Sunday, June 16, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) review


Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell), Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), Charles Dance (Alan Jonah), Thomas Middleditch (Dr. Sam Coleman), Aisha Hinds (Colonel Diane Foster), Zhang Zhiyi (Dr. Ilene Chen; Dr. Ling Chen), O'Shea Jackson, Jr. (Jackson Barnes), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz)

Directed by Michael Dougherty

The Short Version: Bearing the name of the US version of the 1954 Japanese original, 2019s KING rolls out a red carpet of collapsed buildings and rampaging monsters in a superior sequel to the Gareth Edwards people-fest of 2014. With a lesser focus on human-action and preference towards monsters renovating things, this co-pro between Warner Brothers and China-owned Legendary Pictures is a sequel that fans of the Japanese series should enjoy; the earth-shaking level of references to said series being another reason fans should stomp into theaters to see it.

A grieving mother working for global cryptozoological organization Monarch aligns with an eco-terrorist group to unleash over a dozen Titans to destroy mankind. Monarch is immediately called into action to deal with the onslaught of monsters and retrieve the Orca, a communication device being used to awaken the creatures from their hibernation. Godzilla appears and quickly joins the fight against the major beasts, King Ghidorah and Rodan. Meanwhile, Mothra waits in the wings to enter the fray. Monarch takes heavy losses in numerous skirmishes and soon discovers that King Ghidorah isn't a Titan, but an alien monster that came to Earth centuries before. Boston is the last battlefield where Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah and Rodan collide to decide the fate of the Earth.

When it was announced that Gareth Edwards was directing 2014s GODZILLA, it was an assurance you weren't going to get an action-packed monster epic. Having directed 2010s plodding, but critically praised MONSTERS (a movie that should've been titled PEOPLE), it was a sign his version of the Toho icon would be dominated not by monsters, but by oodles of human drama; and that's what you got. Still, his GODZILLA was an enjoyable movie even if fans of Godzilla don't watch the films for the actors they watch for giant creatures fighting and demolishing entire cities.

And that's precisely what the sequel delivers.

Despite bewilderingly bad critical notices, TRICK R' TREAT (2007) and KRAMPUS (2015) director Michael Dougherty understands Japan's giant monster mythos better than Edwards did; that's not to say Edwards isn't a fan, it's just the two filmmakers have different ideas and directions. Beginning with the 1998 abomination, there was this propensity to mold Japan's most famous export into something distinctly American. Edwards's movie was far more respectful than Roland Emmerich's was, only Edwards shied away from showing much of the creature his movie was named after.

Dougherty's vision, on the other hand, is heavily influenced by the Japanese movies, and even feels like one at times. With human drama taking a backseat, Dougherty gives the audience plenty of razzle-dazzle in a literal eruption of monster mayhem via predominantly convincing CGI. 

While we're on the subject of computer graphics, it will be interesting to see which direction Japan goes should Toho ever revive Godzilla again (the last one being 2016s SHIN GODZILLA); will they return to the traditional practice of suit actors with CG enhancements; or will they abandon articulate suits altogether for the use of computer generated imagery?

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS isn't going to be for everybody; especially if you're walking into a movie about giant monster clashes and expecting an abundance of human drama and romance. Some of the peculiar criticisms is that there's not enough characterization among the cast. Whereas the 2014 incarnation had actors front and center, repeatedly cutting away any time monsters were on the screen till the last 15-20 minutes, the sequel logically makes the monsters the center of attention. 

There's also critical drubs against, among other things, what is described as a dumb plot; some of this being directed at the character played by Vera Farmiga, the distraught mother who lost a son in Godzilla's previous San Fran run-through; that she wishes humanity to be wiped out to let the Titans rule the Earth once more. This sort of radical environmentalist thinking isn't far-fetched, deranged as it may be. The same theme ran through the nauseatingly bland JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018). Unlike J.A. Bayona's excessively political dino epic, Dougherty's movie thankfully avoids any heavy-handed political pandering.

If you're curious just how lovingly absurd the Japanese films and related programming could get, check out our article on that very thing HERE.

Like some of the Japanese movies, Dougherty's film doesn't settle on a few characters but a cadre of them; it's an ensemble. The performances are fine, but they're standard order monster movie characterizations. A few get to shine but the only one with any pathos is Ken Watanabe's Serizawa; He is also blessed with the best scene of the human cast. Vera Farmiga's extremist is both annoying and quasi-pitiable at the same time. Meanwhile, Charles Dance's eco-terrorist builds some minor menace initially, but loses his momentum till the end-credits scene brings it back again. Nobody else makes much of an impact; but in a monster movie of this magnitude, you shouldn't expect humans to leave their footprint, it's the massive footfalls of the monsters that's crucial.

Of great importance is that the monster designs are respectful of their Japanese origins. Godzilla looks more or less the same as he did in 2014; although thankfully, the filmmakers gave him feet this time around. The character also has a more defined musculature; and there appears to have been some tinkering with his back plates. The roar seems more distinctly Nipponese as well. Godzilla's presence is as imposing as it should be, but the feeling he is less powerful than in 2014 is difficult to ignore considering he "dies" twice in the picture. The movie is just too overstuffed with ideas (more on this later) and it results in lessening the impact of its chief protagonist.

King Ghidorah has the Toho touch and looks suitably villainous. While this version of the iconic space dragon is given the ability to regenerate severed heads, his necks seem shorter in different scenes. He still fires lightning, but a novel touch is giving the three carnivorous craniums their own personality. On a few occasions, you see the heads disagreeing with one another. It's a modest addition but different. Ghidorah's unused concept by Ken Barthelmey was a radical departure from tradition--giving the three-headed monstrosity a Giger-esque body of an alien sea snake with wings!

Rodan is impressive and it would appear his designer(s) used Toho's terrifying visualization from the 1956 debut as a template. His ability to fly at supersonic speed isn't discussed, but is evidenced when he whips up a lot of vehicular and human debris during a flyover. For this version of the Pteranodon, Rodan receives an additional character trait: erupting from a volcano, Rodan has a fiery glow about him. Curiously, in the monster's 1956 debut, it was a volcano that brought him (and his mate) to his doom. In later movies, Rodan was made to look cartoonish when the film's followed suit.

Mothra is the first monster you see (and right at the very beginning). Mothra's role is somewhat disappointing. Her participation in the movie is minimal and even more so during the finale. She has a brief encounter with Rodan and yet an opportunity is missed for an aerial monster dog fight between the two. Like Rodan, Mothra gets a makeover, and to a greater degree. She bears little resemblance to her Japanese counterpart, nor possesses any of the same abilities. The one holdover is her status as a goddess, a guardian of the Earth.

One of the film's endearing qualities is in the plethora of references to Toho's Godzilla series. It's packed full of them. There's so many references, it works against the movie at times. Dougherty even brings back The MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), the main nemesis from the 2014 picture. Returning as one of the Titans, we only see it a few times; and it seems smaller and somewhat benevolent compared to before. There's so much going on there simply isn't time for the audience to absorb everything. Even the way the movie begins, it feels like something has been cut out; it simply jumps right into the action as if everyone is already up to speed on what's going on or who Mothra is, since she's the first thing you see at the beginning. The Oxygen Destroyer, for example, makes an appearance here; but unlike its frightening potential in the original movie, it's like an afterthought here. There's no build-up to its use, it's just there. This is the movie's greatest weakness. 

Below is a list of numerous references and comparisons to Godzilla's past adventures in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. Hopefully it will be a guide for those who may not be familiar with the older movies to understand the references. As a side note, you can read our lengthy article on the appeal of Japan's unique blend of SciFi and monsters HERE.

1. A chunk of the film's plot is essentially a reworked version of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) wherein aliens use the terrestrial monsters to force the surrender of the Earth. When this fails, the aliens send King Ghidorah to take on all the monsters. In G:KOTM, it's humans--an eco-terrorist group--that is threatening civilization by unleashing the Titans to flatten cities around the world. King Ghidorah, however, being a creature from space, cannot be controlled and attempts to control the other monsters.

2. The Earth Gods plot device--such as King Ghidorah in hibernation beneath the Earth--is reminiscent of GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK (2001). In that movie, KG was a hero (while Godzilla was the villain) for the one and only time (although Mecha-King Ghidorah of the last reel of 1991s GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH was on our side--if controlled remotely by humans). Godzilla attacks Japan, possessed by all the angry spirits that died in WWII, now forgotten by modern society. Earth's natural defenders--Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Baragon--are summoned to protect the Earth from a white-eyed, demonic Godzilla.

3. Initially, King Ghidorah is referred to as Monster Zero. This is a reference to 1965s MONSTER ZERO (or, translated from the Japanese title, THE GIANT MONSTER WAR; and INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER), wherein aliens from Planet X wish to borrow Godzilla and Rodan to defeat King Ghidorah who is wrecking havoc on their world. It's all a ruse, though, as the aliens simply wanted control of the two Earth monsters to join KG to conquer the universe.

4. In all the Japanese movies featuring Mothra, the Shobijin (tiny beauties) are an integral part of the fantasy world. Mothra had a telekinetic link with her two very tiny twin priestesses. These twins were famously portrayed by singing sensation, Emi and Yumi Ito (The Peanuts) in MOTHRA (1961), MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA (1964) and GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1964).  Over the years, different actresses (not always twins) played the Twin Fairies roles. For G:KOTM, the Fairies are no longer Fairies and their inclusion is so subtle, you may miss the inference. Zhang Zhiyi (in a dual role) plays a scientist for Monarch who has a twin sister. You can read our extensive article on the famous Fairies of Toho's series HERE.

5. In the Heisei series, GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994) had a character named Akira Yuki (Akira Emoto) who had a personal vendetta against Godzilla and spent the duration of the movie trying to kill the monster. The plot point of a human desiring retribution against Godzilla occurred again in the Millennium series entries, GODZILLA X MEGAGUIRUS (2000) and GODZILLA X MECHAGODZILLA (2002). In G:KOTM, it's Dr. Mark Russell (played by Kyle Chandler) who wishes death on Godzilla for the death of his son in the previous movie (although his character wasn't in that film).

6. During Godzilla and KG's second bout, the military suddenly announce they're about to launch a new secret weapon against the monsters, the Oxygen Destroyer. They do and Godzilla "dies" the first of two times. The same weapon was used to literally destroy Godzilla in the powerful 1954 original. The weapon disintegrated any life caught within its blast. The same weapon was a major plot point in 1995s GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER, too.

7. Finding Godzilla barely alive, Monarch discover he is the protector of an ancient civilization--long dead and buried beneath the sea. They find this ancient city and, already teeming with radiation, decide to detonate a nuclear bomb (acting like an irradiated shot of adrenaline) to revive the dying Big G. This underwater city is apparently referencing Toho's non-Godzilla fantasy movie, ATRAGON (1963), about the undersea Mu Empire who intend to conquer mankind. The guardian of Mu was a giant snake (that looked like a Chinese dragon) named Manda. The title refers to a hi-tech super submarine (the Gotengo) created by a former Japanese WWII captain to combat enemy threats. The super-powered sub could fly and had a variety of weapons including a big drill on the front.

8. To revive Godzilla, it requires a martyr to set the bomb. The one member of Monarch who steps forward is Dr. Serizawa (played by GODZILLA 2014s Ken Watanabe). If you've seen the 1954 original, you know that in that movie, Dr. Serizawa sacrifices himself to both ensure Godzilla's death, and that the plans for his Oxygen Destroyer never falls into the wrong hands. His death also serves some additional poignancy that is seldom afforded films in this genre. Watanabe's final scene has a similar air of melancholy. It's one of the most markedly Japanese sequences in Dougherty's movie.

9. In 1991s GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH, the time-traveling tale had Godzilla absorbing the radiation from a modern-day nuclear submarine--making him even more powerful than before. You'd have to see the movie, but Godzilla's original radiation-infused body was via older nuclear devices. In G:KOTM, the nuclear blast does the same thing--turning the Big G into a 'roided-out monstrosity.

10. After Godzilla's rebirth, Monarch is shocked to learn that the nuclear device that revived Godzilla has increased his radiation levels to the point the monster will detonate in a nuclear explosion. This is reminiscent of a major plot point in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995), the last of the Heisei series heavily marketed around the death of Godzilla. In it, Godzilla glows and smokes and is getting so hot, he will eventually burn a hole clean through the Earth.

11. In the atrocious GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (2004), the aforementioned Gotengo flies around the world leading Godzilla (seemingly the giant monster's version of The Flash) into a series of challenges against a plethora of creatures in battles that barely breach 30 seconds. In G:KOTM, members of Monarch follow Godzilla in The Argo, Monarch's hi-tech mobile headquarters, trying to both stop and evade destruction at the claws of various Titans. Check out our 10 worst and most disappointing Godzilla's HERE.

12. During the final fight, Godzilla is "killed" by King Ghidorah. Mothra, in a weakened state, sacrifices herself by transferring her life force into Godzilla. This happened in 1993s GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA when Rodan, mortally wounded by the man-made Mechagodzilla, transfers his life force into the dying Godzilla; bringing him back to life and stronger than before. The same tactic occurred in GMK (2001), but in that film, it was Mothra's life energy reviving King Ghidorah after Godzilla obliterates her with his radioactive breath.

If you enjoyed GODZILLA (2014) for its human element, you most likely aren't going to get the same feeling with GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019). On the other hand, if you want more of what the title promises, then there's a good chance the sequel (not without some faults of its own) will win you over. It's big, loud and boisterous; and has plenty of monsters battling for supremacy amid wind, fire, and rain for over two hours of mass destruction to tide you over till GODZILLA VS. KONG in 2020.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

From Beyond Television: Ultraman Episode #8


Directed by Hajime Tsuburaya

A four man crew of scientists were sent to Tatara Island to study volcanic activity. A week into their stay, contact was lost with the four researchers. The Science Patrol is tasked with investigating the alleged disappearances and, if they're still alive, to bring the men back. Immediately upon their arrival on the island, the Science Patrol runs afoul of several monsters and aggressive plant life. Eventually, Matsui, one of the scientists, is found alive; saved by a kindly, if peculiar looking creature named Pigmon. Meanwhile, the rampaging giant monsters make escape difficult till Ultraman shows up to save the day.

This is a lean, action-packed episode with a simplistic story that delivers everything kids--both young and old--loved about growing up with Japanese SciFi monster programs. This one was frequently aired in my neck of the woods back in the late 70s-early 80s; and was a personal favorite. I remember kids at school talking about the quirky-looking, passive Pigmon monster. If nothing else, it was certainly unique.

This was Hajime Tsuburaya's 2nd of 8 ULTRAMAN episodes credited to him as director. The son of Japan's master SPX director Eiji Tsuburaya, Hajime helmed some of the best segments in the series; including the first episode (he also voiced Ultraman before he took Hayata as his host body), a two-parter, and the finale. He worked as a director on other Tsuburaya programs like ULTRASEVEN (1967-1968) and OPERATION: MYSTERY (1968-1969). ULTRAMAN ACE (1972-1973) was his last work before dying aged 41 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1973.

Uehara Shozo's and Tetsuo Kinjo's script is bare minimum, and an excuse to trot out as many monsters as possible in 25 minutes. Its streamlined narrative and heavy focus on monster action is one reason 'The Lawless Monster Zone' is a popular episode with fans.

The snake-headed, bulky-bodied Red King is both one of the most ferocious and most popular Japanese monsters. It's the sole original giant monster in this episode, with the others being remodeled versions of previous creations. The Red King costume would likewise be recycled for use as other creatures. Red King would appear again with a darker complexion in episode 25 of ULTRAMAN (as Red King II). Monster suit veteran Teruo Aragaki instills a lot of personality into the showboating beast that has led to the monster's fame among fans. Toru Narita designed the monster while Ryosaku Takayama did the modeling work.

Chandler (or Chandlar), a winged monster with tusks like a wild boar, is a thinly disguised Peguila suit last seen in the ULTRA Q series of the same year. Ryosaku Takayama modeled the monster based on Toru Narita's revised design from Peguila's initial creator, Yasuyuki Inoue. This episode marks the first time in ULTRAMAN where monster gore is seen on-camera. Chandler is already bleeding under one of his arm's when we first see him. Shortly thereafter, he bites down into Red King's arm and blood pours from the wound. The coup de gory comes next when Red King returns the favor by tearing Chandler's arm off! Yukihiro Seino is inside the Chandler suit.

Mr. Seino did a few bit parts and participated mostly in suit work on ULTRA Q and ULTRAMAN. Both Yukihiro Seino and Teruo Aragaki literally worked together on the latter, sharing a two-man suit on two occasions--the first time as Dodongo (a winged horse monster) in episode 12, and again as Pestar (a strange, conjoined twin starfish creature) in episode 13.

Magular is a burrowing monster with jagged rock-like formations on its body. It's a modified Neronga suit; itself created from the Baragon costume seen in Toho's FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (1965). The suit was refurbished multiple times over. Reportedly, there was talks to remodel Toho's Anguirus suit for this segment. You can read more about the numerous recycling done to Baragon in the review for episode three HERE. Izumi Umenosuke is inside the Magular suit.

Pigmon is one of those bizarre looking monsters in Japanese Tokusatsu that is impossible to forget. Reportedly inspired by the Crocodilefish, Pigmon had a bony exoskeleton with what looks like red barnacles all over its body. Originally appearing in ULTRA Q as the giant robot monster Garamon, the creature's usage in ULTRAMAN is a slightly modified version of Toru Narita's original design, and modeled by monster maker Ryosaku Takayama. Now a human-sized, benevolent monster, the kid-favorite would reappear again in episode 37 of ULTRAMAN. Where Garamon was played by a midget in ULTRA Q, child actor Fujita Shuji plays Pigmon in his appearance in this segment of ULTRAMAN.

Carnivorous plants are among the denizens of this monster island. Referred to as Saffron (or Suflan), this bloodsucking fauna designed by Toru Narita is easily dispatched by fire from Arashi's Spider-Shot.

Up to this point, ULTRAMAN has been an exceptionally consistent series in terms of stories and presentation. Episode 7 hit a peak of excellence in managing an epic scope for a 25 minute time frame; and 'The Lawless Monster Zone' steadies that high bar with a simple story told well; and packed with what has for years drawn fans to Japan's unique brand of SciFi... monsters.

MONSTERS: Red King; Chandler; Magular; Pigmon; Saffron
WEAPONS: Super Gun; Spider-Shot; Jet-VTOL

To be continued in episode 9: OPERATION ELECTRIC STONE FIRE

Friday, June 7, 2019

From Beyond Television: Ultraseven Episode #33


Directed by Hajime Tsuburaya

Paris's division of the Earth Defense Army ships a top secret document to the Ultra Garrison via submarine. While this secret mission unfolds, strange incidents take place topside. A pale-skinned man with no ID and wet hair that smells of Formalin walks out into the road and is struck by Furuhashi and Dan on their way to base. A number of other men with the same symptoms arrive at the TDF base. The Ultra Garrison soon learn the ten men on ice were already dead and stolen from a lab. Meantime, Furuhashi and Soga keep guard on the vault where the secret document, a microfilm with a list of all the secret bases of the EDA around the world, is being kept.

To their surprise, the list is stolen anyway; although the only thing sighted was a shadow. Dan figures out the corpses are being controlled by a telekinetic force. At that time, he's attacked by the zombies and, after changing into Ultraseven, is shrunk to minuscule size after being blasted with a mist-like weapon. Dan manages to escape after setting off a fire alarm that alerts Captain Kiriyama and the others. The Garrison members find out too late the otherwordly intruders have transferred the information from the microfilm and it's a race to stop them before they can transmit it to their base in outer space.

Eiji Tsuburaya's son, Hajimi Tsuburaya, directed this, his third of four U7 episodes. Becoming president of Tsuburaya Productions in 1970 after his father's death, he too would die three years later after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage upon waking up on the morning of February 9th, 1973. He died a short time later in hospital. He was 41 years old. 

Aside from directing, Tsuburaya was a writer of screenplays and lyricist of many theme songs on these programs. Sources state that Hajime encouraged directors to write scripts for the shows they directed, usually under a pseudonym. Tsuburaya was said to have contributed to ULTRA scripts, but remained anonymous so as not to take away from the credited writer.

Hajime was at the helm of the series opener (actually the fifth produced but first aired), 'The Invisible Challenger' and the fifth episode, 'The Lost Hours' prior to this one. His last work before his death was supervising the production of ULTRAMAN ACE (1972-1973).

Uehara Shozo's script is one of the best of the series, accentuating an atmosphere of horror and tension other episodes weren't always successful at maintaining. Nearly the entire segment takes place at night or in darkened hallways and rooms. Some creative editing using rapid cuts is a unique choice to heighten the mystery present in this episode. This mystery extends to the origins of the villains since we never learn exactly who they are; nor are they actually seen. Prior to filming, the alien antagonists were indeed visible, so to speak.

Aside from a reference as "invisible enemies", the enemies are never truly visualized. In Uehara Shozo's script, however, the galactic villain was called 'Shadow Man'; although it's never referred to as such during the episode. In the original draft, the antagonist was described as the Uley Alien. Ultimately, Iketani Senkatsu's creation was never seen onscreen, opting instead for a more mystifying approach. However, the design for the Uley Alien (see insert) can be seen in the Time-Slip Files book and DVD (runs 30 minutes) on the making of the U7 series. There are two images of the design in the book, a 120 page hardback edition featuring dozens of behind the scenes photos and concept art from every episode of U7.

In the episode, the invisible alien or aliens initially use unclaimed male corpses to get inside the Ultra Garrison base. They then use the souls, or shadows, of the dead men to steal the top secret files. The alien powers are a mist-like spray that can either shrink an opponent or render them unconscious. It's a unique villain and opting to not reveal who and what they are, or where they come from, was a novel approach that adds to the appeal of this segment.

In the last ten minutes, the sinister aura switches to typical SciFi trappings when the action shifts outside Earth's atmosphere for a battle in outer space. U7 and the Ultra Hawk 2 engage the alien spacecraft and its fleet of ships for a satisfyingly old-fashioned finish to an enjoyable segment of this often adult-accented series.

MONSTERS: Unnamed invisible alien beings
WEAPONS: Submarine S; Ultra Hawk 2

To be continued in Episode 34: THE VANISHING CITY
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