22 December 2007
21 December 2007
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Tadao Takashima, Yoko Fujiyama, Yu Fujuki, Kenji Sahara, Ken Uehara, Hiroshi Koizumi, Jun Tazaki, Yoshifumi Tajima, Akihiko Hirata, Setsuko Kobayashi, Eisei Amamoto
Quick . . . when you think of live-action Japanese science-fiction movies (tokusatsu), what first comes to mind? Giant monsters (daikaiju), of course. I can’t fault you for that; I love daikaiju films, and unlike the usual condescending Western critic, I also know that many daikaiju films are superlative cinematic works. But the classic era of Japanese science-fiction and fantasy cinema, the mid ‘50s through the ‘60s, featured some non-kaiju-centered SF epics that deserve more attention. In particular, four films directed by Ishiro Honda (and all of which I have on DVD): The Mysterians (1957), Battle in Outer Space (1959), Gorath (1962), and today’s topic, Atragon (1963). Honda was Toho Studio’s top SF director, and responsible for most of the legendary daikaiju films, including the original Godzilla, which launched Japan’s science-fiction revolution.
18 December 2007
- Where did the snare trap come from that catches Robert Neville? This is never adequately explained.
- The manner in which Neville's wife and daughter die robs the movie of a dynamite and horrific conflict from the book.
- The "vampires" (the movie never calls them that) are ultimately much less interesting than Matheson's sinister, howling creatures. (Where is the chilling cry of "Come out, Neville, come out!"?)
- The vampires don't besiege Neville's home nightly. Apparently they just don't know where he lives. Another chance for suspense—gone.
- Neville fills up his day with meaningless tasks and bland research in his basement; he doesn't go out and try to systematically slay the sleeping vampires. Why on earth would you cut this?
- The ending. Come on, you've got one of the most awesome horror movie conclusions handed to you on a silver platter... but no, you've got to swipe the finale from a Chuck Heston movie.
- The Bob Marley speech. What is that about?
This upshot of all this? I never thought I would say it, but The Last Man on Earth, for all its clumsy budgetary limitations and "Italy pretending to be Los Angeles" weirdness, is still the best adaptation of I Am Legend. Chances of filmmakers getting a fourth shot at the book are pretty slim, unfortunately.
16 December 2007
Most viewers aren’t aware that there are two other screen adaptations of this story, neither of which is called I Am Legend. The first, The Last Man on Earth, is an independently financed 1964 movie shot in Italy (although ostensibly taking place in Los Angeles) and starring Vincent Price as the vampire slayer. The second movie, The Omega Man, is a major studio picture from 1971 starring Charleton Heston and directed by Boris Sagal.
Here’s a quick-n-dirty breakdown of the three versions.
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
What’s good about it: Stark quality, dry and lonely atmosphere. Fine performance from Vincent Price. Stays closest to book of any version, including the “anti-horror” ending.
What’s bad about it: Very low-budget and shoddy quality. Dubbing of the Italian actors is awful. Matheson wanted his name taken off the screenplay credit—not a good sign.
The Omega Man (1971)
What’s good about it: ‘A’ movie production values. Plenty of ‘70s kitsch entertainment.
What’s bad about it: Too much ‘70s kitsch entertainment. Silly performance from Charleton Heston. Most of the apocalyptic atmosphere is lost. The hood-wearing albinos are a lame replacement for Matheson’s vampires.
I Am Legend (2007)
What’s good about it: Top-notch, epic production values. Great sense of an empty world with immense attention to details. Superb performance from Will Smith.
What’s bad about it: Inexplicably adopts the weak ending from Omega Man. Flashback sequences are ordinary. The “vampires” are not-very-scary CGI. Akiva Goldsman’s influence evident in a few dumb speeches.
As a snap judgment, I’ll pick I Am Legend as the best of the three. (Update: Changed my mind about this in a hurry.) It certainly nails the apocalypse tone right, and it is surprisingly subdued and character-based for a big-budget holiday release. The tremendous footage of New York turning into an urban prairie are superlative examples of visual effects used in service to a story. The detail put into the design is also convincing and makes many scenes compulsively watchable, even when nothing dramatic is happening. Will Smith also delivers a nuanced performance, and this makes up for me having to sit through the maudlin Pursuit of Happyness. Will, steer clear of the feel-good stuff, okay? This is what you need to do.
But... after three film versions, why haven’t we had a genuine adaptation of I Am Legend? Bizarrely, the cheap Last Man on Earth comes the closest to the book, and it is the only one that attempts to retain the weird and wonderful finale that so bowled me over when I first read the book. (Although no one will listen to me, I urge everyone to read the book before seeing any of the film versions.) Both Omega Man and I Am Legend jettison the last third of Matheson’s plot, and come up with a more “comfortable” self-sacrifice conclusion. This happier ending negates the meaning of the title, so the new movie has to come up with another way to justify “I Am Legend”… and it’s really annoying.
Although it keeps a semblance of Matheson’s conclusion, The Last Man on Earth doesn’t stack up to the original in many ways. Mostly, the low budget deflates the ‘end times’ feeling, and Price’s excellent work has to flail against the terrible dubbing of the Italian actors. As for The Omega Man… well, it’s a camp classic. That’s all that needs be said of it. Oh, and the groovy albinos and the blaxploitation clichés. What were they thinking?
In final analysis, read the book.
UPDATE: I changed my mind.
07 December 2007
BUILDING CODE UNDER FIRE
Do those headlines sound either 1) vaguely familiar or 2) just plain vague?
That’s because these are the regular newspaper headlines used as generic “filler” in movies. When a newspaper’s front page smashes onto the screen (or spins, that old-fashioned effect) to provide a transition or to fill in crucial information in an attention grabbing double-sized headline, such as SPACE MONSTERS AGREE TO PEACE NEGOTIATIONS or NORVELL LUDSTER GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS, take a quick look at the smaller headlines for the other columns, the ones you’re not supposed to be reading.
I’m annoying. I always try to read the other headlines. And if I’m watching on DVD, I always hit ‘pause’ and use the zoom feature to try to read them. Forget the big picture; with this kind of technology, it’s all about the details.
As the greatest TV show in history, Mystery Science Theater 3000, has taught us, the two most common headlines are NEW PETITIONS AGAINST TAX and BUILDING CODE UNDER FIRE. You can see for yourself on this wikia page.
Newspaper insets aren’t as common in films as they used to be, and the two old standbys no longer have the same exposure. Such a shame. Perhaps people are no longer petitioning the tax and the building code is fine now.
However, here are close-ups of prop0sed articles for when these two classic headlines make their next cinematic appearances. Filmmakers, if you are in a crunch and need anything thrown down on the mock-up newspaper, feel free to use these (for a fee, of course):
NEW PETITIONS AGAINST TAX
Ryan Harvey, Staff Reporter
The new tax enacted in Springfield regarding outdoor activities has gathered the ire of unnamed citizens, an unverified report announced today. The leader of the petitioners, who declined to be named, said that his group filed their petition today due to unspecified grievances that the tax had caused to unidentified citizens. Calls made to the unidentified citizens' unlisted numbers were unanswered.
BUILDING CODE UNDER FIRE
Ryan Harvey, Staff Reporter
The statutes of the Los Angeles Building Code that prohibit any structure painted fuschia in the downtown district have come under a furious attack by the Paint Manufacturers of Los Angeles. The painters are concerned that the ambigous wording will allow the blocking of any paint color that leans toward purple or light red.
“This means anything considered magenta, lavender, violet, or purple might be prohibited,” said an angry Martin Hovec, president for the Paint Manufacturers’ Union. “I don't see where you draw the line at fuschia. How is the city defining it? It's ridiculous.”
The City of Los Angeles issued the following response: “Why would they want to paint anything fuschia, purple, violent, or lavender in the first place?”
The Society of Prevention of Abuse to Ancient Phonecians (SPAAP) has also lodged a protest. “The ancient Phonencians are legendary for their export of vibrant purple dyes. This is a slap in the face to all of them,” said USC History Major and SPAAP’s sole member, Glenda Gardino.
05 December 2007
Yet here I am giving one anyway. Although the picture correctly identifies the text of the book, the specific cover doesn't necessarily match the edition I own. I am a connoisseur of books in every way, and that includes a devotion to different covers and varied artistic interpretations. I tend to favor the original covers for older books instead of the more mundane modern designs, which often have a stale cookie-cutter feel to them.
Case in point, the book pictured as of this writing: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Dame Agatha Christie. The edition I own is the mass market paperback from Berkley. It's essentially just an azure-tinted photograph, and the car in the picture certainly wasn’t one driven in 1926, when the action occurs. The design fits the standard artwork of the current American paperbacks of Christie’s novels and demands little from the eye. So I chose to use the cover of the first British printing—one I definitely couldn't afford to own. Although the clothing of the woman on the cover shows its late-‘20s origin, the design isn’t dated a bit. It could appear, exactly reproduced, on a current paperback and not look the least strange. It’s much more eye-catching. Why commission new art when you've great material right there?
For your consideration: On the left, the Berkley edition (2004 U.S.). On the right, the William Collins & Sons edition (1926 U.K.).
Fandom drives the franchise novel. If a dedicated fanbase of ecstatic and hot-blooded readers exists hungry for more product, a corporate-based books series will commission writers to feed them. You only need to again look at Star Trek and Star Wars, a TV show (and later movie series) and movie series (and soon to be TV show) that have complete separate universes for the continuity of a novel series.
I've dabbled in reading franchise novels, both media tie-ins and continuations. At their best they do provide a sort of pulpy enjoyment. I have gone through a few Stars Wars opuses and read some of R. A. Salvatore's "Forgotten Realms" fantasies. I have even suffered through more than one Conan "pastiche" novel, usually in the name of writing reviews so other curious fans of Robert E. Howard know which ones to pick up and which to avoid like a black lotus cloud. Most Conan stories outside of Howard's are sad, but there are some exceptions. I have to tip my hat to my friend John C. Hocking for his work on Conan and the Emerald Lotus, and Karl Edward Wagner's Conan: Road of Kings is also a good show. Some of John Robert Maddox's Conan adventures aren't too shabby, either.
But the popularity of fantasy and science fiction franchise novels brings up an interesting "What if?" question.
"What if J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth was turned into a continuing book franchise?"
Outside of fanfic, there are no pastiche or continuation novels based on the setting Tolkien developed over his lifetime, the mythic Earth of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillon. Although Tolkien's estate has commissioned some stories as "homages" to the good professor's work, they have never permitted nor, I'll wager, ever will permit the publication of new adventures from new authors.
That is exactly how it should be. Tolkien's world is so uniquely his own, so tied in with his entire life, and so complete within the scope of his writings and extensive notes, that letting anything be "officially" added to it is unthinkable. It would ring more hollow than any pastiche work.
But... what would those hollow books be like if they were allowed? You may shudder to think of it, but I decided it would be amusing to imagine the ridiculous ideas that might result.
Placing myself in the mindset of a potential publisher who has hacked out a deal with the Tolkien estate, I've hatched brief book proposals for a never-to-be-seen (thank the Valar!) series, Middle-Earth Adventures. I've written these proposals in the form of promotional blurbs used to excite retailers, and used my own experience with franchise novels to imagine some of the weirdness that might pop up should anyone dare to do this.
The immediate follow-up to The Lord of the Rings... the direct sequel fans have clamored to see for years! Aragorn is now King Elessar, seated on the throne of Gondor, happily wed to Arwen Evenstar. But even though the Dark Lord Sauron has fallen and passed into shadow, evil still rots at the edges of the Kingdom. The Black Númenorean sorcerers who served Sauron faithfully for hundreds of years, slowing their aging through diabolic magics, have gathered together the survivors of Mordor and carved out an alliance with the Corsairs of Umbar the South. Aragorn must lead an army against these survivals of the dark times before his fledgling kingdom is split apart. But can even he escape the trap that Black Númenoreans have set for him, which will feed him to... Shelob? The horrid demon in spider form has licked her wounds and is ready for more dark fantasy action. Also, prepare to meet the new heroes of the age, Aragorn's personally picked citadel guards who take center stage in this thrilling new trilogy.
The Young Sméagol Chronicles
Before the ring dragged him into torment as Gollum, Sméagol was curious fellow who wandered wide over the Anduin river valley, searching out treasures and secrets. This delightful series of juvenile books follows his adventures as he explores the woods and rivers of Middle Earth, makes new friends, and faces terrible dangers such as the rogue eagles of Mirkwood, and Hobbits under the spell of the the tower of Dol Guldur. Fans young and old of The Lord of the Rings will thrill to discovering the gentle soul whom the ring would eventually twist into a tragic figure of the ages.
Tales of the Last Alliance
The end of the Second Age is approaching, and this four-part series of novels shows readers different aspects of the great war between Sauron on one side and Men and Elves on the other. Action and spectacle to rival The Lord of the Rings will accompany the warriors who stand up to the hordes of Mordor. For the first time, readers will experience Sauron himself wielding the One Ring. Isildur and Anarion take the lead roles in the last two novels, and these will certainly be on the "must-read" list of any Tolkien fan.
The Annals of the White Council
The three wizards—Gandalf, Radagast, and Sauruman—with Galadriel, Elrond, and Círdan, form a council ready to wipe out evil in Middle Earth! Against them are the devious minions of Sauron and the Lord of the Nazgûl. Learn for the first time the true identity of the "other two" wizards of the group. This on-going series mixes J. R. R. Tolkien with magical espionage, and will especially appeal to teen readers.
Epics of the Elder Days
The time of The Silmarillion as you've never seen it before. Each novel is a complete, self-contained epic about the Elves and their adventures in Middle Earth in younger days, before the dominance of Men. All-new heroes fight with classic adversaries, and the fresh setting means almost any reader can get into this series, without knowledge of The Silmarillion or even The Lord of the Rings. One book will feature an untold tale of Beren's adventures that fits within the scope of "The Tale of Beren and Luthien."
My head hurts even thinking about how dreadful these could be. These aren't exaggerations for humorous purposes, either—I could see a publisher seriously suggesting each one of these.
04 December 2007
The following post is edited somewhat from its original form.
Gigan. This is one of my favorite of all kaiju (giant monster). I’m not alone in my affection for this big baddie. Other Godzilla fans have clamored for years for a Gigan return appearance, and we finally got our wish in Godzilla: Final Wars, where Gigan showed up after a near thirty-year absence. He made a spectacular return as well; he’s easily the most impressive of the Big-G’s opponents in this movie and gets a hefty amount of screen time—especially for a movie with thirteen other monsters in competition for the limelight and many human-based action sequences.
Gigan’s first appearance was in the 1970s Godzilla films, which are the low-point of the series. Budget cuts hampered the franchise, the movie industry in Japan had fallen into a recession, and the death of special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya in 1969 further reduced the spectacle of the science-fiction epics. The films of the ‘70s aimed toward a children’s audience, the plots turned extremely far-fetched with aliens invading nonstop with mega-monsters in tow, and Godzilla acted as a superhero who arrives at humanity’s beck and call.
Gigan’s premiere movie is 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, originally released in the U.S. as Godzilla on Monster Island—a nonsensical title, since the movie doesn’t take place on Monster Island, but Cinema Shares, the stateside distributor, probably figured the kiddies wouldn’t care. The Japanese title, Chikyu Kogeki Meirei: Gojira tai Gaigan, roughly translates as Earth Attack Order: Godzilla vs. Gigan. It translates as “bad” in any language. With no major Toho actors and a shoestring budget, the film looks depressingly cheap and shoddy. The plot tries to relive the grand alien invasion epics of the 1960s like Battle in Outer Space and Invasion of Astro-Monster, but the results are laughable. These price-conscious aliens have to wear business suits and work out of office buildings and a children’s amusement park. Endless stock footage of earlier Godzilla films, often wildly mismatched, pads out the effects scenes, and the robust music consists entirely of reused cues from other Akira Ifukube scores, sometimes hilariously misused.
Gigan is one of the film’s bright spots; he’s the only new monster in the picture. The other three monsters are Godzilla, the famous three-headed dragon Ghidorah, and Godzilla’s spiky-armadillo ally Anguirus. The Godzilla suit is literally falling apart after use in three movies, and somebody should have dry-cleaned the Ghidorah costume,or at least use some S.O.S. to scrape off the tarnish. Anguirus looks good however, and there’s something about his spunky never-say-die attitude even when vastly over-matched that endears him to fans.
But Gigan gets all the attention. He’s a cyborg monster from Space Hunter Nebula-M. His biology is never explained, but it would seem he’s a fusion of a giant alien creature with robotic technology. He has wicked scythes for hands, metallic mandibles, and a buzz-saw in his chest which he uses to gorily slice open Godzilla's shoulder. He can fly through some unknown, non-visible means. The poster of the film shows Gigan blasting a laser ray from his single visor-like eye, which makes sense based on his design, but Gigan never uses it in the movies from the ‘70s, probably to save money.
Special effects supervisor Teruyoshi Nakano has commented that Gigan’s design arose from a reaction to Hedorah, a.k.a. the Smog Monster, the villainous kaiju from the previous film. Hedorah is a creature with a soft, amorphous body made of sludge and slime, so Nakano designed Gigan as the opposite: a hard, sharp, metallic body. Even with the limitations of the effects of the day, Gigan’s suit looks awesome. He’s sleek and edgy, with wicked hooked hands and a devilish profile. He also has an impressive screeching sound effect.
An interesting bit of trivia: the suit actor who plays Gigan in his first two movies is Kenpachiro Satsuma, who would later play Godzilla in the 1980s and ‘90s movies.
Gigan returned in the following film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, probably as another money-saving technique so the filmmakers could reuse the suit and recycle footage from Godzilla vs. Gigan. Budget-paring must have been paramount in Toho’s mind, because Godzilla vs. Megalon is the cheapest, crudest Godzilla film ever constructed and ranks as the nadir of the series. It looks like a TV show mixed with professional wrestling, and represents everything negative about the kaiju genre. When non-fans make fun of Godzilla movies, it’s really this movies that they’re mocking. I can only suffer to watch it in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version—the theatrical cut just depresses me with how far the once mighty Japanese science-fiction film industry had crumbled in the 1970s recession. Yes, Gigan’s in it. He looks cool. But that doesn’t save this stupid film.
Gigan at last got his chance to appear in a good Godzilla film (or better film, depending on who you ask) with Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. He gets one of the largest roles in the films, probably the most prevalent of the villainous monsters. His basic design remains the same, only made sleeker and spiker with an increased cyborg presence. Gigan is again the tool of outer space invaders, the principle weapon of the extraterrestrial Xillians in their Earth-takeover plans. They send Gigan to stop the human heroes from re-awakening Godzilla from his frozen sleep, but Godzilla rouses and then removes Gigan’s head. Not to be daunted, the Xillians fix Gigan and retro-fit him with new arm weapons, which for all the world look like tuning forks strapped with chainsaws! Gigan gets to slice off Mothra’s wing before Godzilla takes his head off… again! After this the Xillians decide to retire Gigan and bring on a new weapon, Monster X.
Good to see you again, Giggy. Let’s not make it another thirty years before you come back.
By John Gardner
I mentioned in October the death of British espionage novelist John Gardner, who had an important role in the literary career of James Bond, even if fans' opinions of the quality of his contributions are not high. He wasn't Ian Fleming, but he wasn't trying to be, either. Over the scope of his fourteen 007 continuation novels he did provide some entertaining times, and I rate him higher than Raymond Benson, the author who followed him with six more novels. Benson tried to move closer to Fleming, but his writing plain and simple falls flat for me. And too often he switches into an "autopilot" mode where it seems he's rattling off a script for one of the Pierce Brosnan movies.
Last year I read a few of the John Gardner Bonds I had not picked up before. I initially read them in high school when they were still coming out regularly, but I stopped after Win, Lose or Die, which I really disliked. Its uncreative mix of Die Hard and Top Gun I couldn't stomach (although it did inspire me to write the only piece of fanfic I've ever done, and it wasn't bad for a tenth grader). In 1999 I dropped in for a moment to read Never Send Flowers just for a quick Bond fix. I still think it's one of the better Gardners, and wins points for being different without completely losing the Bondian touch like The Man from Barbarossa does. Last year, while in the Bond reading groove because of the approaching release of the movie version of Casino Royale, I started to read the Gardner 007s I had missed: Scorpius, Brokenclaw, and the aforementioned Man from Barbarossa. Gardner's recent death has now prompted me again to edge toward completing his Bond cycle. I finished Death Is Forever last night, so there only two more books remain. Appropriately, they are Gardner's last two books in the series: SeaFire and COLD (U.S. title: Cold Fall).
03 December 2007
Friends don't spam friends. Relatives shouldn't spam relatives. Please gently stop your less Internet-savvy relations before they transform into accidental spammers annoying people without knowing it. Once it snowballs like this, it is difficult to stop.
The wonderful DVD format—which has done more to rescue obscure films and make them available to the public than any innovation in film history—came late to the aid of my favorite cult genre, the kaiju eiga. Otherwise known as the “Japanese giant monster film.” Anime and J-Horror are well represented on disc. There actually seem to be more anime available on DVD than actually exists, or at least that's the impression I get when I look at the enormous, densely-stocked anime section at my local video store. But the rubber-suited FX extravaganzas of model-mayhem have only recently gotten the respect they deserve on DVDs, featuring widescreen presentations and original Japanese cuts with subtitles.
Most of the DVDs offer English-dubbed versions as well as the Japanese originals. Although I don’t like to watch dubbed prints, I understand the need for them. Children love these films, and most of them can’t enjoy subtitling. I grew up on dubbed versions, and some of them still have nostalgia value, so I’m glad that the new crop of DVDs have made an effort to present both the Japanese original and a stateside dubbed released. (However, and this is a massive confusion that could make up a post in itself, some films have more than one English dub, and a recent trend has often released the inferior “international” dub on DVD rather than the more nostalgia-heavy one that the U.S. distributor created. Both Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster currently feature only the lesser international English versions on their DVDs.)
Invasion of Astro-Monster was released in Japan in December 1965. It was the fifth film to star Godzilla, and was one of Toho’s most ambitious science-fiction projects of the time. It received co-financing from the American production company UPA and had an American star, Nick Adams, but for reasons that have never been made clear it didn't appear stateside until 1970, when it was re-titled Monster Zero. This remains the best-known title in the U.S. When it debuted on home video, it was further re-titled to Godzilla vs. Monster Zero to help alphabetize it with the other Godzilla films on the shelves. The new DVD returns the film to its official English title, the strange but appropriately kooky Invasion of Astro-Monster. (Apparently, Astro-Monster destroys definite articles!)
I can’t defend the dubbed English version of Invasion of Astro-Monster. Compared to the superb job done of both previous Godzilla films, Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, Astro-Monster has a goofy and overdone looping job that makes the characters sound wildly hammy and unbelievable. The villainous Controller of Planet X has an adequate bad-guy voice, but all the other Japanese actors sound a bit like Gerry Anderson puppets.
But here’s the contradiction: you can’t get the full Astro-Monster experience without watching the U.S. dub as well as the Japanese one. The Japanese version, as superior all-around as it is (wow, dig that crazy performance that Yoshio Tsuchiya gives as the Controller of Planet X), lacks one thing the U.S. version has: Nick Adams speaking his own words. Co-star Adams read all of his lines in English on the set, and was dubbed with a Japanese actor for the domestic release. The U.S. version uses Adams’s original line performance, and he’s a hoot. He’s so quintessentially an American tough-guy that he adds a fascinating kick to the otherwise very Japanese proceedings. He has great chemistry with his two co-stars, sexy Kumi Mizuno and pal Akira Takarada, and it’s unfortunate that viewers lose half of these relationships in either cut. Watching the Japanese language version, I found myself repeatedly missing Adams’s key contribution, even as I was reveling in the fine performances from the rest of the cast, especially madman Tschuyia. (Tschuyia is a professed UFO follower and believer, which adds an interesting angle to his performance.)
So I’ll have to switch between the two versions of Invasion of Astro-Monster, because at the moment there is no other comprise. Perhaps audiences wouldn’t accept a film where Adams speaks in English and everyone else in subtitled Japanese, but I certainly would. The Japanese trailer for the movie shows what this might look like, and it doesn’t bother me at all. At least I have both versions on one DVD now.