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1982 Redux

January 1st, 2015 No comments

It has been said that 1982 was the greatest year ever for sci-fi and fantasy films. It saw the release of E.T. the Extraterrestrial; Blade Runner; Tron; Conan the Barbarian; The Dark Crystal; The Thing; Poltergeist; The Road Warrior; and, of course, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (And that’s just the top tier. There were also such lesser lights as Creepshow; The Beastmaster; The Sword and the Sorcerer; Cat People; Firefox; The Secret of NIMH…)

I’d argue that genre fans enjoyed a 2014 that rivaled that fabled year. The biggest box office hit was also the best Star Wars chapter since 1983: Guardians of the Galaxy. Full of humor, heart and imagination, it demonstrated the malleability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made stars out of a talking tree and a bazooka-toting raccoon.

Marvel was 2-for-2 this year, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier offering a superb blend of superhero action and political thriller, not to mention the singular sight of Robert Redford hailing Hydra.

“Graphic novels” inspired two more of this year’s best. Snowpiercer literalized the class struggle between the 1% and the 99% in a firefight raging across a futuristic train endlessly circling a frozen, post-apocalyptic planet. The criminally overlooked Edge of Tomorrow may have had one of the worst titles* in recent memory, but it was an exciting and often hilarious tale of time-looping warfare against invading aliens, with fine performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

Two reboots shared the setting of a ruined San Francisco. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes expanded on the critical and commercial success of the venerable franchise’s recent reinvention with a tragically unavoidable conflict between humans and simians. And while the latest Godzilla fell short of greatness thanks to its bland human characters, it did a more than adequate job of erasing the previous American remake from our collective memory.

And, of course, The Lego Movie shocked everyone by transforming a crass marketing exercise into a tribute to creativity with a wonderfully meta third-act twist.

This was a year in which even the second-tier films were pretty darned good. Among them were the time-tripping X-Men: Days of Future Past; the enjoyably ludicrous Lucy; and The Battle of the Five Armies, the inevitable finale of The Hobbit trilogy. And while neither Interstellar nor Under the Skin did it for me, both were a good bit more memorable than average genre entries.

I suspect that the reason that this remarkable string of cinematic releases went uncelebrated is that nowadays we’re accustomed to tentpole sci-fi and fantasy flicks. Back in 1982, we were only a few years out from Star Wars. Other notable films had followed in its wake, among them Superman and Alien, but the summer of 1982 saw the first sustained run of mega-money, influential titles.

The year to come (which actually came as I was typing that last paragraph) looks promising, though most of the big releases are franchise follow-ups: Star Wars, Terminator, The Avengers, Mad Max and Jurassic World. Hopefully there’ll be a few surprises. I’m still holding out hope that Jupiter Ascending will turn out okay.

* Though the alternative titles were no better. The original novel was nonsensically named  All You Need is Kill. For home video, the film was retitled with its theatrical marketing tagline Live Die Repeat. They might as well have called it Groundhog Day Meets Starship Troopers; at least that would’ve informed the audience what to expect.

 

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31 Monsters Between The Screams #31

October 31st, 2014 No comments

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Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good Godzilla like that.

31 Monsters Between The Screams #23

October 23rd, 2014 No comments

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The Mutant from The Day the World Ended

…TONIGHT! On Dancing With the Stars!

31 Monsters Between The Screams #22

October 22nd, 2014 No comments

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The Outer Limits Breakfast Club.

31 Monsters Between The Screams #21

October 21st, 2014 No comments

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Not even the Creature was immune to the euphoria of V-J Day.

31 Monsters Between The Screams #20

October 21st, 2014 No comments

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I shouldn’t be surprised by the number of photos of kaiju cavorting with bikini girls.

Here, Gorosaurus gets in on the fun.

31 Monsters Between The Screams #18

October 18th, 2014 No comments

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I never even knew he was musical.

For A Few ‘Zillas More

May 21st, 2014 No comments

Some random (spoilery) bullet points that I neglected to mention in my review of the 2014 Godzilla:

  • Trailers often feature shots that don’t make the final cut, but this is the first time I’ve spotted one that was recomposited to disguise its true nature. In the trailers, Elizabeth Olsen catches a glimpse of a roaring Godzilla between a pair of closing doors, but in the film she sees him fighting one of the Mutos.
  • Everyone seems to have spotted the Easter Egg of a masking tape label on which is scrawled the word “Mothra.” So far, I haven’t read any mention that Mothra herself (or, at least, a moth with suspiciously similar markings) is depicted on a classroom poster.
  • Godzilla’s new origin–that he hails from a time in prehistory during which creatures had evolved to absorb the greater amount of background radiation–is a prime slice of Silver Age science. That befits a character spawned in the 1950s, but it puts the lie to the notion that this is a more grounded, realistic Godzilla.
  • I’m glad to see the return of Godzilla-as-metaphor, but his new post-Atomic Age meaning is vague. They seemed to be going for a theme previously summed up by the lyrics of Blue Oyster Cult: “History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of man.” I found it a little weak; while the nuclear plant disaster evoked Fukushima, its cause wasn’t human hubris or error, but rather a big, fucking bug.
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Let Them Fight

May 20th, 2014 No comments

I wheedled my way into seeing the new Godzilla film while on vacation in San Francisco because, come on, how many opportunities do I get to see Godzilla trash the city I’m in at the time? It wasn’t in IMAX or 3D, but the screen at the Metreon was plenty big. (I’m told that the Metreon is the premier movie theater in SF, and thought that the filmmakers missed an opportunity by not producing an exclusive cut of the film with a shot of the monsters crashing against the mall in which it’s housed, complete with an appropriate THUMP on the soundtrack.)

Overall, I enjoyed it. It may not be the Godzilla My Dreams, but it certainly demolishes the previous attempt at an Americanized ‘Zilla. I agree with the general gist of the reviews: bland human characters, and not enough Godzilla. The former is endemic to the giant monster genre; I’m hard-pressed to think of a single interesting human in a kaiju flick. (UPDATE: I was later embarrassed to realize that I’d overlooked the tragic Dr. Serizawa in the original Gojira. The character even gets a namesake in the new film.) I wouldn’t go so far as to declare it a feature rather than a bug, but neither can I complain too loudly about it.

The relative lack of Godzilla is a bit harder to reconcile. I welcome restraint in the “more is more” era of the modern blockbuster film, yet there was a point in which I was thinking that the film was a continuation of its own marketing campaign, which perpetually teased those who wanted a good look at the monsters. I did appreciate the slow build, but I think that once we got the first full reveal of the Big G in Hawaii, it was high time to stop playing coy. Smash cutting away from the big fight to Elizabeth Olsen’s kid watching the carnage on the living room TV? Cute, but perhaps a bit too clever. People always credit Steven Spielberg with holding back on the shark in Jaws, but later interviews revealed that the real reason it largely remained hidden is that the mechanical prop didn’t work. We don’t have that problem anymore.

Now for the good stuff. Unlike the disastrous 1998 American film, Godzilla ’14 respects the character and does him right. The monster-on-monster action, when it does come, is thrilling. Both the Big G and his “Muto” opponents display personality that makes them more than dumb brutes. And the movie succeeds at one of the most challenging aspects of the kaiju genre: integrating the vastly different scales of humans and monsters. Like Cloverfield, much of the destruction occurs from the people’s-eye view. There’s a shared moment between Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character and Godzilla himself that gave me a happy chill.

That’s it for the non-spoilers. Join me under the photo for all spoilers, all the time.

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One thing that I did not suspect at all was that the script would skip past the conception of Godzilla as a malign force or indiscriminate destroyer to something approaching his heroic mode of the ’70s. While the military would be quite happy to exterminate him along with the Mutos, the latter are clearly viewed as the primary threat. The U.S. Navy goes so far as to escort Godzilla to the final battle in San Francisco.

Godzilla is positioned as a defender of nature/Earth, much like Mothra or the ’90s version of Gamera. He’s not quite Godzilla, Friend of Children (though we do get a young Japanese boy who, surprisingly, is not named “Kenny”); his approach to Hawaii creates a tidal wave resulting in massive destruction and loss of life. Yet, when the San Francisco news media proclaims him as “Savior of (most of) Our City,” it’s without irony. In that regard, it’s a more optimistic film than the most recent take on Superman.

Oh, and I couldn’t wrap this up without mentioning the return of Godzilla’s atomic breath, which the makers of the ’98 ‘Zilla found too hard to swallow. When the spines on his tail began to light up, I mentally punched the air. And, of course, there was Godzilla’s finishing move against the Queen Muto, a use of his breath I don’t believe we’ve ever seen before!

All in all, it was a good film and I’m glad to see it doing well enough to immediately green light a sequel. Go, but temper your expectations for the first hour and save some popcorn for the final reel.

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Destroy All Kaiju

July 16th, 2013 No comments

I’m just speculating here, but I imagine that the average anxiety level in the production offices of Legendary Pictures has risen a few notches. Here they are, trying to drum up interest in next summer’s Godzilla reboot at the same time that the American public is demonstrating its indifference toward their current giant monster epic, Pacific Rim.

Maybe it was just a scheduling issue, but it did seem odd to me that Godzilla is being produced as the follow-up to Pacific Rim rather than the other way ’round. Godzilla has the name recognition, but it also has (so far as we know at this time) just the one giant monster. (EDIT: Ding dong, I’m wrong. The official description was just released, and say “this spectacular adventure pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.” So there’s that.) Pacific Rim, on the other hand, has lots of monsters (and robots), but isn’t based on an existing property.* Coming out second, Godzilla risks being seen as the lesser spectacle, a potential problem made worse if Pacific Rim appears to have poisoned the giant monster well.

Unfortunately for Legendary Pictures and Godzilla fans, Pacific Rim isn’t just a mediocre box office performer, it’s a mediocre film.

I’m torn here. I really, really, really, really want to love it. I want to hold it to my bosom and proclaim it as the Second Coming of Spielberg.

And, lest we forget, I am very forgiving when it comes to giant monster movies. I unreservedly love Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, despite production values perhaps 1,000 times lesser than those displayed by Pacific Rim. Hell, recently I voluntarily watched the nadir of the Toho Studios film series, Godzilla vs. Megalon, in its native Japanese.

Now I’m in no way saying that Pacific Rim is inferior to Godzilla vs. Megalon, in that very little that exists in any of the known states of matter is less than Godzilla vs. Megalon. It’s just that, considering both its production budget ($190 million) and pedigree (acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro), I hold Rim to a higher standard.

The main problem for me is the assortment of stock character types with their off-the-shelf backgrounds and motivations. That wouldn’t be a problem if they brought a bit of personality or fun to the party, but the only ones who seem to be having a good time are Ron Perlman as a dealer in monster body parts, and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the comedy relief scientists. When the frog-faced guy from Torchwood is the most entertaining member of your ensemble, that’s a concern.

My other major complaint is that, with the exception of a couple of flashbacks, every monster appearance takes place at night, in the rain and/or at the bottom of the ocean. I thought that we were past the point that we needed everything to be dark and rain-streaked to hide the special effects seams.

So, what does Pacific Rim do right? A lot, actually. It’s got a bit of a Top Gun vibe with its international team of pilots. The monster designs–many courtesy Hellboy artist Guy Davis and master alien illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe–are varied and bizarre. A great deal of attention has been paid toward world-building, with such details as a slum built inside the carcass of a dead beast and a misguided attempt at border-security known as the “Wall of Life.”**

It’s far from a disaster, but it’s a definite disappointment coming as it does from del Toro, whose love for this subject matter runs deep.

In light of this, I say good luck, Godzilla. Your long-anticipated comeback just got a bit more difficult.

*And if you doubt the power of intellectual property, look at the many Internet comments declaring Pacific Rim to be a Transformers rip-off, even though what it’s really ripping-off predates the robots-in-disguise by several decades. Furthermore, consider that Transformers: Dark of the Moon made nearly as much on opening day (a Wednesday) as Pacific Rim did in its first weekend.

**It, of course, works here about as well as it does in real-life, never taking into consideration–for example–that the evolving cavalcade of creatures might eventually exhibit the ability to fly.