Saturday, November 22, 2014

Random Movie Report: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Poster
Poster via

The sci-fi movies of the 50s were full of monsters; aliens, insects, and dinosaurs, the latter two usually having something to do with the atomic bomb. The origin point of this unique explosion was 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a low budget thriller which made millions off the image of a giant prehistoric reptile rampaging through the modern world. Though King Kong and The Lost World both featured giant monsters attacking major metropolitan areas, those sequences were climaxes following various jungle adventures; here, for apparently the first time, was a film devoted entirely to the subject of a giant monster on the loose. The film was freely adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story, which is fitting as it marks the solo debut of Bradbury’s childhood chum, stop-motion animation auteur Ray Harryhausen; while the live action of the movie sometimes flags, as an effects showcase it more than holds up.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween Monsterthon, For Your Ears Only Edition: The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds at the Internet Archive

Since the Monsterthon has unintentionally taken on a very alien character, it’s appropriate to use the holiday to commemorate the Halloween edition of the first alien invasion story of all time. The Mercury Theatre On The Air’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds is a thing of legend, a radio play that allegedly spooked an entire nation with its documentary realism. The furor over it helped catapult Orson Welles into the national spotlight and resulted in a lot of rules preventing radio and TV from ever being too convincing in the future. But setting all that aside, it’s just a damn good audio play, one of the great works of the medium.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Monsterthon: Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell poster

Science fiction in the sixties couldn’t help but focus on the social turmoil erupting across the world, and Japanese sci-fi filmmakers did their part. While Matango tackled social conformity, Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell is about disintegration. Born of the chaos of wars, assassinations, and political corruption, it’s a surreal parable that makes up for in intensity what it lacks in coherence.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Monsterthon: Robot Monster

Robot Monster poster

Often ranked among the great bad movies, Robot Monster certainly merits the kind of bizarre attention and appreciation that’s been extended to Ed Wood’s filmography. Again we have a movie whose ambitions vastly outstrip both the filmmakers’ resources and technical skill, but which marches on regardless. It is not what one would traditionally call good, but its originality and charm- as well as the fact that it runs barely over an hour- makes it damned entertaining.

Friday, October 17, 2014

At Ringside: Wrestlemania (1985)

Tito Santana vs. The Executioner

With the 1993 WWF in a rut, I’ve decided to look at a few other events on offer on the WWE Network for the price of... uh... it’ll come to me. And really, there are few places to start better than the very first Wrestlemania, broadcast March 31, 1985 on closed circuit TV across the world. Wrestlemania wasn’t the first such special- Jim Crockett’s Starrcade had played closed-circuit PPV since 1983- but that event was strictly regional its first few years, whereas Vince McMahon and the WWF were aiming to take their show national. But apart from its historical significance as the event that made the company what it is today, the first ‘Mania holds up well as a well-paced collection of matches, with a nervous energy that later, more assured PPVs would lack.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

At Ringside: King of the Ring 1993

King of the Ring logo

Tournaments in wrestling are a tricky thing. Drag them out too long and an audience loses interest; do everything in one night and you have wrestlers working multiple matches in a row, with a greater risk of injury and of the audience being bored by the redundancy. “King of the Ring” was a WWF/WWE tradition for many years, but in the very first KotR pay-per-view from 1993, the titular tournament isn’t even the most memorable part. Hulk Hogan, around whom the WWF’s success had been built since before Wrestlemania, was on his way out, and so this otherwise average wrestling event marks the passing of an era.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Frasierquest 5.18: Bad Dog

Bulldog strikes a heroic pose

Daphne: My life suddenly seems long, measured in muffins.

After a couple of undercooked episodes, Season 5 returns to form with "Bad Dog", which as its title suggests revolves around the exploits of Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe. Of all the show's major character, Bulldog is probably the biggest contrast to Frasier himself. Martin is a slob and a curmudgeon, but he shares his son's strong ethical sense; Roz is more worldly, but she's his closest friend. Bulldog, at least much of the time, is just a jerk; he has his moments of decency (especially later on), but for the most part he pops up because he makes a good adversary, without the scruples that restrict the rest of the group.  "Bad Dog" shows him at his most shameless, presenting a formidable challenge to Frasier's ideas about human decency, and wraps this around the SeaBees, the writers' annual opportunity to mock the awards shows which have been so very good to them.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Random Movie Report: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II poster
Poster via

It's easy to see why Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II is  a fan favorite. Not only is it probably the slickest and most technically accomplished of the Heisei Godzilla films, it's also the only film in the franchise to not only pit Godzilla against humanity, but to make humanity the villain. Sure, in the original Godzilla he's a kind of punishment for our use of nuclear weapons, and Godzilla vs. Hedorah is about manmade industrial pollution, but in stories like that the audience is expected to empathize with the humans struggling to overcome their own folly, because we are dealing with Major Problems that all of us must reckon with. Here, humanity just makes some bad decisions with the monsters as the injured parties, so we can finally stop pretending and cheer for some miniature cities to get squashed. Sometimes we just have it coming.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Tabletop: How D&D Fifth Edition Can Be Truly Modular (Or Something Like That)

The edition wars summed up in one image.

I've been looking at the previews for the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, and was worried that I was starting to get truly edition-warriory about the whole thing. The more and more the gaming press and the developers themselves treat Fourth Edition as the redheaded stepchild of the family, the more I've been inclined to see it as a misunderstood masterpiece, the Community to Pathfinder's Big Bang Theory. I've been increasingly skeptical of every single teaser being released, and while there is some material here that bears watching, it was the newer, more lethal monster entries that pushed me beyond skepticism, past dismissal, and into some weird academic thinkspace.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Random Movie Report: Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth

Japanese poster for Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth

The most commercially successful entry of the Heisei Godzilla series, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth is also its weakest; not a bad movie, but less than the sum of its parts. Once again, Toho went to Godzilla's past and resurrected one of his most durable foes, reinventing the giant flying insect as a mystical Earth god(dess?) engaged in an eternal struggle to protect the planet. With Takao Okawara taking over the director's spot, the film feels a little unsteady, but does manage to introduce a few new things in amongst references to classic kaiju films and American blockbusters.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Random Movie Report: The Manster

Manster DVD cover

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is one of the classic horror tales, one of hubris and the inescapable animalistic nature lurking in the calmest of men. There have been many attempts at this material, but only one quite so bold as to set the whole thing in Japan and posit Mr. Hyde as a second head growing out of Jekyll's shoulders. Hence The Manster, a gleefully insane, sometimes weirdly adult, and generally not-ineffective take on the classic story. Of the many monster movies pervading American drive-ins and matinees in the late 50s, this has a distinctive character, which carries it through its slower moments.

Random Movie Report: Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah poster

In some ways Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is a return to tradition for the series. After Godzilla vs. Biollante failed at the box office, Toho decided that their next Godzilla movie needed to pit the monster against a classic enemy with name recognition of his own; hence, four-time Godzilla opponent King Ghidorah returned to continue the pair's epic rivalry. But this is pretty much where tradition ends, as King Ghidorah is one of the most radical and unusual entries in the series, featuring geopolitical subtext, a downright loopy take on time travel, and a surprisingly long dearth of Godzilla himself. It's the Godzilla film that got mentioned on The McLaughlin Group, and watching it is like taking a trip back to a time when Japan seemed poised to conquer the world.

Friday, May 23, 2014

In Theaters: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla poster

Godzilla is a film that feels well overdue. There was, of course, one past attempt at making an American take on the character, and while I'll always have a soft spot for it, the filmmakers basically dodged a lot of the inherent challenge by making their monster less grandiose, less powerful, and theoretically more plausible as a result. After that didn't quite work, Toho brought back the "proper" Godzilla for a series of films that, while sometimes good, never had much of a reason for being other than reasserting tradition. Godzilla has been dormant for ten years, falling out of favor even in his native Japan, and so making a true, traditional Godzilla film for American audiences used to seeing him as a camp figure seemed like a long shot.

Gareth Edwards, director of Monsters, is at the helm for what turns out to be a slow, methodical burn of a monster movie. Godzilla eases the audience into the concept of a giant radioactive dinosaur who fights other giant radioactive monsters, knocking over skyscrapers in the process. People have complained that the King of the Monsters doesn't get enough screentime, and to be sure there's a lot of teasing involved, but the payoff is worth it. It's both a fantastic reintroduction to the kaiju eiga genre, and a film about reckoning with forces greater than ourselves.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

At Ringside: Wrestlemania IX


Well, I knew what I was getting into. Wrestlemania IX probably has the worst reputation in the history of wrestling's most prestigious event, and it certainly represents the WWF at its most confused. 1993 was not a good year for either of the Big Two wrestling promotions, and the WWF's problem was trying to transition to new stars and storylines while still cashing in on what remained of the star power of the Eighties, specifically their slowly-departing star Hulk Hogan. While just about any wrestling PPV is a grab bag of matches reflecting current storylines and star positions, Wrestlemania IX is especially messy, full of cheap finishes and unsatisfying matches. A gaudy purple-and-yellow spectacle broadcast from outside Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, this one just never builds any momentum.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Frasierquest 5.17: The Perfect Guy

Billy Campbell as Dr. Clint Webber

Frasier: Oh, I am not jealous.  Yes, the man is handsome, but I'm sure there are a number of areas in which I am his superior.  You know, let's not forget that good looks can be a mixed blessing.  People just roll out the red carpet for you but that robs you of any incentive to develop other qualities. After a while you're left an aging narcissist bent at the water's edge, realizing those lines in the pond aren't ripples, they're wrinkles.

Martin: Amazing.

Frasier: Thank you, dad, I rather like that one myself.

Martin: That guy could be a movie star!

It's been a while, I know. Sorry about that.

"The Perfect Guy" is one of those episodes with not a lot to write about, even in comparison to "Beware of Greeks" (which at least offered a change of scenery.) It's not bad, but it feels underdeveloped, one of those scripts a show has to go with because there isn't time to do something better. We do get a fun performance from Bill Campbell, though, and another look at Frasier's own insecurities- not to mention a brutal exposé of the gourmet dog food racket.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

At Ringside: WWF Royal Rumble, 1993

Bret Hart and Razor Ramon in the ring.

While the WWE Network- the wrestling company's online streaming service- is mostly being sold on access to the company's live PPVs at a fraction of what buying them all would normally cost, for many wrestling fans the real value is in the service's extensive backlog of old wrestling shows and pay-per-views. For me it's an opportunity to explore a history I've mostly read about, and there are a lot of potential access points. I chose to start with 1993, because that's when the company's now-flagship show Monday Night Raw began airing, and that's a decent bridge between PPVs.

In any case the Royal Rumble is always a good starting point. Timed to get people's attention around the end of football season, the WWF/E's January pay-per-view is constructed as a way to set up characters and stories for Wrestlemania in the spring, and the title match itself is key to that. A battle royal with wrestlers entering in regular intervals and eliminated by going over the top rope, the Royal Rumble gives quick introductions to a good portion of the roster and lets us see who's a big deal and who is… not so much. It's almost always good because the concept itself is so inherently strong, and even though 1993 saw the WWF a little unsure of where it was going, the '93 Royal Rumble has more than enough to recommend it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

In Theaters: The Lego Movie

Poster via

If something called The Lego Movie were going to work on anyone, it probably would work on me. I had a tubful of those damned bricks as a kid, and to this day, they exert a certain hold- it's hard NOT to start building something with them, and harder still to keep that construction from growing increasingly elaborate, until of course I realize I need even more of the bricks to round out my concept. I think they may actually create some kind of chemical dependency. But I was wary when seeing these generic toys made into a movie; it could either work really well or come off as the most cynical, calculated exercise imaginable.

It works. Oh man, does it work. The makers of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street would be the ones to make such an unlikely concept sing, and they bring to this colorful brickfest a fittingly anarchic sense of humor, melded with a sincere and kind of sophisticated message about human creative potential. It's a film that gives us a peppy song called "Everything is Awesome" first satirically, then enthusiastically, a film that deflates the myth of the Chosen Hero of Destiny before building it up all over again, and a film full of surprises.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Bookshelf: The Beach House by James Patterson & Peter De Jonge

When I was given this book, I saw an opportunity to take a look at modern thriller fiction, which is something I don't normally pay much attention to. James Patterson is one of those writers whose books you see everywhere, and he makes no secret of relying on co-authors to deliver the apparent hundreds of titles expected of him per year. Far be it from me to look down on popular fiction; there is an art to a good page-turner, to making the reader feel they just have to see what happens next. The Beach House isn't a complete letdown on this front, to be sure, but it's a toothless experience, a conspiracy thriller which avoids visceral bite in favor of vague class-awareness posturing.

Friday, February 21, 2014

In Theaters: The Wolf of Wall Street

Poster via
Poster, as usual, from

The Wolf of Wall Street has been accused of glamorizing the life of Jordan Belfort, a broker who made millions on bad and often fradulent stock deals before being caught and serving a minor sentence in a minimum security prison. And to be sure, it's a very decadent experience, full of sex, wild parties, and frankly absurd displays of opulence for opulence's sake. The mood, however, is not quite aspirational, and not quite cautionary, but something intense, insane, and energetic. Martin Scorcese's work is almost always animated by a kind of mania, and in this case it's ideally suited to confronting the mindset that has dominated the financial world for so long.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Random Who Report: Terror of the Autons

Terror of the Autons DVD cover

There are only a few Doctor Who stories which are really direct sequels, but "Terror of the Autons" occupies an interesting space. It's a reprise of "Spearhead from Space", the third Doctor's inaugural story, not just in reintroducing that story's villains, but also in accomplishing another tweak to the show's format. It gives the Doctor an adversary, the Master, an evil Time Lord who's just about his intellectual equal. That alone guarantees its significance, even if the story sometimes plays like a dry run for the season to follow; it ends up being fairly effective, but takes a while to get to its payoff.