Define "a Life"...

... still searching for a clear definition of that thing people keep telling me I need to get...

Location: Springfield, PA

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Three Heads Are Better Than One

You might want to strap yourself in for this one.

If it can be fairly said of most Godzilla films that they’re rather thin in the plot department (and it can), then Godzilla vs King Ghidorah is certainly an exception. Hell, there’re enough plot elements here for several movies. How – or, indeed, if -- it all fits together… well, that’s a different matter.

I have (bootleg) VHS copies of GvKG in both its dubbed and original language subtitled versions. It’s available on DVD (in a double-feature disc with GvM), but I don’t know whether that’s dubbed or subbed. The dub isn’t that bad (not nearly so cheesey as the GvB “Godziller” dub job) and with the number of expository scenes here the dubbing makes it a little easier to just sit back and watch the movie. Having seen both, I can say there’s no substantial difference, although the English language version does lack the charm of some odd subtitling (“That silly guy”).

GvKG is nothing if not ambitious. There’s a lot going on here, and not all of it makes sense at first glance (or, indeed, upon close examination), so strap in. Here we go!

Things start off in the year 2204 A.D., as a sub discovers the remains of King Ghidorah on the ocean floor off the coast of Japan. But wait – where’s the Three-Headed Monster’s third head? We’re told he lost it fighting Godzilla. King Ghidorah fought Godzilla? Yes, in the 20th Century…

Cut to Tokyo in the year 1992 A.D. (that would have been “next year” at the time the movie came out in Japan). A UFO is sighted in the night skies above the city. The next morning the army has surrounded this giant flying saucer where it landed. Three humans emerge, announce that they’re from Earth’s future, and ask to meet with representatives of Japan’s government. Wilson, the leader of these Future Men, informs the government officials that he and his companions have traveled back through time from the 23rd century to change events in the past and avert tragedy. In the 23rd century, he tells them, there is no Japan – it was/will be destroyed in the 21st century by Godzilla, who wrecks cities and destroys nuclear reactors, releasing radioactive pollution that leaves Japan uninhabitable.

Future Girl Emmy says they can prevent this disaster by removing Godzilla from history. They will travel further back in time and prevent his creation. Emmy pulls out a 20th century book on Godzilla’s origin, claiming they’ve determined there’s a 98% chance the author’s theory on Godzilla’s creation is correct.

Written by Terasawa, a sci-fi writer trying to go legit by writing “non-fiction stories,” the book theorizes that G was a dinosaur mutated by H-bomb testing. Duh, tell us something we don’t know. Okay – this dinosaur was on Lagos Island where, in 1944, it saved a garrison of Imperial Japanese soldiers from U.S. forces. That garrison was under the command of Shindo, who survived and went on to become one of the men who rebuilt Japan’s economy. Emmy theorizes that if they travel back to 1944 and remove the dinosaur from the island, it won’t be there for the H-bomb test in 1954 and, consequently, will never become Godzilla.

Yeah, the movie’s grasp of time-travel causality is tenuous at best. Try not to think about it.

The Future Guys recruit a team from the present, including writer Terasawa, scientist Mazaki, “who studies dinosaurs,” and ESPer Miki from GvB, and they head back in time to Lagos, 1944, where they watch a pre-mutation dino-G kick American soldier ass, not once, but twice! And this is without his mighty atomic breath, mind you. After dino-G has wiped out the Yankee dogs and Shindo’s soldiers have escaped, Emmy and company teleport dino-G off the island, to somewhere in the Bering Sea, so he won’t be around for the 1954 H-bomb test whose radiation, presumably, transformed him into Godzilla. Before they return to 1992, Emmy releases onto the island three little Dorats, bioengineered pets they brought back with them from the 23rd century. This will be important, obviously, since it makes no sense whatsoever at the time.

Upon their return to the present – 1992, remember? – they discover that although Godzilla has been removed from history he’s been replaced by another monster, King Ghidorah. The Future Men are not at all phased by this development.

It turns out the whole destruction of Japan bit was just a cover story, of course – in the “real” future, Japan becomes the dominant economic world power and these future guys are revolutionaries who’ve have stolen the time machine and traveled back to use King Ghidorah to squash Japan’s development with an eye toward creating a fair and balanced world economic equality in the future.

The three Dorats were irradiated by the 1954 H-bomb test, fused into one creature and became the three-headed King Ghidorah, a powerful monster now under the control of the Future Men in 1992. Their plan is to use it to bring about the very disaster they falsely claimed Godzilla caused.

As a means of fighting KG, Shindo and the Japanese government plan to recreate G by dowsing the dino-G with radiation from a secret nuclear submarine. They go looking for the dino-G only to find that it has already developed into Godzilla anyway, thanks to the earlier sinking of a nuclear sub in the Bering Sea, so this new radiation only serves to make G bigger and badder than before. Still, Shindo holds to the theory that since dino-G saved his troops from the Americans in 1944 big G will save Japan from KG in 1992.

Well, he’s kind of right.

There’s this whole complex savior/destroyer/savior thing going on with Godzilla and his relationship to Shindo and Japan. Yes, G trashes KG, but he then goes on to rampage across Japan, as is his wont. So, he saved us, then he destroyed us, now he’s saved us again only to start destroying us yet again.

Godzilla wipes out Wilson and all the evil Future Men, but Emmy escapes with their time ship. She travels forward in time, back to 2204, where they find King Ghidorah in his watery grave – yes, this is where we came in. Emmy’s 23rd century friends revive KG and repair his battle wounds with cybernetic enhancements, then she comes back in time to 1992 to use this cyberKG to defend Japan against G.

Hey, I told you to strap in.

GvGK is merrily and consistently entertaining. None of the many plot threads here ever plays like a B-story, the way the human action often did in the ‘60s and ‘70s movies, nor does this wacky time-traveling business ever feel muddled. Granted, it’s functioning on its own terms; there seems to be a sort of skip-continuity approach to the effects of changing events in the past; removing Godzilla from history, as they say, doesn’t seem to actually remove him from the history that everyone remembers, but rather changes only our relative “present” to reflect what the situation would have been the altered timeline. Really, it only hurts if you think about it. Just watching the movie, it’s relatively painless.

For its chock-fulla-nutz plot, GvKG pulls bits from past G movies and from a pile of other genre stuff as well. King Ghidorah is the first of the Toho stock monsters to show up in this new series, with an odd change in spelling: he’s “Ghidrah” in the original 1965 film in which (I think) he first appeared, the English on the label of my subtitled copy of the 1991 film calls him “King Ghidora,” no ‘h,’ and the dubbed version spells his name “Ghidorah.” Whatever. He’s more or less the same big winged monster with three heads and lightning bolts shooting out of his mouths. In other past Toho flicks he’s been controlled by nasty aliens, so there’s something of a precedent for his being under the control of the Future Men here.

The sci-fi elements are a genre-in-a-blender feast – time travel, holograms, teleportation, jet packs, cyborg monsters, evil androids and a ton of wicked cool silly electronic sound effects. Oh, yeah… androids. Some of the Future Men’s crew are androids and one of them – M-11 – is a central character. A little bit Bishop in Aliens, a little bit Data and a dash of the T-800, M-11is a hoot of an artificial life form. Under the control of Wilson and the bad Future Men, M-11 has a Terminator-inspired turn when he chases down Terasawa and Emmy in a car chase, complete with a threatening emergence from the flaming wreck of a crashed car. Of course, his android super-speed running makes the bionic speed effects on The Six Million Dollar Man look sophisticated – it looks like something out of Kung Fu Hustle, and I defy you not to laugh or at least chuckle. Fortunately, Emmy seems to have seen T2: she pops open M-11’s cranial hard drive and replaces a few CDs, reprogramming him to work for the good guys. Throughout the movie, in the original language version, M-11has occasional unexplained lapses into speaking English. Most of these are subtitled, and some of them are classic redundancies and mistranslations: “Time warp” in English is subtitled as “Here we go!”

Most of the camp humor is, almost certainly, unintentional. There’s one bit, however, that’s so self consciously certain it’s clever you can’t help but feeling a little embarrassed for it while you’re groaning. As the time ship arrives in the night sky over 1944 Lagos, it zooms over the American destroyers laying siege to the island where it’s seen by two officers on deck. One asks the other if they should report what they’ve just seen. “What? Report that we’re being invaded by little green men from outer space? Of course not. Let’s just keep it between ourselves. You can tell your son about it when he’s born, Major Spielberg.”

Yeah, that’s right. Close Encounters and E.T. were inspired by Emmy’s trip through time to destroy dino-Godzilla. The weirdest thing about it is this: Jurassic Park hadn’t yet been made when GvKG came out in 1991, so the folks who came up with this joke had no idea that it would be even more appropriate in a year or two. Major Spielberg does end up seeing dino-G waste the troops, though, and the destroyer opens fire on the beast. “Take that, you dinosaur!”

GvKG is where the ‘90s Godzilla films first find their footing, their tone and their voice. Serious but not too self important; selectively referencing past iconography with a freedom that’s not without respect; aware of the character’s roots in metaphor and message, and conscious of how problematic it is to retain that legacy. Plus some crackerjack fights in which giant monsters destroy urban environments. What more can you ask for?

Coming up:
Godzilla vs Mothra

Friday, April 29, 2005

A Rose is a Rose is a Giant Monster With Big Teeth

Okay, my conscience compels me to let you know up front that this post is 100% geek stuff. Yup -- 100%. No popular culture observations. No new perspectives, contextualization or placement in genre history. No insights whatsoever. All geek.

I've done my duty. You've been warned. Ready? Let's go.

Godzilla. Gojira. The Big G. Fire breath, glowing spinal protrusions, and that roar. Oh, that roar. That Jurassic Park T-Rex can eat my shorts. You call THAT a roar? That's not a roar. THIS is a roar!

You can't keep a good giant radioactive lizard down. Even his lame ass Americanization at the hands of German director Roland Emmerich seems to have had no lingering effects. You call THAT a Godzilla? That's not a Godzilla. THIS is a Godzilla!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I was a kid, Philly had two UHF stations likely to show Japanese monster movies: Channel 17 and Channel 48. As I remember it, they leaned towards the color films, so you were more likely to see mediocre stuff like Godzilla vs The Sea Monster than the B&W original. Of course, that also meant you'd get treated to camp classics like Godzilla vs King Kong and head trips like Godzilla vs The Smog Monster. Sing a-long with me: "Save the Earth! Stop pollution, find a solution, save the Earth!" (I was kind of sad to hear that unlike the old VHS release the DVD for Smog Monster -- Godzilla vs Hedorah -- is actually the Japanese cut w/ dubbing rather than the Americanized version I grew up with, and consequently lacks that song.) Over the very uneven course of the '60s and '70s, G went from scary embodiment of Japan's tragic atomic heritage to kiddie flick hero with tons of camp value. Sure, he was undeniably iconic, but you really couldn't take the guy seriously once he started doing shtick like his silly victory dance and using the blast of his atomic breath to fly backwards. Baby Godzilla showed up, G started talking (at least in the American version of Godzilla on Monster Island a.k.a. Godzilla vs Gigan), and suddenly Mothra started looking a lot less silly than I giant moth should.

By this point -- the early '70s -- G was thoroughly entrenched in the "how the mighty have fallen" department. The series had meandered through more than its share of genre mixing, from espionage to sci-fi, and even sunk to a kid's dream clip-show of assorted stock footage. Hanna Barbara got hold of the character for a short-lived cartoon series which a vaguely remember but am too lazy to research at the moment. He seemed ready -- and certainly was headed -- for the "where are they now" zone.

But the folks at Toho are no fools. What does it mean when you have in your stables an iconic character whose glory days are fondly remembered? It means you have a character for whom much of your advertising as already been done. So, for G's thirtieth anniversary, Toho revived the franchise. Well, they started it up again, at least. They'd like to have us think they "revived" it, but...

Hey, at least there were new movies.

Godzilla 1985 - Actually, 1984 in Japan. We got the Americanized version a year later, with generous additions of Raymond Burr a la the original. Burr was looking a little long-in-the-tooth and, as I remember it, so was G. As far as I know, the Burr-less Japanese version has never been available in the U.S. My feeling is that they weren't quite sure how to restore the gravity of a character who'd gone as silly as G had. It's not quite a reboot, but it does its best to ignore stuff like Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters! that cast Godzilla as Japan's heroic defender again invading aliens. As I remember it, Godzilla 1985 plays rather stiff. It's not on DVD in the States in any form, and I think the VHS is out of print. Either way, I don't have a copy and so can't refresh my memory. Possibly just as well.

A few years passed before G was on the big screen again, but it must have seemed worth it in Japan because eventually he was co-starring with a giant mutant plant named Biollante. Not the most auspicious pairing, you'll agree, but, believe it or not, things were looking up.

Godzilla vs Biollante (1989, at least in the U.S.) has some handsome effects and takes itself pretty damned seriously, which make for some fun unintentional humor. My old VHS copy is the Americanized release, with great bad dubbing that includes a character who consistently pronounces the star's name as "Godziller." It's not in print on VHS anymore, nor has it been released on DVD (here in the States, at least), which may be owed to lingering entanglements from its original American release: I don't know if it ever played in theaters, but Godzilla vs Biollante was released here on VHS on HBO Video by way of Dimension entertainment, a division of Miramax. This was, I'm pretty certain, before the Miramax/Disney deal, but in that arrangement Disney took over distribution for the entire Miramax back catalog. So potentially in the mix here are Miramax, Disney and HBO, on top of which we have the new tangle of the Disney/Miramax rights retention as the Weinsteins depart their old company. Suffice to say, I'm holding onto my copy.

Although problematic and uneven, GvB is substantially the starting point of the new '90s Godzilla continuity. It references G1985 and establishes a number of characters and plot elements that will run through the next five movies. There's a sense that they're trying out bits of the old series formulas, seeing what will and won't work.

From G's 1984(5) attack on Tokyo, the Japanese government has acquired a small sample of "Godzilla cells," obtained from chucks of Godzilla flesh scraped off the wreckage of his Tokyo rampage. Some of these are stolen by an evil middle eastern nation that's planning ahead towards the days when its oil fields will no longer support its economy. They want to use the Godzilla cells to bioengineer plants that will thrive in their deserts and allow them to become an agrarian giant. This whole business harkens back to the subplots of political and corporate espionage that ran through some of the '60s and '70s films. It facilitates some car chases, shootouts and fist fights. It also feels a little weird in the context of current world economies and politics now, fifteen years later. The bioengineering aspect, in which Biollante is created in the process of splicing Godzilla cells with a rose, seems a little prescient in these days of controversy over genetically modified crops and farm animals. Of course, most of the scientific gibberish - Japan's desire to create a "radiation-eating bacteria" and the blathering about Godzilla and Biollante sharing a genetic connection "closer than brother and sister" and being "the same creature" - plays like utter claptrap, and you can only blame so much of that on the dubbing.

One of the other - rather embarrassing -- holdovers from G1985 is the Army's Godzilla-fighting supership, the "Super-X." Here it's the improved "Super-X 2," whose bow splits open to reveal a synthetic diamond "Fire Mirror" capable of reflecting G's mighty atomic breath back at him. It's pretty ineffectual, but it gives them something to throw at him besides extremely vulnerable helicopters and stock footage of jet fighters.

Most significantly, GvB sets up the elements of a running ESP subplot that will feature in varying degrees of prominence through the next five movies. Biollante is inhabited by the spirit of her creator's dead daughter, killed in a lab accident (damned silly in almost every respect, particularly Biollante's smarmy death scene) and the ESPers in a government psychic research program can detect G and - somehow - influence him with their telepathic abilities (unclear, but comparatively reasonable). The ESPer character will continue through the following films, as annoying and compelling as Counselor Deanna Troi in ST:TNG.

It'll be three more films before the franchise again tries an original monster as titular opponent to G, so that should tell us something about Biollante's appeal. C'mon kids - she's a big plant. It's hard not to think of her as the big sister of Little Shop of Horrors' Audrey II, particularly when she starts whipping her snapping Venus Flytrap tendrils at Godzilla. "Hey, lizard boy, I ate Steve Martin and Vincent Gardenia, and I'm gonna whup yer butt." But G lets loose with his mighty atomic breath and it turns out that no matter how big they grow or how many toothy vines they have flailing around, rose bushes are still flammable.

Yeah, B sprouts again for one of the film's several false climaxes, this time with one gigantic fanged mouth, but the fact remains that this just isn't a cool villain. Truth be told, the bad guys throughout GvB leave much to be desired, with one significant exception: the Big Guy Himself. I know it has nothing to do with the fact that I've only seen the movie dubbed, but I can't help feeling that at some point in GvB Godzilla's roar should be subtitled, "Bring it on!"

They heard the invitation. Starting with the next movie, things get really wild.

Coming Up Next:
(at some point)
Godzilla vs King Ghidora(h)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Do The Hustle... DO IT !

I'm a little late in posting this, but it's still in time for the coming weekend.
See Kung Fu Hustle. I did, and I'm a better man for it. Well, at least "better" in the sense of more thoroughly entertained than I would be otherwise. This movie is just silly, silly fun. On some giddy cocktail of steroids, martial arts and amphetamines.
I've gotta hunt up Shao Lin Soccer, from the same director. SLS got heavily teasered a couple of years ago, but I don't think it ever had a wide release. It looks like KFH is being handled a little better.
The theater wasn't crowded when we saw it (8:05 show last Friday evening), but I think what audience was there knew what they were looking for and got what they expected to find from the movie (unlike the folks near me in Sin City who walked out part way thru).
What the heavy rotation ads don't mention is that the film's subtitled. That's not a problem, of course, and the movie plays much better this way (I feel like dubbing would push the kitsch factor over the edge of fun into corny or camp). The other thing that's sort of misleading about those TV ads is the music: yes, there is a dance number (the notorious Axe Gang join the Sharks and Jets among the ranks of street gangs with killer choreography) but, no, there's no '80s music. The ads feature "Ballroom Blitz." It's no where in the movie. Again, that's not a problem, but on the way home I suddenly realized that after days of having that song in my head from the TV ads I never heard it in the film.
Now that I think of it, maybe it's the aftereffects of seeing KFH that have me watching Godzilla movies again -- but that's for another post...

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Cookie Fortunes

Okay, this is, hands down, the single weirdest fortune I've ever pulled out of a cookie:

"Maybe you can live on the moon in the next century."

Yeah. Uh-huh. Wha...?
I mean, was this cookie siz years old? Or was the fortune printed years ago and just hanging around waiting to be bakes and sent on its way to me? Or is it suggesting that, maybe, I'll still be alive in the next century -- ninety-five years from now -- and, maybe, living on the moon. This fortune is both vague and staggeringly noncommital.
And pretty damn weird...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


"Worry not: there ain't no stinking Sin City movie in the works."
-- Frank Miller
BLAM! Letters Column in Sin City: Just Another Saturday Night

Funny thing, irony.
People like to talk about it being "sweet." Or "bitter." Guess that pretty much depends on your relative perspective. I think it's different flavors for different people, but I can tell you one thing - however it tastes, sometimes irony is crunchy.
Crunchy like the brittle grind of broken glass under your boots as you walk over the remains of bottles strewn like so many shattered dreams along the dark alley behind that bar you know you shouldn't be going into again.
There's lots of irony in the town without pity.
Where's that?
You may have been there yourself. You know the place as Sin City.

No, not Vegas, you wet end.

I hauled myself out to the movie of Frank Miller's Sin City last weekend, one of the hundreds (thousands?) of comic geeks and fanboys who remember Miller's striking B&W tales hitting the comics scene in the mid-'90s like a fist wrapped around a roll of quarters. I have most of the originals, issue by issue. Read 'em as they came out. Ate 'em up. No way I could've been patient enough to wait to the trades, as we called the big trade paperback collections that weren't quite as inevitable nor nearly so speedily delivered as they are these days. I'm not sure I have them all, but a few days after I saw the movie I hauled out the ones I do have. (Can't seem to find my copy of Silent Night, though, which bothers me - it was a great wordless example of visual narrative.) Squish together a few of them - That Yellow Bastard, The Big Fat Kill, the original Sin City and a short story from Dark Horse Presents -- and you get the interwoven plots that make up the movie.

I don't know what persuasive powers director Robert Rodriguez brought to bear, but Frank obviously reconsidered his position from six years earlier: he shares director credit with Rodriguez. People have foolishly talked about comics being "pre-storyboarded" for movie adaptation for years; they are, of course, almost entirely wrong. Still, the movie takes its visual cues quite directly from Miller's art, sometimes lifting shots directly from the original panels, and definitely adopting the books' use of B&W with punches of color. I don't know the details of Miller's on-set involvement, but I can see the reasoning in giving him directorial credit. (But will somebody please tell me what the f#@& a "Special Guest Director"is?) Miller's noirish use of voiceover is translated pretty faithfully, too.

Coming from Rodriguez, who gave us both the El Mariachi and Spy Kids films, the Sin City movie has style to burn. The actors, from Bruce Willis to Clive Owen to Mickey Roark, are having a ball playing these over-the-top characters. Along with last year's Sky Captain, Sin City shows the breadth of possibility digital filmmaking offers; this looks like no other movie you've seen. Really. I think the only way to cut closer to Miller's art would be to work in purely B&W animation. (Hmmm... another missed opportunity to consider...)

The adaptation, however, is a bit of a muddle.

Sure, the stories they're adapting to weave through each other, sort of, in their original forms, but in that presentation each stood alone. The interconnection was a fun satisfying bonus for the attentive reader. Here, we're given two stories side by side bookended by the beginning and ending of a third story, with a tiny frame lifted from a fourth story wrapping the whole package. Given the fact that they're not generating any new material here, it's kind of a given that no one of the existing stories is enough to fill a feature film. The multiple storylines here, though, don't fit very comfortably. It's not that the nonlinear shuffling of timelines is all that perplexing; if audiences could get Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, they should be able to handle jumps backward in time as one storyline rolls back to events that take place before events in a story we've already seen. I think it's just that the film has a sort of Trilogy of Terror anthology feel that doesn't sit well with its overall cohesive narrative style.

Or perhaps the narrative style itself is so distinct that it's a little offputting. There's none of that annoying wipe and multi-panel stuff that Ang Lee threw into The Hulk in a misconceived allusion to comic book narrative vocabulary. There are, however, several dismemberments pouring pure white blood by the bucketfull.

Or maybe these hardboiled hypernoir characters are just too much for a mainstream audience to identify with. Whatever it is, a few people left the theater during the movie when I saw it. Their loss.

Sin City isn't the definitive comic book movie, any more than Sin City is the definitive comic book comic book. It is a visual wonder and, if you've a taste for this sort of thing, a lot of fun.

You Are What You Read

A friend sent me this a little while ago; I kept it on my desktop for a while; it was still amusing when I read it again, so here it is --

1. The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country.

2. The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country.

3. The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country and who are very good at crossword puzzles.

4. USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don't really understand The New York Times. They do, however, like their statistics shown in pie charts.

5. The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn't mind running the country -- if they could find the time -- and if they didn't have to leave Southern California to do it.

6. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country and did a far superior job of it, thank you very much.

7. The New York Daily News is read by people who aren't too sure who's running the country and don't really care as long as they can get a seat on the train.

8. The New York Post is read by people who don't care who's running the country as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.

9. The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country but need the baseball scores.

10. The San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren't sure there is a country... or that anyone is running it; but if so, they oppose all that they stand for. There are occasional exceptions if the leaders are handicapped minority feminist atheist dwarfs who also happen to be illegal aliens from any other country or galaxy provided, of course, that they are not Republicans.

11. The National Enquirer is read by people trapped in line at the grocery store.

12. None of these are read by the guy who is running the country into the ground.