Keep Your Neutrons Flowin'

This is a blog about all the nerdy crap we love but are afraid to admit in public.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Killer Kaiju!!!

As a student of film of all kinds, I often feel it necessary to watch movies I don't especially have a yen to see. Recently, I decided it was high time I did some learnin' about the giant monster movies from Japan. Did you know that giant monsters that attack buildings are called Kaiju? Well now you do! I wasn't expecting much from the movies, I had seen a few of the many Godzilla films prior. "Godzilla vs. Megalon" is one of the more ridiculous ones, featuring Godzilla fighting a number of silly creatures, eventually being aided by a robot named Jet Jaguar, who was invented just to sell little Japanese kids merchandise and eventually get his own set of movies. He never appeared again. But the movie did end with a nifty song about him. Listen to the Jet Jaguar song!

But I figured I'd go back to the beginning and check out not only Godzilla, but some of his contemporaries. I was pleased to discover that they didn't start out very dumb at all. In fact, they were done very seriously and actually well for the time period. The thing that was most amazing is the care that was given to the model work. Obviously, the conceit of these films is that there's a guy in a rubber suit marauding a mini version of Tokyo (or whatever city it happens to be) and to do so, there needs to be a mock-up of the city. The models look really fantastic and they're shot well. You can tell they're fake, but they're the most realistic kind of fake you can have. Reminds me of when I was a kid watching Thomas the Tank Engine. Remember how elaborate those sets were that the toy trains were driven around on? It's just like that, only with big guys in suits destroying everything.

The first film in the cycle, the first Kaiju film ever, is "Gojira" (1954). This is actually a super suspenseful movie, and, like "Jaws" after it, much is done to keep the giant lizard hidden for the better part of the movie. It's black and white, which aids this, and the majority of the attacks take place at night. Practically, this is also a way to keep the effects from being noticeable. A few of the closeup shots in this film are actually done with a hand puppet, which went by the wayside later on. The story is pretty simple: nuclear bombing has caused mutations in a dinosaur creature living on a remote island. He gets enormous and attacks Japan, and it's up to scientists and the military to destroy him before the country is decimated. True of the first few of this movement, "Gojira" actually develops its characters realistically and there's even a tragic love story. The film is also a obvious allusion to the horror of nuclear warfare that befell Japan only a few years before. There's a portion of this movie where displaced women and children huddle together in a makeshift shelter and wail at the loss of their homes and husbands. It's a much darker moment than one would expect from a giant monster movie, and was completely cut out of the American release.

After that came the immediate sequel, "Godzilla Raids Again," (1955). This movie suffered from sequel syndrome and things didn't make a whole lot of sense. It also lacked the direction of Ishiro Hondo, who would become synonymous with Kaiju films until his final entry, "The Terror of Godzilla" in 1975. In "Raids Again," Godzilla fights a big ol' Ankylosaurus called Anguirius. The version I saw was dubbed into English, and badly. I wouldn't suggest watching this one unless you're like me and doing a retrospective on them. There's a cool fight by an ancient-looking temple and that's about it.

The first break from Godzilla came in the form of "Rodan" (1956). Rodan is, apparently, one of the big three in Kaiju, and is a big pteranodon. The interesting thing about this movie is that it's only 75 minutes long and Rodan is only present for the final 15. The bulk of the movie depicts a group of miners who are digging far into the Earth's crust only to discover a clutch of giant, prehistoric insects called "Meganulon." They're about the size of a horse and attack and kill a number of people in the small mining community. These beasts turn out to be nothing more than food for the two Rodans who hatch from giant eggs and attack the entire world. The last 15 minutes of this movie, though, are almost worth the rest. Again, great effects, and watching a big dinosaur fly around and crash through buildings and shit was pretty spectacular.

Next up was "Mothra," (1961) and is possibly my favorite of the bunch. It follows the exploration of an irradiated island and the discovery of a primitive culture thereupon. Among the strange peoples, the explorers find tiny little twins who sing. Not like midgets, but indeed twin miniature Japanese women. And did I mention they sing? Well they do. What do they sing about? Well, Mothra of course. When thhe rich and greedy Nelson, the financier of the exploration, kidnaps the sisters to exploit them for monetary gain, the sisters sing their Mothra song and summon, you guessed it, Mothra, a massive caterpillar-like creature who hatches from a big-ass egg and makes a swimming b-line to the sisters in Japan in order to save them. A scientist, a reporter, and a photographer who were on the mission take it upon themselves to try to free the twins before Mothra destroys everything. It takes them a long, long time, enough time for Mothra to create a cocoon around itself and metamorphose into the flying insect creature we expected from the name. It continues destroying everything in its search for the girls until they're finally delivered by the good guys. Then everyone waves as Mothra takes them back to the island. No hard feelings I guess. MOTHRA SONG!!!

Really no hard feelings, since the next film is "Mothra vs. Godzilla," (1964). A similar storyline to the first film with the exception of Godzilla added to muck things up. A giant egg is washed ashore and examined by a slew of people. Turns out the egg belongs to Mothra and the tiny twins reappear to warn everyone to give the egg back, lest the feel Mothra's wrath, but of course they are immediately ignore, cuz they're little, and again enslaved for theatrical purposes. After getting freed by the same collection of good guy jobs as before, the girls return to their island. Good thing too, as that is the exact moment Godzilla decides to rise from under the ground and attack the city. Luckily, Mothra has come to claim her egg and in a considerable show of niceness, decides to fight Godzilla, but gets killed. The egg then hatches and two Mothra larvae are born and do battle with Godzilla. This movie, while not as entertaining as the first Mothra, is still fun and it is the last film to feature Godzilla as an all-out bad guy.

The final film I decided to watch was "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," (1964). The plot to this film is SUPER convoluted and involves a princess who may or may not be from Venus warning the people of Japan that King Ghidorah, the horrible three-headed monster is coming to decimate them. What exactly he's king of is anyone's guess. While this is all happening, Godzilla and Rodan appear and decide to fight each other, to the detriment of the surrounding cities. Larvae Mothra arrives with the twins to convince the other two evil things to help it fight Ghidorah. Theres's a whole sequence where the three beasts speak to each other in their respective growls and chirps with translation provided by the tiny twins. That's the moment I knew that I was done watching these movies and they'd passed irreparably to the realm of hokeyness. The three good creatures fight the bad creature with the three heads and then it's over. Good production value and typically fun, this movie is marred by too many Kaiju and a nearly incomprehensible plot for the human actors to be involved with.

There are a plethora of other Kaiju films, like "Gamera," (1965) the giant turtle creature movie produced by a rival company to Godzilla's Toho, but I decided to stop there. Before they got TOO silly. But, just to let you know, Gamera is filled with turtle meat. It says so in the song.

Watch these movies for good fun happy times.

You're welcome.



My friend Lincoln Hayes, the other half of the semi-defunct Eclectic Films, just made a new short film. You should watch it. It's funny and good. Good job, Lincoln. Way to make it SEMI-defunct.

You're welcome


Top 6: Movies Made Before 1960

I watch a lot of old movies and I love them, but I feel like a great many people today don't give old movies a chance because they're, well, old. Black and white scares people who're used to the HD-CG-3D bollocks that've saturated the market. So here, for the uninitiated, are my six favorite movies made before 1960. Just my opinion, as always.

Considered by many to be the last official entry in the Film Noir cycle, Orson Welles' bleak masterpiece still shocks and astonishes today. It's a gritty, grimy adventure that follows Mexican-American prosecutor Miguel "Mike" Vargas (inexplicably played by Charlton Heston) and his whiter-than-white wife Susie played by Janet Leigh as they cross the border late one night. The sleepy border town is rocked when a car bomb explodes in the opening minute (one of the greatest tracking shots in history) and from there we're introduced to sleazy and corrupt police veteran Captain Hank Quinlan, played for all its worth by Welles himself. The plot gets very muddled, but it's not really about that. It's about these characters and specifically how a once-great man can fall so very far. Three different versions of the film exist due to Welles never getting final cut, but I personally prefer the restoration version that Walter Murch oversaw in the 90s to get as close as possible to the grand auteur's lost vision.

It's very hard to put only one Hitchcock movie on this list, as he made so many that were just perfect. I decided to put this one on the list because it's the Master Of Suspense at his most sinister. It follows the chance meeting on a train bound for Washington, DC of tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and millionaire mama's boy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno is a gossip hound and knows far too much about the famous athlete's personal woes, including his estrangement from his shrewish wife and illicit relationship with a senator's daughter. Bruno wagers that Guy would do anything to have his wife gone because he feels the same way about his own father. He proposes a trade, criss-cross. Bruno would kill Guy's wife if Guy kills Bruno's father. Guy laughs this off; Bruno would never be crazy enough to do it. Would he? Hitchcock is known for his set pieces and there's plenty of them here, making two of the most wholesome activities in America two of the most menacing: a carnival and a tennis match. Also watch for the brilliant shot of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Chilling.

This one's in color, and boy is it ever! One of the earliest uses of grand 3-strip Technicolor, this film also saw the birth of Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling superstar. This is what big budget adventures should be today. The sets are elaborate, the costumes are lush, and the stunt work is stellar even by today's standards. It's well acted, beautifully directed, and the score is thrilling. What more can I say? This movie just makes me feel good when I watch it, and that's what movie watching is all about.

One of the earliest "talkies," this German movie may as well be silent. Made by Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also made "Passion of Joan of Arc," "Vampyr" is a surreal, dreamlike depiction of the otherworldly. Allan Grey (Julian West), a traveler obsessed with the supernatural, visits a creepy old inn and discovers evidence of vampires. This film employs a cadre of camera tricks used to induce a general sense of unease, from shadows on the wall disappearing suddenly, to a man digging a grave in reverse, and even Allan Grey himself being buried and his ghost rising from his body. It may seem like kids stuff today, but let's remember this film was made in 1932. It's scary and at times funny but always interesting. Give it a chance, if you dare.

In a time when people were making World War II films like they were on sale at Macy's, a young Stanley Kubrick decided to make his war film about World War I, and have it be about the French. Not a single American character is featured, though most of the actors are, notably its star Kirk Douglas. Its anti-war theme still rings true today as the soldiers on the front line are not only set upon by the enemy only a few hundred yards away, but also the beaurocracy of the officer class, tucked away in their enormous mansion villas. The bulk of the story finds Douglas' Col. Dax having to defend three randomly chosen soldiers on charges of treason and cowardice for refusing to fight in an unwinnable battle. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Douglas gives a wonderful performance as do the three condemned men, who portray all the emotions of the horror of two kinds of war. Early Kubrick is still 150 times better than most everyone in their prime. Kurbick's prime was everthing he made after his first film and before his last film.

I - THE THIRD MAN (1949)
My second favorite movie of all time. This is simply one of the finest films ever made, by a vastly under-appreciated artist, director Carol Reed. Reed was working 22 hour days and became addicted to pills (and possibly other stuff) during the making of this movie, and it shows in the frenzy and paranoia of the third act. It follows hack pulp author Holly Martens (perfectly played by Joseph Cotten) as he travels to post-War Vienna to visit his old friend Harry Lime. Too bad Lime has just died. He was hit by a car in front of two friends who moved his body off the road. Martens almost leaves immediately after the funeral, except for two things: Harry's girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli) and a porter's claim that there were indeed THREE men who moved Harry's body. Holly then gets embroiled in Harry's seedy past and the post-war politics of Vienna, which has been cut into four zones, each controlled by the US, the UK, France, and the Soviet Union. The British zone's commanding officer, Major Calloway, is perhaps the best part of the film played by Trevor Howard. He tries to convince Holly to leave while giving him little glimpses of the man he knew as Harry Lime. Also great is the ever-present zither music which is oddly fitting in a creepy way. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it now.

I'm happy with this list, but even as I was writing it I thought of at least ten others I maybe should put on the list. After all, it seems criminal to exclude the works of Billy Wilder, or David Lean, or even the rest of Alfred Hitchcock. And lets not forget Akira Kurosawa. Crap. Maybe soon I'll have to go back and make another list. Start with these, though. They're excellent. Old movies are fun!

You're welcome