 2000's Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.)

The whole point of Godzilla vs. Destroyer, though, was to bring audiences to view Godzilla's actual death. In the opening scene, an enraged Godzilla appears in Hong Kong, its body glowing a fiery red, its nuclear-powered ray more destructive than ever. We learn that Godzilla's atomic heart is overloaded with radioactivity and is on the verge of a meltdown—so devastating that it has the potential to destroy all of Japan, if not the entire world. Every scientific effort is made to cool Godzilla's overheating internal furnace, but all they succeed in doing is buying some time while it is engaged in battle with Destroyer. Godzilla Junior joins in the battle, but Destroyer mortally wounds the young one. At last, Godzilla's super-powerful heat rays and the military's supercooled freeze beams combine to eliminate Destroyer once and for all. But now, the meltdown begins, and Godzilla's body withers away to nothing but ash. An immense cloud of radioactivity spreads over Tokyo, turning it into a ghost city. But then the radiation levels suddenly begin to drop—absorbed by the revived Godzilla Junior, whose body transforms into a new, mature Godzilla.

Whatever its failings, Destroyer succeeds in conveying a sense of hopelessness as it builds to its climax. Nothing humankind does can stop the inevitable course of unnatural nature as Godzilla begins its meltdown. As the monster's body begins to dissolve, Akira Ifukube's emotionally charged requiem heralds the end of something significant—to put it in the words of the final narration of Rodan, the Flying Monster, "as if something human were dying." Though there's no articulation of the actual human toll resulting from the massive spread of radioactivity, the final scene of the devastated, mist-shrouded cityscape paints an eerie portrait of ultimate lifelessness. the radiation levels drop, the camera advances through the mist, where something in the distance appears to be moving. Finally, the camera zooms in on the new Godzilla, leaving no doubt that, despite the demise of one, the legacy will continue.

Destroyer did signal the end of the Heisei series, which had become rather tired, its plots and characters showing little imagination on the part of the creators. When the "Millennium" films rejuvenated the series, beginning with Godzilla 2000 nearly five years later, a whole new style and rewriting of Godzilla history would be their hallmark. At least the final Heisei film showed respect for the property and offered closure to the continuity that began with Return of Godzilla (Godzilla 1985). It's a film fraught with problems, but these are largely outweighed by its positive aspects, so in the end, Godzilla vs. Destroyer makes a respectable closing for an important chapter in the history of the cinema's most powerful monster.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Godzilla Clone From Outer Space

Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (Gojira Tai Supesu Gojira)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Tristar; additional material: trailers

Directed by Kensho Yamashita

Starring Megumi Odaka, Jun Hashizume, Zenkichi Yoneyama, Akira Emoto, Towako Yoshikawa, Yôsuke Saitô, Kenji Sahara, Akira Nakao, Kôichi Ueda


Over the years, Toho has presented several "Godzilla vs. Godzilla" scenarios, ranging from the various MechaGodzilla variants to Biollante (a "one-third Godzilla" amalgamation) and even to the essence-stealing Orga in Godzilla 2000. Space Godzilla is the most overt of the Godzilla clones, having been created by G-cells carried into space either by Biollante or Mothra. The monster's design is impressive enough, with a distinctly malevolent countenance, clearly based on Godzilla's features. Its body is partially composed of crystal, which alters its size and shape and provides a means of flight, both in outer space and in the atmosphere.

Godzilla himself appears stockier than in the previous Heisei films, so much so that the suit looks ungainly, with a head too small in proportion to the rest of the body. I'm not at all fond of this design, though it's still superior to some of Godzilla's more muppet-like features in the Showa-era films.

Space Godzilla follows directly on the heels of Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla and features a similarly utilized mecha-monster: an updated design of Mogera, which originally appeared as an instrument of the invading aliens in 1957's The Mysterians. Unfortunately, this version of Mogera is inferior to the 1993 MechaGodzilla (which is itself inferior to both the earlier and later MechaGodzilla variants) and even the Mysterians' Mogera. It is especially awkward-looking in flying mode, and it doesn't help that the outer space effects in general look far cheesier than those in the Toho films of the 1960s.

The story is a mixed bag, with a few superior dramatic elements offset by others that are ill-conceived and/or executed. An unknown monster appears in outer space, destroys a space station, and lands somewhere on Earth. In the meantime, a G-Force contingent, including psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) goes to Basu Island, where the little Godzillasaurus birthed in the previous film has taken up residence. They intend to experiment with telepathy (Project T) and its influence on the monster, hoping they can use it as a weapon against Godzilla. However, G-Force member Akira Yuki has a special grudge against Godzilla, who killed his best friend, Goro Gondo (in Godzilla vs. Biollante) and hopes to kill Godzilla with a special blood coagulant he has developed.

Lo and behold, Godzilla arrives on Basu Island, and the telepathy experiment shows promise, as Miki is able to partially control Godzilla. However—bad timing!—Space Godzilla shows up here, throwing a monkey wrench into the works; it fusses with Godzilla and Little Godzilla for a bit and finally entraps the young 'un in a crystal prison. It then retreats, and Godzilla follows it away.

Goodness me, now we learn that one of the G-Force scientists, Susumu Okubo (Yosuke Saito), is actually a member of the Japanese mafia and wants to use Project T to gain control of Godzilla for his organization. He kidnaps Miki and is about to use her for the Yakuzas' nefarious purpose when Space Godzilla arrives and wreaks havoc, killing Okubo in the process. Now Godzilla comes around, has it out with his monstrous clone, and with some assistance from Mogera, eventually prevails, allowing Little Godzilla to be set free. All are happy. Except Space Godzilla.

Dramatically, the whole Yakuza angle seems out of place; it adds nothing substantial to the story and contributes to what is oftentimes a plodding pace. Megumi Odaka, as psychic Miki Saegusa, who had virtually nothing to do in the past couple of films, takes on a more substantial role in this film, but too much of it involves her fussing about how messing with Godzilla via telepathy is a bad idea. Rogue G-Force Major Yuki is the most interesting character in the film, as his motivations are certainly the clearest, and his curmudgeonly demeanor can be endearing (if occasionally irritating). As in most of the Heisei series, several of the prominent cast members really do little more than take up space, and this is particularly true in Space Godzilla.

While Little Godzilla isn't quite as pitiful in design as Minya, it's pretty close. As a hatchling in the previous film, the baby Godzilla looked right respectable, even convincing. Little Godzilla is a bug-eyed, terminally cute dinosaur obviously meant to appeal to the kids in the audience. Its only really effective scene is when it is "abducted" by Space Godzilla, which succeeds in at least some measure of pathos, though you know that, before it's all over with, Godzilla's going to come to the rescue.

Takayuki Hattori turns in a reasonably interesting musical score, with a particular theme that is reminiscent of John Barry at his best. The action themes and incidental music are built on heavy, grim motifs that complement the drama as well as one could expect. The inevitable usage of Ifukube's Godzilla theme could actually be discarded, since it's at odds with the tone of Hattori's score, and the movie's original music stands on its own well enough.

One gets the feeling that Space Godzilla was Toho's attempt to propel the series in a slightly different direction, with more emphasis on character; yet it still doesn't work very well. The standard military characters are by now wearing thin, and "surprises," such as Okubo turning out to be Yakuza, offer nothing substantive. Combined with an obviously lower-than-usual special effects budget, the dramatic failings ultimately render Space Godzilla a mediocre entry in the series.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Godzilla Battles for the Earth

Godzilla and Mothra: Battle for the Earth
(Gojira Tai Mosura, 1992)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Tristar; additional material: trailers

Directed by Takao Okawara

Starring Tetsuya Bessho, Satomi Kobayashi, Megumi Odaka, Keiko Imamura, Sayaka Osawa, Takehiro Murata, Saburo Shinoda, Akira Takarada, Shoji Kobayashi

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

The Heisei-era Godzilla films (1984–1995) began on a promising note, with Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985), which—though flawed—unfolded as much like a contemporary disaster film as a monster story. The following film, Godzilla vs. Biollante, was equally flawed, but it ventured into some new territory for the series; featured a redesigned, fierce-looking Godzilla; and brought the suitmation technique for endowing monsters with life to a more sophisticated level. Then...Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah happened, which might have been a spectacular visual treat, but was a holy horror in the plotting/internal logic department. The film was a box-office success, however, and Toho rushed the following film, Godzilla vs. Mothra, right into production.

While the Heisei films generally maintained consistent continuity, the plot mostly ignores the events of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, for which one may well be thankful; however, the story rates among the most didactic of the Godzilla films, with an environmental theme so overbearing that even if you buy the message you wouldn't be averse to clocking the messenger. From its opening moments (an overt homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark), the film feels derivative, with much of its storyline lifted from 1961's Mothra and 1963's Mothra vs. Godzilla. Numerous environmental disasters wrack the earth simultaneously, from typhoons to volcanoes to landslides due to over-development. In response to the ecological damage, Mothra and its darker sibling, Battra, are awakened—the latter with the aim to put things right on Earth by force. The more gentle Mothra opposes Battra, but its caretakers—the ten-inch tall fairies (now known as the Cosmos)—are kidnapped by the profiteering Mr. Tomokane of the land-grabbing Marutomo Corporation, and Mothra turns its ire on Japan in attempt to rescue them. In the meantime, Godzilla is not particularly happy with either monster, and comes around periodically to tangle with them—until, in the end, they team up and do a little whooping of their own.

The two main characters—rogue archaeologist Takuya Fujita (Tetsuya Bessho) and Masako Tezuka (Satomi Kobayashi)—provide slightly more engaging personalities than some of the other Godzilla films of the era; they are divorced and not amiably so. Some of the acrimonious interplay between them is convincing if not always appealing. Takehiro Murata, as Marutomo representative Kenji Andoh plays a corporate beanpod who almost has a conscience well enough, and even provides a touch of comic relief now and again. The greedy head of the Marutomo Corporation, played by Makoto Otake, is an amalgamation of notorious exploiters Clark Nelson from the original Mothra and Jiro Torahata from Mothra vs. Godzilla, but Otake's performance tends to be a bit over the top and devoid of any depth. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast stands around and offers nothing to the story, especially Heisei series regular Megumi Odaka as psychic Miki Saegusa, whose appearance in this film is solely to look worried.

While some of the special effects work may be impressive, the Mothra and Battra designs and execution are anything but. Mothra, in both larva and imago form, never appeared so artificial; despite the advances in SPFX technology in the intervening years, the Showa-era Mothra in all its various incarnations appeared more convincing, especially in the original 1961 film under the supervision of effects director Eiji Tsuburaya. Battra is a suitably evil-looking creature, but the puppet could hardly be less animated, and in many scenes its supporting wires are clearly visible.

During his tenure as special effects director, Koichi Kawakita had a tendency to overdo the optical effects, with an abundance of fiery rays constantly crossing the screen, sparkling flashes erupting over the landscape, and brilliant halos surrounding the monsters. In Godzilla vs. Mothra, there's scarcely a scene with the monsters that isn't optically enhanced, and though the light show occasionally highlights the raw power of the monsters' deadly exchanges, for the most part, it simply distracts.

Unquestionably, the movie's single most effective feature is Akira Ifukube's musical score. While most of the themes are familiar, especially the Mothra motif used in the original Mothra vs. Godzilla (based on Yuji Koseki's score for the original 1961 Mothra), the richness and variations of the orchestrations add a poignancy the soundtrack, particularly the ending theme as Mothra flies into outer space to intercept and destroy a meteor on a catastrophic collision course with Earth.

Overall, Godzilla vs. Mothra doesn't hold a candle to the Showa-era Mothra vs. Godzilla, to which it must inevitably compare, and at the time of its release, I would have called it the least entertaining of the Heisei-era Godzilla films, for despite its inane plot, at least Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah offered something unique. Unfortunately, there would be at least one other entry in the Heisei series to make Godzilla vs. Mothra look like a classic....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drat! It's Ghidorah Again!

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
(Gojira Tai Kingu Gidora, 1991)

DVD Description:
Released by Sony/Tristar; additional material: trailers

Directed by Kazuki Omori

Starring Kosuke Toyohara, Anna Nakagawa, Megumi Odaka, Katsuhiko Sasaki, Akiji Kobayashi, Tokuma Nishioka, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kenji Sahara, Kôichi Ueda, Robert Scott Field, Chuck Wilson

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Back in 1991, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah created something of a stir on this side of the water because there were rumblings that the film had distinct anti-American overtones. However, it would be several years before it received a domestic release (which was straight to video), and overall, the American audience found the fuss to be much ado about nothing.

For fans, the far bigger deal about Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was Ghidorah's new origin and the convoluted storyline, which took the theme of time travel to new heights of ridiculousness. No longer an awesome, planet-destroying monster from space, Ghidorah is now the product of a weird combination of time travel, small critters, and radioactivity. The story goes like this: a time-traveling flying saucer lands in Japan in 1992, bringing with it an international crew from the year 2204. They claim that, in their age, Godzilla is running rampant and must be destroyed. They have discovered that Godzilla was birthed on a Pacific Island called Lagos during the U.S. nuclear experiments, so their plan is to go back to that time and move the dinosaur that will eventually become Godzilla to a new location. They succeed in doing this; however, they leave behind some cute little doothingies called dorats, or drats, which have features that suspiciously resemble King Ghidorah. And in the 20th century, Godzilla is gone from history (even though everyone somehow remembers him), and King Ghidorah has replaced him. Shock of shocks! The future people have planned all along not to save Japan but destroy it, thus preventing it becoming the dominant economic and political world power.

However, in the 20th Century, radioactivity apparently exists in profusion in every corner of the world, and in the Toho universe, radiation plus critter equals daikaiju. So the dinosaur is once again transformed into Godzilla, even bigger and more powerful than before. Godzilla and Ghidorah battle, and Godzilla prevails, casting Ghidorah's body—now minus one head—into the ocean. As Godzilla begins a devastating attack on Japan, future person Emi, who disapproves of her people's motivations, returns to the future, has the dormant Ghidorah reconstructed as a cyborg, and then returns it to the 20th Century to do battle with Godzilla. This time, Mecha Ghidorah whoops on Godzilla sufficiently to send him into the ocean, but in the process the cyborg is terminally damaged and sinks into the ocean as well.

With rare exception, I've never cared much for time travel stories, and after the relatively dark, disaster-themed scope of Return of Godzilla and the nightmarish topicality of Godzilla vs. Biollante, the fantastical excesses of Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah come off as outright silly—particularly its half-baked time-travel aspect. Beyond that, the alteration of King Ghidorah's origin—making it, in essence, a Godzilla changeling—serves to void the metaphorical power of the original Godzilla story; in essence, diminishing Godzilla himself. As a powerful alien entity from the stars, King Ghidorah worked. As the mere tool of an advanced but decadent future civilization, a deliberate product of technology, it falls flat on its face.

On the flip side, despite its very serious dramatic shortcomings, the pacing of the film is among the best of the Heisei series. The cinematography is colorful and well composed, and Akira Ifukube's powerful score, which reprises the original Ghidorah theme, is beautifully orchestrated. The Godzilla suit, only slightly modified from its design in Godzilla vs. Biollante, appears very impressive. Surprisingly, despite a Western cast with the acting ability of elementary schoolchildren, the backstory of the "Godzillasaurus" on Lagos Island plays out remarkably well. Yoshio Tsuchiya, portraying loyal-Imperial-Japanese-soldier-cum-industrial-magnate Shindo, turns in a superlative performance, and with Ifukube's score providing a poignant backdrop for his character, almost single-handedly elevates the movie to respectable status.

Whatever its failings, and they are many, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah does succeed at being an entertaining movie, and when it comes to portraying Godzilla as a truly powerful, virtually unstoppable force of nature, it hardly gets any better.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

There's No Fest Like No G-Fest

Right now, G-Fest is happening in Chicago, and I'm not there again...drat it all. It's been five years, I believe, since I've been able to go; I'd so like to return one of these days, what with Godzilla being an old personal friend, and all that. Ah, well, we do what we can, so I had my other old friend Bill Mann over for a day-long monsterthon, which I dubbed "There's No Fest Like No G-Fest 2"—the first having occurred just about this time last year.

This year, we ran Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, War of the Gargantuas, Gamera III: Revenge of Iris, and Godzilla Against Mothra: Battle for the World...which reminds me, I still need to review a few of these for the Daikaiju review page on my Web site. In time, no doubt.

Well...maybe next year. If not, there will doubtlessly be another No Fest.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

My God, What a Rigorous Exam

When I was in high school, I performed a portion of this skit at the senior class assembly. It was a hootin' hollerin' bunch of fun, and the original, by Peter Cook, is a comedy classic. Enjoy.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Cleared for Takeoff

Gearing up for flight: Douggum, Kelroy, Jared, and Rodan (Damned)

Ever been ziplining? First time for me today. You get into a harness; hooked to a cable running between trees, anywhere from ten to a hundred feet above the ground; and then you go flying through the tree canopy or over sprawling meadows, for distances up to 1,500 feet. You can reach exhilarating speeds; 1,500 feet takes about 20 seconds. Went with a group of eight today up to Carolina Ziplines, near Hanging Rock, NC, and even the most acrophobic didn't have any problem tolerating the altitude. At the establishment where we went, everyone from three-year-olds to blind senior citizens have enjoyed the activity, and one of our number was pregnant (still is, as far as I know). Mind you, there were some pretty big blood splats on a few of the nearby trees, but if you pay no attention to those, you'll probably do all right. I highly recommend it. (Click on the pics to enlarge.)

Aaaaand we're off. Brugger takes flight.

Kelroy comes up short, necessitating a rescue by our intrepid guide.

Chapman and Douggum making re-entry from the stratosphere

Brugger hangs on for dear life (yes, she's out there
hollering for all she's worth).

Happy landings, old boy.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Chocolate-Covered What?

I kind of overbooked myself for the Fourth of July weekend, but I reckon that's all right as, otherwise, it's been an uncomplicated week, at the office and in my brain, which is sometimes the best you can hope for. Last night, headed up to Martinsville to visit Mum and my friends, the Albaneses, and had an excellent dinner at the Dutch Inn. This morning, it was up early and down to Durham for some caching and the Festival for the Eno (nothing to do with Brian; it's a benefit for the conservation of the Eno River). Yeah, there's all kinds of food, arts & crafts, food, music, food, hiking, and food. I sampled some very spicy jerk chicken, black beans & rice, fried plantains, chocolate-covered bacon, chai bubble tea, and ice cream, all of which was quite tasty. Well, chocolate-covered bacon may not the world's best idea ever, but at least I can say I tried it...once.

Happily for me, at West Point on the Eno, a portion of the extensive Durham City Park, there are several caches, and I was able to wander away from the festival to go after a couple, and I also grabbed several on the trips coming and going. As of this afternoon, I've logged a total of 2,600.

One of the highlights of the festival was listening to the music of Lizzy Ross, from Chapel Hill. Kind of country but kind of not—"not" being the operative word, since I'm anything but a fan of country music. She's a most talented young singer and guitarist, with a unique sound and an excellent stage presence. You can check out her Web site here: Lizzy Ross.

Go forth. Wherever.