Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Random Movie Report #11.5: Godzilla, King of the Monsters

[I'm normally lax about giving credit where it's due, but this fine image comes from the Alyon.org Poster Gallery]

It's been a while, but my views on GOJIRA now being a matter of record, I decided I'd pop in the DVD's other disc and take a look at the American re-edit that, for so long, was the only version of the film most people in this country had seen. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS kicked off a long tradition of Japanese monster movies being chopped and remixed by American distributors, but despite this infamy it's a good film on its own. Though it pares down the symbolism of the atomic monster's rampage through postwar Japan, it doesn't remove it entirely, and in contrast to the epic artfulness of the original version, it delivers a lean, frightening sci-fi thriller. In short, it's probably the best American translation of a Godzilla film that involved more than just dubbing over the actors.

The structure of the film is altered to start, as we open on an already devastated Tokyo. American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), who provides narration throughout, is rescued from the rubble of a collapsed building and taken to an emergency shelter. There, he recounts his story; on his way to cover a story in Cairo, Martin had a layover in Tokyo, where he heard about the mysterious sinking of a Japanese shipping vessel. As he stays behind (sorry for the tense shift but I'm not sure how you do that with flashbacks), more and more ships disappear, all in the vicinity of Odo Island, where one of the survivors washes ashore. Joining a research team consisting of most of the Japanese cast, Martin is a firsthand witness to the discovery of Godzilla, a giant dinosaur-like creature resurrected and made radioactive by the testing of atomic weapons.

From here the film unfolds mostly as it did in the Japanese version; Godzilla shrugs off the military's attempts to destroy him and proceeds to reduce Tokyo to smoking rubble in a magnificent sequence that was left mostly intact. The power of the monster's rampage is not diminished at all in this version; the sheer stark horror of the monster scenes, supplemented with footage of the grim aftermath, must have been particularly strong stuff to viewers expecting yet another B-movie. What does get trimmed is a lot of the side material that strengthens the film's allegorical connections; gone is the debate over whether to make the creature's origins public knowledge, the reminisces of bystanders who compare their situation to life during wartime, and much of Yamane's attempt to convince the authorities that the monster should be studied (though he does assert this position in one scene.)

Which is not to say the allegorical connection is entirely gone. Mostly intact is the plot thread focusing on Serizawa's fear of his Oxygen Destroyer becoming a weapon, and his decision to use it but sacrifice himself in order to protect the secret. Some of the debate is abbreviated, and it's more about fearing the Destroyer "falling into the wrong hands" than it becoming a military weapon period, but the basic moral decision is still there. Some of Martin's narration also can't help but bring the imagery of nuclear annihilation to mind, particularly when he describes Godzilla turning Tokyo into a "sea of fire". The alterations to the film weren't made so much to take away this connection as to trim it down and give it an American perspective, but the message is less obvious and more of a subtext. (Raymond Burr, for his part, understood exactly what the film was about, and was quoted as saying "Godzilla is a symbol of the nuclear menace threatening mankind." Throughout his life he remained proud of his involvement with the picture.)

The actual new material is well integrated with the film; Martin interacts with Japanese characters and even some of the main cast through the use of doubles and re-used footage to show reverse angles. For the original footage, the film alternates between dubbing and original language with some narration for explanation; when this version of the film played in Japan, audiences were amused by the discrepancy between what the characters were actually saying and what the subtitled narration said they were saying. (Keen listeners can hear the word "Gojira" being bandied about well before the creature appears.) Obviously we know it's a re-edit, but the illusion is mostly convincing. Martin's narration is well-written and well-delivered to boot, and the producers of the American version deserve credit for not replacing Akira Ifukube's score (which, sadly, would not be the case for the next two Godzilla films.)

Though it's as well-done as you could expect an extensive foreign re-edit to be, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS still isn't the masterwork that GOJIRA is. It puts the central theme of the film far enough in the background so as to be merely a particularly intelligent movie of its type, a well-crafted monster movie with more impact than most. It doesn't have the same level of intensity. As such, with the proper version finally available, one could relegate KING OF THE MONSTERS to obscurity, but it maybe deserves a little more than that. For most of us this was our GODZILLA, and everyone's always slightly biased towards the first incarnation of something they come across; I still have fond memories of catching this on TBS as hosted by Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster.) But there's more to it than nostalgia- the "Greek chorus" element of Raymond Burr's narration adds an interesting level to the story. As a substitute for the real thing, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may be barely adequate; as a companion volume, it's great to have around.

Additional material written by Al C. Ward
and directed by Terry O. Morse

Grade: A-

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Comics Rambling: Civil War at the Turning Point

After a monthlong delay, the fourth issue of CIVIL WAR, Marvel's newest mega-crossover event, finally hit stands last Wednesday. This was of particular significance to me since, having enjoyed the first two issues but not so much the third, I'd decided that issue #4 would be the tipping point, the one that would decide whether or not I would continue. As it happened, said issue has also been the most controversial to date, which is saying something since- well, I'll be nice and put all the Spoilers under the cut.

For those who haven't followed, CIVIL WAR started with a superhero/supervillain fight that, through circumstances noone could foresee, ended up taking out an entire suburban block, including an elementary school. In the wake of the tragedy, the public rallied behind support of a bill that required all superhumans to register their powers and intent to fight crime with the federal government, which would then regulate superhero vigilanteism. This polarized the superhero community, with Iron Man leading the heroes in support of the bill and Captain America leading the ones in opposition. When the bill actually passed, the pro-Reg side was effectively in charge of finding and capturing the Anti-Registration heroes. This leads to punching.

And so the focus of this issue was pretty much the punching. Thor showed up and dished out some serious punishment to the anti-Reg rebels, killing Goliath and smacking around many others. Only it wasn't Thor, it was a clone of Thor taken from his DNA, since the real Thor is still not around. Anyway, the shock over one of the heroes getting killed gave time for the rebels to escape and for the government types to regroup. Turns out the whole "Thor clone" project was known only to Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Reed Richards, and several people on their side are shocked by the revelation, including Sue Richards, who leaves her husband (and their children) in the hopes that this will jolt him out of his increasingly crazy "control the world with SCIENCE!" mindset. Meanwhile, another pro-Reg contingency plan is unveiled, as a group of supervillains are called in to help round up the rebels.

So, what is my verdict? It's complicated. I viewed issue #4 as an improvement over the murky, muddy violence of last issue (hint to colorists: just because a scene takes place near flames doesn't mean EVERYTHING has to be tinted red. Hint to writers: maybe don't set so many fight scenes near Abandoned Flame Factories,) and it packs a good visceral punch, but there are problems too. Goliath is black (or rather was) and though he's technically not the FIRST to die, the incident still has that "expendable minority death" smell to it. At an early point, writer Mark Millar claimed that the series wouldn't be about "big deaths", which made me feel good after the carnage of INFINITE CRISIS. However, he's since clarified that he means he won't have deaths of major A-list characters who are sure to be brought back to life, so the B-list corpses can still pile up. Pooey.

There's some fandom disdain for the Thor-clone, possibly because the very word "clone" has acquired a negative connotation from the infamous Spider-Man Clone Saga, a classic trainwreck of continuity that manages to encapsulate so much of what was wrong with 90s comics. (Incidentally, the link leads to 35 long and confusing essays- it's worth reading, but clear some time on your schedule and some space in your brain.) Me, I don't mind that so much, as it's a very comic-book-y plot development and the real Thor is scheduled to be back shortly. A broader complaint is just how much of a jerk Iron Man/Tony Stark is being written as, and how the main conflict between him and Captain America has been sort of shoehorned in to Marvel Universe continuity, where previous attempts at "Superhero Registration" have been attempted, shot full of holes, and even opposed by folks like Reed Richards who are now taking the pro side. Comics continuity is a hard thing to maintain, and I think that generally it should be flexible with very little sweating-the-details (Hell, I want resurrections and retcons a-plenty if they're for things I like), but a lot of complaints seem to center on character motivation. Iron Man still has his own book, but his ruthless ends-justify-the-means approach in this series is making it harder for him to be a sympathetic hero. The bad things heroes do have a tendency to live on with them and tarnish their image; look no further than Hank Pym, who once hit his wife Janet while under the delusion that he was a supervillain and, though reformed many times, is now still referred to as a wife beater (and hasn't headlined his own book for quite some time.) Stark has some moments of reflection and regret in this issue, but Marvel's walking a very fine editorial line here.

The critical reception for CIVIL WAR might have been better if Millar, Quesada, etc. had not at some point made the claim that the book would take a balanced, evenhanded view of the whole "Superhero Registration" issue. If superheroes were real, there would indeed be many compelling arguments to having the government keep tabs on them and make sure they don't act as vigilantes. At the same time, we, the readers, as superhero fans, want the characters to continue to operate in the same legal gray area that they always do and to be bold individuals not fighting for the system but for the abstract cause of Justice. It's close to a key precept of the genre; there are some government-backed superheroes, but not that many, and even they don't spend time getting warrants. One can see how the issue might indeed be painted in an ambiguous way, but unfortunately, the actions of the pro-Registration side have continually conspired to paint them as fascist tools. They use unethical methods to achieve an end that may itself be ethical, but they've lost our sympathy already so it doesn't matter. So the complexities of the issue are lost in the carnage. (I come across as vaguely pro-Reg in this paragraph, but I'm also familiar with some good non-metatextual arguments against, so I remain ambivalent.)

It occurs to me I haven't gotten to any sort of point yet. Sorry about that. Basically, my opinion is that while I am enjoying the series and intend to finish it, I think it should have been set outside the actual Marvel continuity. It doesn't quite fit with what's happened in the past and how these characters have acted, and the ramifications for the future are, at best, messy. You've got the New Warriors, one of the increasingly rare "fun" teams, not only being killed off, but in such a way that they're currently remembered as blundering idiots who are partly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of children. This is the sort of thing that would have worked if it weren't the "real" New Warriors, or if Millar had been able to invent some totally original supers team whose sole purpose was to screw up and get some bystanders good and dead. (Alan Moore's legendary WATCHMEN, originally intended to feature a group of heroes DC had acquired from the defunct Charlton company, worked better when DC decided it might want to use those characters again afterwards and Moore created his own cast of heroes.)

One of the problems with the Big Annual Crossover Event is that, in addition to being a story, it has to "set up" events for other titles to play with and "alter the status quo" in some form or another, which often results in contrivances and digressions which only serve to make the main title read less elegantly. CIVIL WAR, on its own, is a fun enough diversion, well written, well drawn, with a couple of interesting points raised. However, I pity the poor bastards who will have to clean up after it.

And me? I'm with Squirrel Girl.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

In Theaters: The Black Dahlia

THE BLACK DAHLIA has been getting some fairly withering reviews, which is a bit of a shame. Though not Brian De Palma's best (by which I mean it is not PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, though so few things are), it's not a bad film at all. Sleek, stylish and intricate, it manages a neat trick, giving a satisfying fictional answer to a real-life unsolved murder that, in all likelihood, will never be solved. It's not without its flaws, but it's more coherent than its critics make it out to be, and scarier than just about any film I've seen this year.

Adapted by Josh Friedman from the novel by James Ellroy, THE BLACK DAHLIA centers on the story of two police detectives, Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). First meeting in 1947 during an Army-Navy riot, the two are later paired up for a boxing exhibition to raise support for a police bond issue and, soon after, made partners. Their first big case, a takedown of a local drug lord, happens to take place at the same time and in the same area as the discovery of a horribly mutilated corpse, soon identified as aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (played in flashbacks and audition footage by Mia Kirshner). Bleichert and Blanchard soon get on the case, the latter becoming gradually obsessed with the dead girl, hurting his relationship with live-in girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), who seems to have an interest in Bucky as well. The investigation grows more and more complex, involving the family of a powerful landowner, the elder daughter (Hilary Swank) bearing an uncanny resemblance to Short, as well as corruption within the LAPD and L.A.'s surprisingly vibrant lesbian subculture (I've heard mumblings to the effect that this bit may be exaggerated, but any excuse to have K. D. Lang singing "Love For Sale" flanked by amorous showgirls is okay by me.)

De Palma is, for those who don't know, a stylist (and let's face it, at this point, people who don't even know what movies are have heard this.) The film is a pure noir homage, the kind of picture where everybody smokes, death scenes are elaborately beautiful, and the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place in one flash of revelation. Naturally, whenever a director focuses heavily on style, the critics drag out the "style over substance" stamp (I honestly think it's a Word macro), and from a viewer's perspective, too much visual flair can distract from a story, but I didn't think that happened here. The plot is complex, but at the end of it I think I worked things out- not wanting to spoil anything, I won't share my interpretation right now, but it's not as complicated as it seems (there are basically two major mysteries which briefly intersect.) Then again, I have Asperger's Syndrome, and one of the features of that is that you pick up on little details. So I think it's a case of all the necessary information being in the film, just not as clearly presented as it could be. I notice this a lot, and for future reference I'm calling it Avengers Syndrome. You'll find out why someday.

De Palma's stylized approach does undermine one part of the film, though. Unfortunately, it's the climactic revelation of just who did it- the performer making the confession was obviously instructed to play it up and go for old-movie-style melodrama, and the scene itself is so elaborate it becomes almost a joke. It's a curious decision, and there's also the last scene, which leaves at least one obvious question about what will happen next unanswered.

But I have to wonder if the style doesn't help more than it hurts. There's an utterly brilliant sequence where Bleichert, having hooked up with Liz's look-alike Madeline, is dragged into dinner with her appalling family. With a long tracking POV shot, we are shown an increasingly decadent, clearly dysfunctional and vaguely insane household, a venture into black comedy which not only serves as a break in the relentless seriousness of the mystery but foreshadows just how baffling things are going to get. We've seen this kind of sequence before, but never quite as audacious and absurd. De Palma also works a bit more subtly in a sequence showing the early morning discovery of the body, tracking from there to Bleichert and Blanchard's bust taking place on the other side of the block. I also appreciated a couple of scenes where Johansson is shot to look exactly like a technicolor movie idol. There's an ever-present sexuality in the film, ranging from subtly implied to out in the open.

I also have to pay a compliment to Hartnett here. I first remember seeing him in FORTY DAYS AND FORTY NIGHTS, in which he seemed to have made the decision to play the character as suffering permanent laryngitis. I wrote him off at that point, only to be somewhat intrigued by his brief role in SIN CITY, and here I genuinely liked his performance. He holds his own with Eckhart, which is not easy, and the two make an excellent duo. I think the acting helps sell the film- the performances are rarely so broad as to break the reality, as fancy as the camerawork may get. But then I'm usually generous towards actors, as you might guess from a sampling of my reviews.

Honestly, I just think the damn thing holds together. It has an ominous, macabre atmosphere and a visual richness that is worth a lot in itself. Because the Black Dahlia case is unsolved, I feared any film about it, even a fictionalization, would be unsatisfying, either leaving it enigmatic or cheating somehow. But, perhaps since so much of the focus is on the fictional characters involved in her case, a faux solution seems like enough. This is a solid mystery that's not getting near enough credit.

Grade: B+

Friday, September 15, 2006

Random Movie Report #11: Gojira

I've been a Godzilla fan for about as long as I can remember, though I really only became aware of and joined "Godzilla fandom" around 1995, when I discovered G-FAN magazine. I sort of drifted away from the fandom on account of being in the single percentile that enjoyed the 1998 TriStar Godzilla film, but the point is, I can remember when the bootleg market was the only way to see subtitled and uncut versions of Japanese monster movies, including the grandaddy of them all. The market didn't care about an obscure fandom who believed that a series of films about a giant dinosaur played by a man in a rubber suit possessed genuine artistic merit. Obviously, Godzilla's image in the US is still one of bad dubbing, low budgets and the late late late show, but at some point, realizing that DVD space was plentiful, Sony started putting out subtitled versions of the films they had rights to, which has spurred Classic Media and other companies to follow suit. In 2004, meanwhile (the timeline gets jumbled in my head), a restored print of the original GOJIRA made rounds in US theaters, and got just enough good press for Classic Media to try a DVD release.

So here we have something resembling the impossible ideal only dreamed of back in the halcyon days of the late 90s- GOJIRA given the prestige treatment, with a camp-free package using the original Japanese title and containing the original film, the US edit (released as GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS), bonus features, and an essay booklet, all presented with the subtitle "The Original Japanese Masterpiece." (It's worth pointing out that in all this time, Japanese film critics and filmmakers have considered GOJIRA one of the finest films produced in the country, so basically we're catching up.) It's finally an art film as well as a sci-fi thriller, so let's take a closer look. About time the big G got into the club.

It begins with the sinking of a Japanese freighter, which goes down in a flash of fire. A rescue ship meets the same fate, then another. One of the survivors washes ashore on nearby Odo Island, where an old man suspects that the disasters, and a complete of lack of fish in the daily catch, are the work of Gojira (aka Godzilla), a legendary sea monster once worshipped by the islanders. When the island itself is buffeted by a storm and something else, an expedition led by Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura, in SEVEN SAMURAI that same year) including his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her sailor boyfriend Ogata (Akira Takarada), heads to the wrecked village to investigate. They soon find the cause of all the destruction- Godzilla, a giant prehistoric beast awakened, mutated and irradiated by atomic bomb testing.

Depth charges fail to kill the monster, and Godzilla eventually comes ashore in Tokyo, breathing fire causing untold destruction while airplanes and tanks futilely block its path. Some hope emerges, from a difficult situation- Emiko is formally engaged to childhood friend Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a scientist wounded in World War II who has unintentionally stumbled upon a way of destroying the oxygen in water, killing and disintegrating anything within its range. When Godzilla attacks, Serizawa has already shown this in secret to Emiko, who must betray his trust to bring this information to light. And Serizawa himself choose between letting Godzilla continue to wreak destruction, or building the Oxygen Destroyer and risking it turning into a weapon as bad as the A-bomb.

GOJIRA was released over nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events which touched the lives of nearly everyone who made the film, particularly director Inoshiro Honda, who traveled through the ruins of Hiroshima on his way home from serving in the war. It was also made the same year as the infamous "Lucky Dragon" incident, in which a Japanese tuna trawler sailed close to an H-Bomb test, contaminating the entire crew with fallout. A major crisis at the time, the incident allegedly served as inspiration for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka as he flew home from the set of an aborted Japanese-Indonesian co-production. The connections, muted in the American release, are anything but subtle in the full version; many characters remark how life under the threat of Godzilla's attack is similar to life during wartime, a Diet member suggests a report on Godzilla's atomic origin be suppressed because revealing it might hurt "international relations", and at the end of the film, Yamane wonders if other creatures like Godzilla might be awakened by nuclear testing. Yamane also wants the creature studied to see how it survived the effects of an atomic blast, and his debates with Ogata on this point recall contemporary ambivalence on the uses and perils of nuclear energy. And of course, Serizawa's struggle to keep his discovery from being abused seems to be articulating a plea for a new ethics for the Atomic Age, one in which scientific discoveries are used humanely and responsibly. (Good luck with that.)

And of course there's Godzilla himself, whom Honda envisioned as a walking atomic bomb. The creature's rampage, photographed in stark, near-documentary style, evokes wartime atrocities and natural disasters alike. Akira Ifukube's legendary score adds a sense of gloom and majesty. Unlike the more playful sequels, GOJIRA is as deadly serious as a monster movie can be, showing victims up close, mourning over the death and destruction, and as a capper, an entire chorus of children singing a prayer for peace. It sounds maudlin, but with some experience with actual tragedy, Honda avoids going over-the-top. The results are sad and horrifying; at the time the film no doubt recalled uncomfortable memories for Japanese audiences, and for modern viewers it may bring up 9/11, Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, or other tragedies. Godzilla is the atom bomb, but he's also nature's revenge for the bomb, and the idea of nature rebelling against mankind's abuse of the planet holds plenty of resonance today. Even the American version, despite trying to be more commercial, didn't really take away from the sense of mourning that pervades this picture.

Eiji Tsubaraya's special effects hold up better than I remembered. Much is made of Godzilla being a man in a suit, and Roger Ebert harped on the crudity of the effects in his negative review of the 2004 rerelease (a rare misstep for him), but it's important to remember that for the Japanese film industry in 1954 this was pretty much bleeding edge technology, as a featurette on the disc illustrates. The only really poor shots involve not the suit, but a mechanical puppet with unfortunately stubby arms in close-ups where Godzilla had to move more than the costume would allow. A number of shots, however, are hugely effective, especially those in a sequence where Godzilla bursts through a line of electrified wires intended to slow him down. The design is a thing of beauty, Godzilla resembling alternately a dinosaur (or rather the Fifties conception of such, with upright posture and dragging tail), a dragon, and a demon, which goes with his contradictory role in the allegory. Whether Godzilla is the just punishment for our sins or the aberrant offspring of them, or both, is a question that's pervaded the character and the franchise for its fifty-plus years of existence.

In short, this is a great movie. It is both intelligent and heartfelt, coming across not as a diatribe or a lecture on the evils of the bomb, but a simple illustration of the tragedy that man can bring on himself. To see this picture finally given the treatment- and respect- it deserves is richly satisfying. The DVD itself isn't perfect; it lacks the Region 2 BFI release's image galleries and feature on the Lucky Dragon incident, and the image and sound quality could perhaps have been improved. But the film itself is essential, and Classic Media has done it justice. This is a very good time to be a Godzilla fan.

Written by Shigeru Kayama, Takeo Murata and Inoshiro Honda
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A+

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Random Movie Report #10: Shock Treatment

It never rains, but it pours. Today I picked up two new DVDs that should inspire me, I've got a follow-up on an older review to do, there's a certain space opera trilogy that I apparently need to buy again for the sake of historical preservation, and there's a related video game that I might pay some attention to. But first things first.

SHOCK TREATMENT, the ultra-obscure 1981 follow-up to the legendary ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, has finally been released on disc in time for its 25th anniversary. It's a wonderful oddity, as different from ROCKY HORROR as ROCKY HORROR was from everything else before it, and reflects its times as aptly as its predecessor. It's less sexual, more cerebral, and a fairly cynical satire on contemporary culture. If ROCKY is about the sexual revolution, SHOCK TREATMENT is about what happened when Madison Avenue co-opted that revolution.

The entire film takes place in the studios of DTV, the TV station that dominates Denton, hometown of Janet Majors (Jessica Harper) and her husband Brad (Cliff De Young). The honeymoon's over for the two, with Brad not really fitting in around town and generally being depressed. So, with seemingly all of Denton spending their days and nights at the studio, they appear on "Marriage Maze", a therapy game show hosted by blind German therapist/showman Bert Schnick (Barry Humphries, pre-Dame Edna.) Brad is declared an emotional cripple and promptly sent off to "Dentonvale", the local medical drama starring mental health specialists Cosmo and Nation McKinley (Richard O' Brien and Patricia Quinn, respectively.) But it's fast food flyboy Farley Flavors (De Young as well) who really runs things, and he has his eyes on Janet. At his direction, Cosmo and Nation convince Janet that Brad will only get better if she improves her image, and she'll do that by becoming the glamorous spokesmodel for Flavors and the McKinleys' new venture, "Faith Factory", a drive-thru approach to mental health. As Janet is groomed to become a star, "Denton Dossier" host Betty Hapschatt (Ruby Wax) and local intellectual Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray) start to suspect odd things are afoot and the station, and set out to unravel the mystery.

An interesting note: a LOT of critics seem to have made what is, to me, a fairly obvious mistake in interpreting the story. Many reviews describe the movie as "a parody of game shows" and being about a couple trapped in a game show. I think they missed the transition from "Marriage Maze" to "Dentonvale" and the other shows, and the whole thing is more about TV in general. I rarely say that critics are objectively wrong on something, as all art is partly subjective, but I think they were asleep at the switch here.

SHOCK TREATMENT had a troubled history. Richard O'Brien originally set out to make a more direct sequel to ROCKY HORROR, with Frank coming back to life and Janet giving birth to his baby, among other things, but Tim Curry's understandable refusal to reprise his old role led O'Brien to instead sketch out what became the plot of this film. A strike by the Screen Actors Guild forced the film to be shot in England, where, in the absence of any American-looking exteriors, the story was again changed to take place entirely in the studio. As a result, the film is a strangely claustrophobic and oppressive experience (and it's pretty easy to tell that much of the casting wasn't done in America), which would be more of a negative but for the fact that it fits the material so well. A note on the DVD transfer here: this is one of those movies where subtle changes to the contrast or color balance can harm the experience (other films where I've observed this are 2001, BATMAN, and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.) On video, SHOCK TREATMENT looked just a bit too sterile, but that's been fixed here, and the picture is full of rich colors and solid blacks. It seems they actually went to some trouble to get the picture quality right, and the film, properly presented, is downright beautiful.

Of course, the quality of a musical at least often depends on the quality of its songs, and SHOCK TREATMENT has an excellent assortment. Fast, often short, and with a unique peppy modern rock sound, the songs- with lyrics by O'Brien and music by O'Brien and Richard Hartley (who did the incidental music on ROCKY HORROR and would handle the scoring entirely for the songs the pair contributed to THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE)- are cheesy, catchy, and fun, highlighted by clever wordplay and a relentless beat. A number of little themes and leitmotifs seem to recur throughout, at least to my untrained ear. The soundtrack album is worth tracking down.

One thing the film shares in common with its predecessor is a broad, far-from-realistic approach to dialogue and acting, which is appropriate, but unfortunately the writing is kind of stilted. It sometimes gets into kinda-neat puns and alliteration and word play, but there's a sense of it being too clever for its own good. A lot of five-dollar words are thrown around, sentences are built very formally, and it all starts to sound like some weird fusion of Jack Kirby, George Lucas, and Groucho Marx.

The film's second half loses a bit of focus and isn't as fast-moving as the first, but the strength of the film's atmosphere counts for a lot. There are also some good jokes, including a couple of obvious-but-fun literary references. The cast is charming, everyone overplaying and doing pantomime-esque turns to memorable effect. Jessica Harper does the best job by far, with a beautiful sultry singing voice that gets quite a workout. Cliff De Young also earns points for making Brad and Farley radically different in looks, mannerisms, and voice. Nell Campbell is very cute as Nurse Ansalong, though she doesn't get much to do.

At first glance, the film's satire goes after some easy targets: consumerism, small town America, television, etc. But it's quite skillful in its approach, working on levels of both plot and visuals. Everything is enclosed, boxed-in, or on screens, and though a number of things are touched on or evoked- fashion, psychiatry, religion, suburban life, sex- the overall point seems to be how all of these things are packaged and presented by Madison Avenue. Everything becomes the lowest common denominator, a shapeless mass that's hard to escape. It's more sophisticated than it looks.

SHOCK TREATMENT may be the most best of the post-RHPS wannabe cult musicals that came and went in the late seventies and early eighties, fitting into the same obscure niche as pictures like THE APPLE and FORBIDDEN ZONE. It doesn't have the kind of "don't dream it, be it" vibe that made the original resonate so highly, and it's dated some, but it's sharper and better made than you'd expect. Now, with what has to be its widest release in any format, maybe it'll finally get its due.

Original Book and Lyrics by Richard O'Brien
Music by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley
Screenplay by Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman
Directed by Jim Sharman

Grade: B+

Monday, September 11, 2006

You Are Entering My Darkplace

As further proof that TV programmers hate quality, the Sci-Fi Channel, which had acquired the six-episode run of GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE, aired it in weeks past, and appeared to be gearing up for another cycle through with a repeat of the first episode two weeks ago, has pre-empted it for the two weeks since. Its website still lists the show's airtime as Sunday at 12/11pm Central. This is a damned lie. Given this, and the fact that even the British DVD is some ways away (possibly next year), this is the worst possible time to blog about a show that my readers have no way of seeing, but the Great Content Drought continues (seriously, do you folks want to read ANGEL reviews starting from halfway through the second season?), so just bookmark this and save it for when the Sci-Fi Channel comes to its senses or the DVD is released, whichever comes first.

Back in the 1980s, visionary horror writer Garth Marenghi created DARKPLACE, a unique horror/sci-fi drama about supernatural happenings at Darkplace Hospital, and the efforts of Dr. Rick Dagless (played by Marenghi himself) to unravel the place's ominous mysteries. The series was too controversial and daring and innovative to see the light of day, and only now is Marenghi sharing his lost treasure with us, complete with commentary from himself, Dean Lerner, the show's co-star and producer (as well as Garth's press agent, manager, and publisher), and actor Todd Rivers, who played the young, handsome-but-not-as-handsome-as-Dagless Dr. Lucien Sanchez. (Madeline Wool, who played lady psychic Dr. Liz Asher, has sadly disappeared and is presumed dead.)

All of that was a lie. GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE is a mix of comedy and metafiction, presenting a particularly cheap and goofy 80s horror series alongside self-aggrandizing commentary from its self-absorbed creator. Garth Marenghi is actually Matthew Holness, who wrote the show with director Richard Ayoade, aka Dean Lerner. Alice Lowe, who plays Madeline/Liz, is alive and accounted for. I think. And so on. In some ways the game is obvious- the plots are too silly, the bad effects too obvious, and of course Dagless has an emotional song number in one episode. But it is remarkable how much care has been taken to make the illusion work- the character's costuming and hair give them the perfect retro look, the film itself has been mucked with to look like it was recorded in the proper era, and at least half the dialogue is poorly ADR-ed in. Half of the joy of the show is just the nostalgic authenticity of it- though "Darkplace" itself is crap, one could easily imagine a good show being made in the same era with the same premise, reflecting a bygone dramatic sensibility. Personally I can't get enough of this sort of thing- I don't see why we had to stop making 80s drama shows just because the 80s themselves ended, or why I can't go to the cinema now and see a completely new 1956 B-movie. With digital grading it all finally seems possible (though the actual DARKPLACE was apparently quite expensive to make for this very reason, which may be why we've only got the six episodes. Marenghi hints there may be more yet unfound.)

If that's not won you over, the real hook of the series is basically how it's all one man's power trip. Marenghi is never short on praise for his own talent, preferring to call himself a "dreamweaver" or visionary, and carefully explaining how every episode is an important social statement of some kind or another. In the show itself, Dr. Rick Dagless is the ultimate Mary Sue, strong, brilliant, handsome, tortured, and admired by everyone around him. Garth Marenghi's power trip is quite fun to watch, and honestly, downright insightful. All authors, myself included, have to have a bit of the pretentious self-aggrandizing prat to us; we have to be able to convince ourselves on some level, however subconscious, that our scribblings are vitally important to the future of mankind. Otherwise we'd ditch the whole trade and play Nintendo. There's something alluring about entering, as Marenghi puts it, "the world of my imagination"- the place where we're in charge. He's just not as good as hiding it.

Of course, on a final level, the thing's damn funny. The actors deadpan so effectively as to make nearly every other line a laugh-getter, and Marenghi's ramblings contain several gems (at one point he takes credit for his twin daughters not eating each other.) The humor is verbal, physical, subtle, broad, sexual, scatological, whatever works- it's not so much a "bad taste" kind of program as one where bad taste manifests when necessary (though this may be the reason Sci-Fi airs it so late to start with.)

In some ways it's appropriate that a show about a lost and obscure program should be itself so damn hard to get to see. Not that I don't desperately crave more, but maybe this gives us time to reflect and get in touch with our inner Marenghi-ness. I hope to see more of Darkplace very soon. And I hope Ms. Wool shows up safe and sound, though hope grows fainter every year.

[Additional info at Save Darkplace]

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Self Pity, or Clever Ploy?

[Thanks to inspiration from Bully, who got the idea from Tegan. And you can click on the seal to make your own.]

Monday, September 04, 2006

Random Movie Report #9: Sylvia

It's been a while since I did one of these, mainly because my Netflix queue is now clogged with TV shows I don't feel up to reviewing in full. But I did get the opportunity to see this, and it's an interesting little film, low-key but gradually powerful. SYLVIA has its flaws, but it tackles a more-difficult-than-usual biography subject with intelligence and respect. The story of Sylvia Plath is not, inherently, a cinematic one, but by focusing on her relationship with Ted Hughes, the filmmakers make it work.

The film opens in 1956, as Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow), an American Fulbright scholar, is attending Cambridge. While scanning the Uni poetry mag for a review of her work, she comes across and is moved by a work by Edward Hughes. She meets Hughes (Daniel Craig) at a party and, despite his reputation for not taking steady girlfriends, the two become lovers and eventually marry, moving to the states. As Hughes wins awards and accolades for his poems, Sylvia struggles with trying to get her work published and starts to lose the will to work on them. Worse, she begins to suspect her husband of infidelity, first with college students, then with a fellow poet when they move back to England. The mental problems that led her to attempt suicide when younger begin to resurface, and things are made worse when she discovers her suspicions are real and throws Ted out. Amidst this, her literary status slowly rises, but she's still second to her husband, and her life looking after her two children doesn't get any better.

We all know that this story doesn't have a happy ending. Sadly, Plath may well be known more for her suicide than her poetry, and the focus of the film is more psychological than anything else. The perspective is, with a handful of exceptions, relentlessly first person, centering scenes and actions on Sylvia's perspective of them, dwelling on casual contacts between Ted and the women she suspects of loving him, the mundane details of her homemaking, and her own increasingly troubled visage. (The cinematography reminded me of Cronenberg's SPIDER, though that may just be a general post-War English grottiness.) It's disappointing, though, that the film seems to neglect Sylvia's creative and professional development; to be sure, writing is the hardest creative activity to effectively portray on film, but entire pieces of her career seem to be missing, particularly the point where she becomes a published poet and not just an aspiring one (we see a party for the publication of her first book, but not any indication of the writing of it.) Then again, the film implies and leaves us to infer a lot, and this seems to be deliberate. Sylvia's own poetry is described as being like seeing dark things just out of the corner of one's eye, rarely confronting them directly. Unfortunately I haven't actually read any of her work, so I can't say whether this is an accurate assessment, but it does justify the creative direction taken by the film to some extent.

Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the few actors I can name who, after winning an Academy Award, has turned in substantially better work. Her performance here is very intense, but not over-the-top; she very carefully pitches Sylvia's instability, and it seems natural throughout. Daniel Craig projects a certain intellectual ferocity to match, and keeps Hughes, if not sympathetic, understandable even as he cheats. The film is fairly neutral in assigning any blame for the tragedy; it was fashionable for a time to assume that Hughes had driven Plath to suicide, while Hughes attempted to give his side in "Birthday Letters", a book of poems about Sylvia published shortly before he died. The film does show at least two sides to the issue; Hughes' affair was inexcusable, and he didn't make all the right decisions in dealing with her, but of course she had genuine psychological problems, and the film conveys her strange longing for self-destruction as it bubbled beneath her consciousness.
Nuance like that is hard to get across in a biopic, and often results in a sense of timidity, but there's none of that here.

SYLVIA is the sort of film that starts slowly and shows some faults along the way, but in the end comes together quite beautifully. Made with more skill than is obvious at first glance, it delivers something that's asked of most biopics but that they can so rarely offer; a look at the subject's inner life. That alone makes it worth seeking out.

Written by John Brownlow
Directed by Christine Jeffs

Grade: A-

Friday, September 01, 2006

In Theaters: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

[Image courtesy Empire Movies]

It's interesting. I've never followed NASCAR to any kind of degree, still don't quite grok the sport, and yet this summer I've seen two quite good movies connected to it. TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (which just may beat out SNAKES ON A PLANE for the honor of Year's Best Title) is the right kind of epic comedy to close out the summer movie season, for me anyway. It's funny, light, and loud, and has a decent story on top of that. Ironically, its one true failing is that it isn't fast enough.

Born in a car traveling over a hundred miles an hour, driven by his unstable father (Gary Cole), Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) grows up with one thought on his mind: "I wanna go fast." Starting out as a pit crew member (for a car sponsored by Laughing Clown Malt Liquor), Bobby gets a chance to go on the track when the actual driver steps out during a pit stop for a chicken sandwich. Bobby quickly becomes a star racer, winning several championships (but never on points), often with the assistance of fellow racer Cal Naughton, Jr., a teammate who is content to take second in order to set up a "shake and bake" maneuver which never fails to send Bobby into first. Bobby has millions in endorsement deals, a hot trophy wife (Leslie Bibb), and two smartmouthed children, Walker and Texas Ranger. Life is good.

Then along comes Jean Girrard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a French Formula One star who has come to the states to compete at NASCAR. The two confront each other at a bar, where Girrard breaks Bobby's arm. Bobby insists on racing mere days after and crashes, and though mostly uninjured, can't bring himself to drive over 26 mph. Dropped from the team, and his house, Bobby takes Walker and T.R. over to live with his mother (Jane Lynch). Bobby gets a job delivering pizzas (eventually via bicycle), and runs into his long-lost dad, who decides to teach Bobby to conquer his fear so he can once again go very very fast.

The plot is actually a bit more complicated than this, surprisingly enough, and it may just have one wrinkle too many- at 108 minutes, it feels a bit longer than it should, though I can't say what ought to be cut. Humorwise, it does take a little while to get going, though that may be because I saw it on a Thursday and it was a light crowd. I guess I'm getting the negative stuff out of the way early. Okay then. There we go.

On the upside, it is very funny. The same kind of melodramatic absurdity and non-sequitirness that marked ANCHORMAN is on display here, slightly less intensely because the story's meatier, but still effective. The cast is excellent; Ferrell is a natural at this kind of role, Reilly is surprisingly adept at wacky comedy, Cole comes close to stealing the show at times, and there are good appearances by Amy Adams as a nerdy-yet-very-very-cute pit manager and Molly Shannon as the drunken wife of the team owner.

And then there's Cohen. The character he plays is interesting, because he's introduced as the ultimate NASCAR heel- a married gay Frenchman who listens to jazz, reads Camus and drinks tea while driving, and takes a disaffected, ironic view of everything. And yet the movie goes so far as to make him somewhat sympathetic, and much of the film's resolution undermines a lot of the fake "common man vs. elitist" politics which NASCAR, like just about any other "blue collar" pastime, gets dragged into. Despite most Hollywood filmmakers leaning to the liberal side, the "anti-French" meme has gained surprising traction in all levels of pop culture, and it's nice to see it deflated once in a while even as French culture is mocked alongside it. The claim that "we make fun of everyone", sometimes used disingenuously, actually applies here. In any case, Cohen's is a good performance, and it's a bit of a shame that Andy Richter, as his husband, doesn't get more screentime.

So, we have here a big dumb comedy that's not completely dumb (indeed, that actually holds together thematically), that's not as funny as perhaps it could be but still delivers. The problem with a comedy like this is I can't talk too much about the jokes without just giving them away, suffice it to say they generally work, and so it's worth your time.

Grade: B