Tuesday, August 31, 2021

1000th Review Special: Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Today is a special day. It's taken a while, but after 10 years of blogging, I have finally written 1000 reviews!...Well, give or take. The number is actually smaller or greater, but let's not quibble over definitions. My blog has 1000 posts? Good enough! As for what I'll discuss for the occasion, what else could fit the bill other than the spectacular Godzilla: Final Wars...

The Godzilla series has had a long and storied history. Beginning in 1954 as a bleak allegory of nuclear weaponry, it's run the gamut of stories and tones, taking inspiration from many places, and in turn inspiring countless others. 

It's been years since Godzilla, king of the monsters, was imprisoned. In the years since, the planet has been protected by the Earth Defense Force, but in one fell swoop they are ravaged by an army of giant monsters, all attacking major cities at once. No sooner than they've arrived, a group of aliens take the monsters away, claiming to want friendship. The remnants of the EDF don't trust them and soon discover the aliens' hidden motives. They begin a brave fight against the invaders, but they are not enough-The only way to save Earth is to free Godzilla...

Godzilla: Final Wars is a movie that could be described as mind-numbing, either in a good way or bad, depending on your point of view. As the 50th anniversary, we've got dozens of monsters from the series' past, not to mention elements form various Toho products (such as the battleship Gotengo), and an action-packed story that never lets up. Running at 2 hours, the film feels a lot shorter than it actually is. While films this dense and breathless can leave you feeling a bit exhausted, I feel it works. This was a special occasion, so if the Godzilla series was gonna make a film like this just once, let this be the occasion.

In Godzilla films past, the human plots could be mixed. Sometimes they're effortlessly intriguing, sometimes they feel like a necessary distraction, so the movie isn't just endless monster fighting. This entry tries the hardest to make the human story appeal to as many people, as it very much takes an action stance.

While the movie throws around a lot of long and fancy words, the plot is remarkably easy to follow, and sets everything up in a very quick and economical way. I appreciate this, as it never bogs the movie down with confusing details,

Final Wars has quite a sense of humour to it, and there's an effort toward satire during the first half, with some kooky TV programs and interviews, as well as public reactions to various things. This includes some funny moments like an expert pundit saying "I admit and deny what I didn't admit before". This is phased out after the first half, which is understandable given the main focus comes into play, and welcome, since we don't want too much of this, especially in a Godzilla film.

The film opens with some narration detailing the existence of mutants, but this never really amounts to much. None of these mutants ever seem to display any powers beyond being able to draw and fire guns in cool ways. We do get a little more in the last act. All the 'Keizer' stuff is a bit confusing and perhaps unnecessary, but oh well.

The characters here are a diverse bunch. Shinichi is your typical protagonist. Nothing special, but he gets the job done. Captain Douglas Gordon meanwhile is a delight! He's a gruff, tough, American commando who never does things by the book. Even if it means battling a giant monster with a sword, he's up for anything.

The main female character is biologist Miyuki, and she's spunky! She gets a lot of good moments. There is one thing though. There's a scene later on where she worries she can't contribute anything, but Shinichi gives her a pep talk about how that isn't true, and there's loads she can do. This is all well and good, but...she's a biologist. What can she do? Engage an advanced mutant barehanded in a swordfight, apparently! And pilot the Gotengo all on her own. All while dressed in a hilariously out-of-place red leather jacket.

There are a few villains here, and some get a little to do, but by and large the main antagonist is the young alien, and he's a really smarmy bastard. That's what makes it so satisfying to see him constantly get shown up when Godzilla rams through one monster after another. There's a slow realisation from 'I'm a God to these puny cattle' to '...I'm fucked!'.

Godzilla truly shows himself to be the king of the monsters here. He actually has surprisingly little screentime, but it's handled so well I honestly didn't believe it when I read this. This is because the human plot is engaging, plus the movie has a quick pace. So even though Godzilla doesn't properly appear until a whole hour in, it only felt like 30 minutes to me. And from that point on he appears constantly. In previous entries he would always be in for a challenge, but not here. Each fight is over with quickly, and Godzilla makes mincemeat out of everyone he walks into. Nothing can stop him!

Among all of the other returning monsters here, by far the most important is Godzilla's son Minilla. Isn't he just the cutest?? That' something I really admire about this film. It's serious, yeah, with wall to wall action, but it also has time for an absolutely adorable muppet like Minilla! He looks right out of a program like Sesame Street, and he's so sweet! While his scenes are fairly minimal, he gets a really good arc, which culminates in the fantastic ending.

Fina Wars has perhaps the biggest collection of kaiju in any Godzilla film. We've got the classic foes/allies such as Mothra, Gigan, as well a some other surprise treats, and then there are monsters who haven't been seen in years, often since their original film! Ebirah and Hedorah both make appearances, as does King Caesar, the giant dog monster who usually protects Japan (why yes, this is a perfectly normal film, why do you ask?).

The monster battles here are spectacular. Each fight is entertaining, and does something different,with Godzilla often getting the chance to spring some cool moves. Best of all in the 4-way monster brawl. Even when outnumbered he's able to think strategically, and use his enemies' skills against them.

Hedorah really gets shafted though, as most of his scenes were deleted. It's a shame, because the film is already 125 minutes, and I doubt an extra 1 minute of Hedorah action would've really tipped the scales into unwatchable territory.

One of the funniest moments is the film is the encounter with the Godzilla from the much maligned American remake. Referred to here simply as Zilla, he appears only to get utterly trounced by the real Godzilla in under 2 seconds, in a hilariously spectacular fight. It's just a shame he takes out the Sydney Opera House in the process! Come on, Godzilla, we Aussies need that for tourism!

Final Wars is set in a futuristic 2004, and it frankly looks a lot more fun than the actual 2004. The film is simultaneously large scale, on a global level, but also small, with a lot of focus on the one group. On that note, the world gets pretty darn trashed by the end of this movie, but the tone remains lighthearted throughout. Never so much that it ruins the stakes, but enough that you just assume everyone is probably fine, and they'll just have a bit of rebuilding ahead of them before things are back to normal.

The movie overall is a bit flippant and borderline uncaring when it comes to the characters who die onscreen though. So many die, including quirky comic relief characters, that it's a bit of a downer. I was however very pleased to see the real senator alive and well. After all, he has a dog back at home who cares about him, so it'd be a shame if he died!

Godzilla: Final Wars is a very exaggerated film, from the way characters will act, to the action. Some examples are Gordon throwing down his sword and putting up his fists, and miraculously his enemies do the same. Characters never just draw their guns normally either, instead twirling them around their whole bodies first. Then there are repeated instances of leaving characters alone to fight, because it's 'cooler', even though it'd be more effective to gang up. Characters never actually run anywhere either, no matter how urgent the situation (like a self-destructing ship). Which is probably just on of those movie flourishes, since if an actor really runs their fastest, they'll outpace the camera.

The effects here are great! There's a mix of practical and CGI work, oftn mixed together. Some shots look a bit unconvincing, but for every one like that, there are 10 that look gorgeous. The monsters all look fantastic (except of course for Zilla, who is not coincidentally the only monster done entirely with digital effects).

Godzilla himself is great! His design is more stripped down, back to basics. It has almost claymation type movements, akin to what was originally planned for Godzilla back in '54. Now that I mention it, I remember reading this production utilised more lightweight suits, for the benefit of the actors. This elicited some complaints that the suits movied too airily, but I clearly didn't think so. I think it worked fine. And it's only one movie, so if it doesn't work then it's no big deal.

The direction by Ryuhei Kitamura is neat! He was a longtime fan of the series, but was also honest about its recent flaws, and pledged himself to fixing what he felt was wrong. This could come across as arrogant in the wrong hands, but he comes across as endearingly honest, and he puts his money where his mouth is. His style isn't for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. This is a visual treat, from the close-quarters fight scenes, to the wide-open monster battles.

The lighting and colour is something that might put some people off. The way some scenes are tinted can look quite unappealing, in a very washed out or oversaturated way. At least the movie is varied in all the colours it uses, and for the most part it looks good.

For all the frenetic direction on display here, the editing is never hard on the eyes  The only exception is the opening credits, which all flash by so fast they threaten to give you a seizure, and are near impossible to read.

The score by Keith Emerson is a fun, engaging, and rousing collection of tunes, each fitting the action well. There are also a few licensed songs too, which wouldn't ordinarily be my kind of thing, but hearing that metal song play while Zilla gets his ass trashed is just the best!

Godzilla: Final Wars is a divisive entry in the series, but I feel that it's the kind of movie that can be appreciated even if not liked, and as for myself, I love it! It's got some flaws here and there, but it still ranks highly, as one of my all time favourites in the series! It really does have a little of everything to offer.

A big thank you to everyone reading over the years, and here's to 100 more review, and many more years of fun movies!...

Terror Beneath the Sea (1966)

The navy are giving a routine press conference on one of their new submarines, when suddenly a mysterious figure swims past their camera. Ken Abe and his photographer Jenny are convinced this inhuman shape is worth investigating, and so they go out to investigate. They discover the existence of fishmen under the sea, but are captured by a pair of mad scientists, who reveal their plan to attack the world above and reshape it in their image...

Terror Beneath the Sea is a great example of Japanese cinema of the 60s. It's got a neat concept, and one that's explored perfectly.

The film's plot is surprisingly simple, and if you break it down to basics, not much actually happens, and it never gets all that complicated. The way it's all presented though is what makes it all work so well. It races by at a great pace, and before you notice, it's already over.

Ken is a good hero. Surprisingly proactive for a journalist, although I too would investigate mad scientists and fish people if I could. He's effective, and never too exaggerated.

Jenny doesn't really contribute much beyond wailing and going "Oh Ken!", but it's hard to blame her, since who wouldn't act the same if they were kidnapped by fishmen.

One area I found her totally overdramatic in though was in her 'transformation'. Ken and Jenny have been subjected to the process of becoming fishpeople, and it's a slow one. For now they just have a bit of flaky looking skin here and there, but Jenny acts like she's become a monster. "Don't look at me, I'm hideous!", she bellows, when she's basically fine! She doesn't even have so much as a single gill!

The villains are a neat bunch. We've got a mad scientist, and a Bond-style villain who's never seen without his cool sunglasses. They speak grandly, with diabolical villain lines, and have a great plan.

The climax has a bit of a disappointing beginning. It's instigated entirely by the navy torpedoing the base, which leads to the computer-controlled fishmen going haywire and killing everyone. While all this happens, our heroes are still strapped down to a gurney! This is all still thrilling and entertaining, but I wish they could've been more involved.

Once they get free things are great, with plenty of action, and a fun final showdown. It's mainly Ken who's fighting the remaining baddies, with no assistance at all. All three eventually get to shine in the final fight though, even useless Jenny!

Terror Beneath the Sea is an incredibly goofy movie, and one that is always played completely straight. This makes it a very funny watch at times. The dialogue especially so. When asked why he wants to create an army of fish people to take over the Earth, the villain answers with the hilarious declaration of "It's a world that makes sense!"
Another laugh-out-loud moment is when the professor sees the madman dead, and utters the amusingly on-the-nose "Killed by a cyborg he himself created".

The acting here is all good. A surprisingly young Sonny Chiba proves himself a great leading man even as early as the mid-60s,  and shows his diversity in projects. Some days he'd be in ultraviolent action flicks, and the next he'd be in family friendly sci-fi adventures. Peggy Neal does well, even if her part can be minimal at times. I really dug the interracial aspect of their relationship. The movie is very progressive for the time, and it does it so matter-of-factly. It never once mentions this, it simply shows it as it is.

The rest of the actors deliver amusingly cheesy performances. Sometimes stilted, sometimes exaggerated, and always funny. The sailors were the funniest This is a film I would recommend wholeheartedly with the dub. It adds so much comedy material, and the actors really give it their all.

The direction by Hajime Sato contains much to admire, from the underwater shots, to the stylish photography, and more. I did find it amusing how blind some of the characters came across at times though. We'll see Jenny swim right past a fishman to her side and see nothing, but when it's completely behind her, suddenly she notices it. The ending is another amusing example of this, painting an amusingly dim portrait of this sailor.

The effects work in Terror Beneath the Sea is a treat. We've got great locations and miniatures, convincing undersea battles, and more! The fishmen may look more goofy than frightening, especially with their permanently cross-eyed expressions, but the costumes are great. The transformation we see from man to fish is also cool. Sure, it's just a time lapse of a guy getting what looks like corn chips and shaving cream applied to his body, but it's still

The soundtrack  It can be dramatic, low-key and tense, and lighthearted and jazzy! It really gives lots of life to the action, and is a memorable aspect to the production.

Terror Beneath the Sea is a great time. Simple and fun, and is sure to entertain no matter what...

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

A pair of spaceships are investigating a distress call on the desolate planet of Aura. One lands, and after reporting successfully at first, communication is abruptly cut off, and their concerned friends go down after them. They find a hostile planet, dominated by an unseen enemy. When the crew least suspect, it tries to control their minds. Whatever the force is, it's deadset on killing all the humans, and escaping the planet for somewhere fresher...

Planet of the Vampires is quite a departure from Italian director Mario Bava in that it's not a routine horror, thriller, or , but instead predominately sci-fi! The movie does still feature all the unmistakable touches his works have come to be known for. There is a strong atmosphere of terror, and an increasing body count, not to mention the outstanding visuals.

Planet has a pretty minimal story. A bunch of snazzy astronauts land on a planet, and amble about for 90 or so minutes. This works in some ways. For example, the movie always holds your interest, and for the most part it does work.

Where it falters a little is in some of the more boring stretches. The problem I feel is that too much happens offscreen. From important moments, to deaths of main characters, a lot occurs on the periphery. And since we're always following the point of view of the humans, we never see beyond them. On one hand it does help up the suspense, when we know as little as the heroes do. But on the other hand, it verges on too little!

One of the bigger problems the movie faces is the complete lack of vampires! We get invisible aliens, and reanimated corpses, but no fangs, no blood sucking, or anything of the like! One can't help but feel a little disappointed. The original Italian title is better in this regard, translating to the more broad Terror in Space, which makes no such promises.

The ending is quite a surprise! If you really think about it, it doesn't make much sense, in a few ways, but the content is good enough for this to not matter.

The characters are an alright bunch. They don't have the greatest depth, and half of them die like it's nothing, but they do get some good moments, like the captain's private admission of fear as he records his log, or Tiona's weakening sanity upon seeing her undead crewmates. Overall though, I really feel the movie could've used some context for who any of these people are. I understand not revealing too much, to a degree, given the surprise ending, but give us a little, Mario!

The actors all do fine jobs. Being an international production we have actors from all over the glove here. The lead is classic film stalwart Barry Silver. Being an Italian production marketed in the U.S. it was entirely possible he was really Bartolomeo Silvanio, but nope. He and all the others carry the movie well.

Mario Bava's direction is superb. Shots are crafted well, with moments of beauty, and eerieness. The lighting and colour go hand in hand with the visuals

The general aesthetic is neat too. Something that has long earned this film admirers is how it doesn't try to hide from any comic book inspirations, but instead uses them to the fullest, embracing those more colourful elements. And because of this, it gives them a seriousness that you always believe.

As with many other Bava films, the score is low-key, and have a heavy focus on ambient noises. This builds the atmosphere very well, and right out of the gate you can tell this isn't your typical sci-fi flick.

The effects in Planet of the Vampires are great! We've got some effective, if minimal, violence, great corpse make-up, and some alien skeletons in one of the film's most interesting scenes. Space is portrayed well, as are the crafts, and how they interact with their surroundings.

The most astounding thing is hearing about how tiny of a budget this was shot on! Decades later its portrayal of a truly alien world is praised, and yet according to Bava, all he had was a couple of plastic rocks, a cheap backdrop, and a little bit of trick photography and forced perspective. It really goes to show that even if you have next to nothing, it all depends on how you use it.

Planet of the Vampires has had a lasting legacy throughout the years. It was one of the bigger inspirations for the 1979 classic Alien (thought it would take decades before the creators admitted this, the cheeky bastards), and its DNA can be felt as far as movies such as Event Horizon, and Pitch Black. Despite having inspired so much, it still feels fresh and unique as you watch. Whatever flaws it might have are made up for by this fact. It remains a classic of Italian sci-fi...

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Ugly Duckling (1959)

Henry Jekyll is a slow-witted but nice man, working at his brother Victor's chemist shop. Put down by everyone around him, save for his girlfriend Snouty (and even she thinks he's a bit of a square). One day he discovers the key to his great grandfather's secret formula, and taking it has an instant effect. The suave and dangerous Teddy Hyde comes waltzing into a swinging nightclub, dances with who he wants, bullies those he doesn't like, and falls in with a diamond smuggling scheme. The next morning Henry wakes up, having had the strangest dream. Unfortunately it soon turns out to be far more real for comfort...

Thought lost until only fairly recently, The Ugly Duckling is quite a treat! Coming from Hammer films at the beginning of their horror boom, it's like a low-key Carry On entry, in the vein of Carry on Screaming. It's also reminiscent of The Nutty Professor, as both are comedic takes on the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although The Ugly Duckling beat Jerry Lewis to the punch by four years! You go, you pommy wankers!

The story isn't a straight adaption of the original book, of course, more of a comedic sequel. It works very well in this regard, and the title helps too. While it is a little un-indicative that you're watching a Jekyll and Hyde story, it fits with the material, and means it never feels like something it's not. My favourite touch was how it credits the book-'With ideas stolen from Robert Louis Stevenson'.

The Ugly Duckling has an old fashioned British feel to it, which meshes with the modern dance halls and jazz bands, where all the teens are cool young things who do twists and call people un-hip. This feels like a neat time capsule to right when the great shift in English culture begin to occur as the country modernised.

The climax is entertaining, with plenty of action and laughs. Although it does drag a little in one section, and a lot of it seems predicated on this beam being a lot thinner than it actually is. Just shimmy across it and you'll be done in 2 ticks!

We've got some good characters here. Henry is a loveable lug, dopey, but smart in other ways, and you can just tell he'd do better if his family didn't treat him like shit. His adorably named girlfriend Snouty is cute, as well proactive. Though she does have too big a mouth at times, much to the villain's delight. Victor is a nice brother, despite some moments of frustration, and sister Henrietta is just a bitch! She'd probably throw Henry under a tram if it meant winning favour with the 'right' people.

The villains are your typical high and low end British gangsters, with a few fun names, personalities, and habits. Teddy Hyde meanwhile is a great presence! Acting like a suave, effortlessly charming spiv, he bulldozes into everyone in his way, and is always up for some crime.

My only issue is that Hyde never gets any resolution or final appearance. He only really has two sections of the film, and while they don't add up to much time, they make plenty of an impression! But after he turns back to Henry the second time, he never takes the formula again, and that's that. A bit of a bummer, really.

Bernard Bresslaw is a great lead. It's nice seeing him as the main character for a change, rather than just a sidekick or in a supporting role. He handles both parts of his persona very well, from the well-meaning but clumsy Henry, to the suave and devil-may-care Teddy Hyde. You almost do believe they're different people. Jon Pertwee is his usual self, being a cheery and lively spirit. Jean Muir is sweet as a button, with a cute yet sharp voice. I was surprised she's no relation of Shirley Henderson, as they sound nearly identical.

I dug how everyone was credited during the ending. It's not done in order of importance, but instead the pairs of names come up when the players come dancing onscreen.

The soundtrack is a lot of fun! We've got some classical jazzy dance hall beats, straight of of the 60s!...You know what I mean! The scoring is done by Joe Loss and his Orchestra, and they do a great job.

One of the weirder elements to the movie are the bizarre musical interludes by Jon Pertwee! These only last like 10 seconds, and happen whenever Victor recites an advert jingle. Fully scored and dubbed in despite their micro length, they always catch you off guard, and something about them just sounds weird to the ear. Maybe it's because they start so suddenly, with zero warning, and end just as quickly. They are neat, though I kinda wish they had've been a little longer.

The film has a few other random weird things I'd like to mention. First is how the family name is sometimes spelled Jeckle. I wasn't sure what was up with that. I wondered if they'd changed the spelling to distance themselves from the old family scandal, but there's no hint of that, it's already public knowledge, and we see it spelled Jekyll everywhere else.

I also found it strange how Henrietta and her beau act so young about their engagement. They speak of courtship, and of meeting the parents, but they're both like 50, at least! Their parents are probably in a nursing home now. What 50-60 year old asks their parent's permission to get married?! You wonder if maybe the script was written with younger characters in mind.

And lastly, it is a bit of a leap that no-one recognises that Henry and Teddy Hyde are the same person. Yeah they may look and act a touch differently, but they're still 7 foot tall behemoths/giants! And how Teddy just knows all these specific safecracking skills isn't explained, but oh well. It's no problem, just one of those little movie things you're meant to forget, and thankfully that's an easy enough request in a movie as otherwise entertaining and fluffy as this.

Overall, The Ugly Duckling isn't a classic, and probably could've done with a thing or two to really elevate it to that level, but for what it is it's definitely an enjoyable time. It's just a warm, simple British comedy, and we need more of those nowadays! Less cussing and grossness, more clean jokes and mad science!...