Monday, March 30, 2009

Rubber Reptile Rampage

I think the first horror movie I ever saw--or monster movie, anyway--was a Godzilla movie. I think it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, but I"m not sure. I vividly remember watching Godzilla vs. Megalon on television in prime time when I was in the first grade, but most of the Godzilla movies I saw as a kid were either shown just after school let out or on a Saturday. My brothers and I would positively drool if we saw that Destroy All Monsters or The Terror of Mechagodzilla was scheduled to play. More often, we got Son of Godzilla, which was awful. In any event, I never really lost the taste for rubber monster mayhem, though I gave it up for a long time in late adolescence and during college, but it returned full force when the so-called "Hesei" series started appearing on the grey market in the 1990s. Most of the Godzilla movies I actually own date from this period and after. I don't own Godzilla 1985, but I own all of the subsequent films. For reasons I don't fully understand, I started watching them this weekend.

Godzilla vs. Biolante (1989, directed by Kazuki Omori) follows directly on the 1985 movie, when, in the aftermath of Godzilla's latest rampage, various interests attempt to make off with some of the cells that have shuffled off of Godzilla during the mayhem for their own nefarious purposes. The film opens with a Hong Kong action-y shootout and the film follows several assassins over its running time. The final destination for Godzilla's cells is a laboratory that's researching genetically engineered crops and, well, you can probably see where this is going. Biolante is a huge plant monster. The movie also mixes up psychics, G-force (the UN team tasked with dealing with Godzilla's rampages, usually with cool technologies), and the military as usual. It's all pretty easy to follow, which is good given that the version of the film I have was sourced from a Japanese laserdisc without subtitles. It's actually kind of fun making up your own dialogue. The first time my friends and I tried this, it became a kind of Lovecraftian battle between the elder gods. We pretty much promoted Godzilla into the pantheon. Two scene stand out for me: first, a spy is ransacking an office and he opens the venetian blinds only to see Godzilla outside. His reaction? "S--t! Godzilla", which is probably how I'd react, too. In the other, one of the army guys tasked with shooting Godzilla with a suped-up bazooka flips the big guy off, turns his back to reload, then pays the price. I can't say this surprised me. This movie was a relative failure--it took almost a decade to make it to North America on non-bootleg versions. It's still not on DVD here.

Godzilla vs. Biolante was supposed to be followed by a movie introducing a new monster, but Biolante's failure was blamed on Biolante not having marquee value. So the next film went back to first principles. Most kaiju fans rank Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991, directed by Kazuki Omori) as the best of the Hesei series, perhaps because it has the most satisfying city-wrecking and monster brawling. It's also a kick to see a new version of Godzilla's old enemy, Ghidorah, in a new "mecha" version at the end of the movie. And, really, all kaiju fans demand of their Godzilla movies is great city wrecking and monster fighting. So I see their point. I do. But I'm a movie fan first, and the movie fan in me--to say nothing of the liberal humanist in me--recoils from the subtexts in this movie. This is a seriously wrong-headed piece of work. The plot involves evil westerners (read: evil, underhanded Americans) traveling back in time to prevent Japan from becoming the world's economic superpower. They do this by travelling even farther back in time to prevent the dinosaur that would eventually become Godzilla from becoming Godzilla, and instead, substituting their own creatures to become Ghidorah. In order to fight Ghidorah, Godzilla must be recreated. Godzilla kicks Ghidorah's ass, then goes on his own rampage that must be stopped by a revived mecha-Ghidorah. It's all very goofy, and very circular (as time-travel plots tend to be). But the attitudes on display here are disturbing. The movie tends to glorify the Japanese military during World War II, glorifies Japan's corporate culture of the late 1980s, and depends on an intentional ecological disaster to fuel its plot, no questions asked. In a lot of ways this is a neo-con kaiju movie, which seems perverse for a series that began life as an elegy to Japan's 1945 nuclear holocaust. It makes me rather sour on the whole thing, though it's interesting to contrast this film with the one that follows it.

Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992, directed by Takao Okawara) is Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah's ideological opposite. It's almost a point by point refutation of the the previous film. Mothra has always had an ecological subtext, and here, it comes to the fore. Again, there's a big corporation, but this time, the movie is scathing in its critque of that corporation's willingness to engage in ecological disasters in the name of profits. Mothra is unique in the Toho pantheon of monsters because he (?) has a mouthpiece in The Peanuts (or The Cosmos, as this movie renames them), the two miniature women who act to explain Mothra's actions). This movie has some pretty good mayhem, much of it provided by the "Black Mothra," Battra, who has a wing ding of a fight with Godzilla on the floor of the ocean in which Godzilla gets knocked through the Earth's crust and into the magma below. He then swims through the magma and re-appears in a volcanic eruption on Mt. Fuji. This provides me with my all-time favorite Godzilla moment. The scientists on the case are watching Godzilla emerge from an orbiting helicopter, and one of them says to the other, "Godzilla is beyond our understanding." Which is so, so true on any number of levels. This is my favorite of the Hesei series.

I chose to skip Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993) for the present, because I absolutely hated it the first time I watched it.

By rights, I ought to hate Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994), too, given that it has an even more appallingly cutesy version of Baby Godzilla in it, and it has pretty lame monster fights (in which the two principles stare each other down for the most part, and Space Godzilla is one of Toho's lamer monsters. All true. But there are some things in it that tickle my illogical kaiju love. First, there's Mogera, the second generation countermeasure to Godzilla following on from Mechagodzilla. Mogera is designed to look like the big robot monster from The Mysterians, a film I love. Second, there's a pretty cool scene in outer space when Mogera takes on Space Godzilla in an asteroid field. But mostly, I like this movie because I think the human story is more interesting than usual. At the end of most Godzilla movies, the human cast tends to watch the mayhem from a safe distance without adding anything to the film but astonished expressions (or bored expressions, depending on the involvement of the actors). In this one, the human cast is in the action. Of particular interest is the pilot of Mogera. Remember the guy who flips off Godzilla back in Godzilla vs. Biolante? That was this guy's best friend. His hatred of Godzilla has turned him into the equivalent of Captain Ahab. This is fun to watch. Still, this says more about what I personally look for in movies than it does the quality of the movie itself, so caveat emptor.


The thing to remember when you're watching any given Brian De Palma movie is that you are watching a movie. Never mind all the swipes from Hitchcock and Antonioni and god knows who else, the proper frame of reference is Godard, who rendered movies as abstractions. Of course, De Palma's cinema is more commercial than Godard's ever was, but if there's anyone who wields his movies as weapons in the same spirit, it's De Palma. 1984's Body Double is the director's most vicious hate note to Hollywood, and the more you know about movies, about De Palma's movies in particular, and about critics, the funnier it is. I can only imagine the glee in De Palma's black little heart as he assembled the critical blurbs for his in-film porno movie, "Holly Does Hollywood." Sometimes, the film is blatant about what's it's really about: the swinging door with the mirror during the porno shoot is a good example--it reveals the film crew. Sometimes it's subtle. During the front credits, the main title is superimposed on a desert vista that is promptly picked up and carried away by workmen on a movie set, and right after the credits, Craig Wasson's character is shown driving a car with a rear projection that's just bad enough to call attention to itself if you're looking for it (in 1984? Really? Hence the cognitive dissonance). And the film invites--nay, compells--the audience to look. One thing I never realized the first time I saw the film is that it's a sly quasi-remake of Blow Out. Oh, the details are different, as is the tone, but the broad outlines are the same. This has to be some kind of post-modernist coup: a director quasi-remaking his own quasi-remake of another film. It makes the head spin. And then, the coup de grace. De Palma deconstructs the shower opening of Dressed to Kill by setting up a nearly identical scene over his end-credits, then showing you the results, all laid bare like a pathologist leaving a cadaver gaping wide on the table for a medical class to examine. Wow, did I ever underestimate this film when I saw it back when it was released. It's actually kind of a masterpiece.

As an aside to horror fans: watch out for a very naked Barbara Crampton in the early part of the film.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Asian Salad, Sharks, and Buttons

A friend of mine bought a new television last week. This thing is huge. Imagine the monolith from 2001 turned on its side and you have an idea of how big this damned thing is. It's really too much television for just one person. She also has a huge collection of Asian genre films, including an extensive selection of the Shaw Brothers re-issues from Celestial in Hong Kong. We've been trying to arrange a movie night for months now, and the stars were finally right for a night of kung-fu. We picked a couple of random films from her collection, figured out how to work the subtitles on her new tv, and plunged right in.

First up was The Deadly Breaking Sword (1979, directed by Chung Sun), in which Ti Lung plays a wu xia swordsman who breaks off a piece of his sword in the killing stroke when he dispatches his opponents. The movie takes it's time informing us that he's the good guy. The plot is never really clear on who is the protagonist. The character who would be the good guy in most films is lovable doofus Sheng Fu, who has gambled away his freedom early in the film, and is now indentured to the gambling house as a bouncer. I say he would be the good guy, but for something he does later in the film that seems fairly unforgivable. The main kung-fu baddie is Wai-Man Chan, who survives his opening duel with Ti Lung and falls in with a sinister doctor played by the always villainous Ku Feng. Fei Ai is the driver of the plot as a courtesan who manipulates everyone to her own ends. The martial arts action in this one is fairly dance-like, which is a surprise given the late date of its production. Still, it's a handsome film that makes good use of Shaw's familiar sets, and Ti Lung is always watchable, especially given that his character here is unusually unlikeable in spite of his heroism.

Next was Chia-Liang Liu's Dirty Ho (also 1979), in which Gordon Liu is the affable Eleventh Prince of the ruling dynasty who has slipped out of the palace to pursue his hobbies: wine, antiques, and art. He runs afoul of amiable rogue Yue Wong, who he contrives to take under his wing. The conflict is provided by the assassins sent out by the Fourth Prince to take out our hero before the royal succession can be announced. The attempts by the assassins provide the film with a couple of very clever sequences in which the Prince must defend himself without showing any outward kung fu skill. The best of these sequences finds him using a courtesan (played by the wonderful Kara Hui) as a kind of kung fu marionette, though the other scenes are almost as much fun. This being a Chia-Liang Liu film, there's a training sequence in which the Prince teaches his new disciple with various sadistic techniques, here mostly involving oil lamps and candles. The filmmakers manage to make Shaw's familiar backlot seem like new by dressing it up with blowing wind and sand in the penultimate battle sequence, before providing a duel with the Fourth Prince's wicked general, played by the ubiquitous Lo Lieh. This one is great fun.


There's a profound sense of loss in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (1995), a film that is driven by mood rather than plot. The movie follows the life of a young Osaka woman (Makiko Esumi), whose husband inexplicably steps in front of a train. Five years later, she remarries and relocates to a small town on the northern coast of Japan, where she attempts to find meaning in her new life even as she's haunted by the old. This is a film filled with quiet moments and careful shot compositions. There's a touch of Ozu in this film, though this is more monochromatic than any of Ozu's color films. The final shot of the film is an empty room with an open window, looking out over the sea. It's worthy of Edward Hopper.

Henry Sellick's Coraline (2009) features a battery of cannons that fire cones of spun candy. This film, a delightfully sinister stop-motion film, is NOT spun candy. This seems to be the point of the cannons. Coraline is being ignored by her parents, so when she finds an alternate world where her parents are accommodating to her every wish, she's delighted at first, in spite of being creeped out by the buttons sewn over their eyes. When she discovers the cost of staying in this fantasy world, the film becomes very dark indeed. I think Roald Dahl would have liked this film. There's the same touch of the fairy tale in the structure of the second half of this movie that one finds in Pan's Labyrinth, and it reminds me once again that most horror stories are fairy tales of a sort. Plus, I'm bound to love any film in which Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders "appear" together.

As an aside, this is the second 3-D film I've seen this year, and, once again, 3-D was a distraction rather than an asset.


About half way through the film, and not for the first time, I started wondering why Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is so different from any given New World Pictures eco horror film from the same era. I mean, it's the same damned thing, when you get down to brass tacks. Murray Hamilton's mayor is a character type familiar to just about any revenge of nature film ever made: the venal politician who values the tourist trade more than human life, to cite one familiar archetype. Why this film? It's tempting to chalk it up to simple craftsmanship, but I don't think that's it. The obvious answer is that it matches image and archetype brilliantly. Spielberg matches a prosaic reality against a destroying force to devastating effect, in part because his scenes of domesticity are so carefully observed. The scene where Chief Brody's son mimics his actions is one good example. Obviously, Spielberg is a filmmaker of immense gifts, who, like many of the other so-called movie brats, has synthesized everything he's learned from watching movies into a formidable cinematic vocabulary. You have a mastery of overlapping dialogue that's the equal of Hawks (and very similar to Altman), you have striking mise en scene compositions that use receding planes of action that recall Welles and Truffaut. You have a Hitchcockian attention to objects. Plus, there's a mean streak that Spielberg subsequently lost somewhere along the line. I mean, he was willing to kill of a dog and a little kid in the space of a minute and a half in this movie. All well and good, but it explains nothing, except, perhaps, that this is one of the movie-est movies ever made. And maybe that's the key to its initial popularity, but it's not the key to why it remains fresh while other big hits from the same era have fallen by the wayside over time.

Ultimately, I think there's a level of mythmaking in the second half of the movie that pushes it out of the realm of the stock eco horror film. It abandons the tropes of the horror movie once Quint, Brody, and Hooper set sail to hunt the shark, and suddenly we're in the neighborhood of Melville and Jack London. The shark hunt is a crucible, and we have three characters to test to destruction here. The heart of the movie is Quint's monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis. Here, we find a character stripped bare and examined in a way that no film ever produced by Roger Corman ever managed. Each of the three is examined in turn--Brody's cowardice, Hooper's intellect, Quint's obsession, all measured against a shark that isn't even a natural creature. It's a variant, instead, of the White Whale, and the Orca is the Pequod writ small. It's a striking transformation for a film that stands as the original summer blockbuster. It's a legitimately great film.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Beware, the Ides of March

A light week for me. In fact, I didn't see a single movie. This is a rare occurrence for me. I spent a lot of time reading Dan Simmons's new book, Drood (which I haven't finished yet), and I listened to a Ruth Rendell novel in the car on my commute to work.

I did, however, watch the last episode of the first season of Rome. Appropriate, given that the centerpiece of the episode is the assassination of Caesar on the floor of the senate. It was the Ides of March, after all. This last episode was a doozy. I can't imagine having to wait out the second season when there was a chance that it wasn't going to happen. My main thoughts: I loved the way Caesar's death was played, with out him saying "et tu Brute," but with an accusing and betrayed glare as he died. Also, Sevillia is picking the wrong enemy in Octavian. Yikes. That kid is going to run rings around everyone.

History porn at its finest.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

Carrie (1976, directed by Brian De Palma). I wish my prom had been as much fun as Carrie White's prom.

Oh, more than that, I guess. I love, love, love the circling pan shot around Sissy Spacek and William Katt that starts out elegant then spirals out of control. It's a terrific symbolic shot. I also love how P. J. Soles goes from goofy to psychotic in a much more subtle way than Travolta does. Carrie's mom is a bit more of a caricature here than she is in the book, but it's fun watching Piper Laurie chew the scenery. I'm still of two minds about the very end of the movie, though. On the one hand, it completely annihilates any sympathy the audience might have had for Carrie, because the ending turns her into a monster at last. On the other hand, it's the most cunningly executed cheap shot in movies. I mean, NO ONE walks away from that sequence unaffected. There's some kind of magic there, of a black variety.


I approached the movie version of Watchmen (2009, directed by Zach Snyder) with a fair amount of dread. This is a property that, done badly, has the potential to explode in the face of everyone involved. The filmmakers run a huge risk of appearing ridiculous, not least because the source novel itself will end up with the last laugh, to say nothing of its prickly author. My only real hope was that it wouldn't suck, but I still remember when I realized that the first X-Men film didn't, in fact, suck, and how I started demanding that it be good. The good news is that Watchmen doesn't exactly suck, and part of its awkward presentation might be smoothed over by the forth coming DVD extended cut. The bad news is that, while it hits the major plot points of the story, it misses the depths. It misses the density of metaphor, or, if it retains any of it, it doesn't communicate them because the viewer cannot stop to linger on them. This, too, might work on DVD, but that's an unfortunate qualification for a movie that is so obviously designed to be seen on the biggest available screen. In any event, this gets to the heart of what's missing from the movie. The book presents several levels of meta-narrative, and the movie is only able to pick out the surface narrative. This has a flattening effect.

As a movie, it's not bad, I guess. It's the kind of superhero movie someone like Robert Altman or P. T. Anderson would make--more Anderson than Altman, I think, given the needle-drop soundtrack--in which you have multiple characters with multiple storylines all converging at the end of the movie. It's the superhero equivalent of Nashville. Occasionally, Snyder indulges in his preferred action idiom, which marks the movie as a movie, but he's also added a fanboyish sadism to the action. This is more violent than it needs to be, though I think that might be a hollow complaint given that the end of the movie kills millions of people offscreen (more about this in a bit). I'll say this for Snyder, I much prefer his take on action filmmaking to Paul Greengrass (who was the director of record prior to Snyder). The slow motion might be annoying, but at least the viewer can tell what's going on and can get some sense of the geography of the scene. A Bourne-ish approach would certainly have annoyed me no end.

The performances are generally good, particularly Patrick Wilson and Billy Cruddup. One wishes that the filmmakers had included at least some of the wide swath of "ordinary" characters from the book, because omitting them results in a kind of hermetically sealed narrative that doesn't mean anything except to those within it. This is most evident in the way the movie ends, which presents a serious moral problem. Can the characters live with this? The fact that it all occurs in this bubble, to people in whom we have no vested interest, tends to moot the moral dilemma. Film audiences are used to seeing large scale disasters, so this one is just one more. This is exacerbated by Matthew Goode's performance as Veidt, which seems completely untouched by a shadow of regret. This is a serious failing.

Still and all, there's more of Watchmen on the screen than I ever expected to see. It IS interesting. Whether that's enough to balance the scales is something about which I haven't made up my mind. Plus, this might actually be the closest anyone comes to putting a Thomas Pynchon novel on screen, for whatever that might be worth.

I'm much less conflicted by Brad Bird's 2004 Watchmen knock-off, The Incredibles, which is a pure delight from start to finish. Whether it's the striking design sensibility, the retro spy-film score, or the gleeful and vivid showing-off of Pixar's animation capabilities, this fills every frame with some kind of marvel or some kind of witty take on the reality of having super-powers. I mean, what kind of windscreen does the Flash use to prevent himself from splattering bugs in his path? Where do they get their costumes? Things I picked up on this time: The drinking game Syndrome's lackeys are playing as they watch the news feed from the mayhem; the subtle and satisfied way Elastigirl looks at her ass in the mirror after donning her new supersuit (as if to say, yeah, it still looks good); the very subtle queer subtext derived from the film's superhero closet and the superhero advocate, Gazerbeam. I could take some issue with the film's pseudo-Randian subtext, but it doesn't spoil the fun.

As a side note, Watchmen is not my favorite graphic novel, not even my favorite Alan Moore graphic novel. I much prefer Moore's own From Hell, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Charles Burns's Black Hole, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Signal to Noise, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Jaka's Story by Dave Sim, The Death of Speedy by Jaime Hernandez, and probably a couple of dozen others. Actually, I don't have a favorite, so the favorite that I don't have isn't Watchmen


Future fantasy filmmakers might do well to look at Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life (1998), which is the kind of fantasy that Hollywood used to make in the 1930s, along the lines of Heaven Can Wait, Between Two Worlds, or On Borrowed Time. Unlike those films, this one avoids obvious sentiment by fusing fantasy and documentary together. The premise is simple, the recently dead arrive at a way station to the afterlife where they are told they can take one--and only one--memory into eternity. The staff of the way station help them decide and contrive to film the memories for them. A lot of this film consists of people talking directly at the camera, a la Errol Morris, and the director has mixed in non-actors describing their own real memories with those the filmmakers have created. The film doesn't tell you which is which. The result is a surprisingly affecting meditation on memory, loss, mortality, and life. This is one of my favorite films.

Monday, March 02, 2009


I had hoped to get out to see Coraline this weekend, but that didn't happen. Instead, I was satisfied with a couple of undistributed movies.

One of the great tragedies of the copyright trouble in which Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues (2008) finds itself is that, outside of a few festival showings, it won't be seen by its audience on a big screen. I thought of this just after the halfway point, during a psychedelic freakout that had me floored even though I was watching it on a computer screen. Had this film been made in another era--at the height of the midnight movie era, for instance--this would have been one of the great "head" movies, in which audiences of teenagers and younger adults would drop acid before the show and find themselves in a seriously immersive alternate reality of sound and color. Hell, you don't even need the drug for this movie to transport you. Made in a variety of animations styles, and all animated by cartoonist Paley in Flash, this is a tour de force in imaginative juxtapositions. The copyright trouble stems from the use of blues recordings by Annette Hanshaw, which Paley puts into the mouth of Sita, wife of Rama in Hindu tradition, who is further interpreted as a woman wronged by a guy who's kind of a dick, even if he is a god. Paley further juxtaposes this story with her own autobiographical story of being dumped by a boyfriend who has taken a job in India. The whole thing is charming, wholly engaging, and occasionally visionary. One of the other thoughts that I had after I finished watching was that this is the kind of movie that shows up movies like Kung Fu Panda as creatively bankrupt, in spite of their lip service to a variety of styles. Highly recommended. You can watch it online here, if you're interested: nline/347/

The sixth annual True/False Film Festival rolled into our my fair city again this weekend, and, once again, the thing was packed. Last year, they drew 18,000 people. If they drew less than that this year, I would be shocked. The opening night film was Waltzing with Bashir, but there was no way I was getting in to that without standing in a two hour line in freezing temperatures and it was going to be playing at our art-house next week anyway. So I decided that my best bet were films on Sunday at the cavernous Missouri Theater. Surely those showings would have seats available? Famous last words. In any event, I barely got in to see a documentary called Pressure Cooker (2008, directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, which depicts a Philadelphia inner city high school class in culinary arts and their peparation for a big scholarship competition. I suppose you could equate this to Hoop Dreams--substitute cooking for basketball--but that would do the film a disservice. The film focuses on three students in particular, as well as their tough as nails teacher, and winds up as a striking portrait of ordinary people in post-industrial America. It's a surprisingly funny movie, and it's a stark rebuke to some images of inner city life as a gang-infested hell. That's not the world--and certainly not the people--you see here. Recommended, if it ever makes it to DVD. The filmmakers were present and discussed the film afterwards. As usual for filmmakers at the Missouri Theater, they looked a little shell-shocked at the size of the audience. Documentaries don't usuallly play to 1200 people at a time.


High Sierra (1941, directed by Raoul Walsh) is arguably the movie that made Humphrey Bogart into Humphrey Bogart. It rescued him from a long string of gangster roles and marked him both as a charismatic movie star and as a really accomplished actor. The movie introduced Bogart to screenwriter John Huston, who would cast Bogart as Sam Spade later that same year (and the rest is history). High Sierra ain't no slouch, either. What we see here is a transitional film. It takes Bogart's Duke Mantee from The Petrified Forest and thaws him. Roy "Mad Dog" Earle is Mantee with a sliver of humanity retained. He has a consience. He's wonderfully conflicted, and the movie amplifies his inner conflicts with his relationships with both Ida Lupino's dance hall refugee and Joan Leslie's crippled teen-ager. In the broad continuum of film history, what we see in High Sierra is the Warner-style gangster film beginning to shade into the moral ambiguity of film noir. What the film lacks is the visual style of noir, but in its place, director Raoul Walsh has substitued a spectacular natural backdrop. The film hints at this when, fresh out of prison, Earle takes a walk to the park to "make sure that the sky is still blue and that the grass is still green." In the back end of the picture, this tendency becomes grandiose, as Roy Earle meets his demise in the shadow of Mount Whitney. On the whole a terrific film, and primo Bogart is ambrosia.