Friday, August 31, 2018

Godzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

The Godzilla Chronicles continues! Last year, as a lead in to my annual "Halloween Countdown",  I talked about a movie I didn't get to see until my adult years, but one that had major significance to the Godzilla franchise as a whole, that being Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster. And then this past spring, I finally got to talk about what is easily my TOP favorite Godzilla movie of all time, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of the Astro Monster).

As I've explained before, while it's entirely possible that I saw some Godzilla movie or other at a younger age, likely on TV if at all, the first Godzilla movies I REMEMBER seeing, coincided with the first VCR we finally got. As I've also explained, I grew up a fairly poor kid, being raised by a single grandmother, which in and of itself was a journey, to put it mildly. Similar to how I didn't get an NES (and thus the genesis of my true video game love) until the second half of 1990, we didn't get a VCR until, I'd say, no earlier than 1989. Prior to that, anything and everything that I saw, had to have been playing on cable TV. But once we got that VCR, it helped open up a whole new world for me, of classic (and not so classic) movies.


What you see above, is the VHS cover art of what was very likely the first Godzilla movie I ever saw, let alone owned. Taken on its own, it's not amazing art, though it's hardly BAD art either. But to me, that box art is solid gold. I'm going to get this out of the way early, but I absolutely love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Not AS much as Monster Zero, because as far as I'm concerned, that movie takes the cake when it comes to the purest, most entertaining representation of classic "Showa Era" Godzilla. But in this man's mind, Sea Monster is a reasonably close second.

An alternate VHS cover.

I will acknowledge that my opinion of Sea Monster being "one of the best" Godzilla movies to ever exist, is not one that is widely held by other Godzilla fans. But that's perfectly fine, because I feel like I have plenty of good reasons to hold it in such esteem. For one thing, yes, there's the Nostalgia Factor. If this really WAS the first Godzilla movie I ever actually saw as a kid, that alone for most people is a reason to continue loving something and giving it high value as an adult. And I'll fully admit, that factor for me is strong here. This was a movie that sold me on how bad ass and cool Godzilla was, it was knee-deep in that mid-60s era when they transformed the "Big G" from a terror to humanity, to being a HERO. And he very quickly became MY hero.

But I also think the movie stands up on its own merits, and deserves recognition for what it is. It certainly has arguable weak points, for instance, the titular "Sea Monster", Ebirah. While I like him, one does have to admit that a giant lobster isn't exactly the MOST threatening enemy for a walking nuclear furnace of destruction like Godzilla. There is also a questionable (and brief) fight scene against a giant condor who appears out of nowhere, which I'll talk about a bit later. But overall? I think this movie has far more going FOR it, than against. For example, just straight off the cuff, I will name drop Akira Takarada. I don't mind telling you that he's my favorite Japanese actor of all time, and YES, it is 100% because of the classic Toho films he's been in. Being honest though, Mr. Takarada IS a badass, and perhaps never moreso than in this film. It also has veteran Toho actors like Jun Tazaki (aka Mustache Man), and Akihito Hirata (who bears an eye-patch here just as he did in the original Gojira film), as classic style villains. For bonus points, although that's getting ahead of ourselves, it also features a cameo appearance by (adult form) Mothra! And last but not least, it has a very unique "James Bond" type of vibe to the whole affair, which sets it apart from other Godzilla movies.

Most of the main cast.

As far as story goes, the main thread here, is that a young fisherman, Yata (Toru Ibuki), has been mysteriously lost at sea along with his ship. His younger brother Ryota (Toru Watanabe), sets himself out to find him, believing he is still alive. Being something of a "simple country boy" type, he isn't quite sure how to do this, with the authorities giving him no real help. But he spots a poster for a marathon dance of sorts (that kind of thing was all the rage in the 60s), with the grand prize winner receiving a boat. This inspires him to try and enter the dance, but he discovers that he's arrived considerably too late to enter. By a stroke of Fate, Ryota encounters two teenaged friends, Ichino and Nita, who as it so happened, had both just exited the competition from exhaustion, as Ryota had arrived. Ryota explains that he needs a boat, and thinking him some weird kid who is "boat crazy", the two decide to take him on a joy ride to the harbor to go look at boats.

Once there, the boys decide to just show themselves aboard such a boat, a yacht called the Yahlen, just to take a look around. But once on board, they find that the boat's "owner", a shotgun wielding man named Yoshimura, is not happy about the intrusion. But after the guys explain that their friend just loves boats THAT much that he had to see inside this one, Yoshimura suddenly has a change of heart, and tells them they can stay the night, but have to BUZZ OFF first thing in the morning. Just on its face, like, who would actually invite trespassers on their property to stay the night, right?

The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed...

Fast forward to morning, where Yoshimura awakens to find that his "shotgun", in actuality a realistic looking toy gun, was broken. Assaulting the sleeping teenagers, thinking they had done it, to get them off of his ship, the three of them emerge topside only to discover that they are sailing out on the open sea. It turns out that good ol' Ryota, being a strong believer in the Shinto religion, believes he has been given this boat as a "Gift from the Gods", and as such he intends to use it to find his lost brother. And seeing as none of the others, not even Yoshimura, knows how to drive a boat, OTHER than Ryota, they are "left with no choice" but to go along with his crazy scheme. Yoshimura, for his part, seems mysteriously not nearly as upset as you'd think, considering his boat just got hijacked.

Well as it would turn out, ol' Yoshimura is actually a bank robber, and the Yahlen isn't even HIS boat (SPOILERS!). He just hid out on it, and the boys happened to find him. So their adventure at sea begins, with Ryota combing the fishing lanes to try and find his brother's wreck. Unfortunately for Ryota and Company, they are hit by one hell of a monster storm (literally), and while helpless to the thrashing waves, their boat is wrecked by what looks very much like a gigantic lobster claw (because IT IS!). They fortunately all survive, only to be washed ashore on some remote, unknown island.

The Red Bamboo.

Much to our heroes' misfortune, it would seem that this island, called Letchi Island, was the adopted home of a clandestine terrorist outfit who call themselves "The Red Bamboo". These Bamboo chaps seem to have their eyes set on becoming a nuclear power unto themselves, and to that end, have set up a base, complete with a "Heavy Water" installation. The boys hear the siren heralding a ship approaching the island, and at first think they are saved, only to quickly learn that it is actually these Red Bamboo jerks, bringing another shipment of kidnapped slaves. The slaves are natives to an island that has popped up in the Toho-verse previously, Infant Island, home to the monster known as Mothra!

As a couple of Infant Islanders try to escape, getting gunned down in the process, a native girl slips away making her own run for it. The girl, Dayo (played by Kumi Mizuno),  runs into the gang hiding out in the forest, and at first runs from them in fear, but they later convince her that they're not with the Red Bamboo. The group then go on the run together, being discovered by the soldiers, and wind up finding a seaside cave to hide in. The only problem? They ALSO discover that, for whatever random reason, the cave happens to be the current residence of a sleeping Godzilla!! After a near disastrous expedition into the enemy base, that sees one of them get caught, and another get literally carried away by a huge weather balloon, the group decide on a plan of action: They're going to try and wake up Godzilla, in an effort to distract or defeat The Red Bamboo, so they can free the slaves and escape.

Bitch SLAP!

Wake the sleeping giant they do, utilizing some MacGyver type tactics involving some metal wire and a sword they found, which acts as a lightning rod. The lighting succeeds in jolting poor Godzilla awake, and he busts out of the cave, literally smashing through the cliff-side out to the beach, understandably grumpy. I mean, he was having a really peaceful power nap, and then THIS shit happens! Well, the island ALSO happens to be home to an enormous (titular) Sea Monster known as Ebirah, a huge lobster, who patrols its surrounding waters territorially. A fact that The Red Bamboo capitalize on, using a yellow juice made from local fruit, that apparently lobsters HATE, to keep Ebirah away from their ships, while at the same time utilizing him to keep everyone ELSE away from the island (and to keep slaves from escaping).

When Grumpy Godzilla meets up with Crabby (Get It?) Ebirah, shit gets REAL, and we the audience finally get the fight we've all been waiting for. In all honesty, while somewhat silly as a concept, Ebirah isn't all that bad of a monster. And fighting Godzilla in his own element (the sea), he does manage to hold his own. He even engages Godzilla in a game of catch featuring a giant boulder! The two monsters actually fight twice in the film, the first ending in a bit of a stalemate after Godzilla (literally) toasts Ebirah's ass and he swims off. So while our heroes hope that Godzilla will take it to those evil Bamboo guys, meanwhile, Ryota is brought by fair winds to Infant Island, where he finds his brother alive and well! The two brothers plan to set out to rescue the others, while the Infant Islanders set about a sweet song and dance routine, led by those adorable Fairy Twins, in hopes to awaken their god Mothra, to have her go save everyone. And without spoiling the ending, that's the basic rundown of the plot.

Safety Dance!

As I said before, this film has a very unique vibe that you don't really find in any other Godzilla movies, and I like that about it. It has a VERY 60s soundtrack, featuring very Bond-esque surfer guitar work. Not the classic Akira Ifukube fare of so many great Godzilla films, but it's catchy, and I consider it classic in its own right. Another possible reason for this film's unique tone, is that it is one of only a small handful of Godzilla films from the 50s and 60s NOT to be directed by the great Ishiro Honda (whom I just recently revealed as one of my Top 5 Favorite Filmmakers Ever).

Instead, it is directed by Jun Fukuda, aka the second most prolific Godzilla director of the Showa Era. Along with directing the little-known but actually rather good sci-fi thriller Secret of the Telegian, he also directed this, the following Son of Godzilla, and he went on to become the main Godzilla guy in the 70s, directing three more films (Gigan, Megalon, and the first Mechagodzilla). While I do vastly prefer Honda's work, I have to give Fukuda major props for what he accomplished as a G-director. He DID, after all, direct this, which is basically my second favorite Godzilla film of all time. And while the 70s movies did get a bit hokey, and dipped in quality (due to Toho budget cuts), they still have heart, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is another of my favorite Godzilla movies.

The Giant Claw....?

There are a couple of negative points the film DOES deserve. The first of which being the aforementioned fight with a giant bird. See, right after his first fight with Ebirah, all Godzilla really wants to do is go back to sleep. So instead of crawling back into the cave, he just sits down and naps out in the open. But seeing as he's so huge, he makes himself a giant target, and the first thing to attack him, is a gigantic condor, who swoops in and just starts pecking the shit out of his face. Now the CONCEPT of a fight with a giant bird is pretty solid. Unfortunately, what makes this fight a negative point, is that the film must have already busted its budget on everything else, because the bird is arguably the cheapest looking Toho monster ever put to film. The poor thing looks so rough, that the camera barely focuses on it, and after being a brief annoyance, Godzilla tells it to PISS OFF, burning it to a crisp with his death breath, and it plummets into the sea.  

The second negative point is actually something that had nothing to do with the filmmakers. It has everything to do with the post-production English dubbing. There was an English dub made, which is on the original VHS tape I own (and can be heard in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring this film), which in my opinion was actually rather good. The actors actually TRY, it has a sense of dramatic timing and the voices fit the characters. However, upon buying the widely-available DVD for my collection in the 2000s, I discovered to my horror, that they did NOT use that dub! Instead, they used some OTHER shitty "International Dub", with completely different voice actors, who basically just phone it in with the laziest cartoon style acting imaginable. The single worst offender, is the voice for Nita, the "comic relief" character of the story. In my cool VHS dub, yeah, he's a goofball, but he's still a cool character. In the SHIT dub from the DVD, he now sounds like a whiny, high-pitched cartoon character, apparently played for laughs but actually just annoying. And that sucks, because as stated, the OTHER dub actually fits the movie and characters very well.

Coaching up The Boys before their next big fight.

As the story goes, similar to another mid-60s Toho film, Frankenstein vs. Baragon (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World), this movie was allegedly originally supposed to feature King Kong, whom Toho had the rights to use after their Kong vs. Godzilla film, and would later use in their movie King Kong Escapes. But they thankfully decided to use their marquee star, Godzilla, instead. Don't get me wrong, King Kong vs. The Sea Monster has a certain ring to it, and I'm sure it would have been a delightfully bizarre escapade. But I'm personally very glad it stars Godzilla instead, both because I feel it's overall better that way, and because this movie led me to discover my childhood love/obsession for Godzilla. And that on its own means an awful lot to yours truly.

Overall, while this movie lacks the monster star power of a SUPER memorable opponent for Godzilla, like a King Kong, or a Mothra, or a Ghidorah. I feel that it hits enough of the right notes, and stands out with enough of its own particular vibe, that it merits a recommendation from me. Is it "campy" and "cheesy"? Yes. But as I've said in past articles, Toho's use of "suitmation" (actors in rubber suits), and elaborately detailed miniature sets, while it may strike modern audiences as "cheesy", or "cheap", it was anything but at the time. Most of the budget on these films, small as the already were, went directly to the special effects, and they were (and are) an artform all their own. An artform that I really wish Toho would remember, and honor, today.

If you only feel like ever watching ONE Godzilla film ever, I'd probably recommend the original 1954 classic Gorija, or my top favorite, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. But if you're inclined to watch more than one, I would recommend Sea Monster as a very fun and trippy ride. It is an enjoyable movie from beginning to end, at least I think so. Just a word of warning: If you DO watch it, which I hope you do, if at all possible, just watch the original Japanese audio with subtitles, because I'm telling you, that "International English Dub" is terrible!

As for what's next on the Retro Revelations docket? Well, hold onto your butts, because this was just a taste of the Halloween goodness to come...Stay Tuned!!!

Monday, July 30, 2018

My Top Favorite Filmmakers Pt. 2

Last time, I talked about what are probably my Top 5 Favorite Filmmakers of All Time. Today, I'm here to talk about some MORE of my favorite filmmakers of all time, people that made movies that really influenced me or meant a lot to me growing up, and in my life in general. So without further ado, lets get to it!

Steven Spielberg - This one is a "gimme" for a lot of movie fans. This man has made so many great, classic movies throughout his career, and BECAUSE of his body of work, he is a very strong argument to some for "Greatest Filmmaker of All Time". I'm not sure I would go quite that far, but he deserves recognition as ONE of the very best. I don't love EVERY movie he's ever made, in fact there are a handful I still haven't even seen, due to lack of interest, and others still, like The Adventures of Tintin, that I just wasn't feeling. But it would certainly be fair to say he's probably made more movies that I like and care about, than ones I don't.

One of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.

My own personal experience with Spielberg started very early. As I've recounted in the past, growing up, I spent the vast majority of my childhood NOT being able to see movies in theaters, because my grandmother was anti-social and claimed that "they were a waste of money". In her mind, you could just easily wait for the movies to come out on TV, or home video. But when I was VERY young, let's say between the ages of 3-5, I do remember two specific movies I DID get to see in theaters at such an impressionable age. One of them was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which was one of many re-releases Disney did throughout the 80s. The other, was E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. The scene where Elliot waits outside in the yard alone for ET to show back up, and then ET appears, and scuttles slowly over to his lawn chair in the middle of the night, at that age scared the shit out of me! But then ET held out his grubby little three-fingered hand, and dropped some of the Reece's Pieces that Elliot had left around the forest to attract him, and little kid me was like "Oh OK, the scary alien likes candy, me too!" Outside of the scary scenes, I'm sure that movie made a big impression on me, and I likely wished that I had some kind of alien/magic/extra-dimensional/whatever buddy of my own.

Other early experiences with Spielberg films, included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and of course, the Indiana Jones trilogy. For the former, my grandmother was a major science fiction and alien nut, so it was a no-brainer that she loved that movie. To me, it was definitely interesting and entertaining, but also quite a bit darker and scarier for most of it, than ET was. I clearly remember them showing the "Extended Edition" on TV, where they showed the extra scenes he filmed in the early 80s, such as showing the inside of the giant spaceship at the end. Kid me thought that scene was super cool, and wondered what all the different aliens inside were like. Adult me realizes he never should have caved to studio pressure and filmed that scene, because it's better to leave things like that a mystery. As for the latter, I more or less loved Indy growing up, even though of course I didn't get all the adult references, and the scary parts really scared me. But I've always had a thing for the supernatural, and treasure-hunting stories, and so combining the two was a great move in my eyes. Similar to how I would flip on the Star Wars trilogy (more on that in a minute) as I grew up, I also flipped on the Indy movies. As a kid, my favorite was The Last Crusade, because, I dunno, Sean Connery is awesome, and it had even more action. But adult me settled on the original, Raiders of the Lost Ark, as my favorite Indy film, and perhaps my favorite Spielberg movie overall, though that's a tough call.

One final note about Steven Spielberg before I move on, in addition to being one of the most prolific and successful directors in Hollywood history, he has also been one of the most prolific and successful producers. He has produced a ton of movies, even helping to jump-start many other filmmakers' careers. And in addition to that, he ALSO helped bring many awesome TV shows in to existence, such as Amazing Stories, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs

My Favorite Works: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Hook (1991), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)Jurassic Park (1993)

Other Works I Like: Duel (1971), Jaws (1975), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Lost World (1997), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Terminal (2004), War of the Worlds (2005)

Works He Produced That I Like: Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), Back to the Future (1985), The Goonies (1985), An American Tail (1986), The Money Pit (1986), Batteries Not Included (1987), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), The Land Before Time (1988), Back to the Future Part II (1989)

George Lucas - Now George Lucas is an odd, and rather special case. Of all the people I'm listing as my favorite filmmakers, outside of Ray Harryhausen who only acted as director on his own early stop-motion shorts, Lucas is by far the least prolific as a director of the entire bunch. In total, he is only officially credited as director on six of the films he's made. A serious point of contention among Star Wars fans, mainly between the fans who love Lucas and the "fans" who act like they hate his guts, is his lack of director credit on his films The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Those who like to give Lucas as little credit for his own works as possible, making him out to be nothing more than a hack who got really lucky and "had great talent around him", like to give all the credit of those films to the people who were credited as directors: Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand. But while it is true that for the last two films of his original trilogy, Lucas took more of a producer and supervisory role, officially, UN-officially, he was still the mastermind behind the entire operation.

I personally liken it to the 1982 hit Poltergeist, which was officially directed by Tobe Hooper. But quite suspiciously, it doesn't SEEM like anything else Hooper ever did, tone-wise, even direction-wise, and that's because Steven Spielberg was on set almost every day as producer, and was practically making ET at the same time. In point of fact, the only reason Spielberg DIDN'T direct Poltergeist, is because he wasn't allowed by the studio to direct two films at once. But UN-officially, it is well known that Spielberg was still the one calling all the final shots, and it was in fact he who shaped the direction of the film, even if Hooper was the one he hired to yell "action!" and "cut!". As far as I'm concerned, it's no different with Kershner and Marquand, in that Lucas was the one driving the vision, and in my mind, it is he who was still basically the director, UN-officially, of both movies.

Just chillin' with Obi-Wan.

Regardless, the truth for me personally, is that AS the creator and godfather of Star Wars, George Lucas makes it onto my list for practically that alone. Even though I was either unborn or too young to see any of the original trilogy in theaters when they were new, Star Wars was nonetheless a HUGE part of my childhood. From the movies, to the 80s Droids and Ewoks cartoons, to the great first Ewoks TV Movie (and its not great sequel), to my early experience playing the Star Wars arcade game, and more. Luke Skywalker was a hero of mine as a kid, as he has been for so many children, and as I grew up, and experienced more of the so-called "Expanded Universe", that mythos Lucas created only continued to grow on me. Video games like Rebel Assault II on Playstation, and Shadows of the Empire on Nintendo 64 were pretty big to me when they were new, warts and all. And when the original trilogy was re-released as "Special Editions" in 1997, I was thrilled, because I was able to actually see those movies in theaters. When the "controversial" Prequel Trilogy came out, even 1999's The Phantom Menace, while they weren't perfect, I loved them. So for giving me (and the world) the Star Wars franchise alone, George Lucas will always have my respect.

But the thing is, he has done and meant so much more in film over his career. He is and always will be rightfully known for Star Wars. But he has innovated or had a hand in so many other things as well. His first big hit film, THE movie that was such a smash-hit it allowed him the leeway with studios to take a chance on a huge, effects-heavy project like Star Wars in the first place, was American Graffiti. A solid "coming of age" film in its own right, very much inspired by Lucas' own teen years, Graffiti is most notable for its soundtrack, as it was the first major Hollywood film to feature a lot of contemporary music throughout, instead of a typical, more orchestral film score. Not only did this give rise to more films using popular music, but it also almost single-handedly helped to create what is now known as "Classic Rock Radio". Radio stations before then typically played mostly newer hits in whatever genre they covered, but with the popularity of old rock songs in Graffiti, it eventually led to a rise in "Throwback" stations that dedicated themselves to playing older music.

Lucas also, along with being the godfather of Star Wars, is pretty much the same thing for Indiana Jones. While his friend Spielberg acted as director on those films, it was Lucas who originally conceived the character, concept, and wrote the stories. Much like Star Wars, Indy hearkened back to old film serials of Hollywood's "Golden Age", and the Indy films themselves had a huge influence on action and adventure films, just as Star Wars did on science fiction and big special effects movies. He also wrote and produced another great 80s film, the fantasy epic Willow. Much like Spielberg, Lucas also acted as producer on many films, as well, helping many projects to get off the ground. And beyond that, his hand in innovating film technology has been invaluable to the industry. The original Star Wars represented a massive leap in effects-driven films. Lucas also had a direct hand in creating technical companies, such as the THX theater sound company, the Industrial Light & Magic effects house, and even originally founding what would become Pixar Studios. All in all, George Lucas' role in the evolution of Hollywood and filmmaking cannot be diminished or dismissed, as it was huge.

My Favorite Works: Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Works He Produced That I Like: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984), Labyrinth (1986), Captain EO (1986), Willow (1988), The Land Before Time (1988), Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989) 

Richard Donner - Donner is another director, much like Carpenter and Dante, where I didn't actually get to see his films until I was into my teens, after my grandmother passed away. No, not even The Goonies, which, trust me, is one of MANY movies I lament not being able to see and enjoy as a kid. Experiencing things as a child is significantly different than as an adult, or even as a teenager. You are far more open, and raw, and just take things at face value. Everything is bigger and more epic and more "real". So not being able to enjoy Goonies through the eyes and mind of a child? Pretty lame. The real shame is, when I finally DID get to see it, over time it became one of my Top Favorite Movies of all Time!

Talking shop with Mr. Kent.

But when I DID finally start seeing his films, I very quickly became a big fan. If I had to take a stab at which of his movies I first saw, I'd have to guess the original Superman (very possibly shown on TV together with Superman II). To be clear, while I went as Supes (ironically at my grandmother's suggestion) for Halloween when I was 5 years old, I was not a huge Superman fan growing up, and certainly wasn't in my teens. I even went through a dumb phase in my late teens, where I insisted that Supes (and most DC heroes by extension), were "generic and lame". In my defense, I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about, and I was a die-hard Marvel kid. But the ONE thing Superman that I always liked, even during that phase, was Donner's films. Christopher Reeve was, and to me remains, THE Superman (even though Tim Daly from the 1996 animated show is a close second). Those first two movies are gold, even though the producers really screwed Donner around, and hired another director (Richard Lester) to finish the second film after they fired him. But Donner really seemed to understand the character of Clark Kent, and his films truly embodied, what I feel is the best possible representation of what Superman is (and SHOULD be) all about.

I also saw The Goonies around 15 or so years old, and instantly loved it. It is very "against type", looking at most of Donner's body of work, but I think in many ways that makes it more special. To me, hell to a LOT of people, Goonies is a quintessentially "80s" movie, to its core. And it was a perfect storm of elements, with a story by producer Steven Spielberg, a script by future big-shot filmmaker Chris Columbus, and Richard Donner himself delivering what I consider to be his finest directorial performances. It is one of those rare films that I can watch at almost any time, and I consider it to be fairly flawless. There really isn't anything to NOT like about it, from the cast to the story to the humor, or the great Astoria, Oregon locales, or the overall tone and spirit of the film.

I eventually also watched Donner's famous "Lethal Weapon" movies, and while not AS big a fan of those, I still love them, particularly the relationship between the lead characters of Murtaugh and Riggs (Danny Glover and Mel Gibson). In my movie-going prime, in the late 90s, I even saw a couple of Donner films in theaters, including the great Conspiracy Theory (also starring Gibson), and Lethal Weapon 4, which was my first exposure (as I'm sure it was for many people) to the amazing Jet Li. On a final note, like Spielberg and Lucas, Richard Donner, both with and sometimes separately from his producer wife Lauren Donner, has also produced some really great films that I love. In my book, Mr. Donner is one of the best directors in Hollywood history, and he should be remembered as such.

My Favorite Works: The Goonies (1985), Superman II (1980), Conspiracy Theory (1997), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), 16 Blocks (2006)

Other Works I Like: Superman (1978), The Toy (1982)Lethal Weapon (1987), Scrooged (1988), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), Timeline (2003)

Works He Produced That I Like: The Lost Boys (1987), Delirious (1991), Free Willy (1993), Free Willy 2 (1995)

Robert Zemeckis -My personal experience with Zemeckis, oddly enough, didn't start out with the usual type of movies that one would imagine. I didn't get to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? OR any of the Back to the Future films, again, until my early teens at least. I honestly think that while sometimes, I didn't see something because my grandmother didn't "approve" of it, there were other times, such as with BTTF, that I think she just never bothered to rent them, like they didn't jump out to her or something. But the one Zemeckis film she DID rent, that I DID see as a child, was Romancing the Stone. Definitely not kid fare, or a "family" film really. But I guess even as a kid I must've somewhat liked it. Stone is an odd duck, because it's a mishmash of romantic "chick flick" elements, and Indiana Jones style action/adventure. It's kind of a serious movie, but it's also funny. I came to appreciate it more as a teen and adult, because I "got" more of the references and humor. But in general, it's just a good, entertaining movie. Its highly unnecessary sequel, however, while not a  BAD movie, not so much. And to be fair, Zemeckis had nothing to do with it.

Gonna Go Back In Time.

Stone also happened to be Robert Zemeckis' first major hit film as a director, and it probably, along with the added power of Spielberg producing, directly led to him being able to do the film(s) that he is arguably most well known for: Back to the Future. The original 1985 classic, is a quintessential 80s movie, and like most great 80s films, it was 100% a product of its time, even IF, ironically, most of its action takes place in the 1950s. But to me, while the first Future movie is great, the sequel, which didn't come out until 1989, is light years beyond it. It just has everything going for, and going on IN it. We go on a roller coaster ride from the future, to the past, to a dark parallel reality present, and it just rocks from start to finish. Which is also why I will always argue, that the third film in the trilogy, which takes place in the "Wild West", should have been the second. Because even though Future Pt. 3 IS a good movie, it's not "epic end of a trilogy" good. That would be Pt. 2. But either way, the series as a whole is cinema greatness.

Zemeckis became less prolific, when it came to churning out movies, in the 90s and 2000s, etc., but he still created some classic hits. Two of which, happen to star the great Tom Hanks, and they both were massive critical and financial successes. Those movies of course being Forrest Gump, and Cast Away. Gump I did not see in theaters, as it was before I was able to start doing so (and I doubt at that age it would have been super high on my list), though I do think it is a good movie. Cast Away I DID see in theaters, and I actually quite enjoyed it, even if it had a frustrating/bittersweet ending.

My Favorite Works: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future Part 2 (1989), Cast Away (2000)

Other Works I Like: Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future Part 3 (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992), Forrest Gump (1994), Contact (1997)


Walt Disney - Even though I did not put him in my Top Five favorite filmmakers, the undeniable truth is, that few filmmakers had a bigger, more lasting impact on my childhood and development, than Walt Disney. Either through works he directly was involved in, or works that the company he founded continued to make after his 1966 death, Disney was a huge part of my early years, as I'm sure he was for a lot of kids of my generation or earlier. The Disney Channel, which was a fairly new thing on 1980s cable TV, was one of the first "special" channels we had when I was a little kid. As such, I was able to see all sorts of Disney programming, from TV shows, to holiday specials, to classic Walt Disney shorts. And of course, as I've already recounted, one of the first (and for many years only) two films I got to see in a movie theater as a small child, was the 80s re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. A movie that also, ironically, happened to be Walt Disney's first feature film.

Walt with arguably his greatest creation.

Now I should, and likely shall, write a piece solely dedicated to the person and works of Mr. Walt Disney someday. But for now, I will simply state, without paying it more attention than it deserves, that the modern notions some people seem to have, that Walt was somehow a major asshole, or worse, a "racist and anti-Semite", etc., are absolute bullshit, and always have been. Walt was hardly a perfect person (no one is), and he absolutely earned a reputation as being a taskmaster and sometimes being difficult to work with. But the truth is, Walt was a perfectionist. He demanded the people around him worked as hard as he did, because he absolutely did work his ass off, constantly. And that work ethic, for good and for ill, is what drove him, along with his brother Roy and key employees like animator Ub Iwerks, from being a small-time outfit based out of Kansas City struggling to get by, to becoming one of the biggest and most successful studios and companies in Hollywood, during his lifetime.

As a filmmaker, Walt started as a simple cartoonist and animator. He did or helped with animation on many of his earliest theatrical animated shorts. Eventually, he had enough other animators, that he stepped back from drawing himself. But he acted as director on dozens of shorts, from the early 20s through the mid-1930s. He continued as the primary producer, both for the continuing Disney shorts, as well as his expansion in to pioneering feature-length animated films, and later still live action movies, all the way up through to his death, in 1966. And on top of that, one of the coolest things about Walt, was that in addition to directing, producing, writing, etc., he also voiced his single most famous creation, Mickey Mouse (and various other characters from time to time), from his genesis in the late 1920s, all the way through 1947, when he finally handed the job off.

The company that still bears his name today, in my book, is a far cry from DESERVING to bear it. But Walt Disney, the MAN, in my estimation, should be remembered for what he was: a key pioneer and innovator, both in animation, as well as the film industry in general. While the Disneyland theme park and other ventures, definitely were passion projects that took up more and more of his time later in his life, I do believe that animation always remained his one true creative love.  If it hadn't been for him taking a massive risk, that could have bankrupted his studio, by making Snow White in the 30s, full-length animated movies likely wouldn't have been a thing. And the world owes him for that much, at the very least. But his works helped make and keep animation popular, period, and pretty much every animator that has followed him in all the decades since, owes quite a lot to Mr. Disney, and most of them were likely heavily influenced by him.

In the interest of saving space and time, I will only list feature films, as far as works of his that I like.

My Favorite Works: Alice in Wonderland (1951), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Fantasia (1940), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Jungle Book (1967)

Other Works I Like: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Treasure Island (1950), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955). Swiss Family Robinson (1960), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Babes in Toyland (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965)



Before I wrap this up, I figured I would list some other filmmakers that I really love. I could probably stretch this series out to have several more parts, but in the interest of time, and seeing as that isn't currently on my article agenda, I'll just make a "quick mention" list here, just to let you know a few folks who I think are awesome:

Don Bluth - The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), Titan A.E. (2000)

Hayao Miyazaki - The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Ponyo (2008)

Wes Anderson - The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Jim Henson - The Frog Prince (1971), The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Labyrinth (1986)

Arthur Rankin Jr./Jules Bass - Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty the Snowman (1969), The Hobbit (1977), The Return of the King (1980), The Flight of Dragons (1982), The Last Unicorn (1982), The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Terence Fisher - Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Gorgon (1964), The Devil Rides Out (1968) 

Richard Fleischer - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967), Conan the Destroyer (1984), Red Sonja (1985)

Chris Columbus - Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Home Alone (1990), Only the Lonely (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Bicentennial Man (1999), Harry Potter 1-3 (2001-2004)

James Whale - Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

John Hughes - National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). The Great Outdoors (1988), Uncle Buck (1989), Christmas Vacation (1989), Home Alone (1990), Career Opportunities (1991), Only the Lonely (1991), Dutch (1991)

George Pal - War of the Worlds (1953), Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Atlantis The Lost Continent (1961)

Alfred Hitchcock - Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963)

Frank Capra - Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941), It's a Wonderful Life (1946)


So that's a wrap, for now! I could go on for quite some time. In fact, in a way, I have. As one FINAL little note that I'd like to share with folks, I started a little "game" or project of sorts, many years ago, a file on my computer that I've been adding to over time. I call it "My Favorite Directors", and what it is, is a list, similar to that above, except ONLY including films someone has been credited as director on, not just producer, writer, etc. Only Ray Harryhausen was included as the exception, for reasons I mentioned in Pt. 1.

So the rules to this "game" are rather simple: You think of a movie you like, let's say, and you go look it up on Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database. Look at who directed the film, and then look at other movies THEY'VE directed. Simply put, if that director has made AT LEAST two films that you can say that you either love, or at least like, then you put that director, and those movies, on the list. Now, granted, I DID call it "My Favorite Directors", so with many inclusions on my list, it is fair to say that a lot of them are NOT my favorite directors, by a longshot. But I included them anyway, as part of the "game". To denote directors who truly ARE my top favorites, I put an asterisk ("*" symbol), next to their name.

I've been trying to get other people to participate in this "game" for years, and no one ever really seems to bite. So maybe some of you out there, that are both as movie AND perhaps even as list-crazy as I am, will finally pick up my torch, and carry it forward! If you do, let me know in the comments, or on the Retro Revelations Facebook or Twitter pages, or hell, even my e-mail (which can be found at the bottom of the page). I'd love to see other people's lists!

So that's that! I hope you enjoyed this look into my passion for film. And as always, if my writing about these directors and movies, inspires you to want to watch some, or ANY of them, please do! That's half the reason I write these articles, is so people not only learn/know about this stuff, but so they might actually want to go enjoy these things themselves! Until next time then!

Friday, June 29, 2018

My Top Favorite Filmmakers Pt. 1

Anyone who has followed Retro Revelations knows that I'm a man who loves movies. In fact, when I first started this blog back in October 2012, it was originally going to be a purely film-centric blog, focusing only on movies, TV shows and animation. Thankfully, I decided to expand, and chose the more generic "Retro Revelations" name/theme, because while I could certainly write near-endlessly about JUST that subject, the broader RR horizon means I've also been able to write about any OTHER kind of old thing that I happen to love, including but not limited to: video games, comics, books, toys, and even music.

But film has still always had a major focus, and I have previously done multi-part series on my favorite Comedy Films, my favorite Christmas Movies, and even my (more or less) Top Favorite Movies of All Time. I've also done a series looking at icons of Classic Horror films. Today, I'm here to talk about the people who make these wonderful bits of magic we call movies. Today, I'm here to talk about what I consider to be my personal Top Favorite Filmmakers. So let's get it started!

Ray Harryhausen - Ray was not a director, but in some ways he was far more important to the films he made. His works, his art-form of Stop-Motion Animation, was the main attraction that made the movies he worked on, special. It was his art that brought people to see those films, and very often, it was his vision and imagination that fueled the projects in the first place, especially later in his career. Starting his life as the young fan and student of Stop-Motion pioneer Willis O'Brien, he proved the old axiom true, that of the student surpassing the teacher. What O'Brien, someone Ray held very dear, had popularized with the movie-going public, Harryhausen took to the next level and beyond, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in film, and inspiring multiple generations of future filmmakers. My only complaint about Ray's work, is that there should have been even more of it. Meaning, I feel his career ended too soon, with 1981 being his last movie work. As his career went on, his ideas became more and more ambitious, and the more ambitious they got, the longer it took him to animate them. It became grueling and tiring for him, and that coupled with the seeming shift in Hollywood away from Stop-Motion effects, convinced him to retire, when I wish he would have made at least another film or two.  For more on Ray's life and career, refer to this tribute piece I did on him years ago.

The Master at work.

His work also inspired people of a myriad of other backgrounds, myself included. As a writer, particularly of fiction, Ray's films had an unbelievably huge influence on my own imagination. Especially as a child, his movies set my mind alight, and the creatures he brought to life, would become ingrained in my psyche permanently. It is no small statement to claim that I consider Ray Harryhausen to be, easily, my TOP-most favorite filmmaker of ALL time. Not my favorite DIRECTOR, mind you, as he (generally) didn't direct films, outside of his own very early Stop-Motion work. But his work as an animator, a special effects guru, a producer, and sometimes even writer/conceptualist on his films, is untouchable. His portrayals of the struggle of Good against Evil, his displays of the surreal and fantastic, his penchant for taking little metal and foam models, and giving them more life, more vibrance, and more personality, than any CGI creation cold ever hope to have, was his gift to the world. It was his gift to me, and he was a HUGE part of my childhood, and a major source of escape FROM that childhood.

Ray Harryhausen is a legend of the film industry, the likes of which was never quite seen before, and surely will never be seen again. Like his films, he was singularly unique.

My Favorite Works: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Clash of the Titans (1981), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964)

Other Works I Like: Mighty Joe Young (1949), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), One Million Years B.C. (1966), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Ishiro Honda - As longtime readers are surely aware, the two biggest influences on my childhood, at least film-wise, were far and away Harryhausen movies, and Godzilla movies. While I appreciate the works of Akira Kurosawa and others, it goes without saying that my favorite Japanese director, and favorite non-American director period, is the man who was behind the camera for MOST of the classic "Showa Era" (50s-70s) Godzilla films: Ishiro Honda. A real life close friend and sometimes collaborator with Kurosawa, in his native country Honda was known for making a wide variety of films, from romances, to comedies, to war dramas, and beyond. But, of course, both nationally and internationally, he became best known, for his science fiction films for Toho Studios, most specifically his Godzilla films.

Having a chat with The Big G, on the set of "Monster Zero".

At a cursory glance, non-Godzilla fans, especially of today, are usually quick to point out how "campy" and "cheesy" these films are, especially the old ones of the "Showa Era". And the fact is, just as with most science fiction/fantasy/horror films made in Hollywood (until more recent times), these movies were rarely given the budget, or the production time, they deserved. That alone certainly never helped with the alleged "cheese" factor. And yet, the work that went into these films was enormous, and the best of them were considered to be pioneering in special effects work for the era. In their own way, Godzilla/kaiju films too, were highly responsible for pushing the boundaries of what was possible in film, and Ishiro Honda was one of the key figures responsible for that, along with special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya. The original 1954 film Gojira most especially, was a very dark and sombre work, a direct response/reaction to the horrors that Japan suffered at the hands of American nuclear weapons. While later films became lighter, more fun fare, the original was essentially a drama, with fantastical/horrific elements, and is rightly considered one of the best Japanese movies ever made, right up there with Kurosawa's top works.

Honda's output for Toho in the 50s and 60s was enormous, and even just in science fiction, he more or less single handedly defined the genre's output from Japan.

My Favorite Works: Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Destroy All Monsters (1969), Gojira (1954)

Other Works I Like: Half-Human (1955), Rodan (1956), The Mysterians (1957), Mothra (1961), Atragon (1963), Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964), Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), King Kong Escapes (1967), Latitude Zero (1969), Space Amoeba (1970), Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) 

Mel Brooks - As much as I love so-called "genre movies" such as sci-fi, fantasy and horror, a strange idiom unto itself considering EVERY film belongs to some kind of genre, I also have an avid love of comedies. And no filmmaker has given me more classic, timeless comedies that I enjoy pretty much every time I turn them on, than one Mel Brooks. Brooks was a man who started out in television during its early days, working with the likes of Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner, and went on to help redefine comedy films in Hollywood.

Hangin' with the cast of Young Frankenstein.

My first personal memory of a Mel Brooks movie, was seeing 1987's Spaceballs on television as a kid. In fact, instead of just buying a retail copy, my grandmother recorded it onto a blank VHS tape off of TV (which eventually saw the sound warp from time to time, which my grandmother stubbornly INSISTED was just part of the movie). My mother, who lived with us at the time, as she often did, glomed onto that movie, and watched it over and over and over, to the point that I got sick of it. But I still liked it, and certainly laughed a lot (even while not understanding all the jokes as a child), upon first seeing it. We also rented Robin Hood: Men in Tights when I was a kid, which I found absolutely hilarious. In my teens, I would encounter the likes of History of the World Pt. 1, Blazing Saddles, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Ironically, or perhaps unironically given my childhood history of films I missed out on thanks to my grandmother's eccentricity, I didn't wind up finally seeing the film of his that would become my favorite, Young Frankenstein, until I was in my 20s. That movie actually became a permanent top candidate for "Favorite Movie Ever", alongside the likes of the 1977 animated The Hobbit, The Dark Crystal, and Ghostbusters.

Mel Brooks was, not unlike the filmmakers preceding him on this list, a singular personality. And his works in comedy, helped completely reshape what American comedy films had been up until that point. And not unlike the men above, he is a filmmaker the likes of which will not be seen again.

My Favorite Works: Young Frankenstein (1974), History of the World Pt. 1 (1981), Silent Movie (1976), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), Spaceballs (1987)

Other Works I Like: The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), High Anxiety (1977), Life Stinks (1991), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

John Carpenter - My earliest memory of seeing a John Carpenter movie certainly left an impression on me, it just wasn't a positive one. For some insane reason, even though she wouldn't let me watch FAR tamer old Dracula or Frankenstein or Mummy movies (for example), my grandmother rented The Thing when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and regardless of what SOME horror fans (or parents) will tell you about how it's "totally fine to let a little kid watch scary movies" of this caliber, let ME tell you, AS a kid who lived it: no, it's NOT okay. Why? Because that movie is both disturbingly gruesome, as WELL as being incredibly dark and scary. For a little kid, that was a complete mindfuck to me, to put it mildly, and both the horrific visuals, and the horrific IDEA central to the plot, absolutely terrified and at least mildly traumatized me. I did NOT like that film as a child, with very good reason, and in all fairness to little me, no self-respecting parent should be letting their 8 or 9 year old KID, watch John Carpenter's The Thing.

Johnny C and Lo Pan, BFFs?

Ironically, as an adult, I came to love The Thing for many of the same reasons that I hated it as a kid. The ensemble cast is great, and the unbelievable, unrelenting sense of tension, from the very opening seconds of the film, to the closing credits, is almost unmatched, I think, in the history of scary cinema. It is, in THAT sense, his master-work in my opinion. My grandmother also rented the FAR less scary science fiction classic Starman when I was a kid. But I, again, wouldn't encounter most of his films until my teens and twenties. Films I came to love, like Escape From New York, They Live, and the one that would become my absolute favorite, Big Trouble in Little China. In this man's humble view, Big Trouble is one of the single greatest movies ever made, and while I do contend that Thing is Carpenter's master-work of HORROR, I feel Big Trouble is his strongest work overall.

One of the main reasons John Carpenter is one of my favorite filmmakers, is because regardless of trends, studio politics, or career pressures, he made movies that he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. Which is probably why in part, even though his talent was obvious and his films were often outstanding, that he never quite became the status of a Spielberg. But he was always true to himself, and honest through his art. And for that, he should always be honored.

My Favorite Works: Big Trouble in Little China (1986), The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), Escape From New York (1981), The Fog (1980)

Other Works I Like: Starman (1984), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In The Mouth of Madness (1995), Escape From LA (1996)

Joe Dante - I also experienced Joe Dante films as a child, and at least one of them, the most infamous one in fact, did also scare me a bit. But it also didn't have nearly the same effect on me, and I actually wound up loving it. That movie, of course, being his biggest hit, Gremlins. Just about the only work that advanced puppetry techniques and technology in that era that WASN'T made by Jim Henson and Co., Gremlins was not only popular, it was also revolutionary in more ways than one. Most notably, beyond special effects, would be something that would be a hallmark of most Dante films: charm and warmth, no matter the subject matter or genre. As originally written by Chris Columbus (who went on to become a great director in his own right), Gremlins was much darker and more violent, and would have basically just been a run of the mill horror film, with "black comedy" elements. But with Dante under the helm, and with input from producer Steven Spielberg, the gremlins, instead of being murderous monsters, were instead scary and threatening, but also more mischievous than anything, and kind of lovable in a messed up way. If you watch Gremlins, you'll notice that they only actually verifiably kill two people the entire movie, one out of revenge, and another dies because she's old with a bad heart (though she also DOES go flying out of a window into the street). But mostly, the gremlins just like to cause chaos, and that, while the film absolutely has scary moments, to me makes for a much more effective and memorable movie. Plus, as he always does, Dante put a lot of focus on the human characters, and their relationships. 

On the set of The 'Burbs.

The other two Joe Dante movies I saw as a kid, rentals naturally, were the sillier Gremlins 2, and what would become my favorite work of his, the Tom Hanks classic The 'Burbs. One part goofy mystery movie, one part satire on American suburbia, Burbs is pure Dante from beginning to end. It and Gremlins are fairly close as far as my love for them, but Burbs wins out just barely. Other movies of his I would discover later in life, include Matinee, a 1993 love letter to both his 1950s childhood, as well as classic sci-fi and monster movies of that era, and one of his 80s sleeper hits, Explorers. The latter is, at its heart, one of a series of 1980s "kids on the loose" type of movies, where you have a bunch of kids having adventures, more or less unsupervised by adults. Of course it also involves them getting messages from outer-space, which help them build their own spaceship to reach the stars, but that's just garnish, really. Plus it stars a young Ethan Hawke, and River Phoenix.

Much like John Carpenter, or even Mel Brooks, the 90s saw Dante's career tapering off, which is honestly a damned shame in all of their cases, because they are each some of the best directors Hollywood has ever seen. Dante has continued to make movies here and there in the 2000s, even popping out a solid but little-seen gem called The Hole. But his 80s body of work especially, like Carpenter, is almost legendary unto itself.

My Favorite Works: The 'Burbs (1989), Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), Matinee (1993)

Other Works I Like: Innerspace (1987), Gremlins 2 (1990), Small Soldiers (1998), The Hole (2009)

So that's it for Part 1 of my Top Favorite Filmmakers list. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Godzilla Chronicles: Invasion of the Astro Monster

Picking up where we left off last year in the Godzilla Chronicles, last time I talked about the movie directly preceding today's subject. It was a movie I did not grow up with, or even get to see until my 20's, that being 1964's Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster. That movie established the character of Ghidorah, the space dragon, a being who would become, in many ways, Godzilla's Arch-Nemesis, and certainly most powerful and dangerous foe. I wish I had seen that movie as a kid, because I would have adored it. But even if I had, I still feel that I would have loved the movie I'm about to talk about, far more.

This is a very special entry, for me, in this particular sub-series. The entire series is special, because Godzilla himself and most especially those old Showa Era films, are very dear to my heart, and were a huge part of my childhood and pre-teen years. But the movie I first knew as "Godzilla vs. Monster X" was, as I seem to recall, one of the first two Godzilla films I owned on VHS tape, when we first got a VCR around 1989 or 1990. It's a special entry, because this movie very quickly became, and has remained, my favorite Godzilla movie of all time, and one of my top favorite movies of all time, period.

Astronauts Fuji and Glenn

Now as I may have mentioned in previous entries, in a very real way, all of the Showa Era Godzilla films, and even Toho monster and sci-fi movies that didn't feature "The Big G" at all, can very well be argued to exist in the same "shared universe" (to borrow a modern buzz term). But even so, certain movies would not always perfectly line up with those preceding them, you kinda have to use your imagination to make the pieces all fit. But with Ghidorah, it did get what is essentially a fully direct sequel, in the form of 1965's Invasion of the Astro Monster (the original Japanese title).

Me personally, I am a bit more fond of the American title (or the most used one anyway), Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Neither title uses the name Ghidorah directly, that much is true. Both "Astro Monster" and "Monster Zero" are rather vague, and really, "Astro Monster" is just a vague reference to Ghidorah being from space. To my mind, at least "Monster Zero" is a direct reference to the movie, as it is explained (most directly in the English Dub), that on Planet X, everything is numbered, not named, and they refer to King Ghidorah, as "Monster Zero". But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Dudes from Planet X can pose like nobody's business.

The basic plot, is that it is some time in the future, where man is making his way out into space. If one is to consider the Showa Toho sci-fi films to be connected, then technically man already made his way out into space, somewhat, with films like The Mysterians, Battle in Outer Space, and Gorath. But I digress. Astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams), are on a mission to explore a newly discovered "planet" hidden on the other side of Jupiter, dubbed Planet X. When they land, they quickly discover that this strange, seemingly barren new world, has inhabitants of its own.

The people of Planet X, who seem to be strangely lacking in individuality or diversity from one another, live in an elaborate underground network, they claim in part, to protect them from the space monster who is terrorizing them, King Ghidorah, whom they call "Monster Zero". They seem friendly enough, and offer Earth an exchange that the Astronauts find they cannot pass up: If Earth allows Planet X to "borrow" the monsters Godzilla and Rodan, to help drive of Ghidorah, they in turn will give them "the cure for all disease" (in the Japanese dialogue I believe it was simplified to curing all cancer). Sufficed to say, Earth cannot refuse the chance to advance medical science and ease human suffering, so they agree. Problem, is, things with Planet X are not quite what they seem.

Monsters in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

For anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with Godzilla movies, and more specifically these old 50s-70s Showa Era movies, the one thing that is bound to jump out immediately and stands apart about this film, is that it holds the singular distinction of being the ONLY Godzilla movie where the action leaves the planet Earth at all. There are other films, multiple in fact, where aliens from other worlds come to Earth to try and invade or what have you, but this is the only instance where we the audience get to see another world. And far more importantly, it's the only film where Godzilla goes to another world, and battles a space monster!

Now granted, this was NOT the first time that Godzilla and Rodan fought King Ghidorah. Obviously, they both encountered, and managed to somewhat defeat the three-headed demon, in the previous movie. That is why the people of Planet X claim to want Godzilla and Rodan's help driving Ghidorah away from their planet,  because that is essentially what they did in the last movie, managing to defeat him JUST enough, to make him leave the Earth and fly back out into space. It seems that he flew to Planet X, and has been messing their shit up since.

In point of fact, in Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, it took the combined might of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra (in larva form), to defeat Ghidorah. And Mothra was originally supposed to be in this sequel as well, but they cut her out, having something to do with Toho being cheap and it costing more to have an additional monster. Nevermind that these Godzilla movies were becoming something of a cash cow for Toho, otherwise they wouldn't have started pumping them out on an annual basis for many years. But in all honesty, as neat as it would have been to have Mothra (in larva or moth form) in the movie, even as a cameo, the movie doesn't lack or suffer from the loss either.

Let's Get Ready to Rumble!

In one of the coolest parts of the entire movie (as a child and still as an adult), Planet X show up on Earth a bit early, making humans a bit nervous, and they proceed to use their high technology to capture the sleeping behemoths, and transport them safely through space. Once on Planet X, they wake the old boys up, and just in time, as Ghidorah rears his ugly heads, and a brawl for the ages ensues! It is a neat, albeit slightly short, battle, mainly because, again, it takes place on another planet. After G&R (no, not Guns 'n Roses) seemingly manage to drive Ghidorah off, the Earth folks are given their shiny golden tablet, holding to secret to curing all disease, and they take off, on a perfect replica of their original rocket, leaving poor, forlorn looking Godzilla and Rodan behind, presumably to keep Planet X "100% Ghidora Free".

Of course, when they get home to Earth, they eagerly play the tape for the world to hear, only to hear the REAL truth behind Planet X: that it's been a set-up this whole time, and they are told to surrender themselves to Planet X control, or suffer the consequences. As it turns out, Planet X is short on water, their most precious resource, and something Earth has plenty of. So the X dudes figure, you know what, let's just move to the cooler planet, and set up shop, because what the hell are those stupid humans going to do about it anyway? After all, they already have killer UFOs at their disposal. And as it ALSO turns out, they were controlling Ghidorah the whole time, and now they also have control over Godzilla and Rodan too! Those bastards.

The dangerous and tragic Miss Namikawa.

So, in the meantime, a somewhat silly (and mildly annoying to the ear) sub-plot of the story, is that Fuji's sister Haruno, is dating an aspiring inventor named Tetsuo, whom Fuji naturally disapproves of. Thing is, Tetsuo's only invention so far, is this crappy little noise-maker thing, that he calls the "Lady Alarm", which emits a shrill sonic barrage that you can hear for blocks. Nobody wants the damn thing, nobody that is, except for the "World Education Corporation", an alleged maker of educational toys and other such things. It's a real mystery why a toy company would want an obnoxious noise maker for kids to drive their parents nuts with (and also maybe go deaf from), but they still offer Tetsuo big money to buy the rights off of him.

And at the same time, it seems that slick ol' Glenn, has been getting an education of his own on the side, from none other than the representative who wants to buy Tetsuo's crap, Miss Namikawa (played by Kumi Mizuno). But then while snooping around on Planet X like the renegade he is, Glenn discovers other women there who all look JUST like Namikawa! Turns out, she's an advance spy from Planet X, and wants to buy that stupid thing from Tetsuo, because it seems that noise REALLY bothers Planet Xians. At one point, after this is all revealed, Namikawa admits to Glenn that she is from Planet X, and tries to convince him to join her peacefully, but he refuses. When he is then captured, she tries to warn him that he'll be destroyed, because it turns out she really has come to love him (even though Xians are supposed to be emotionless), and for her action they tragically kill her instead.

Three Gravity Beam Spitting heads are better than one.

In the end, it turns out that Tetsuo's stupid invention, just so happens to not only seriously disable Planet X dudes, but the principle behind its garbage ass noise, also leads Earth to discovering how to disrupt Planet X control over the monsters. So then, in the climax of the story, Godzilla and Rodan, after having briefly gone back to their old ways of trashing human cities, are finally free of control again, and turn on their new "pal" King Ghidorah. It would seem that what three monsters barely managed the first time, would be even harder for just two to accomplish, but G&R do manage to beat Ghidorah's ass in just enough to make him fly off again.

My original VHS copy.

On a minor side note, as you can see above, this is the VHS box art for my original childhood copy of this movie, which by some miracle I managed to hold onto (along with several other old VHS tapes). This copy is seemingly unremarkable, except that in searching around the internet to try and find a picture of this box (before just taking a picture myself), I discovered that this specific version may well be pretty rare, I guess. Because I couldn't find this exact box art anywhere, no one else seemed to have it. Even the website Toho Kingdom didn't have it listed. So if it really is rare, I guess that's pretty neat. It is the 1990 release, by a company called Simitar Entertainment Inc., which seemed to specialize in many things, but most especially home video releases.

All in all, there are many reasons that I love Godzilla vs. Monster Zero the best. For one thing, it just seems to have everything going for it. It's a great old school science fiction tale, it's got space aliens, Planet X, monsters being controlled and then being good again (a theme that would be reused later), one of the best scores by composer Akira Ifukube, etc. It is greatly because of this movie, that I love Akira Takarada, whom I call my favorite Japanese actor, and Nick Adams. Nick Adams, I feel, was  a really good actor in his day, who just didn't get the recognition and success he perhaps deserved.

But I just feel like everything works so well in this movie. The pacing is great, the story is intriguing, it doesn't ever really "drag" in spots a certain other Godzilla films do. Ghidorah is hands down the coolest Godzilla rival ever created, and the Planet X people are far and away the best "evil invaders from space" Toho (or almost anyone else for that matter) ever managed to come up with. Hell, even the infamous "Godzilla Victory Dance" that he does after the initial defeat on Planet X, that even many Godzilla fans mock and deride, is honestly pretty great. I loved that moment as a kid, and I'll still back it as being great now, and for the rest of my days.

As kids are often known to do, I watched my VHS copy of this, as well as Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster and others, over and over again as a kid. Outside of the original 1954 Gojira (or Godzilla: King of the Monsters), if you were only inclined to ever watch ONE Godzilla film, then Monster Zero would be my top recommendation for you. It contains and embodies everything that was great about the Showa Era movies, especially their 60s prime. So please do yourself a favor, and give it a whirl!

Until next time, keep watching the skies, and keep your "Lady Alarms" handy.