Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Forgotten Kaiju Smackdown

I just watched Godzilla's Revenge on Netflix for the first time in about thirty years.  Well, in truth, I only watched bits of it, using Netflix's handy chapter skipping to jump ahead over everything involving the little kid until I saw giant monsters again.  I realized that I had completely forgotten about the existence of the monster Gabara...  Not unjustly, tis true, but still.  Toho has its top tier monsters in Godzilla, Rodan, Ghidorah, and maybe even that damned grubworm, and its second tier monsters in Angilas, Hedorah, etc, and then there are the Z graders, the ones that never got invited back to the party, like poor Gabara.  Since all good kaiju are rated by their smackdown capability, here is one of the geekiest polls you will ever see - Please submit your votes to decide who would win the ultimate battle between this pack of kaiju Expendables!  Here's your cast:


Appeared in:  Godzilla's Revenge
Powers:  Bully.  Light-up forehead horn.  Electrical touch.
Victories:  Nearly beat up Minya a couple of times.
Most humiliating moment:  The only kaiju ever to lose a fight to Minya.  The screen grab above displays the crushing emotional impact of this loss perfectly.

Jet Jaguar
Appeared in:  Godzilla vs Megalon
Powers:  Flies.  Changes size.  Eye lasers.  Spins in a circle really well.
Victories:  Nearly defeated Megalon single-handed and beat Megalon and Gigan with the help of Godzilla.
Most humiliating moment:  Having a singing Kenny ride on his head.  Compared to being beaten by Minya, however, he might as well be Bruce Lee.

King Seesar
Appeared in:  Godzilla vs MechaGodzillaGodzilla: Final Wars
Powers:  Fluffy.  Bobbletail.  Laser-reflecting eyes.  Can raise own ears.  Managed to get a second film appearance.
Victories:  Defeated MechaGodzilla with the considerable help of Godzilla.
Most humiliating moment:  Just look at him.  Seriously.  Imagine trying to pick up babes when you have floppy puppy ears.  This is the kaiju that is Friend-Zoned forever.  Dieted and made a brief comeback attempt in Godzilla:  Final Wars, but was still unable to get anyone to take him seriously.


Powers:  Digging.  Burrowing.  Generally being underground.  Flame breath.  Excellent jumper despite pudgy waistline.   Ear control to rival King Seesar's.  Three screen appearances makes him the Paul Newman of this group. 
Victories:  None.  This is a problem.  Arguably, he did help defeat King Ghidorah in Destroy All Monsters, but that was with the help of every other Toho kaiju on his side.
Most humiliating moment:  Defeated by a giant Kenny wearing a ratty bath towel.  Despite this loss, went on to tackle Godzilla single-handed, with expected results.  Was personally stepped on by Godzilla.  

Varan the Unbelievable
Powers:  Flying/gliding with all the aerodynamic skill of a 200 ton lizard.  Being underwater.
Victories:  None.  On the plus side, he is the only kaiju on the list who headlined his very own movie.
Most humiliating moment:  No one takes you seriously when you're a giant flying squirrel-iguana.

So there you have it, our list of the five off-off-off Broadway kaiju.  Who would win this five-way battle?  Who's the king of the Barney Fife monsters?  Please cast your vote below!

Who wins the battle of forgotten kaiju?
Gabara wedgies the rest into submission!
Jet Jaguar pummels his foes with flying kicks of death!
King Seesar pants his way to an adorable victory!
Baragon's mighty ears out-burrow all his enemies!
Varan... wins somehow. Fuck, no one's going to vote for Varan anyway. free polls

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hausu (1977)

NetFlix 3.7/5
IMDB 7.5/10
My Rating: 9/10

 A schoolgirl decides to spend her summer at her aunt's country house with her friends, but disturbing events after their arrival prove the house is haunted and OH MY GOD THE COLORS, MAN!  THE COLORSSSS!  MY FEET ARE NOT TOUCHING THIS FLOOR AND NOW I CAN UNDERSTAND THE RUG, GIVE ME ANOTHER HIT OF THAT LIZARD, MAN...

OK, Hausu is not your typical haunted house film, not at all.  And by that I mean, Hausu is like a haunted house film as Dennis Hopper on acid is like Captain Kangaroo.  Holy hell, this was amazing! One of the most imaginative movies I've ever seen. I strongly recommend any working visual artist to see this, because it will give them creative inspiration for a year.  I don't even BEGIN to know how to describe or review this thing. Imagine the Partridge Family mashed up with Evil Dead and directed by the Pan's Labyrinth guy against a Dario Argento color palette.  Virtually every shot of this was a framed artwork, and the scene transitions were constantly cool - If you thought the guy's dead body in Heavy Metal becoming the landscape was a clever scene switch, you need to see this. It is not actually a plotted movie so much as it is an experience.I do

But there is a story, of sorts.  The first past of it resembles a musical chunk of that guilty pleasure, the Brady Bunch movie (I won't admit to liking it, nor will anyone else, but really, it was a dark and secret cupcake of joy, and easily one of the best of the usually dreary movies made from old TV shows).  Our heroine, Gorgeous, heads off to the countryside accompanied by friends with names like Melody, Kung Fu, and Sweet.  The skies are blue... I mean REALLY blue, like the blue that you'd experience after doing mushrooms and LSD and watching The Yellow Submarine all night...  The clouds are fluffy and painted on, and life is a Sunshine Day.

And yes, the girls are standing in front of a painted backdrop from which we just panned out to reveal the identical painted backdrop in larger scale, all while the Partridge Family bus drives away.  If you're having problems already, stay far away from this because this is a movie that believes mental circuit breakers are pointless if they're not tripped as often as possible.  At any moment you're fully expecting Gorgeous and her friends to burst into singing, "Keep On Dancing".

Things start to go Twilight Zone as the girls arrive at the house.  Well, perhaps not so much Twilight Zone as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but, you know, more surreal.  The fun kicks off with one of the girls being chased around the yard by a floating head that bites her on the ass, and events get more bizarre from there.

Is the house haunted?  Is the aunt really crippled?  What's up with her evil white cat?  While virtually every scene in the film remains gorgeous, like our title character:

...Things quickly go from bad to worse for our cast of attractive young victims:

And not to belabor the point, but yes, that's a girl being eaten by a piano.  This is just one of the film's endless surrealist sequences which bombard the audience with horror, animation, comedy, over-the-top gore, and several Picasso's worth of color palette.

I'm not spoilering anything with these caps because the visual overload in the film is so intense that they don't even scratch the surface. Many scenes are set against painted backdrops instead of actual locations, giving it a really weird ambiance that wavers between HR Puffnstuf and Nightmare before Christmas. The killings, when they happen, are some of the most memorable I've ever seen. I can't recall a single distinct death from any Friday the 13th movie, but I won't forget the piano scene for a very long time.  Seriously, this is one worth seeing for the sheer bizarreness of the whole thing - You won't see another film like it.

Here's the trailer, for an idea of what you're in for:

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Star Trek Remastered

NetFlix 3.9/5
IMDB 8.6/10
My Rating: 9/10

The best Star Trek TV series.  Watch the original Trek and you'll see the basic plotlines for nearly every episode of TV Trek since.

Here is another TV blast from the past - The original 1960's Star Trek TV series in newly-remastered and digitally-massaged form.  Star Trek: Remastered is available on DVD and is also on Netflix streaming now. And it looks GREAT. Those of us old enough to remember watching this growing up will recall well the hazy FX and background matte paintings that rendered this space adventure for us.  Back then, it didn't matter - We were watching on 14" screens in wooden cabinets with local reception that came and went with the weather.  With this series set, the original Trek has been cleaned up and enhanced throughout using modern computer effects and digital matte replacements.  And...  While ordinarily this would be the sort of thing that would leave me frothing at the mouth, it works.  The colors and sharpness are excellent and you get to see Kirk and Spock and crew adventuring again while looking as if they filmed this yesterday.  The real kicker is the redone FX. Space scenes and backgrounds have been redone in CGI and look gorgeous, if I do say so, and I do.

We've watched a few eps of this now and enjoyed them a lot. What has impressed me the most is that the redone FX do not in any way detract from the stories (*Cough*, Star Wars, *cough*). You are not constantly being distracted by some stupid added CGI thing in the background. The Enterprise bridge is not full of screens showing different CG displays and flying, buzzing robots, and the hallway scenes aren't suddenly filled with slapstick Jawas. Nor do we suffer with scenes altered to reflect "modern sensibilities" - No phasers replaced with flashlights, and Kirk shoots first every freaking time.  It's the original Star Trek just like you remembered it, but with better background FX.

Also, they integrated the new stuff REALLY well. It does not stand out and look pasted in. And it matches the 60's look of the show, too - They haven't redone the Enterprise with an impossibly complicated model, for instance. So many times in these remasters, the modern bits stick out crazily... If they'd put the 2009 movie Enterprise in this, for instance, it would have jangled like hell and kicked you straight out of the story every time it appeared.  This version looks just like the original Enterprise model, it's just shot more gracefully and clearly:

It's an interesting approach because the Enterprise still looks like a toy, but a very pretty toy. It matches perfectly with the rest of the show in colors and general 60's ambiance, so it doesn't feel like you're switching from a 40 year old show to a jarring modern FX scene, suddenly. They look like 60's effects, but sharper and with a better budget.  If I were going to be maudlin for a moment, I'd say that the finished effect is the Star Trek that I remember from age 6-9, back when the entire concept was fresh and new, and just seeing a space ship traveling the galaxies during dinnertime reruns was an amazing thing.

They take a similar approach with the planet FX. City backdrops are still matte paintings, they just have more depth. They do not suddenly look "real", with a million background details and stuff whizzing around, they just look like nicer matte paintings.  I am thankful once again that no one in the computer department was allowed to cram 200 moving objects into every background scene - Trek was always about story when it was at its best, not overwhelming visual noise, and it's great to see that the people who worked on this new version respected that central truth of the original series.

I know there are fans out there who are apoplectic over this remastering.  Maybe I'm just not religious enough about Star Trek, or maybe they just did an extraordinary job of integrating the new with the old. Whatever, I like it. It looks good and lends a nice, odd beauty to the show that helps it look less like the alien planet was filmed on a 20x20 soundstage with a couple of tumbleweeds thrown around. For me, what makes it work in ways that other remasterings/restorations like this have not, is that you can watch a whole episode and never really notice the new FX. They don't jump out and shout, "LOOK AT ME!" Instead, you just think, "Wow, Star Trek hasn't looked this good since my memories of it from age 8."

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Burning Bright

NetFlix 3/5
IMDB 5.8/10
My Rating: 7/10

A young woman and her autistic little brother are trapped in their house with a starved tiger during a hurricane.  Really, do you need more plot than that?

The moral of this story is simple - "Never buy a tiger from Meat Loaf."  And it's an excellent little flick, too... Low budget, small cast, but tightly directed and tense as hell.  Our cast consists of the sleazy scumbag Stepfather, Virtuous Daughter, and autistic Little Brother (Otherwise known as Cinderblock).  Sleazy Stepfather has the sort of "Get Rich Quick" plan common to people who think Truck Nutz are cool - He's going to turn his inherited home and acreage into a safari park, where he will bilk tourists to see tired former circus animals and the usual pit full of alligators.  To this end, he buys a "reject" circus tiger, an animal that proved deadly in the ring and has already jumped a containment wall and killed one showhorse for fun.

Now, you'd think such a beast would inspire respect, but Sleazy Stepfather sagely applies such trailer park animal handling wisdom as, "Ya gotta starve it to show it who's the boss."  Five minutes into the movie, you'll be on the side of the tiger.  Things heat up when Virtuous Daughter interferes with his plans.  She wants to go off to college, but realizes perfectly well that if she leaves her autistic younger brother in the care of Sleazy, he'll be unable to live on a diet of beer and Slim Jims.  Overshadowing all this domestic drama is the impending threat of a coastal hurricane, which the house must be completely boarded against.  And, well...  You can guess the rest.  Humans end up trapped in boarded house during hurricane WITH angry and agitated tiger that hasn't been fed for weeks.

IMDB is slathered with posts from yoofs slagging on the movie's plot.  "Stupidest story evar", blah blah, yadda yadda.  But you know what?  It's tight.  It's simple, pure, and very intense - In fact, it reminds me of a 70's thriller in how laser-focused it is on the enclosed environs.  Like that freaky Zuni fetish doll, the tiger is in the house and everything you do is a reaction to it, and there aren't five hundred stupid sub-plots cluttering up the movie and padding out the run time.  The movie does a marvelous job of pointing up just how much more fearsome a tiger is than virtually any human serial killer or madman.  You can punch Hannibal Lector.  I can look around my study now and see a dozen items that would be lethal weapons against a human, no matter how crazy he may be.  But I can't think of one damn thing in this house that would be effective against a tiger, except to piss it off.  You can't fight it, you can't outrun it, you can't even shoot it because indoor room sizes are so small that even if you DO hit the thing with your pistol, it's still going to slam into you and remove something vital before it goes down.  And perhaps most spookily, it is beautiful:

(The movie opens with William Blake's "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright" poem, which is appropriate)  Like Aussie thriller Black Water (Another killer critter flick I enjoyed), the filmmakers use a real tiger instead of a CGI one.  In fact, the only CGI used in the movie is to split-screen the tiger into a few violent up-close encounters with the actors; otherwise there are no FX, it's all done via clever editing and three very well-trained stunt tigers.  If Syfy had made this, they'd have had a 20' long CGI tiger with drooling jaws and some sort of overdone mutant appearance, but Burning Bright simply gives us a normal tiger, all stripes and pretty kitty looks as it wanders through the house and makes kindling of anything it encounters.

The challenge for our heroine is... Well, what the hell do you DO if there's a tiger in your house and you're trapped indoors?  All windows and doors are covered with screwed-in boards against the storm, so our desperate Laurie Strode has nothing but her wits and her ancestral climbing & hiding abilities to battle the beast with.  And on top of this mismatch, she's also saddled with Cinderblock, her kid brother whose autism constantly makes him a handful and a half as he wanders away, turns on stereos, has panic fits, and generally keeps her on her toes.

It's tense.  Unlike most horror films, it doesn't have a high body count nor much gore , but it delivers excellent edge-of-your-seat excitement as you find yourself thinking right along with the heroine...  What exactly WOULD you do?  I give special props to the lead actress, who delivers a Jamie Lee Curtis-level performance as the savvy daughter trying to stay alive.  In fact, the only real demerit I can give the movie is that you pretty much know how it will end from 10 minutes in, and it doesn't provide any surprises in that regard.  I still give it a big thumbs-up, however, for how well it entertains us on the way to that predictable destination.


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