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.

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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.

Khan Noonien Singh: Star Trek’s “benevolent dictator”

I thought it might be nice to sit down and re-watch my DVD of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan today.  As I’ve written before, it is a really great movie.  The script by Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards has so many fascinating aspects to it.  And then it occurred to me that it had been literally years since I’d actually viewed “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode written by Gene L. Coon & Carey Wilber to which The Wrath of Khan is a sequel.  I did a Google search, and found that you can view it for free online at Hulu.  Yeah, okay, you have to sit though several commercials, but it’s still better than watching a grainy bootlegged version.

Viewing “Space Seed” and Star Trek II back-to-back, I realized what an amazingly fascinating character Khan Noonien Singh was.  Obviously a major aspect of this is that the part of Khan was portrayed by the amazing Ricardo Montalban, who turns in a forceful, charismatic performance.  But I think that aspects of Khan’s character also speak to a quality present in society, the notion of the appeal of the so-called “benevolent dictator.”

The idea of one unifying individual bringing order to a state or nation, or perhaps even the entire world, is certainly not a new one.  In certain respects, it is understandable.  The alternative, democracy, is an extremely flawed, messy process.  Dozens upon dozens of dissenting voices have to be heard and appeased, compromises need to be achieved that often end up pleasing no one, politicians who are supposed to be the representatives of the people are swayed or outright bought by private interests, and the entire day-to-day functioning of government can be ground to a halt by a small group of elected officials who are unwilling to participate in the process.  One needs only look at the current deplorable state of affairs here in the United States to see this taking place.

But, really, just how much better is the alternative?  Lord Acton stated that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Or, as Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes in “Space Seed,” when commenting on the genetically engineered supermen who once nearly seized control of Earth, “Superior ability breeds superior ambition.”

Khan Space Seed

The crew of the Enterprise, having discovered the cryogenically frozen Khan and his band of followers in outer space, is of two minds about the man.  While Kirk (William Shatner) dislikes what Khan represents, at the same time, looking at the historical record, the Captain of the Enterprise sees that, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Khan’s dominion over a major portion of the globe was relatively benign & peaceful.  Indeed, over dinner with the ship’s crew, Khan passionately argues that the Earth made a terrible mistake in driving him into exile.  He states that his rule was not tyrannical, but “an attempt to unite humanity.”  He goes on to forcefully declare “We offered the world order!”

Khan is certainly an extremely charismatic individual with a magnetic personality.  However, the man’s true side begins to come out in his interactions with Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The Enterprise’s historian is immediately attracted to Khan and what he represents.  In an early establishing shot, we see McGivers’ quarters are decorated with paintings & sculptures of men of power such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Richard the Lionheart.  She possesses a much romanticized view of these individuals, who she considers superior to the males of her time.  And Khan immediately seizes on to that.

In his actions, Khan shows some of the signs of being a sociopath.  He is driven by ego, by the belief in his superiority over others.  He values other people primarily for what they can give him.  He knows how to talk a good game.  And he is superb at reading other people.  Khan immediately identifies that McGivers has this idealized view of individuals such as himself, and that she is attracted to him, both on a physical level and because of what he represents.  No doubt he also notes that she has a rather submissive side to her personality.  He takes advantage of all this, forcefully seducing her, and then ordering her to assist him in taking over the Enterprise.  When McGivers is at first unwilling to do so, Khan then appears to dismiss her, denying her the attention & affection she craves.  It is definitely an extremely unhealthy and twisted relationship built on abuse.

Once Khan and his followers, with McGivers’ aid, take over the Enterprise, his charming, civilized veneer continues to slip.  Khan realizes that Kirk and his crew are not going to easily capitulate.  He threatens Kirk with an extremely slow, painful death by suffocation, and promises to repeat this to the rest of the bridge crew, one by one.  However, if any of them swear to serve him, he will spare their lives.  In this way, at least in his mind, he appears benevolent.  As Khan no doubt sees it, he is basically saying “Look, I can be reasonable and merciful. Just do what I tell you to do and I promise no harm will come to you.”  Of course, the crew refuse Khan’s offer, and remain loyal to Kirk.  This just serves to further enrage Khan.  The more his enemies resist him, the more violent he becomes.  It is this that shocks McGivers into betraying Khan.  Witnessing first-hand the cold, hard reality of the types of men she had admired, she is repulsed, and she rescues Kirk, who organizes his crew to take back the ship.

However, Khan’s ego will not allow him to give up.  He attempts to blow up the Enterprise, wanting to take down everyone with him.  Kirk of course manages to thwart this.  Later, with the super-humans in custody, Kirk offers Khan and his followers the choice of settling on the untamed planet Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment by Starfleet.  He also gives McGivers the opportunity to join Khan rather than face court martial.  She agrees, and Khan declares “I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted: a world to win, an empire to build.”  There is Khan’s ego once more at work.  He forgives McGivers for her betrayal.  And he twists things around so that he can rationalize that despite being defeated he has achieved what he wanted in the first place.

Khan Star Trek II

Unfortunately, as we find out fifteen years later in Star Trek II, things turn out really badly for Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V.  Six months after settling there, the neighboring planet in the system exploded.  Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, turning it into an inhospitable desert, and for the next decade and a half Khan and his followers barely clung to existence.

When the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V, mistaking it for the exploded planet, Khan instantly recognizes its First Officer, Pavel Chekov, formerly of the Enterprise (Yes, I know, Walter Koenig didn’t join the cast of Star Trek until the second season, and so wasn’t in “Space Seed.” Koenig likes to joke that his character was serving on a different part of the Enterprise at that time, and that Chekov accidentally kept Khan waiting an uncomfortably long time to use the bathroom, hence the animosity.)  Here again Khan’s ego immediately comes into play.  Instead of recognizing an opportunity for rescue, he becomes full of resentment.  Looking around at the sorry state he is now in, Khan declares “On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions.”  He is disgusted at the notion that in the intervening years Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, no doubt seeing it as a further insult that his rival has had a successful career while Khan was off rotting in exile.  In fact, Khan places the blame for his circumstances squarely on Kirk for never returning to check up on him (which, admittedly, is a fair enough criticism).  Now Khan sees the opportunity for revenge.  He takes control of the Reliant and sets out to kill his hated foe.

It’s interesting that Khan refers to the death of his “beloved wife,” undoubtedly a reference to Marla McGivers.  I really do wonder if Khan loved her.  It seems somewhat difficult to believe so, based on their relationship in “Space Seed,” where he was manipulating her.  Maybe he genuinely did.  Then again, perhaps Khan merely convinced himself that he loved her, because it fulfilled his self-image as a good man.  Whatever the case, I think that when the opportunity arose to attack Kirk, he uses McGivers’ death as one more self-justification in pursuing his vendetta.

In watching Star Trek II, you do realize that Khan has ample opportunities to take a different course of action.  Instead, he is absolutely hell-bent on gaining revenge.  Even Khan’s utterly loyal right-hand man Joachim (Judson Scott) attempts on more than one occasion to argue that they have their freedom and a spaceship, they can go anywhere in the universe, lead their own destiny once again.  But Khan’s monumental pride simply will not allow it.  He will not let go of the idea of avenging himself on Kirk.

After the Enterprise barely survives an encounter with the Khan-controlled Reliant, Kirk bitterly notes “He wants to kill me for passing sentence on him fifteen years ago. And he doesn’t care who stands between him and his vengeance.”  It eventually transpires that this includes Khan’s own devoted followers.  He is more concerned with revenge than he is for their welfare.

It’s interesting to note that early in the film we see a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf.  No doubt he has had ample time to familiarize himself with the novel during his long exile.  Yet Khan ends up playing the role of Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain who leads himself and his entire crew to their deaths in his pursuit of the white whale.  Khan himself obviously recognizes the parallels, but he simply does not care.  As he activates the stolen Genesis Device in an attempt to destroy the Enterprise along with his own ship, he quotes the novel: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”Doctor Doom Jack Kirby

I had never noticed it before, but Khan actually bears some interesting similarities to the comic book character Doctor Doom, who was created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Like Khan, Victor Von Doom is often described as a “benevolent dictator.”  He is the absolute monarch of the country of Latveria.  In certain respects, Doom has transformed his homeland into a paradise.  There is no crime or poverty in Latveria; of course, neither is there any free will.  Some might argue that the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay.  The problem is that this seeming golden age is dependant solely upon the whims of Doctor Doom.  Like Khan, he is a creature of immense ego, convinced of his innate superiority.  He claims to love the people of Latveria, and by granting them peace & prosperity it allows him to demonstrate to himself and everyone else that he is right, that he knows what is best for the world.

However, just like Khan, when things don’t go exactly according to plan, off come the kid gloves, and suddenly Doom is an extremely dangerous, petty, vengeful individual.  Certainly his decades-long vendetta against Reed Richards for what is, in truth, a mistake Doom made due to his own arrogance, proves that.  In Doom’s mind, he cannot be wrong; it must be somebody else’s fault.  And he’s pursued his quest for vengeance against Richards, his desire to show everyone that he is the smarter, better man, with a fanatical single-mindedness.

As for the people of Latveria, as much as Doom claims to adore and cherish them, the second they become a liability, the second they stand in his way or cease to be of use to him as a propaganda symbol or a method of stroking his ego, he will casually cast them aside or destroy them.  In the end, Doom comes first, and everything else is secondary.

And that is why, as alluring as the concept of the “benevolent dictator” appears, it is really a terrible idea.  Yes, in the short term a supposedly well-intentioned absolute ruler may be able to create order & stability.  But it is the type of progress that cannot last in the long run, and which is ever subject to the frailties of the all too human egos of those in control.

Phantom of the Paradise: a reflection on today

I recently saw the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise when it aired on the Sundance Channel.  I had first seen it quite a number years ago on television, and I remember being struck by how incredibly weird and eerie it was.  Re-watching it now in 2013, I definitely developed a real fondness for it, as well as realizing just how on-the-money writer/director Brian De Palma was in his dark satire of the music industry.  In certain respects, the film was ahead of its time.

Winslow Leach, aka The Phantom
Winslow Leach, aka The Phantom

Phantom of the Paradise is the story of Winslow Leech (William Finley), an ambitious composer who has written a lengthy, epic cantata based on the legend of Faust.  He is overheard performing part of it by mega-successful record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and his lackey Philbin (George Memmoli).  Swan immediately decides that he wants Winslow’s music for the opening of his high-profile concert hall the Paradise; he doesn’t, however, want Winslow himself.  Philbin gets Winslow to give him the only copy of the cantata, promising that Swan is going to look it over and get right back to him.  A month passes, and Winslow finally realizes he’s been tricked.  He sneaks into Swan’s mansion, where auditions are being held for the opening of the Paradise.  Overhearing dozens of would-be songstresses slaughtering his music, one voice captures Winslow’s attention: the beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper).  Coming up to her, Winslow begins singing with her, and he realizes that Phoenix is the perfect voice for his cantata.  There is also an instant attraction between the two.  However, when Winslow attempts to speak with Swan, the producer has his thugs beat up the composer, and arranges for the cops to frame him for drug possession, landing him a life sentence in, appropriately enough, Sing Sing.

Six months later, Winslow breaks out of prison.  During an attempt to destroy Swan’s Death Records manufacturing plant, Winslow’s head is caught in a record press.  Horribly scarred, Winslow makes his way to the Paradise and, donning a cape & mask, begins to terrorize the concert hall.  When he tries to attack Swan, though, the icy producer is unperturbed.  Swan convinces a reluctant, wary Winslow to work with him in completing the cantata, promising that Phoenix will sing it.  Swan, though, later decides to replace Phoenix with a glam rock singer named Beef (Gerrit Graham) and once the cantata is completed has his men brick up the entrance to Winslow’s room.  In a superhuman rage, the composer breaks out.  Winslow threatens Beef in the shower, attacking him with a toilet plunger.  Beef tries to back out of the show, but Philbin strong-arms him into going on.  During the subsequent performance of Faust, Winslow hides in the rafters and hurtles a neon lightning bolt at Beef, spectacularly electrocuting him on stage.  Philbin realizes that Winslow is loose and, to prevent any more deaths, brings Phoenix on stage to perform the unedited version of the music.  The crowd immediately falls in love with her, and Swan promises to make her a star.

Winslow is horrified that Phoenix is falling under Swan’s spell.  He drags her to the rooftop of the Paradise and tries to convince her that Swan will destroy her, but she won’t listen; she’s already enthralled by the lure of the audience worshiping her.  Following Swan and Phoenix back to the producer’s mansion, Winslow spies on the two having sex.  Utterly distraught, he plunges a knife into his heart.  Soon after, Swan comes up and approaches Winslow’s body.  Plucking the knife from it, he informs the still-living Winslow that as long as he is under contract to Swan he cannot die.  Winslow attempts to murder Swan, and is shocked when the knife won’t penetrate his body.  Swan enigmatically comments “I’m under contract too.”

Sometime later, as Phoenix’s Faust tour is winding down, Swan proposes that the two of them get married in a lavish ceremony on live television.  While Swan is busy arranging this, Winslow breaks into his mansion.  He discovers a film recording from twenty years ago made by Swan himself.  The producer was despondent at the thought of growing old and losing his good looks, and was ready to slit his wrists in the bathtub.  However, via Swan’s reflection in the bathroom mirror, the Devil offered to keep him eternally young in exchange for his soul.  As long as the recording exists, Swan will not age a day.  Winslow then discovers that Swan is planning to have Phoenix killed by a sniper during the wedding.  In a rage, Winslow sets fire to Swan’s entire file room of contracts.  He then arrives at the Paradise in time to deflect the gunman’s aim so that Philbin is shot instead.  Fighting through the frenzied crowd, Winslow stabs the now-mortal Swan, killing him.  In turn, his own wound re-opens.  As Winslow lies dying, his mask falls off.  A shocked, saddened Phoenix at lasts recognizes him, and she cradles his lifeless body.

As I said, when I first saw Phantom of the Paradise many years ago, I was almost overwhelmed at how bizarre and freaky it was.  As I recall, the flashback scene where Swan makes his deal with the Devil via his own reflection was especially unsettling.  The film still very much possesses that distinctive atmosphere for me, with its strange characters & unusual visuals.  And it was certainly a judicious move by De Palma to have Rod Serling voice the opening narration, which perfectly sets the tone for the entire story.

The Phantom shows Beef his impression of a Dalek
The Phantom shows Beef his impression of a Dalek

Re-watching Phantom of the Paradise now, I also see what an incredibly prescient quality there is to it.  Yes, back in the early 1970s, the music industry was already very commercialized.  But it has become infinitely worse since then, with record labels, radio, and television all churning out & promoting generic crap from pretty-looking but talentless hacks, appealing to the lowest common denominator.  At the same time, you have American Idol and its countless imitators, where publicity-hungry people flock on to television making fools of themselves in their efforts to seize their fifteen minutes of fame.

In planning Phoenix’s murder, Swan comments “An assassination live on television coast to coast? That’s entertainment!”  I don’t know how that line came across to audiences four decades ago, but nowadays it sounds frighteningly plausible.  The audience erupting into hysterical applause at Beef’s on-stage death also seems like it could really happen.  There is so much insane, degrading material broadcast on both the 24 hour news cycle and so-called “reality television” in order to generate massive ratings.  No actual contract murders that I can think of, but at least a few hundred hellacious catfights and drunken blow-ups have graced TV screens in recent years.  Kim Kardashian may not have arranged to have Kris Humphries killed on television, but her 72 day marriage to him apparently netted her several million dollars.  And after it was all over, I bet there was a part of Humphries that wishes he had just been shot dead at the altar.

As for the character of Swan, he is just plain creepy, a total immoral bastard.  According to a few sources, Swan was based on infamous music svengali Phil Spector.  I’m not sure how much of Spector’s dark side, such as his abusive & controlling behavior towards his wife Ronnie, was known to the public at the time that Phantom of the Paradise was made.  But in later years Spector definitely took a total dive off the deep end, culminating in him shooting actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, and his conviction for her murder several years later.  Talk about life imitating art.

In any case, Paul Williams gives a really sinister, memorable performance as Swan.  Williams also wrote the music & lyrics for the film.  Phantom of the Paradise may have been a dud at the box office, but at least Williams received a well-deserved Oscan nomination for his music.

The satanic svengali Swan
The satanic svengali Swan

Another thing that I picked up on is that Phantom of the Paradise has an almost Objectivist aspect to it, albeit one that seems to be a send-up of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  Winslow Leach possesses certain parallels with Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead.  Both men are passionately concerned with maintaining the purity of their artistic vision, and adamantly refuse to compromise their ideals.  Roark dynamites the building he designed after it was altered without his permission.  So too does Winslow attempts to use dynamite to demolish Swan’s Death Records plant, and he later successfully blows up the Beach Bums, the bubblegum pop band that Swan initially wanted to perform Faust at the Paradise.  He also commits several subsequent murders.

Of course, there is a real difference between the depictions of the two men.  Rand very much regarded Roark as a flawless, noble hero.  In contrast, even at the start of the movie, Winslow comes across as both overzealous and naïve.  By the time he assumes the identity of the Phantom, it is very clear that Winslow is quite insane.  In his efforts to destroy Swan, Winslow kills a lot of other people.  Yes, Beef was a prima donna egotist, and the Beach Bums were cheesy hacks, but did they all deserve to die?  And Winslow’s relationship with Phoenix is also problematic.  I do not think he truly loved her.  It seems much more a case of obsession, driven by Winslow’s belief that only she could ever properly sing his music.

Yes, Swan seems very much to be one of the “parasites” that Rand so despised.  He is a monster who steals Winslow’s work and utterly destroys his life.  Yet by embarking upon his mission of vengeance, Winslow himself becomes a sort of monster as well, bringing to mind Nietzsche’s warning concerning those who fight monsters.  I think that the Howard Roarks of the world may start out as romantic idealists, but their unyielding convictions might very well lead them to the same fate as those who have exploited them.

Analysis aside, Phantom of the Paradise is a great movie.  Brian De Palma directs the hell out of it, with some truly amazing, dynamic shots.  As I said before, the music by Paul Williams is fantastic.  It’s unfortunate but, in retrospect, not surprising that Phantom of the Paradise initially failed in the theaters.  It is a very difficult movie to classify, simultaneously horror, comedy and musical.  But it often seems like these sort of offbeat films are the ones that stand the test of time, and nowadays it is considered a cult classic.

Memories of Ray Harryhausen

Another childhood hero gone.  I just found out that legendary special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation, passed away on May 7th at the age of 92.

The first film I ever saw which Harryhausen worked on was actually his last one, Clash of the Titans.  I was six years old in 1981.  When Clash of the Titans came into the theaters, it totally blew me away.  I kept asking my father to take me back to see it again.  I must have seen it in the theater at least half a dozen times.

Since I was just a kid, I didn’t pay any attention to the film’s credits.  So the first time I found out about Harryhausen was several years later, in 1988.  The science fiction magazine Starlog printed an extensive interview with him, complete with numerous photos from his various films.  I realized that not only had Harryhausen done the special effects for Clash of the Titans, he had also worked on numerous other sci-fi and fantasy films over the decades.  Some of these I had seen on television, such as Mighty Joe Young, which he worked on in 1947 as an assistant to stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, as well as some of his later solo efforts, namely Mysterious Island (1961) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).

That article in Starlog pointed the way to many of Harryhausen’s other great movies, which I began searching out on television and video cassette.  My father, who had grown up watching a lot of those Harryhausen classics in the movie theater, often would join me in front of the TV, sometimes tracking down those films on VHS for me.  I remember watching Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) with him.  Now that I think about it, when my father first saw those films in the movie theater when he was a kid, he would have been pretty much the same age I was when I saw Clash of the Titans.  Maybe when you are six years old it really is a magical age.

Ray Harryhausen with his models for Calibos and Medusa from Clash of the Titlans
Ray Harryhausen with his models for Calibos and Medusa from Clash of the Titlans

It might be difficult to explain to younger people in this age of super-realistic CGI, but back before the advent of computer animation, stop-motion effects were the best way to create monsters and aliens in a super-realistic fashion.  And the master of giving life to these tiny, detailed puppets & models, imbuing them with emotion and subtle gestures, was Ray Harryhausen.

Stop-motion animation required the utmost patience, as well a tremendous skill.  The process involved moving the model a minute amount, shooting one frame of film, moving the model a bit more, shooting another frame, and repeating the process numerous times until you had several minutes of footage.  And at the end, after all those long days of work, hopefully you had something that looked natural and alive, rather than awkward & jerky. Well, I tell you, Harryhausen’s creations definitely possessed a smoothness & fluidity.

The sequence at the end of the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts is considered one of the greatest achievements of Harryhausen’s career.  Having killed the Hydra and obtained the Golden Fleece, Jason is making his way back to his boat the Argos.  Jason and two of the Argonauts stay to hold off the forces of the vengeful King Aeetes while the rest of the crew retreat to their vessel.  Aeetes takes the teeth of the slain Hydra and sprinkles them on the ground, in effect sowing them.  And the bitter fruit that sprouts up are “the children of the Hydra’s teeth,” seven skeletal warriors.  Aeetes bellows “Kill! Kill! Kill them all!” and the undead soldiers charge.  We then have an absolutely amazing fight sequence, as Harryhausen seamlessly integrates the live action footage of the three actors with his stop-motion animation of the seven skeletons.

(If you do a search on YouTube, I’m sure you can find the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts posted there.  If you haven’t seen it before, it is definitely well worth viewing.)

The skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts
The skeleton battle from Jason and the Argonauts

I had long often hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to meet Harryhausen, so I could let him know just how much enjoyment his films brought me.  Unfortunately, that’s now never going to happen.  But I do know that in the 1980s and 90s, appreciation for Harryhausen’s work grew by leaps & bounds in sci-fi fandom, and a great many other people did have the chance to tell him how much his work meant to them.  This included a number of individuals who went on to become very successful filmmakers in their own right, among them Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and John Landis.  So I’m glad to know that Ray Harryhausen lived a long, productive, happy life, and that he was received recognition for his amazing creative accomplishments.

Delusions of a Ridiculous Mind

Last month, around the holidays, my girlfriend Michele got nostalgic and began re-watching clips of that 1970s talent show spoof The Gong Show on YouTube.  At first, I couldn’t see the point in this.  I was going solely by my memories of the revival that aired a decade later, which never seemed that good.  But then, watching the YouTube videos of the original, which was hosted by Chuck Barris, I soon came to realize how much better, and funnier, the original incarnation of The Gong Show really was.  Really, it’s absolutely ridiculous and insane.

Like Michele, I’d love to see The Gong Show come out on DVD.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all sorts of rights issues involved that would make a release difficult.  In any case, Michele wrote up a cool blog entry on The Gong Show, so go ahead and check it out.

Chuck Barris Gong Show

I became curious about Chuck Barris, who could be totally off the wall when hosting.  Looking up info on him, I learned that he was also the show’s creator.  In addition, he had devised a number of other famous, successful game shows, among them The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and the even more bizarre The $1.98 Beauty Show.  He has been referred to as “the father of reality TV,” although what he did nearly four decades ago is mild compared to the exploitive crap on television nowadays.  Barris was also the writer of the 1962 Freddy Cannon song “Palisades Park.”  My father is a fan of that one.  So, Chuck Barris had a very long & interesting career in show biz.

Oh, yes, in his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, published in 1984, Barris also claimed that he had worked as an assassin for the CIA, supposedly committing 33 murders over the years.

It was this last bizarre claim that led to a 2002 film, also entitled Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.  Since Michele was such a fan of Chuck Barris’ oeuvre, and I had also become interested in the man, I surprised her with a belated holiday present, a copy of the film on DVD.  We watched it a few nights ago.  And, wow, was it weird.  Really good, but weird.  (Mind you, if even ten percent of this “autobiography” turned out to have really happened, I would be genuinely surprised!)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind DVD

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the directorial debut of George Clooney, based on a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.  Apparently there was a lack of communication between the two, which led to dissatisfaction on Kaufman’s part.  Well, at least according to Wikipedia, but that website is often only slightly more accurate in its adherence to reality than Chuck Barris was in his autobiography.  Whatever the case, whoever wrote the final script did a great job.  As far as the direction, Clooney is amazing.  It’s really astonishing that this was his first film behind the camera, because he totally knocked it out of the park.

The cast of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind all do superb work.  Heading up the film is Sam Rockwell, who does an eerily stunning job capturing the persona & mannerisms of Chuck Barris.  He portrays Barris as a veritable con artist, a self-involved, womanizing egotist who eventually descends into paranoia, isolation, and madness.  It’s an amazing performance.  Based on this, I’m genuinely surprised that Rockwell isn’t a bigger name.  But, of course, in Hollywood talent and fame don’t often align with the frequency that they should.

The rest of the film’s cast is also noteworthy.  Drew Barrymore plays Penny, the long suffering girlfriend of Barris who puts up with his constant bullshit.  George Clooney himself plays Jim Byrd, the icy CIA agent who recruits Barris and acts as his handler.  Julia Roberts portrays Patricia, a seductive spy who serves as Barris’ contact in the field.

Now, I am generally not a fan of Roberts’ work.  I honestly think Pretty Woman, which cemented her fame, and which most people seem to regard as a sweet, romantic fairy tale, was in fact incredibly hackneyed and sleazy.  However, watching her in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, I was actually impressed.  It was interesting to see her in a darker, more cynical role than she usually plays.  She certainly did fine work with it.  Rounding out the cast is the amazing, underrated Rutger Hauer.  His character Keeler is a philosophizing veteran hitman who befriends Barris.  It’s always a pleasure to see Hauer on the screen.  Even when cast in a relatively small supporting role such as this, he gives it his all, turning in a charismatic performance.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Sam Rockwell

At first, I was genuinely surprised to learn that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a box office bomb.  I thought it was an amazing film, and so did Michele.  But reflecting on it, I quickly realized that the movie is not easily classifiable.  It starts off as a comedy, but then transitions into a dark, disturbing look at a rather unlikable man living a double life who gradually experiences a mental breakdown.  Is it supposed to be humorous or somber?  Well, both.  But I think that for many viewers, who like to compartmentalize their entertainment into comfortable, easily absorbed categories, a film such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind can be a turn off, as it straddles so many genres.

I definitely recommend giving Confessions of a Dangerous Mind a try.  It really is an amazing film.  Myself, I’m looking forward to watching it again.  I think it is a movie wherein one may find different layers & interpretations on subsequent viewings.

Godzilla Vs. Biollante finally out on DVD!

For a long time I have been a fan of the Godzilla series of films produced by Toho.  As someone who is into both science fiction and monsters, I really enjoy the idea of a dinosaur awoken from suspended animation by a nuclear explosion and mutated into a 200 foot tall behemoth with radioactive fire breath that goes around smashing cities to pieces.  There have been a lot of Godzilla movies made since the creature’s debut in 1954, some excellent, some merely average, and a few truly dreadful.  One of my favorites, which falls squarely into the first category, is Godzilla vs. Biolante.  The film premiered in Japanese theaters in 1989, but due to various rights problems, took a number of years to make it onto home video here in the States.  And it took even longer to finally come out on DVD, at last being released in late 2012.

I have a confession to make: I actually bought a bootleg copy of Godzilla vs. Biolante at a science fiction convention in the early-1990s.  That’s not something I usually do, but I had no idea if the film was going to get a proper release on VHS.  It turned out that the videotape had a grainy picture and what seemed to be an especially poor dubbing job.  Nevertheless, in spite of all that, I really enjoyed the movie.

Godzilla Vs. Biollante DVD
Godzilla Vs. Biollante DVD

Godzilla vs. Biolante opens in the aftermath of the previous film, The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985).  Amidst the rubble of a demolished Tokyo, a team of mercenaries working for genetics corporation Bio-Major steals a sample of Godzilla’s cells left behind in the wake of his attack.  The mercenaries, in turn, are ambushed by a hit-man in the employ of the Middle Eastern nation of Saradia.  The cells are smuggled to that country, where the expatriate Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) hopes to use Godzilla’s DNA to create a crop of wheat that can flourish in the desert.  However, Bio-Major launches a retaliatory strike, bombing Shiragami’s lab, killing his daughter Erika.

Flash forwarding five years later, Godzilla is beginning to wake from his slumber at the bottom of the volcano he was lured into at the end of the last movie.  The Japanese government, which possesses its own supply of Godzilla cells, approaches Shiragami to use them to develop Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria with which to attack the monster.  Shiragami has secretly combined the cells of a rose with that of his dead daughter in an effort to preserve some semblance of her existence.  The scientist now adds the Godzilla cells to this hybrid plant, hoping to imbue it with the monster’s restorative powers.  Instead, the rose develops into a towering plant creature which is dubbed Biollante.  While both agents from Bio-Major and the hit-man from Saradia make plans to steal the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, the newly awakened Godzilla begins to make his way to Japan, sensing the presence of his genetic cousin.

Also introduced in Godzilla vs. Biolante is the character of Miki Saegusa, a psychic teenager portrayed by actress Megumi Odaka.  The character of Miki would prove to be very popular, and Odaka reprised the role in the next five films of the series.

Godzilla vs. Biolante is an engaging story.  The script was written by director Kazuki Ohmori, based upon a concept by Shinichiro Kobayashi.  The direction by Ohmori is also excellent.  He certainly does a superb job staging the final confrontation between Godzilla and Biollante.  That must have been a lot of work, considering Biollante’s size, and her numerous vine tentacles thrashing about attacking Godzilla.

That brings me to the whole “men in rubber suits” aspect of the Godzilla movies.  Yes, seeing a guy in a monster costume smashing a scale model of a city may not appear one hundred percent realistic, especially with today’s CGI effects.  But I really admire & respect the craft and hard work that the technicians at Toho have demonstrated over the decades, creating these intricate costumes and models, and then filming all of the action in real time.  I also think there is often more of a weight (for lack of a better word) to those sorts of special effects than some of the stuff people put together on a computer.  It can seem much more convincing to me as a viewer.

Biollante adopts her final form
Biollante adopts her final form

As is pointed out in the “making of” feature on the DVD, both Godzilla and Biollante represent the dangers of unchecked scientific progress.  Godzilla, of course, is the embodiment of the post-World War II dangers of nuclear destruction.  Biollante, on the other hand, was inspired by the then relatively new fears of unsupervised genetic engineering, concerns that in the years since 1989 have certainly become more prevalent in the real world.

One aspect that I have heard criticized about the movie is the soundtrack.  Truthfully, in my opinion, for the most part the music by Koichi Sugiyama is pretty effective.  It is a bit odd or melodramatic in places, compared to the more traditional themes used in many past entries of the series by composer Akira Ifukube.  However, Sugiyama utilizes several of Ifukube’s compositions in certain places, making the soundtrack to the film a somewhat unusual, but nevertheless interesting, mix of new and old.

As I mentioned before, that old bootleg VHS tape of Godzilla vs. Biolante was not the best quality.  Watching the DVD of the movie yesterday, I was impressed at how much better the official release is.  Of course the picture quality was better.  What I was really pleased about was that the disk has the choice of being played with either an English dub, or with English subtitles over the original Japanese dialogue.  I chose to watch it with the later, and the story was a lot clearer that way.  Aside from the occasional typo or grammatical error, the subtitles appeared to have been put together with an eye towards accuracy.

One more thing about that bootleg tape.  Turns out that for some reason several key scenes from the movie had been cut out.  Yeah, really stupid, huh?  Watching the complete, unedited film on DVD, the story flowed a lot more smoothly, and a few areas where I had thought there were unexplained elements or plot holes vanished.

By the way, back in the mid 1990s, the toy company Trendmasters produced a series of Godzilla action figures.  When I was growing up, there had never really been any Godzilla-related toys available here in the States.  As a kid, I’d always wanted to be able to have stuff like that.  So, even though I was in college when the Trendmasters action figures came out, of course I had to buy a bunch of them.  And, collectability be damned, I made sure to take them out of their packaging!  After all, I wanted to put them on display.  Among the assortment of monsters available in the toy line was Biollante.  Given my fondness for the movie, of course I had to get that one.

Godzilla V.s Biollante (the action figure version)
Godzilla Vs. Biollante (the action figure version)

So, having re-watched Godzilla vs. Biolante on DVD, I then took those two action figures down from the bookshelf, dusted them off, and posed them facing off on the living room floor.  Wish I had some kind of backdrop or something.  I was considering using the rock from the turtle tank, but I didn’t think our red-eared slider Meeshee would have approved.

Anyway, after a very long wait, it was great to be able to get this movie on DVD.  I was thrilled when my girlfriend gave it to me as a present.  If you happen to be a Godzilla fan, I highly recommend picking this one up.

(Photo of the Godzilla / Biolante slugfest re-enactment courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  No action figures were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

Does Sci-Fi Get The Respect It Deserves?

I have been a science fiction fan since I was a kid.  There has always been something magical about the genre for me.  One of my favorites growing up was the original Star Trek television series, which was in reruns on Saturday nights in the late 1970s and early 80s.  I looked forward to catching a “new” episode of that each weekend.  I was too young to see the first Star Trek film in the theaters, probably a good thing, in retrospect, given that it’s a long, ponderous movie that really needed a lot of fine-tuning and editing.

But by the time Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit the big screen in 1982, I was six years old, and my father took me to see it.  To be perfectly honest, I was not thrilled by it.  The movie was too dark & downbeat for me, and it ended with Spock dying.  Over the years, though, I often heard it referred to as the absolute best film of the entire series, and I just could not understand why.

Fast-forward to 2002, and the two disk DVD “director’s edition” of Star Trek II came out.  On an impulse, I purchased it, because despite my original impression of it, I never actively hated the film.  It had been years since I had last seen it, so I thought this would be a good time to look at it with a fresh perspective and see what all the fuss was about.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD

Well, what a difference twenty years can make!  I was completely blown away when I re-watched The Wrath of Khan.  There were so many themes in it that I had not picked up on when I was a kid.  Dealing with death and loss, growing old, morality and science, the all-consuming passion of vengeance, making the decision whether to dwell in the past or to move on to the future, and much more.  Since then, I’ve viewed it on several subsequent occasions.  Each time, I get a little bit something more out of it.

So much of the film is of the highest quality.  The script by Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer is crisp, intelligent, witty, and thought-provoking.  James Horner’s’ soundtrack is stunning.  And the directing by Meyer is riveting, dramatic, and absolutely top-notch.   I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Meyer succeeds in obtaining one of the best performances out of William Shatner in his entire career, no easy feat.  And the acting by Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Ricardo Montalban is likewise top-notch.

Last week, I watched The Wrath of Khan again.  And something occurred to me.  Yes, it is a great science fiction film.  But, I realized, it is also an excellent film, period, regardless of genre.  This got me thinking.  Science fiction really gets very little respect of acknowledgement among so-called legitimate film “critics.”

I was curious, so I looked up the Academy Award nominees for 1982.  The frontrunner of the year was, unsurprisingly, Ganhdi, a good if overly long film.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had received several nominations.  But not a single nod to Star Trek II, not even in the technical categories.

What do you mean we didn't win an Oscar?!?!?
What do you mean we didn’t win an Oscar?!?!?

Nowadays, the Academy Awards do make at least a passing effort at trying to acknowledge more “mainstream” films, having increased the potential number of best picture nominees to ten.  Even so, the way the Academy members actually vote, the probability of film such as Star Trek II being nominated, much less winning, a Best Picture Oscar is very low.  Witness the most recent awards, where The Artist was swept up six Oscars.  Brilliant film, yes, but the equally great, very funny comedy Bridesmaids didn’t even warrant a nomination.  (Of course, the manner in which voting is tabulated for the Oscar nominations and actual awards is apparently so convoluted that it makes filling out your taxes seem simple by comparison.  So for all we know Bridesmaids just narrowly missed the cut-off.)

What is the point of all this?  I am actually not sure.  Part of it is my lamenting that those aforementioned critics often believe it is impossible for a film to be both popular and of high artistic merit.  Especially when it comes to science fiction.

Then again, hindsight can be twenty twenty.  The history of film criticism, and the Academy Awards in particular, is rife with “What the hell were they thinking!?!” moments that totally stupefy you.  One of the most infamous was when How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture for 1941, beating out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a film now regarded as one of the absolute all time greatest movies ever made.  So who knows how history will judge?

In the meantime, regardless of how such-and-such critic opines concerning cinematic fare, or what movie wins what awards, I will be watching what I feel like watching.  And that includes science fiction, thank you very much.