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Index to GIANT MONSTER FILMS commented on here:



King Kong vs Godzilla
Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla
Kronos: Ravager of Planets
Godzilla vs Gigan
Godzilla vs Hedorah
Godzilla vs Megalon
Godzilla vs the Sea Monster
X From Outer Space
King Kong Escapes
Boa vs Python
King Kong (1976)

Varan the Unbelievable
The Mighty Peking Man
Godzilla Final Wars

Ultraman Zearth 1
Ultraman Zearth 2
Ultraman: The Battle for Earth
Space Amoeba
The Blob (1958)
The Fallen Ones
The Host [Gwoemul]
Gamera the Brave
Yongary, Monster from the Deep
Kraa! The Sea Monster
Komodo vs Cobra
Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend

Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (US-1985; dir. Bill L. Norton)

Seen now, over 20 years beyond its first release, Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend both benefits and suffers from all the water that has metaphorically passed under the bridge. At the time, and since, it suffered from bad critical press, starting with Roger Ebert, who clearly loathed it. Others have castigated it for its lack of Jurassic Park style CGI dinosaurs, some have found its uncomfortable mix of humour and violence distracting, many find its depiction of the natives racist because some of them act in a negative and militarially irresponsible manner and even more seem generally disgusted that what they believe should be a child-friendly Disney movie contains its fair share of adult-oriented sexual suggestion, bare native breasts and immoral nastiness.

Well, we perhaps don't care as much any more -- or don't need to -- because watching Baby now isn't a disastrous experience at all. We've seen plenty of unrealistic CGI dinosaurs, experienced decades of confronting violence in kid's movies, and no longer feel quite so sensitive about depicting individuals within certain ethnic minorities as flawed human beings. This film was made 8 years before Jurassic Park revolutionised the cinematic depiction of dinosaurs; it's a bit pointless to demand more from it than was technically possible at the time. What it did achieve through animatronics and suit-puppetry may not look "real", but it was rather effective anyway, given a level of willingness in the audience to suspend disbelief. The film certainly looks good, the beautiful location settings being a clear positive. And the way the natives are played seems reasonable enough, too, now that we don't have to be so precious in our PC attitudes. They aren't stereotyped, but have varied personalities and motivations, just like the white characters. I was especially impressed by the tribal "chief", who gives a positive and humorously intelligent performance that I found insightful and believable. I fail to see what the critics were objecting to; the tribal natives play a positive role in the story, and that the black military guys come over as unethical, careless and brutal need not be attributed to racism.

The story itself is less The Lost World than it is Gorillas in the Mist. It tracks the search for a "legendary" creature that several of those involved -- the "good" paleontological student (Sean Young) and the "evil" professor out to exploit the find at any cost (Patrick McGoohan) -- believe to be a prehistoric hangover: brontosaurs in the flesh. When we meet them, these giant monsters don't act like monsters; rather they seem like ordinary creatures that will tolerate humanity as long as they're not given any reason not to, much the way, for example, Dian Fossey's gorillas were willing to accept and befriend her. The killing of the father brontosaurus is brutal and saddening -- as is the death of Bambi's parents in a Disney movie generally accepted as being OK for kids -- and though the presentation of the "hatchling", Baby, may be a little ET-esque and sentimental, it remains convincing enough throughout and occasionally touching. Meanwhile William Katt plays his part with the wit and eccentric charm he was known for then, providing an ordinary and slightly reluctant hero to help in the struggle to save Baby and his mother from an ecologically and ethically irresponsible fate.

A final comment for the giant monster film fan: though the dinosaurs in this dinosaurs-in-the-modern-world epic aren’t presented as monsters, the mother brontosaur is given a chance to do the classic monster rampage as she desperately tries to rescue her baby, Gorgo-fashion -- raging through a jungle village if not a metropolitan city. And she does a pretty good job of it, too, all things considered.

29 February 2008

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This section is designed as a place where I can add quick comment, short reviews, random thoughts and observations on films and TV related stuff, as well as books perhaps ... on an ongoing basis. You'll probably note a certain lack of objective restraint at times. Sorry.

Komodo vs Cobra (US-2005) -- dir. Jay Andrews

In 1999 there was Komodo, a halfway decent effort that featured slightly oversized komodo dragons that were effectively rendered (by ex-Jurassic Park crew members) in a film that had a generic script but was atmospheric and generally involving. Then in 2003, Curse of the Komodo upped the komodo dragon ante by making the mutant reptile much bigger -- the size of a truck, say -- but got cheaper, stupider, less atmospheric and less involving. This one was directed by Jay Andrews, who is in fact Jim Wynorski -- once the director of the B-horror flick Chopping Mall (1986) and the sexy ghost thriller The Haunting of Morella (1990), but these days can only manage such obviously classy exploitation crap as The Bare Witch Project (2000) and House on Hooter Hill (2007). And bad giant komodo movies, it seems.

Wynorski is also responsible for Komodo vs Cobra, about which the best I can say is that it isn't anywhere near as awful as Attack of the Sabretooth -- another recent sub-Jurassic Park, low-budget, TV-oriented, monster-on-the-loose effort. This conceptual sequel (which in fact has pretty much the same plot (or lack of plot) as Curse of the Komodo -- differing only in featuring a giant Cobra as well as a giant Komodo and plugging a group of environmentalists into the character/lizard-food matrix) -- is possibly lazier and less inspiring than its predecessor, with Wynorski really going through the motions now. Naturally it doesn't live up to the promise of its title, let alone the pseudo-coolness of its advertising acronym, KvC. I always come to these things optimistically hoping for the full-on monster action I'm used to from endless Japanese kaiju eiga, such as Son of Godzilla, which shares some conceptual similarities with KvC (scientific experiments on an isolated island designed to increase the world's food production but instead creating monsters) but is infinitely better. Even the 2003 sequel to not one but two giant snake franchises, Boa vs Python, was much more imaginatively involving and was canny enough to include a fair amount of snake-on-snake action -- which is, after all, why we stuck the thing in the DVD player in the first place. Yes, I want characters to care about, but the giant monster action is primary. In KvC, the komodo eats people we don't care about much, the cobra eats other people we don't care about much, but the two monsters only face off once (without fighting) before a very token climax in which they go tooth-to-tooth half-heartedly as the island is firebombed by the military and the surviving protagonists escape by helicopter. [That was a spoiler by the way -- but as it was totally predictable and you've seen it all before, it doesn't really matter.]

As I've often said, the problem isn't the cheap SFX; low budgets adversely affect the quality of CGI possible in these things and I find it quite easy to live with the artificiality, all else being equal. Unfortunately nothing much is anywhere near equal in Komodo vs Cobra. The script is lazy, there's too much pointless talk when the same information could have been conveyed visually or in a brief sentence or two, the film's pacing is lethargic, the editing is undynamic, the acting is servicable at best (with Michael Paré doing a wooden interpretation of Kurt Russell, the women looking well-groomed in their impractical but visually stimulating tank-tops, and the military guys giving the impression they're part of a different movie that has been edited in every now and then to re-inforce what we've already gleaned through other, more dramatic means), and the whole thing just seems token. Sure, it may not be totally boring, and it might have been redolent of post-Bush political cynicism, but as a virtual remake of Mysterious Island it sure could have been a lot better.

29 December 2007

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Kraa! The Sea Monster (US-1998) -- dir. Aaron Osborne (and Dave Parker)

Desperate to fill every gap on the video rental shelves, Full Moon exploitation filmmaker Charles Band clearly decided that he hadn't done the kaiju genre yet and really should get his act together to do so. So he set up Monster Island Productions and executive produced two rubber-suit monster spectaculars: Zarkorr! The Invader (1996) and Kraa! The Sea Monster. Screenwriter Benjamin Carr was responsible for the scripts of both of them, so maybe we should blame him -- because cheapness is no great hindrance to being entertaining and even a modicum of intelligent storyline can make all the difference.

But there's little by way of intelligent storyline on show in Kraa! -- though Carr does manage some nice lines and the occasional OK tongue-in-cheek idea (a space cop that is a large two-armed mollusc with an Italian accent, for example ... and yes, there is an explanation as to why... he was supposed to splash-down in Italy and so had programmed himself to speak Italian, but was knocked off course, ending up in New Jersey. Therefore when he learns English, an Italian accent is the result.) Beyond such glimmers of possibility, though, the film is a mess, it's two narrative lines never quite melding -- maybe that wasn't Carr's fault either. Who knows? There is definitely evidence of seat-of-the-pants improvisation.

Kraa is a 200-feet-tall mutated Creature from the Black Lagoon, who is actually a mercenary specialising in the destruction of civilisations. He's hired by a Skeletor look-alike named Lord Doom to do his thing and so heads for Earth to get on with it. It's a dumb plan, but, hey, dumb plans are endemic in kaiju eiga, especially those from the 1970s. The Planet Patrol is a bunch of teenagers wearing colourful spandex uniforms and it's their job to stop Doom from conquering the Earth. Unfortunately Doom knows this and so disables their pseudo Death Star first, so that they can only interact with Kraa from afar. This is convenient, for whatever the history of this film's production might be (and I suspect it involved having a whole lot of giant monster footage and trying to superimpose a story onto it), the Planet Patrol and Kraa Rampage segments were directed by different people -- and it shows. The thing was clearly bodgied together on the run -- a contention that gains further support from the fact that a climactic scene where the Latinate mollusc's Mothership is sent plunging to Earth to slow Kraa's progress was clearly meant to depict the critter's original descent to Earth, as the ship hits a satellite on the way down and deviates off-course. This makes no sense as part of the attack-on-Kraa sequence, but if placed earlier would have explained why the mollusc ended up in Jersey instead of Italy.

Anyway, the Planet Patrol scenes are fairly clunky, but the Kraa rampage scenes, though cheaply done, aren't much worse than those in your average Gamera film from the 1970s. Well, OK, they are worse, but only a bit. The rubber-suit is quite good, even if its inflexibility makes it hard for the suit actor to give Kraa any personality, and though the miniature sets are flimsy and suspiciously like plywood, they don't look too bad as they crash and burn. Pity the director couldn't have put some superimposed people in the odd scene though; all we get are disembodied screams. Lots of invisible victims.

The long and the short of it is: as a latter-day cheap-arse kaiju eiga, Kraa! is dumb but sort of amusing. It is clearly a kid's flick, very Saturday matinee throw-away stuff -- just like the worst of the Gamera and Godzilla flicks. These latter still had the advantage of a technical crew that knew how to do miniature destruction and, I suspect, a bigger budget, but Kraa! makes it into the third-grade league dugouts around the edge of the ball-park, even if it doesn't get to bat.

14 November 2007

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Yongary, Monster from the Deep [aka Taekoesu Yonggary] (South Korea-1967) -- dir. Ki-duk Kim

South Korea's response to the success of the Japanese kaiju eiga craze, at a time when Daiei's Gamera series was overseeing a juvenilisation of the subgenre, Yongary doesn't have much going for it. Full of unbelievably stupid human reactions, dumb political responses, bad effects and a kid protagonist whose "endearing" waggishness is merely annoying, it manages to be much worse than the worst of the early Gamera films.

A giant (and very rubbery) reptilian monster, dubbed "Yongary" after a mythological creature, rises from underground in the guise of a moving earthquake, full of rage at humanity's general badness. It begins guzzling industrial lubricants, belching flame and dancing to bad pop music -- and hence must be destroyed. Defeating the monster takes lots of bad dialogue, an unconvincing scientist, a kid who thinks using an experimental "itch" ray on his newly wed sister and her husband while they're driving to their honeymoon is a real hoot, and a messy airborne operation that involves all the family, wide-scale pollution and apparent anal bleeding. The kid (who had also used the aforementioned itch ray to wake the monster from a coma and send it off on another rampage) and the scientist are declared Seoul's saviours -- despite the fact that the kid caused most of the trouble and perpetually got in the way and that Seoul's waterways will now be totally undrinkable.

All this sounds like it might have been written by a ten-year-old -- but even if the filmmakers had the ten-year-old demographic in mind, there is no excuse for giving them a tale so determinedly dumb.

Or is it meant to be ironic?

Either way, presenting the film in its original 2.38:1 aspect ratio does little to give it any added sparkle and I doubt that finding an undubbed version in original Korean language (reputedly lost) would do anything to improve the sheer undramatic idiocy of the dialogue. The film is narratively lame, and apart from Yongary's irrational dance, totally lacking in amusement value. It makes 2001 Yongarry [aka Reptilian], Hyung-rae Shim's dodgy millennial remake, look like a work of genius.

13 November 2007

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Konga (UK-1961) -- dir. John Lemont

This bizarre mix of mad scientist movie and giant ape/King-Kongesque epic starts well enough, full of colourful '60s clothes, bright photography, stylised English dialogue, rather attractive carnivorous plants and a juicy performance by Michael Gough as a mad scientist. Gough, who brings all his overstated stagecraft to the role, plays Dr Charles Decker, who has been lost in the jungle, presumed dead, for a year and has now returned sporting a "great discovery". The discovery involves a baby chimp named Konga and a serum that encourages accelerated cellular growth and total obedience to ... well, Decker. He injects the chimp, who promptly gets bigger and turns into a gorilla, and then uses the gorilla to murder rivals in research and love. He is, you see, infatuated with one of his students, who is blonde, tends to wear classically tight sweaters and apparently has a talent for biology. This infatuation proves rather annoying for Decker's current assistant, Margaret (Margo Johns), who isn't blonde or young (though in a typically 60s manner her breasts are pointy and molded), but is inexplicably in love with the not-at-all good doctor, and the whole thing rapidly goes downhill. Margaret gives the chimp/gorilla/man-in-a-suit a large dose of growth serum in order to get his obedience for herself, but he grows so big he bursts through the roof of the house and goes on a rampage. As this is a Herman Cohen story, full of typically sublimated misogyny, both women die. So does Decker and the ape, but not until Konga has vaguely threatened the London populace.

The mad scientist part of Konga works rather well but by the time we get to the giant monster climax it becomes narratively weak and very unconvincing. This is partly due to clumsy SFX (superimposure mostly), but also to a bad ape impersonation that consists of slow, careful leg movements and tinny roaring. Frankly, Konga never seems like much of a threat; he is inherently passive, as though the suit actor is afraid of treading on someone or of scuffing the miniature sets. He waves a very doll-like Decker around, while the populace runs, then stops and gawks. As the army gathers and then shoots round after round at him (mostly missing, if you go by the vapour trails), Konga doesn't fight back or run or do anything much. He simply takes what they have to give and falls over, turning illogically back into a (dead) chimpanzee. Sans blood.

This whole end sequence is so clumsy it kills whatever momentum was produced by the first and second Acts. A pity really. Konga might have had some slight chance of living up to its publicity ("Not since King Kong has the screen exploded with such mighty fury and spectacle") if it had had any of Kong's energy and narrative nous, any fury at all and some convincing spectacle -- if, in fact, the direction of the rampage scenes had been handled with artistry and illusion-creating vim. Oh well. It's a fun sort of movie in its way -- but a fairly big disappointment as well.

13 November 2007

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Transformers (US-2007) -- dir. Michael Bay

Who would have thought that a big-budget flick about giant robots, based on a line of toys and an old cartoon series -- and directed by the guy responsible for the rather lame SF disaster movie Armageddon, not to mention .... oh, let's not! -- would be so good? Here, Bay has turned his frenetic style of filmmaking to an appropriate subject, while adding what Armageddon lacked -- dramatic build-up, intrigue, scifi conviction (OK, some of it doesn't make sense, but who cares?) and a surprisingly intelligent script (or at least a knowing one).

Despite the obvious cartoonishness and absurdity of Transformers' premise, the filmmakers for the most part treat it with a gritty reality (at least up until the Autobots start to talk). The opening scene in wartorn Qatar has none of the comicbook feel we've come to expect from such things -- in fact, it could have come straight from a contemporary war drama. Beautifully filmed, with superb CGI and thoughtful design, Transformers has a good chance of making you believe that if a metallic transforming alien race happens to turn up one of these days, this is how it might happen -- and, while done "seriously" to that extent, is full of appropriate humour and enough of a human storyline to carry you through the spectacular battles and turn them into entertainment rather than simple eye-candy. It was, for me at least, thoroughly absorbing. Too long? Some people might feel that the mega-climax with its endless grinding metal appendages crashing through crumbling city streets starts to pall, but I think the pacing was perfectly judged. The genre requires a climax like this.

In fact, the daikaiju (or more accurately, I guess, mecha) action is spot-on. City-trashing and giant-robot wrestling matches such as you haven't seen before! More mecha conflict than a fanboy could reasonably expect! And a bit of ponderous narration at the end to send us from the theatre full of appropriate sentimentality.

As evidenced in this film, the use of CGI to animate monsters has improved out of sight, given the right approach and enough money. Here, the Autobots move like "genuine" transforming robotic life-forms -- totally alien -- and yet come over as very heavy. The sort of indistinct computer-generated fluidity that often spoils the effect is only present in an appropriately sharp, metallic, alien fashion when the Autobots change shape rapidly, almost randomly, during battle. Otherwise they are clunky, weighty and very "present" in the scenes.

With some nicely quirky human characters (especially Shia LaBeouf's teenaged protagonist), a decent narrative that isn't simply the usual extended chase scene (yes, I know all about McGuffins), a sardonic sense of humour and great visuals, Transformers is an entertaining rush that is well worth the 144 minutes you'll be required to spend in its presence.

2 July 2007

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Gamera the Brave [aka Gamera: Chiisaki yusha-tachi] (Japan-2006) -- dir. Ryuta Tazaki

Before Shusuke Kaneko's stunning mid-1990s renovation, the Gamera franchise had been a deliberately juvenile version of the giant monster sub-genre. Created by Noriaki Yuasa in the 1960s as a rival to Godzilla, the original Gamera was the "friend of children" -- a protector who looked after kids and was almost psychically understood by them. The early films never rivalled the best of Godzilla's oeuvré but for a while relatively cheap production values and the dedicated juvenile audience made Gamera enough of a threat to drive the Godzilla series in an increasingly juvenile direction (sadly producing some of the worst of the Big G's efforts). However, after featuring in seven films between 1965 and 1971 (with a brief unsuccessful epilogue in 1980), Gamera disappeared until 1995 when Shusuke re-created the giant flying turtle as "Guardian of the Universe" -- a man-made servant of Gaia -- in a trilogy that arguably offered up the best three daikaiju eiga ever. These films were adult-oriented, dark and stunningly conceived, and for the first time since the inaugural Gamera film, Gamera became genuinely awesome and powerfully dangerous.

Ryuta Tazaki's 2006 re-boot of the series, shown in the West as Gamera the Brave, does not entirely neglect Shusuke's popular vision, but it does firmly re-oriented the franchise toward children -- or at least a "family-friendly" audience. It begins in the 1970s as Gamera -- sporting the monstrous look he'd adopted in the 1995 film -- saves a small fishing village from a flock of vicious Gyaos by sacrificing himself, leaving a young boy saddened and traumatised. Now, grown up, that boy is having trouble with his own young son, who has not come to terms with the accidental death of his mother. The boy finds a tiny turtle on the spot where the earlier Gamera died, befriends it in an act of emotional displacement by giving it the name "Toto", realises that it can fly, and then must cope with the knowledge that Toto is not only growing (quickly) into a fully-fledged Gamera, but must face a diabolical creature that is destroying the nearby big city and environs.

Gamera the Brave goes for cute and uplifting where Shusuke's trilogy went for dark and realistic, giving central focus to the boy and his turtle and then to the children who are mystically aware of what is needed to help Toto/Gamera defeat the monstrous Zedus. Indeed, it is their film; the title could more accurately have been rendered as something like "Gamera: the Little Brave Ones".

Yet though the film courts the youngsters, but it doesn't flinch from violence committed against both giant turtle and human populace, suggesting indeed that death is an inevitable consequence of kaiju conflict -- and an inevitable part of life. Gamera the Brave's slow but endearing first Act -- replete with cute baby turtle and small-scale visual wonders -- also develops its characters effectively and sets the stage for audience emotional engagement for the rest of the film, as the stakes get higher and buildings start to crumble. The SFX are excellent, on a par with the best we've seen in daikaiju eiga to date -- open, colourful and spectacular -- and though some fans were understandably disappointed with Gamera's wide-eyed, cartoonish appearance, the design serves the director's purposes well. At the end Gamera is still in the earlier stages of his development, so there's always hope that in subsequent films -- should there be any -- he will return to his 1990s appearance once more. Meanwhile, if the kaiju battle at the climax isn't quite as powerful as one would have hoped, the ending is as uplifting and as heartfelt as original creator Noriaki Yuasa would have wanted.

Gamera the Brave may not challenge Shusuke's Gamera films or the same director's Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001) in terms of scope or conceptual vision, but it is enjoyable and wondrous, and should play well for both a new young audience as well as seasoned kaiju fans -- or at least those willing to surrender to its fantastical innocence.

14 April 2007

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Gwoemul [aka The Host] (South Korea-2006) -- dir. Joon-ho Bong

With its careless disregard for the "rules" that normally govern blockbuster monster pics, The Host proves to be an utterly engrossing, stylish and intelligent foray into the genre, replete with a powerful sense of reality that doesn't falter even when it flirts with cliché. It is in turns funny, suspenseful, startling, awe-inspiring, melancholy, bleak, satirical and optimistic. Not an easy palette of moods to effectively control -- yet it does so, and the result is a completely satisfying cinematic experience.

Director Joon-ho Bong establishes the background quickly in a prologue that suggests much more than it explains and gives the overall scenario a veneer of scientific and political carelessness that resonates -- mostly to ironic effect -- throughout the remainder of the film. He then jumps to a series of establishing parkland shots that neatly introduce us to the main characters before plunging us into full-throttle action. The monster appears early, on open ground and in daylight, in an extended scene of beautifully orchestrated monster rampage. Yet Bong's framing and control of the dynamics of each moment are perfect, putting his characters upfront -- both literally and figuratively -- and thus deflecting any residual skepticism we might be inclined to bring to what amounts, at heart, to a standard exploitation set-piece. Out of this tour-de-force sequence he draws the dynamics that drive the rest of the story.

The title and what it is made to signify might have remained at the centre of that story, but happily, it didn't. Instead it is the familial interplay between the characters and their fate that lies at the heart of the film's emotional reality. The protagonists are ordinary and unheroic, a family that loses a key member in an unexpected attack and then must deal firstly with the loss and then with the impossible hope that the loss can be salvaged. In this quest they cannot rely on Hollywood-style heroics, even of the kind that typically redeems a loser-type who happens to be caught up in self-pity and despair. Here the loser -- a good-natured but ineffectual father (played as an extension of the standard Asian "loser" comedy role) -- never transcends his nature by suddenly developing uncharacteristic skills and atypical physical bravery. Instead he remains true to himself and any heroism he displays is a function of that. Here, heroism and frailty go hand-in-hand.

Nor can the family rely on help from the authorities, despite the grandfather's knee-jerk respect for that authority. The US is shown to be responsible for what's going on, but international attempts to coordinate a response to the emergency go nowhere. The South Korean army (and government) is equally ineffectual. Theories about the monster -- and the viral disaster it represents -- tie them up in knots and initiate measures that are no help to those in real need and in fact make matters worse.

Meanwhile, everything for us is seen through the eyes of the family -- as they are left to find their own solutions to an unnatural situation. In such a context tragedy is inevitable, yet it is to the film's credit that the narrative provides redemption in a way that is neither contrived nor cheaply sentimental.

At a technical level, the SFX work is masterful, despite the fact that it is inherently ambitious. Rarely does the monster come over as a digital imposition onto the live action, so well is it integrated into each scene and so believably characterised. Not only is the Host unique in design (thanks to New Zealand's WETA), but the way it moves is totally convincing -- solid, yet wet and slimy, clumsy on land, yet threatening and predatory; a sort of huge, mutated tadpole, crossed with a coelacanth. The CGI blends with the use of puppetry and full-scale animatronic model work, so that the creature's artificiality becomes invisible -- except once or twice during the climax, and even then it hardly matters as the drama has you pretty well distracted by then.

Overall, this is one of the strongest monster movies we've seen for some time. If it has flaws (and I'm sure critics will be quick to uncover some), I found them irrelevant to my enjoyment of and involvement in the human drama that drives the film, along with the visual splendour that makes it such a terrific example of horror-fantasy cinema.

It is said that Hollywood is doing a remake. It seems pointless; the visual style, the political irony and culturally specific characterisation that makes The Host so unique will all need to be abandoned. And what that leaves is a generic monster movie. So who will care, except to bemoan the loss?

16 February 2007

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The Fallen Ones (US-2005) -- dir. Kevin VanHook

Another recent variant on the mummy sub-genre -- Sommer's big budget remakes and the low-budget Seven Mummies spring to mind as other examples -- The Fallen Ones has the distinction of being the first to include a giant mummy. This bandaged walking dead is 42 feet tall and is one of the Nephilim -- giants featured, albeit briefly, in the Old Testament:

"There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown." Genesis 6:4

The plot is a curious mixture of this Hebrew myth, Egyptian religious methodologies, Christian dualistic theology and Hollywood action-film aesthetics. It makes little sense once you question it, but director Kevin VanHook is determined that you have some schlocky fun here, so you might as well check your brain at the door and go for it. The film is enjoyable B-grade mayhem, even though the production and script are far from stellar and, as is often the case, it suffers from basic genre inadequacies.

Lack of the financial resources to take the SFX to the next level is not really the problem. Those with a passion for tales such as these -- reminiscent in many ways of the Marvel tales of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in comic series such as Where Monsters Dwell -- are generally willing to go with the flow, so long as what is offered is handled with an unpatronising intelligence and some imagination, both of which can flourish even when restrained by low budgets. Director VanHook is better known for his SFX work on films such as I, Robot, Hellraiser: Hellseeker and Daredevil, as well as the Xena TV show, and in The Fallen Ones he uses his limited budget effectively, as far as it goes.

Nor is the acting a big issue. It's patchy, but adequate. Casper Van Dien of Starship Troopers fame does his sub-Indiana Jones act in a personable manner, though the needed chemistry between Van Dien and his co-star Kristen Miller never really takes off. Chief villain and fallen angel, Navid Negahban, looks the part but is rather dull and one-note in performance, and needed to up the comicbook ante to really pull it off -- and his followers in general needed a shake-up (or a better tailor). But it is the veterans who serve the SciFi Channel telemovie best: Robert Wagner, Geoffrey Lewis and Tom Bosley -- especially the later as an effectively caricatured rabbi who gets to explain things and to engage in a nicely melancholic interview with the Evil One, pointing out that as the Book of Revelations clearly shows that the End-time will not involve the Nephilim, his proposed plan for world destruction is doomed to failure. "Oh, well," says the Evil One, "I must try anyway."

Unfortunately an underdeveloped script and the genre disappointments it brings with it are the biggest issues I have with the otherwise OK horror-fantasy film. In a movie featuring a giant mummy, there needs to be plenty of giant mummy action. That is, after all, what we're here for. This giant mummy doesn't get to do much, even if what he does do (including a good scuffle with a helicopter) is pretty nifty. The film even features a scene with the giant mummy chasing the heroes in a jeep. Though not as effectively handled as in the equally cheap Japanese flick The X from Outer Space from the 1960s, it is nevertheless a highlight -- giant-monster-chasing-jeeps scenes being a Good Thing when it comes to giant monster movies. But why didn't the mummy at least get to trash the construction site more extensively, in the absence of Tokyo?

And what about a giant monster opponent? There really needed to be a better end to the giant mummy, with the mummy fighting another giant monster of some sort. The Fallen Ones even had the perfect giant monster opponent for the giant mummy right there at hand: a sort of retro skeletal replica of the mummy, made of wood with a mad screaming acolyte for a head and lots of bodies strapped to its arms, legs, chest... Rather groovy, I thought, though in the context it was given (or wasn't given) it made no sense at all. And the hero gets rid of it immediately by tripping it into a chasm. As anyone who knows their genre stuff at all would have known, that pseudo-robotic mummy had to end up fighting and defeating the actual giant mummy. Instead Van Dien kills the mummy with a stick of dynamite thrown into its mouth. Oh, please!

31 October 2006

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The Blob (US, 1958) –-- dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.

The '50s monster flick The Blob taught us one particularly important life lesson: never poke strange objects from outer space with a stick.

I haven't had a high opinion of this film in the past, despite its cult reputation and the undoubted appeal of its basic scenario. Some of my negative opinion was conceivably based on poor-quality TV prints, of course, so catching the film on the new 16:9 widescreen, cleaned-up DVD release had the potential to raise the stakes. However, even though the image quality is excellent, I can't say I now consider the film to be a "good" one in any objective sense. Fun in places -- and strong in its iconic value, with Steve McQueen and all that 1950s post-Rebel Without A Cause teen-rebellion stuff, not to mention the terrific if oddly inappropriate theme music by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and the squishy strawberry-jelly glory of the Blob itself. But the scripting is very poor, with so many static and longwindedly irrelevant scenes it was sometimes hard not to spontaneously wander off to make a cup of tea in the middle of proceedings. Pacing drags too often, despite some relatively effective moments (those ones remembered and often referred to: the initial stick-poking scene, the attack on the midnight spookshow patrons, the final siege on the diner). But while these elements have elevated the film to cult status, they don't make it a success. Someone once described The Blob as "better to read about than to actually watch" -- and though I hate to admit it, I think that's true. The film cried out for a remake -- which, of course, happened in 1988, when Chuck Russell's The Blob appeared to such good effect. Russell's film was much better than the original, not only sporting good SFX but effective characters, a decent script and dramaturgically competent storytelling.

1 May 2006

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Space Amoeba [aka Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû; Yog, Monster from Space] (Japan, 1970) – dir. Ishiro Honda

"If it was only a simple giant squid, we'd all be safe!"

Toho's daikaiju eiga had by 1970 become a little tired, not to mention cash-strapped and uncertainly oriented. Space Amoeba slots in between the first and second run of the Japanese film studio's giant monster flicks -- following the "monsterfest" Destroy All Monsters and preceding Godzilla vs Hedorah (otherwise known as Godzilla versus the Smog Monster). In a way it represents a crisis point -- and this is reflected in its nature. It doesn't include Godzilla, is mostly set on a tropical island (featuring cheaper native-hut trashing but no city-stomping, as many of the G films of this period did), lacks the SFX expertise of Eiji Tsuburaya, and reflects a tendency to aim the films toward a juvenile audience. Classic Godzilla director Ishiro Honda is still in charge, however, working with his musical frontman Akira Ifukube -- but the direction, while professional, loses energy quickly and the music is curiously uninspired overall, despite some effective themes -- much of it being simple retreads of Ifukube's own earlier work. However, seen in the superb new print provided by Tokyo Shock (and minus the poor dubbing and restricted aspect of the US Yog, Monster from Space version), Space Amoeba is not a bad film (received critical wisdom notwithstanding), though it is not a prime example of its subgenre either.

Its good points are many. First up is an excellent cast of Toho veterans, contract players who appear time and again in films of the period. Outstanding to my mind are Akira Kubo (Matanga, Destroy All Monsters, Son of Godzilla, Monster Zero, Gorath), as the initially bored photographer suddenly thrust into the colourful world of giant monsters when he sees the return of a "lost" space capsule in the middle of the ocean and then follows it up; and Kenji Sahara as the corporate spy who is taken over by invading alien energy creatures -- his smarmy grins, facial ticks and pink shirt are perfect for the part and always entertaining. The rest acquit themselves pretty well, too.

Of primary concern are the monsters. The original Japanese title puts them up front, as does the beginning credit sequence, and it is there that they belong. In contrast to many other second- or third-tier daikaiju eiga, here the kaiju are introduced early, so we're not waiting around too long to get to the main event. Gezora -- a delightfully absurb cuttlefish/squid that shuffles across beaches and villages on its ungainly tentacles, boggle-eyes boggling haphazardly -- is the centrepiece. Though, like the others, the Gezora suit is substandard in many ways, the open and colourful -- and occasionally inventive -- cinematography carries the viewer past his rubbery failings and his attack scenes prove exciting. It all works well enough in context. And the context is beautiful. Filmed on location on Hachijo Island, the widescreen openness and often convincing meld of SFX foliage with real on-the-spot scenery gives the film's imagery a picturesque beauty that is often lacking elsewhere.

After an effective first half, however (including space/rocket effects that are as good as those found in Hollywood films of the time -- if not as good as those in groundbreaking space epics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey), the script tends to falter and become messy.

The central idea works well enough: a Jupiter probe, infested by a sentient, space-dwelling entity, crashes incognito (or nearly so) just offshore near a South Seas island. There it takes over assorted local creatures (a cuttlefish, a crab, a turtle, a corporate spy), mutating the non-human hosts into enormous monsters that reflect local legends. This results in mangled native villages and threats directed at a motley group of characters working for a development company. Beyond that, not much that happens can be effectively rationalised, despite attempts to give the alien entity a spurious motive and to provide an ill-worked weakness for future exploitation. Conveniences abound (particularly the abundant supply of gasoline and weaponry, conveniently left behind by a Japanese garrison during the War) and odd bits of scripting (such as the natives' sudden decision -- in the midst of monster mayhem -- to undertake an elaborate and joyous wedding in hope of bringing one of their number out of his kaiju-induced stupor) don't help to keep the viewer's disbelief suspended. Then, of course, everything is resolved by an exploding volcano -- always a sign that script ideas, production time or both were in short supply. At any rate, despite the contrivances and illogic, bad guy Obata's selfless sacrifice is an effectively uplifting resolution to the film's themes -- and, of course, the monsters get to fight each other once they become "normal monsters". That is, after all, what normal kaiju do.

Overall, once freed from the taint of the faded, pan-and-scan, dubbed Yog version that has been prevalent in the West, Space Amoeba proves much better than its reputation. It is fun for kaiju fans and generally engaging, while remaining a lesser side note in daikaiju eiga history.

10 April 2006

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Ultraman: The Battle for Earth [aka Urutoraman G: Kaiju gekimetsu sakusen; Ultraman G: Monster Termination Project] (Japan/Australia, 1990) – dir. Andrew Prowse

This second compilation film featuring the bizarrely Australian Ultraman Great (following on from Ultraman: The Alien Invasion) again cobbles together a number of episodes from the TV series Ultraman: Towards the Future, in the hope that ongoing elements will give it a cinematic unity. Here, it doesn’t work so well; the episodic nature of the TV show is much more apparent, and the result much less effectively coherent, than in the previous attempt. The result is a rather clumsy and lackluster affair. A final apocalyptic struggle does provide decent climactic development toward the end – and is the most effective sequence over all – but it is dramatically underdeveloped and lacks the scope that it might have had if the story had been developed from scratch as a separate feature-film script. It needs more build-up and greater breadth. Daikaiju eiga are, above all, about size. On top of that, the mood and character interactions here are much more juvenile than in the predecessor Ultraman: The Alien Invasion, though we are dealing with basically the same characters. Most of the emotional conflict seems painfully contrived. Still, the monster designs are wonderfully silly and the environmentally conscious themes are driven home with enough self-righteous aplomb to give this non-Japanese Tsuburayan fantasy a certain authentic air. In fact it is rather interesting to see how Australian motifs are woven into this distinctly Japanese sub-genre, particularly in the segment guest-starring Aboriginal actor Ernie Dingo as a soother of the thoroughly miffed spirit of the land.

9 January 2006

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Ultraman Zearth [Urutoraman Zeasu] (Japan, 1996) – dir. Shinya Nakajima

The space giant Ultraman, in his multitudinous familial incarnations, is Japan’s most popular TV franchise. Preceded by the series Ultra Q, Ultraman was created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the SFX master responsible for Godzilla and many other Toho films, and has been re-created continually by Tsuburaya Productions since 1966. Though released in 2005 on Region 4 DVD under the title Ultraman Zearth 1, this 48-minute episode is actually Part 3 of a three-part entertainment known as Ultraman’s Wonderful World, made in celebration of the intergalactic hero’s 30th anniversary.

To survive as long as he has, Ultraman has adopted many forms and has been presented in many styles – a versatility that is important in the light of the rigid structure traditionally imposed on the standard Ultraman storyline. Most commonly, Ultraman movies are idealistically driven superhero epics; Ultraman Zearth, however, takes the path of comedy rather than action-drama, having a self-mocking quality that verges on the ludicrous. This is not such a stretch, of course, as the developed form of daikaiju eiga (or giant monster film) knowingly utilises the absurd to a greater or lesser extent and revels in it.

Here absurdity is taken to a comic extreme. Ultraman Zearth (pronounced “zay-ers” apparently) is one of the least competent of the Ultra clan, carrying considerable psychological baggage that his human alter-ego (Katsuto Asahi, played by Masaharu Sekiguchi – manager of the comedy troupe, The Tonnels) must also deal with. The MYDO (Mysterious Yonder Defense Organization) works out of a petrol station and is made up of a bunch of exaggerated caricatures who are less than heroically competent themselves. Their Fighter is in the shape of a rainbow-coloured fish (“Whoever designed that thing should be slapped,” says a reporter), which emerges from a sort of spatial portal located in a rooftop billboard featuring an ad for Ultraman (there is a running gag that involves onlookers trying to take snaps of the Fighter as it goes into action). Though his “origin” does not appear in the film, Ultraman Zearth himself was apparently sent to Earth from Nebula Z95 to deal with the planet’s environmental problems. The trouble is, he is chronically obsessed with cleanliness to the extent that even a minimal amount of filth will send him into a crippling anxiety attack. In this regard, it should be noted that Katsuko becomes Ultraman through the talismanic agency of an electric toothbrush (hey, dental hygiene is important)!

The bad guy – Alien Benzen [Benzen-seijin] – wants to destroy the Earth through pollution and other acts of creative destruction, devising a plot that involves stealing gold worldwide and turning it into Gold Power in the stomach of his kaiju sidekick Cottonpoppe, the potential for total annihilation of the Earth if Ultraman Zearth uses his Special Beam on the monster, and the drowning of Ultraman in a mud-pit. The design work for both Benzen and Cottonpoppe is excellent, making them a pair of wonderfully absurd and entertaining kaiju (Benzun’s voice and human form is that of Tekeshi Kaga, TV’s Iron Chef, who plays the role with appropriate melodramatic showmanship); Benzen even has the malicious grace, after his plot is foiled and he is sent flying into space, to wish the Earth a long life.

alien benzenWith cameos from the original Ultraman cast members, the film has an appealing nostalgia about it, and the decent (if relatively cheap) special effects, which utilise some effective CGI as well as standard suitmation, achieve an imaginative beauty that will undoubtedly appeal to all fans of the genre, and not just kids. Your enjoyment will be dependent on your tolerance for its farcical nature, of course – and unfortunately the film is dubbed rather than subtitled, adding a layer of vocal overacting to the physical overacting of the cast. But, taken on its own terms, this celebratory Ultra-hero epic is a real hoot!

8 August 2005

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Godzilla Final Wars [aka Gojira: Fainaru Uôzu] (Japan, 2004) – dir. Ryuhei Kitamura

With its tagline “Godzilla 50th Anniversary Commemoration Production”, it’s hard not to see this, the 28th Godzilla film, as one really big kaiju party, celebrating all that Godzilla has meant as entertainment over the years. With the biggest budget of any G film yet, lensed in various cities throughout the world, and boasting wunderkind Ryuhei Kitamura at the directorial helm, GFW proves to be a breathless, all-out, self-mocking extravaganza of a film, cheerily entertaining, unpatronisingly tongue-in-cheek and breathlessly action-packed. Oh yes, it can be criticised on many levels: not serious enough, hyperactive, all posture and no substance, senseless, uncontrolled and unfocused, dumb, plot-heavy, not enough of the monster battles, too frenzied, etc. etc. All these things might be true depending on what you were expecting. To me, it was a great ride that I found thoroughly enjoyable. As much as I like to pontificate on the serious side of the Godzilla franchise (and kaiju eiga in general), this probably wasn’t the place for that side to be explored. It certainly wasn’t Kitamura’s intention.

In essence a remake of 1968’s Destroy All Monsters [Kaijû sôshingeki] (also announced, like this film, as Godzilla’s swansong), GFW revisits the alien-invasion, alien-controlled-monsters scenario and ups the ante with a squadron of human mutants who dress in leather, act cool, posture unashamedly and engage in a fair bit of martial-arts and hi-tech testosterone-driven aggression. What impressed me about this blatant piece of conceptual exploitation was that it wasn’t simply cosmetic; the mutant theme proves to be integral to the plot and its outworking – a fact not usually pointed out by naysayers. In fact, I generally found that the storyline of GFW wasn’t as chaotic as I’ve been led to believe. Flowing with appropriate cartoon logic and coming together narratively and thematically at the end, it makes as much, or more, sense as an alien-invasion scenario as Destroy All Monsters ever did. And it’s much more “in-your-face”.

Not that the film should be taken as drama. Or comedy. Or satire. It is all these and none. It is a Godzilla celebration pure and simple, from the first appearance of the Toho logo to its over-abundance of monsters to Godzilla’s final roar. The crowd that made up the audience at the Melbourne Film Festival where I saw it was with Kitamura all the way, cheering Godzilla on, laughing in all the right places and applauding at the end. Not Godzilla fans as such, they were open to this film’s particular brand of absurdity and its whirlwind of monstrous delights. With deliberately melodramatic acting, the inclusion of past G-film favourites both human and kaiju, and affectionate parodying of Godzilla styles and images from the past, the film walked a fine line between evoking affection and provoking mockery -- but I felt it kept itself together for the most part. I find it hard to believe that anyone can see the caricatured hard-nosed acting of US wrestler Don Frye (the token western import “star”) or the occasional lapse into extremely dodgy SFX as anything but deliberate references to particular aspects of Godzilla’s history. At one point amidst the dynamic proceedings, tanks at the stomping feet of one of the monsters bounce with all the conviction of cheap toys in a manner reminiscent of the more cost-cutback effects of the 1970s; everyone laughed. Then the next moment we are afforded a spectacular sequence of vehicular destruction as convincing as anything in a US blockbuster. So were the “bad” effects merely a mistake? I can’t believe it. Maybe I’m rationalising, but it seemed obvious from the deliberate juxtapositioning of the two that the moment paid homage to that particular aspect of the Big G’s history.

(During the New York street scene, where two American caricatures – a gaudy pimp and a cop – engage in a bit of aggro before being interrupted by the arrival of Rodan, the cop’s unnatural English seems out of synch with his lips. Was that a deliberate poke at bad English dubbing? Maybe.* In-jokes aimed at aspects of Godzilla’s history abound. For example, the CGI-rendered monster Zilla, actually the 1998 US Godzilla, is easily annihilated by the real Godzilla amidst the ruins of Sydney’s Opera House, provoking his alien controller to remark “I knew that tuna-eating reptile would be useless!”)

While GFW may not be the best Godzilla film ever, and may suffer from its over-enthusiastic approach, it seems to me a worthy addition to the franchise. Sure, it won’t convince the skeptics that kaiju eiga should be taken seriously -- but they aren’t going to be convinced anyway, no matter what. Meanwhile there’s no reason why the film can’t be accepted as a vibrant, cheeky and absurd birthday celebration for a cultural giant within a subgenre like none other on the face of the Earth.

Long live the Big G!

* I have since been told that in fact the bad synchronisation was a result of Toho demanding that Kitamura "tone down" the cop's "bad language". Still, I like my theory!

30 July 2005

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Uchu daikaijû Dogora (Japanese, 1964) [aka Dogora; Space Monster Dogora] -- dir. Ishiro Honda

A bizarre, middle-tier Toho daikaiju eiga, Dogora survives through technically competent film-making, generally appealing performances (even from an almost unrecognisably young, and somewhat annoying, Robert Dunham as the "Diamond G-Man"), and one of monsterdom's most beautifully weird titular characters. However, if you try to take the proceedings too seriously you won't enjoy yourself; this is cartoon stuff, made with a sense of humour and a monster-tongue firmly placed in cheek. In his excellent book, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!, Stuart Galbraith goes so far as to see it as a "satire". I don't know about that, but it certainly seems that Honda's aim was to join together two popular genres (crime-melodrama and monster), to play with the forms, and to see what happens.

What he produced was something less than a successful monster movie but more than an outright dud. In fact, for all its flaws Dogora proves to be an interesting experiment as the separate plot threads of diamond-thieves-after-a-big-haul and space-monster-on-a-rampage interweave both thematically and in terms of incident, finally bringing about a resolution that is either anticlimactic or ironically appropriate, depending on your point-of-view. Personally, I liked the fact that space-thief Dogora's demise directly contributes to the end of human-thieves' ambitions, and that the police-hero, who has dogged them throughout the movie, has little to do with stopping the gang.

Eiji Tsuburaya's SFX are, of course, generally excellent even when low budgets make the going tough. Dogora itself, unusually for Toho, is created through a combination of animation and puppetry rather than man-in-a-rubber-suit, and its one scene of unabashed destruction -- when floating tentacles grab a bridge and tear it from its foundations, flinging it back onto the harbour foreshores with distinct malice -- is a beauty. The main flaw in the film is that there isn't more of this sort of thing. From conceptual drawings included on the Media Blaster DVD, the main appeal of the floating space jellyfish idea was clearly the unique images of destruction that could be garnered from it: battleships dragged from the stormy sea, buildings torn up by flailing tentacles, an army of Dogoras bringing destruction from above. Alas, these images didn't eventuate.

Not that there aren't evocative scenes of Dogora's drifting bulk appearing out of churning cloudbanks; coal deposits, trucks, debris and people sucked up to feed its hunger; buildings collapsing as it passes overhead. But much more could have been done in this area and if it had been, the film could have been a classic. As it is, it remains a minor, though diverting effort. Without the awful dubbing on the US Dagora version, it succeeds in being unique enough in its kaiju sensibilities to interest most fans of the genre, even though they may feel that the comic crime/diamond-theft scenes take up too much of the film's running time.

22 July 2005

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The Mighty Peking Man (HK, 1977) -- dir. Meng-Hwa Ho

After several quiescent decades on the King Kong front, the mid-1970s saw a sudden resurgence; first De Laurentis perpetrated his wretched remake and then Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers studio (most famous for producing kung fu epics) made Hsing Hsing wang (the HK title of The Mighty Peking Man). While the film hardly does the O'Brien original justice, it is interesting as a remake of King Kong filtered through the sensibilities of Asian popular culture as well as two decades of Japanese daikaiju eiga. At the same time it is a lot of fun -- and even, dare I say it, involving. After drifting restlessly through the shaky beginning, I found myself engrossed in the story of Hsing hsing and his blonde consort in the Big City. Would either of them escape the machinations of evil men and the approaching chaos of a monster-vs-military rampage? I wanted to know.

Though referred to as a giant ape, Hsing hsing displays a primeval human face, being more like a gigantic Neanderthal Man than a gorilla. Yet unlike de Laurentis' Kong, he isn't soporifically pseudo-human. He remains a monster, though a sympathetic, proto-human one, and his actions are fierce and primitive. This giant ape really does stomp on people, even though, generally, they are people who deserve what they get. Mind you, nearly everyone in the film -- except for Ah Wei, the blonde jungle girl -- seems cynically manipulative, self-centred and amoral. Even the hero only scrapes through by the skin of Ah Wei's jungle bikini. There is a surprising cynicism running through the film, a view of humanity that easily veers into misanthropy. Even the grim ending reflects this.

Still, The Mighty Peking Man is more fun than the above suggests, even during its silliest, cheesiest and grimmest moments. Colourful and extreme, it features a simian Godzilla stand-in who trashes Hong Kong to decent apocalyptic effect -- and has the endearing Evelyne Kraft as Ah Wei running around in a skimpy outfit that only manages to cover her throughout the running time via some sort of quasi-mystical optimism on the part of her costume designer.

My advice: stick with it through the less-than-effective beginning scenes of heartbroken hero and rampaging back-projected elephants. Once Evelyne swings onto the scene both viewer interest and narrative focus ramp up a notch or two -- and you might find yourself drawn into caring about the fate of the big ape and his blonde ward.

Note: Make sure you watch the subtitled version, of course. The alternative dubbed one is best avoided.

15 July 2005

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Pulgasari (1985, North Korea) -- dir. Sang-ok Shin (and Chong Gon Jo)

This highly political giant monster flick -- made by South Korean director Sang-ok Shin under duress from kaiju eiga enthusiast and North Korean communist dictator Kim Jong-il -- hasn't been easy to track down, but now that I've managed to see it I find that it isn't as bad as I'd been led to expect. Yes, the story of its making -- a tale of kidnapping, imprisonment, attempted brainwashing and eventual escape -- is more interesting than the film itself. Yes, much of the staging is token and hence a mess, the acting is variable and there are occasional embarrassing SFX moments. But overall the fast pacing, political escalation, copious extras, spectacular battle scenes and decent monster destruction can make up for such failures as poor composite shots, styrofoam boulders and other acts of cinematic shoddiness -- if you're willing to let it.

Considering that the film was made as communist propaganda, I was rather surprised to discover that it is really a larger-scale, though regrettably down-market rip-off of the Japanese Daimajin films. Like those excellent kaiju eiga, it is set in feudal times and features ordinary folk rising against local bullies and tyrants with the aid of an animated statue. On the plus side, there is an effective escalation in the scale of the rebellion, from village rumble to imperial war, over the course of the movie. The monster suit itself is rather good, too -- stiff, yes, but Pulgasari is supposed to be a statue made out of iron, so why wouldn't it move stiffly? And the kaiju avenger's eventual demolition of the evil Emperor's palace is spectacularly handled, with miniatures of exquisite detail getting torn apart from a variety of angles. Almost makes staying awake through the film worthwhile.

Of most interest, however, is the fact that Kim (who is said to have come up with the story) failed to notice that it could easily be seen as a cautionary tale directed against himself. Consider what happens in the film and the allegorical nature of it: representatives of the repressive Emperor force innocent and decent villagers and farmers to give up their tools and metal implements so that weapons can be made for the imperial army. This, of course, undermines the villagers' livelihood. When the blacksmith gives the tools back surreptitiously, he is imprisoned and starved to death. But he makes Pulgasari before he dies and, with a suitable infusion of his spirit of rebellion and a drop of the heroine's blood, Pulgasari grows, eating metal to do so. The more he eats, the bigger he gets. Then, as a symbol of worker rebellion, he helps the villagers dispose of the tyrants and oppressors. However, all is not well; after the tyrant is defeated, the avenging monster still needs metal to eat. Soon the villagers find themselves in the same position they were in originally -- their livelihood under threat, only this time from their "saviour". So Pulgasari has to be disposed of, too, before he becomes a menace to all men everywhere.

So if Pulgasari can be seen as Kim's communist regimé, which saved the people from oppression, it is clear that oppression doesn't disappear with the new regime, it just takes a new form -- and Kim must be disposed of, too, just like his monster. Tyranny breeds tyranny.

Was that really a message Kim knowingly put in his movie? Or was it the director's revenge, I wonder?

28 June 2005

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Varan the Unbelievable (1958, Japan) aka Daikaiju Baran -- dir. Ishiro Honda

The main problem with this Japanese giant monster film from the early days of the genre lies not in its relative cheapness (reflected in the use of stock footage taken from Gojira and its lack of major performers in key roles), but rather in its utter ordinariness -- the fact that even at the time of its release its scenario was beginning to look overly familiar. Now, after 50 years of daikaiju eiga, it comes over as listless and unimaginative.

Previously available in the West only in a severely re-edited form (with so little of the original footage included that there's no point thinking of it as the same film), it is not entirely without merit. The MediaBlasters/Tokyo Shock R1 DVD provides its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and lovely clear black-and-white imagery, with subtitles and a complete absence of Myron Healey. Its Akira Ifukube score is excellent, of course (though in places overly familiar, as the maestro riffs on his own Gojira score) and the Eiji Tsuburaya SFX sequences are generally effective, despite aerial assault scenes which never entirely convince (and there are a lot of them). Even the second-tier actors do a competent job with little to go on. But really the only unique aspects of the film are Varan himself and the music -- and as the US version drops Ifukude's score and transfers the SFX scenes in such a way that the monster becomes dark and obscure, there's no point watching that atrocity.

Contrary to many, I must confess that the only part of the film that really engaged me was the first third, where there still existed the possibility of something imaginative happening. The mountain setting, the isolated lake, the superstitious natives and the hints of mysticism that gather around their concept of the Monster God Baradagi all have potential. I loved the use of wind and fog as it heralds Varan's rise. Unfortunately the script never connects any of the dots, gives no interesting rationale for the monster's appearance ("he's angry because you came too close to his lake" seems a bit desperate), and pushes its only developed characters into the background after the first act in order to pursue the usual military light-and-hardware show for the remainder of the film's running time. All the good destruction and monster rampage is here, of course, but it becomes a bit meaningless after a while. I confess I wanted some scripting to be in evidence.

In short, the film suffers from having begun its life as a US-Toho TV-oriented co-production, which was upgraded to cinema-release status after the US company pulled out. It seems rushed, cheap and under-developed. Not Honda's finest hour, even though it remains entertaining on a B-grade level.

1 June 2005

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King Kong (1976, US) -- dir. John Guillermin

When I saw this remake of the 1933 classic monster film, King Kong, during its late 1970s cinema release, I remember feeling utter disgust at its wrongheaded approach to almost every aspect of the story, particularly the misinformed attempt to humanise Kong in a way that was undoubtedly sentimental and calculated to wrench the heart-strings, but which merely served to dilute the iconic power of the original and make me angry. The SFX had seemed generally effective, if occasionally wonky, the characterisations weak and stereotyped, and the overall atmosphere bland.

Given an excuse to re-watch it on DVD now, in 2005, I wondered whether the years would have mellowed my reaction. Yes, King Kong (1933) is still one of my favourite films, having an enduring power that the "old-fashioned" aspects of its production only manage to enhance, and a mythic resonance that has grown stronger through the years. But I've become tolerant of some aspects of film-making that might once have sent me into a paroxym of disdain and find myself defending all sorts of less-than-perfect flicks -- as a quick perusal of this website will readily affirm. So maybe, just maybe, I was a bit hard on Dino de Laurentis' remake the first time around and I could see it now with more balance and more generosity.

Well, no, I'm afraid not. I can confidently report that my feelings remain pretty much the same. The film's sentimentality is still as arch and annoying as it ever was. The effects look even worse than they did then -- Toho had been doing much better miniature work and suitmation for decades by the time this "technological break-through" was lensed, and I'm now more conscious of how superb much of the often-derided Japanese SFX work really is. Sure, Rick Baker's suit and his acting from inside it is admirable (except for those appalling looks of marshmellow sappyness that he was apparently directed to send toward his miniature love from time to time) -- but the brief glimpses of Rambaldi's much-touted full-size robot Kong are still dreadful and ruin the whole thing... or would have, if the script and direction hadn't done such a damn fine job of ruining it already.

OK, director Guillermin does a reasonable job here and there. The scenes of captured Kong being taken home in the oil tanker -- and particularly his explosive rage and pathetic surrender -- are very effective, and augured well for the rest of the picture. In fact, despite daft changes made to the original storyline, the first half of the film is tolerable enough ... as far as misguided remakes go. The problem is the last half. Kong's NY humiliation is wildly overplayed, his rampage through the streets is dismally weak and his demise is only moving in a shallow, manipulative way... there is certainly no emotional depth to it. The main problem (and I leave aside the empty-headed bimbo-ishness of Jessica Lang's heroine, Jeff Bridges' totally ineffectual Jack, the poor pacing and choreography of Kong's humilation and escape, and a dozen other weaknesses) is that Guillermin and his script do not appear to understand that Kong needs to be an animal -- a unique, powerful animal -- and not a man-in-a-monkey-suit. His motivations and responses need to be those of an ape, not a man. This is where the power of the original comes from. In that film, we are moved by Kong's plight both intellectually and emotionally, responding to the tragedy of a powerful being taken out of its proper place, weakened by Beauty, and subsequently destroyed by "the little people", who don't deserve to conquer. It is pathetic in a true sense. Instead, Guillermin made the Ape-God's fate bathetic.

This lack of emotional power is exacerbated by the fact that Guillermin's Kong is never King in any significant way. Removing the dinosaurs -- and thus all the iconic power that comes from Kong's incredible feat of killing a Tyrannosaurus Rex with his bare hands -- means that there are really no heights from which Kong can fall.

Except, of course, those of the original....

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Boa vs Python (2003, US) -- dir. David Flores

Question: What's the first thing you do when you've got a giant python rampaging through the countryside?

Answer: Forget the army. Forget the airforce. Forget the Indian snake-charmer that hangs out down the markets on weekends. Get another giant snake of a different species (so viewers can tell them apart) and send it out after the first. Preferably controlled by a cute marine biologist with implants. Direct monster-to-monster biffo is the ONLY way to go in situations like these!

Some viewers on the Internet Movie Database give this giant snake flick a right ol' serve. The technical term "sucks" is used quite often.

But I have to say, I don't think it's all that bad. Hey, it's a low-budget film -- a TV movie, straight-to-video affair. There's no point expecting the CGI to look as stunning as the CGI in Lord of the Rings (just servicable will do). It's no use expecting a highly original plot (though it is possible to get one, if you're lucky). Don't look for award-winning performances (though there's plenty of good actors out there seeking work and one of them might wander by just at the right moment). What Boa vs Python does have is losts of giant snake action (even if the snake-on-snake stuff is slow in coming), an OK plot (fairly straight-forward and cliched, but still a plot, which is more than you can say for some big-budget Hollywood blockbusters), some interesting characterisations (along with the inevitable stock variants), gratuitous nudity for those inclined that way, a reasonable pace, decent direction, plenty of enthusiasm and a reasonably spectacular climax in a subway tunnel. Yes, there are stupid bits of plotting and lapses of logic (even dismissing those inherent in the genre tropes), but we all know how easy it is for such glitches to sneak through the frenzied production process, don't we? When did you last see a big-budgeter that was free of them?

Question: Did you see New Alcatraz (known as Boa in the US)? How about Python? Did you check out Python 2? If you've seen all three, you might as well see this one, too -- it's certainly no worse than these and is different enough to keep you awake through to the end. What's more, the DVD has a really good, if deceptively inaccurate, cover, evoking a scene that you can dream about after the credits roll.

Note: The title Boa vs Python suggests that the film is a sequel to Boa as well as the Python films, but it isn't. There's no connection with New Alcatraz, though it fits into the Python series well enough.

10 February 2005

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King Kong Escapes [aka Kingukongu no gyakushu, lit. King Kong Strikes Again] (1967, Japanese) -- dir. Ishiro Honda

Yet another giant monster flick I find it impossible to dislike. Generally scorned by critics and writers of movie guides, it is actually a well-produced effort and much less cheapjack than the critics would have you believe. On top of that it is colourful, well-crafted and exciting, with lots of great daikaiju imagery and a wonderful use of the Tohoscope widescreen format, giving it an expansive quality that is often rather impressive.

Made not as a sequel to the original Kong, nor as a sequel to Honda's own Kingu Kongu tai Gojira (King Kong vs Godzilla), but rather as a live-action tie-in to a Rank/Baskin cartoon TV series King Kong from 1966 (an ancestry that makes perfect sense when you see it in that light), it ranks as a decent piece of monster entertainment -- veering, of course, more to camp than to drama. A list of its basic elements says it all: a rather comical yet endearing Kong (despite throw-away critical comments to the contrary, this suit is not mangy and, while kooky, looks in much better condition than the one in King Kong vs Godzilla); a very cool, and rather cute, Mechani-Kong; Gorosaurus, Kong's rather stiff reptilian rival; a sea-serpent; an evil scientist (Dr Huu or Dr Who, depending on the version you're watching, and played by the gaunt and wonderful-looking Eisei Amamoto, who appears in endless character roles in Japanese action and fantasy films); a beautiful secret agent from an unnamed country (the gorgeous Mie Hama, in great '60s gear); dastardly world-threatening plots; a secret base in the Antarctic, replete with classic '60s decor and strange bits of pseudo-technology; a lost prehistoric island; some effective city-trashing; and a climactic punch-up between Kong and Mechani-Kong that takes place on Tokyo Tower.

Honda keeps the whole thing moving at a cracking pace, effectively dragging the viewer into the film's cartoon ambiance; in fact, I find its structure a lot more effective than many better-reviewed monster films. The acting is fine. As well as the afore-mentioned Eisei Amamoto and Mie Hama, there are decent performances from two US actors -- Rhodes Reason, who makes an OK if bland hero, and Linda Miller, who looks cutely blonde and takes to Kong immediately, so that, unlike her predecessor, she engages in minimal screaming -- as well as the ubiquitous and well-respected Akira Takarada, who undertakes the actual heroics. The SFX run a bit hot-and-cold, but in general the monster stuff is both awesome and awesomely silly and the miniature landscapes are detailed. Sure, you have to suspend disbelief, but that's the name of the game, isn't it?

King Kong Escapes does pinch plot elements and various incidentals from the original King Kong, but in form, mood and imagery, it's definitely late-'60s daikaiju eiga: colourful, silly and rather engaging.

One last thing: it's better to see the original Japanese version, if you can, even though Reason and Miller are necessarily dubbed into Japanese. Apparently their voices are dubbed on the English version, too. I actually found the Japanese dubbing rather effective -- it may be my lack of knowledge of the language, but I often had trouble determining whether or not they were dubbed.

10 February 2005

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The X From Outer Space [aka Uchu daikaijû Girara] (1967, Japanese) -- dir. Kazui Nihonmatsu

Despite reviews that universally deride this film as cheap, juvenile, a cheesy mess and just plain bad film-making, I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly. How can you not like a Giant Space Chicken on a rampage, especially in a context that places the kaiju and humanity in an archetypally 1960s version of outer space culture? Sure, it's not a great film, and nor is it a great example of daikaiju eiga per se. The model work is much less detailed than anything created by master Eiji Tsuburaya, even at his cheapest. Everything looks like a toy. But who cares? The design work overall is lovely (especially the AAB Gamma spaceship and the moon-base uniforms -- much better than those designed, for example, for Space 1999) and the SFX people produce some beautiful (and occasionally original) shots of Gilala at work.

The music? Largely pedestrian and a little repetitious, though occasionally it achieves a '60s pop quality that works effectively with the excellent primary colouring of the clothing to give the film an appealing kitsch ambiance.

The acting? Passable. Even though Peggy Neal injects a sort of carefree "cuteness" into her manner that sometimes makes her look stoned, she is appealing in the thankless part (how come the crew's female biologist -- Neal -- is the only one who makes coffee or hands out the frozen dinners? Don't tell me. I know the answer). The other minor Caucasian actors involved aren't nearly as incompetent as usual for the kinds of international cameo roles they undertake. And the Japanese actors manage the proceedings with professional aplomb.

The script? In terms of the actual dialogue, it's hard to say. The version under review is the US AIP one, dubbed and pan-and-scanned for TV. As it stands, much of the dialogue is rather abrupt and hokey. The narrative flow is glacial in getting underway, with a semi-relevant lead-in to the actual plot that lasts for 40-odd minutes. But the underlying human elements work well against the monster action and when the interplay between them converges with the action sequences -- to, for example, place Neal in danger of being trodden on -- the film really fires. The scene where the heroes divert Gilala's attention using a jeep packed with radioactive material and a chase ensues is one of my favourite monster scenes ever. OK, I know the jeep looks like a toy in distance shots, but, as I say, who cares?

As for the main attraction -- Gilala himself: as a kaiju he is ridiculous, of course, but the rubber-suit is a great design and satisfyingly detailed, and most of his rampage scenes are excellent. He's an appealing chap, combining the ridiculous and the awesome -- both basic elements of daikaiju -- into a rather unique kaiju personality.

Overall, the word that describes this film best is not "good" or "effective" or "cheesy" or "bad", but "appealing". Its rather strange approach to standard kaiju antics and the colourful elements working within it succeed in making it a surprisingly entertaining film -- provided you have the requisite tolerance as a viewer.

But it is also clear from this AIP TV version that the film would look much better in widescreen. I could tolerate the dubbing (there have been worse examples), but the pan-and-scan image was clearly cut off, and cut off badly. There are scenes of dialogue where you can't see the speaker at all! Terrible. It seems a pity, too, as some moments suggest that the cinematographer and director really knew what they were doing in framing their shots. Oh well, one day...

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King Kong vs Godzilla [aka Kingu Kongu tai Gojira] (1962, Japanese) -- dir. Ishiro Honda

In the west, we are mostly familiar with this film as a cheesy, badly constructed mess, and any affection we might have for it comes from a nostalgic appreciation of its camp qualities. Objectively, it sucks.

Well, King Kong vs Godzilla only sucks in the US version released in 1963 and "directed" by Thomas Montgomery. The real thing is terrific -- once you realise that it's a satire, which isn't a difficult conclusion to come to when you see it in its original form. Here the laughs are intentional! In all seriousness, watching it in its original form is like seeing a totally different film.

Unedited and in its original form, King Kong vs Godzilla has a good balanced script and is tightly and energetically directed -- with great pacing and an expansive humour. The acting's good, too (featuring some major Japanese comedians), provided you don't mind a bit of overacting at times. G's design is generally fine (though better in profile than face on). Only the tatty Kong suit is less than satisfactory -- and you even get used to that.

The clearest indication of how bad and damaged the US edit is can be seen right at the beginning. As you may recall, it begins with a narration taking place over a spinning globe ... bad, cheesy and inane. The US version takes this as a straight introduction, leading into all that really, really boring stuff with the news commentator (Michael Keith) telling us "what's going on" in the most dramatically dull and stupid manner imaginable.

In the original, the spinning globe still appears ... and it's still bad and cheesy ... but we immediately realise that it's part of a science program being watched by the phaumaceutical company's marketing manager (Ichirô Arishima). And he thinks it's bad, too. This leads directly into his complaints about how badly the show is rating and how something must be done to boost its appeal ... which of course is the motivation for seeking out King Kong in the first place. So the bad SFX aren't B-grade Japanese filmmaking (as is often claimed), but a joke and part of the developing plot.

Now, who on earth would have thought that making THAT change was a good idea?

When I'd only seen the US version, I couldn't understand why King Kong vs Godzilla is the highest grossing G film in Japan, was premiered at an Arts festival and is generally well-thought-of by Japanese film historians. It didn't make sense. However, when I finally saw the original, I understood that (a) it's a deliberately funny film, (b) it's very well made, and (c) it is NOT a low budget, camp throw-away.

Note: It should not need to be said after all this time, but reviewers who write about the film without seeing the two versions are still passing on the myth that there are two endings, one in which Kong wins and one in which Godzilla wins. Well, there aren't two endings. Just one.

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Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla [aka Gojira tai Supesu Gojira] (1994) -- dir. Kensho Yamashita

Like most of the Godzilla films, Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (the 21st G film) works much better seen in widescreen and in its original language, with subtitles. Some subtleties are lost in the US dubbed version, sure. But more than that, it was the tone and flow of the film that is improved seeing it in its original form.

Now, I know Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla is the subject of much scorn in critical -- and fan -- circles, and is ranked very low by cognoscenti. But, frankly, I thought it was pretty good. Sure, the space-fight scene looked fake, but I didn't really care. I can go with the artificiality of it. I don't think an attempt was made to make it look "real" -- there seemed to me to be a deliberate abstraction about it. Generally, in fact, I thought the film makers tried to give the imagery of the film a different, imaginative feel.

Elements of the plot tie in with previous movies nicely, too, especially in terms of the Major Yuki character (an eccentric soul with a grudge against Godzilla who spends his time, at first, plotting the Big G's destruction), and many of the visuals are effective and even intriguingly unusual (though some of the back-projection city-stomping is noticably poor in terms of colour synchronisation). There is a fun surreal quality about SpaceGodzilla's crystal forest in the middle of Tokyo, Godzilla looks great, and SpaceGodzilla himself -- despite detractors -- is spiffingly nasty-looking... a dynamic, post-Godzilla kaiju.

True, the film is slow in places, rambling on and skipping between plots, but I find that this doesn't annoy me overly. Most of the Heisei films suffer from a similar looseness of focus and an over-concentration on the mechanics of the military's response. It reflects the philosophy that seems to run through that series (from 1989's Godzilla vs Biollante to 1995's Godzilla vs Destoroyah).

This time 'round, I did notice something that hinted at the disaster that would befall Godzilla in the next film, Godzilla vs Destoroyah. There is a moment in the climax when G forces his radiation levels to an unprecedented high in order to destroy SpaceG. As he does so, lines of power burst from him for a moment. The same effect would be used in the next film when G's nuclear heart explodes at the climax. It is almost as though the effort to kill SpaceG is the stimulus that precipitates G's subsequent nuclear meltdown and (albeit temporary) demise. Perhaps it is not deliberate here, but it may have suggested the idea in hindsight. I like to think so anyway. It adds a certain comforting continuity to the series.

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Kronos: Ravager of Planets (1957) -- dir. Kurt Neuman

This '50s SF giant machine / alien invasion movie is a great example of a film that should be seen in its original screen ratio of 2.35:1 to be properly appreciated. I'd only ever seen it on TV in a pan-and-scan, faded and scratchy print. In this form, it had come over as enjoyable enough, but not overly impressive visually. On the new DVD it looks great and proves to be a much better movie than I'd thought. In places it's almost surreal. The director (Kurt Neuman) isn't the most imaginative of directors (though his best-known film is, I think, The Fly, with Vincent Price, and that's pretty good), but he really uses the widescreen image well here to give a sense of space and epic grandeur hardly warranted by the SFX themselves. The movie only cost $160,000 to make, which, even in those days, was pretty paltry. But it looks good and there are several moments of genuine awe.

One of the best involves the main characters landing on the top of the gigantic machine in a 'copter. It is simply done, but really works. However, when Kronos appears in San Francisco and moves through the streets, it's obvious what was needed -- some expertise from Toho. There isn't enough city-smashing, with the destruction suggested using stock footage and cut-ins of the machine's pistons -- or the thing merely superimposed over a normal distant cityscape, along with added smoke and flame. It actually works OK, but how much better would it have been with some of Japan's model makers on the job!

Despite the very US SF-invasion storyline, it was clear to me that the film had been influenced strongly by Gojira (or more probably Godzilla, King of the Monsters). The makers just didn't have the expertise or money at hand to achieve what they clearly had in mind.

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Godzilla vs Gigan [aka Chikyu kogeki meirei-Gojira tai Gaigan -- Earth Destruction Directive: Godzilla vs Gigan; Godzilla on Monster Island] (1972) -- dir. Jun Fukuda

In this, the 12th Godzilla film, the Big G talks!

And don't the critics scorn it!

But the talking isn't so appalling in the context of the film itself if you consider the themes (and watch the Japanese version rather than the badly dubbed US one). Think about it: the main human protagonist is a manga artist developing a new kaiju character (the Monster of Homework) and hired to publicise a Godzilla theme park. The plot (with its aliens and hidden conspiracies) is deliberately fantastical and manga-ish. Moreover, like Godzilla's Revenge, though to a lesser extent, it comments on Godzilla's iconic role in modern society. So, in the Japanese version, when Godzilla speaks to Angilas as he heads off to save the world from the dread aliens, what he says appears in a manga speech bubble (presumably representing a kaiju mode of communication)! Very appropriate to the comicbook context and rather postmodern, don't you think? Those responsible for the US dub completely missed the point when they gave him a hideous synthesised voice.

The talking is not just a bit of silliness. It's art!

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Godzilla vs Hedorah [aka Gojira tai Hedora; Godzilla vs the Smog Monster] (1971) -- dir. Yoshimitsu Banno

Godzilla vs Hedorah is a "divisive" G-film -- pretty much a love-it or hate-it proposition for fans of the Big G. Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who was in hospital during the production, is said to have seen what Banno did to "his" project and flipped out, declaring that Banno had "ruined Godzilla". Well, that seems a little extreme. While some fans loathe the film as a G-travesty, others love it for its weirdness, its dark nastiness, its seriousness. It may not be a "typical" G-film (or the "best" G-film), but it is certainly a memorable one.

And then there's the spectacle of seeing Godzilla fly through the air, tail tucked under his body, using his fire breath as a means of rocket propulsion!

OK, the flight scene is very ... let's say, controversial... but, you know, it sort of fits into this particular movie, with its theme of pollution and its hallucinatory imagery. Hopefully Godzilla will NEVER fly like that again, but in this particular universe, where smog and pollution can come alive and turn into a giant monster -- and where Godzilla movies can have weird cartoon inserts and hippies hang about on Mt Fuji singing and dancing and generally getting stoned while the world burns -- it seems entirely appropriate that Godzie could use his fire breath to propel himself through the air. This is Godzilla seen through a chemical haze -- drugs being another form of pollution, after all.

Far-fetched, you reckon? No, not at all! It seems to me to be an imaginative -- and not entirely implausible -- interpretation! What with the nightclub scene where patrons turn into fish-headed monsters under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (as in Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas) -- or the scene where Hedorah sucks on a smoking chimney as though it's a bong -- interpreting the blatant surrealism of Smog Monster as some sort of drug-induced supra-reality is entirely appropriate!



Godzilla on drugs?

Godzilla enters Tokyo in a gigantic combi-van (which has been painted in flower-child patterns by Mothra's fairies), finds a nice place to crash and starts doing joints. Before you know it, the City is shrouded in a dense blanket of sweet-smelling smoke. The inhabitants and the military become too lay-back to worry about getting rid of him.

GENERAL (to G): Hey, man! Pass it around!

GODZILLA: Sure thing.

Whereupon the General is crushed under several tons of burning marijuana.

Or, if Godzilla is into cocaine, they could get rid of him by laying a gigantic line that leads to a volcano -- and he falls into it in a drugged stupor as he crawls along sniffing the line up his cavernous nostrils.

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Godzilla vs Megalon (1973, aka Gojira tai Megaro) -- dir. Jun Fukuda

Godzilla vs Megalon (the 13th, and most contemptuously maligned, of the Godzilla movies) is actually fun and colourful and looks good in widescreen, certainly as compared to the badly dubbed, pan-and-scanned TV version we've all mostly been used to. Naturally, it continues to be silly and on occasion considerably less than perfect, but it's fun nevertheless. Though watching it with its original soundtrack may make the film seem a little less dorky, I really don't think it makes that much difference. I can't remember exactly what the dub sounds like and nor can I remember it clearly enough to say how much editing went on in the dub version. But my general reaction to both versions is much the same.

Widescreen makes a huge difference though. The composition of most shots is excellent and there are some great looking scenes. Pan-and-scan makes it look cheap, more confined and utterly throw-away.

Clearly G vs Megalon is a kid's picture, with little by way of adult content in subject matter or approach, and it's not really a child/adult cross-over type film either. Seatopia (home of the watery bad guys) is underdeveloped and the rationalisation for convenient plot elements, such as Jet Jaguar's sudden ability to "grow up" (as they put it), is generally either weak or absent.

But who cares? Seen as a kid's movie, it's a fine film -- a sort of comedy/adventure fantasy. Even Godzilla's "slide kick" works amusingly in that context -- as does the corny bonding between G and the robot. And perhaps it's my perverted imagination, but at one point I noticed that Megalon "moons" Godzilla and Jet J contemptuously during their wrestling match, turning his backside toward G and slapping it!

Taken as a World Wide Wrestling parody, the extended four-way fight
sequence is hilarious!

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Garuda (Thai, 2004) -- dir. Monthon Arayangkoon

A new, digitally filmed giant monster flick from Thailand? Sounds interesting? It is, but the news is both good and bad. Several points:

  1. It's not really a giant monster film, despite appearances. Garuda the monster is about the size of the Hulk at the end of the recent version of that particular marvel's bio-pic, or maybe Mr Hyde as featured in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: bigger than an elephant, but smaller than... um ... Minya (Godzilla's "son"). He's Mighty Joe Young rather than Kong in size. As a beastie, he's pretty good though. Still kaiju, I guess, strictly speaking. But there's no city-crunching (though he does pick up a car in his claw while flying along the street and leaves nasty claw marks in assorted walls).
  2. While the SFX are actually rather good and the whole thing is filmed very nicely indeed (it was filmed digitally, like Star Wars Episode 1, to make the digital addition of the monster easier), it lacks something really important: a plot that holds your attention. It is actually just a very linear bug-hunt movie, and all interesting aspects (and there are several) remain undeveloped. For example:

    Leena, the lead female character, to military guys: "What do you people do?"

    Military guy: "We kill Gods."

    Now there's an extremely interesting idea lurking there (conveyed as well through a bit of intriguing back story), but it isn't really pursued. In the end your mind wanders because the film remains pretty much on the same track as it started on, proceeding to the inevitable climax without too many stops along the way and without exposing much except the mere existence of the beastie.
  3. Garuda itself is a well-designed CGI creature, very effectively done. It even manages to come over as heavy, something that CGI creatures in many other recent monster films fail to do.
  4. Most of the film takes place in a cave and only develops real drive toward the end when the monster escapes into the subway tunnels and then out onto the streets.
  5. The cast contains a non-Thai actor in a major role whose idea of expressing emotion (all of them) is to hang around with his mouth open. Why don't foreign film makers stick with good actors from their own country if they can't attract decent ones from OS? The Thai actors here are fine, even if their characters, like the plot, are underdeveloped and underused.
  6. I'm not at all familiar with Thai social politics, but there is in the film an intriguing undercurrent of racial hatred directed towards the character Leena, who is of mixed Thai/French heritage. It doesn't lead anywhere much, but it's interesting as far as it goes.

In balance, then, the whole thing is not embarrassing or even particularly bad. In the final analysis, it simply fails to engage at the deepest level. But it's rather entertaining nevertheless, the monster looks great and the Thai ALL-REGION DVD is a beautiful print in anamorphic widescreen with readable English subtitles.

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Godzilla vs the Sea Monster (Gojira-Ebira-Mosura: Nankai no daiketto [Godzilla, Ebirah, Mothra: South Seas Giant Battle] (1966; dir. Jun Fukuda) aka Godzilla vs The Sea Monster (US, 1968), Ebirah, Horror of the Deep

Though there's minimal Godzilla-on-a-city-destroying-rampage action, Godzilla vs the Sea-Monster is a fun, well-made G-film -- in a light, not-at-all-serious way. This is especially so when it is viewed in its proper widescreen format. Great use is made of the island vistas and the look of the film is bright and exotic. Sure, the decision to set the film (Godzilla's 7th) on a tropical island was no doubt made in order to save money, but in the retrospective context of 27 films, the difference works well and no doubt helps account for the fact that the franchise has survived for so long (50 years). But either way this film should not be dismissed as a "poverty row" knock-off, as some critics have done.

My favourite scene is where the island girl Daiyo (Kumi Misuno), chased by the Red Bamboo (an evil militarist organisation engaged in some nefarious world-conquering nastiness), stumbles upon Godzilla who proceeds to chase off the bad guys but more-or-less ignores the girl and settles down on a rock to contemplate his navel. She's no threat and he's clearly quite content to have her around. Mind you, I notice he does take a close squizz first, before settling down to sleep, so perhaps it's not his own navel he's dreaming about.....

Note: It is a pity, however, that the particular Goji-suit design of this film makes the Big G look so much like a muppet.

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