Friday, September 25, 2015

Monster Zero (1970) AKA Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1970) AKA Great Monster War (1965)

Many people, either through a gross misconception or nostalgia, have been LED to believe that Destroy All Monsters (1968) is somehow the pinnacle of Godzilla films. This is simply not the case. While there is some fun to be found in Destroy All Monsters, Monster Zero is actually the pinnacle of all middle-era Godzilla films (1962-1975).

Although there is a generally accepted distinction of the different eras of Godzilla films, I don't subscribe to it. While these things are mostly arbitrary, I argue that the first two Godzilla films are in a class of their own, separate from the later films. The first being a symbolic treatise on man's use of science without thought to the repercussions. The second (Godzilla Returns) as mostly a shuffled-together attempt to grasp onto the popularity of the first.

Then came the attempts of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) through Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975) which signaled the nearly constant production of Godzilla films (and raising and lowering of the budgets for those productions). This era is still the most consistently "flavored" of Godzilla's films, and the one which most fans of the King of Kaiju still remember best.

For all that, it's important to find what worked and what didn't out of this series of films, and also to find the one film that had more of what worked and less of what didn't.

Seen here: Things That Didn't Work

The basic plot of the Monster Zero follows the discovery of a new planet in our solar system. Two astronauts are sent to investigate, and they discover aliens who are constantly being attacked by a giant monster they call...wait for it...."Monster Zero." These aliens ask if the people of Earth will give over Godzilla and Rodan. You know, to help the aliens, but also in exchange for miracle medicines. Turns out, it was a hoax set up by the aliens to get all the giant monsters on their side so they could rule the world. Sneaky!!

Sneaky aliens, kidnapping Godzilla

One particularly great aspect of science fiction films of this time period is the design work that goes into a coherent vision of the future. It's a bit cheesy to us now, but that's part of its charm. There's an optimism about the boundless possibilities that space travel offered coupled with budgetary constraints. In short, Middle-era Godzilla films include some of the best retro-designs of the future, and Monster Zero is chock-full of them.

That spacesuit! The backdrop!

This rocketship couldn't be more retro if it tried.

Sunglasses, leather vests, AND antennas!

Space-saucers and secret tunnels!!

While the imagery looks great and perfectly represents its period of science fiction, there's also an actual story to the film. Sure, it's mostly in place to justify the action on the screen, the giant monster fights, and the aliens. But it's serviceable enough to have an "arc" to at least one character. The film begins with a lowly inventor trying to peddle his wares. He wants to marry the sister of a big, bad astronaut, but he's basically a goof. Turns out, he gets to be a bit of a hero because his inventions are the savior of mankind (because they make loud noises, but whatever).

Loud Noises!!
The point is, the guy makes something that (accidentally) works to redeem himself in the eyes of that big, bad astronaut brother. He's the geek who saves the world from evil aliens.

Loud Noises!!!
The last, and possibly most important element in any Godzilla film is some great giant monster fighting action. Let's face it, this is the part we want to see most in any giant monster movie. While this film isn't full of monster-on-monster fights, the guys in rubber suits get their due screen time to great effect.

Monster Zero is the greatest acheivement of middle-era Godzilla films. It perfectly illustrates the retrofuturism of its time, contains a human-level story that is both relatable and clear, and shows a variety of giant monster fights with some context to those encounters. If you're looking to introduce someone to this stretch of Godzilla films, this is the perfect entry point.

Bonus: Nick Adams, Pugilist

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Fantastic Four (1994)

Let's first add some context. My 1994 involved the crackle of dial-up internet, Pulp Fiction, and Bill Clinton.

The other thing that happened that year was the release of a Fantastic Four movie. Well, "release" in more of a metaphorical, masturbatory meaning of the word instead of a "film distribution" sense. See, there was some copyright rigamarole (you can find a run-down here) that kept a film that had been made to completeness from being placed in front of the eyes of people.

And so, through the power-coupling of the internet and unsanctioned distribution, we have Roger Corman's Fantastic Four. (Thank you, YouTube)

The story of this superhero team should be about as familiar as how Frankenstein's Monster becomes Frankenstein's Monster at this point. Four people, three dudes and a lady, get scienced into some superpowers. These superpowers are equal parts ridiculous and useless alone (except for the dude who TURNS INTO FIRE), but together they can overcome great evil. That evil comes in the form of Victor Von Doom who is also transformed by the same science-stuff as the other four...the FANTASTIC FOUR.

Yes, the bad guy's name is Doom...these characters are based on comic books, after all.

This Roger Corman version hits on all of these notes with the slight variation that Doom is tranformed far before the others in a college science experiment he's working on with Reed Richards ("Mr. Fantastic"...yes, again, these are the most comic-booky of comic books!)

Ten years later, Richards wants to go to space to chase after the Macguffin and he takes along his buddy pilot Ben Grimm and two twenty-somethings named Sue and Johnny Storm. Blah-blah-blah, science goes wrong and we're left with superpowered peoples.

Reed Richards is...STRETCHY!!

Johnny Storm is...FIREY!!

Sue Storm is...INVISIBLEY!!

Ben Grimm is...ROCKY (no, not the Stallone kind of, he's made of rocks.)

Of course, this is a Roger Corman movie so it's made on about as much money as a TV-Movie-Of-The-Week. Because of those budget constraints, we can easily make fun of the special effects. So let's do that!!

Let's get two issues out of the way right now. First, virtually no one is a "Hard-Core Fantastic Four Fan" because they're meant to be silly fun, not slaves to comic book canon, frozen in a single moment of their storied history (Ahem: Spider-Man). Secondly, arguments about how this comic book family would have been treated better if only the license had been given to some big corporation for a film-version is...



So we can disregard any sorts of arguments about how this movie would have been better off more "grounded" and "realistic."

We have to simply accept that The Fantastic Four as a movie concept, and as comic book characters, are ridiculous. This film from 1994 is equal parts cringe-worthy (example: when they get those spandex outfits seen in the top picture) and ridiculous (example: the scene where Mr. Fantastic explains the connection of their superpowers to their personality traits), so, more than any other adaptations, IT FITS the source material.

I wouldn't exactly recommend this internet-only comic book movie because, well...the Fantastic Four are pretty stupid. But if you're dead-set on watching a Fantastic Four movie, this is the one you should go with. At least you'll laugh because you're supposed to laugh, instead of weeping at what might have been.

You can usually find Roger Corman's Fanastic Four movie on YouTube.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

Thanks to El Rey Network on Sling TV, I've been watching a ton of Kung-Fu movies lately. And in doing so, realized I haven't really reviewed one here.

This classic Shaw Brothers film includes some of the most important elements of any great kung-fu movie. Sure, you expect great fight choreography. Maybe you also expect a bit of comedy (like the many great Jackie Chan films, you know...before they weren't so great anymore). Well, this one has all the right elements of entertainment, without going full-on comedy throughout. Though, you WILL laugh...

To hit all the appropriate notes of a great kung-fu film, this one features:

Super-shiny metal weapons!

The elaborately choreographed intro is a given.

...the use of Chi!

...and students sacrificing themselves needlessly!

Yes, that guy suicided by ripping out his own crotch.

Sadly, though, the movie does not include a White-Haired Evil Dude.

What I'm getting at is this kung-fu flick is all kinds of the awesome type of weird. It's got Gordon Liu making his students invincible to everything (except bullets).

He puts paper on their wounds to...heal them, I guess?

Anyway. The premise finds members of a secret society competing to kill a traitor to keep him from exposing their big bad secret: the society's magic and supernatural kung-fu arts can't, in fact, stop bullets. The inclusion of this magic stuff adds some of the best, weirdest elements of the film.

Voodoo Kung Fu, anyone?

But there's also little nuggets of strange translation, like how they say "pugilism" instead of "kung-fu" quite a lot throughout the film.

My Shoulder-Blade Pugilism Style is STRONG!

Or where two people spit on Gordon Liu's hat to simulate rain.

What I'm getting at is: this movie has it all. Great fight choreography. Absurdity galore. Gordon Liu. And all the "legendary weapons."

Seriously, the last thirty minutes are insane kung-fu awesomeness. So many weapons, with such a mixture of choreography. Everything prior is just a build-up to the last two fights, and because of that, this is a Shaw Brothers gem.

Legendary Weapons of China can be seen regularly on El Rey Network's rotation of Thursday's "Flying Five Finger One Armed Exploding Death Touch" line-up. Or purchased cheaply on Amazon.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Blood of Heroes AKA Salute of the Jugger (1989)

Have you ever wondered whether there'll be sports after the apocalypse? Do you worry atomic wars that mostly eradicate mankind might disrupt the football season?

Well, take heart, post-apocalyptic sports fans, because Rutger Hauer has come to answer your question with a resounding..."SPORTS WILL STILL SPORT AFTER SOCIETY CRUMBLES!"

Yes, Rutger Hauer (most notably of Blade Runner and Hobo with a Shotgun) plays in a competitive sport where five people work together to place a dog's skull on a spike to score. The timekeeper chucks stones at a metal plate until someone wins, or until 100 stones are tossed. There are two blockers. One guy swinging a chain. And the "quick" whose job is to grab the skull and place it on the spike.


It's not unlike football. For example, violence is encouraged, but the players generally have enough respect for one another to avoid gratuitous injury where possible. But, honestly, it's not exactly like football either, since most of them are wielding weapons of some sort.

Swinging a chain...swinging a chain.

So, first let's talk about the pieces, then we'll talk about the whole pie.

Rutger Hauer is the grizzled veteran of the sport. He's seen some shit, man. And he's got a vendetta to boot. Regardless of his motivation in this particular film, the man can do no wrong in my book. He is on the level of a Peter Cushing. No matter how bad the film, the script, or the directing, these are actors that elevate every single frame of the film they are in. They have a presence that is unparalleled.

Just like Peter Cushing can hold a screen presence doing this...

So too can Rutger Hauer wear a tire wrapped around his face and still look like a badass...

Number of people who can look cool wearing tires as a helmet? One.

And he can go one-eyed in the same movie and look twice as awesome.
The other big name here is Vincent D'Onofrio. This guy has been awesome as far back as Full Metal Jacket (1987). But more recently, he made Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin) something more than a one-note villain in the Netflix series, Daredevil (2015).

Two of the greats, just hanging out post-apocalypse

Those are the pieces. The big pie is a Mad Max version of Major League (which, coincidentally, came out the same year as the latter), with Rutger Hauer as the Tom Berenger veteran and Joan Chen playing the Charlie Sheen rookie part. It's any underdog sports story (Rocky, Bad News Bears, Karate Kid, Hoosiers), but it takes place after the apocalypse.

You can't just throw these things together and hope they work...

With that concept at its heart, this movie does a few magical things. First, it completely sells this sports and its structure so well that, by the end, you understand how the game works (there's even a training montage!) and what the stakes are. That's no small task for a throwaway late-80s movie. Secondly, it actually makes you care for these characters enough to root for them by the end.

It's a bit tough to find on DVD, but easy enough in the usual digital places. So, if you get the chance and the inkling, find this little-known gem. It's a strange mixture of a lot of cool things that work well together in this case.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

When your post-apocalyptic movie opens with credits set to a pop song, it's not really post-apocalyptic anymore. It's a James Bond film. And when you put a pop star into that post-apocalyptic movie, you're stunt-casting (and getting a hit soundtrack to boot).

The film opens with a few key call-backs to Mad Max 2, but almost no reference to the original.

This dude is quite SAXY, but not as saxy as Max's former wife.

Because, let's face it, the sequel had overshadowed the original by this point, and still does. Max is robbed by his gyro-copter buddy from The Road Warrior. Only, it's not his gyro-copter buddy. It's the same actor, but not the same character. Keeping up?

He's surprised you noticed him at all...let alone in two movies...
Max also does a call-back to the more successful, previous film by finding a little musical-thingy that comes in handy, similar to the one he found at the beginning of The Road Warrior that helped him win over the feral kid.

When a movie tries this hard to remind you of other movies, you should be worried.

Apparently, as the 80s really set in, everything became a parody of itself. Like a comic-book version of reality where the audience needed less subtlety and more...well, just zero subtlety at all.

Nope, not comically over-the-top...
With each of the films in this series, one gets a sense that George Miller is re-writing and re-shooting his previous effort. Recursively moving forward while still re-hashing a bit of the previous effort. This is most clear in the third effort. Max is, again, established as a badass who can handle himself. A man who can fight, but who also adheres to an interior code. A guy who is good with a gun, but who's smart enough to be formidable without one.

Good with a gun...

...and, um, better with a gun.

And then things get weird. And not in a good way. Because Max is rescued by a tribe of children. Yep, children living the Ewok-lifestyle save the most badass of badass men to exist after the apocalypse. And the children have a prophecy that predicted Mad Max would come to them. But really, it's not a's movies! The movie is getting all meta. Even with the movie-screen-staff, called "the tell"...ugh...

That aspect ratio sure does look familiar...

So, does that make us, the film-watchers, the children in this meta-metaphor? Hey filmmakers, probably not the best idea to relate your audience to children. Just saying.

It's like someone else took over directing and scripting duties after the first part of the film in order to infuse "heart." Things start off with a bunch of badass Mad Maxing going on for the first hour, and then George Miller said, "Yah, so-and-so's got it from here. I'm off for a nap. I'll pick up at the end for the chase scene."

And we end up with "Mad Max and the Lost Boys" for the sagging middle of the movie as a result.

Just what I want in my post-apocalypse...a sea of children.
After the plot gets its wheels rolling again, Mad Max and the kids end up back at Tina Turner-Town where they proceed to liberate a key component of Tina Turner's methane production from her Ike-like grip. After a road-pursuit that is remarkably reminiscent of The Road Warrior, the kids escape in an airplane and Mad Max is left to roam the post-apocalyptic country-side he now calls home.

Max sleeps best on the radioactive sand of a deserted wasteland.

Clearly, this movie is a mixed-bag. A sprinkle of good, with the after-taste of bad. It doesn't come close to living up to The Road Warrior, but it's more post-apocalyptic than the original Mad Max. Ultimately, there's about twenty-five minutes of the film that really sink it. On top of that, the effort to make it an "up" ending while keeping Max out in the apocalypse strides an awkward line. It's worth watching. But not more than once.

We'll see what Fury Road brings on May 15th...