Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Godzilla Raids Again (1955, Motoyoshi Oda)

Godzilla Raids Again was released in Japan a year after the original and despite remaining in black and white, the tone of the series has gotten a lot lighter already. Another aspect nailed down right away is the idea of pitting Godzilla against other monsters, although the monster vs. monster fight is resolved midway through the film. If the original Godzilla was a somber spectacle of 1950s atomic sci-fi, the follow-up leaps headfirst into the optimism of Japan's rapid postwar economic growth, and fighting Godzilla actually looks a little fun instead of almost horrifyingly futile.

The stodgy scientists protagonists have been replaced by a charming tuna cannery pilot, his cannery switchboard girl fiance and his beta male co-pilot best friend. There's a sweetness between the three of them and their chemistry is out of a Hollywood light comedy from ten years earlier. Even the nightclub and city scenes play straight from World War II with air raid sirens going off to signal the approaching monsters. There's a delightful drunken company party scene with the three leads making jokes about marriage in a display of convincing adult joviality I wasn't excepting from decades of apparently kid-oriented Godzilla films. The eventual American cut even removed an entire subplot about the best friend having a crush on another cannery co-worker. Amidst the smaller more personal story being told this time around, the only real grimness to carry over from the original film is a couple instances of aftermath from Godzilla's brush-up with Anguirus the prehistoric Ankylosaur. Unlike the first film, the damage is predominantly shown as crumbling or flaming cityscapes instead of explicit human loss. 

The first Godzilla hadn't been released in America by the time Godzilla Raids Again was released in Japan. This does not explain why the American release title was Gigantis the Fire Monster when the Raymond Burred Godzilla, King of the Monsters! had already been a hit and they didn't try to cash in on that popularity, unless they figured Raymond Burr was essential. Technically this is another Godzilla creature (the one who lives to be retained for the remained of the series) so the tethers between the films were easier to sever. Godzilla's roar was even changed to that of Anguirus. For these reasons Raids Again was considered the "lost" Godzilla film by fans. The Japanese version was not available until DVD and is a world of difference from the cheesily dubbed and choppily edited American cut.

Although the effects are designed by Eliji Tsuburaya once again, the Godzilla head puppets in this one have a serious overbite. Also like the original, the black and white helps the monster suits and miniatures. Unfortunately two men in monster suits look faker than just one. When the footage is sped up during  their final fight in Osaka, the added artificiality helps push the sumo antics into herky jerky King Kong stop-motion aesthetics.

Godzilla Raids Again is not compelling on a thematic level as there do not seem to be any themes involved. The nightclub air raid scene recalls World War II only momentarily before leading directly into an elaborate cops and robbers chase that causes a plot point to happen. The cast is a welcome surprise. The giant monster action is about on par with the original, so the colorful kid shows that came later probably had the advantage. Therefore this film is, despite being very well made, unlikely to satisfy either G-fans of the high camp to come or serious minded atomic horror fans who appreciated the original. I enjoyed but would most strongly recommend this to fans of films life in Japan at the time, and old fashioned light comedy-dramas.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Godzilla (1954, Ishiro Honda)

The original Godzilla is one of the unsung examples of what a difference black and white can make to a movie. Color can't help turning a giant monster attack into something fun and unlike the pop culture phenomenon known as Godzilla, the original film is very concerned with dramatizing the human impact of a huge lizard walking through town. There are hospitals forced to fill the hallways with the injured, and a poignant scene of a mother telling her kids as the debris rains down around them that they'll be seeing daddy soon - Godzilla was conceived as a horrifying image with the dramatic weight of human loss left in his wake and the black and white is integral to that effect. The proximity to World War II gives a newsreel quality to the editing of the Japanese army's defense efforts and the destruction of Tokyo. This was a new kind of science fiction-horror hybrid movie, focusing on the human powerlessness in the face of an incomprehensible behemoth to evoke a kind of Lovecraftian dread which even contemporary American monster movies of the time could gloss over in the spectacle of special effects. The closest preceding story was in fact a direct influence: Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953, Eugene Lourie), a Ray Bradbury penned script about an ancient dinosaur unfrozen from the Arctic by atomic blasts. However, that beast was essentially a quadruped iguana and giant bugs (or a giant ape) are after all still giant versions of recognizable creatures and not alien anomalies from the ocean deep, like Cthulu. Godzilla evokes a feeling of helplessness before the unknown that is a hallmark of great paranoid science fiction.

The difference between Godzilla and America's own wave of atomic monster movies in the 1950s is obvious and has been well documented: August 6th and 9th, 1945. The influence of these events is most overt in the depiction of human loss and is only once directly mentioned out loud, otherwise the components of the film are actually interchangeable from the American product: the main characters are an old scientist, a strapping young man scientist and his love interest, the old scientist's beautiful young daughter. We spend a lot of time with military and government men trying to figure the situation out and come up with a plan. The fact Japan has a personal connection to destruction on such a wide scale is highly understated and must be gleaned out from the level of composure all these talking heads seem to have, even in the face of a giant lizard monster. No one at a high level of authority ever really freaks out, just the island farmers who first spot Godzilla and later some excitable newsmen who narrate the climactic destruction of Tokyo a la the Hindenburg. This could also be due to the culture's regard for personal reserve and composure, or the general faith Cold War monster films had in elected officials to handle any crisis. Either way, the allegory must have spoken for itself to Japanese audiences at the time. There's clever reference early in the film to a real incident involving a fisherman contaminated by atomic testing, replicated with Godzilla instead. While categorizing the entire film as one long nuclear holocaust allegory is oversimplifying the aims of the filmmakers, every scene benefits from the consideration that while American giant monster flicks were projecting certain fears, this film was made in the aftermath of those realities.

Godzilla was one of the first major special effects films made in Japan and they're a mixed bag. With no institutionalized talents in the field to choose from, the film establishes two major facets for Japanese special effects in the future: miniature cities and monster suits. Both look better in black and white. The strange thing about the city models is that they range from looking incredibly realistic to completely phony from one shot to the next, alternately rewarding your suspension of disbelief and forcing your imagination to smooth over the discord when you realize you're basically looking at a train set toy town. Godzilla himself is close enough in resemblance to be recognizable as the international icon who came later. The differences are very particular to the tone of his debut as an object of fear and not protector of the Earth from other, even less friendly monsters. His head is more demonic and vicious looking and his famed fire breathing resembles nothing less than a dragon from Hades, especially when lit up against pitch black night sky. In the color movies that came later, he was green. Here, he's black as sin, a blot wiping out the city lights. The performance of the guy in the suit is what is is. While "G-Fans" could probably define the degrees between the various stuntmen who've worn all the different suits over the years the way Friday the 13th fans can distinguish the Jasons, all I could see was the prototypical movements that have lasted for decades. The reason for the suit was lack of budget for the kind of stop-motion animation seen in King Kong, and the results have the opposite effect compared to Willis O'Brien's visceral characterization of Kong as a flinty predator. Godzilla is more a slow, unstoppable force of nature whose movements take on a kind of ballet. Fortunately there's real life in the theatricality of the fakery. Most of the close-ups are of a puppet head with rod arms, not the suit, and while they don't even look as good as the suit's head they do emphasize the monstrousness.

The sound design deserves special mention. While the melodies of Akira Ifukube aren't much more than Japanese pentatonic tones layered into bombastic cues of American horror except when Godzilla himself is involved. Ifukube strikes huge drums and horns in a footstep rhythm which helps tremendously in establishing the presence of a giant. Godzilla's bellow of rage is almost as iconic as anything else about him, and has probably only ever been matched by the T-Rex from Jurassic Park in terms of effectiveness.

The biggest problem with Godzilla is one which I imagine plagued the rest of the series: the lead actors are stiffs. Only Akihiko Hirata as a pacifist patch-eyed scientist who doesn't want his recent discovery used as a weapon, even to kill Godzilla, has a dramatic arc wrapped up in the broader themes of the film. Takashi Shimura as Professor Yamane, the old scientist with a beautiful young daughter, isn't bad when unloading all the pseudoscientific exposition about who Godzilla is and where he came from. The fates of he and his daughter and his colleague/daughter's boyfriend are never as compelling as the film's many vignettes of the nameless little people Godzilla squashes on his way to the top. Besides the aforementioned scenes of human suffering in the wake of a national crisis, there are crusty old island fishermen who apparently knew about Godzilla and give perspective on the rapidly yawning gulf between the superstitious Japan of old and the exponentially modernizing post-War years of American occupation. There could be no American monster movie equivalent thereof; the only souls who know about ancient dormant beasts are the foreigners of Skull Island and Transylvania. The version of this film which became famous in America was recut as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! and starred Raymond Burr. This might have helped the film in more ways than one, as one of the more curious aspects of the story is how this giant monster doesn't receive international attention outside Japan. Burr's old fashioned melodramatic style might be preferable to the stuffy politeness at hand.

The residual grimness of Godzilla's conception is a pleasant surprise in light of the monster's decades of gentrification.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Predators (2010, Nimrod Antal)

Predators is a close approximation of the Predator sequel every fan of the old Dark Horse Predator and Aliens comics has been waiting for. The simple revision of the original film's tough-guys-in-a-jungle vs The Predator is not nearly as outrageous as the many pulpy tales of Predators traveling through time and fighting a lot of Aliens which kept both franchises alive in geek hearts during the many years between sequels. Yet just as the many Alien Vs Predator comic books existed more than a decade before the disappointing film version, Predators owes its existence to comic books written for teenage geeks and judging by the finished film, producer Robert Rodriguez probably enjoyed reading one or two of them more than Paul W.S. Anderson. If nothing else, his sensibilities are suitably more comic book inspired while his choices as a producer lend the whole foolish enterprise a lot of unearned classiness.

To compare for a moment what fans of these franchises have had to put up with, the 2007 sequel to Alien Vs Predator took place in Anysmalltown, USA, with plucky teenagers. That's how easy even a simple idea like Aliens™ fighting Predators™ can be screwed up, and it makes Predators' competence probably a little more striking than deserved.

Rodriguez lavishes whatever serious die hard Predator fans are left out there with heavy usage of the original Alan Silvestri music themes and one very flimsy connection through exposition to the original film identical to the one in Predator II (1990, Stephen Hopkins). This is direct sequelage, a rarity in the age of remakes and reboots, and at this point the thought is almost an act of mercy for beleaguered genre fans. Also indicative of Rodriguez's conscientiousness is the amazing amount of restraint in special effects, especially for a filmmaker whose riches have laid in the cutting edge of digital technology. The script actually attempts to build suspense during the first act around the ceremonious first appearance of the Predators, who are a bunch of big guys lumbering around in full body makeup engaging in simple, clunky slugfests. Nimrod does okay making them seem formidable and doesn't have them start turning into CG characters at any point. The whole affair is as relatively low key as the Schwarzenegger film, only with more Predators.

Only the story details and dialogue matched my low expectations, they're more or less as idiotic as you'd expect. Hardened soldiers, career criminals and other jerks have been dropped on a planet to be hunted by Predators, and in order to kill time while waiting for the Preds to show up we're invited to believe that a random handful of these guys (and one obligatory gal) would band together and try to figure out what's going on. As a jumping off point, this would really fly better in a comic book. The only thoughtful touch is some significant time expended on developing what the fans call the "mythology" and keeping in line with the previous films like a "real sequel" should. The "S" at the end of the title implies an expansion of the first film like James Cameron's Aliens, and while the film doesn't begin to approach that honorific, there wasn't enough in the original 1988 film for that kind of brainstorm to happen anyway. When the author's hearts are in the right place, just enough is plenty.

The biggest mark Rodriguez leaves as producer is in the cast, including the stunt casting of a respectable actor like Adrian Brody. Brody's placement in the Arnold part from the original really shows how much the criteria for action stars has changed since Keanu Reeves. Speaking of The Matrix, there's a long cameo from another respectable actor midway through the film which is easily the highlight of the whole show. If he and Brody were paired together through the whole adventure this could've been something great. Instead, Brody growls gravelly-voiced at a modern multiracial fun bunch of stereotypes ripped from the trendy war-torn headlines and good old reliable ethnic stereotypes. There's a Yakuza ninja who fights a Predator with a sword for goodness sake; another comic book style gratuity. More compellingly tasteless is the African death squad goon who helpfully identifies the remains of a Predator hunt as human skull trophies. There's also Danny "Machete" Trejo (the surest sign of Rodriguez wuz here) as a drug cartel scumbag who recounts Tijuanan kidnapping techniques when the plot requires. Topher Grace blends in as a Russian soldier but doesn't get a chance to use his Chechnyan-raping skills.

With Alice Braga as the nonwhite warrior woman, the meatbag roster on hand for the Predators to slice and dice couldn't be much more different than John McTiernan's half-black, half-white, one token Native American commando squad of the original. Ethnography of action movies aside, what the supposedly tough guys of 2010 have to say to each other in their Predator-less first act isn't a bit as tough or hilariously macho as the verbal interplay of Carl Weathers and Jesse "The Body" Ventura, or even Shane Black. Probably the only funny or memorable dialogue from anyone comes out of the aforementioned secret cameo role. Regardless, they're at least a good collection of mugs and there are more good choices than missteps in the casting.

The only seriously poor choice in the structure of the piece is a pre-Predator scene involving a brief skirmish with their CGI hunting dogs. Having other aliens in a Predator movie diminishes the Predators themselves and more importantly, they simply look like every generic four legged CG beast since Men In Black. This is especially disappointing in light of the lack of CG with the Predators themselves. Their relegation to a single scene suggests the further auspice of Rodriguez.

Predators is dumb yet truly reverent toward fans of the series and better made than the competition: they replicated the basic feel of the first film and threw some more glow in the dark blood around. By the time Adrian Brody is caked in mud, surrounded by jungle and fist fighting a Predator to the end, there's a warm feeling that if the franchise holders can't add anything new they can at least recite the greatest hits and make them look good on screen. Earnest nostalgia is ultimately the key to reliving old thrills, a factor obviously missing from similarly belated 80s franchise sequels like Terminator: Salvation. Predators endearingly caters more to old fans than anyone. The source material is underwhelming but reheated with care; with tin foil in a stove instead of the microwave.