Friday, May 23, 2014

Darkman (1990)

Long before Sam Raimi became the creatively bankrupt Hollywood big shot some genre fans have grown to dislike, he was spilling his creativity onto the screen with some of the most inventive projects in cinema. Coming hot off the heels of “Evil Dead II” (1987), a film that garnered a positive response from both audiences and critics, Raimi was given the proverbial keys to the kingdom and called up to the majors (in this case, Universal Studios) to make a picture with something he frequently lacked: money. He had interest in helming adaptations of either “The Shadow” (which Universal already had in development with another team) or “Batman” (we know who had that at the time). Undeterred by these dead ends, Raimi did what creative directors do: he created a character that embodied the qualities he admired in The Shadow and Batman, but also one that would have been right at home with Universal’s classic monsters of the 1930s. His creation was The Darkman, a character whose origin story went through over a dozen drafts before “Darkman” (1990) was given a go from the studio brass. The resulting picture was Raimi operating within his wheelhouse, using his signature camera work and frenetic action to tell a gothic love story that, once again, was a hit with audiences and critics.

Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist working on a synthetic skin to help burn victims, operating out of his lab near the river in L.A. His girlfriend, Julie (Francis McDormand), is an attorney who uncovers corruption within the city’s largest real estate developer, run by Louis Strack (Colin Friels), when she inadvertently finds a document detailing bribery. She confronts Strack, who does the rational thing by sending his henchman, Robert Durant (Larry Drake), and some thugs to retrieve the document and kill everyone in the vicinity. At the time, that happens to be Peyton and his lab partner. Durant has his goons disfigure Westlake before setting a time bomb and blasting his charred body into the river. Presumed dead, Peyton somehow survived the blast, with horrifying burns covering almost half his body. Doctors performed a procedure that neutralized any pain he could feel, but as a side effect it allows his adrenaline to go unchecked and his mental state to become unstable. Peyton escapes from the hospital and rebuilds his lab in an abandoned factory. The synthetic skin he’s been working on only lasts for 100 minutes in sunlight, but that’s all the time he needs (usually) to disguise himself as Durant and his toughs. He rechristens himself Darkman, dedicating all of his efforts to seeking vengeance against all those who were responsible for creating him.

Raimi came up with an awesome story that could only have worked in his hands. He and director of photography Bill Pope, frankly, shot the shit out of this thing. There hadn’t been a movie since “Creepshow” (1982) that so emulated and perfectly captured the essence of a comic book. Raimi’s work had always showcased impressive camera movements and acumen for visual style, but the massive increase in budget afforded to him on “Darkman” meant nearly any of his lofty ideas could be achieved. All of the crazy shots that made “Evil Dead II” so memorable are accounted for here. I love when Darkman goes into a fit of rage and we feel like we’re inside his mind as fiery cracks appear in his head, everything goes red, and the camera moves in a hypnotic/nauseating way. There’s so much life in the camera that cause scenes to pop and stick in your mind more than any standard direction could have done. The scene of Peyton’s attack is particularly impressive, with Neeson’s face smashed into glass cabinets as we watch from within. The camera swoops and zooms and pulls all around as he’s tossed, burned, nearly drowned, and finally blow sky high and into the river.

That scene also showed just a small indication of make-up artist Tony Garder’s excellent work to come, when Peyton grabs two poles that look like they belong in “Phantasm” (1979) and his hands melt away down to the muscle and bone. They did it the old-fashioned way: stop-motion. And it looks great. Gardner’s prosthetic work here should have earned him an Oscar nomination because it can be hard to tell where Darkman ends and Liam Neeson begins. For such a large piece worn over a head, the result is something so lifelike you’ll forget there’s a man underneath. The movement is about as fluid as a guy with no lips and a well-done face can get.

Speaking of which, Neeson really gives his all here as a once noble man who so desperately wants revenge because these guys ruined his chance at having just a normal life. That’s all he wanted. He has to live knowing he’s a hideous freak while his girlfriend is out there, alone, and he knows they can never be together. At its core, “Darkman” is just as much a love story as anything else. And to make that work, you need a guy who can do sympathetic and “I will find you and I will kill you”. And that guy is Liam Neeson. As Peyton, he’s jokey and casual, just happy to be alive and doing a little bit of good in the world. As Darkman, all of his inner rage comes bubbling to the surface like liquid hot magma and he has little control over the beast he’s become. Neeson portrayed the character with a genuine sincerity, giving him the ultimate tortured soul. He even went so far as to make sure the FX department had the teeth in tight so they wouldn’t move while he spoke, since it would compromise the authenticity. His performance is a standout in a film full of memorable roles.

Lots of credit needs to be given to Larry Drake, Nicholas Worth and Dan Bell, who are all “impersonated” by Darkman using his synthetic skin masks. I use quotations because these guys all do such a phenomenal job of playing their doppelgangers, who we’re supposed to believe are actually Peyton when he’s trying to trick the mob. Drake is especially good, showing two very different sides to Durant at the same time. I really love how Raimi used this as a plot device because it’s so damned fun watching Peyton use his skills to screw with everyone.

All these years later, “Darkman” holds up exceptionally well as one of the greatest comic book movies to ever hit the screen, and it’s not even based on one. Raimi was in his prime here, using all of his abilities to make the film not only memorable from a story standpoint, but just as unforgettable thanks to a wide range of visual flair. The excellent casting is anchored by strong performances from Neeson, McDormand, and Drake. Gardner’s makeup is outstanding is every scene. Elfman’s score is typical, but great if you forget all the stuff he did that sounds like it since. It’s superb. Since Universal doesn’t see it that way, though, Scream Factory has come along to deliver a package full of features that should please fans.

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

As an avid, lifelong slasher film fan it almost embarrasses me to say I’ve never fully watched “The Slumber Party Massacre” (1982). I can vaguely recall seeing bits & pieces of it (or one of its sequels) on USA’s Up All Night with Rhonda Shear sometime in the early ‘90s. Those viewings, however, were more than likely focused on spying whatever softcore T&A managed to evade network censors. There wasn’t a wealth of nudie content for a 12-year-old kid to peruse back in the pre-internet days. Once I got older and developed a cinematic taste, I (foolishly) looked at the film as what would likely be a low-budget throwaway slasher more interested in showing off boobs than anything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… Point being, the series was written off in my mind. And what a mistake that was because director Amy Jones’ debut is a riotous slice of trash cinema every horror fan should watch. It’s purposely full of every cliché in the book, playing more like a parody of early’80s slasher films than anything. And that’s because the script started as a parody. Only the filmmakers decided to shoot it straight without playing up the humorous elements, giving this film the unique distinction of playing up every aspect of slasher film fans wanted to see while at the same time riffing on it with deadpan direction.

As we learn via a newspaper headline seen during the opening, mass murderer Russ Thorn has escaped from a mental institution and is on the loose. Trish (Michelle Michaels), a high school senior on the basketball team, decides to throw a slumber party since her parents are going away for the weekend. All of the girls agree to come, except for Valerie (Robin Stille), the new girl, because Diane (Gina Hunter) is a stuck-up bitch. Trish’s parents left their neighbor, Mr. Contant (Rigg Kennedy), in charge of looking over the girls. Surely, with his watchful eye nothing bad will happen. But Russ Thorn has plans. Big, drill-killing plans; and it isn’t very long at all before girls are impaled by his two-foot power drill.

It’s hard to watch “The Slumber Party Massacre” and not immediately consider the obvious phallic implications here. Crazy Russ Thorn, who looks like he couldn’t get a date if he paid for it, runs wild like a madman sticking his massively oversized drill into any hot young co-ed unlucky enough to be in his vicinity. Freud would have a field day with this one. To be fair, Russ isn’t discriminatory when it comes to who gets the business end of his drill because more than a couple guys are subjected to brutal facial disfigurement. That poor pizza guy…

Rita Mae Brown’s script originally started life as “Don’t Open the Door”, a straight-up parody of all things slasher. What’s interesting about that is slashers were really in their prime at this time, so to have someone scripting a send-up was a bit novel. Most of the popular slasher parody films didn’t start hitting until a few years later. Although, her decision to riff on the teen slasher craze was probably due to the fact she was a feminist who had tired of seeing women in constant distress or undress. Director Amy Jones got her start in the business by coming across Brown’s script, noticing the original prologue had key scenes she could film for a demo. She shot the opening pages with only $1000 and went to Roger Corman, King of the B-Movies, who said she had a career if she could do so much with so little. Jones actually turned down an opportunity to edit Spielberg’s “E.T.” (1982) so she could make her directorial debut here. And in true workhorse fashion, rather than trying to mitigate the amount of T&A usually required in a Corman picture, she went all-out and delivered all the goods. In her commentary, she makes mention of how if this is what Corman wanted, then she was going to deliver it in spades. Bless her.

The film benefits from having a woman both at the pen and at the helm, because the relationship between the girls feels genuine. When Diane starts complaining loudly about how lame Valerie is, the other girls on the team don’t immediately chime in and agree with her. In fact, Trish gets downright upset and blasts her for harping on the new girl. It’s refreshing to see a cast full of women who aren’t constantly catty or slutty, but, rather, acting like normal high school girls who hang out and bicker and just want some innocent fun.

The only odd one of the bunch, who isn’t even part of the basketball team, is Valerie’s younger sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers). Her character is… unusual. I’m guessing Meyers was older than the role called for, but rather than just accept that and play it straight she acts like a teenager/20-something pretending to be an adolescent. It’s weird.

Kudos to Michael Villella for making Russ Thorn so damn intense as a killer. Thorn prefers the method acting approach, and he made the wise decision to have zero contact with the girls during filming so there would be a disconnect between them. He only got talkative once their characters had been killed. According to the internet, cordless drills became more widespread in the early ‘80s, though I find it hard to believe Thorn could find one so massive that it could run for hours, churning chunks of flesh and bone, without needing a charge. But, man, who can argue that drill isn’t a seriously heavy piece of human wrecking power. Thorn is silent throughout the entire film, right up to the climax, but even then all he mostly says it how “pretty” the remaining girls are.

Humor is present throughout, whether intentional or not. The fact that the film was shot straight, rather than playing these hijinks up, is exactly what lends such a bizarre tonality to the picture. The obvious gags are what bring the levity, though. Like that fridge gag, which took just the right amount of time to deliver the payoff. But my favorite line from the film comes when the girls are crouched over the dead pizza guy’s body and one girl touches him, saying “He’s so cold!” causing another to question, “Is the pizza?”

“The Slumber Party Massacre” is fabulous trash cinema at its best. Nearly every scene is so outrageously over the top one can’t help but feel like they’re part of a joke that may or may not be intentional. Major kudos to Scream Factory for preserving raucous gems like this that are usually best viewed with a large, drunken audience but play just as well at home if you’re into this type of tripe.   

Scorned (2013)

The phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” has been part of the cultural lexicon since the 15th century. The line is paraphrased from William Congreve’s 1697 play, “The Mourning Bride”, and the full quote is actually “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” Slightly less well known is “Hell hath no fury like a film reviewer scorned”, in this case that reviewer being me and the scorn having originated from Anchor Bay’s latest DTV endeavor, “Scorned” (2013). If the title wasn’t indication enough that the film you are about to watch is a love story gone awry, then the image of lead actress AnnaLynne McCord holding a knife up to her lips should get the message across. Tales of jilted lovers have been story fodder for ages, usually playing well to… ahem, scorned lovers who want some trashy cinema to vicariously live through at a depressing moment. I can’t think of an occasion more fitting to sit through this waste of 86 minutes than that, but even those who are on the rocks would be better suited to find some real entertainment to kill time. Writer & director Mark Jones’ utterly banal tale of cheating and revenge is so by-the-numbers you’d swear it was written using a Mad Libs for Scripts book.

The film opens with quite possibly the lamest expository dialogue ever seen, with text messages scrawling across a black screen saying “Do U want 2 B inside me?” and “I can’t wait 4 U” or some other juvenile crap like that. I get that they’re setting up the fact someone is cheating, but what grown man actually texts “U” to a person? The picture begins en media res as we see Sadie (AnnaLynne McCord) has drugged her boyfriend Kevin (Billy Zane) and is about to get medieval on his ass after snooping through his phone and finding out he’s been cheating. The film then flashes back a whole 28 hours to quickly establish the BBF4ever relationship between Sadie and her “friend since 2nd grade” Jennifer (Viva Bianca), which feels about as real as a pair of fake tits. When Sadie and Kevin embark upon a romantic weekend at Kevin’s ultra-modern playboy pad in the woods, she’s convinced he’s going to ask for her hand in marriage. That is, until she peeks through his cell phone and learns Kevin has been banging Jennifer on the side. As the audience, we learn Kevin is a total moron because who doesn’t put a passcode on their phone? Dude… Anyway, she pepper sprays his junk and knocks him out with a log before tying him up and force feeding him pills to keep him docile.

At this point, Sadie decides it’s a good idea to make Jennifer believe she’s left for the weekend so the two of them can get it on behind her back, so she sends her a text from Kevin’s phone inviting her up. She arrives, Sadie incapacitates her, and we then get into a tepid rendition of “Saw”-lite, wherein Sadie tortures the two secret lovers via a variety of household means. The filmmakers may have realized we’ve had literally nothing of substance up to this point, so they throw in the subplot of an escaped convict who just ditched the nearby prison. Cops in this town must be one step away from stupid because this guy is hitchhiking on main roads and yet they can’t seem to find him. This will be somewhat relevant later. But first, back to the “action”. Some flashbacks to her childhood reveal Sadie has always been crazy. In fact, she seems pretty damn nuts even before she goes off her rocker, making me question just how much thinking Kevin’s larger head was doing. You want to nail a crazy chick, roll the dice. But dating one? After making that decision AND leaving his phone unprotected I have zero sympathy for the guy. The punishments go on for some time before Jennifer finally makes an escape after hitting Sadie over the head. An escape that lasts a whopping few minutes since Sadie has the quickest recovery abilities outside of Wolverine and Jennifer is impossibly slow to get away. I’m hesitant to spoil anything – yes, ever for this insipid slice of crap – but needless to say, the film wraps itself up in the worst way possible. It conclusively proves the local police are sharing a single brain, and that Sadie is able to get away with literal murder despite, like, a dozen clear signs she’s psycho.

But, man, is she ever gorgeous. AnnaLynne McCord has been steaming up TVs since her debut on FX’s ran-too-long series “Nip/Tuck” (2003-2010), but some of her best work came from “Excision” (2012). That film was a perversely twisted tale of a girl with serious mental issues who continually fought against her sadistic urges. And she was really solid in the lead. I can’t say she’s delivering bad acting here – because she does play crazy way too convincingly – it’s just the material she’s given is so callow. She gets kudos for managing to elevate it ever-so-slightly. I thought she chose scripts more carefully, which is why I had been expecting “Scorned” to be better than the cover and synopsis would suggest.

The biggest surprise is that this wasn’t written by a novice filmmaker. This picture had “green behind the ears” written all over it, but the man behind the pen and the lens is Mark Jones, a veteran of the business since the ‘80s. The man wrote for “ALF” (1987-1989), but he’s best known to horror fans for writing and directing “Leprechaun” (1993). It’s hard to believe someone who has survived in the business so long turned in such an amateur piece of work. This has the fingerprints of a weary, doing-it-for-the-money director all over it. I get that, people gotta eat, but if you can get a film greenlighted in this town at least try to make it memorable for the right reasons.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #26 - Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

Man, do I hate that poster. The poster for Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) looks incredible next to this, and that was previously the worst of the series. Now, admittedly, I have no clue who the chick in front is; and it's very likely she's some sort of major star in Japan. Perhaps Toho saw her as a big draw to bring in younger fans. I don't know. What I do know is the only selling power any Godzilla film should ever need is Godzilla, not the latest flavor of the month. Am I making too big a deal of this? Probably. Godzilla has a fairly solid design this go around, and Kiryu/Mechagodzilla is all revamped and adapted to modern technologies. That should be enough to get people interested, no?

Again, I find myself surprised by a Millennium series entry (I'm beginning to think I need to re-evaluate my stance on it as a whole, though it's still my "least" favorite) because this was yet another retcon of the series. Once again, the timeline has been restarted from 1954, when the first Godzilla was killed. A second Godzilla has been wreaking the usual havoc across Japan for some time, not that the movie gets into any sort of specifics. After a bout with the JSDF in 1999 that saw heavy casualties, a decision was made to construct a robotic adversary to save the people of Japan from Godzilla. In a semi-ironic twist, the JSDF decides to build the mechanical body on top of the original 1954 Godzilla's bones. I know what you're thinking, and just forget the bones evaporated at the end of Gojira. This new technological titan is dubbed Kiryu, Japanese for Machine Dragon. Kiryu's outfitted with all the latest in heavy artillery, with a special weapon called Absolute Zero, which can freeze anything instantly before crushing it to dust.

The film begins to pose some interesting philosophical questions when Kiryu and Godzilla have their first encounter. Although taking down G is extremely difficult, Kiryu more than holds its own... until Godzilla lets out a distinct roar. Immediately, Kiryu is flooded with memories transferred from the skeleton of G54 that lies within its metallic carriage. As Godzilla retreats to the sea, Kiryu goes haywire and launches a full-on assault that more or less levels the city. It only stops because the power ran out after an hour of the kind of city-leveling action that gets Michael Bay harder than a rock. Go ahead, make the pun... The JSDF does some maintenance work on Kiryu, but some people feel it would be best to leave it be. A young girl, who seems way smarter than she likely should be, suggests Kiryu has a right to life just as anything else on this earth. It should befriend Godzilla, not fight him. Naturally, the JSDF doesn't see it that way so they launch Kiryu to once again fight G. The battle is spectacular, ending with - you guessed it - the Absolute Zero. As is tradition, Godzilla meets it head-on with his atomic fire breath. And as is also tradition, that's usually grounds for major damage to both parties.

Kiryu not only makes for a worthy opponent to Godzilla, but also a great character on its own. I really dug the concept of using Godzilla '54's bones as a literal skeleton upon which to build his robotic equal. The idea of a bio-mechanical Mechagodzilla is novel. I love that the bones still contain some energy, a life essence of sorts, and it adds a layer of autonomy to what is supposed to be a completely human-controlled mech. Thoughts flood its memory banks in waves, unleashing instant emotional outbursts that are uncontrollable. It's truly some of the most introspective stuff ever included in the series. Thankfully, this film isn't the last we see of Kiryu, either.

Interestingly, Titanosaurus was originally going to make an appearance by helping out Kiryu during the big brawl. That never came to be, but it would have been nice to see that old shrieking dino get another appearance in the series. Though, truthfully, I was never a huge fan of it. 

Godzilla is once again more or less back to his Millennium series self. The Big G of GMK was strictly a one-off, special event type of deal. The KiryuGoji suit created for this film had a smaller head than those used for the first two films of the Millennium series. They also fixed those jacked up teeth that made Godzilla look like Austin Powers' father. His scutes were reduced in size enough not to look insanely jagged and needlessly humongous, and the coloration was returned to a bone white finish. Speaking of color, G was done up in a charcoal grey once again; no more green for this guy. I wish the suits for the first two Millennium films looked this good. It's still not my ideal look for the Big Guy, but taking into account all of the other designs used for this series I'd certainly place this one in second place behind GMK. His atomic breath is also back to blue. Even though he breathes flame a lot throughout the film, the way the filmmakers get his scutes glowing and that little hint of fiery death appears in his mouth just before an explosive burst is expertly done.

The human element is less important to this story than the questions posed by Kiryu's creation. I mean, really, what else are the humans doing in this Millennium series other than trying in vain to find a way to kill Godzilla. Constantly. And they always fail. You know what this series has been sorely lacking? Aliens. Both the Showa and Heisei era films used aliens as a central plot device on more than one occasion (I'm counting Space Godzilla as an alien). Aliens have traditionally added a unique conflict for the humans to deal with, while Godzilla had his hands full with a battle or two. The only time it's interesting to see the military desperately look for ways to off Big G is when it's for a solo outing. The universal questions wrought by Kiryu's creation certainly spill over to our human characters, requiring a great deal of understanding and reasoning on their part. But mostly, they're just trying to kill Godzilla. Is this all that much different from nearly every other entry in the series? Not exactly. The army has always tried to vanquish Godzilla. Maybe after 25 films it's just a bit tiring to see them scrambling for outrageous new ways to kill the Big Guy.

Scoring duties for this entry fell upon composer Michiru Oshima, who also worked on Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) and this film's sequel, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003). If you read my entry for Megaguirus, you'll know I wasn't terribly fond of the music there. Oshima's work is a bit improved for this film, but there has yet to be a Millennium series score that's had any effect on me. Mostly, I just can't stand the "theme" given to Godzilla in these movies. I put theme in quotations because it's just a couple of low notes meant to signal his arrival, nothing iconic by any means. I'd rather hear recycled Ifukube scores than listen to the forgettable scores found in each Millennium entry. Only GMK broke the mold and tried something different, but even that has a cold, digital feel that couldn't match Ifukube on his worst day. The music works well enough for the films, and that's my problem. Godzilla's iconic themes, the unforgettable leitmotifs we all know by heart, are timeless. You hear those cues and you know what it's from. Nothing in the new series of movies comes close to matching the emotional response the classic themes produce. Am I being overly critical? I doubt it.

Director Masaaki Tezuka claimed they had no intentions of making a direct sequel to this film while producing it, yet it just happened to come together naturally after the success of this entry. With 1.7 million admissions, this was the second most successful entry of the Millennium series; makes sense Toho would want to give audiences another go-round with the same characters. And, hey, why not add in an old favorite while we're at it...  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #25 - Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

First off, kudos to the Millennium series for finally nailing a poster. The art for the last two entries was about as bland as the series had ever gotten, so seeing a return to form automatically gives me additional hope.

The easiest way to forget how...well, forgettable the last two Godzilla movies were is simple: watch Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. The Japanese clearly hate brevity as much as Godzilla hates making a quiet entrance, so from here on out it'll be referred to as GMK. Once again, the Millennium series is rewriting history, bestowing upon G yet another new origin story to go along with his new look and the new looks of his co-starring monsters. Writer & director Shusuke Kaneko came to the series as a veteran of Godzilla's "competition", the titanic terrapin, Gamera. Kaneko helmed all three of the Heisei era Gamera films for Daiei Films. If I haven't mentioned it before, I'll say it again but I have only seen, like, one Gamera movie that I can kinda recall. I did watch a few of them as a kid, but very little of those viewings stuck with me. As a kaiju fan I sort of feel like it's my duty to remedy that, so at some point I'll be buying all of Shout!'s DVD releases and more than likely reviewing them here. My point in all of that was to say I don't know what type of sensibility Kaneko brought with him to the series. Maybe Gamera is steeped in all of this ancient mythology and ritual that pervades GMK.

In this universe, Godzilla appeared once in 1954 and died as the result of the Oxygen Destroyer. When a monster the Americans mistakenly think is Godzilla attacks New York City (one of the best lines in the series for obvious reasons), the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) meets to discuss the possible return of the real Godzilla. A nuclear submarine goes missing shortly thereafter, and a glimpsed Godzilla is the culprit. Meanwhile, a truck driver who survived a recent earthquake claims to have seen Godzilla as the monster responsible, but it was really Baragon. And some kids who were partying at a lake are nearly killed by larva Mothra making landfall. An old man who appears wise on these matters determines that Godzilla is the physical embodiment of the soldiers killed during the Battle of the Pacific in World War II; their souls lashed to Godzilla's skeletal remains making him whole once more. The only way to defeat him is by summoning the Guardian Monsters - Baragon, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. We already know Baragon is ready for action since he was the first monster spotted, and judging by his lack of a credit in the film's lengthy title it's safe to assume he won't be winning the battle. But, man, does Godzilla ever stomp a mudhole in his ass before decimating his corpse with a blast of atomic fire. The military sends whatever they can at Godzilla. Nothing has any effect whatsoever, except maybe pissing him off more. Mothra, newly hatched from her cocoon, finally gets in on the action along with a fresh-off-ice King Ghidorah. The pair battle it out with Godzilla in the city, losing quite spectacularly. In fact, Ghidorah gets beaten so badly that Mothra has to sacrifice her life in order for it to absorb her energy and be revived. This leads to a massive melee between the now fully-grown King Ghidorah against Godzilla, once again ending in Ghidorah being destroyed. With all the guardians defeated, the only person left to face Godzilla is the JSDF captain who's commandeering a submarine with missiles capable of blasting a gaping hole in Godzilla... which one does, and when G goes to fire off his atomic breath - POOF - he vaporizes instantly. But that big heart of his keeps on beating, deep in the ocean depths.

This film drew a lot of controversy amongst fans due to Godzilla's portrayal, which is wholly different than any iteration that had preceded or followed. He's looks like a pissed off demon, more or less; brought to life by the dead. To emphasize this, director Shusuke Kaneko had his eyes made up with no pupils, giving Godzilla a blank, horrific visage. That wasn't nearly the only change to his look, though. The Millennium Goji design was entirely scrapped. Godzilla had a modern, stylized appearance that retained his essential features. The black-and-bone dorsal spines were back, looking more like his classic spines and less like the aggro design used for the last two films. His color was back to charcoal black; no more green. The suit itself, dubbed the SokogekiGoji, was intended to be a modern interpretation of the classic '54 design with cues taken from the Heisei series suits, too. I think Kaneko really nailed the appearance, making this the most ferocious, menacing Godzilla seen in the series, period. He's an evil beast, practically indestructible and able to outmatch and outwit any foe with relative ease. The movements of Godzilla are much more aggressive than usual, especially his quick stride which leaves a wake of devastation due to his hefty, thick legs.

Some fans also had concerns with Kaneko's reinterpretation of Godzilla's classic foes Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Baragon. In order of ire, Baragon got a nice contemporary facelift to his design, but fans rightly complained about a lack of any heat ray powers. The only power Baragon does have is his ability to burrow, which isn't too helpful against a hyper-aggressive Godzilla. Mothra has a more angular design, with more pointed wings and elongated legs. Her coloration is also more vivid than ever before, with a kaleidoscope of color under the wings. Her super power this time around is the ability to fire these tiny pellets that apparently have the effect of knocking Godzilla right the fuck out. Finally, we get to King Ghidorah, who underwent more changes than either of the other two. He's smaller. He's not very powerful. He gets his ass handed to him three times. Ghidorah's heads have been updated, but it's not for the better. This new design doesn't elicit the same sense of sheer terror the Ghidorah of old could muster up; this guy just looks like Godzilla could wipe the floor with him. And he does. Once Ghidorah is revived for the second time, he comes back as a fully-grown 1,000 Year-Old Dragon... not that it does much good against Godzilla.

Again, I really didn't have a problem with any of these changes. We're on the TWENTY FIFTH movie in the series; a little shake up of the status quo is a good thing. It certainly helped this entry stand out as one of the most original and inventive of the series. It shows more ambition than most entries can claim, too.

On the topic of ambition, did you know Kaneko originally wanted the three guardian monsters to be Varan, Anguirus, and Baragon. As usual, Toho wasn't seeing enough dollar signs with any of these choices so they insisted Kaneko bring some of the top draws into the fold. Baragon managed to survive the extermination; I wish they'd gone with Anguirus instead. He hadn't been seen in a film since Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) - almost 30 years ago. Also, I just got a little sad realizing we never got a Heisei incarnation of him. I would have loved to see him be re-imagined for a more modern series. Speaking of long absences, Varan's last appearance was in 1968's Destroy All Monsters! But, yea, sure, let's just keep on using the same monsters we always fall back on, right Toho?

The film's score was composed by Kow Otani, another noob to the series. His work is easily the best of the Millennium series. There's a mystical quality to the compositions, adding to the rich mythology laid out on screen. It's downright ethereal at times. Electronic beats underscore much of the tension, elevating the action on screen without becoming too techno or robotic. Otani achieves a nice balance by adding in orchestral pieces over his beats, allowing the score to encompass both contemporary and classical cues.

GMK is a solid G film, no question. Godzilla is his perhaps the most menacing he's ever been, raining down fire and death everywhere he turns. More than that, his overall design is just a thing of beauty in an evil, twisted kind of way. The inclusion of multiple monsters puts the film over the top by allowing fans to see numerous battles throughout the course of the film. Godzilla fights each monster at least a couple of times, all of which are done with stellar choreography and realism thanks to modern suit technology.

I'd always considered GMK to be the only star of the Millennium series, but a recent re-evaluation of all these films has proven to me that I was wrong, because the follow-up to this film produced a wonderful one-two punch that, frankly, should have ended the Millennium series as a whole. But then they had to go and make Godzilla: Final Wars, which I have always loathed. I am actually quite anxious to watch it again, however, before that can happen we've got two rounds to go with Mechagodzilla!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #24 - Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)

I know that most G fans point to All Monster's Attack (a.k.a. Godzilla's Revenge) as the worst entry in the series, but if someone asked me that same question I'd more than likely point to Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000). As a Godzilla film, it is lackluster in nearly every way. It's just going through the motions, killing time (and too much of it at that), and ultimately it adds nothing of value to the series. At least Godzilla's Revenge has a kitschy '60s thing going on that makes it a fun, if not slightly laborious, watch. The same can't, or ever will be, said of this film.

Keep in mind, though, that even if I'm beating this entry into the ground it doesn't mean it's all terrible. No Godzilla film is outright terrible. And before you say "GINO", I've already made it clear that film isn't considered canon by myself or most other fans. If there's anything I can give the Millennium series credit for, it's that nearly each entry tried to do something unique with the Godzilla mythos. Godzilla 2000 re-imagined him as an eternally-regenerating force of nature. This film posits that the original Godzilla never died in 1954. He just retreated back into the ocean, only to return later in 1966 to feast on nuclear power. As any fan knows, in 1966 Godzilla was sleeping in a cave before battling it out with a giant shrimp. So essentially this film is retconning the entire history of the films. Bold move.

After a string of Godzilla attacks dating back to '54, Japan has abandoned nuclear energy programs out of fear. The JSDF has decided they want to be rid of Godzilla permanently, and they devise a weapon, Dimension Tide, that produces mini black holes with enough energy to draw in Godzilla, trapping him for eternity. Their experiments cause an ancient dragonfly to enter our world, where it lays an egg that a young boy finds and eventually discards down a sewer grate. The egg turns into hundreds of smaller eggs, eventually hatching Meganulon, small larva-like insects which are loosely based off of the creatures in Rodan (1956). They invade the city and molt on the side of a building, turning into adult Meganula. Godzilla enters the city and gets into it with the swarm, eventually using his atomic breath to decimate nearly the entire population of them. The few that remain have siphoned enough energy off of Godzilla to inject a waiting cocoon with it, one that eventually opens up to reveal the queen Megaguirus. She looks a bit like Battra in winged form. And, once again, this kaiju has some of Godzilla's abilities because his energy was used in its creation.

Godzilla and the flying Megaguirus fight it out over the city. It never really looks like Megaguirus gets the upper hand because Godzilla just takes every hit and keeps on coming. Eventually, Megaguirus goes in for a paralyzing strike only to get chomped on by Godzilla's massive gnarled teeth. And that, my friends, is the end of that. The remainder of the film deals with the Dimension Tide being fired upon Godzilla, and it looks like he's sucked up into the black hole during a tremendous explosion of energy. But the film's final moments strongly suggest he just got blasted deep underground.

I'll admit to enjoying this entry marginally more than the first time I watched it, but the fact remains it is kind of a slog to get to the end. Megaguirus just isn't a very good enemy. The Meganula look terrible since they're nearly all done with CGI. Megaguirus looks decent enough in final form, though it isn't nearly as memorable as nearly every other monster in the series. Hell, even Gabara is better, and Gabara sucks. It's just boring. And lazy. Once again, we've got a monster that has used some of Godzilla's cells/power/energy to try getting up to his level. At least some of the others seemed like a real threat; there's just no way a big bug like Megaguirus was ever going to inflict any real damage on G. The film even says as much when Megaguirus is dispatched early enough for the military to inflict the film's final blow. The real problem with the film is that it's just so lackluster. It's needlessly long, with most of the human element either uninteresting or... well, it's just not very engaging.

The retconned history was a nice though, though. I can admit that much. The insertion of Millennium Goji into the classic '54 film for a scene or two was well done. I really do give these Millennium films credit for thinking outside the box in some instances. Godzilla 2000 already established he's just a force of nature with no real origin being given, and future installments seemed to relish in the ability to retell Godzilla's history as they saw fit.

Toho used the same MireGoji suit for Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, with only minor alterations being made. Most notably, the coloring was now a lighter shade of green (the last time he'd be painted this color), and his dorsal spikes were a light purple. I have never liked the purple spikes. Ever. The black-and-silver are synonymous with Godzilla's classic look; you just don't fuck with that, however, I will admit there are a few instances where I think they are insanely awesome in a very ridiculous kind of way.

Music this time around was handled by composer Michiru Oshima, a new player to the series. It's a decent effort overall, though it still retains much of the video game-esque cheesiness that Godzilla 2000 suffers from. Nothing composed here is terribly memorable; the film only seems to feel genuine when Ifukube's themes are being called upon to add the true gravitas a Godzilla score needs. You've got to remember that, until the Millennium series, nearly revery Godzilla film was scored by either Akira Ifukube or Masaru Satoh. And those two produced some phenomenal work that no composer is likely to ever match. Things got a little better with the next entry, but overall this Millennium series is sorely lacking in good themes.  

But like I said, they've got originality. And this next entry is undoubtedly one of the standouts of the series.

Monday, February 17, 2014

GODZILLA-THON #23 - Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)

After a "lengthy" absence of a whopping four years, Godzilla was set to be revived by Toho in an effort to capitalize renewed interest in seeing the "real" Godzilla.

Oh, yea, I guess I should mention this was released immediately following America's inaugural, disastrous attempt at making a Godzilla picture. Director Roland Emmerich's film was a critical disaster on every possible level. Despite the fact that it somehow managed to turn a tidy profit, the universal hatred projected towards Godzilla (1998) cemented the decision that no sequel plans would move forward. Plans had been drawn up for a trilogy of films, the latter two of which would never come to fruition. And if you've ever read the synopsis for the proposed Godzilla 2, be SO THANKFUL it never happened.

So, seizing the opportunity to capitalize on fans' rabid enthusiasm to see the real Godzilla, and not some big iguana imposter, Toho began to develop what would be the first of the Millennium series of films.  

Let me get this out of the way first: I am not a very big fan of the Millennium series. For me, much of the charm & fun found in the series died with longtime producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. I know not every single film under his guidance turned out to be a rousing success critically or commercially, but his lordship over every facet of the films imbued them with a quality that can't be summed up in words. The essence of what made his previous 22 films so revered has been lost to a new generation of filmmakers. And I get that. These things happen all the time. It still doesn't change the fact that there is a missing element to the Millennium films that I hope future series may be able to get back.

This time around, Godzilla isn't given much of an origin. In fact, I don't think he's given one at all. Japan considers him to be a literal force of nature; an unstoppable creature they're just going to have to deal with. The Godzilla Prediction Network (GPN, basically just two guys and a little girl operating out of a ramshackle apt.) are studying Godzilla in order to better understand how he operates. This entry almost plays out like another inaugural solo outing, with the Japanese Crisis Control Center finding an ancient UFO deep underwater that reacts to changes in light, which appears to be its main power source. Godzilla arrives on the scene (in spectacular fashion) and does battle with this extremely stereotypical saucer. The fight drives Godzilla back under the sea, and the UFO flies around town a bit before landing atop Tokyo's Opera City Tower. The CCI notes that it's siphoning all of Tokyo's data out of the tower. Godzilla returns to once again shoot the UFO with fire and hope it blows up, but this time the aliens absorb some of Godzilla's own DNA (not again...) to create Orga. Orga looks like a rock with two claws. Despite this, I still think he's a pretty cool new monster for the series. Anyway, he's only in the move for around 11 minutes before Godzilla absolutely decimates him.

It's hard to believe that this film was made only four years after Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), yet it has such a different feel in every way. Again, I mostly chalk this up to Tanaka's absence. Another reason for the different feel has to do with the advent of CGI technology, something I'm sure Tanaka was trying to resist. Many shots are clearly using CGI to compose environments for Godzilla to stomp around. The alien UFO is entirely computer-generated, and it also looks so laughably bad. It's just a big silver bean, floating through the city. Godzilla is even brought to fully animated life via CGI in a couple of shots, a first for the series (not counting his meltdown last time around) and something that would only be used more frequently in further films. There is still plenty of miniature work to be seen, so don't worry that it's all been replaced just yet. Godzilla gets plenty of tangible stuff to smash.

As per usual, a new series means a new Godzilla. Millennium Godzilla, called the MireGoji for this entry, is a radical departure from the Kawakita era suits, and even further removed from the Showa depictions. Designed by Shinichi Wakasa, nearly every facet of Godzilla's design has been overhauled. Most obvious are the new spines; they're enormous. Jagged and twisted, these new spines are nearly 100% larger than any previously seen and border on parody they're so outrageous. But they work. The incredible scale given to them does make Godzilla look even more fearsome. He'll need that extra edge since his size has been greatly reduced from the 100m he enjoyed during the Heisei era. Millennium Goji is only around 50m tall, putting him in line with most of the Showa era height scales. Godzilla's scales are very prominent, looking more sculpted than organic. And his teeth look terrible, with every other other tooth getting the incisor treatment, making him look like a snaggletoothed beast. And he's green! For the first time ever, Godzilla was painted a darker shade of green. People have said he's green for years, all because of the original film's poster, and now he finally is green. It's a far cry from the iconic look he enjoyed during the Heisei series. Godzilla only repped this suit for two entries (this film and the next) before undergoing another drastic makeover for GMK.

I think most fans would agree they got his atomic breath done right. Godzilla's spines light up to a flaming gold color before flames start to appear in his opening mouth, then a ferocious blast surges forward to positively annihilate anything in its path. The effect is a tad on the overkill side, but that also seems to be what this new Godzilla is all about.

It wouldn't be an official Godzilla rebirth if an American studio didn't come in and chop up the film, right? After Sony's 1998 film failed to excite audiences, they decided to try marketing the real deal. The film was re-edited to run seven minutes shorter than the Japanese cut, with most alterations being made to tighten up the pace. No major footage of G was excised. The studio spent around $10-12 million dollars promoting the thing, and it ultimately earned around that much back at the domestic box office. Not a smash by any means, though no Godzilla film has ever been a blockbuster. Hopefully, all of that changes with the upcoming 2014 film.

The score blows. Sorry if you like it. Takayuki Hattori, who previously handled scoring for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), is back. And so are the lame, video game-level themes he loves to employ. A few of Akira Ifukube's classic themes are thrown in for good measure, but the majority of the track is forgettable background noise. Bummer.

Don't think it gets better from here, because Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is up next and that, if I recall, is the worst film of the Millennium series and possible of the entire series overall.