Shin Godzilla

Michele and I went to see Shin Godzilla, aka Godzilla Resurgence, last week in the theater during its limited US release. Toho has once again rebooted the movie series, with Godzilla’s inaugural attack on Japan taking place in the year 2016.  The film is co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with a screenplay by Anno.  Shin Godzilla is probably the darkest, most serious Godzilla movie since the very first entry in the series, Gojira, back in 1954.

shin-godzilla-poster

Shin Godzilla is a very political movie. With the story told in an almost-documentary style, events unfold from the perspectives of the politicians and bureaucrats whose task it is to deal with Godzilla’s rampage & the aftermath.

The film’s protagonist is Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa). Young, ambitious, and definitely something of a rebel, Yaguchi continually chaffs at the innumerable regulations that have to be dealt with amidst Godzilla’s arrival, as well as the overly cautious attitudes of the senior political establishment.

There are quite a number of issues at play here as they relate to Japanese society. Yaguchi is uncomfortable with the traditional deference to seniority & rank, preferring instead to work with people possessing talent & ability, regardless of their age or social status.  His assembly of various scientists & technicians, who he affectionately describes as misfits & outsiders, into a group dedicated to stopping Godzilla is a definite attempt to cut through the red tape that he feels has entangled the rest of the government.

The push by Yaguchi for the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take a proactive role in protecting the country from Godzilla also has real-world echoes. Japan was forced to de-militarize after its defeat in World War II.  During the early years of the Cold War the country was entirely dependent upon the United States for protection.  This eventually led to the formation of the SDF, which has for much of its existence served a very limited role.  In recent years, seeing the potential threats posed by North Korea and China, certain voices in Japan have called for the full-scale rearmament of the country.

At the same time, though, we do see in Yaguchi a desire not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He wishes for Japan to shake off American influence and to be able to defend itself, but he also cautions against the overconfidence that led his country into catastrophic defeat 70 years before.

shin-godzilla-attack

The United Nations ordering a nuclear strike on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla before the creature can reproduce & spread across the globe is certainly rooted in Japanese fears. Japan is the only country to have ever been attacked by atomic weapons.  Obviously one can argue that the United States had a very strong rationale for using the atom bomb to end World War II back in 1945.  Nevertheless, within the movie we see the Japanese characters genuinely horrified at the possibility that their country will once again be devastated by atomic weapons, that in order to stop Godzilla the entire city of Tokyo will have to be reduced to a radioactive wasteland.

Yaguchi and his team race against the nuclear strike’s impending deadline to devise an alternate method of stopping Godzilla. With time of the essence, they are forced to ask for the assistance of Germany in analyzing their data.  When the team realizes it needs another day to finish their plans, Yaguchi’s allies in the government lobby France to extend the countdown by 24 hours.  Finally, when the SDF launches the attack devised by Yaguchi’s team, they receive valuable assistance from the United States.

I do not think the choice of these countries is accidental. Japan, Germany, France, and United States; seven decades ago the first two were mortal enemies of the later.  Now, in the present, all four of them set aside their differences and work together against a danger that threatens the entire globe.  The movie demonstrates again and again that cooperation is essential in stopping Godzilla: government and private industry must to pool their resources, military and science must work side-by-side, and nations must come together as allies.

shin-godzilla-profile

This is a very unconventional entry in the Godzilla series. That’s not surprising, given Hideaki Anno’s involvement.  He is best known for his work on the incredibly offbeat & bizarre science fiction anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, which left audiences very divided.  (Years ago, after watching the final episode of Evangelion, I literally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a loud “WTF?!?”)

The conflict between generations was a central one in Evangelion, with anxious teenager Shinji Ikari attempting to find his own way in life and assert himself again his cold, manipulative father. Aspects of this extremely dysfunctional relationship appear to have been translated into Shin Godzilla, in the disagreements between Yagushi and his superiors, as well as the larger theme of 21th Century Japan rebelling against the overbearing, paternalistic attitude of the country’s older generations and the United States.

Of course we cannot forget Godzilla himself. There is an effort by Anno, Higuchi, and their collaborators to ground the creature in reality.  Obviously there is a certain limit to how well this can be pulled off, since the concept of a giant radioactive fire-breathing dinosaur is, when you get right down to it, rather implausible.  Nevertheless the movie does succeed rather well at giving Godzilla a certain verisimilitude.

A constantly-evolving life form, when we first see Godzilla he is an aquatic creature that walks on four legs. This initial form is very much unlike the monster we are used to, which led Michele to whisper to me “Is that Godzilla?”  I must have been frowning when I whispered back “I don’t think so.”  The detail that really threw us off was the creature’s pair of comically large googly eyes.  As the creature shuffles onto land and begins toppling buildings, all efforts to appear formidable are totally undone by those ridiculous peepers.

shin-godzilla-big-googly-eyes

At a certain point the creature plops to a halt and right then & there evolves into a bipedal creature.  That’s when I realized that this really was Godzilla, even though he still had those big googly eyes of his.  Fortunately the creature quickly makes his way back into the ocean.

Later in the movie, when Godzilla returns to land, he has evolved further, and is much closer to his traditional form. Twisted & grotesque, this is a monstrous incarnation, one that lumbers unceasingly forward, smashing everything it its path.  An unstoppable engine of destruction, this Godzilla is genuinely terrifying, a quality that has been seldom present in the creature since the original Gojira.

Anno’s use of music by the late Akira Ifukube from older Godzilla movies is effective. Ifukube’s music was a vital part in establishing the tone and atmosphere in many of the past entries.  It demonstrates just how effective his scores are that they are still being utilized.

Much as his work on Evangelion was divisive among viewers, so too has Anno’s approach resulted in a polarization of opinion on this movie. Some found the detailed focus on the inner workings of government in crisis to be fascinating.  Others felt Shin Godzilla was dull, and they expressed difficulty in keep track of the innumerable bureaucrats.

My own opinion falls in-between these two extremes. The scenes of committee meetings and press conferences and scientific gatherings are well written & insightful, although at times they do get excessive and drag on.  These could certainly have been scaled back.  I think that at least 15 minutes of the movie’s two hour run time could have been trimmed without losing anything of real significance.

Flaws aside, I found Shin Godzilla to be a good movie. After the underwhelming Godzilla: Final Wars back in 2004, Toho has done a good job at reviving the series with this new entry.

Great Scott! Rocky Horror is 40 years old!

Happy Halloween!  Today I’m taking a brief look at the horror comedy musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which made its cinematic debut 40 years ago in 1975.

The movie was an adaptation of The Rocky Horror Show stage musical written by Richard O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman which was first performed in 1973.  It was an homage to / parody of the science fiction and horror movies from the previous decades.  Although the movie initially bombed in theaters, 20th Century Fox ad executive Tim Deegan came up with the idea of moving Rocky Horror to midnight screenings.  In this new venue in various cities, via world of mouth, the movie became a tremendous cult classic.  Since then, for decades avid fans have shown up to either act out the movie and / or heckle at it.

Rocky Horror lips

I can’t recall exactly when I first saw Rocky Horror.  It was probably in the early 1990s when VH1 was airing it.  I realize now that a lot of the movie’s impact was diluted by all the commercials.  But once some friends got it on home video I had an opportunity to watch it uninterrupted.

Back then Rocky Horror struck me as a very bizarre, nonsensical movie.  Even so, I definitely enjoyed the amazing music by O’Brien.  As with other things, as I got older I gradually developed more of an appreciation for it.  A couple of weeks ago Michele bought it on DVD, and we’ve watched it a few times.  It’s a humorous mix of geeky genre elements and campy hyper-sexuality.

The standout performance of the movie is undoubtedly the amazing Tim Curry as the bi-sexual cross-dressing alien mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter.  This was one of Curry’s earliest roles, and watching it you can definitely see why he went on to have such a long & prolific career.

When Curry is on screen as Furter, he just totally owns it.  You really need to have a genuine confidence to successfully pull off such a crazy, over-the-top role like this one, and Curry absolutely possesses that quality.  His performance is so amazing that even though Furter is a dangerous nutjob, he’s nevertheless compellingly charismatic.  Michele is correct when she states “Tim Curry totally makes the movie.”

Rocky Horror Picture Show

It’s understandable that for many years Curry was reluctant to discuss Rocky Horror.  Furter is such a larger-than-life character, and the movie has such a fanatical following, that it is just the sort of role that could easily threaten to overshadow subsequent work.  Perhaps to a degree that did occur, as throughout his career Curry has often played creepy oddballs.  Nevertheless there’s certainly enough diversity on display in his resume that it is apparent he was able to at least partially dodge the typecasting bullet.

As I mentioned, I love the music.  O’Brien’s lyrics are clever and funny.  I’ve had the soundtrack on CD for years now.  “The Time Warp” is the one everyone knows.  Myself, I’ve always had a real fondness for “Science Fiction Double Feature,” “There’s A Light” and “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”  But they’re all good.

O’Brien also plays the creepy handyman Riff Raff.  He’s another actor who grabs your attention when he’s on the screen, albeit in a much more understated, sinister manner.  It’s not at all surprising that based on his performance here director Alex Proyas later cast O’Brien in the brilliant, criminally underrated science fiction noir movie Dark City.

O’Brien has good chemistry with actress Patricia Quinn, who plays his sister Magenta.  The two of them have such a weird vibe going on between them.  You’re really left wondering if they’ve been getting up to stuff that they shouldn’t!

Rocky Horror Riff Raff Frank and Magenta

Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon play the young couple Brad and Janet.  O’Brien’s script is an interesting subversion of the tropes of mid-20th Century sci-fi and horror movies.  Brad is the clean-cut type and Janet a virginal innocent.  If this were played straight (so to speak) Brad would be the hero who saves Janet from the freaky, demented aliens.

Instead Brad is kind of an asshole (at screenings of the movie the audience frequently shouts that out at him) who is overprotective of and condescending to Janet.  As for Janet, instead of playing a chaste, passive role, she discovers that she is attracted to both Furter and his artificial man, the muscular blonde Rocky.  Furter ends up seducing first Janet and then Brad, and afterwards Janet has sex with Rocky.  At the end the couple is reduced to mere spectators of Furter’s bizarre machinations.  It is Riff Raff & Magenta who step in to wrap things up.

The costume designs for Rocky Horror were by Sue Blane.  Her work is very striking.  It’s not surprising that it would influence fashion and the punk aesthetic of the late 1970s.

Rocky Horror throne scene

If you have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, well, all this must sound really freaky and twisted.  I will be the first to acknowledge that the movie is an acquired taste.  Heck, I really like it, but I doubt that I’ll be going to the theater anytime soon in costume to toss toilet paper at the screen.

Having said that, it is always wonderful when people can find something to be passionate about, that speaks to them on a genuinely personal level.  Interviewed on The Today Show about the movie’s 40th anniversary, Sarandon stated…

“I’ve had so many people come up to me and say that film helped them through a dark time.”

Also interviewed, Curry offered his thoughts on the movie…

“The thing that resonated for me more than anything was, ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ which was a really good idea. Really good slogan.”

Here’s to the little movie that could.  If you have the opportunity, go see it at the late night double feature picture show.

John Waters gets Carsick

I did not become a fan of the work of writer & director John Waters until about seven years ago.  Shortly after I began dating Michele in 2008, I finally watched some of Waters’ movies from the 1970s.  Michele is a long-time fan of the so-called “Pope of Trash” and she showed me his cult classics at the first opportunity.  I found his work both shocking and hysterical.

Last month Waters was doing a talk and signing at The Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn to promote the paperback release of his latest book Carsick.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity to meet the famed (or should that be infamous?) filmmaker.  Michele had already met him several years before at a previous book signing but she was happy to come along.

Carsick is subtitled John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, and that is exactly what it is about.  In 2012 the then 66 year old Waters came up with the oddball idea of thumbing rides from Baltimore to San Francisco, to see what sorts of people he’d meet & experiences he’d have, and then to write a book about it.

John Waters Carsick cover

In addition to recounting his actual experiences, Waters indulges in quite a bit of fiction.  Prior to starting his journey west, Waters wrote the first two parts of Carsick, entitled “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen.”  He hypothesizes about what would be the ideal cross-country journey, as well as pondering the most horrible things that could possibly take place.

In that first part Waters effortlessly finds one ride after another and each driver is the epitome of awesome: a millionaire pot dealer, a contestant in a demolition derby, the world’s coolest bank robber, a traveling carnival, and so on.  Conversely, in the second installment the absolute most awful events occur as Waters get picked up by a succession of freaks, among them an alcoholic, a demented fan of his movies, a serial killer groupie, a militant vegetarian, and a fanatical animal rights activist.

It amazes me that a few people asked Waters if any what occurred in these parts actually took place.  He explained in his foreword that the first two thirds of the book are fiction, but I suppose some readers could have skipped that part.  However, you’d think that they would have realized that this was made-up right around the point where Waters gets abducted by a spaceship full of horny homosexual aliens!

These two segments of Carsick feel very much they could be from an unproduced screenplay.  Waters is still a brilliantly twisted writer, with a real ear for memorably offensive dialogue.  I think that perhaps the tone of his screenplays meant that they were very effective in his underground films of the 1970s and early 80s.  In contrast, Waters’ more recent movie, the over-the-top, sexually explicit A Dirty Shame (2004), did not come together as well because the larger budget, well-known actors and slick production values seemed decidedly at odds with his subversive, irreverent sensibilities.

Keeping that in mind, Carsick actually works better than some of Waters’ latter forays into motion pictures.  His wit is still sharp, his imagination as warped as ever.  Reading the book I easily pictured in my mind’s eye his vignettes as being filmed fast & loose on a shoestring budget, just like in the old days.

Anyone who has ever seen Waters’ movies is undoubtedly aware that he delights in putting his characters through all manner of weird, obscene, and just plain awful experiences.  It’s interesting to discover that he’s willing to put his fictional self through exactly the same sorts of misadventures and humiliations.  For all his namedropping and self-promotion, Waters also undoubtedly possesses a very self-deprecating wit.

John Waters Carsick photo

The third and final part of Carsick is titled “The Real Thing” and, yes, it recounts what actually took place when Waters was hitchhiking.  Real life is never all-good or all-bad, so Waters’ journey is somewhere in-between the exciting adventures he envisioned in “The Best” and the terrors he conjured up in “The Worst.”  He ends up waiting long hours at a time for rides, often while stuck in torrential downpours or stifling heat.  The drivers who do eventually pick him up are not the awesome oddballs of his fantasies, but neither are they the criminally insane motorists of his nightmares.  They were for the most part nice, friendly and normal.

So in the end Waters met some interesting people from across the country and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  He definitely does an entertaining job recounting his journey.

If you are a fan of Waters’ movies then I expect that you will find Carsick to be an enjoyable read.  It is funny and offensive and at times surprisingly sentimental.  It has some of the feel of Waters’ early classics such as Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living and Polyester.  One of my favorite lines from Carsick is “My asshole is doing a duet with Connie Francis!”  That should give you a pretty good idea of the tone of the book!

By the way, the cover artwork for Carsick is by Kagan McLeod, whose work I’ve previously seen in comic books and a number of magazines & newspapers.  It’s a nice piece.  McLeod captures Waters’ likeness as well as his larger-than-life personality.

Christopher Lee: 1922 to 2015

Veteran actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7th at the age of 93.  Judging by the numerous comments and posts that have appeared online in the week since then, Lee had a legion of fans, many of whom grew up watching the movies in which he appeared.  And, yes, I am definitely one of them.

Christopher Lee

Lee led such a long, interesting, full life that entire books could be written about him; I am sure that at least a few already have.  There is no way that I could do his life & career justice by attempting to cover them in a single blog post.  So I am merely going to share my thoughts on him, and on the performances I found most memorable.

One of Lee’s famous early roles was in Dracula, released in the UK in 1958 by Hammer Studios (titled Horror of Dracula in the States).  Lee portrayed what some would argue is the most iconic depiction of the vampire lord.  In the role of Count Dracula, Lee was suave, cultured, and sensual, yet also savage and frightening.

Playing opposite Lee in Dracula was Peter Cushing as Professor Van Helsing.  Lee and Cushing co-starred in a number of films, and they were also very close friends.

The next Dracula movie, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, was not released by Hammer until 1965, with several more sequels following in rapid succession.  Lee reprised his role of the vampire in most of these, albeit very reluctantly.  In later years he commented that he found the dialogue written for him to be atrocious and begged Hammer to utilize some of the lines from the original Bram Stoker novel.  When they refused to acquiesce Lee instead played Dracula mostly dialogue-free.

Christopher Lee Dracula

Lee’s final two performances as Dracula were in movies that I consider quite odd even by Hammer standards.  Dracula A.D. 1972 opens in the late 19th Century, with the vampire and Van Helsing, reprised by Cushing for the first time since 1958, in what appears to be their final battle.  Van Helsing once again manages to slay his undead adversary, only to succumb to his own wounds.  The movie then jumps ahead a century to present day London, where Dracula’s disciples revive him.  Opposing him is Lorrimer Van Helsing, a descendant of Dracula’s adversary portrayed, naturally enough, by Cushing.

The modern day storyline wrapped up a year later in The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  The movie cast Dracula in the role of an apocalyptic super-villain who plotted to wipe out humanity with a mutated strain of the bubonic plague.

By now Lee’s dissatisfaction with having to play Dracula was palpable.  In what appears to be an interesting piece of method acting, Lee as Dracula, contemplating the total eradication of humanity, displays a tangible ennui, and it can simultaneously be read as the vampire’s weariness at his endless cycle of destruction & resurrection and Lee’s frustration at feeling imprisoned in the role.

In any case, this was his final outing as Dracula.  The next year Lee went on record, stating…

“I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it, I no longer have to do it and I no longer intend to do it. It is now a part of my professional past, just one of the roles I have played in a total of 124 films.”

Despite his despondency as having to repeatedly reprise Dracula for Hammer, Lee nevertheless acted in numerous other movies made by the studio.  A part of that was obviously due to his desire for steady work, but he also appeared to have a real fondness, if not for the studio’s management, then for his fellow actors, and for the people working behind the cameras.

In his 1997 foreword to The Hammer Story, a look at the history of Hammer Studios by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes, Lee wrote…

“Hammer inspired some superb work from a talented group of technicians and actors. Even our canteen, run by Mrs Thompson, was the best in the country. I know this has become a cliché, but, for a while, we really were a family.”

Certainly some of the Hammer movies that Lee appeared in were quite good.  One of my all-time favorites is The Devil Rides Out (1968).  In one of his all too rare turns as a hero, Lee portrayed the Duc de Richleau, an expert in the occult who uses his knowledge & abilities to fight against the forces of darkness.  The movie was adapted from Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name by another talented writer, Richard Matheson.  Lee knew Wheatley personally, and one gets the impression that the actor was keen to ensure the adaptation of his friend’s work turned out as well as possible.  Without a doubt The Devil Rides Out is an amazing movie, and it was one of the few that, decades later, Lee would look back upon with genuine satisfaction.

Christopher Lee The Devil Rides Out

Lee worked on numerous other movies outside of Hammer’s output.  That aforementioned desire for steady work meant that Lee would accept nearly any job offer.  And he certainly was offered a great many, as he was a very talented actor.  As noted by the website TV Tropes, “Christopher Lee made a career out of doing any role at a reasonable price without excessive prima-donnaism. In other words, if you could fork up the cash, you’d get a classy talent who’d play any role.”

Of course, this inevitably resulted in Lee appearing in some really bad movies.  Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crap.”  Well, Lee undoubtedly appeared in a lot of crap.  It definitely speaks to his talent and professionalism, though, that he was almost inevitably the best thing in most of those awful movies.  Often his presence in an otherwise-execrable production would be the one thing preventing it from being a total disaster.

Regarding some of the less-than-noteworthy movies that he appeared in, Lee philosophically observed…

“Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

All of this comes to mind with Lee’s performance in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  Lee was related to author Ian Fleming, who unsuccessfully attempted to have him cast as Dr. No in the very first Bond film.  It’s regrettable that did not come to pass, although twelve years later Lee finally had an opportunity to play a Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun.  Unfortunately it is one of the campiest entries ever in the Bond film series.  The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly Lee’s portrayal of Scaramanga, the world’s most dangerous assassin.

Actually, the cinematic version of Scaramanga is a definite improvement over the literary one.  In the novel, Scaramanga was a crude, sadistic thug whose only distinguishing quality was his incredible prowess with a gun.  In contrast, Lee’s Scaramanga was cultured, sophisticated and chilling in his casually ruthless actions.  It was a memorable performance in a somewhat mediocre movie.

Christopher Lee Peter Cushing Horror Express

Fortunately, amidst all the rubbish Lee appeared in were a number of quality films.  In 1972 Lee was reunited with Cushing when they co-starred in Horror Express, a Spanish / British co-production about a monster stalking the passengers of the Trans-Siberian Express.  Horror Express contains another of Lee’s infrequent turns as the protagonist.  Despite its low budget, the movie’s intelligent script coupled with Lee and Cushing’s performances make it enjoyable.  I just re-watched it about a week ago and it’s still entertaining.

Of course, when it comes to listing Lee’s greatest movies, mention must be made of The Wicker Man (1973).  Written by Anthony Shaffer and directed by Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man featured Lee in the role of Lord Summerisle.  On numerous occasions Lee cited it as one of his favorite performances.

I saw The Wicker Man in the mid-1990s when I was in college at Pace University. Rebecca Martin, who taught two of the literature classes that I took while I was a student there, screened the movie one evening as part of an informal series of films that members of the Lit/Com Department were presenting.

The Wicker Man is not a horror movie per se, but it is definitely horrifying.  It is a film about religious fanaticism.  Perhaps that is why I found Lee’s performance so riveting and creepy.  Unlike so many of the other antagonists he portrayed over the decades, there actually are many individuals such as Summerisle in the real world, a charismatic man who regards himself as “good” but who exhorts others to commit terrible acts in the name of religion.

Christopher Lee The Wicker Man

Lee’s career was on the wane in the 1980s and 90s, although he did pop up here and there.  However, with the dawning of the 21st Century, Lee suddenly became very much in-demand, and was once again being offered numerous roles.

Lee was a longtime fan of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  He stated on several occasions that he re-read the trilogy once a year.  One of his longtime ambitions was to appear as Gandalf in a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien’s works.  The stars finally aligned in 2001 as Peter Jackson began filming his adaptation of the trilogy.  By this time Lee was unfortunately too old to play Gandalf, but he was cast in the role of Saruman, the once-noble wizard who was corrupted by power and ambition.

I haven’t actually seen the three Lord of the Rings movies all the way through.  Like Tolkien’s novels, they are loooooong!  Actually, I never finished the original books either.  One of these days I really need to, at the very least, obtain the DVDs and take the time to watch the trilogy.  I’ve heard so many good things about them.

Lee’s old friend Peter Cushing had appeared in the original Star Wars, playing Governor Tarkin.  It was therefore quite appropriate that George Lucas cast Lee himself in the second and third prequel films, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Lee portrayed Count Dooku, a former Jedi who had turned to the Dark Side.  He also voiced Dooku in the animated movie The Clone Wars (2008) which was set between those two films.

It was somewhat frustrating that Lucas’ scripts offered very little to explain Dooku’s fall from grace.  Nevertheless, despite the limited development of the character, Lee memorably brought the Sith Lord to life, imbuing him with gravitas and menace.

(Thinking about it, I am left wondering if Lucas was influenced by Saruman when casting Lee as Dooku. There are definite similarities to the characters.)

Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings introduced Lee to an entirely new generation of viewers, and gained him many new fans.  He was subsequently cast in various high-profile projects. After decades of toiling in low-budget movies, at long last he finally gained real prominence, as well as a decent paycheck.

Christopher Lee Count Dooku

Lee appeared in 206 films made over a 67 year period.  However there were definitely many other aspects to his life.  Lee was also an accomplished singer, recording a number of albums, including heavy metal.  He spoke several languages fluently, and he was an expert fencer.

Lee was also a World War II veteran.  This was an aspect of his life that he mostly kept to himself, offering sparse details.  He was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, which was also known as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare… and what a very British name that is!  Apparently Lee participated in a number of covert operations behind enemy lines.  At the end of the war he was reportedly involved in hunting down Nazi war criminals.  In regards to the specifics of his military service, Lee would only comment

“I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read into that what they like.”

Lee also had this to say about his experiences during the war…

“I’ve seen many men die right in front of me – so many in fact that I’ve become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won.”

It seems likely that during the war Lee not only witnessed but was also required to commit many deeply unpleasant acts.  I imagine that his reluctance to discuss this was motivated by the fact that he did not regard himself as a hero, but merely as someone who did his duty to help keep his country safe.

I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Christopher Lee.  I’ve sometimes commented that he was the real life version of “the world’s most interesting man.”

Christopher Lee narrator

A number of years ago one of his Hammer Studios movies, Scars of Dracula, was released on DVD.  It is a rather unremarkable entry in the Dracula series.  Nevertheless, I purchased it because it included a second bonus disk containing a documentary, The Many Faces of Christopher Lee.  Indeed this nearly hour-long piece was infinitely more entertaining than the Dracula movie.

In the documentary,  Lee speaks at length about his career and on of a variety of subjects, including his knowledge of fencing, his spirituality, and his great-grandmother, the English-born Marie Carandini who was an acclaimed opera singer in 19th Century Australia.  Lee discussed his thoughts on roles in specific movies, and there were brief clips of these, among them The Devil Rides Out, Rasputin, Hannie Caulder, The Three Musketeers, The Wicker Man and his 1978 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

If you can find The Many Faces of Christopher Lee on DVD then I highly recommend getting it.  It offers a fascinating glimpse of a multi-talented man who led an extraordinary life.

Christine Cavanaugh: 1963 – 2014

Actress Christine Cavanaugh passed away on December 22, 2014 at the much too young age of 51.  Cavanaugh’s career as an actress spanned from 1988 to 2001.  She appeared in a handful of live television shows & movies during this time.  The majority of her work, however, was as a voice actress.  In this capacity, Cavanaugh gave a number of wonderful performances over the years, portraying several famous characters.

Christine Cavanaugh

Her most prominent performance was probably in the 1995 movie Babe.  She voiced the title character, the sweet and innocent Australian piglet Babe who becomes a sheep-herder.

Cavanaugh worked on a number of animated series throughout the 1990s, among the Darkwing Duck, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Powerpuff Girls and The Wild Thornberries.  Her two most significant roles were on Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory.

I always found Rugrats to be a bizarre but funny show.  It is one of those series that was very much for all ages.  Young kids enjoyed it for the cute & goofy humor, while adults appreciated it for the comically skewed perceptions of the world as seen through the toddler characters’ eyes.

Cavanaugh was the voice of Chuckie Finster, the nervous orange-haired two-year-old with glasses.  Her delivery of Chuckie’s dialogue was both poignant and humorous.  Chuckie always reminded me a bit of myself, so he was something of a favorite character.  Cavanaugh portrayed Chuckie on the Rugrats television series from 1991 to 2001, as well as in the two animated films The Rugrats Movie (1998) and Rugrats in Paris (2000), the latter of which featured a central role for the character.

Rugrats Chuckie Finster

The other animated voice role for which Cavanaugh was known was Dexter, the main character from Genndy Tartakovsky’s series Dexter’s Laboratory.  Cavanaugh voiced the diminutive boy genius from 1995 to 2001, bringing to life the character with an iconic performance. She gifted Dexter with humorous self-involvement, as well as an almost tangible frustration at having to co-exist with his annoying older sister Dee Dee, who kept invading his secret lab, mucking about with his ambitious experiments.  I’ve always enjoyed Dexter’s Laboratory.  It was another offbeat but humorous series that appealed to viewers of all ages.

Cauvanaugh’s vocals as Dexter were also featured on the 1998 soundtrack album Dexter’s Laboratory: The Musical Time Machine which compiled several songs from the series.  Among these was “Breathe in the Good Sunshine” from the episode “Just an Old-Fashioned Lab Song,” with Cavanaugh performing alongside singer-songwriter Paul Williams.

Dexter's Laboratory The Musical Time Machine

Cavanaugh retired from acting in 2001.  She moved back to her native Utah in order to spend more time with her family.

Until I read about Cavanaugh passing away late last month, I had not actually realized who she was, and the same actress had voiced Babe, Chuckie and Dexter.  Voice acting is often low-profile work, and is really not appreciated anywhere near as much as acting in front of the camera.  But it definitely requires real talent.  Bereft of the use of facial expressions and body language, the actor must rely solely on their voice to bring a character to life, to convey emotion, to deliver performances that must be humorous and dramatic, broad and subtle.

Christine Cavanaugh was certainly capable of all that.  She brought to life a trio of iconic fictional characters with her wonderful abilities, delighting millions of fans, young and old.

God is a jerk: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Michele recently took out from the library the DVD of the 2012 movie Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott.  Neither of us had seen it before, and it turned out to be quite good.  It also transpires that next month Dark Horse will be releasing the first issue of Prometheus: Fire and Stone, a miniseries which follows on from the events of the movie.  So, yeah, good timing on Michele’s part!  Since that Dark Horse comic book is in the pipeline, now is an ideal time to look at the original movie.

Prometheus is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof.  It is set in the same fictional universe as the Alien film series, the first installment of which Ridley Scott directed in 1979.  It is not, strictly speaking, a prequel, but it does tie in with some of heretofore unexplained background elements of that first film.

Prometheus poster

Set at the end of the 21st Century, Prometheus is the story of an expedition to discover the origins of humanity.  Having located identical star charts among the ruins of numerous ancient Earth civilizations across the globe, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that these are guides to the home world of an extraterrestrial race who created mankind, beings who Shaw refers to as “Engineers.”  The two convince the elderly, dying trillionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to finance an expedition to the Engineers’ planet.  Shaw and Holloway, accompanied by a group of scientists and archeologists, embark aboard the spaceship Prometheus, named after the mythical figure.  The expedition is headed up by the icy corporate executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), Weyland’s android “son” David (Michael Fassbender), and the world-weary ship’s captain Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus addresses the relationship between human beings and their creator, an idea previously broached in Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner.  Shaw and Holloway are scientists and explorers, but underneath their search for facts and knowledge is a yearning to find the answer to one of the oldest questions in the world: Why are we here?

After arriving on the planet, Holloway is despondent to find it is a barren, inhospitable place, with all the Engineers long dead under mysterious circumstances.  He is like a man who has lost his faith, discovering his god is a falsehood, a lie.  Naturally enough, he decides to hit the bottle.  While Holloway is busy drinking away his ills, the android David approaches…

David: I’m very sorry that your Engineers are all gone, Dr. Holloway.

Holloway: You think we wasted our time coming here, don’t you?

David: Your question depends on the understanding, what you hope to achieve by coming here?

Holloway: What we hope to achieve? Well, it’s to meet our makers. To get answers. Why they…why they even made us in the first place.

David: Why do you think your people made me?

Holloway: We made you ‘cause we could.

David: Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator?

Michael Fassbender plays a replicant in Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

A short time later, a now-drunk Holloway makes his way back to the room he shares with Shaw, with whom he is romantically involved.  Still despondent, he begins to question Shaw’s faith…

Holloway: I guess you can take your father’s cross off now.

Shaw: Why would I wanna do that?

Holloway: Because they made us.

Shaw: And who made them?

Holloway: Well, exactly. We’ll never know. But here’s what we do know, that there is nothing special about the creation of life. Right? Anybody can do it. I mean, all you need is a dash of DNA and half a brain, right?

The Engineers are, in many respects, a challenge to faith, and to humanity’s sense of identity.  Searching through the catacombs of the planet, the scientists discover stockpiles of bio-weapons and containers of mutagenic black slime.  David accesses the Engineers’ computers, and learns that the entire complex is one giant spaceship.  It was set to travel on a course for Earth, where the Engineers were going to unleash their lethal cargo.  It is Captain Janek who finally connects all the pieces and presents them to Shaw:

“You know what this place is? Those, uh, Engineers, this ain’t their home. It’s an installation, maybe even military. They put it out here in the middle of nowhere, because they’re not stupid enough to make weapons of mass destruction on their own doorstep. That’s what all that shit is in those vases! They made it here, it got out! It turned on ’em! The end! It’s time for us to go home.”

And now it is Shaw’s turn to waver in her faith.  Determined to find answers, she explains to David “They created us. Then they tried to kill us. They changed their minds. I deserve to know why.”

Prometheus Noomi Rapace and Idris Elba

Imagine having met your makers, only to find that they were seemingly complete bastards, entities who engineered virulently lethal organic weapons, who plotted genocide against the human race.  Confronted by that, you might very well ask “God, why have you forsaken me?”  Or, if you wanted to put it more bluntly, “God is a jerk!” not to mention a few other choice words, I imagine.

That contentious relationship, the struggle between creator and creation, actually plays out throughout the movie.  In addition to looking at it on the level of species, it is seen in the interaction between parents and children.  Shaw is very much motivated by the death of her parents, and by her father’s faith.  Her infertility, her inability to conceive, weighs upon her.  As someone who wishes she could have children, perhaps she is appalled at how the Engineers are acting towards their figurative offspring.

The abrasive, no-nonsense Meredith Vickers is also troubled by familial relations.  We eventually learn that she is the daughter of Weyland.  And once this is revealed, much about Vickers makes sense.  It is obvious that her father views his android creation David as much more of a child and heir than he does her.  Vickers also holds tremendous resentment that Weyland desires to use the technology of the Engineers to extend his life indefinitely, thereby robbing her of her inheritance, her succession to rulership of her father’s corporate empire.  Witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between Vickers and Weyland, it is not surprising that David concludes “doesn’t everyone want their parents dead?”

After I was done watching Prometheus, the wheels in my head started to turn, pondering various questions.

There is a prologue to the film where one of the Engineers is on Earth, standing atop a massive waterfall.  He opens a vial of dark liquid and drinks it.  His body begins to disintegrate and he plunges into the water, where a chemical reaction begins to take place.  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but subsequently reading over various comments on the Internet, it seems that this was supposed to be the moment when humanity’s creation was initiated, that this Engineer sacrificed his life to give us ours.

If that is so, then the title of the movie provides a possible answer to Shaw’s question of “why.”  In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole heavenly fire from the gods of Olympus and gave it to primitive man, enabling human civilization to develop & advance.  Zeus punished Prometheus for this by chaining him to the face of a mountain for all eternity, among other torments, depending upon the particular version of the myth you read.

There is a school of thought that many of the stories in mythology and religion are inspired by or based upon actual historical events.  Perhaps the Engineer who we see at the beginning of the movie was a Prometheus-like figure who absconded with the bio-technology of his people and traveled to earth, where he used it to create humanity.  If that is the case, then the remaining Engineers would likely regard the existence of humans as a mistake or a crime.  This would certainly explain why they decided to wipe out mankind.

However, a second, darker possibility also occurred to me.  What if humanity is yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers?  After all, we possess a remarkable propensity and aptitude for violence.  Perhaps the Engineers came to perceive us as much too effective a creation, one that was beyond control, one that would one day develop the technology to journey to the stars and pose a direct threat to them.  That would be a very good motivation for them wanting to see mankind destroyed.

Supposition and deduction aside, the film leaves the motives of the Engineers quite inscrutable.  But it does offer up some answers regarding the film that inspired it.

Alien Space Jockey

Anyone who has seen the original Alien will no doubt remember the bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton sitting in a strange cockpit aboard the massive spacecraft that contained the nest of eggs from which the “Facehuggers” hatch.  That unidentified mummified figure was nicknamed “the Space Jockey,” and for years many viewers, myself included, wondered who or what it was.  In Prometheus we find out the Space Jockey was one of the Engineers, clad in its elephantine space helmet.  It seems very likely that the Facehuggers and the Xenomorphs they spawn are yet another bio-weapon devised by the Engineers, and that the spaceship transporting them crash-landed on planet LV-426, where it was eventually discovered by the crew of the Nostromo.  At the very end of Prometheus we even get a glimpse of a creature very similar to a Xenomorph which has been created by the black slime, demonstrating that the bio-technology is closely related.

I don’t recall if it was ever stated in what year Alien took place, but it seems likely that it is set decades, if not centuries, after Prometheus.  This leads to some apparent anachronisms, as the technology possessed by humanity appears to be far in advance of what was on display in the Alien and its various sequels.  Obviously the reason for this is that the special effects that Ridley Scott and his crew had access to in 2012 were far better than what he had available in 1979!  But if you’re looking for some sort of in-universe explanation why the Prometheus spacecraft is so much more technologically advanced than the Nostromo, well, maybe there was a galactic recession or a massive war that took place between the two films.  Feel free to come up with your own rationale if you want to!

It’s worth noting that Prometheus seems to have been at least partially inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness.  That story concerns an archeological expedition of an ancient alien city that has been discovered in Antarctica.  This was once a colony of the extraterrestrial Old Ones, who had settled on Earth millions of years in the past, creating the planet’s first living organisms, as well as developing a slave race of amorphous, powerful blob-like creatures known as Shoggoths who eventually turned upon them.

While I did enjoy Prometheus, I nevertheless felt that the script was uneven in places.  The flow of action was not especially smooth, and at times it did feel like certain barely-connected scenes were only loosely strung together.  I think that the script could have used perhaps one more revision to iron it out.

Prometheus Xenomorph

That said, the performances are very good.  Michael Fassbender as David is probably the best, with his portrayal of the android ostensibly as an emotionless entity that is in fact hiding his jealousy of and contempt for humanity underneath a self-effacing, subservient façade.

Noomi Rapace is also very good as Elizabeth Shaw, giving her a real strength that enables her to struggle against both the horrific creations of the Engineers and an existential crisis of mammoth proportions.  Shaw was well written, and it is interesting to see the concept of faith addressed through her character.  I very much appreciated how Shaw was a scientist, yet she was also shown to believe in a higher power, and that she does not perceive any contradiction between science and faith.  Rapace did an excellent job bringing this through in her performance.

Also noteworthy is the always-excellent Idris Elba as Janek.  At first the captain of the Prometheus appears to be a blasé, cynical figure who is only interested in getting a paycheck.  But it eventually transpires that Janek is actually the most moral individual in the movie, as he demonstrates his unwillingness to let the Engineers’ living weapons make their way to Earth.  Elba really makes Janek a memorable character.

I will say that I found some of the accents in this film a bit variable.  Several of the characters, including Shaw, are apparently supposed to be British.  But their accents seem to veer between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish throughout the film.  Well, okay, Rapace is from Sweden, so I’ll give her some leeway.  On the other hand, you have Janek who speaks with such a flawless American accent that I didn’t even recognize that was the London-born Elba playing the character until the credits rolled!

Despite its flaws, I nevertheless found Prometheus a compelling viewing.  Ridley Scott’s direction is definitely solid.  The script by Spaihts and Lindelof raises many perplexing questions, ones that you find yourself pondering long after the final scene.

Oh, yes, one other thing of note: with the protagonist named Elizabeth Shaw, I do have to wonder if someone involved in the making of Prometheus happens to be a Doctor Who fan!

Godzilla 2014

I was watching Godzilla 2000 on the DVD early this afternoon.  As I was sitting through it, I recalled how much I’d enjoyed seeing it in the theater back when it first came out.  I’ve only been able to go to a few of the Godzilla films on the big screen, which is a very different experience from seeing them on a television set.  I started thinking that it was unfortunate that I’d missed out on the opportunity to catch the 2014 version of Godzilla in the theater.

And then, in a strange coincidence, maybe half an hour later, Michele was checking online to see what movies were playing in the area tonight.  It turned out Godzilla was actually still playing at Cinemart Cinemas on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills.  Cue a quick hop into the shower and then a rush by the two of us to take the Q54 bus over there!

First things first: the 2014 remake of Godzilla is far and away a major improvement over the first  time an American studio attempted to adapt the property, back in 1998.  This time around, Godzilla is NOT a giant iguana who runs away from the military while laying eggs all over the place.  Nope, once again Godzilla is a titanic, city-smashing prehistoric reptile reawakened by atomic testing, a nigh-unstoppable force.  Yes, the design of the creature is tweaked somewhat, but it still recognizable, still a being that you will look at and say “Yep, that’s Godzilla.”

Godzilla 2014 movie poster

The movie opens with an extended prologue set in 1999.  In the Philippines, a mining expedition has unearthed a cavern containing an enormous dinosaur skeleton.  Exploring the cave, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) also discovers two mysterious egg pods, one of which has hatched.  Soon after, at the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, a sudden & mysterious earthquake causes the entire facility to collapse, rendering the area radioactive, and causing the death of plant manager Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston)’s wife.

Fifteen years later, Joe’s now grown son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning home to San Francisco after a tour of duty abroad as an ordinance disposal technician with the U.S. Navy.  Ford’s reunion with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and their young son is cut short when he finds out his father has been arrested for attempting to enter the quarantined Janjira area.  Joe is obsessed with the nuclear meltdown that killed his wife.  He is convinced that it was not caused by a natural disaster, and that the government is covering up the true reason.  Joe once again heads back to sneak into the quarantine zone, with Ford reluctantly accompanying him.  Investigating, they find the area mysteriously empty of radioactivity, but are eventually arrested for trespassing.  Taken to the site of the former reactor, they discover that a giant cocoon is in the center of the complex guarded by Project Monarch, a joint Japanese and American endeavor headed by Serizawa.

Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival, the cocoon begins to hatch.  An EMP wave knocks out all electronics in the vicinity, and a creature called a Muto, which looks across between a praying mantis and a reptile, emerges.  It demolishes the Monarch facility, fatally injuring Joe Brody, and then heads east.  Serizawa explains to Ford that the Muto is a prehistoric creature, a parasitic entity that feeds off radiation.  After hatching in the Philippines a decade and a half before, it destroyed the nuclear plant and spent the next 15 years soaking up the nuclear fallout.  Serizawa gets Ford to recount the information his father told him before he died, and he deduces that the Muto is now homing in on a signal from another of its kind.  Indeed, Serizawa learns that the other egg found in the Philippines, long stored away in the Nevada desert, has hatched, and that the second Muto, a female, is moving west in search of its mate.

The activity of the Mutos has also revived Godzilla, another prehistoric creature, one originally awakened back in 1954 which the American military attempted to covertly destroy under the cover of the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.  Serizawa now believes that Godzilla is the mortal enemy of the Mutos, and that the creature’s role is to destroy the parasites and restore balance to the natural world.

As the two Mutos converge, causing tremendous destruction and horrific losses of life, Godzilla finally emerges from the sea to fight them, with all three finally meeting in the heart of San Francisco.  All the while Ford attempts to make it home to his wife and son, while aiding the military’s efforts against the monsters along the way.

Godzilla 2014

The movie definitely has a very slow build to it, with the Mutos first appearing about thirty minutes in, and Godzilla himself not receiving a full reveal until an hour in, the halfway point of the film.  The story is very much concerned with developing the characters, probably to a degree not seen since the original Gojira back in 1954.  I think it does a decent enough job of that.  Yes, while the characters at times are still somewhat thinly drawn, on the whole they do fell rather more fleshed out than in the majority of big budget, special effects extravaganzas.  Elle Brody is probably the least-developed of the group, mostly standing around fretting about her son or running away from danger, serving primarily as Ford’s reason to make his way home.  But I guess Elizabeth Olson does her best with the material.

At least the script doesn’t attempt to hammer home its messages.  You might think that it is awfully convenient that Ford is an expert at ordinance disposal, which conveniently enables him to be inserted into most of the action.  But it actually does make sense that someone who lost his mother in a nuclear meltdown when he was just a child would grow up to want to save lives by rendering similar devices harmless.  A lot of other movies would have just come right out and said that, but here is just a possible subtext for a viewer to pick up upon.  Likewise, Serizawa carries around a broken pocket watch from Hiroshima that his father gave him, but it is commented upon in such a way that the audience isn’t bludgeoned over the head with the notion that humanity is warlike and destructive to the natural world, that we created an environment where Godzilla and the Mutos would thrive.

The movie also places the protagonists very much in the center of the action.  Typically, in most Godzilla films, the humans are off at a safe distance, watching the monster battles and resulting destruction unfold with a minimum of risk.  Here, the characters are right at the heart of the carnage, with buildings crashing down right on top of them, the threat of injury or death very much present.  The death of Joe Brody very much drives that home.  Though it is a real shame that Bryan Cranston’s character is killed off so early in the movie, this demonstrates that it is not just unnamed extras who are in danger.

_KF12714.DNG

Michele and I did agree that the movie could have used more of one thing: Godzilla himself.  After all, the big guy is absent from half the movie.  His confrontations with the Mutos are only seen very briefly right up until the last 15 or so minutes, mostly because they are all being witnessed by people fleeing from the monsters.

Director Gareth Edwards appears to have made this movie with as much of an eye for realism as he could without sacrificing the undeniably fantastical elements of gigantic prehistoric creatures beating each other up.  Edwards obviously wanted a movie that told most of the story from the POV of the civilians on the ground and the soldiers in the trenches.  That means that we get a great many chaotic glimpses of giant monster feet or swinging limbs or swishing tails, buildings tumbling down, and crowds of people rushing about.  Oh, yes, and smoke… lots and lots of smoke!  Because, yes, if Godzilla and a couple of his rivals started tearing up a major metropolitan area it probably would cause poor visibility due to the fires and debris.  But as a moviegoer I wanted to be able to see the monsters much more clearly and not struggle to figure out what was taking place at times.

Nevertheless, I do appreciate that Edwards wanted to craft a movie that wasn’t mere disaster porn.  There are definitely too many of those, long on SFX & explosions and short on plot & characterization, with no real consequences.  Edwards went a bit too far in the other direction, focusing too much on the humans and not enough on the monsters.  But I cannot fault his intentions.

Certainly the depiction of Godzilla was well done.  The creature is not a villain, but neither is it heroic.  Rather, Godzilla is a force of nature.  Edwards also draws a certain parallel between Ford Brody and Godzilla.  Ford wants to get home safely to his wife & son, and to save people.  Godzilla, while he doesn’t appear particularly concerned with protecting humans, is seemingly not attempting to harm them, either.  Well, at least not deliberately, but if he has to demolish a few buildings in order to stop the Mutos, then that’s a small price to pay.  But, in the end, both Ford and Godzilla are willing to lay down their lives, the former to protect his family, the later a planet.

So, while not without flaws, the new Godzilla is nevertheless entertaining, thoughtful, and well-made.  I’m glad I had an opportunity to see it on the big screen.