Friday, November 19, 2010

Gojira (Godzilla) (1954)
--- science fiction/ horror

Dir: Ishirō Honda

When it comes to the "King of All Monsters", it would seem someone wanted to usurp the throne of old "King Kong". Well, after fifty years and a franchise with a robust twenty-plus films, it's safe to say Godzilla has earned the title. My personal earliest memories of Godzilla films were usually the cheesy ones my family watched on or around the Thanksgiving holiday. Besides being famous for weatherman Lloyd Lindsay Young, New York's Tri-State area WWOR channel 9, featured Thanksgiving marathons of King Kong and our imported giant amphibian. Toho Studios' gigantic 150-foot tall mutated reptile has battled other giant creatures, aliens, and all other sorts of menace with Japan trodden under foot regardless of intentions to harm or not. His initial film had a much more somber message.

"Gojira" begins with a reference to The Lucky Dragon No. 5. This was, in reality, a tuna trawler that got so close to a Hydrogen bomb test near the Marshall Islands in 1954, that the crew returned to Japan with radiation poisoning. In the film proper, a fishing vessel bursts into flames after a blinding white light, and more boats sent out soon follow the same fate. A local shipping office grows panicky, as this alerts the local press and the entire nation. Soon, however, the local island of Odo discover that the cause of the ships destruction (at least according to the elders) was a legendary beast called "Gojira", and as we shortly see for ourselves, those legends are all too true.

The authorities gather to discuss the recent nightmarish events. Paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (played by Akira Kurosawa director pet Takashi Shimura) leads the discussion, questioning exactly why this creature would awaken from its slumber. He conducts a team of investigators to the island. As they depart on their voyage, we get all our principal characters together including Yamane's daughter Emiko, her beau Ogata (who works for the shipping office), and the eye-patch clad Dr. Serizawa. A love triangle amidst the horrific events, something Jim Cameron utilized decades later. The natives show them the gigantic foot prints, and Dr. Yamane's tests uncover the fact that this creatures appearance was caused by nuclear radiation. Yamane tells government officials that the creature is a dinosaur unearthed by the H-bomb. It is clear however that Yamane becomes conflicted as a miraculous discovery of science must be destroyed.

Emiko visits Dr. Serizawa as he soon shows her his secret experiment, an Oxygen-Destroyer. In a very much Frankenstein-esque tradition, the science of how it works exactly is not revealed. It hereby kinda becomes the deus ex machina. As Gojira's wave of destruction continues, and the military efforts prove futile, Emiko will betray Serizawa's trust by revealing to others its power as a solution. It does figure in the climax as the only means to destroy the monster. Unfortunately, Dr. Serizawa, who comes to the epiphany he has nothing left to live for since he has lost Emiko to Ogata, sacrifices his life to detonate the Oxygen-Destroyer underwater himself.

According to producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the original "Gojira/Godzilla" film was designed to be a cautionary tale about, not only the horrors of nuclear war (which Japan learned first hand), but about the long term ramifications of how nature would retaliate. Hiroshima was one thing, but years later we had many examples of how nukes were not good for humanity, period. Other 50's and 60's science fiction films followed in line in the dangers and fears of messing with nuclear radiation. They went from films such as "Them" and over time graduated to post-apocalyptic nightmares. "Gojira" created a new hit genre for Japanese film called "Kajiu" (meaning giant monster) and became an international sensation. It was eventually imported to the States with new scenes shot for American audiences and retitled "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!". The 1956 film starred Raymond Burr as a reporter chronicling the rampage of the giant monster loose in Tokyo.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
UK --- science fiction/ horror

Dir: Jimmy Sangster

Hollywood may have reinvented the word reboot for their declaritive use of tireless remakes, but they didn't invent the idea. Remakes is one thing, but a reboot is basically doing exactly what good old Dr. Frankenstein would do; reanimate the dead. Even going so far as to murder someone to accomplish it. Here was Hammer Studio's answer to the remake, when they felt the needed to get in touch with a new generation of filmgoers, they remade their 1957 classic "The Curse of Frankenstein" with decidedly unfound results. There is, however, one thing they did that would anger original Hammer Horror fans of the films, they made this entry with intended comedic elements. Personally if their was intended humor in this one, I didn't see much of it. Saw it in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein", but not here.

Helmed by multiple Hammer feature (including "The Curse of Frankenstein") screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, "The Horror of Frankenstein" stars Hammer alum Ralph Bates assuming the role of the mad aB. Honestly, his performance isn't bad in this film. I think with a better script, he could have wrestled the honor from the excellent Peter Cushing. His Victor Frankenstein also seems to come off as slighty more intelligent, and while he's less malicious, he's also more promiscuous. The film begins in Frankenstein's youthful days with a group of school friends Henry, Elizabeth, Stephan, and Maggie. Frankenstein yearns for more as he plans to attend the university to further his studies in anatomy; a hint at Baron's genius and desire for banal scientific experimentation.

When he gets home to his castle, he catches his father finishing up with a young housekeeper named Alys. He begs his father to finance his studies at the university, but his father is against it. Thus, we get our first victim of the film, as Victor rigs his father's shotgun to backfire. While at the university, Victor meets a fellow eager student in Wilhelm, whom he invites back to his castle to work in his personal laboratory.

While en route Victor and Wilhelm rescue Elizabeth and her father from bandits. Then they get home where Victor reacquaints with Alys. They soon prepare the lab for work, but unbeknownst to Wilhelm the Baron begins his horrific adventures into mad science. The first is the headless corpse of the highwayman he killed earlier to save Elizabeth. A police officer visits Frankenstein, and it is his childhood chums Henry and Maggie who is now his wife. After a visit to Elizabeth he soon plots to steal Elizabeth's fathers tortoise for his experiments. Then soon, with a large electrical generator, a massive vat of acid, and the bribery of an undertaker for fresh bodies, Frankenstein begins his infamous travails.

"The Horror of Frankenstein" definitely falls far below in quality than any entry in the series. Hammer's attempt to usher in a new generation failed, as evidenced by the return of our man Peter Cushing in the next film of the series. Featuring too many bad gags that fall short even for British humour, a monster that looks all too human, with a silly look on his face, to be believeable, and too many bad cleavage shots and sexual content took away from the gothic atmosphere that Hammer what it was. The great cinematography that was always a staple in the series is also non-existent in this one. Though it has an interesting ending a destruction of the monster.

As mentioned, the plot is basically a reworking of "Curse". Similarities abound such as having a mistress in Justine and Alys, having an old friend that is in love with him, but not in return, both oddly enough named Elizabeth. The character Wilhelm, in this film, serves the same purpose as Paul Krempe did in Curse as well as all the multiple Hans incarnations. I have always thought it would be interesting if Hammer made a film where Frankenstein met Dracula. How would Frankenstein react to a supernatural umdead plague going against all scientific reason? Not sure, but it's a shame they never took up the challenge.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) (1987)
GERMANY --- fantasy

Dir: Wim Wenders

What do we know of angels? Studies say most of the human population, no matter what their religion believe in some form of angelic beings. The Hebrew Bible has numerous appearances of angels, but with the exclusion of Death, only names three of them: Lucifer (aka Satan), Michael, and Gabriel. They are speckled throughout the Bible. Whether tasked with guarding the Garden of Eden, the rescue of Lot from Sodom & Gomorrah, or visiting Mary to inform her she will give birth to the messiah. The mysterious beings have obviously been a part of most ( if not all ) cultural societies, and all we can do is question the parts they play in the scheme of our lives.

The German director Wim Wenders takes a visionary notion of how angels might operate if our eyes were open to their plane of existence. In the film "Der Himmel über Berlin (aka Wings of Desire)", he attempts to humanize these beings going even further than most older fare such as "It's A Wonderful Life" or "Death Takes A Holiday". We see a couple of angels observe, report, and discuss the daily activities of humanity in West Berlin. Our story focuses on two angels. One is named Damiel (played by Bruno Ganz) who follows along humanity with an expression of curiosity, sadness, and longing. The other angel is Cassiel, who is more stern, serious, and exacting. In an early scene, the two meet in a bmw dealership and discuss their observances of the day. It is a scene filled with light banter of the idiosyncrasies of mankind, something that Kevin Smith will kind of repeat in his film "Dogma".

As the two float among the city streets of Cold War era Berlin, we see an almost documentary style collection of people accompanied by their random voice-over track thoughts. Children are the only ones our angels are visible to. All is so routine to Damiel, as he longs to forsake his spirit form, and spend time to be corporeal. This is even further supported by his falling in love with Marion (played by the late Solveig Dommartin), a lithe female trapeze artist working at a circus.

While Damiel seems enamored with the joy and love of people and children, Cassiel seems more involved in those darker aspects of humankind. In particular, a geriatric gentleman by the name of Homer, who waxes poetic about the old Berlin. Though this character isn't a curmudgeon. Nor is the other older character, played by Peter Falk as himself. In the universe of this film, he is also an ex-angel named Compañero. Throughout the film we see Damiel slowly become seduced by Marion the trapeze artist and the colorful energy of humanity. Cassiel, however, sees the remorseful introspective poet Homer and the nightmarish horrors of humanity. Wenders often throws in the occassional documentary footage to ground us in this reality. The second half of the film follows Damiel and his journey in the flesh as he seeks his lovely flying trapeze artist.

"Wings of Desire" does indeed seem a microcosm of time passing before us. Converging on the middle ground of what was a divided wall separating East from West, color and black-and-white, love and death, etc. Overall, it retains a childlike perspective, but is most certainly of its time, as the graffiti-adorned Berlin wall would fall just two years after the release of this film.

As far as angels goes, as a Christian, my personal belief is that most angels have very specific instructions. There must be a militaristic hierarchy of some order, and the orders come only from the Lord. This movie curiously has an absentee God. I also believe at some point angels had or have a free will. Depending on your view of context of time, Revelation 12:4 states that Lucifer took a third of the angels with him when he was cast out of heaven. So if these beings were under some form of involuntary slave-control of the Lord, why or how could Lucifer himself defy God and how could the others follow? The answer is free will.

So it would seem "Wings of Desire" is not completely off the beaten track. Whether we like it or not the film takes a romantic look at what would otherwise be deemed horrific. Damiel is essentially a fallen angel, and we've seen films take a darker approach at that idea; "The Prophecy" being one. Wim Wenders' fantasy, of course, is far better than the Hollywood remake "City of Angels". The film's black-and-white cinematography is top notch, in the hands of Henri Alekan, who also shot Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête". It is directed with a finely tuned eye for composition and form. Taking advantage of Berlin's unique artistic aesthetic and creating poignant shots for visual consumption. In an early scene, you can see Damiel standing in front of plants, but in the shot it looks like his wings. All in all, one of the better films exploring what angels must think of humanity, even though it has the forced romantic trope.