Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Fahrenheit 451

In honor of Banned Books Week and the fact that I've not managed that many posts this month, I bring you the opening of the Francois Truffaut adaptation of Ray Bradbury's oft-challenged FAHRENHEIT 451.

In Caxtillan. Because that's the only version anyone posted. (Universal, you have Hulu. Just sayin'.)

It's an approach that in retrospect seems obvious- the movie takes place in a world where books are banned, so instead of text credits, let's have them be spoken. But it was no doubt a bit of a shock at the time, and probably hard to arrange with the unions. And Truffaut kept to the "textless world" approach pretty consistently.

Me, I've been reading MOBY DICK- I can't find it on any list but I'm sure it's been banned somewhere. Really, just read a book this week. Anything that gets read widely enough gets challenged at some point, it's the Circle of Censorship.

Random Movie Report #53: War of the Gargantuas

Buy Rodan and War of the Gargantuas by clicking here
Though they’ve run out of Godzilla films for the time being, Classic Media has once again graced us with another double release of classic kaiju flicks, and this time they’ve been kind enough to put them both in the same package. I reviewed RODAN much, much earlier, so I’ll jump to the bottom half of this double feature. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a decidedly offbeat Toho entry; though it was again directed by Ishiro Honda with effects by Eiji Tsubaraya, and officially a sequel to the studio’s earlier FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (which I still haven’t managed to see), it stands on its own as a darker and more melodramatic monster movie than Toho was known for. The story of two brothers who happen to be giant beasts, it’s almost a classical tragedy with a wonderful weird atmosphere.

A strange green humanoid giant (suit-acted by Haruo Nakajima, who was also Godzilla in most of the original series) has been sinking ships and eating people along the Japanese coastline. Scientists and officials suspect the gargantua, an apelike creature that was raised by Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno, whom you may remember from INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER) before fleeing into the mountains and seemingly leaping to his death. Dr. Stewart and Akemi are convinced that this monster can’t be the same creature, as their pet gargantua was a gentle being. Learning how to repel the monster with light, the military lure it into a trap and try to kill it with maser tanks (an elaborate sequence frequently recycled in later, cheaper flicks), only for the innocent gargantua to come hurling onto the scene in defense of his brother.

It seems the gentler brown gargantua (named “Sanda”, and played by Hiroshi Sekita) sustained some injury during his escape and disappearance, and some of his self-regenerating cells drifted out to sea, feeding on plankton and growing into the fiercer, carnivorous green gargantua (named “Gaila”.) Sanda’s natural instinct is to care for his brother and he helps him recover in a secluded valley, before realizing that Gaila has been feeding on tourists. Having grown protective of humanity during his own upbringing, with a particular fondness for Akemi, Sanda turns on his brother and the two battle across the countryside, while Dr. Stewart tries to persuade the government to find a way to spare the good monster.

I’m not entirely sure how this lines up with FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, except that the former did revolve around a misunderstood giant who died tragically. It’s not the same monster as Sanda in appearance or backstory, but perhaps this creature is meant to be some offspring of the previous one (the Japanese title translates as FRANKENSTEIN MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRA). The film treats the fact of the monsters’ existence as a given for everyone involved, and doesn’t dwell much on origins.

Despite, or possibly because of this, it’s easy to jump in, and the film has a spry pace. It starts with Gaila fighting a giant octopus in the middle of a storm and doesn’t slow down; this may be due to the influence of American producer Henry Saperstein, and especially Reuben Bercovitch who developed the story with an eye towards hooking US audiences, especially on television. As tricky as some of the backstory is, it doesn’t get in the way of the main action.

This is one of Toho’s darker and more horrific monster movies, though it lacks the seriousness of the original GODZILLA. Gaila’s habit of eating people whole (leaving their bloody clothes behind) is more gruesome than the usual building-smashing carnage most kaiju favor, and since he hates the light, he appears only at night or when the sun’s blocked by clouds or fog. The visuals are dark and murky, almost too a fault, but cinematographer Hajime Koizumi maintains the richness of color and detail that Toho was known for at the time. Eiji Tsubaraya’s miniatures are as intricate as ever, and the monster suits are particularly good, leaving the actors’ eyes visible. Both suit actors do a good job imparting emotion and expression, and Sanda and Gaila end up being more developed as characters than the human cast.

The humans in a kaiju movie are almost never as interesting as the monsters, but the characterizations seem unusually thin on the ground here. Russ Tamblyn, taking over for Nick Adams, does his best but doesn’t have much of a character to work with; Dr. Stewart is concerned for Sanda and has a tendency to repeat himself on this subject, Akemi does little else as well, and the other scientists and generals tend to run together (even though one of them is Kenji Sahara.) It doesn’t help that the subtitling this time around is awkward and laden with misspellings, though I recall the dubbing not being too bad. I also have to say the pacing finally flags near the end, though Sanda and Gaila’s final struggle is suitably apocalyptic.

WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS doesn’t quite fit in the same universe as the other monster movies Toho was making at the time; it feels just a little different, a deliberate stylistic departure for Honda and company. It’s worth watching for that, but also because it’s simply a well-done kaiju eiga with a unique story. It’s good to see this make its way onto DVD, and I hope Classic Media’s work in this genre isn’t done just yet.

Story by Reuben Bercovitch
Screenplay by Ishiro Honda and Kaoru Mabuchi
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

Sunday, September 28, 2008

In Theaters: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading poster courtesy IMPAwards.com
One upside to the overall darkness of current popular entertainment is that it’s apparently enabling the rebirth of that often-moribund genre, the dark comedy. Gallows humor is cropping up in all sorts of places, and after the serious nihilism of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the Coen Bros. have decided to cleanse the palate with a more playful approach to a bleak cosmos. Perhaps just about anything they did after that apotheosis of despair would be viewed as a lesser accomplishment, and BURN AFTER READING is being generally received as “minor” Coen, but once again I feel the need to buck consensus and say that this is actually really really good. It’s very well crafted and thoughtful while appearing to be haphazard and chaotic, and attains the right level of jaunty amorality necessary for us to want to follow the story without feeling too bad for anyone involved.

t’s hard to summarize this film’s story, so perhaps I should just list the players involved. John Malkovich plays Osborne Cox, a low-level CIA operative who is fired for alcoholism, and decides to write a bitter, hate-filled memoir. His bitter, hate-filled wife Katie, played by Tilda Swinton, is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), himself a federal agent married to a children’s book author (Elizabeth Marvel). In the midst of this, there is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), who works at a fitness center and wants to have a series of cosmetic surgery procedures to combat the inevitable aging process (despite being still pretty attractive by any objective standard.) Her friend Chad (Brad Pitt) comes across a CD containing what look like top security secrets, belonging to Osborne. They call him asking for a “good samaritan” reward, but poor communication skills ensure that Osborne levels threats at them, and Chad and Linda decide to get the money by selling the information.

Nothing goes very well at or after this point, and the proceedings could almost be classified as grim farce. What’s surprising is the level of attention paid to the characters, who all have deep internal contradictions which compel them to make bad decisions. Linda’s external vulnerability and insecurity masks a relentless drive to make her dream of surgical self-improvement come true, but she’s not wholly a bad person. Harry is a lothario, self-aggrandizing, cocky, but he’s also paranoid with several hang-ups. We sympathize a bit with Osborne Cox at the start, but he’s also kind of a jerk. And yet, when he goes into attack dog mode in response to what Linda and Chad are doing, he becomes almost admirable in his drive and determination. Everybody’s got massive problems, and is able to elicit laughter and pathos.

This poses a potential dilemma. A dark comedy depends on awful things happening to people, and so cannot work if we feel too badly for them. A basic level of emotional detachment is required, otherwise it’s just depressing. At the same time the Coens don’t want to treat these people as caricatures. What they manage to do, I think, is make everyone sufficiently amoral and pit them against each other in such a way that we’re just interested in seeing if anyone wins, or if winning is even possible. A frenzied paranoia runs through the entire picture, turning low stakes into high ones partly because of the incompetence of most of the people involved.

As you might imagine, a movie like this depends on its actors, and the Coens have never had much trouble finding talent. Each performance, it seems, is worth singling out for something. George Clooney brilliantly matches his playboy image with a nervous aggression that keeps slipping out on the sides. Frances McDormand is sweet and driven and sympathetic even when she’s in the wrong, while Brad Pitt manages to be funnier than you could ever expect. Malkovich gives Osborne Cox an admirable insanity that keeps on building, and Tilda Swinton’s deadpan bitchiness balances both him and Clooney out extremely well. As an unnamed CIA agent, J.K. Simmons almost manages to steal the entire picture; instead he makes off with about half, I’d say.

The plot of this one is rambling, to be sure, and almost inconsequential. This, coupled with a slow start, has apparently turned off many people, but I never for a moment believed that we were getting anything other than a character-driven farce without a particularly rigorous structure. And really, it doesn’t need one; this is a picture dependent on energy rather than elegance, and what it lacks in pacing it makes up for in unpredictability.

If you are the sort of person that insists a movie have sympathetic characters, BURN AFTER READING is probably not a film for you. It’s a grimly hilarious picture which showcases some great performances. It’s not quite as much a great dark comedy as IN BRUGES earlier this year, even though they’re getting about the same grade; nonetheless, if this is minor Coen, then I would suggests our standards have been raised too high.

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Grade: A-

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Booth the Dead

The big project I was working on a few months back has finally come to fruition: now, over at The Agony Booth, you can read my extensive recap of the DTV atrocity DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGIUM. Read it if you've got the stomach.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Another Meme: 5 Characters

Yes, yet another meme! This one was just too appealing. It works as follows:

1. By posting in the comments section of the last person to do this, I am given a letter.

2. I name five characters whose names begin with this letter.

3. I write down my thoughts on them.

4. If you want to participate, post a comment to that effect and I will give you a letter.

Anyway, I got “Y”. Because we like you.

1. Yossarian- It’s interesting. As flawed as the Mike Nichols adaptation of CATCH 22 was (too much righteous anger, not enough black humor), the casting of Alan Arkin as Yossarian was so perfect that it’s hard to imagine anyone else while reading.

It’s actually been a while since I did read the book, but I think it’s an accomplishment that Heller created a character who acted as a “viewpoint” for the reader without making him a cipher. He has his own mission (being found crazy so he won’t have to fly more missions) and can be as tenacious about it as the other characters are about their obsessions, but maybe since his motivation is pure survival, we can empathize.

2. Yellowjacket- Okay, so this was an unhinged alter ego of Hank Pym (formerly Ant-Man, later Giant-Man, Goliath, and probably others) who somehow surfaced in the guy’s mind and got him in big trouble. Mainly for hitting his wife Janet, in what I guess was an attempt to touch on the issue of spousal abuse in that classic heavy handed way that Seventies comics do. (I say this with love. Partly.)

And boy, the writers have never let him forget it. Even though Hank and Jan eventually reconciled, references to this incident keep creeping up over and over and over again- in fact, in the ultra-extreme “Ultimates” universe, Hank beats Jan on a regular basis. (One of many reasons I avoid the “Ultimate” titles.) Now, in the real world, spousal abuse is generally a chronic problem and it’s usually not a good idea for a battered spouse to trust that his or her partner has reformed. However, in the real world, wife beaters are not supervillains and it’s hard to take this as a serious parallel to domestic abuse. (In fact, I’m not even sure that was the original intent of the writers.)

In any case it’s more or less ruined Hank Pym as a viable heroic figure in most of Marvel’s comics. Not that he was that compelling a figure to start with, but now he’s mostly written as a dour martinet, and not much fun. Short of retconning the whole Yellowjacket story out of existence, I can’t think of any way to get writers to stop picking at this scab. Fortunately, the kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line has given us appearances by a young, not-yet-disgraced Dr. Pym.

3. Yellowbelly- Okay, there isn’t much to say about a one-note character who appeared in an exceedingly short SCTV sketch. Except that I remembered this guy’s song for YEARS.

Yellow, Yellowbelly, where you gonna run to now?

4. Yoda- who doesn’t love Yoda? It’s still amazing to think that back in 1980, with a strained schedule and production budget, the makers of the sequel to what was then the biggest movie of all time were effectively replacing Alec Guinness with a piece of sculpted foam rubber.

And. They. Sold. It.

Frank Oz and Irvin Kershner managed to have a puppet not only pass as an alien creature, but handle the film’s most challenging metaphysical dialogue and carry entire scenes. A small green puppet. Who wasn’t even Kermit.

Interesting fact- of all the minor pieces of STAR WARS trivia that tie-in books and comics and action figure packages have explained in insane detail, Yoda’s species and past remain a mystery. George Lucas has discouraged the release of anything that would explain too much about the mysterious little guy; where he comes from, whether he always looked like that, why he talks like he does, none of this revealed has been. Sorry. It’s catchy.

5. Yorgi. Another John Candy creation for SCTV, and sort of a one-joke character, but a memorable one. One episode featured as its premise the idea that the Soviets had hacked into SCTV’s signal, and started broadcasting CCCP1 programming. The most memorable show was “Hey Yorgi”, featuring the title character, a lovable Russian man who roams the countryside helping people for the good of all the motherland.

“Hey, Yorgi, he’s coming to your town...” Damn, I’m doing it again.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Movie Meme: Land of the Lost

I’ve been tagged with a meme again. This time, I have to list 12 films that I want to see, but have not been able to; can’t just rent the DVD or go to the theater, it’s got to be something rare and unusual. This was harder than I thought, as you’d be surprised at the things lurking in Netflix’s catalog. But here we go: 12 obscure movies that I want to see, but don’t know how.

1. THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED. I’ve actually read the script for this. Make no mistake, the odds of this actually being any good at all are equal to those of the LHC actually destroying the Earth, but the infamy factor puts this up high.

2 and 3. STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE, David Cronenberg’s student films. These were supposed to be on the FAST COMPANY DVD, but I guess only the Canadian release got it or something, because Netflix doesn’t have the bonus disc.

4. THE AVENGERS- the Director’s Cut. You all know why.

5. TAKE IT OUT IN TRADE. Ed Wood’s return to feature directing in 1970, and the first film he made in color. True, it’s a porno movie, but I’m a completist. So far only clips have surfaced, though I swore Rudolph Grey wrote about the entire film being found.

6. NECROMANIA. Wood’s last film. This was actually on DVD at some point, but Amazon only has it from sellers charging prices starting at $66. Also porno, and from all accounts not very aesthetically pleasing porno, but again, it's Ed.

7. LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT. Photographs from this Lon Chaney mystery/horror silent are quite common in books and magazines about horror movies, but not a single scrap of actual footage has been found. There was a recreation using stills not too long ago.

8. SONG OF THE SOUTH. I remember seeing this as a kid, possibly during its theatrical rerelease. I’m sure it’s at the very least racially problematic, but it’d be interesting to see how it holds up as a movie and just to what extent the stereotypes get in the way of that.

9. GANGS OF NEW YORK: Scorcese’s director’s cut. As it stands, GANGS is a flawed classic; perhaps we could remove the “flawed” if Harvey’s ego would get out of the way.

10. LET IT BE. The legendary documentary of the Beatles breakup; obviously the surviving Beatles aren’t comfortable releasing it, but it would be nice to see.

11. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE- another extended cut. Universal apparently really got nervous about this movie and lopped off huge chunks of it, including an entire “host segment”/arc thing (and huge bits of THIS ISLAND EARTH are missing as well.) What’s weird about this is that they only spent about $1 million on the picture to begin with, and didn’t bother promoting it at all; why bother micromanaging a film you're dumping anyway?

12. DIARY OF THE DEAD: the Unrated version. It’s easy to tell that a lot of gore was censored in the film’s release, and I fully expected there to be an unrated DVD, but alas, there aren’t even rumors.

I'm supposed to tag five, but I am rubbish at tagging, so again: if you're reading this and have a list of your own, go on ahead.