New Video Series: Short Fan Edits

Hey there, true believers!

I have just launched a new video series on my YouTube and Vimeo channels, Short Fan Edits! Sometimes I feel the need to restructure just small portions of my favorite films; while the piece at large is fine just the way it is, perhaps one scene or two could be changed, either for the benefit of the narrative or just because it’s fun. This is the aim of Short Fan Edits. Each video will be a small sliver of a full fan edit, in many cases, probably the only change I would make to the film.

The first installment is my version of the deleted “bank robbery” scene of Escape from New York, placed before the opening credits to create a more natural flow. Check back on my channel, Temporal Productions, on YouTube and Vimeo for more!

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The Movie Maestro Tumblr also offers shortened film reviews, with the extra Tumblr GIF-fy flair, along with the same TV/video game/comic book reviews as Instagram, and special blog posts, like my new Bite-Sized Fan Theories. I will also soon be featuring my own artistic creations, including custom DVD/Blu-ray cover art, posters, video, and more on my Tumblr. For more of the same from a more personal angle, check out Land of the Maestro.

Stay tuned, believers!

 

REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

New Fan Edit – Godzilla: Resurrection

The time has come, folks! Time for me to embark on my own fan edit!

For my first project, I’ll be tackling a fanmix of The Return of Godzilla and its Americanized recut, Godzilla 1985. While the original Japanese version of the film is still the definitive one, I’ve always held a soft spot in my heart for Raymond Burr’s scenes in 1985, and had always wondered what the final film would have been like had he been present in the Japanese cut.

This re-edit seeks to accomplish just that, while also streamlining the slower pacing of the original cut with suggestions from 1985 to combine the best of both worlds. The film will still be highly critical of both the United States and the Soviet Union, and will work to marginalize the more humorous aspects of the added Pentagon scenes. Finally, this cut will feature a brand new opening to the film, one that seeks to definitely tie the new Godzilla to the original beast in an eerie and unforgettable way.

To read more about the project, please visit my official page on it here, and keep your eyes peeled for a trailer on YouTube and Vimeo, coming soon. Until then, enjoy my custom poster!

Godzilla Resurrection - Coming Soon Poster

Godzilla: Resurrection will be available for viewing and download this fall.

EDITORIAL: Aliens Ruined the Alien Franchise

Before I begin, I just want to say that I, in fact, do not hate Aliens at all. Actually, I find it to be fine piece of cinema, heavily influential and paced to entertain at breakneck speed. If you don’t believe me, check out my review.

But as I found myself halfway through a viewing earlier this year for Alien Week, I began to realize something I never had considered before. It felt…different. Not different from the other films, it already is that in spades. I mean different as in I was seeing the film itself in a light I had never seen before. As Ripley and the Marines huddled together in formation, their backs to the wall, awaiting the alien horde with rifles at the ready, I began to remember the numerous complaints of Prometheus viewers at the movie theater where I work, five years ago.

“It’s too confusing; I couldn’t understand it.”

Hicks is spooked. He fires blindly into the ceiling.

“The characters are dumb, they make terrible, stupid decisions. Totally unbelievable.”

Hudson and Vazquez let loose. Alien after alien leaps down from the ceiling panels.

“It’s nothing like Aliens. That movie was good.”

Ripley finally fires, and now I get it.

Indeed, James Cameron’s “perfect sequel” is a good movie. And it was a good thing for the franchise at the time, keeping it alive at a crucial juncture, spawning comics, novels, and yes, more films. But as history has shown time and again, good things can inadvertently lead to bad things. And that night, as Ripley and Newt faced extraterrestrial death in my living room for what was probably the 100th time, I finally saw that Aliens had done just that.

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Damn right, I just blamed Aliens for this.

So how did a seminal sci-fi flick with substantial success, both in profit and influence, singlehandedly destroy the future of its own franchise? To answer that question, it is necessary to look back at Ridley Scott’s original horror classic as well as Cameron’s follow-up, to determine what made Scott’s film stand out, and what Cameron dropped from his to achieve greater success.

THE ORIGINAL FILM

Conceived mainly by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, the script for Alien quickly made a splash among industry insiders in the mid-70s for bleak atmosphere and innovative monster, heavily inspired by the art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Nothing like Alien had been seen on screen before; while images of extraterrestrial creatures eating people were standard EC Comics fare and the main “space trucker” characters seemed to be blue-collar revisions of the scientific crews of Forbidden Planet and The Thing from Another World, Giger’s beast was a nightmarish creature of incredible sensuality–qualities which are usually mutually exclusive to one another. And the way in which it enters the story–by raping a human male and forcing a bloody birth upon him–is so horrifyingly innovative that the original scene still holds the same shock that it did in 1979.

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But as much as Alien is O’Bannon’s baby, it was Ridley Scott who did the child-rearing that resulted in a brilliant piece of celluloid. Known for both a meticulous attention to even the smallest detail and his penchant for perfectionism behind the camera, Scott’s direction over both the actors and the design crew, consisting of Giger, Ron Cobb, and comic legends Chris Foss and Jean Moebius Giraud, is as sublime as it is epic. Resolving to push for the maximum effort, Scott was able to attain highly-technical and realistic sets for the space tug Nostromo, and truly eerie and inhuman sights for the crashed Derelict, and of course, the Alien itself. Just two years after Star Wars, Alien changed sci-fi again.

As detailed in The Long Take’s excellent video analysis, the menace of the Alien is wholly unconventional, covered in semen-like slime as it approaches its prey with a sexual cunning. At every stage of its monstrous life cycle, its body takes on alternatively vaginal and phallic forms, stalking men and women alike in an apparent play on both toxic masculinity and the transgender boogeyman of the ’70s feminist movement. Combined with the post-Nixon distrust of authority and the outstanding character of Ripley, played with both masculine grit and feminine intuition by Sigourney Weaver, Alien cracks the mold of both space films and horror.

THE SEQUEL

Immediately after Alien, Ridley Scott had his own designs for a sequel, spit-balling back and forth between a story involving LV-426 exploding, sending eggs through the vastness of space to eventually reach Earth, where Ripley arrives at the start, and another, interesting notion of a prequel detailing how the Derelict and its Space Jockey pilot came to be on their barren world. With the departure of Alan Ladd, Jr. from Twentieth Century Fox, these ideas would not come to fruition, and Scott decided to pursue other projects.

It is intriguing to see the genesis of two very different directions that the Alien franchise would be destined to explore. The first, with an Alien horde reaching Earth, resembles many of the early drafts for Alien 3 and the driving plot element of Alien Resurrection, while the prequel concept obviously became Scott’s preferred vision with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. In either case, Scott’s ambitions were clear: he wanted to explore the origins and nature of the Xenomorph creature, and dabble in the depiction of the Space Jockey.

Fast-forward to 1984. James Cameron, hot off the success of The Terminator, is suddenly in demand among the Hollywood elite. Having been working on the Alien sequel for some time, he and his producing partner Gale Anne Hurd were finally given the complete reigns over the project to finish in 1986. Cameron’s final script, incorporating ideas from an earlier sci-fi story he had written entitled Mother, signaled a massive shift in formula and tone from Scott’s entry. While preserving continuity and retaining Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Aliens shifted away from the horror elements of its ancestor and planted its roots as a combat-driven action film. Gone were allusions to gender identity and sexual psychology, replaced by an allegory of the Vietnam War that serves to provide Ripley with the chance to assert her maternal identity with Newt, the young sole survivor of the LV-426 colony.

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Cameron has been quoted as saying that he wanted his film to be “less horror, more terror.” Whatever that is supposed to mean, it is clear that Aliens doesn’t fit in with the pure existential and predatory dread of the first film. Aliens is scary, but in a different fashion, opting for more traditional jumps and creeps in between pulse-pounding scenes of futuristic combat. In what is probably his biggest contribution to the Alien mythos, Cameron introduces the final piece of the Alien’s reproductive cycle, the Queen. A powerful leadership caste that control the Warrior drones by simple gesture, the Queen is more than a match for the crafty Ripley, and can even hold a grudge–it pursues her in a decidedly intelligent quest for revenge after Ripley destroys its nest.

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On the surface, this seems to be a good change, focusing the menace into a bigger and meaner creature that can think its way out of a jam. However, closer comparison between the films reveals that the concept of the Queen stands in opposition to the original idea of the Alien. The Alien of the first film is a solitary creature, slowly crawling out of the shadows to attack in startling displays of sexual sadism, and in the original screenplay and Director’s Cut, horrifically transform its victims into new eggs while they remain awake for the entire ordeal. And yet, for everything known about the Alien, Scott’s greatest contribution to it was the mystery surrounding it.

The Alien’s life cycle may have been complete in the beginning, but even this does not fully account for the sheer number of eggs within the Derelict’s cargo hold. Indeed, perhaps the hold contained more than just Xenomorph eggs. Perhaps there were untold varieties of beastly horrors locked away in its ancient walls. Their origin is also kept a tantalizing mystery; could they have been the remains of the rest of the Space Jockey crew? Or scientific specimens of an exploratory vessel? Or perhaps they were a biological weapon, as Scott liked to opine in the decades after finishing Alien. Even the true nature of the titular “Big Chap,” originally revealed as a highly intelligent being after biting Ripley’s head off and mimicking her voice to set an interstellar trap, was wisely dropped from the final cut. All of this adds to the eerie atmosphere of Scott’s film, intertwining with the cultural zeitgeist of the uncertain ’70s to unleash a truly horrifying experience that still captures minds today.

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Cameron, on the other hand, seemed uninterested in mystery. His creation of the Queen is the biggest indication as to his preferred depiction of the Xenomorph, no doubt heavily influenced more by the Arachnids of Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers than by Giger’s artwork and concepts. The Queen simultaneously removes the mystery of the Alien and the universe at large outside of the walls of Hadley’s Hope, reducing the invincible monster of Alien to an expendable foot soldier, able to be defeated by a simple barrage of caseless rifle fire. If only Dallas had one of those, right? Further more, the enigma of the eggs in the cargo hold isn’t so unfathomable anymore.

This rejection of the unknown continues to seep into every facet of Aliens. Early on, the faceless, evil Company is laid bare as a bureaucratic mess, more concerned with the loss of an iron ore shipment than with the prospect of a race of monsters at Earth’s doorstep. And Special Order 937? Replaced by a lowly Company agent with greedy aspirations of profiting from the creatures, revealing the influence of the materialistic ’80s upon Cameron’s story, where capitalism is still the bees knees, its just a few bad apples that muck things up. The only thematic content more pervasive than this is the specter of Reagan’s America, present in the nuclear family of Ripley, Hicks, and Newt as the survivors of the film, triumphing unequivocally over the promiscuous Anti-Mother by seemingly destroying the Xenomorph race once and for all.

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THE AFTERMATH

When times are good, people will respond to stories that reinforce the world around them. Aliens was released at the height of an American economic boom, presenting just enough of Alien‘s creature to be recognizable while jettisoning the uncertainty and pessimism of the ’70s inherent in that film. This turned out to be a recipe for success, propelling Aliens to box office and pop culture glory.

The subsequent sequels would not be so lucky. Alien 3 would prove to be Sisyphean struggle to produce, with many early drafts took on narratives that echoed Aliens, featuring military combat against swarms of the creatures. Despite some interesting drafts that presented truly nightmarish and ghastly depictions of the Aliens, each version retained this emphasis on action, until Vincent Ward’s legendary, ethereal lost story. Set on an artificial world made of wood and populated by Neo-Luddite monks, Ward’s Alien 3 became one of the greatest unmade films ever conceived, boldly removing the ’80s social certainty by killing Hicks and Newt and throwing Ripley into her own personal hell as the host for the last Alien. After Ward’s departure and the scrapping of the wooden world concept, the final Alien 3 as directed by David Fincher retained much of Ward’s themes, and pushed an increasingly nihilistic film upon an audience that expected a retread of Aliens, which is understandable given the misleading marketing of the film. As I’ve noted before, Alien 3 is uncompromising and brave in its conviction to emotional disturbance, betraying an almost gothic sense of horror that evokes the original but still remains its own beast. Unfortunately, audiences disagreed and many still do.

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Alien Resurrection, despite benefiting early on from the French expressionism of Jean-Pierre Jeunette and some of the most ghastly sights of the franchise, ends up playing as a light-hearted Aliens clone by the end, and the AVP entries of the 2000s were cynical cash grabs, with the second film literally remaking the plot of Aliens on present day Earth. Quickly, one can see a pattern emerging: nobody wanted to leave Cameron’s film behind.

Nobody except Ridley Scott himself, who regained the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, a soft reboot that sought to explore the Space Jockey race, now called Engineers, in a bit of world-building that returned to the series the Eldritch threat of existential terror. Believing that Alien itself was a “cooked” beast, Scott strayed away from it, keeping the more recognizable beats of bodily horror while focusing on a demonic twist to humanity’s origins and the creeping threat of A.I. This led to a polarizing film, with opinions split down the middle; devotees of Scott’s original film feel it is a nice return of the tone of that piece, while critics deride it as shallow, confusing, and lacking of the main creature that makes the franchise what it is. Looking at the divide, it seems obvious where it came from.

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These days, the split among Alien fans remains firmly in place. Half seems to side more with Scott’s vision of a terrible, Lovecraftian universe of uncaring horrors, while the other prefers the human-centric adventure of Ripley and the Space Marines, barreling toward a war with the Alien species. What’s worse, this split has affected Scott’s plans for the prequel series. Originally planning a direct sequel to Prometheus entitled Paradise, the lukewarm reaction to that film caused him to drop many of the concepts he was building and shoehorn in the Alien for the even more polarizing Alien: Covenant, in which he seeks to assert ownership over the creature and its life cycle by presenting David, his murderous android character (and rebuke to the heroic Bishop) as the creator of the species. While I have my own thoughts on that little development, one cannot overstate how drastic a change this is from even his own first ideas, let alone the intentions of Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger. This can be unequivocally traced back to the success of Aliens, and the embracing by the fans of its simpler nature.

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With Alien: Covenant failing to make a splash at the box office, the future of the series is now uncertain. Scott’s Alien: Awakening project, even if it isn’t canceled, seems mired in its own intentions to reveal the last shred of mystery the franchise had, while the online outrage at the termination of Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5 film, which would be another retread of Aliens with Ripley and Hicks returning to wipe away Alien 3 and Resurrection from continuity, has reached fever pitch, signalling that Fox could head in that direction. I would hope that they don’t, because I’ve had enough of Aliens. I’m fine with the one film, and would rather like to see more thought-provoking and eerie movies in the vein of the original. Attempting to recapture the Cameron version of the beast almost always ends in disappointment, and further dilutes the impact of the creature itself. But as it stands, it looks like the Alien will have to get used to disappointing its many devotees, because while Cameron seems more interested in friendlier E.T.s from Pandora, he’s still leaving his mark upon the cold evil of space.

REVIEW: Godzilla vs. Biollante

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Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Written by Kazuki Omori, Story by Shinichirô Kobayashi
Starring Kunihiko Mitamura, Yoshiko Tanaka, Masanobu Takashima, Kôji Takahashi, Tôru Minegishi, Megumi Odaka, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Ryûnosuke Kaneda, Manjot Beoi

When I first started watching Godzilla movies, I was about 9 years old. While I had seen bits and pieces of a few of the films here and there on television, I never really sat down for a true viewing until I read a Nickelodeon magazine article on the Big G in preparation for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film (I know, the horror). From there, I began to search high and low for every Godzilla movie on VHS I could get my hands on. I cannot tell you how many trips to K-Mart were had to find those things. In the summer of that year, I found my second Godzilla tape, and that turned out to be this little gem.

Following the events of Godzilla’s 1984 raid on Tokyo, scientists collect genetic material from the monster’s fallen scales. The samples are quickly stolen by Agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), an assassin for the Middle Eastern country of Saradia. Dr. Shiragami (Kôji Takahashi) plans to use the cells to produce highly adaptable wheat crops for Saradia, but before he can, the samples are destroyed by American sabotage, killing his daughter in the process. Spending years studying the remaining cells, Shiragami combines Godzilla’s genetic code with those of a rose and his own deceased daughter, resulting in Biollante, an eerie plant of titanic proportions. To make matters worse, a psychic woman (Megumi Odaka) detects Godzilla stirring from his volcanic prison. The military sends the flying Super-X2 to stop the beast from thrashing Japan, but eventually Godzilla engages the rapidly mutating Biollante in a fight to the death.

While The Return of Godzilla was a critical success, it’s box office take was rather marginal compared to the more fruitful early Showa-period entries, and a sequel was put on the backburner. When director Kazuki Ōmori was handed the project in 1986, he opted for a unique approach to generating the story: he convinced Toho Pictures to hold a contest for fans to submit their own story and original monster for Godzilla to battle. From five finalists, one of whom would go on to become the story for the post-apocalyptic feature Gunhed, Ōmori chose the entry by dentist Shinichiro Kobayashi, concerning a scientist’s quest to resurrect his deceased daughter by combining her genetic structure with first a plant, and then cells from Godzilla himself, resulting in the abominable hybrid creature Biollante.

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Developing the story further, Ōmori was able to craft an interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi film, with themes concerning the practice of genetic engineering and man’s often-times reckless misuse of it. The film begins immediately after TROG, with both the Japanese forces and mercenaries from American and Middle Eastern factions scavenging the remains of Tokyo for Godzilla cells. The desert country of Saradia, in particular, greatly desires the cells, for their chief engineer, Dr. Shiragami, believes he can crossbreed them with wheat plants to produce highly adaptive and regenerative crops that could turn Saradia into an oasis, no matter the effect on global power. From the start, GVB is a film brimming with geopolitical intrigue surrounding science of a questionable morality–much like the original Godzilla and its immediate predecessor.

Image result for dr shiragamiShiragami inhabits a unique position among Godzilla movie scientists. He’s not the typical nature-fearing voice of reason, however, nor is he a mad scientist, despite his status a Biollante’s creator. While his Frankenstein-like actions are in keeping with the better parts of a horror setting, his motivation, to save the soul of his daughter, dramatically paint all of his debates with Kirishima (Kunihiko Mitamura) in a much more nuanced light. Takahashi keeps his performance reserved and subdued, appearing to hide a silent pain that feels incredibly genuine. Of all the Heisei films, I think Takahashi got the best performance of them all.

The aforementioned Kirishima, the younger, and yet more conservative, geneticist, is fiery and moral, always on the defensive against his more risk-taking mentor. Through his misgivings we are presented with the ethical dilemma of genetic manipulation: early on, the Japanese government decides to counter Godzilla with a new artificially-created strain of bacteria that can consume nuclear material. While everyone else leaps at the chance to use this “Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria,” Kirishima is hesitant, because if Godzilla never shows, or is indeed finally defeated by the strain, Japan will have taken an uncomfortable seat next to the United States as the first to deploy a weapon which will shake the balance of power worldwide, and possibly trigger a new arms race. Sound familiar? Rounding out the main cast are Toru Minegishi as the funny Colonel Gondo, Yoshiko Tanaka as Kirishima’s love interest Asuka, and the adorable Megumi Odaka, playing the first appearance of the recurring psychic Miki Saegusa role.

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Unlike those previous entries, GVB places more of the onscreen emphasis on action. The first act contains more than one gunfight, usually involving Saradia’s sinister secret agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), in an apparent attempt by Ōmori to inject spy thriller elements into the Godzilla formula. Seems he always wanted to direct a Bond film, but this was the closest he ever got. From Godzilla’s arrival, the film moves more into a hybrid of the government procedural format of TROG and more traditional kaiju destruction, with two big battles with the Biollante creature. In all honesty, the action itself isn’t bad, but isn’t anything particularly inspiring as far as blocking and innovation.

Instead, what really works for GVB is the cinematography of Yūdai Katō. Aiming for a more manageable middle ground between a smooth sheen and TROG‘s high-grain look, GVB keeps the darker, more night-based scenes but adds an organic wetness to the proceedings, further enhancing the new suit worn by Kenpachiro Satsuma, who achieves an even better performance here than previously. The suit is now one of Godzilla’s most iconic designs: bulky but muscular, with pronounced dorsal spines and a dragon-like, almost feline head with lifelike, canine eyes. Seriously, in some shots it appears alive.

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While Biollante’s first form doesn’t appear as lifelike, it and the second, more mutated form remain two of the most unique kaiju designs yet, topped only by the ’90s Gamera films. Slimy and wrapped in monstrous vines, Biollante is enough to make even the most seasoned tokusatsu veteran cringe in disgust.

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As I mentioned at the beginning, this was my second Godzilla film that I bought, after Monster Zero. While I loved the cheesy ’60s alien invasion story of the former, this film stirred in me some interesting thought, even with the at-times hilarious international English dub. (Godziller cells!) It’s a smart study in a burgeoning field of science where ethics may be the only thing preventing a catastrophe of proportions we still don’t fully understand, and for a film like that to keep my attention before age 10 is a feat indeed. While it sadly didn’t have the impact it should have had upon the new Heisei series due to its diminished returns, GVB‘s fortune has been on the rise, with a recent Japanese fan poll selecting it as the best Godzilla film to date. While I believe that honor still befalls the original, I gladly recommend Godzilla vs. Biollante in the top 5 whenever passing my kaiju knowledge along.

REVIEW: The Return of Godzilla (1984)

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Directed by Koji Hashimoto
Written by Hideichi Nagahara, Story by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Starring Ken Takaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yôsuke Natsuki, Shin Takuma, Kaiju Kobayashi, Raymond Burr (American Version “Godzilla 1985”)

By 1975, I think it was safe to say that Godzilla had very little bite left, if any. His films played to the youngest of audiences, with such a juvenile and playful tone that none of the worldly, nuclear menace was left. After several box office failures, Godzilla went on a nearly ten-year vacation, in which many attempts were made to reboot the series, with as many different visions as to where it should go. The big guy would have to wait until 1984, but it was a wait well worth it.

While day sailing in the Pacific, reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) finds a missing fishing vessel, Yahata Maru, and discovers that all the hands have been killed by a giant sea louse except for one. The lone survivor, Okumura (Shin Takuma), then tells the reporter that the ship was attacked by a new Godzilla. Fearing a panic, the Japanese government attempts to cover up the news, failing when a Soviet nuclear submarine is destroyed and the situation puts them and the United States on the brink of nuclear war. Soon Japan and the rest of the world are on red alert as they wait for Godzilla to begin his rampage anew.

Opting for an almost completely clean reboot, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka brought to the table a story which respected not only the allegorical roots of the creature, but the fact the original film just couldn’t be remade in a modern setting. While his original conception pitted Godzilla against yet another monster, screenwriter Hideichi Nagahara thankfully dropped the second kaiju and concentrated on the geopolitical effects of the existence of such a monster. This was quite the revolutionary approach to a kaiju film; while tokusatsu cinema of the ’70s included some epic thrillers, Japan Sinks being one I can recall, kaiju films were purely the realm of the little ones. The Return of Godzilla expertly reverses this dynamic by only acknowledging the original film in its continuity.

Watching The Return of Godzilla, or Godzilla 1985 for you casual G-fans, you really get the sense that it was a Tom Clancy political potboiler before Tom Clancy was a thing. So much of the government procedural is there on the screen, with just enough military action and suspense to sex it up, the film is quite tense where it should be dull. The film starts off with a minor mystery in the form of Okumura and his missing fishing vessel, then swiftly enters the halls of the Japanese government and their desperate attempts to keep Godzilla’s return a secret. While the Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) and his cabinet deal with the broad strokes, Okumura, his sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi), Maki, and Professor Hayashida (Yôsuke Natsuki, in a role very evocative of Dr. Yamane in the original film) study the monster, hoping to find some way of halting his coming landing.

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The Return of Godzilla fits more as a 70s film than an 80s one, even including a few visual effects shots from the Japanese thriller Prophecies of Nostradamus during Godzilla’s Tokyo rampage. But it’s more than a few homages; TROG carries with it a distinct contempt for the Cold War and its major players, the United States and the Soviet Union. About 30 minutes in, a Soviet submarine is destroyed under mysterious circumstances, triggering a standoff between the superpowers until the Japanese government reluctantly reveals that Godzilla was the culprit. You’d think this would be the end of the hostilities and the beginning of international cooperation, but you’d be wrong. Instead, both nations begin pressuring Japan to allow them to use nuclear weapons against the monster, no matter its location. It’s a uniquely Japanese viewpoint on the stupidity of nuclear brinkmanship that also earns the film a home among American cinema of the decade prior, with its distrust of the American government post-Nixon.

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The film moves nicely from each mini-crisis to the next, both edifying and decrying Japanese bureaucracy in much the same way Shin Godzilla would over 30 years later, while Hayashida provides the story’s philosophical heart. And at the halfway point, we finally get city-stomping Godzilla action. The monster’s new design is positively menacing, from its dead eyes to its sharp fangs. Portrayed mainly with tried-and-true suitmation, the 84Goji, as this design is referred to, is a quantum-leap above it’s predecessors, harkening back to the raw savagery of the original whilst conveying impressive mass. Yes, the special effects appear quite dated today, but look at the film through the lenses of the time and setting of its release, and TROG delivers the epic goods in a way the goofy late-Showa outings couldn’t muster.

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Shortly after its original release, TROG was picked up by New World Pictures for an American exhibition, cutting approximately 30 minutes of the Japanese print and adding ten more of new scenes involving a Pentagon response team viewing the destruction from Washington, joined by Raymond Burr, reprising his role as Steve Martin from Godzilla, King of the Monsters. While Burr is true-to-form, the other actors are comically unneeded and hollow, and the film unfortunately loses its pacifist stance with several changes to the narrative that paints the Soviets as villains. But all is not lost; some editorial changes do much to help the pacing of several sequences, and selections of Christopher Young’s Def-Con 4 score are used to great effect. In short, Godzilla 1985 is a mixed bag, but not entirely without merit.

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The Return of Godzilla, as the first film of the “Heisei” saga, works overtime to reestablish Godzilla’s destructive roots, and wins the day with its interesting fusion of government procedural and monster smash. More than anything, however, TROG will be remembered among fans and newcomers as probably their first introduction to an alternative point of view on the Cold War, one from a nation that would caught in the crossfire of the end of the world.

REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.