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Friday, September 12, 2008 01:25 PM
(Last updated on Friday, September 26, 2008 03:00 PM)
On the Viewer - Gamera: The Ultimate Collection
 by Fëanor

We're still working our way through the back catalog of Gamera movies. This installment is a DVD collection that contains an astounding 4 hours and 26 minutes of Gamera, spread amongst three different films, all of pretty horrible video quality, all with pretty terrible dubbing, all from early on in the series, and all made in the late '60s.

War of the Monsters
First up on the disc is this film, whose original Japanese title, literally translated, is The Great Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon, which is really a better title, seeing as how it's about Gamera fighting Barugon. Well, to a certain extent, anyway; Gamera is introduced early on, but then the film completely changes gears and turns into a weird combination of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and an Indiana Jones movie, following a group of Japanese men as they head to New Guinea to find an opal. The main character is one of these men, and it's his brother who originally found the opal and hid it in a cave during the war. The brother is now crippled, so he has to send his brother and some buddies to retrieve the opal for him, with the understanding that the profits will be split amongst them all. When they get to the island, the natives implore them not to go to the cave, as it is cursed, natch. The cave is also infested with scorpions. But of course they go anyway, and find the opal. One of them is a despicable bastard and lets one of his companions be stung and killed by a scorpion, and then blows up the cave with a grenade to trap his other companion, so he'll have to share the opal with fewer people. He heads back home on a ship, and is within sight of home when all hell breaks loose. Unfortunately, he's afflicted with a condition that has to be treated with infrared light, and of course he's been holding onto the opal during the treatment, so it's been exposed to lots of the light, causing it eventually to hatch into the monster Barugon. The ship he's on naturally sinks, but he doesn't make the connection between the loss of the opal and the appearance of the monster, and wants to immediately launch an expedition to the bottom of the bay to get the opal back. He goes to the crippled brother of the man he trapped to try to get the funds to do so, but, in a pretty hilarious scene, mistakenly lets slip that he actually killed his two companions, and then finds it necessary to brutally murder the cripple and his wife. Jeez!

Anyway, at this point the movie suddenly remembers it's supposed to be about monsters and not utter bastards who want opals, and turns the focus back on Gamera and Barugon. Barugon is a big lizard with a long tongue that shoots freezing gas from the end. He also, it turns out, can project a rainbow from his back that blows up stuff. It's a rainbow of death! Brilliant! Definitely my favorite monster power of all time. Anyways, when Barugon shoots out his rainbow to blow up some missile launchers that are being fired at him, the narrator jumps in to point out that Gamera is attracted to heat and energy, and so Gamera shows up and the big fight finally starts. Woo hoo! Except, not. It's the lamest monster fight of all time. It's filmed like a Sergio Leone duel, cutting back and forth from close-ups of the monsters to a long shot of both, again and again, while the monsters scream annoyingly at each other. Then they finally get around to hitting each other a bit. It's endless and dull, with only a few amusing bits, until finally Barugon freezes Gamera completely and wanders off to cause more destruction.

In the meantime, the dude who was trapped in the cave has been healed by the natives, who explain to him about the opal and so forth. So he heads back to Japan with a hot native girl to try to stop Barugon. He finds his traitorous former companion, quickly guesses at the other terrible things he's done, and gets into a lengthy fight with him which ends with him and the girl tying the bastard to a post and taking off. Then all the sudden they're in a helicopter dangling a giant 6,000 carat diamond and trying to lure Barugon into a lake with it. The narrator quickly explains that Barugon's weakness is water, and that he's attracted by diamonds. Wha?! That came out of nowhere. And who gave them the helicopter? The diamond fails, and the narrator explains that the infrared light made Barugon too big for it to work. Wha?! That makes sense how? Then all the sudden the guy and girl are in a jeep with a scientist and they've got some kind of ray that's going to amplify the diamond. Meanwhile, the bastard guy has been untied by some woman (apparently his wife?), has heard about the diamond, and in an insane fit of greed, decides to go out and steal it just as they're luring Barugon into the lake to die. The crazy bastard jumps on board the army boat, shoots some guys, punches others, and grabs the diamond. He's about to get away when he finally gets his comeuppance and is eaten alive by Barugon. And not a moment too soon! Dude was very possibly the most despicable character I've ever seen in a movie.

Anyways, things seem hopeless, until our hero suddenly realizes by chance that mirrors are immune to Barugon's rainbow, and suggests to the scientist and the military that they construct a giant mirror. The extremely agreeable and impressionable scientist says, "Sure, okay," and they do so. Usually in Gamera films it's some little kid who is able to easily influence all military policy, but in this case it's a dude. It's all pretty hilarious.

Anyway, the mirror plan works, sort of, in that Barugon shoots at the mirror with his rainbow and sets his own butt on fire, which is very funny. But he's only hurt a little and is wise enough to give up on the rainbow after that. Luckily, at this point Gamera wakes back up out of his frozen state and goes after Barugon. They have another painfully long fight, until Gamera finally drags Barugon under the water to drown. Then the guy and the girl live happily ever after. The only question being - what about Gamera?! He's kind of a menace, and now he's unopposed!

This is a pretty strange Gamera film, but it definitely has some entertaining moments, especially the ridiculous sequences near the end, where the storytelling is so bad that the narrator has to jump in with lots of exposition to explain what the hell is going on.

Destroy All Planets
This Gamera film, which came out two years later, follows both War of the Monsters and Gamera vs. Gyaos, which you can easily tell, because a good half hour of it is made up of footage from those movies! It opens up with an alien spaceship flying towards Earth to conquer it, only to be attacked and destroyed by Gamera. Then we're introduced to the two annoying children who are going to be our main characters - a couple of prankster boy scouts named Jim (whose mother looks distinctly Caucasian) and Masao. They play a joke on their scout leader and a scientist by reversing the controls of a mini submarine, and then talk the scientist into letting them get in it by themselves and cruise around in it completely unsupervised (!), which is how they end up meeting Gamera under the sea and having a little race with him. Because, as we all know, Gamera is the friend to all children. It was clear from the very beginning that this was going to be a theme of the film, when the jaunty Gamera song started blaring out on the soundtrack right after Gamera finishes killing all those aliens.

At this point, another alien ship shows up, but this time they're ready for Gamera, and trap him in a bubble using their Super Catch Gun (sigh). Then they read his mind to get an idea of his weaknesses, which gives the filmmakers an excuse to show us, in painstaking detail, all of the monster fights from the previous two movies. Seriously, it goes on forever. Obviously they wanted to make a new movie, but they didn't really have much of a story, or much money, so they just reused other movies. Anyway, after watching the previous movies, the aliens realize that Gamera's weakness is his desire to protect children, so they capture the two boys and blackmail him into getting close enough so they can install a mind-control device. Then they send him out to start destroying things - which again gives the filmmakers a chance to reuse footage from previous Gamera movies of Gamera blowing up a dam and rampaging through Tokyo. One of these sequences is even from a black and white movie, and they brazenly use it anyway, despite the fact that this movie is in color!

But the aliens have stupidly allowed the annoying prankster children to wander around freely in a spaceship that is controlled entirely by thought, so they quickly start causing trouble. The governments of Earth are powerless to stop the aliens, because they're afraid the children will be hurt if they attack the spaceship, so it's up to the boys to figure out how to sabotage the alien technology, which of course they do, handily. Gamera gets his mind back and crashes the spaceship, but it's not over yet! The master alien combines his body with that of all his servants, becoming a giant squid monster which Gamera is then forced to square off against. It gets pretty brutal and violent for a while, but of course eventually Gamera prevails.

This is a particularly terrible Gamera film, as it is so focused on the irritating kid characters, and so clearly made to appeal to children, with a simplistic and nonsensical plot and lots of stupid, low-brow humor. And then of course there's the fact, which I've already mentioned repeatedly, that most of it consists of the most boring footage from previous Gamera films. Lame!

Gammera the Invincible
Oddly enough, the last film on the disc is the first ever Gamera film - sort of. It's actually a 1966 American version of the original black-and-white 1965 Japanese classic (note that at this point they were transliterating the turtle's name with an extra "m" in the middle). As with the original Godzilla, it was for some reason decided that it was necessary to film extra scenes with American actors and insert them at various points throughout the movie to make the movie palatable to American audiences. The scenes consist of the American military reacting to the emergence of Gamera; experts arguing about Gamera on TV talk shows; American politicians arguing about Gamera; and finally the UN arguing about Gamera and how to subdue him. In fact, the plot and some of the dialogue is changed to turn the defeat of Gamera into more of an international thing than a purely Japanese thing. Which is really kind of questionable. To make matters worse, when shooting the new scenes they appear to have deliberately hired only the very worst actors available. Seriously, this is really terrible stuff. A number of the scenes are clearly meant to be funny (especially the TV talk show bit), but they're all just irritating, with seriously cringe-worthy performances and dialogue. You can tell the actors are bad because all they seem to be able to do is get mad at each other, anger being the refuge of the talentless performer.

The original Japanese version of this film was bad enough, but with these American scenes added, it's nearly unwatchable. In fact, we almost turned it off, until I hit upon the happy idea of fast-forwarding through the American scenes. That at least made it bearable.

I'd forgotten that Gamera started out, in the very first film, as the friend to all children, for reasons that are never explained. He's a particular friend in this movie to an insane, turtle-obsessed child who risks life and limb just to get near him. Regardless of how friendly he is toward children, however, Gamera is still a terrible menace and ultimately must be shot into space for the safety of humanity. It's sad, really.

Anyway, even though these Gamera films are really quite terrible, they're still rather enjoyable in their own way, and we'll probably be watching more in the near future.
Tagged (?): Gamera (Not), Kaiju (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)
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Tuesday, June 24, 2008 06:18 PM
(Last updated on Friday, September 26, 2008 03:00 PM)
On the Viewer - More Kaiju Movies
 by Fëanor

As I mentioned in an earlier post, poppy and I have discovered that during this stressful time, one of the things that calms and cheers us the most is watching giant monster movies, so here are my thoughts on three more of those that we've rented and watched lately.

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris
We really enjoyed the first of the modern Gamera films, but when poppy went to add the next one to our Netflix queue, it was strangely unavailable, so we had to settle for the third one. Thankfully, it's practically a direct sequel to the first film, featuring the return of that film's villain (Gyaos) and most of its main cast of characters, and requires no knowledge of the events of the second film. It was made in 1999, and is actually the last of the modern Gamera films.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a film that promises revenge from something with the unassuming name of Iris in its title, but like the first of the modern Gamera films, Gamera 3 is of surprisingly high quality, with interesting characters, an engaging story, and imaginative ideas. The ending drags on a bit too long and is a bit overdone, but other than that it's a pitch perfect monster movie.

It's some years since the events of Gamera, but our animal expert is still active, and is called in to examine a strange bird, only to discover that it's a Gyaos. Reports of sightings of the creature begin to increase all across the world, and just as before, Gamera shows up again to take care of things. But this Gamera seems different - less interested in protecting people and more interested in simply slaughtering every Gyaos he can find. A shocking sequence around the middle of the film sees our favorite giant turtle causing enormous amounts of destruction and death in an effort to cold-bloodedly finish off a Gyaos that just seems to want to get away from him. The scene makes you reconsider Gamera, as does the backstory of a new character: Ayana. Ayana's parents, along with her pat cat, Iris, were killed during the Gamera/Gyaos fight in the first film, so she hates Gamera with all her heart. Now she's living in a small village with some of her other family, and is bullied by the local girls into sneaking into a cave and removing the stone there which is said to be locking in an ancient demon. As you might expect, nothing good comes of this; an egg that had lain dormant in the cave hatches into a hideous little monster. Ayana names the thing Iris and decides to secretly raise the creature as her own pet. She knows it's dangerous, but that's okay with her; she wants it to kill Gamera for her.

Meanwhile, the boy whose family is meant to guard the cave finds out what's going on, but has a difficult time deciding what to do, as he has just fallen in love with Ayana. Mixed up in all this is the interesting story of what happened to the cop who helped the bird expert in the first movie, and a couple of weird new characters: a mystic and a pretentious video game designer.

Like I said, it's a surprisingly good movie, with a climax that's actually pretty emotionally effective. There's some weird bits about "mana" that don't really go anywhere, and as I said it does drag a bit near the end, but otherwise it's great stuff.

An odd note: whoever put the DVD for this film together clearly felt that the audience for it would be watching the film ironically, and thus the special features include a "blooper reel," which is actually just scenes from the movie with goofy new dialogue dubbed in (there was an old TV show I used to love that did this; I think it was called Mad Movies?); and "commentary by Gamera." The concept behind this latter feature is that there's actually been a real giant turtle actor who's been playing Gamera in all the movies through all the years, and he has agreed to provide commentary - in an outrageously posh British accent, no less. Also on the commentary track with him is the actress who played Iris (a tentacled feminine creature with a Russian accent who's always going on about the rights of tentacled actors), a regular guy who's kind of moderating the talk by asking questions of everybody, and a third wheel kind of guy who claims he's been in every Gamera movie, usually playing a character along the lines of "Solider #6." It's very silly, and occasionally quite funny, but not interesting enough to make me want to sit through the entire thing.

Gamera: Return of the Giant Monsters
Oddly enough, the next monster movie DVD we rented happened to include the third of the original Gamera films (this one made in 1967), and it also features Gyaos as the villain. The particular copy of the film included on the DVD is an American International TV movie version, of not-quite-perfect video and audio quality, with no Japanese language track or subtitles available; the English dub is all you get. This did not detract from our enjoyment one bit, as it's another ridiculously entertaining film. It's set in a remote village where workers are trying to build a road, but they're having a hard time doing so because the villagers are giving them trouble. It turns out they're making a fuss less because they're really upset about the road going through their land and more because they want the company to buy their land at a high price. Another thing slowing down the road construction is a suddenly active volcano nearby. Somehow the bat-like monster Gyaos is awakened by the volcano erupting, and all hell breaks loose. A little boy is nearby when this happens, but luckily he's saved when Gamera swoops in. The usual group of scientists and soldiers show up to try to fix things, and also as usual find themselves taking strategy and policy advice from the little boy. One of the ideas they come up with is trying to immobilize Gyaos by luring him in with synthetic human blood and then causing the platform he's on to spin around and around, in the hopes that this will make him dizzy and unable to get inside before dawn breaks, when he'll be drained and ultimately killed by the sunlight. Brilliant!

It's a silly, super-fun movie with lots of great sequences of men in monster suits fighting each other. That's pure entertainment, people.

The Magic Serpent
We were surprised to find, when we put the Return of the Giant Monsters DVD in our machine, that it also included a whole other movie called The Magic Serpent, which we quickly discovered had nothing to do with Gamera at all. The only similarities are that they're both American International TV movie presentations of Japanese films that feature giant monsters fighting each other, and they're both from around the same time period (the Gamera movie was made in 1967, and this one was made in 1966). My best guess is that they had some extra space on the DVD and chucked this one in to fill it up. But far from being just space-filler, this is not only the best movie of the three reviewed here, it's one of the most entertaining movies I've ever seen.

We open in ancient Japan, and see a treacherous noble assassinating his King and Queen, with the help of an evil wizard. A loyal servant saves the Prince and ferries him away on a boat, but the boat is subsequently attacked by a gigantic water serpent (whose roar just happens to sound exactly like Godzilla's). We learn later that the serpent is actually just the evil wizard in another form. He dispatches all the men who have banded together to save the Prince and is about to finish the boy off, as well, when a giant eagle flies in, cuts a deep gash in the serpent's forehead, and makes off with the kid. We jump forward in time some years to see that the Prince has grown into an amazing young man who has learned magic and kung fu at the feet of an old, good wizard (he's the one who sent the eagle in the beginning). The Prince is walking in the woods one day when he's set upon by ninjas sent by the evil wizard (who's actually an old student of the good wizard; sort of the Darth Vader to his Obi-Wan). The Prince gets his head cut off, but it doesn't faze him. He kills all of the ninjas, puts the head right back on his shoulders, and, finding he's put it on backwards, spins it back in the correct direction.

After this rather stunning display, he finds a woman hiding behind a tree and chases after her, thinking she's in league with the ninjas. But it turns out she's just an innocent bystander. She tells him her mother has just died and she's looking for the father she never knew; all she knows about him is that he once lived in this area. The Prince takes the woman back to his master with the idea that he might know her father, only to find his master has been mortally wounded by the evil wizard, who crept in and tricked the old fellow while his ninjas were keeping the Prince occupied. As the good wizard is dying, he reveals to his student his true identity and what happened to his parents, and the Prince resolves to kill the treacherous usurper king and the evil wizard. (The good wizard also gives the Prince a ninja invisibility scroll which... he never uses and which is never mentioned again. That's one of the few disappointing things about the film.)

But what about that girl? She and the Prince are already kind of falling for each other, but she's stuck again in terms of where to find her mysterious Dad until her grandmother shows up and tells her where to check next - it happens to be the same place the Prince is going. To keep her safe, the grandmother gives her a magic spider which can be called to life to do her bidding, but only one time; if used twice, it will turn upon her and destroy her (which is a really, really cool idea, but, in one of the only other disappointing things about the movie, never comes to anything; after she's used it once - in a scene which is admittedly really, really awesome - there's never a moment where she needs to use it again). So off she and the Prince go. But who is her father? And will the Prince succeed?

Of course he will! But it does take him a while, as that evil wizard is tricky, and he has to keep saving kids and women who end up in harm's way. Along the way, he throws fireballs and ninja stars, gets into awesome sword fights, is attacked by a bunch of swirling doors, flies around on a cloud, and calls a giant toad to help him destroy the usurper's palace and fight the magic serpent. And did I mention the part where he takes his head off and puts it back on? This movie has magic, sword fighting, ninjas, samurai, revenge, kung fu fighting, romance, a giant toad that spits fire, a giant serpent that spits water, and a giant spider that spits... well, it looks like foam, but I guess it's supposed to be webbing. The point is, there's nothing awesome that is not in this movie. It's freaking fantastic. Definitely track it down if you can.
Tagged (?): Gamera (Not), Kaiju (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)
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Saturday, June 7, 2008 04:11 PM
(Last updated on Friday, September 26, 2008 03:00 PM)
On the Viewer - Kaiju Movies
 by Fëanor

poppy and I have been dealing with a lot of stress lately, and poppy discovered not long ago that one of the things that calms her in high stress situations is watching stupid monster movies, so we rented a couple of them from Netflix. The first was Godzilla vs. Megaguiras (2000), which opens with a long expository intro explaining the backstory of Godzilla and the soldiers who've tried to destroy him. In this version of the Godzilla story, Godzilla is attracted by nuclear power and by a new alternative energy called plasma power. So Japan has banned nuclear and plasma power so as not to attract the creature anymore. But just in case, a special defense group is still developing a super-weapon to destroy him, should he ever return. Said super-weapon, believe it or not, is a gun that shoots small black holes!! Oh, and the black holes are helpfully disposable, and just disappear after they're done destroying something. While testing the black hole gun one day, the Godzilla defense force unwittingly mutates a modern day insect into a deadly, gigantic insect from the dawn of time - or maybe they create a worm hole through which an ancient insect travels into modern times? It's never really well explained, and in defense of the Godzilla defense force, either event is a really unlikely side effect of firing a black hole gun. Anyway, a kid thinks it's a good idea to pick up a giant egg left behind by the insect which he finds in the forest and take it with him when he moves to the city. When it starts getting all wet and nasty, he decides to drop it into the sewer, where tons of new insects (called Meganurons) are born. They grow into flying monsters called Meganuras. When Godzilla shows up (he's attracted to a secret lab where plasma power production is illegally still going on, due to a politician's greed and corruption), the Meganuras attack him for energy, while humans try to kill Godzilla and the Meganuras. At some point, seemingly overnight, the city is flooded, putting some parts of it under hundreds of feet of water, and other parts under only ankle deep water. No idea how that works. Anyway, later one of the Meganuras becomes a truly gigantic queen insect called Megaguiras, which inevitably faces off with Godzilla, while the humans try to shoot both monsters with their black hole gun.

Which actually sounds pretty awesome. And indeed there are some pretty fun fight sequences between Godzilla and Megaguiras. But there's also a bunch of really annoying human characters cluttering up the movie, and they're all portrayed by really bad actors, and a number of them have really melodramatic backstories. One of them is a tech geek guy who invents all kinds of incredibly unlikely and hard to believe software and gadgets. Another is the kid who ends up dropping the egg into the sewer and causing so much trouble; the weird thing about him is that he's entirely a plot device. He's in the movie just long enough to create the bug problem, and then only shows up again in a very short scene later on where he's running from Godzilla with everybody else. Lame!

The movie has its moments, but it's way too long, and it's painfully stupid, even for a monster movie.

Thankfully, we also rented Gamera, Guardian of the Universe (1995), which I found to be a highly entertaining film with a surprisingly interesting and well-told story. If you've never heard of Gamera, he's sort of like Godzilla, except he's a giant turtle that can fly. Also, whereas Godzilla as a character is usually in a moral gray area, causing great destruction and death but often ultimately helping humans, Gamera is pretty much always only helpful; in fact, he's often referred to as a "friend to all children." This particular film is a reboot of the Gamera story (the original Gamera was made in 1965 and was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000). When giant birds suddenly show up on a small island and start wreaking havoc, an animal expert is called in to figure out what's going on, and to help capture the rare animals. Meanwhile, a mysterious moving atoll appears in the ocean and starts scaring the crap out of ship captains. Some navy guys finally catch up with the atoll and land on it, discovering a bunch of small amulets made of a strange metal, and a large plaque engraved with runes. Then the atoll is on the move again. The animal expert is trying to capture the giant birds in one of those big stadiums with a closing dome roof when the guy who examined the atoll shows up to warn them that his atoll is coming directly at them. Due to poor planning and execution, a couple of the birds get away, but in a fantastic introduction scene, the atoll (now revealed as a giant turtle) pops right out of the water and gives one of them a serious smackdown. The third bird gets away, and the turtle does as well. But hey, what about those runes and those weird little amulets? When translated, the runes speak of a shadow of evil named Gyaos, and a guardian named Gamera. Based on this information, and the examination of some of the physical evidence, the humans engage in some wild speculation and decide that an ancient civilization created the flying dinosaur-like creatures named Gyaos, but it was a mistake and the creatures destroyed their creators. Before that happened, these ancient people created the guardian named Gamera to protect future people from Gyaos. Meanwhile, the Gyaos went into stasis, waiting for the right time and the right climate in which to reawaken. Modern people gave them the climate they needed thanks to pollution and global warming, which is why they came back. As for the weird little amulets, a girl gets her hands on one and through it a psychic bond is formed between her and Gamera. The military is still convinced they can capture Gyaos, and they also decide they should destroy Gamera. Luckily, things turn out for the best in the end.

The story concept here, while a bit hard to believe, is nevertheless interesting, creative, and fun, and the way it's slowly revealed is actually quite clever. The characters aren't exactly complex, but they're at least not annoying, and some of them are quite hilarious (such as the cab driver who runs a military blockade simply because he "always wanted to do that"). As for the action, it's thrilling and fantastic. Gamera is awesome and gets to do some serious ass-kicking. At some point during the movie, I actually said out loud, "I think this might be the best movie ever," and I was only half-kidding. This thing is a ton of fun, and not nearly as stupid as your average monster movie. Thumbs up!
Tagged (?): Gamera (Not), Godzilla (Not), Kaiju (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)
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