Star Wars birthday memories

A number of people on social media noted that May 21st was the 40th anniversary of the release of the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back.  This prompted me to revisit my own memories of seeing it.  Giving it some consideration, it’s one of the earliest memories I have.

My father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back at the movie theater, probably in early June, 1980. I was three years and eleven months years old at the time, so truthfully I remember very little about watching the actual movie that day.

As is probably typical of childhood memories of movies and television, my recollection of that first viewing is vague & distorted.  For example, I remembered the scene from near the beginning when Luke Skywalker was hanging upside down in the Wampa’s ice cave.  I also remembered the scene in the cave on Dagobah where Luke fights an illusion of Darth Vader.  However in my young mind those two moments got squished together, and for a while there I really thought there was a scene in the movie where Luke is hanging upside down in a cave and gets loose just in time to fight Darth Vader.

Oh, yeah… I think I remembered the Imperial Walkers attacking Hoth. As a kid I thought they were pretty scary, and I referred to them as “Metal Dinosaurs.”

I much more vividly remember the experience that surrounded going to the movie. My father and grandfather took me to see it at The Central Plaza Cinema on Central Avenue in Yonkers, NY.  We got Burger King for lunch beforehand, and I seem to recall that we brought the food in with us to eat during the movie.  I definitely remember that I had a fun time. That was the beginning of my lifelong love of Star Wars, and of science fiction in general.

Obviously it must have been apparent to my parents that the movie made a huge impression on me, because a few weeks later at the end of the month I turned four years old and they had a Star Wars themed birthday party for me.  They even got a cake with a spaceship on it.

I mentioned this to my mother last week, and she was able to locate a couple of pictures from that party in one of the old family photo albums. In my memories I recalled the cake being decorated with a generic sci-fi rocket ship, but looking at that photo I see the bakery actually did a fairly good job drawing a Star Wars type ship along the lines of an X-Wing Fighter.

I guess that was also when my parents got me that large toy R2-D2.  I remember having that as a kid, but I’d forgotten it had been a birthday present.

Yes, that is four year old me in the photo below holding the R2-D2.  I guess my hair was always a mess!

When you are a kid time seems to pass by very slowly. The three years until Return of the Jedi came out felt like forever.  Since this was before the era of affordable home media, both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back returned to the theaters during that three year period, so I was able to see the first entry in the theater, as well as watch the second as a slightly older viewer.  I also filled that seeming eternity by making up my own Star Wars adventures with the action figures my parents bought me.

When Return of the Jedi came out in late May of 1983, I was well and truly ready for it.  It was amazing, and for many years it was my favorite Star Wars movie.  Why?  It’s very simple: I was almost seven years old, which is probably the ideal age to be watching the Star Wars movies.

I really believe that a great deal of what we enjoy as genre fans is subjective, heavily reliant on when and where and with who we experienced it for the first time.  I would not be at all surprised if there are people who saw the prequels when they were seven years old who regard them as their favorites.  The same thing holds for The Clone Wars animated series, and for the recent sequels from Disney.

In any case, thinking about all of these old memories, I realize that I was fortunate to have good parents.  Back when I was a kid I often had a difficult time recognizing this, probably due to a mixture of immaturity and undiagnosed childhood depression.  As an adult I am now able to look back and understand that they did the best they could to raise me, and I appreciate their efforts.

David Hedison: 1927 to 2019

Prolific actor David Hedison passed away on July 18th at the age of 92. I always enjoyed seeing him appear on numerous television shows and movies throughout the years. He acted in several memorable productions.

David Hedison

Albert David Hedison Jr. was born on May 20, 1927 in Providence, RI.  Hedison first became involved in acting when he appeared in a school play in Junior High School.  He attended Brown University in Providence, where he majored in English.  Hedison subsequently studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York City.

Under the name “Al Hedison” he appeared in various stage productions throughout the 1950s, including the 1956 Broadway production of A Month in the Country directed by Michael Redgrave.  This brought him to the attention of 20th Century Fox, who signed him to a contract.  His first job for the studio was a supporting role in the 1957 movie The War Below starring Robert Mitchum.

Hedison’s next role was in The Fly (1958).  Directed by Kurt Neumann, The Fly was adapted from the short story by George Langelaan.  Several actors passed on the role of scientist André Delambre, since the character would spend much of the movie with his face hidden beneath a mask.  Hendison, however, was very taken with the screenplay by James Clavell and enthusiastically signed up.  The Fly was an incredibly well produced movie, one of the classic sci-fi / horror films, and it featured a very moving & tragic performance by Hedison.  It would become one of the most memorable entries in his lengthy career.

In 1960 Hedison was cast in the Cold War adventure series Five Fingers on NBC.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this short-lived show was that NBC insisted Hedison change his name, as they apparently felt “Al” was not distinctive enough.  Hedison decided to go with his middle name, and for the rest of his career he was billed as “David Hedison.”

From 1964 to 1968 Hedison starred as Captain Lee Crane in the sci-fi / adventure TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Despite repeated entreaties by series creator Irwin Allen, Hedison was initially uninterested, but he was finally won over when he learned Richard Basehart would be his co-star, portraying Admiral Harriman Nelson.  As Hedison recounted in a 2013 interview with Classic Film & TV Café:

“I had never met him, but I admired Richard’s work very much. I got his number from the studio. I called him up, and we agreed to meet at his house. He liked my enthusiasm, we hit it off and we worked really well together. We made the show work. Richard and I had real chemistry. He taught me so much about being camera ready when I needed to be. Television filming is so very fast, we always had to keep moving on. Voyage shot in six days–we filmed at a very fast pace.”

David Hedison and Richard Basehart

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was very much a product of its time, and of Allen’s production style.  It was totally story-driven, with stand-alone episodes and no real character development.  The first season, shot in black & white, was fairly serious, with a lot of gritty Cold War-type plotlines and a fair amount of location work. Once the show transitioned to color with season two, it started to become over-the-top and silly, with most of the episodes featuring a monster of the week, and pretty much everything being shot in the studio. The show also started reusing a lot of props from Lost in Space and other Allen productions.

Despite these drawbacks, Voyage is a fondly remembered series.  Hedison and Basehart’s performances definitely played a large part in that, and they often helped to carry some of the more far-out episodes.

Among Hedison’s other memorable roles were his two appearances in the James Bond movie franchise.  He played CIA agent Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die (1973) with Roger Moore as Bond.  Hedison becoming the first actor to play Leiter twice when he reprised the role 16 years later in License to Kill (1989), this time with Timothy Dalton as Bond.

I’ve always felt that having Hedison return as Leiter in License to Kill was a smart move.  In the original Ian Fleming novels Leiter was a close ally of Bond, but this never really carried across to the movies, because each time Leiter showed up he was played by a different actor.  The plot of License to Kill involves Bond going rogue and seeking vengeance against the South American drug lord who nearly kills Leiter.  This becomes much more believable if you have Leiter played by someone who has previously appeared in the role, someone who the audience has an existing connection to.  Even though Bond was now played by Dalton, having Hedison return as Leiter really helped sell the idea that these two men were longtime friends, and that Bond would go to hell & back to avenge him.

Hedison also found work in television soap operas.  Throughout the 1990s he was a regular on Another World, and in 2004 had a recurring role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

Although Hedison seldom received starring roles later in his career, he nevertheless worked regularly through the decades.  According to the New York Times, Hedison appeared in more than 100 movie and television roles during his lengthy career.

David Hedison Suzanne Lloyd and Roger Moore

Among Hedison’s noteworthy television guest roles, he appeared in a January 1964 episode of The Saint.  Also guest starring the lovely Suzanne Lloyd, “Luella” has Hedison playing a newly-married friend of Simon Templar’s whose wandering eye & overactive libido gets him ensnared in a blackmail scheme.  This was definitely one of the most humorous episodes of The Saint, and Hedison really threw himself into it with an energetic performance.  This was Hedison’s first time working with Roger Moore, and the two became good friends.

Another memorable turn for Hedison was “The Queen and the Thief,” an October 1977 episode of the Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter.  Hedison portrayed suave international jewel thief Evan Robley.  The episode guest starred Juliet Mills and John Colicos.  It’s certainly one of the more low-key episodes of Wonder Woman, but Hedison definitely sells it with his portrayal of the smooth, charismatic master criminal.

Interviewed in 1992, Hedison stated:

“I think I do comedy best. I think I’m very good at comedy. I’ve done a few comedy things in stock and whatever, and I’m very good at that. You wouldn’t know that from Another World because I’m so grim and serious, as I was as well in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but I do like comedy. I would love to do a comedy, and I’m sure I will someday.”

David Hedison WW

Given his fondness for comedy, I’m sure Hedison appreciated his guest roles on The Saint and Wonder Woman, as they enabled him show a much more humorous side than usual.

Hedison also possessed a great love for theater.  He appeared in numerous stage productions throughout his career.  In the 1990s and early 2000s he was a regular presence in regional theater throughout the New England area.

Hedison was married Bridget Mori.  They met in Positano, Italy in 1967, and were married in London a year later.  They had two daughters, Alexandra and Serena Hedison.  David and Bridget were together until her death from breast cancer in 2016.  I’ve always thought that was very romantic & sweet, that they were married for nearly five decades.

I was fortunate enough to meet David Hedison once, at a comic book convention in New York City in September 2009.  I got an autographed photo of him as Felix Leiter from License to Kill.  He appeared to me to be a very warm, friendly individual.  At the time I also thought he looked much younger than 82 years old.

David Hedison LTK signed

Due to his appearances in so many popular movies & series, Hedison was a frequent interview subject.  In October 2007 he penned a humorous foreword to the informative non-fiction book The Fly at Fifty: The Creation and Legacy of a Classic Science Fiction Film by Diane Kachmar & David Goudsward.  Hedison always came across as lively and enthusiastic, possessing a wry sense of humor.  Even when he was in his 80s he still brought a lot of energy to his interviews & appearances.

David Hedison will certainly be missed by his many fans.  He had a good, long life, working in a career he loved.  We should all be so fortunate.

The Other Side of the Wind: The Redemption of Orson Welles

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up, back from the dead after a long hiatus.  The theme this time around is “Redemption” which leads me to look at a movie that is quite far afield of comic books and sci-fi: The Other Side of the Wind, written and directed by the legendary Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil).

tosotw poster

The Other Side of the Wind was released with much fanfare late last year as the final film of Orson Wells.  Principle photography began in 1970, and continued on-and-off for the next five and a half years, with Welles finally getting 99.9% of the movie shot by early 1976.  As a creator who prided himself on striving for complete creative freedom, Welles was often plagued by difficulties in obtaining financing for his projects, and this played a major role in the length of the shoot.  It would also result in The Other Side of the Wind remaining unfinished when Welles passed away a decade later in 1985.

It has been said that Welles did as much of his work in the editing room as he did from the director’s chair.  The Other Side of the Wind certainly demonstrates this.  Welles filmed approximately 96 hours of footage for what was intended to be a two-hour running time.  By 1979 he had managed to assemble 40 minutes of the movie into a rough cut when, due to the extremely complicated financial circumstances of the project, it was taken out of his hands and literally locked up in a vault.

In the years following Welles passing, several efforts were made to untangle the legal Gordian Knot that The Other Side of the Wind had become.  After numerous false starts, it was only within the last couple of years that the project finally achieved momentum.

tosotw otterlake and hannaford

Peter Bogdanovich co-starred in The Other Side of the Wind.  He also knew Welles personally, sharing a close, but often contentious, friendship with the director.  Bogdanovich is himself an acclaimed director (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon).  Given his pedigree, his involvement in the production, and his relationship with Welles, it ultimately fell to Bogdanovich to at long last complete The Other Side of the Wind.

Collaborating with Bogdanovich on this Herculean undertaking were producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, and film editor Bob Murawski.  This involved them taking Welles’ annotated screenplay, the footage that Welles had edited, and the nearly 100 hours of rough footage at long last rescued from the vault, somehow assembling the whole thing into a cohesive two-hour movie that was as true to Welles’ original vision as possible.  Words such as “formidable” and “daunting” immediately come to mind.

As others have noted, there really is no way to know how close Bogdanovich & Co.’s efforts come to achieving what Welles might have produced had he been able to complete the movie.  What we have is an approximation, a semblance… which is entirely appropriate, as Welles’ story is dedicated to severely blurring the line between reality and fiction.  It is simultaneous a mockumentary and a “found footage” movie.

tosotw hannaford

The Other Side of the Wind takes place during the last day of the life of Jake Hannaford, an aging movie director who is killed in a car crash on his 70th birthday. Prior to his death, Hannaford had been attempting to revive his faded career by making a flashy, sexy, cutting edge film that would appeal to the “New Hollywood” sensibilities of the early 1970s.  Hannaford’s movie, the film within a film, is also entitled “The Other Side of the Wind.”  On the last night of his life, at Hannaford’s lavish birthday party, he shows this unfinished film to his guests, hoping that someone will step up with an offer to finance the remainder of the production.

The movie The Other Side of the Wind that we, the audience is watching, is supposedly assembled from footage culled from the myriad cameras of the friends, fiends, hangers-on, sycophants, critics, journalists and voyeurs who attended Hannaford’s party, interspersed with scenes from “The Other Side of the Wind” film that Hannaford is screening for them.

There is definitely a prescient quality to this narrative device, in that it anticipates both the ravenous fixation with wealth & fame in 21st Century America, and the ubiquitous presence of cell phone cameras & social media documenting the minute-to-minute minutiae of celebrity lives.

tosotw cameras

The film within a film “The Other Side of the Wind” is parody of a late 1960s art house movie, with a jumbled narrative, explicit sex scenes, and extended sequences entirely absent of dialogue.  The plot, such as it is, involves a young man’s long, strange pursuit of a silent, erotic woman.  The man, John Dale, played by Bob Random, is the latest protégé of Hannaford.  The woman, known only as “The Actress,” is one of Hannaford’s lovers, and is played by Oja Koder, at the time Welles’ real life mistress, as well as the co-writer for the movie.

The reason why production of Hannaford’s “The Other Side of the Wind” has ground to a halt is due to John Dale abruptly waking off the set.  As the night progresses, we come to learn just why this happened.

It has been observed that Welles was very likely sending up Michelangelo Antonioni here.  Welles, ever the prankster, even shot much of the footage for Hannaford’s party at a house that was literally next door to where Antonioni made his 1970 film Zabriskie Point.

tosotw film

Among those in attendance at Hannaford’s party is Brooks Otterlake, a young, up & coming director already receiving critical acclaim.  Otterlake is a friend of Hannaford, as well as a disciple, having extensively studied the older director.  There is a clear implication that the young Otterlake has eclipsed his mentor, incurring Hannaford’s resentment, and complicating their already contentious relationship.

There has been quite a bit of debate regarding just how much of his own personality and experiences Welles drew upon when making The Other Side of the Wind.  Whether by intent or accident, or perhaps a combination of the two, there is a genuine metatextual quality to The Other Side of the Wind.  One can easily see parallels between Welles and the character Hannaford, and the relationship between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich bears similarities to that of Hannaford and Otterlake, who was played by Bogdanovich himself.

Hannaford is portrayed by another acclaimed aging director, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen).  Before Huston was cast, Welles shot around him, and himself stood in for Hannaford.  As a result, in many scenes the actors were actually playing opposite the offscreen Welles, with footage of Huston as Hannaford recorded afterwards.

tosotw hannaford smoke

In particular, one scene between Hannaford and Otterlake appears to be very much about Welles and Bogdanovich.  Speaking to Coming Soon this past November, Bogdanovich explained:

“I think the scene in the car, when I say “our revels now are ended,” that’s a powerful scene. But I didn’t play it with John. John wasn’t there. I played it with Orson. Orson was off-camera, and his only direction to me was, “It’s us.” ”

I can only imagine how frustrated Welles must have been in the early 1970s, to see a new generation of young directors such as Bogdanovich achieving the creative freedom & acclaim that had so often eluded him.

The irony is that the arc of Bogdanovich’s own career would later parallel that of Welles; after his early successes Bogdanovich was often plagued by under-performing, critically lambasted films, executive interference, and severe financial difficulties.

There is also something of Huston himself in the character of Hannaford: the bravado, the quick wit & easygoing charm that masks a ruthless drive for control, the mocking, needling disdain for those he considers beneath him.  Huston, much like Welles, was reportedly a difficult, hard-driving director who often pushed his crew to the breaking point; it’s no wonder that the two men got along so well!

tosotw otterlake

Of course, it is possible to over-analyze these things. As critic Darren Mooney puts it:

“How much of The Other Side of the Wind is Welles turning the lens on himself, and how much is him smirking at us for thinking that?”

It is interesting to consider how The Other Side of the Wind might have been received if it had been completed during Welles’ lifetime. Perhaps audiences of the late 1970s would have regarded Hannaford as a flawed yet nevertheless sympathetic character. However, looking at Hannaford through the gaze of 2019, we can see that he is an example of toxic masculinity run amok.  And it is not only those in Hannaford’s orbit that suffer due to his hyper machismo, but Hannaford himself.

At more than one point it is suggested that Hannaford is a closeted gay man who is in deep denial concerning his sexual orientation.  The macho posturing, the well-publicized seductions of the various actresses who appeared in his movies, the booze-guzzling, cigar-chomping lifestyle, the fondness for firearms and fast cars; all of these may be Hannaford’s attempts to convince both himself and the outside world that he is as heterosexual, as “manly,” as can be.  If that is so, then in his desperate attempts to live up to the hyper-romanticized myth of the two-fisted American male, Hannaford suggests an incredibly tragic, damaged individual, full of a poisonous self-loathing that he projects upon those who surround him.

tosotw hannaford gun

There is a great deal more to The Other Side of the Wind.  It is a complex story that is open to analysis and interpretation.

In addition to streaming The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix has presented They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a full-length documentary about the movie’s long & tortured production.  Directed by Morgan Neville, it’s an informative companion piece, one that is as intriguing as The Other Side of the Wind itself.  I definitely recommend watching both.

Why do I consider The Other Side of the Wind to be the “redemption” of Orson Welles?  It has to do with the public perception of him as a creator.  Citizen Kane is considered one of the all-time greatest movies ever made.  This was a source of consternation to Welles, as it was his first film, and the clear implication was that people felt all his subsequent efforts fell short.

In other words, Welles hit a grand slam home run his very first time at bat, and even though he spent the rest of his career batting .300, people were disappointed that he wasn’t knocking it out of the park each & every time he stepped up to the plate.

tosotw the woman

For a long time a common perception of Welles was of a once-great director who failed to live up to the early potential of Citizen Kane in his subsequent films, and who eventually ended his career ignominiously, reduced to hawking frozen peas and cheap champagne on TV commercials.

The Other Side of the Wind lays bare this fallacy.  It reveals that in his later years, in spite of professional and personal setbacks, Welles was still a bold & ambitious filmmaker, still stretching his boundaries, still producing work that was interesting and frustrating and provocative.

If there is one good thing about The Other Side of the Wind finally being completed, however imperfectly, it is that it had led to a revived interest, and reappraisal, of Welles’ entire career.  It is certainly one that is long overdue.

Thanks for joining us.  I hope you will check out the contributions from the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.

sbtu banner

Between The Pages Blog:  The Secret Origin Of Spider-Man

Black, White and Bronze: The Redemption of Red Sonja

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: The Pied-Piper Reforms!

Coffee and Comics: Green Lantern #100

Comics Comics Blog : Elfquest :Cutter’s Redemption

Comic Reviews By Walt: SBTU Presents – Redemption/Coming Home: Shredder

Longbox Review: Nightwing’s Redemption

The Crapbox of Son of Cthulhu: Iron Man: Alcoholic, Part I

The Daily Rios: Thanos: Samaritan

The Retroist Via Vic Sage:The Redemption Of Magneto

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Penance – The Redemption of Speedball

The Superhero Satellite: The Walking Dead: “Redeeming Negan”

The Unspoken Decade: What If Vol 2 #46 and 47

Two Staple Gold: Just a Pilgrim

 

Thoughts on Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I finally had an opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last week.  A few people who know that I’m a huge fan of the character of Mantis were curious what I thought of how she was used in the movie.

Mantis poster for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

I might as well mention that Steve Englehart, who created Mantis in 1973, was “not happy” at how Mantis was depicted in GOTG 2.  I can understand Englehart’s perspective on this.  Mantis is a character that he wrote on various occasions over a 35 year span.  He invested a great deal of time and energy into developing Mantis.  She is obviously very important to him.

Indeed, that is the primary reason why Mantis is one of my all time favorite characters. Englehart clearly put a great deal of thought into her, in the process creating a very interesting character with a wonderfully bizarre origin and an exciting, offbeat story arc.

So I realize that it must have been disappointing for Englehart that GOTG 2 writer / director James Gunn did not adhere closely to the original conception of the character.

Nevertheless, looking at it from my perspective as a reader and a longtime fan of the character, I felt that the translation of Mantis from page to screen was rather successful.  Visually she looked amazing.  The concept design of Mantis that artist Andy Park created for the movie was very faithful to the original character while also working as something that was both visually effective and functional in live action.  Mantis was played by Pom Klementieff, a well-regarded, talented actress who did great work with the material.

Mantis concept design Andy Park

I admit that I was somewhat disappointed that certain aspects of Mantis from the original Marvel Comics stories were neglected or altered.  She was too passive; I would have liked for her to be a more assertive individual.  I also wanted to see her utilizing martial arts.  Klementieff previously displayed a real adeptness at dynamic fight sequences in the 2013 movie Oldboy, so hopefully she will be able to bring that skill to her portrayal of Mantis in future installments.

Nevertheless, in spite of Gunn perhaps not utilizing the character Mantis as well as he might have, she made an interesting addition to GOTG 2.  I definitely enjoyed her interaction with Drax.  Gunn’s dialogue for these scenes was both funny and poignant.  Klementieff and Dave Bautista played very well off one another.

Actually, as someone who has seen many of the entries in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I think Mantis is much closer to the source material than some other characters.  Looking at the two GOTG movies from Gunn, the characters of Drax, Gamora, Groot and Yondu are all quite different from their comic book versions, but they each worked very well.

On the other hand, if you look at the second and third Iron Man movies, the villains Justin Hammer and the Mandarin were almost nothing like the original comic book characters.  In both cases this was definitely to the detriment of the movies.

Mantis and Drax GOTG2

Sometimes fans do not realize how difficult it can be to adapt comic books into movies.  They are two different mediums, each with their own sensibilities.  What works in one might not in the other.  This requires a delicate balancing act by filmmakers, as they attempt to remain faithful to the source material while simultaneously determining how to make these characters & stories work in a two hour live action movie.  Some filmmakers are more successful at this than others; Gunn is one of the better ones.

Even though the specifics of Mantis in GOTG 2 were altered, personally speaking I did feel that she was quite true to the spirit of the character Steve Englehart created.  I enjoyed seeing her in GOTG 2, and I am look forward to seeing Pom Klementieff reprise the role in Avengers: Infinity War.

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 of 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.

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.