Saturday, March 31, 2007

Random Movie Report #23: Forgotten Silver

I'm classing this piece on FORGOTTEN SILVER as a movie review, even though it's not quite a movie; coming in at just under an hour, it was originally aired on New Zealand television as part of a drama anthology series. The reason for this is very simple: I can't think of a better category for it. (Though note the TV tag.) Presented as a documentary on the life and work of NZ filmmaking pioneer Colin McKenzie, the film managed to fool a great many viewers, whose swellings of patriotic pride turned to outrage when the hoax was revealed.

Peter Jackson (the co-director) more-or-less hosts as himself, recounting how, collecting film cans he thought would be home movies from an elderly neighbor named Hannah McKenzie, he came across the lost work of her husband Colin, a pioneer in the silent era of film. The "restored" work reveals Colin McKenzie to have been first with tracking shots, synch sound, and color, all well in advance of their "official" invention. Mackenzie's life was one of ups and downs; his sound feature was filmed in Chinese before the advent of subtitles, and his color test reel ended up with footage of topless Tahitian girls, getting him and brother Brooke McKenzie booked on obscenity charges when they showed the test to investors. Finally, Colin moved from experimentation to narrative cinema, leading to the filming of the great lost epic SALOME; it would become the scene of personal triumph and tragedy.

Knowing ahead of time that the documentary is a fake, one can spot a few dead giveaways; the date on a film reel showing the test flight of (real) Kiwi aviator Charles Pearce is extrapolated from a newspaper using the kind of ultra-advanced digital enhancement that only works in movies, and the description of how Colin made his own film stock using plants for cellulose and eggs for emulsion stretches credibility. And of course, the "first with everything" claim gets a little suspicious. But despite many moments of humor, the whole thing is played straight enough that you can see how people were caught unawares (and indeed, there's no disclaimer even in the end credits.) Particularly impressive is how the films themselves are faked- the footage is much more elaborately degraded than the usual "thin scratches" approach, as much of it was actually dragged across the floor of the basement of the film lab (the other floors were too clean), and the period detail is authentic enough. Enough actual history and facts about early film are woven in to up the plausibility factor, as are appearances by Harvey Weinstein, Leonard Matlin, and Sam Neill.

This works in favor of the movie's entertainment value as well; I personally am a fan of metafiction, and a believable chronicle of the silent era is just the sort of thing that sparks the imagination. Much of the film is played for laughs, a highlight being the time McKenzie spends filming the "Stan the Man" series of slapstick comedies, in which the title comedian (Peter Corrigan) goes up to actual random bystanders in New Zealand cities and physically abuses them, in a wonderfully twisted take on the actual "community comedies" of the time. But there is tragedy and heartbreak, and a certain suspense as Colin rushes to complete his masterpiece. There's also action in the present as Jackson in others set off in search of the massive Biblical city McKenzie built for his epic somewhere in the New Zealand wilds. In the end it's fairly touching, and McKenzie is given the dignity befitting a visionary.

FORGOTTEN SILVER starts off cute and ends up being more compelling and dramatic than one expects. It efficiently uses the documentary format to tell a story with a number of fascinating twists, not giving the game away but working as more than just a practical joke. It's a fun curiosity and a good evening's viewing.

Written and Directed by Costa Botes and Peter Jackson

Grade: A-

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Comics Page #10: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.: This is What They Want

Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's NEXTWAVE was one of many cult favorite comic books last year totally buried by events and event tie-ins. It ran for 12 issues, and whether or not it was a limited series from the start was never quite clear, but after it became clear the sales were going nowhere, Ellis publicly declared that we wouldn't get to have any more after a dozen. I discovered this book one issue before the end, and I regret not having done my part to save it (word of mouth about comics doesn't spread fast enough, does it?). Sometimes I wonder if we deserve titles like this. In any case, NEXTWAVE: AGENTS OF H.A.T.E.: THIS IS WHAT THEY WANT collects the first half of the series, presumably with another trade to follow.

Lying somewhere between the Giffen/DeMatteis "comedy" JUSTICE LEAGUE and TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, NEXTWAVE: AGENTS OF H.A.T.E. is a high-octane action satire in which B-list superheroes, forgoing costumes and code names, beat the crap out of monsters and insult each other against a backdrop of psychedelic visual funkiness. It's intensely funny and, at the same time, quite exciting, while being cool to look at to boot.

H.A.T.E. stands for Highest Anti Terrorism Effort, a top secret agency run by the one-eyed and psychotic Dirk Anger (originally intended to be Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., but Marvel understandably put their foot down.) Nextwave was intended to be the agency's elite anti-terrorism superteam, but its leader, Monica Rambeau (formerly known as Captain Marvel, and former head of the Avengers, as she will remind you frequently) and her team discovered that H.A.T.E. was funded by the Beyond Corporation, the public, "reformed" face of S.I.L.E.N.T., a terrorist group, intending to use H.A.T.E. to test new and improved WMDs on the American public. So they stole an airship and rebelled. All this happened before the first issue, and now Nextwave are fleeing their bosses and fighting any monsters who happen across their path.

The other members of Nextwave are Tabby Smith, who possesses the mutant powers of pyrotechnics and stealing all your stuff, Aaron, an advanced robot formerly known as "Machine Man", Elsa Bloodstone, a near-immortal monster hunter with a British accent, and the Captain, a vaguely cosmic powered superhuman whose original codename was so obscene Captain America smacked him when he first heard it. They've also got their own theme song, printed in the back of the TPB and available on the Marvel website.

Describing the plot of the series is sort of pointless, suffice it to say that in this trade, the Nextwave gang battles Fin Fang Foom (a giant Chinese dragon in little purple shorts), a cyborg cop, broccoli men, drop bears, pteromen, homicide crabs, and spiky samurai warriors. All the while, they are hunted by H.A.T.E. and the perpetually unstable Dirk Anger, who manifests a number of unusual neuroses. We also get flashbacks to the backstories of some of the Nextwave team, and banter and insults abound.

The tone of the book is hard to describe. The narration is both deadpan and dripping with irony, displaying a very British kind of sarcasm (which makes a certain amount of sense given Ellis is from that general region.) And yet, at the same time, the book is incredibly straightforward in what it offers: superpowered people engaged in senseless violence, with none of the attempts at self-justification you see in more serious books. The trade also prints Ellis' original pitch, which is distinctly simple- every story arc takes two issues, telling an action movie in 44 pages, focusing on the Nextwave team battling some kind of weird monster thingy. There is no character development, no relevance, no moral truth. It is, as as Ellis says, "most especially about THINGS BLOWING UP and PEOPLE GETTING KICKED."

And it's strangely endearing. With crisp, colorful art and a strong sense of design, artist Stuart Immonen helps keep the tone light and bouncy. Heck, it's less gory than the average mainstream title, despite being plainly put in adult action-movie territory. (Listing all the ways in which this is different from modern mainstream comics would get me going on a very unpleasant rant, so let's just stop there.) It's also extremely funny, with a lot of dark-yet-cartoonish humor presented with excellent timing, the highlight being a brilliant throwaway joke about what happened to one of Aaron's mechanical brothers. One develops an affection for these characters, underdogs with deep grudges and personal problems who have banded together to fight the power with guns and explosions. Okay, maybe it's not completely without truth, but then what is?

NEXTWAVE confidently stomped onto comics stands, said its piece, then stomped off without being too upset that not many people were listening, but I suspect that we haven't heard the last of it. Specials have been rumored. Whether or not such things happen, NEXTWAVE is something unique in the genre. Not an idealistic heroic narrative, not a cynical deconstruction, not an existential drama, not really a parody, not in the least bit serious. NEXTWAVE is- well, to quote the last caption of issue #6, "Nextwave is love." I'll let that be the last word.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Random Movie Report #22: Godzilla vs. Biollante

And we conclude my recent sojourn into R3 territory with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, the sequel to THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and by far the most imaginative entry in the "Heisei" series of Godzilla films. Unlike RETURN OF GODZILLA, this film wasn't altered for its US release, but that release, ultimately direct-to-video and cable by Miramax in 1993 (it came out in Japan in 1989), was so limited that it remains one of the harder-to-find G films in America. (It has yet to receive a Region 1 DVD release.) It also suffered from a poor dub job done by Toho's default "international" dubbing service (I'm not entirely clear on who these people are), a group of voiceover artists and technicians with bizarre voices and no access to decent sound mixing. (Sadly, all of the Heisei films post-GODZILLA 1985 were released with dubs from this same team.) To see this film subtitled on DVD is a substantial improvement, all things considered. This is one of my favorite Godzilla movies and one of my favorite films overall, so let's just dive into it.

The film starts in the immediate aftermath of Godzilla's 1984 rampage; among the ruins, scientists collect samples of the monster's hide to harvest his cells. Some of these samples, gathered not-too-covertly by armed mercenaries working for an American biotech firm, are stolen by a mysterious hitman when he kills the merc team, and end up in the Middle Eastern Republic of Saradia, where Japanese scientist Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) and his daughter Erika (Yasuko Sawaguchi) are working on trying to develop wheat that will grow in the desert. The research lab is bombed by the American firm, and Erika is killed. Five years later, psychic youngsters at a Japanese research facility detect that Godzilla, still in a volcano, has awakened. The government starts mobilizing to prepare for his possible return, and one of their defenses is a project to develop Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, which should help to sap the atomic beast's power. To make it, they need to use Godzilla's own cells, and fortunately a private Japanese foundation has a supply. They also enlist the help of Dr. Shiragami, who has moved back to Japan and now spends much of his time tending roses.

The American genetics firm has again sent agents to monitor Dr. Shiragami and the rest, and they eventually get word of the anti-nuclear bacteria. Planting explosives at Mount Mihara, they threaten to cause an eruption that will release Godzilla unless the bacteria is handed over to them. The buy goes wrong, the Saradian hitman gets the bacteria, and the explosives go off anyway. Meanwhile, Dr. Shiragami has been doing his own experimentation with the cells, combining them with the roses which he had, in turn, combined with cells from his deceased daughter in an attempt to give her new life. The result is a giant, seemingly immortal plant creature called Biollante that escapes from the lab and takes root in a nearby lake. Drawn by the creature's calls, Godzilla takes a break from battling the military to confront his plant kingdom counterpart. Everybody with me so far?

After the simplicity of RETURN OF GODZILLA, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE's dense and at-times-absurd storyline is quite an abrupt change of pace. And yet, it's not really a bad thing. The storyline, originally conceived by dentist and part-time screenwriter Shinichiro Kobayashi and chosen via a nationwide contest held in 1986, throws plenty of neat things at us, from corporate espionage, to a giant plant-monster, to psychic powers, to an elaborate military storm creation system, to a series of "G" alert protocols used in case of Godzilla-related activities, to the Super X-2, a cousin to RETURN OF GODZILLA's Super X flying weapons platform, this version equipped with a synthetic diamond mirror that reflects Godzilla's flame breath back at him. Somehow, it all holds together; it actually makes sense if you watch it, it's just hard to sum up. (The film does have one of the weirder endings of the Godzilla series, but after multiple viewings I think I understand it. Maybe.)

The film is also a treat for the senses, beautifully shot and with a score that, while strongly Americanized, has some nicely poetic moments. In place of the fiery oranges and greys of the last film, we have lush green and blue vistas that speak to the beauty of the natural world. Godzilla himself received yet another redesign for this picture, and the "Biogoji" suit is a fan favorite, distinguished by a fierce, vaguely feline visage. Biollante's initial "rose" form is interesting enough, but for the climax it transforms into a giant toothy monstrosity, one of my favorite designs ever for a movie monster. The effects, this time by Koichi Kawakita, are consistently strong, and a number of mattes are used to put human characters in the same shot with giant monsters and laser tanks and so forth, making the fantasy more vividly real. There are also some beautifully composed individual shots and entertaining montages.

The human story of the film is largely driven by Dr. Shiragami, a sedate and sympathetic mad scientist who doesn't fully understand the responsibility he has to take for what he creates. Takahashi gives a strong performance, outshining the two young leads. Also entertaining is Toru Minegishi as the cynical and wisecracking Lieutenant Goro Gondo, and the film features the first appearance of Megumi Odaka as Miki Saguesa, a young psychic girl who would become a continuing character throughout the Heisei series. (One drawback to the subtitled version is that a decent portion of the dialogue in the film is actually in English, and the difficulty the original actors had with delivery is all too obvious.)

GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE is an odd and slightly awkward beast, top-heavy with plot and taking a while to get to the first proper appearance of our hero. But I love it; it's crazy, convoluted and just neat to look at and listen to, with some interesting characters and cool monster battles. It's one of the weirder Godzilla films, and when you're dealing with a giant mutant dinosaur who breathes blue flame and eats nuclear energy, that's probably the best way to go.

Story by Shinichiro Kobayashi
Written and Directed by Kazuki Omori

Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Random Movie Report #21: The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985)

Sorry for the pause- another writing project threw itself in the way and I had to slog through it.

I've mentioned the Universe company before- one of the things they're known for, at least among American kaiju eiga fans, is releasing Japanese monster movies on DVD with English subtitles (as well as Cantonese subs and optional dubbing for those who actually live in the Hong Kong region) well in advance of any proper release in the States. Sure, you need a multi-region player, but those are pretty cheap nowadays, and you end up saving quite a bit because Hong Kong remains an area in which the American dollar is relatively strong. On top of which, it's all above-board and legal, a far cry from the days where we had to scrounge for halfway-decent bootlegs. The only drawback is that they're not quite up to Japanese or American standards of sound or picture quality- still better than VHS, but not by as much. Also, you have to sit through an unusually long copyright warning and, for some discs, ten-year-old Dolby Digital trailers.

Anyway, two of Universe's more recent releases are THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE. Both have yet to see an American DVD release, due to some nebulous rights situation in the case of the former and the rights holders just not caring in the case of the latter. I decided to watch them, and thus review them, in chronological order.

THE RETURN OF GODZILLA was Toho's bid to revive the Godzilla series in time for the original film's thirtieth anniversary. It had been nine years since the last Godzilla movie, and the series had become known as low-budget children's fare, with the fire-breathing monster a defender of humanity battling far viler monsters. Wanting to go back to the character's roots, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka conceived a direct sequel to the first movie, ignoring the fifteen or so sequels and recasting Godzilla as a deadly personification of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The result is a grim and compelling thriller, one of the better entries in the series; it's not quite as realistic or sad as the original, but it has some of the same apocalyptic power. The US release (known as GODZILLA 1985) was a particularly bad botch on the part of New World Pictures, clumsily splicing in new scenes and disrupting the tone completely, but the original is well worth tracking down.

A fishing boat is lost in a storm at sea following a major earthquake, and young reporter Goro (Ken Tanaka) comes across it on a pleasure cruise. He discovers almost all the crew dead, killed by strange giant insects, while the lone survivor Hiroshi (Shin Takuma) speaks of encountering a giant monster who, to authorities, sounds a lot like Godzilla (the bugs were parasites, apparently). They place the sailor (and his sister, played by Yasuko Sawaguchi) under quarantine and attempt to keep the story quiet, fearing that the return of the monster who first terrorized their country in 1954 will cause an unwelcome but not really undue panic. But when Godzilla (for it is he) sinks a Russian sub, and the Soviets interpret the loss as an American attack, the Japanese are forced to reveal that Godzilla is alive, and, from the looks of it, heading for Japan. The Russians and Americans both lobby for Japan to allow the use of nuclear weapons against the international menace, but the prime minister (Keiju Kobayashi) holds firm to Japan's no-nukes policy and instead hopes to defeat Godzilla with the flying weapons platform Super-X, and a plan by the brooding Dr. Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki) to lure the creature to the mouth of the volcano at Mt. Mihara.

The film is less plot-driven than even the average monster movie, lacking most of the elaborate twisting these movies do to get one or more giant creatures in a major metropolitan area. Instead, there's a certain feeling of inevitability as Godzilla slouches towards Tokyo, once again coming to punish mankind for its nuclear folly. Hayashida, whose parents were killed by Godzilla in 1954 and who sees the creature as a kind of warning, an omen sent in times of conflict. The threat of the Cold War looms almost as large as Godzilla himself in an attempt by the series to regain its metaphorical bearings.

It's really the atmosphere that makes this one sing. With muted colors and a moody score, the film maintains a sense of dread and foreboding throughout. The special effects are by Teruyoshi Nakano, who saw the series through its ultra-low-budget days in the Seventies; here, with some actual money (though Japanese production values would forever lag behind America's) he manages some good spectacle. To watch these kinds of movies, of course, you have to get used to model buildings and men in monster suits pretty quickly, but by those standards this is good stuff. Godzilla has a more stylized look, with heavy eyelids and huge fangs, and in close-ups is played by a nicely expressive animatronic robot (though the look of the suit and the 'bot don't really match.) Godzilla's first full appearance is particularly good- an extreme close-up as seen by an unfortunate security guard, starting at the feet and slowly panning up to the creature's eyes.

It's this atmosphere, unfortunately, that was pretty much destroyed by the New World release. Sequences of American military men and reporter "Mr. Martin" (a return appearance by Raymond Burr- his character isn't referred to as Steve for obvious reasons) are shot in a pedestrian way (though the Dr. Pepper product placement is very prominent indeed), and shots of civilians being stepped on and killed en-masse during Godzilla's climactic rampage were edited out haphazardly. (Also trimmed is a short but powerful scene where the Prime Minister dwells on the ramifications of his decision to face down the two world superpowers.) More importantly, a major subplot was altered. In the Japanese edit, after the Prime Minister reaffirms his country's ban on the use of nuclear weapons, the Russians move to disable an orbital nuclear missile platform controlled from a ship docked in a harbor in Tokyo. When Godzilla attacks, however, the ship is capsized and the launching device goes off automatically, despite the dying efforts of the Russian captain to stop it. However, New World was having fun exploiting the "Evil Empire" aspect of the Cold War, and altered subtitles and added a shot to make it seem as though the Russians "kept the nuclear option open" and launched the missile intentionally. (The actual Russian dialogue is left undubbed, so Russian speakers can probably still pick up the discrepancy.) The end result was a fairly confused picture with no particular mood, and it didn't do much good- American audiences and critics still equated Godzilla with camp, and were turned off by what seriousness remained.

So it's good to finally have the original cut (I'd previously seen a British VHS release which used the Japanese cut, but suffered from an atrocious dub). THE RETURN OF GODZILLA doesn't attain the same depth as the original, but it's a great example of how an old character or concept can be made fresh and new while returning to its roots at the same time. It's fiery, apocalyptic, and perversely fun. Whenever Toho Studios see fit to return Godzilla to the screen, I hope they take lessons from this.

Story by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Screenplay by Hidekazu Nagahara
Directed by Koji Hashimoto

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 10, 2007

In Theaters: 300

[Yet another CanMag steal]

Historical epics are a difficult genre for me. They're often too solemn for their own good, while at the same time oversimplifying things to give us easily identifiable good guys and bad guys (I don't object to the distortion of history per se, but I never understand when it's used to make the story less interesting.) 300 is pretty much guilty of the latter, presenting the Battle of Thermopylae entirely from the perspective of the Spartan forces and casting the story as one of bold sacrifice in the name of insurmountable odds. However, in doing so, the movie becomes less about history and more about myth; it's a faithful adaptation of a 1998 comic book series by Frank Miller and Lynne Varley (itself apparently inspired when Miller saw the movie THE 300 SPARTANS on TV), depicting the conflict in an exaggerated near-fantasy style, often breaking with anything that could be considered realism even by the least knowledgeable viewer (and it's not like I know that much about Greece in 480 B.C.E.) This is actually a good approach; we don't have to think about what's been changed because we're blatantly not meant to take any of it as truth, and so can get on enjoying the action as spectacle. It also raises some questions about the subjective nature of myth and cultural history, and how the latter becomes the former; the visceral easily overwhelms the intellectual, but it's not completely brainless. That said, if you'll the least bit interested in seeing this film to begin with, what you want to know is if the action is kickass. That it most certainly is.

Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas of Sparta, one of many Greek nations being targeted by the super-powerful Persian Empire, under the rule of Emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) who fancies himself a god. Leonidas refuses to pay any sort of tribute to the Persians, and so war becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, it is around the time of a major religious festival in the city, and the local oracles counsel against going to war. The Spartan council agrees, and refuses to release the city's army. So Leonidas decides to gather a personal "bodyguard" of 300 men, and lead them to the steep mountain pass at Thermopylae, hoping to force the tens of thousands of Persian soldiers into a siege. It helps that the Spartans are a warrior culture, each male being expertly trained in combat, in excellent physical shape, and holding a very high opinion of his ability. They actually seem to stand a solid chance, until a betrayal by a deformed shepherd (Andrew Tiernan under tons of makeup) makes a glorious defeat inevitable. There's a subplot involving Leonidas' wife, the extremely unfortunately named Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), trying to convince the council to reverse their decision and send more men, but of course we know the film is called 300 and not 300,000.

The film is narrated by Dilios (David Wenham, whom you may recognize as Faramir from the latter two LORD OF THE RINGS films), one of the 300 who is sent home to deliver the word when it becomes clear the battle will be hopeless. Though the film often shows us things he couldn't possibly have been around to see, this device rather ingeniously explains and encompasses all the movie's radical distortions. The original comic has been criticized for overly boosting Spartan culture, and accused of racism in its demonization of the mostly dark-skinned Persian enemy, and the film doesn't make many attempts at modern sensitivity. However, the fact that this is the unreliable narration of a Spartan, attempting to use this story to rally the whole of Greece, clues us in that we're not supposed to take the movie as accurate, let alone look at it with modern eyes. That is, if the wizards and monsters weren't indication enough. What we see in the movie is exactly the kind of distortion of stories that took place throughout the ancient world, and given the Spartans' high opinion of themselves, this is pretty much how you would expect them to tell the story. It adds an interesting level to the film, showing how history becomes myth, while at the same time making things so amoral that any ideological concerns become irrelevant. We like the Spartans because they are the heroes, but we don't necessarily want to live in a culture where sickly infants are thrown off cliffs and seven-year-olds are sent into the wilderness. We just enjoy the way they fight.

But all that aside, how is the violence? Quite good. The battle scenes are so stylized as to attain a kind of beauty normally found mostly in kung-fu epics. The same applies to the gore, which isn't nearly as hard to take as one would expect as a result- even the blood seems slightly off-color. Zack Snyder also directed the recent DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, and though I felt not all of that film's action was effective, here he avoids jittery camerawork and overly quick cutting in favor of capturing the beauty and precision of the original comic art. The blend of live action and CGI, with all sorts of digital grading done to enhance the unreality of things, is quite effective. The visual spectacle is augmented with a modest yet appreciable amount of nudity, and straight women and gay men will appreciate the fact that pretty much 90% of the screen time is taken up with images of shirtless well-toned men wearing underwear and capes. So there's something for everyone.

Gerard Butler brings an appropriately high level of gusto to a part that is basically all speechifying; the rest of the cast generally follow suit. The scenes focusing on the Queen (apparently an addition- I have not read the original comic) do have a tendency to slow the film up a bit, but they do have an excellent payoff.

I went into 300 having no particular expectations, but came out quite impressed. Though not as moving as 2005's SIN CITY, 300 takes a unique approach to its subject matter, turning its historical inaccuracies into the main reason to buy a ticket. It's a wonderfully rousing action picture seasoned with just a hint of irony, inspiring but hard to take too seriously. All of the great storytellers liked to play havoc with the facts; it made things more fun. If nothing else, the film reminds us of this.

Based on the comic book by Frank Miller & Lynne Varley
Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael Gordon
Directed by Zack Snyder

Grade: A-

Friday, March 09, 2007

Random Movie Report #20: War In Space

WAR IN SPACE is the kind of movie you would expect to have to find on an import or even a bootleg, but no, it's a legit Region 1 DVD release with subtitles, a high quality transfer, special features, and everything. Which is good, even if I wasn't overwhelmed by the film itself; on principle, all movies deserve the "Special Edition" treatment. And WAR IN SPACE isn't really a bad movie; a colorful Japanese space opera, it delivers pretty much what it promises, with neat visuals and elaborate miniatures going boom. The problem is it doesn't provide much more than that, and manages to be almost completely generic in execution. I can't really recommend it to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre, but if you like this kind of movie, then this is the kind of movie you'd like.

Set in the near future (i.e. 1988), the film starts with Earth being attacked by aliens. Sphere-shaped Hell Fighters manage to destroy an orbiting space station, which prompts the UN Space Bureau to activate a plan for Earth's defense- a giant flying battleship named Gohten. Gohten's designer, Professor Takigawa (Ryo Ikebe), is reluctant at first, but agrees to finish the ship and lead it to attack the invaders' base on Venus. Gohten is completed right as the Hell Fighters begin blasting the, well, Hell out of Earth's major cities, but it launches just in time to drive off the invading fleet, then head to Venus, crewed by the Professor, his daughter Jun (Yuko Asano), pilots Miyoshi (Morita Kensaku) and Muroi (Masaya Oki), and random American Jimmy (David Perin), as well as countless others who are never named or given much development at all. They reach Venus, where the alien leader Commander Hell (I can't find his name in the credits, so it's anyone's guess who plays him) waits in the command ship, which resembles an ancient galleon. But with lasers.

Conceived as a sort of submarine movie in space, this 1977 production was Toho's last big special effects extravaganza for many years- the Japanese film industry in general was in a bad financial spot, and the Godzilla series had sputtered to a halt two years earlier. (Both director Jun Fukuda and effects supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano had worked on those movies before, under producer Tomoyuki Tanaka.) Some of the destruction footage in this film is lifted from earlier Toho spectaculars (a common practice for the studio in the seventies), though it's well concealed. A few important events have been shoved off screen, but overall the effects work is quite impressive. There's a lot of dogfighting action which is both shot and edited well, and though this film came out on the heels of another prominent picture about wars in space, amongst the stars if you will, and despite being fairly old-fashioned by comparison, it manages quite a few thrills. The film's visuals are also lush and hugely science fiction-y, blending styles from FLASH GORDON retro to 2001 not-as-retro. Much of the action takes place on the planet Venus, moodily rendered as a field of craggy rocks and caves with volcanoes and dust storms in the distance.

Unfortunately, the film doesn't manage to connect much beyond the visual level. One doesn't expect deep characterization from a movie like this, but even by the standards of a space adventure film this is unusually flat. Oh, there are attempts at character development. There's a love triangle between Jun, Miyoshi, and Muroi, there's a scene of Jimmy mourning his family that was killed in New York (offscreen, natch), and the Professor has a dark secret. But it's all executed flatly, joylessly, a mechanical run-through of war movie conventions with sacrifices you can see coming a mile away and no hooks to grab onto. There's a last-minute twist aimed at adding pathos, but it's so plainly derivative and frankly implausible even by genre standards that it doesn't work at all.

Also harming things is the fact that the alien menace seems underdeveloped. Commander Hell manages to do absolutely nothing of note on his own, and seems the bog standard "ultimate evil guy" who would go on to boringly menace every anime protagonist ever; he does have a neat minion who looks like a cross between Chewbacca and a minotaur, and there's some business with the aliens being able to possess dead bodies, but that never adds up to much. Their motivation is the same as every alien race- they're old and advanced and their planet is dead (I don't think any of these films has really explored the issue that, by defeating the invaders, the heroes are condemning a race to extinction).

Style over substance might be the best way to describe all this, though it's a label I rarely use due to how often it's misapplied. So, instead, I'll say that the film is just very slight. It's not dull, and for fans of the genre, the visual richness and the cool spaceship fights may be enough. I don't really dislike the film, and I regret neither watching it nor buying the DVD, but you can pretty much tell whether you're the kind of person who'll like this one.

Screenplay by Shuichi Nagahara, Ryuzo Nakanishi
Directed by Jun Fukuda

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Random Movie Report #19: Gamera the Brave

One of my various items of L.A. swag came from the fine people at Amoeba Music (6400 Sunset.) The store's known for CDs and LPs (naturally), but has a fine selection of DVDs, including many imports, including this Hong Kong R3 release of the latest Gamera adventure. (This means you'll need a multi-region DVD player if you're not in that particular region, which includes Hong Kong, the Philippines, Nepal, Monster Island, and Arrakis.)

Gamera, for those who don't watch enough MST3K, is a giant firebreathing turtle who fights evil monsters, protects children and has been the star of several films in Japan, starting with GAMERA in 1965. At the time he was a competitor to Godzilla, with his films done on a lower budget (back when Godzilla movies had fairly strong production values) and aimed at a slightly younger crowd. His first film series fizzled out in the early Seventies when the studio collapsed, and though he appeared in the movie SUPER MONSTER GAMERA in 1980, that was composed mostly of clips and didn't lead to much of anything. Starting in 1995, a resurrected Daiei Studios began a new Gamera trilogy, featuring improved effects and a slightly darker tone; the films presented Gamera as "the guardian of the universe", engaged in an endless war against horrific creatures out to destroy humanity. After it wrapped in 1998, the character lay dormant. Now he's back in GAMERA THE BRAVE (Japanese title: GAMERA: CHIISAKI YUSHA-TACHI, which I've seen translated as "The Little Braves" or "The Little Heroes", but I don't know Japanese so your guess is as good as mine), which goes back to the hero's kid-friendly roots, focusing on a young boy and his pet turtle, who turns out to be a prehistoric monster. Though kaiju fans weren't thrilled at the idea of a kiddified reboot, the results are actually fairly charming; it works as a children's adventure and an all-ages giant monster romp, and though it's a bit on the underdeveloped side, it's pretty, fun, and never dull.

The film begins in 1973, where we see Gamera battling a horde of batlike Gyaos monsters outside a small town in Japan, near Nagoya (I think.) To destroy the creatures, Gamera immolates himself, sacrificing his life to save humanity. We move forward to the same town in 2006, where a boy named Toru (I can't provide cast names because IMDB doesn't know who played whom) lives and works in a restaraunt run by his recently-widowed father. One day he sees a bright light coming from a distant island near the area where Gamera was destroyed, and finds an egg, from which hatches a baby turtle, whom he names Toto. Because he's not allowed to have pets, he has to hide Toto from his father, and in the process he discovers that the turtle has the ability to fly, and can grow at a remarkable rate. He shares this secret with his friends, who help move Toto into a shack when he grows too big. Meanwhile, a giant, man-eating monster named Zedus- who looks like a cross between Godzilla and one of the dilophosaurs from JURASSIC PARK- has been terrorising Japanese ships, and very suddenly comes ashore in Toru's home town. By that point, though, little Toto has grown up into a brand new Gamera, and he quickly shows up to do battle with the fearsome dinosaur thingy. Zedus is driven off for a time, but Gamera/Toto has been wounded and fatigued, and may not recover in time for the monster's next appearance.

In terms of execution and tone, this is really more a children's movie than a monster movie. The focus is not on scientists and military men and the like, but on Toru and his friends and his pet monster. It's a way of sort of approaching the genre from the side, which may be a good idea, as the most recent series of Godzilla films had trouble really capturing the attention of the Japanese public. For about a third of the film's running time, Toto is just a normal sized, and very cute, little turtle, and people who can appreciate such things will have plenty of opportunities to go "aww" as the brave pet waddles along streets and through kitchens. Even as Gamera, he's smaller than the original and given big Bambi eyes, and he's standing up to a much bigger monster. With our hero at a definite size disadvantage, he has to win through courage and heart and that sort of thing, and the kids, acting as Gamera's family even while he's protecting them, have to help out (this ties into a subplot about a friend of Toru's going into hospital for a heart operation, but I'm playing that down since I can't remember her name.) As clich├ęd as this sounds, and almost is, the filmmakers do manage to conjure up an actual plot device by which they can aid Gamera, one that leads to a particularly clever and kid-empowering scene. It's well done, really it is- I would have preferred a bit more suspense, but that's not too big a problem.

There's a slightly dark counterpoint to the main action that gives it some weight. Toru's mother is dead (the fate of many a mother and/or father in children's fiction- it's not just Disney), and at the beginning, as Toru and his father visit a memorial shrine, he narrates that, contrary to what his father says about her looking down from heaven, as far as he's concerned mother is just bones in a tomb. Needless to say, there's something quasi-mystical about Gamera's reincarnation, but Toru, knowing that the last Gamera destroyed himself, doesn't want to admit his pet turtle is taking up the mantle; he doesn't want to lose another loved one. As Toto grows into Gamera, though, he learns that he needs to have faith in the turtle just as his mother and father have some faith in him- there are lessons of trust and willingness to let go that are quite interesting. The convincing performances by the child actors help this angle a lot.

As a kaiju film, the movie still works. The visual effects are, for the most part, very good; having the monsters be relatively small allows for more detailed miniatures, a lesson learned from the last Gamera trilogy. Some of the CGI work is dodgy, while the design of Zedus is vaguely sloppy, but still appealing. (One major complaint I had is that the enemy monster pretty much pops out of nowhere, without even a "nuclear accident" or "ancient prophecy of doom" to explain anything. Perhaps they felt the kids would get too bored with such exposition.) I also, for want of a good lead-in, want to praise the film's visual style- there are a lot of warm-yet-soft colors, and it's pleasant to look at throughout. (I notice this in a lot of Japanese films, for some reason.)

GAMERA THE BRAVE is set up as the first entry in a potential trilogy- I have been able to find no information whatsoever as to whether this film was a success financially, so who knows what will happen (uncomfirmed word has it bombing, which is a shame if true). But it's a solid series reboot, one that makes the material feel very fresh and new. The potential arc of Gamera "growing up" could also be appealing. It's also just a good children's movie, bright and straightforward and exciting without being too scary. Even kaiju fans will find stuff to like, if the "kiddie" element doesn't put them off. I hope this sees an American DVD release soon (there's been at least one screening in the US that I know of), and I'm glad I caught it early.

Written by Yukari Tatsui
Directed by Ryuta Tazaki

Grade: B+

Monday, March 05, 2007

Comics Rambling: Civil War, Post-Mortem

There's a bumper crop of content sitting around my apartment, but I've decided to blog about something everybody else in the comics scene has already blogged about: Marvel's CIVIL WAR. The end came on February 21st, and the end was Not Good. I've written earlier that I was enjoying the series and intended to see it through to its conclusion, and so I did, and not only did the end not live up to expectations, it brought down my opinion of everything I'd read and overall managed to leave a very bad taste in my mouth.

So, the bad guys won. That's oversimplifying it- the Pro-Registration forces weren't really meant to be shown as the bad guys, even though they ended up in that light, and it's not like their position doesn't have any logical backing behind it. Were superpowered beings to exist in real life, we would probably feel better if they answered to some authority higher than their consciences, as they probably would not think in caption boxes or thought bubbles. But we, and by this "we" I mean "we the people reading CIVIL WAR", are fans of superhero comics, and as such we subscribe to the conventions thereof, including the idea that for the most part, these extraordinary people operate outside of the law to catch bad guys who themselves manage to evade the law's grasp. It's one of the founding principles of the genre, and so the Anti-Regs have our sympathy from the start. On top of this, the Pro-Registration forces promptly sacrifice whatever moral high ground by: 1) Creating an evil clone of Thor, 2) sending illegal heroes and villains alike to a high-tech Guantanamo Bay situated in the Negative Zone, and 3) hiring known supervillains to hunt down the rogue heroes. They were acting like villains themselves. So when Captain America decides that he's been wrong all this time and surrenders, and the former villains look hopefully into the sunset as their new utopia comes to pass, one gets a very bitter, queasy feeling.

It's worth noting how much this story comes to resemble Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' resplendent WATCHMEN, rightly regarded as one of the best things comics have ever done. Those who have not read it should skip this paragraph. In said book, the "villain", Ozymandias, pulls off a horrific variation on the OUTER LIMITS "Architects of Fear" trick, staging an alien attack that really kills millions of people, thus tricking the world powers (who are on the brink of WWIII) into declaring peace so that they can stand united against the nonexistent menace. The book's heroes do the most good by failing to stop him, but for the lone holdout Rorschach, who dies rather than compromise his principles. In CIVIL WAR, the group acting most supervillainy is shown to have a utilitarian end, and they succeed for the moment, while the rogue idealist heroes fail- and it is suggested that this may be for the better. But somewhere in WATCHMEN's ambiguity and darkness, there is beauty and a sense of catharsis and closure. It manages this delicately, through depth of characterization and of imagery- the cynicism balanced against a sense of nostalgia. CIVIL WAR never manages this kind of balance- for all its grim seriousness, it's basically another beat-'em-up, and can't handle its own conceptual weight.

So, it's not really poignant or moving. Unfortunately, it's not really fun either. The first six issues passed by with nary a hint of irony, and while there are attempts in this final issue to bring in humor and fun and a sense of action, it just plain doesn't fit. I'm not sure if it's the context or just the writing in itself, but a sense of actual fun craziness is deeply lacking.

In the end, the story doesn't work because it doesn't make us FEEL enough of anything. (Except, maybe, disappointment at having spent over twenty dollars.) In a misguided attempt to be "balanced" when dealing with the issue at hand, the book ends with a finale that isn't quite triumphant, or tragic, or infuriating, or gentle, or funny. In the end it can't decide what it wants us to feel, regardless of what "side" we take; someone who views the Pro-Registration forces as heroes won't necessarily feel vindicated by the finale, in which the opposition gives up for rather contrived reasons and the moral justification for less-than-ethical actions is never explored. It's not so much that a work of art can't be ambiguous or complex or create conflicted perspectives among the audience, but it has to generate some kind of emotional impact.

It's a very cynical work, and not just in the "big event designed to get you to pay lots and lots of money" sense. On some level, the architects of this event seem not to trust the underpinnings of the genre on which Marvel Entertainment as a publisher depends. They seem determined to point out that there is something wrong with individual idealism and rogue adventurers at a time- and this is where it gets curious- when the superhero genre has gained more mainstream acceptance than it has in decades. Moviegoers flocked to see the latest adventures of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, and Batman (and apparently Ghost Rider made some money against all odds.) HEROES, a show combining low-key powers and non-spandex clothing with comic-book melodrama and monologues, is a ratings smash. And superhero comics are continuing their slow crawl out of the hole they fell into in the mid-Nineties. The mainstream American audience in this post-9/11, post-Katrina, mid-Iraq-War world still has some need for the heroic ideal and the uncompromising moral paragon, to say nothing of us devoted fans.

DC, as much as I disagree with a lot of what they do, gets this- the changes of INFINITE CRISIS and beyond have all been targeted towards establishing a world where Heroes are Heroes, people who rise above their flaws. In CIVIL WAR we have Captain America, almost literally the embodiment of an ideal, throwing that ideal aside because the public doesn't agree with it; we have Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic succumbing to a grim utilitarianism, pursuing the least horrific of several projected bad outcomes. The moral tone of the world is dictated by a single grieving mother unable to see beyond her individual crusade, and (in FRONT LINE #11) a reporter who thinks Captain America doesn't represent his country anymore because he's not familiar with MySpace (I swear to GOD I am not making this up.) Maybe we're supposed to be unhappy with this, or maybe we're supposed to accept this as the Real World and discard ideals because we can't afford them. It doesn't work anyway.

That CIVIL WAR doesn't work may not be that much of a surprise. It's the sort of thing that's very tough to pull off, brilliant as it may sound on paper. But the execution is, in the long run, half-assed. At best, the book is a misguided attempt at relevance and a too-muted-to-register critique of modern America (the rest of the world doesn't get a look in during the entire series- particularly odd seeing as it was written by a Brit); at worst, one gets the vague sensation that the creators are giving the finger to those of us who slogged our way through all seven issues.

So, it was unpleasant. There is much good in the comic book world, though, and I plan to get to it soon. And remember, in five years' time things will be back to the old status quo anyway. I'm looking forward to that.