Honda’s Sci-Fi, Cassavetes’ Husbands, Tati at Play – DVDs for the Week

Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection

Though his name is conspicuously absent from the cover, the Icon of Sci-Fi celebrated in Sony’s three-disc set is Ishiro Honda, the prolific director of the original Godzilla and a legendary run of giant monster movies. This collection from Sony highlights his science fiction output with the stateside DVD debuts of three films, a mere fraction of his genre filmography.

The H-Man (1957) is not a man at all but a gooey radioactive slime (the original Japanese titles translates to “Beauty and the Liquidman”) that slurps into Tokyo, starts oozing up legs of gangsters and digesting them in seconds flat. It’s a monster movie horror within a cop crime drama, with detectives investigating a drug ring where all the suspects keeps getting dissolved. Motivation for the hungry, hungry puddle is vaguely suggested by a scientist who reads a headline about a missing suspect and immediately suspects radioactive hanky panky, but it still doesn’t quite explain why it invades the nightclub where all the gangsters hang, unless it absorbs the instincts of its victims as well. At least it that would explain its obsession with nightclub singer Chikako Arai. There are some great ooze effects of the gelatin spill going up walls and some dummies that deflate in place of victims being boiled into mush. The optical effects with freeze frames and animated slime are far less effective and for some reason they periodically turn into big green ghosts.

Battle in Outer Space (1959) is a visually splendid and narratively pedestrian space opera, short on character and plot but full of great miniatures and dramatic effects in a film packed with spectacle. It’s not just ships zapping each other with lasers in the dark void of space; there’s a caterpillar surface transport crawling over the rocky volcanic moonscape, a shoot-out with a fleet of flying saucers, a mind-controlled assassin sabotaging a human rocketship and of course the alien assault on Earth landmarks in the final battle. They may look like toys in flight, but they are they best toys a sci-fi geek could behold on screen in 1959, which alone makes it a genre highlight.

Mothra (1961) is the gem of the set, a marvelous mix of science fiction, monster movie and adventure fantasy filled with colorful characters and an unmistakable socio-political subtext. It opens in a similar fashion to The H-Man – a ship drifts into the radioactive area of old atomic tests – but this time the crew is saved, thanks to the berry juice offered them by the natives of Infant Island, an island assumed to be uninhabited. In a reworking of King Kong, a mercenary explorer named Nelson from the country of Rolisica (a not-so-subtle stand-in for the U.S.) leads an expedition to Infant Island to investigate claims of native inhabitants and kidnaps pixie-sized women (played by identical twins pop duo The Peanuts) after they rescue a scientist from blood-sucking vines. Just like Carl Armstrong, Nelson puts his “rare specimens” into a big ticket stage show and somehow charms the audience into watching performers a few inches tall on a gargantuan stage. Meanwhile the natives (at least those that weren’t massacred by the Nelson’s thugs) rouse Mothra from its cave incubator and a gargantuan larvae bobs through the water and over land, destroying everything in its path, following the clarion call of the “Tiny Beauties” (as the dogged newspaper reporter known as The Snapping Turtle dubs them). It’s only in the final act that it spins a cocoon and emerges a fuzzy Technicolor monster moth to really whip up some property damage. And Honda spreads the chaos around this time; after Japan gets its  share of winged fury, Mothra follows Nelson home to New Kirk City (??!!) in Rolisica, which looks like a lumpy mix of California, the American East Coast and, in a few odd shots, some grim Iron Curtain country. And in a really strange turn of events, the film appropriates the kind of Catholic imagery common in American movies and then twists it to his own purposes. While the Americans are quick to escape into the bosom of the church, the Japanese heroes arrive on the scene and use the crucifix to stand in for the mythological symbols of Mothra’s ancient Polynesian culture. Mothra is not an evil monster. It’s more like a protector of the island magic. How Toho decided that a giant moth was a good idea for such a totemic creature is anybody’s guess, but crazily enough it works. Mothra is a beautiful creature and a visually riveting figure, and the movie Mothra is one of the best of Toho’s giant monster movies.

Mothra leaves the cocoon
Mothra leaves the cocoon

Toho’s special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya does double duty in his model work here; in addition to his radio controlled army toys and city miniatures built for lepidopteral destruction, he builds giant jungle vegetation and bird cages to make the wonder twins look diminutive. They all look great, though the static doll stand-ins for a few scenes are less convincing and the optical shots are often a bit ragged. Honda cuts those shots judiciously and in general he keeps this film driving along so crisply that these are merely minor and momentary distractions, if at all.

The films look terrific, presented in their original, uncut Japanese versions as well as the American incarnations (which are dubbed and in the case of Mothra significantly shorter) and in full Tohoscope widescreen. Japanese science fiction film historians Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski provide well-prepared commentary tracks for Battle in Outer Space and Mothra and they keep them humming all the way through in their tag team approach. But I do have to call out Sony on the case design: all three discs are stacked up on a single spindle, which is not just unwieldy but leaves the discs prone scuffing and scratching. There are other, budget-conscious options for putting three discs in a single standard-dimension case.

Husbands (Sony)

John Cassavetes has been called the godfather of American independent cinema, and for good reason: he made highly personal, aggressively discomforting, astonishingly intimate films about troubled relationships in the modern world. Husbands, subtitled “A comedy about life death and freedom,” follows three middle-aged men (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes), long time friends and family men, as they run from their despair after the death of the man who completed their fun-loving group. This is a Cassavetes kind of mid-life crisis: they indulge their worst, most selfish instincts as they attempt to outrun their fears of mortality and frustrations of compromised lives. They carouse in all-night drinking binges, rush off for a weekend of gambling and cheating in London and slip into boyish giggling and sniggering whenever the situation gets too personal. Only while safely hidden in a bar room toilet do they let their fears pour out. It’s also interesting to note that this film was produced in 1969 and released in 1970, looking forward in style and subject matter to the films that would define seventies filmmaking.

Husbands: restored to Cassavetes’ preferred cut by Sony

As with most of Cassavete’s personal projects, his script was reworked through rehearsals and improvisations with actors investing themselves deeply in their characters and dramatic crises. The result is a mix of idiosyncratic insights and raw emotion pouring out in startling moments between long, rambling, often uncomfortable conversations which are as much about what is not said as what is, and sold by raw, intense performances and volatile ensemble chemistry. Cassavete’s original version was cut by the studio for wide release. This DVD is restored to its 142 minute running time. Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine offers a well-organized commentary that is both a Cassavetes primer and a comprehensive study of the development of the film. The excellent 30-minute documentary The Story of Husbands: A Tribute to John Cassavetes features new interviews with Gazzara, producer Al Ruban and director of photography Victor Kemper, whose insights and remembrances fill out Fine’s portrait of Cassavetes even more. “John used rehearsals mainly for himself, to rewrite, to listen,” explains an aged but still very articulate Gazarra. “He had an idea of where this material was going, what played, what didn’t play. So we rehearsed for three weeks before we started shooting.” Adds producer Ruban: “His style, if you can call it such, is coming to the set, everyone, being prepared to do the day’s work and then discovering something that was totally unexpected from the actors…. And that’s why he is really an actor’s director.” The most unexpected revelation: Cassavetes didn’t know Gazarra or Falk before he cast them. He merely knew of their work and thought they would be good collaborators. His instincts were right: they became regular collaborators and lifelong friends.

Playtime (Criterion)

Blu-ray of the week, the month and perhaps the year is Jacques Tati’s Playtime. A film comedy directed with the grace of a ballet, the painstaking detail of an action painting and the affection of a love song, Playtime is one of the most sublime celebrations of individualism in the alienated landscape of modern urban life and consumer culture. This is a different kind of symphony of a city, conducted with rising and falling rhythms that segue from one movement to another over the course of a single day into the night and finally emerging into the dawn.

There’s no real “story” to the film, yet hundreds of tiny little stories can be found playing out in Tati’s widescreen images. Tourists arrive in an airport terminal with all the personality of an office building. In the swirl of organized chaos arrives Tati’s signature character, the gangly Mr. Hulot, decked out in his trademark overcoat and hat and clutching his familiar umbrella, on his way to a business meeting in the city. The tourists are efficiently shuttled off to busses for their whirlwind Paris visit, but this isn’t the Paris of ancient brick buildings and romantic bridges and historical monuments that, but of skyscrapers of steel and walls of glass looking out onto paved streets packed with commuters and busses and pedestrians in a hurry. As the tourists gawk at the marvels of new inventions and contemporary creature comforts, one young woman (Barbara Dennek) with a dreamy look in her eyes longs for the romantic Paris that is only fleetingly glimpsed in reflections of car windows and glass doors. Meanwhile, Hulot gets lost in the maze of office cubicles and glassed-in waiting rooms while trying to track down a business associate, dwarfed by the size and scale of the coldly impersonal surroundings as he meet indifferent efficiency with comic individualism.

Criterions Blu-ray
Criterion’s Blu-ray

Where so many comedy directors create humor from the outrageous exaggeration of images and situations, Tati creates his from an accumulation of minor touches, little dissonances, imaginative observations and pieces of creative business: hundreds of details that erupt with lives of their own but fit together like a clockwork mechanism with a human heartbeat. The last half of the film takes place at the grand opening of a brand new nightclub, a mini-movie of its own that opens with workmen and waiters rushing the final details as the first night crowds arrive. It’s a model of modernity where every design flaw becomes glaringly apparent over the disastrous evening, but out the slow collapse of the club’s dignified façade comes a human revolution, a magical idiosyncratic order created out of fun and laughter and social egalitarianism rising from the chaos. Has a satire of the human behavior in the mechanistic urban world ever been so affectionate?

It was the most expensive film made in France, thanks to Tati’s epic vision and perfectionism, and it was a financial disaster for the director. But it is sheer grace, Tati’s most beautiful film (thematically as well as visually) and one of the most loving human comedies put to film.

Tati shot the film in 70mm and Criterion’s Blu-ray master does it justice. While the credits sequence looks unduly dirty and noisy, it’s clears right up when the film proper begins: clean, crisp, rich with detail and simply stunning. The images are so solid and sharp you could cut yourself on them. Criterion re-released the film for a DVD special edition in 2006 and all the supplements included in that generous edition have been carried over for the Blu-ray release. One highlight is the short Cours du Soir (Evening Classes), a comedy about a surreal school for well dressed businessmen learning the fine art of tripping over steps, walking into walls, and smoking a cigarette like an amateur, written by and starring Tati. The 20-minute biographical portrait Tati Story features generous clips of Tati on film, stage and TV, the six-minute Au-del de Playtime reveals rare behind-the-scenes footage from the city set he built on the outskirts of Paris, there’s a rare audio interview with Tati from the Q&A of the U.S. debut of Playtime at the 1972 San Francisco Film Festival and Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work, a 1976 program on the director made for the BBC art series Omnibus. Also features an introduction by Terry Jones, select scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp and a video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot among the supplements. Simply put, a magnificent release of a magnificent film.

Read more about the production of Playtime in my article on Turner Classic Movies here.

[Published in conjunction with my personal blog www.seanax.com]