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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Iron Giant: From Book to Screen

iron-man-ted-hughesOver the years Brad Bird has become one of the more respected directors in the field of animation, even doing decent work in live action with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland, but once upon a time, long before all this fame and fortune, he was just a recently fired animator from Disney. It was the people at Warner Brothers who gave him a shot at directing a feature length animated film based on an a science fiction novel by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. That movie was to become The Iron Giant and today we will take a look at how that film, which at the time was a box office failure but now is considered to be a classic, came to be.
The book by British author Ted Hughes was titled The Iron Man, later published in North America as The Iron Giant so as not to be confused with Marvel’s Invincible Iron Man, and it truly is a magical book; basically a modern day fairy tale with a science fiction bent. For those only familiar with the Brad Bird movie I will give you a quick synopsis of the book.

The story opens with a towering figure made of Iron as it tumbles down a cliff and is subsequently dashed to pieces. Certainly not a heroic introduction to a character but The Iron Man isn’t your typical hero as bit by bit he pieces himself back together and then proceeds to go and find food, unfortunately for the residents of this seaside community that diet consists of a whole lot of metal. No parked car is safe.  A young boy by the name of Hogarth witness this towering machine of destruction and rushes home to inform his dad, who unlike most dad’s in this situation completely believes his son, and soon the whole community is rallied to combat this strange menace. We can't really find fault with this reaction as one can’t just let giant iron golems wander around eating your cars and tractors. The plan they come up with to defeat this “Iron Man” is to dig a huge covered pit, but their bait of an old vehicle doesn’t seem to do the trick and it is eventually Hogarth who lures the Iron Man into the trap. The kid informs his dad of this new development, the town mobilizes and the Iron Man is buried alive...but not forever. Come the following spring the Iron Man burst free of his grave, completely ruining a family’s picnic, but instead of calling the military to step in Hogarth comes up with the brilliant idea of convincing the Iron Man to follow him to the local scrapyard. With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of food the Iron Man promises not to cause further trouble for the locals, as long as no one troubles him.

Yet that is not the end of the story; astronomers discover a strange star heading to Earth, one that is soon revealed to contain a massive creature that is described as a Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon. When the monster makes landfall, its size so colossal that it completely covers Australia, it quickly demands that the people of Earth provide him with food or else it will wreak havoc on this tiny planet. Unlike the Iron Man the space-dragon needs organic food and it's quite clear that humanity would be unable to supply enough food for this creature, even if they wanted to, and so the world’s combined military forces attack. Sadly this only results in the Space-Dragon giving humanity a rueful smile as Earth's weapons are useless against it. Enter Hogarth who convinces the Iron Man that if mankind is wiped out no one will be making metal for him to eat, and that it's in his best efforts to take on the space-dragon. Now as big as the Iron Man is he is not quite in the same league as a creature that's the size of a continent; so the Iron Man uses his wits to defeat the space-dragon. The Iron Man makes a bargain with the creature; if he can withstand the heat of burning petroleum for longer than the space-dragon can withstand the laying on the surface of the Sun, the creature must obey the Iron Man's commands forevermore.  If the Iron Man melts or is afraid of melting before the space being undergoes his attempts or quits due to fear or pain, the creature has permission to devour the whole Earth. After two rounds, and being badly ravaged by the intensity of the Sun’s heat, the space-dragon capitulates.

Things take a surreal turn when the Iron Man learns that the Space-Dragon is actually a peaceful "Star Spirit" who only came to Earth, with threats of violence and destruction, because it had witnessed the sights and sounds produced by the violent warfare of humanity. The Space-Dragon’s normal job is to sing the “music of the spheres” which is the harmony of his kind that keeps the Cosmos in balance. The Iron Man orders that the Space-Dragon/Star Spirit to sing to the inhabitants of Earth, and the beauty of this music distracts humanity from its destructive nature causing the first worldwide lasting peace.

So right off the bat one must wonder, “Where the hell was the Space-Dragon in Brad Bird’s movie?” Well a lot happened to the project as it went from page to screen; first a Peter Townsend musical stage version of the book was made, which had several changes of it's own from the book, but when Townsend was convinced this could make for a great animated movie he brought the project to Warner Brothers. Enter Brad Bird and The Iron Giant.

Warner Brothers had been trying to get some of that sweet, sweet box office money that Disney had been raking in since The Little Mermaid debut in 1989, but Warner’s was not really known for their full length animated features. So the studio offered up and coming animator Brad Bird, formerly of Disney (fired for fighting with the brass) and lately of The Simpsons fame, and a pick of projects they had on the go.  Lucky for us the only one that really intrigued him was The Iron Giant, but what Brad Bird wasn’t interested in doing was a Disney musical.  As that was the whole point behind the Pete Townsend rock-opera connection, and where Warner Brothers had planned this story to go, this became a brief sticking point.  That is until Brad Birded pitched the idea of “What if a gun had a soul?” The people at Warner's all agreed that this was an interesting idea, and as Townsend would get paid whether or not his music was used he had no problem with the change either.

There is a big difference between a passion project and a director for hire, John Carpenter’s Christine being a prime example of a director doing it simply for the paycheck, but though The Iron Giant project didn’t originate with Bird he pretty much tossed out the book and turned the whole thing into a personal mission. A key element in the production of this movie, and what led to the “What if a gun had a soul?” theme, is that Brad Bird himself had been greatly affected by gun violence for his sister had been shot and killed by her husband.  So it’s not surprising that this kind of traumatic event skewed this film from a metal giant and a space dragon, as it appears in the book, to the anti-gun themed story that the movie became.


“You are who you choose to be.”

Aside from the fact that the movie contains a large iron man, and he befriends a boy named Hogarth, there are almost no similarities between the book and the movie. In the book the boy has two loving parents while in the movie Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) lives with his mom Annie Hughes (Jennifer Aniston) who is a single parent.

Note: The lack of a parental figure is a standard Disney cliché and something Brad Bird must have absorbed during his time at the House of Mouse.

In the movie the character of the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) is a being we learn crash landed on Earth due to an impact to his head, which caused him to developed amnesia. This amnesia allows the Iron Giant to befriend Hogarth, much as stray dog would to a new master, but then as the film progresses the Iron Giant’s character changes from pet, to friend, to eventual hero. Who and where the Iron Giant came from is mostly a mystery for the bulk of the film’s running time, and even in the director’s cut of the film where we get a dream sequence of the Iron Giant being part of a metal army that lays waste to alien worlds, we still don’t find out what caused the Giant to land here on Earth.  In the book none of this exists. As mentioned the book opens with The Iron Man standing at a seaside cliff where we learn he can rebuild himself if he is broken apart, but the reader learns nothing about his origins.  He could have been built by a mad scientist or possible by the Greek god Hephaestus.  His origin was not important to the tale Ted Hughes was telling.

Note: That the parts of The Iron Giant are able to slowly come back together after being smashed to pieces is about the only character trait that Brad Bird took from the book.

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes is a rather short fairy tale, where this mysterious metal man is at first perceived as a threat, but who in the end becomes mankind’s savior.  Now in broad strokes that looks to be very similar to the Brad Bird version but in placing his version of the story in the 50s, during the height of Cold War paranoia, this changes key elements. Aside from the Space-Dragon the book has no key antagonist, the townsfolk are all for getting rid of the Iron Man but they only go as far as building an ineffectual pit trap for the giant, but in the film Bird creates the character of Kent Mansley (Christopher MacDonald) a Federal Agent who considers anything not from America to be a threat. This antagonist does not exist in the book, neither does the eventually threat of military action against the giant, and with this major change the dynamic of the story is shifted. In the book Hogarth Hughes is a pretty passive character; he alerts the community of the Iron Man’s existence, lures it into the trap, convinces it to live peacefully and eventually helps overcome the threat of the Space-Dragon, but he doesn’t really do much more than offer advice and suggestions. On the other hand the Hogarth of the movie is a kid of action; he saves the Iron Giant from being electrocuted when it inadvisably tries to eat a power station, he finds a good source of food for the Giant, but most of all he thwarts Kent Mansley at every turn.


“And all that it implies."

The book version of Hogarth is never in any real danger while movie Hogarth has inadvertently befriended a weapon of mass destruction that if triggered could blow the poor kid into atoms. Kent Mansley, who as a foil of Hogarth’s starts out comical and buffoonish, but then slowly turns dangerous as almost destroys the town and all its inhabitants. Not to mention the fact that he chloroforms a child after a sinister integration. Lucky for Hogarth he isn’t alone in his battle against authority as he is able to enlist local beatnik Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) to help hide the giant and keep the military from finding out about this strange invader. Dean is another character not found in the book, and he serves as the counter culture reflection of Kent Mansley, and it is Dean who instills the wise words to Hogarth, “You are who you choose to be.”  This father figure is instrumental in helping Hogarth turn what was once a ruthless killing machine into the hero it wants to be.


That is one brave kid.

The Iron Giant himself is a fantastic creation of Brad Bird and his fellow animators; the giants growth from lost and befuddled creature to heroic savior is masterfully done, and when a panicked and frustrated Kent Mansley orders a nuclear strike that would devastate the town and kill all the inhabitants, it is this soulful being that sacrifices itself to save his friend.  And if you don’t tear up when The Iron Giant utters the name, “Superman” as he collides with the nuke there is a good chance you have no soul.

It is almost impossible to compare the book to the movie; one is a lovely fairy tale that deserves all the accolades it got, while the other is an action/comedy/science fiction adventure movie with tons of heart. These two stories are too vastly different to give an honest comparison, and both are good in their own right, but for me The Iron Giant will always hold a special place in my heart.


Note: That the movie turned out as good as it did should be considered a bloody miracle; Brad Bird and crew worked with a budget and time frame a fraction of what a Disney feature would have been given, and due to the failure of Warner’s Quest For Camelot it got dumped into theatres without even a proper marketing campaign.  Truly a cinematic crime, but at least over time it has gained more and more adoring fans to it's wonderful legacy.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Green Slime (1968) – Review

Remember when you were a kid and your mother gave you holy hell for tracking mud onto her freshly mopped floor? Now picture that moment on a space station only it’s not mud you’ve tracked in but alien protoplasm that quickly grows into a legion of monsters. Getting sent to your room without dinner would be the least of your problems. This is the basic premise to director Kinji Fukasaku’s late 60s science fiction monster flick Green Slime. What we have here is a couple of ham-fisted American astronauts fighting over a woman while battling creatures that look like a cross between a monster from Doctor Who and The Power Rangers, but to be fair it does works in a low budgeted cheeseball way.

Note: The screenplay was by legendary comic creator Bill Finger, the man most responsible for making Batman awesome.

the green slime poster

The movie opens with the men at the United Nations Space Command discovering that an asteroid is on a direct collision course with Earth, and that there is only ten hours to destroy it before it obliterates our tiny blue planet. General Thompson (Bud Widom) knows that there is only one man qualified to lead this mission, and being Bruce Willis was only thirteen years old at the time that man is Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton). There is one slight problem and that is that Rankin had resigned from Space Command and so can’t be ordered to go, he has to volunteer. An added wrinkle to the mission is that with such a tight timeframe there is a good chance that after planting the explosives on the asteroid that the astronauts won’t be able to make it far enough away to escape the blast zone.


“You had me at suicide mission.”

Complicating things further is the fact that the mission will be outfitted and launched from space station Gamma 3 which just so happens to be commanded by Vince Elliot (Richard Jaeckel), a man who was once best friends with Rankin but now they are bitter enemies. We never get any details as to what exactly happened to cause these men to have such a falling out but a mission that Elliot led, which resulted in several deaths because Elliot tried to save one man and ending up losing ten, is one big reason but the other would be that Elliot is currently engaged to Rankin’s ex-girlfriend Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi), and who is now a doctor on Gamma 3. So we have an asteroid headed for Earth as well as a tense love triangle aboard a space station, that’s a lot dramatic tension for a science fiction movie and we haven’t even got to the monsters yet.


“I get the girl, you can have the asteroid.”

Tension mounts right off that bat as Rankin pulls rank *snicker* as he is in charge of the mission and will be calling all the shots, and he spends most of the movie shoving that fact in Elliot’s face. In turn Elliot is a complete baby about it and is more worried about Rankin stealing his girl back than any stupid asteroid threat. This is the key problem with this movie, neither of these guys is particularly likable; Rankin is a pompous windbag with a face like a slab of beef and Elliot is a whiney git who screws up and costs more lives just so he’ll have a reason to give the ole “noble sacrifice” at the end. Regardless of their antagonism towards each other Rankin allows Elliot on the mission to blow up the asteroid, and everything goes relatively smoothly, no deep core oil drillers required, but there is some pesky green slime that lies around in pulsating puddles that seems drawn to our astronaut’s moon golf carts and drains them of power.


I’m betting Triple A isn’t going to answer this call.

Being time is of the essence Rankin abandons the equipment and races back to the rocket ship on foot, only to be shortly greeted by Dr. Hans Halvorsen (Ted Gunther) who excitedly shows off his container of green slime. Rankin tells him to, “Get rid of it” despite Halvorsen claiming that, “This is a major discovery!” and so our esteemed commander grabs the specimen container out of Halvorsen’s hands and smashes on the ground. What a dick. In many science fiction movies scientists are portrayed as “head in the clouds” morons who endanger everyone around them with the lofty ideals, but in this instance there is no reason not to bring back the first example of extra-terrestrial life ever found. The sample is safely contained in a glass specimen container and it’s only when Rankin smashes the jar that a bit of the slime lands on one of the suits of a fellow astronaut. So despite this script seeming to insist that Elliot and Halvorsen are responsible for multiple deaths it’s really all falls at the feet of Rankin because it’s his being an asshole that leads to the contaminate being brought back to the space station in the first place.


“I’m citing you all for gross negligence. Now where’s that hot fiancé of yours?

When they get back to Gamma 3 Rankin orders that all equipment be run through the decontamination procedure three times despite Elliot grousing that his men don’t have time to run such unnecessary number of decontaminations. Once again it seems like Elliot’s bitching and complaining is the cause of the Green Slime monster outbreak, but later we find out that the slime grows when exposed to energy and that the decontamination process actually accelerated their growth. Elliot’s not wanting to follow Rankin’s excessive orders was actually a good thing, but that still won’t spare him his “noble” death.


“I regret nothing!”

Once the alien contamination begins to grow it starts knocking off Gamma 3 station personal one by one with nasty electrical chargers from its waving tentacles. Rankin, Elliot and Lisa run from one monster fried employee to another without a clue as to what’s going on, that is until they come face to cyclopean eyed face with the growing horror that plagues their station. Halvorsen, being the scientist, wants to capture the thing alive, and Elliot and his men do try to capture it using gas guns and rope nets. Unsurprisingly this results in several men being killed and or hospitalized. Later when they try to lure the growing horde of creatures away from the inhabited portions of the station Halverson gets caught behind a closing bulkhead door because he was stupid enough to run back to get his notes. Typical movie scientist action. Rankin and Elliot see on a monitor poor Halverson screaming and flailing against the creatures, Elliot wants to open the bulkhead door and attempt a rescue, but Rankin is against the idea. This leads to the following exchange:

Rankin: “You’ll risk the whole station!”
Elliot: “That’s a risk we are going to have to take.”
Rankin: “Not as long as I’m in command.”
Elliot ignores the order and strides over to the bulkhead door.
Rankin: “Get away from that panel!” He aims a laser rifle at him and states, “That’s an order Vince.”
Elliot: “It’s your move commander.”

I’m assuming we are supposed to side with Rankin here because Elliot is willing to risk the lives of everyone on board the station for the sake of one man, clearly a call back to the incident alluded to earlier, but I’m on Elliot’s side because starring down a laser rifle in such a cool badass fashion is too damn cool, also Rankin is a dick. And poor Rankin doesn’t even get a chance to shoot off his popgun because Lisa runs in the way and opens the panel herself. Dames, they’re always ruining a man’s fun.


It’s no surprise that they find Halverson in less than pristine condition.

The rest of the movie has our heroes running up and down countless corridors, trying to get the wounded out of the path of the killer creatures, and finding some way to stop the ever increasing horde. At one point Lisa wants Rankin to authorize the evacuation of the injured to Earth, Rankin refuses as that could lead to Earth being overrun with the Green Slime, but later when half the station is on fire he orders a mass evacuation and just informs Space Command to set up a quarantine facility for them, which he could easily have done earlier when Lisa first requested it for the wounded.


Rankin, what a dick.

When Rankin orders the destruction of Gamma 3 Elliot kind of loses it, “Now I’m going to tell you something for the last time. I’m in command of this station, and when my Chief gives me an order to destroy Gamma 3 I’ll take that order from him, but I won’t take it from you!” What does the diplomatic Rankin do? Does he call down to Space Command and get the Chief’s authorization? Nope, he orders security officers to escort Elliot to one of the evacuation ships with the stipulation that if Elliot resists they should consider him under arrest. That Elliot tries to slug the jackass only makes me sad because he misses. This does lead to a fun space battle when a mission when a group of astronaut, led by a disgraced Elliot who refuses to be arrested, have to spacewalk out to clear the dock of the multitude of green bastards that are crawling all over the exterior of the station and blocking the evacuation.


Star Trek: First Contact totally ripped this scene off.

I particularly love that when one runs out of charge for your laser rifle you have the option of using the rifle as a javelin and hurling it at your enemy. Sadly this heroic moment for Elliot isn’t enough to spare him that aforementioned noble death. When the station is evacuated they are dismayed to learn that there isn’t enough power for Space Command to remotely detonate the station, and so someone will have to go back inside and do it by hand. Heroic Rankin decides to go back alone, it’s not like the success of this mission is important enough to risk a couple of guys, but just when he’s about to be fried by a couple of the green menaces Elliot arrives in time to distract the horde. You see after clearing off the space dock Elliot found out from Lisa that Rankin had gone off on this suicide mission and so he grabbed a fresh laser rifle, kissed his fiancé for the last time, and went off to battle.


Elliot goes down fighting like the true hero he is.

The day is saved. Rankin returns to the evacuation ship as the station burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, he radios Space Command and requests the highest commendation for Vince Elliot, posthumously of course. Thanks you big jerk, I’m sure Elliot’s spirit will get great comfort in that while your consoling his grieving fiancé. The big slab of beef jerky actually gives the crying Lisa a thumbs up.


Rankin, let me tell you where you can stick that thumb.

The Green Slime was a co-production between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Toei with MGM providing the funding and script while Toei provided the film crew and location to shoot the film. Much of the supporting cast where American military stationed in Japan and who probably had a great time pretending to shoot space monsters. This came out the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which kind of gave audiences of the time a perfect example of what science fiction and cinema was capable of doing in the right hands and how godawful it could be in the hands of those who clearly failed High School Science Class. Though far from being a good movie The Green Slime does provide some good unintentional laughs, this was the first movie to be lampooned on Mystery Science 3000, and Richard Jaeckel grit toothed acting is always a treat. So if you are flipping channels one night and you happen to come across this little piece of sci-fi nostalgia give it a peak, you may find yourself surprisingly entertained.


Check out the awesome 60s theme by Charles Fox and sung by Richard Delvy.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Synthetic Men of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs - Book Review

a390107There have been many versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” story since French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published her book back in 1740, and in 1939 Edgar Rice Burroughs put his own spin on the tale, but he decided to leave out the Stockholm Syndrome element of the story. Synthetic Men of Mars was first published in the pages of Argosy Weekly as a six part series; and though it does include the heroic John Carter he is mostly a tertiary character.

Once again Dejah Thoris is in danger; surprisingly it’s not from being kidnapped but from suffering a serious injury in an airship collision. The top medical minds of Helium are unable to help her so John Carter turns to the greatest mind on all Barsoom, Ras Thavas, who first appeared in The Master Mind of Mars, but finding him is the tricky thing as Ras Thavas had moved his laboratory to a secret location since we last saw him.

Vor Daj, a young lieutenant in the Helium army, insists that he be allowed to accompany John Carter and the two set forth in a small flier, but due to a broken navigational needle they find themselves flying near the dreaded Toonolian Marshes. They land their flier and decide to approach the city of Phundahl to see its Jeddak, but before they reach the city they are captured by monstrously deformed humanoids mounted upon giant flying birds that have long been presumed to be extinct. Even John Carter’s superior swordsmanship is no help as these beings can withstand almost any amount of damage, only cutting off their head seems to slow them down, and soon our heroes find themselves captured and being taken to the island city of Morbus located deep inside the marsh.

Guess where Ras Thavas had moved his secret laboratory to? Put your hand down, we all know it’s in Morbus. Anyone familiar with the works of Burroughs knows that incredible coincidences tend to pop up in his stories from time to time; in The Fighting Man of Mars the hero loses his invisible ship but then days later, when trapped on a hill and surrounded by enemies, our hero bumps into something he can't see that of course turns out to be his lost invisible flier. It can be said that the gods of chance look kindly upon the characters created by Burroughs; so that John Carter and Vor Daj got lost, captured, and then taken to the very place they needed to go isn’t all that surprising.

Story structure has never been Burroughs’ strong suit, writing in serialized form is bound to change things a bit, but where he always stands out is in the sheer creativity of the people and worlds he populates these stories with. The title creatures of Synthetic Men of Mars are the hormads, men grown in huge vats by Ras Thavas in another of his bids to take over the world. He hadn’t quite perfected the process when our heroes encounter him; many of the creatures that stumble out of the vat are so far deformed that they are just chucked back in, but even the best of them are hideous to behold, misshapen monstrosities of ones worst nightmares. Ras Thavas had planned to make an army that would be nigh unbeatable, but unfortunately a few of them were intelligent enough to overthrow Ras and forced him to continue making “monster men” while also forcing him to use his brain swapping techniques to move their own brains into the bodies of normal Red Men of Barsoom that they capture from time to time. Basically this is a Frankenstein story only with an army of monsters, and Ras Thavas as an even less sympathetic mad scientist.


But what of the “Beauty and the Beast” element I alluded to at the beginning of this review? Well you’re not going to have an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure without a love interest in this case of we have the lovely Janai, a beautiful woman and fellow prisoner in this mad city, and who Vor Daj falls in love with. Vor Daj comes up with the most insane plan to protect this fair maiden; he ask Ras Thavas to put his brain inside the body of one of the homads, this way he will have freedom to move around the city and find Janai. He finds her and becomes her protector, but he can't find it in himself to let her know that he is Vor Daj, who she’d briefly met during their capture, and so he tells her that he had been looking for her on Vor Daj’s behalf. She is at times suspicious of this hulking brute, and can get no real verification of his claim to be Vor Daj’s friend as his body is in cold storage beneath Ras Thavas’s labs, but over time she comes to realize what a noble and brave soul lies inside this monstrosity.

Will beauty see into the heart of the beast? Will Vor Daj get his body back? Is Dejah Thoris doomed if Ras Thavas cannot escape his own creations? Is all of Barsoom itself doomed if this army of monster men wage war on the planet? And just what is John Carter doing during all this?


Synthetic Men of Mars is not one of the better Barsoom stories, John Carter vanishing for the bulk of the book is lazily contrived so as to give us time with the book’s new hero, but anytime spent with mad scientist Ras Thavas I enjoyed wholeheartedly, and his current creations are quite amazing (even if one of the vats gets out of control and becomes a massive fleshy blob, with random arms and heads sticking out of it that could eventually consume all life on Mars) and are true fun science fiction stuff. The love story between Vor Daj and Janai gets that nice wrinkle of the hero being stuck in the body of a monster, and once again the action and humor found in these pages is always entertaining. So even if this isn’t one of the better books in the series it’s still worth checking out.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Return of Godzilla (1984) – Review

godzilla_1984Also known as Godzilla 1984 (or Godzilla 1985 if you were in North America) The Return of Godzilla was Toho’s reboot of the Godzilla series in the hopes of boosting dwindling ticket sales that the franchise had been getting of late. Despite the film having been produced during the Shōwa period (1954-1975) The Return of Godzilla is considered to be the first entry in the Heisei series, and it completely ignores the previous entries considering itself a direct sequel to the original 1954 classic. This entry goes with a darker tone, no longer is Godzilla a friend to children in short pants, nor will he be seen fighting other monsters. Once again Godzilla is a rampaging force of nature that could spell the end of mankind.

The film itself doesn’t feel much like your standard Godzilla movie; as with most entries in the franchise Godzilla’s screen time is limited due to budgetary constraints, but instead of the rest of the movie being filled with goofy alien subplots or idiotic adventures with small Japanese children, this movie has more of a horror film vibe with a dash of government thriller. The movie opens with a Japanese fishing vessel being tossed by rough seas after a volcanic eruption, one that of course awakens and unleashes Godzilla onto the world, and the sole survivor onboard is Hiroshi Okumura (Shin Takuma). This poor chap is discovered by news reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka), who was sailing in the area when he came across the seemingly abandoned vessel, and while investigating the “ghost ship” he is attacked by a giant sea louse. He is saved by Hiroshi and the two becomes friends, but it’s Hiroshi’s sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi) that Hiroshi would prefer to get friendly with.
It’s nothing unusual to have a love story in a Godzilla film, the 1954 original had the classic love triangle, but the opening of The Return of Godzilla is shot more like a horror film than it is your standard kaiju film. Hiroshi creeps through the darkened corridors of the ghost ship as if Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers could pop out wielding an axe or machete at any time. The first crew member that Hiroshi encounters looks like more like a victim of a space vampire than it does Godzilla.


Note: The drained corpses aboard this ship were killed by the giant louses which are believed to have been mutated by feeding off of Godzilla.  Not your typical kill in a Godzilla film.

Godzilla himself appears out of a fog bank like a giant spectre, and the score is very understated and creepy, completely unlike the Godzilla march composed by the great Akira Ifukube, who refused to return to the franchise upon hearing that the monster was to be increased from 50 metres to 80 metres (260ft) stating, “I do not write music for 80-meter monsters.” Though his iconic score is greatly missed I’d say Reijiro Koroku did a fine job going in very different and slightly creepy direction.


The first half of the film works almost as a political thriller with the government trying to cover up the return of Godzilla to prevent wide spread panic. Hiroshi’s news article is suppressed and Goro Maki’s survival is kept under wraps, Hiroshi goes against the government by letting Naoko know that her brother is alive, but when a Russian nuclear submarine is destroyed by Godzilla the Japanese government has to cop to the truth to prevent Russia from going to war with the United States, who they blamed for the incident. Things get tense when both Russia and the United States want Japan's consent to launch nuclear missiles against Godzilla, and after much debate the Japanese Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) refuses and decides to go with more conventional weapons. Historically speaking the Japanese being less than keen about having an atomic explosion on their soil is not all that surprising. Lucky for them they happen to have an armored flying fortress called the Super X which can shoot cadmium rounds that would hopefully neutralizes Godzilla's atomic power as his heart is similar to a nuclear reactor, the cadmium shells would then slow down his heart, and knock him unconscious.


Godzilla faces off against the Super X.

I always feel sorry for the Japanese military in these movies as their sole job seems to be to have their ass kicked by Godzilla, and then a heroic scientist will come up with a plan to save the day. I’d like for once to see a Japanese General refuse to send his troops against Godzilla, stating, “Fuck you guys, get Dr. Serizawa on phone and let him come up with something!”  It's just never ever remotely a fair fight.


Japan's Military Forces Before Godzilla.


Japan's Military Forces After Godzilla.

In The Return of Godzilla the role of Dr. Serizawa is filled by Naoko’s mentor Dr. Hayashida (Yôsuke Natsuki) who has a plan to use a magnetic signal to trigger Godzilla’s migratory response, which would be used to lure him to a volcanic island where they could then trigger an eruption and bury the monster once and for all. Seems like a brilliant plan but of course a few incidents occur that delay this effort. When Godzilla waded ashore he had, in passing, destroyed a Russia cargo ship that just so happened to be a secret missile control center. and the destruction of this ship caused an orbital missile platform to accidentally launch a strike at the heart of Tokyo. The Americans are able to launch their own missile to intercept, but unfortunately the atmospheric explosion causes an electrical storm that revives Godzilla while temporarily disabling the Super X.


Godzilla then drops a building on the poor Super X.

The Return of Godzilla is a decent entry in the series, and though not the financially windfall the studio had hoped for it at least put the Godzilla franchise back on track and out of the silliness of some of the previous installments. It does return to the formula of science not military might being the way to defeat the monster, but director Koji Hashimoto added some horror elements to give the franchise some freshness, and it even had some stuff right out of 70s disaster movies. At one point Hiroshi and Naoko have to escape from a building severely damaged by Godzilla and it’s almost a complete lift from an Irwin Allen movie.


Godzilla meets The Towering Inferno.

To make up for the lacklustre box office receipts the film was released in North America where once again Raymond Burr, who was added in the American release of the original back in 1954, is back to look on in horror at the destruction of this atomic monster. In a bit of Cold War propaganda the American edit makes the Russian missile launch look deliberate and leaves out the Russian officer dying in the attempt to stop it. I advise you avoid this cut of the film and track down the Japanese one.


Raymond Burr is The Concerned American.

Note: At no point in the film do they explain how Godzilla is alive to return in the first place. The 1954 film ended with Godzilla being reduced to a skeleton by the Oxygen Destroyer. Did he just get better?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Victor Frankenstein (2015) – Review

When it comes to adaptations of classic monsters Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is only surpassed by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and that is mainly because most films portray the monster as a mindless brute, which is not the way he was depicted in the original novel. As the title of this film denotes this is more about the man behind the monster than of the monster itself…who is once again a mindless brute. *sigh* But is this movie really about Victor Frankenstein?

victor-frankenstein 1-2015-poster

What sets this movie apart from many of the Frankenstein adaptations is that it is told mostly through the eyes Victor’s lab assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), while Victor (James McAvoy) is your typical card carrying mad scientist that we’ve seen a hundred times before. This “fresh perspective” is certainly an interesting choice when adapting Mary Shelley’s book for the character of Igor does not exist in the books but was a creation of Universal Studios. Now I’m not saying this is an intrinsically bad idea but this version of Igor, created by director Paul McGuigan and writers Max Landis, is about the most ridiculous character I’ve seen in quite some time, and this is from someone who has watched I, Frankenstein.

We first meet Igor (though he has nameless at the time and only gets one later when he moves in with Victor) he is a hunchbacked clown working in a circus. Through his narration we learn that when Igor was not performing as a clown he functioned as the circus’s doctor (as clowns were known to do) and while fulfilling this unique dual career he became fascinated with the science of medicine and human anatomy in particular. But he isn’t shown just being interested in medicine, we see him pouring over medical journals and making detailed anatomical drawings of his own. We clearly see that his fellow performers ridicule and abuse him, so what crazy logic led them to making this “actual clown” the company doctor and outfitting him with what would be at the time rather expensive books? It’s also during this opening that we meet circus aerialist Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), who Igor is secretly in love with, and it is when she is injured from a fall that we see the sheer breadth of Igor’s skill as a doctor as he comes up with an instant diagnosis of her injury, and with the help of Victor is able to save her life.


Damn, even House needed an X-Ray machine.

Victor tells Igor that he is wasting his skills working as a clown (duh) and helps him escape his cruel circus masters. It’s at this point we realize that Paul McGuigan must have been huge fan of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies as this film is more a rip-off of that series than it is of the Frankenstein mythos. Paul McGuigan and Max Landis have turned Victor Frankenstein into a Victorian action hero. Not only is this action set piece reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Holmes and Watson team-up but it is quickly followed by the introduction of police inspector Roderick Turpin (Andrew Scott) who uses deductive reasoning to figure out that the circus owner is lying when he claims these two men robbed the circus and murdered a performer. That they cast Andrew Scott, who portrayed Moriarty on the British series Sherlock, makes the comparison even more blatant. But then the script has Turpin jettison all his scientific reasoning to go after Victor and Igor because he believes their experiments are sinful and will incur the wrath of God.


He totally frowns on dabbling in things man was not meant to know.

And “not Inspector Lestrade” isn’t even the films only villain, we also have Victor’s father Baron Frankenstein (Charles Dance) who blames Victor for the death of his eldest son, and then we have the other big bad in the form of rich aristocrat Finnegan (Freddie Fox), a fellow classmate of Victor’s who offers to fund the research of “Life over Death” with the clear motive of using this technology to make his family even richer. For those of you that haven’t read Mary Shelley’s novel I’d like to point out that it didn’t have a one clear cut antagonist let alone three. In the book the Monster brings death and destruction upon Victor’s life because his maker spurned him immediately after his birth. There is a lot of blame to go around in the original book, but in this movie the Monster is barely a third act footnote and Victor’s guilt is more about betraying his friendship with Igor than in abandoning his creation. James McAvoy’s performance here is so vastly over-the-top it verges on cartoonish, so we the audience have no real feelings either way about the character, but that’s fine because magic science Igor is the central character here despite what the title implies. We spend an inordinate amount of screen time with Igor’s love affair with Lorelei because a love subplot between Victor Frankenstein’s assistant and a trapeze artist is what audience certainly came here to see.


Is somebody going to build a monster, or what?

Daniel Radcliffe gives a subtler performance than what we get from McAvoy, but then again that’s like saying a latrine's hole is smaller than the Grand Canyon. Another problem with this film is that can’t even keep the character of Igor consistent; first he’s a magically gifted hunchback with insane medical knowledge, but once Victor drains his hump and straightens him with a back brace (Isn’t science wonderful?) he becomes Victor’s assistant, but then when he proves to be even more invaluable than originally believed Victor makes him his partner, yet later we get Igor calling Victor, “Master.” If this movie wanted to do something really interesting they could gone the route of Igor being the brains behind the whole thing and that Victor Frankenstein was just the name and the money behind the experiment.


“Victor, I’m running off with Lorelei. Good luck with the torch wielding mob.”

Instead we are left with a clichéd mad scientist who only realizes too late that the creature he created isn’t true life but just a soulless humonclous. This completely reverses the science versus religion battle that this film seemed to be making over the past 90 minutes. It’s as if Max Landis, at the last second, decided he’d better not anger the religious right and so he had religious zealot Turpin proven to be right all along.  To add insult to injury this movie's final revel of the monster is just plain sad as the creature looks more like somebody the Scooby and the Gang would find themselves up against, and I’d have have forgiven a lot if at the end it revealed that the Monster was actually Mister Barnaby the owner of the Circus.


“And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.”

Boris Karloff brought pain and pathos to his depiction of the Monster while this movie only gives us a seven foot tall growling bore, and also relegated to basically a cameo in this film. With television shows like Penny Dreadful giving us interesting takes on the classic monsters a theatrical released movie has to do better than this

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Swords of Mars: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

bb3412Welcome back John Carter! With the eighth book in the Barsoom series the narrative switches back to the character who started it all; released in 1936, in the pages of Blue Book, this six part serial was the first time we’d had a John Carter centric story since Warlord of Mars. No longer following the adventures of one of his kids, or other random adventurers, Swords of Mars throws the greatest swordsman to ever live into dangers beyond his kin and into the hands of a pair of dueling scientists. Be forewarned, Dejah Thoris is kidnapped in the pages of this book. I know, this totally shocked me as well.

Dying of old age on Barsoom isn’t something many people achieve; the average lifespan among the inhabitants of the Red Planet is about one thousand years, but as warfare is almost a constant state of affairs across the globe reaching that lofty age is rarely achieved. Before John Carter exposed the Holy Therns religious scam (back in Gods of Mars) one could take the long boat ride down the river Iss and an assumed paradise, but Carter spoiled all that by revealing that not only was there no god but that the pilgrims were either being enslaved or eaten. In Swords of Mars John Carter attempts to put a stop to another method of dying, and that would be assassination.

When John Carter led the Thark horde to sack the city Zodanga (back in A Princess of Mars) he didn’t make many friends, and as as one who does not let old enemies fester and plot Carter decided to wage against the resurgent Guild of Assassins, whose headquarters can be found in Zodanga. For a while he was satisfied to have his agents track down and kill any assassin that dared set foot inside his beloved Helium, but soon that wasn’t enough and he decided to take the war to their capital. Of course the infamous John Carter wouldn’t have much luck uncovering the Guild if he just walked around Zodanga looking for clues, he's kind of a notorious celebrity at this point, but with some nice applied red pigment he could easily pass as a soldier of fortune seeking employment.

The first half of Sword of Mars is basically a spy story with John Carter getting caught up in a hot bed of spies and murders; he meets small-time criminal Rapas the Ulsio (aka The Rat) who introduces him to Fal Sivas, a brilliant if a little mad scientist (as most proper scientists are) who is constructing a ship that can make interplanetary journeys. The reason Fal Sivas is in need of a strong sword arm working for him is that he has a dangerous rival in the form of Gar Nal, another scientist working on a spacecraft of his own. So long before America and Russia started their “Space Race” Mars was in the midst of their own.


While working for Fal Sivas John Carter is able to investigate the Guild of Assassins because Gar Nal has employed Ur Jan, the head of the Guild, to kill Fal Sivas. There is much fun to be had here as Rapas the Rat informs Ur Jan that Fal Sivas has hired a new bodyguard, and he offers to lead this poor sap into a trap. Unfortunately for this particular rat the intended victim over hears this plan and so instead of an assassin taking out some poor soldier of fortune he find himself dead on the blade of John Carter, Warlord of Mars. After repeated attempts fail to take out this “simple” solider the crafty Ur Jan realizes that the only man on Barsoom capable of killing off his best men is John Carter himself. Also Carter cuts an “X” into his victims, which was a mark he placed on previous assassins during his war against the Guild, and kind of a big tip-off as to who is behind it all. Carter may be a brilliant swordsman but his spy craft could use a little work.


During one of John Carter’s better spy moments he overhears that Ur Jan had put into motion a plan to kidnap a noble of Helium, so as to blackmail his enemies out of not only gold and jewels but to ensure that they leave his Guild business alone, and of course the target turns out to be Dejah Thoris *sigh* and they plan on hiding her on one of the Martian moons. Carter immediately races home but he's too late, so he races back to Zodanga to get the only ship with a chance of saving his true love. Soon John Carter will find himself sailing through the dark void of space where he will face cyclopean flesh eaters and invisible armies all in a quest to once again rescue his one true love.

John Carter’s skill as a swordsman will be put to the ultimate test but it’s his ability to think quickly on his feet that will be pushed to the limits here, and Swords of Mars is chock full of all the stuff that makes the Barsoom stories so great, but it also has some new and brilliant stuff to dazzle his readers.

What will thrill fans of science fiction is that in this story Edgar Rice Burroughs devised one of the early uses of computers in science fiction; the brilliant Fal Sivas had outfitted his spacecraft with a synthetic brain, and because he is a “mad scientist” he developed this brain by doing brain biopsies on living patients, studying how the brain works and transposing what learned to his ships artificial brain, and if that isn’t enough to thrill you the synthetic brain is also thought controlled. Fal Sivas explains to Carter that it isn’t a true brain; it cannot generate original thoughts of its own, but is reliant on commands by Fal Sivas himself. Thought controlled element aside this is a pretty good description of how advanced computers work, it can complete complicated tasks as long as it has proper directives. Eat your heart out Isaac Asimov.


A Barsoom story isn’t complete without the introduction of a new race or two; in Swords of Mars we encounter on the moon known as Thuria two distinct races; first there is the invisible sun-worshipping Tarids, who capture John Carter and company upon their arrival on the moon. The Tarids are not actually invisible, nor do they have some cloaking device that hides them from their enemies, but instead the Tarids had developed a hypnotic power as a protective device. They simply will their enemies to neither see nor hear them. Of course John Carter will be able to eventually break through this mental illusion, and after getting the Tarid queen to fall in love with him they escape.

Note: John Carter does not seduce the Tarid queen so that they can escape, this is just something that happens, and to be fair by this point it’s kind of like breathing when it comes to John Carter and women. Now Carter doesn’t let cop to the fact that Dejah Thoris (also a captive of the Tarids) is his wife because he is not an idiot, and jealousy has caused him much grief in the past, so though he doesn't intentionally seduce the Queen he also doesn’t exactly discourage her falling in love with him.

The second race that Carter encounters is the cat-like Umka, who he meets while imprisoned by the Tarids. He shares his cell with one of these one-eyed, two-mouthed grinning Cat-Men, who keeps changing color to blend with the background like a chameleon, and it’s from this Umka that Carter learns to speak the local language. When they do eventually escape the friendship he developed with this Cat-Man serves him in good stead as it saves Carter and the Queen from being eaten by his flesh-eating friends.  Having the right friends has always been a key ingredient to survival in Burroughs land.


Swords of Mars has the usual backstabbing betrayals, though one villain has a nice change of heart, and there will be moments of sheer coincidence and good luck; so much so that one assume that John Carter was born with a horseshoe lodged up his butt and that he spends his free time rolling around in a pit of rabbits feet. Regardless of the formulaic moments that pop up in this series I found this book to be immensely fun and engaging, kind of makes reading a Burroughs book like slipping into a nice comfortable pair of shoes, and the more one reads Burroughs the more one realizes just how much of an impact he had on the genre.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Absent Minded Professor (1961) – Review

Long before Doc Brown was installing a time travelling device inside a DeLorean Professor Ned Brainard was out fitting his Model T with an anti-gravity material in The Absent Minded Professor; this Disney classic from 1961 is a perfect example of the trope of the befuddled scientist that the movie was named after, and Fred MacMurray plays the part brilliantly. It was popular enough to merit a sequel, Disney’s first sequel in fact, and it spawned two remakes, but it’s the original movie that everyone looks back at fondly.


Based on the short story "A Situation of Gravity" by Samuel W. Taylor, and directed by the ever capable Robert Stevenson, Walt Disney’s The Absent Minded Professor follows the story of Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray) who teaches physical chemistry at Medfield College, he is engaged to Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson) but due to his absent mindedness he has missed their wedding day twice, and with the discovery of a new form of energy he misses the third wedding attempt. This does not sit well with Betsy; science is a fickle mistress and one a fiancé isn’t likely to put up with for long.


Brainard's a good scientist but he clearly flunked romantic chemistry.

When his garage lab explodes, knocking him and causing him to miss his own wedding…again, he awakes to discover that his experiment worked, and that he has invented a material with infinite kinetic energy. Bombarding it with a small dose of gamma radiation provides enough initial energy to make this rubber like substance fly, and thus he calls this flying rubber Flubber. Unfortunately Betsy had reached the end of her rope when it comes to Brainard and waiting in the wings is slimy Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reid), an English professor from Rutland College, Medfield’s chief rival. Shelby has been practically stalking Betsy, bashing Brainard at every opportunity, and with this final failed wedding appearance Shelby swoops in like a vulture.


Shelby Ashton is your standard Disney romantic foil.

Now Ned Brainard may be a sweet good natured and affable professor but when the love of his life is about to be stolen by a Shakespearean spouting jerk he leaps into action, and lucky for him Flubber proves to be an excellent tool. At first he tries to explain to Betsy about his marvelous discovery, but his inability to work coherence into his science talk leaves her cold, and so he tries to show her his modified Model T car that he has outfitted with Flubber. Unfortunately her rightful anger makes her unable to listen to Ned let alone go for a ride in his supposed “flying car” and so she takes off with Shelby to the big college basketball game between Medfield and Rutland. The game is a disaster, as earlier Brainard had failed the team’s star player Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk) thus causing the kid to be benched, and the Medfield team finds themselves being trounced by bigger better Rutland players. With Shelby gloating over his school’s eminent victory Ned leaps into action and secretly applies Flubber to the bottom of the Medfield player’s shoes, giving them the added lift to win the game.


Note: The Medfield players are basically inept midgets next to the giant Rutland players so Biff Hawk must be one hell of a player if him being benched is the difference between victory and defeat.

In Walt Disney’s 1968 film Blackbeard’s Ghost Dean Jones did not want the ghost of Blackbeard helping his physically inept track team to win, because that would be cheating, but when he learns that the ghost had bet the money required to save the inn owned by the elderly Daughters of the Buccaneers he sets aside his morals and allowed the supernatural assist. In the case of The Absent Minded Professor our hero steps in to aid the team because his romantic rival is cheering for the enemy. Not as altruistic but I guess this qualifies as an “All’s fair in love and war” situation.


It does lead to an incredibly fun second half of the game.

Unfortunately when Ned tries to take credit for the Medfield’s startling victory Betsy storms off in disgust while a gloating Shelby looks on, but not one to take such a setback lying down Ned proceeds to hound Shelby from the air using his Flubber powered flying car. While blaring his ahooga horn, and repeatedly bouncing his car off the roof of Shelby’s, he causes Shelby to fly into a panicked state and crash into a police car.


Death from above.

Now Shelby may be the villain of Brainard’s love life but he’s not the chief villain of this movie, that title falls to the deliciously heartless Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn) who plans to call in Medfield College’s loan, shut the school down, bulldoze it and put up a housing development. When his son Biff was benched he took that insider knowledge to bet against his own Alma Mater and put eight grand on Rutland, which of course he lost due to Brainard’s Flubber intervention, but losing that money is completely forgotten when he spots Brainard and his flying car soaring through the night sky. He at first approaches Brainard and offers to be his partner, but when Ned learns that Alonzo Hawk would basically blackmail the American government to make millions he turns him down. Not one to take no for an answer Hawk and his goons swap Brainard’s car for a non-Flubberized one while Ned is trying to win Betsy’s hand at the school dance. When the government arrive to see this “flying car” Ned is humiliated when it fails to get off the ground; a squirrel on a treadmill is found where the engine should be.

Note: Fred MacMurray’s brilliant physical comedy as he tries to adjust to Flubberized shoes in an attempt to impress Betsy is one of the best moments in the film.

Of course Professor Brainard will eventually win the day and the girl, Alonzo Hawk would find himself bouncing higher on higher in a pair of flubberized shoes, and the government would get their Flubber, but not before almost shooting Ned and Betsy out of the sky when they assumed to be an enemy aircraft.


Ned and Betsy are apparently unaware of Washington DC’s no fly zones.

The Absent Minded Professor falls right smack dab in the middle of Disney’s live action hay day, and the cast of actors Disney Studios were able assemble was simply topnotch, and the special effects provided by Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, which were nominated for an Academy Award, looks pretty damn good for the time period. The sodium screen matte process, as well as miniatures and wire-supported mockups all worked beautifully to bring Flubber to life. Amazing visual effects aside it’s Fred MacMurray who really makes this film a classic, though Nancy Olson’s spirited Betsy is pretty damn good as well, but without MacMurray the character of Professor Brainard could have easily come across as unlikable idiot.


Note: When one thinks “Cinematic Universe” the Marvel and DC movies immediately leaps to mind, but Disney was there long before Nick Fury was popping up in credit cookies; Medfield College would feature in several Disney films, such as the Dexter Riley series that started with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoe, and the villainous Alonzo Hawk would appear again in Herbie Rides Again.