Guardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.
It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.
But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.
Everybody in Interstellar keeps talking about Gargantua, a massive black hole that must be delicately negotiated during space travel. Christopher Nolan’s movie is similarly scaled: This 168-minute epic contains vast sights and wild images, and exerts a heavy gravitational pull. At its center are some basic, reliable sci-fi ideas. They’re just intriguing enough to justify the film’s poky sequences, but in Nolan’s universe this one falls shy of the ingenious spectacle of The Dark Knight and Inception.
The very slow opening reels introduce us to Coop (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut now involved in Earth’s last-ditch effort to grow crops. The future is starving to death, but Coop has a shot at saving the day when he’s called back into astro-service for a do-or-die mission.
Snowpiercer (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD), an international production from Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho based on a French graphic novel, is a high-speed metaphor speeding down the science fiction tracks of genre cinema. That’s the way I like this brand of filmmaking: with the metaphors big, muscular, detailed, and punchy. You either give yourself over to the allegory, in this case a giant train as a self-contained eco-system traveling through a world plunged into an ice age with passengers segregated into castes and the oppressed poor rising up in revolution, or give up. There’s not much in between.
Think “The Odyssey” as reworked by Karl Marx and set on the Siberian Express. Chris Evans (Captain America himself) is the angry young leader in the dungeon of steerage class battling his way through the train, car by car, to the engine, seeing his fellow revolutionaries cut down by the stormtrooper soldiers as the poor, huddled masses progress through the levels of privilege and decadence. And Tilda Swinton all but steals the film from him as the devoted functionary dedicated to class division and population control through repression and purges, embracing the essence of her character as both live action political cartoon and deluded acolyte of an Oz-like ruler with Darwinian tools. It is the class system of the industrial revolution in microcosm played out as high-concept action movie, and with Bong (The Host) at the helm, it’s a violent, graphically dynamic journey.
Blu-ray and DVD with hosted by Geek Nation film critic Scott Weinberg and featuring William Goss (Austin Chronicle), Drew Mcweeny (Hitfix.com), Jennifer Yamato (Deadline), Peter S. Hall (Movies.com), and my old colleague James Rocchi (who is identified as MSN Movies, despite the fact the site effectively shut down a year ago). A second disc features additional supplements: a nearly hour-long French language documentary “Transperceneige: From the Black Page to the Black Screen,” the shorter “The Birth of Snowpiercer,” a piece on ‘The Characters” with actor interviews,” an animated prologue, and addition interviews and concept art galleries.
The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.
The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.
Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm.
Goldfinger was the third Bond feature but the first Bond blockbuster, an instant smash hit that turned the series into a phenomenon. Fifty years after its Sept. 17, 1964 London premiere, which was overrun by fans fighting to get into the theater, it remains the definitive big-screen incarnation of the world’s most famous secret agent.
“Of all the Bonds, Goldfinger is the best, and can stand as a surrogate for the others,” wrote Roger Ebert in 1999. “If it is not a great film, it is a great entertainment, and contains all the elements of the Bond formula that would work again and again.”
The first two Bond films — Dr. No and From Russia With Love — were both unabashedly sexy and brutishly sexist, cartoons of glib machismo with martini wit and international flair. Sean Connery brought his Bondness to life with a mix of charm, arrogance, elegance and rough-and-tumble toughness.
Today you can see them as time capsules of Mad Men fantasies of masculinity with comic-book action. Goldfinger not only ups the ante on every level, it adds a few new elements that made the series.
When it comes reviving the past, timing and presentation is everything.
Sony’s first wave of “The Toho Godzilla Collection” of second- and third- generation Japanese Godzilla films on Blu-ray came out in May, timed to the theatrical release of the American remake (the discs are reviewed on Cinephiled here). This second wave arrives the week before the American 2014 Godzilla arrives on disc and digital formats.
After Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla flopped, Toho took back their home grown movie monster turned cinema hero for the second reboot of the franchise and the third generation of movies. In Japan it was called the Millennium series and like the previous reboot, The Return of Godzilla (titled Godzilla 1985 in the U.S.), Godzilla 2000 (1999) swept away a generation of sequels and pretended that most (if not all) of the films since the original Godzilla never actually existed. Though clearly a landmark in the Japanese franchise, I can only guess that Godzilla 2000 (Sony, Blu-ray) wasn’t included in the first wave of Blu-ray upgrades because it, quite frankly, is not one of the better films of the series.
Godzilla is on the move again just as an ancient UFO is dredged up from the ocean. In a fitting bit of turnabout, the script appropriates Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, though on a significantly smaller scale and with a Japanese giant monster sensibility: this lone silver spaceship parks on a Shinjuku skyscraper, drains the city of all computer information, and transforms into a mutant monster the resembles something between a skyscraper sized Predator and Jabba the Hut’s dungeon ogre from Return of the Jedi. Meanwhile an all-volunteer force of science nerds called the Godzilla Prediction Network, run by peacenik professor Yuji (Takehiro Murata) and his precocious adolescent daughter, clashes with their arch rivals, the Crisis Control Institute, a government strike force armed to destroy Godzilla run by Yuji’s bloodthirsty nemesis Katagiri (Hiroshi Abe, whose eyes bug out in glee every time he launches a missile).
[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
One plunges straight into unknown territory and action in A Boy and His Dog: Tatterdemalion figures dodging about in a wasteland, shooting at one another without apparent rhyme or reason. Some kind of reconnoitering dialogue—but no lips are seen to move and, visually, spatially, we find ourselves allied with … a boy and his dog? L.Q. Jones, writer and director of the film, gets down to business at once; before we know where we are, we have moved past the weird skirmish on desolate mudflats into the weirder realization that the conversation we have been puzzling over is a telepathic interchange between Vic—that’s the young man—and Blood, a shaggy mutt who has mutated light years beyond the Disneyesque canine to whom he bears some physical resemblance. Our suspension of disbelief about a dog who “talks” fast and dirty to his more-protégé-than-master is as immediate as our delight with Blood’s kinkily risqué sense of humor, his “doubletakes” and moués of disgust and exasperation with his sex-starved friend. Conversations between the two are shot with casual expertise and possess more bite and verve than most exchanges between humans in the film (witness the inane passages between Vic and the siren from “down under” he subsequently encounters), and Tim McIntire’s (Blood’s) delivery of irreverent repartee completes the visual identification of Blood as an authentically salty personality.
“Thank you for your childhood,” says the Chief Elder to each graduating 16-year-old. In this society, that’s not as weird as it sounds; all children who reach 16 are given life assignments and launched into adulthood at a public ceremony.
Childhood’s end, indeed. The Giver tells the tale of one such teen, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), chosen for a very special role on assignment day. He will be the new Receiver of Memories, a singular and mysterious job that sets him apart from everybody else in this isolated, placid world.
For reasons we don’t know, this slice of humanity has embraced “sameness” as its motto. The voluntarily tranquilized population is white, polite, and always truthful. If everyone is just the same, with limited emotional range and no ambitions, they will all get along together. That explains why we view this world in black-and-white. Odd thing is, Jonah keeps seeing flashes of color.
The giant apparatus required to create a 21st-century comic-book/sci-fi/action movie is expensive and unwieldy. Little wonder so many of these behemoths eventually collapse under their own weight, content to destroy a city while laboriously setting up the next installment in the franchise. Even the good stuff—Robert Downey Jr.’s antic presence in the first Iron Man, or the cheeky political thrust of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—must make way for grim destruction.
Therefore, give thanks to the Marvel gods for Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’ve ever had to suppress a giggle at the sight of Thor’s mighty hammer, this movie will provide a refreshing palate-cleanser
Under the Skin (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) isn’t a film that wants to make things easy for the viewer. The experience is not unlike that which I suppose its unnamed protagonist, an alien reborn in the body of a human host (Scarlett Johansson), goes through as it (she?) settles in to its new body and the emotions and impulses surging through it that collide with its mission. That mission has something to do with driving around Scotland and picking up men that it appears to devour in a pool of lightless liquid. That’s my best guess—there’s no exposition or explanation to clue you in to what it all means—but it’s all quite strange and beautiful and weird.
This is the first feature from Jonathan Glazer since Birth (a film that had its share of critics but has grown to almost cult stature in some circles since its 2004 release) in part because he did not want to compromise his vision. The film opens on abstracted sounds, like a human voice learning its sonic possibilities, and enigmatic imagery, and Glazer expects us to create our own meaning from the clues we take in along the odyssey. The defining color is black, the inky night of her nocturnal hunts and the deep, bottomless dark of her alien retreat. The characters seems to float untethered in these scenes, as if they’ve slipped into another reality.
Glazer is less interested in the what and the why than in the texture of the experience, the intensity of the imagery, the sense of adaptation and alienation as this alien starts to connect with her victims. Johansson delivers a performance like she’s never given, slipping between a focused, unreadable blankness and the easy charm of a young Scottish woman chatting up the men she picks up in her van, a part she keeps perfecting as she gets a feel for the culture of Glasgow at night. (Some of the scenes were shot with a hidden camera as civilians were picked up by Johansson in character, like a reality show in the Twilight Zone, and Johansson is not only game for the stunt, she’s quite adept at it.) This is a film of sensations best experienced in an immersive environment; watch this on the biggest screen you are able to, with the lights out and distractions kept to a minimum, to best fall under its spell.
On Blu-ray and DVD, with “The Making of Under the Skin,” a 42-minute collection of brief featurettes covering various aspects of production. The production is as unconventional as the film story and direction and these featurettes share some of the process. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy. Also available on Cable On Demand.
After much adversity, Caesar — the leader of the simian takeover of Earth — must admit a hard truth. His bickering, backstabbing ape brethren are much more like humans than they’d care to admit.
Ouch. Caesar’s grunted insight comes as no surprise as we’re watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: the human population is not behaving admirably in the wake of the health apocalypse that killed off most of the population. In the time since the collapse, the apes have only gotten stronger. As you no doubt recall from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the successful 2011 reboot of a dormant franchise, the renegade primates got new brain power from an experimental drug and are just beginning to talk.
The best thing about Dawn is the opening 20 minutes or so, spent entirely with non-humans.
Charm is in short supply in the kiddie sci-fi opus Earth to Echo, a mechanical imitation of E.T. Mechanical is the key word here, because the movie’s method is all about digital technology, and its extra-terrestrial is a little metal robot. We are watching a video supposedly created by the film’s characters. It’s a chronicle of their adventure with a lil’ alien visitor, discovered out in the sand beyond their suburban neighborhood.
The three buddies are played by Reese Hartwig, Teo Halm and Brian “Astro” Bradley. They dedicate their last night together — a freeway project is destroying their neighborhood — to locating the odd alien presence that is making their cell phones go crazy.
RoboCop (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) – We gripe about remakes all the time, but when you approach something with the status of the original 1987 RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s perversely violent, savagely smart, and wickedly funny science fiction action blast laced with political and social satire, it gets personal for a lot of folks. And for good reason. Twenty five years later, it seems more prescient than ever, which puts the onus on the new film to justify itself: just what does it have to say about a world where unmanned military drones are being drafted into stateside police work?
Brazilian director José Padilha, who delivered both gritty, high-tension action and a savvy social drama in Elite Squad, takes on this remake, and Swedish-born / Texas-tutored Joel Kinnaman is Detroit cop and family man Alex Murphy, rebuilt with military robotics as an urban assault weapon after he’s mortally wounded in an ambush.
This is certainly much slicker than the original, with military robots that look like the Cylons of the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot and mayhem galore, but it’s also much tamer in terms of both violence and satire. Where the original found an insidious handshake between corporate profits and planned obsolescence and design flaws designed to keep contracts full and a cut of the drug and flesh trade around construction projects, this is just about greed on small and large scales, with OmniCorp, the insidious contractor hoping to sell the dubious American public on a mechanical police force, as the big-time crooks. Michael Keaton is despicably good as the instinctively disingenuous CEO and Gary Oldman, Abbie Cornish, and Samuel L. Jackson co-star.
The battle between the human spirit and an operating system offering “the illusion of free will,” a metaphor rife with possibility but lacking conviction, for a film that turns on the struggle between man and machine, this film has less personality than Verhoeven’s. The film ultimately favors soggy sentiment over the cleverness of the original: emotion overrides the system here, rather than taking on the fatal logic of the system itself in the darkly witty twist of the original. The human factor is the wild card. I just wish it was actually more wild and less predictable.
One question that really bothers me in all these future films: how have they managed to create entirely self-contained robot soldiers yet never found a way to make silent servo motors? Every movement comes with the whir and buzz of working parts just to remind us that it’s not just a suit, it’s technology, baby!
The Blu-ray offers the three-part featurette ” Robocop: Engineered for the 21st Century,” an OmniCorp product announcement and deleted scenes, plus a bonus DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD copy. No supplements on the DVD.
An Adventure in Space and Time (Warner, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) is a TV movie made for the BBC but it is a movie nonetheless, a bit of pop culture celebration that takes on the creation of Doctor Who in 1963 (just in time for the 50th Anniversary!). Scripted by veteran Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss and produced by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s sweet, it’s sentimental and it’s nostalgic. It’s also unexpectedly engaging as a piece of light historical drama made with an affectionate passion and more than a hint of the BBC series The Hour in its observations of the inner workings of the broadcaster half a century ago.
David Bradley plays William Hartnell, the aging veteran actor who reluctantly takes on the role in what he sees as just a kid’s show, and Jessica Raine is Verity Lambert, the former production assistant given the assignment of creating a prime time family show by her mentor (Brian Cox), now a ranking executive at the Beeb. She’s the first female producer at BBC and her director, Waris Hussein (Sacha Dhawan), was a rare director of Indian descent, and their stories are a small but important part of this portrait of an institution in transition. Together they overcome budgetary limitations with flights of fantasy and creative special effects and the show recreates iconic events in the first four years of the series, from the series debut getting clobbered when it had the unfortunate luck of showing the night (British time) of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to the first appearance of the Daleks to the explosion of Who-mania in Britain.
Remakes have a tendency to revive interest in the originals, at least as far as the studios are concerned. They roll out new editions rolling on disc and digital streams in anticipation of interest and the new Godzilla has no shortage of ancestors: 28 Japanese Godzilla features (and one American film that is best not spoken of) from the 1954 original to the final Japanese appearance in the 50th Anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Eleven of those films are newly released on Blu-ray this month, spanning forty years of Japanese giant monster madness. Not all of them are masterpieces (or even particularly good, to be honest) but a couple of them are classic and most of them are great fun. And through them all, Godzilla is incarnated by a stuntman in a suit stomping through miniature cities and landscapes while an overcranked camera filmed it at high speed to give a dreamy, slightly-slow motion look and a sense of mass and size to the monster battles. The process is affectionately known as suitmation.
Kraken, an imprint of anime specialist Section23, has three pictures from the first wave of Godzilla film, known to the kaiju cognoscenti as the Showa Period. One of them, the 1971 Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), originally released in the US as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, is the trippiest picture of the entire cycle. It’s a Mod-zilla mixing of pop music, hip nightclub scenes and psychedelic imagery with an environmental message and the pollution spawned monster.
That’s right, Hedorah is born of pollution and toxic waste, growing from a bizarre black tadpole to a weird, blobby slime monster (the name, in fact, is a pun on the word hedoro, the Japanese term for sludge or slime) through osmosis and a voracious appetite for pollution. In the film’s most memorable (and unabashadly druggiest) scene, Hedorah grows legs (or something similar that provides landfall locomotion), ambles up to a smokestack belching black smoke and huffs it down like a stoner with a giant, putrid bong. Sounds like a solution for pollution, right? Except that Hedorah oozes poison gas as a by-product, which itself evolves from a knock-out gas to an acid fog that eats its victims down to the bone. Yes, this is the first Godzilla film since the debut that leaves victims littered across the screen. Even Godzilla is affected by it, and when he punches Hedorah, his arms simply sink into the creature, like it was made of sludge.
The series had been sliding into juvenile silliness for a few years and Banno was brought in to recharge the series. He has some big ideas for this mod monster party and the environmentalist theme is unmistakable, but the seriousness of the message is somewhat upended with the pop-art playfulness of his direction. Animated interludes are interspersed, providing anything from pseudo-educational illustrations for scientific exposition to mere cartoonish doodling, and a dour sequence featuring refugees from the affected cities rendered in black and white jolts to color a teen hipster grabs a guitar and leads a rock band in a high energy dance party in the middle of a rural field. Less endearing is the woozy new Godzilla theme with a wah-wah trombone that suggests the comic stumbling of a wobbly drunk rather than the mighty threat of a prehistoric creature with an atomic upgrade. And for this one film only, Godzilla flies, and it’s not dignified by any measure. He tucks his tail between his legs, turns around, and uses the force of his radioactive breath as a jet propulsion to chase Hedorah flying backwards.
It’s truly bizarre and quite a trip, and it was too much for Toho Studios. A planned sequel was scrapped, Banno was bounced from the franchise and journeyman director Jun Fukuda brought back. Some fans hate the film. I think the sheer oddity of the creative chemistry makesit one of the most strangely entertaining entries of the entire series.
Jun Fukuda directs the two other Godzilla releases from Kraken: Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), a goofy entry from 1966 which sets Godzilla and Mothra against Ebirah, giant shrimp monster (it was called Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster stateside), and Godzilla Vs. Gigan (Kraken/Section23, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1972 follow-up to Hedorah where the Big G defends Earth from aliens who control space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah from a secret headquarters inside the head of the Godzilla-replica building at a theme park, no less (it was renamed Godzilla on Monster Island in the U.S.).
All three feature the original Japanese language and English dub editions, with the original Japanese trailers.
From Sony comes a quartet of double features from the second and third waves of Japanese series. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah / Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (Sony, Blu-ray) are the third and fourth films in the Heisei series, which rebooted the story of the Big G with the 1984 The Return of Godzilla, sweeping away the all the previous sequels as if they never existed and building a new mythology with time travelers and a few choice stars of the previous series.
Thus Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), a wild mix of time travel, bionic monsters and historical revisionism. A team of do-gooders from the future pay a visit to 1992 Japan, ostensibly to save the island nation from certain doom by ridding them of Godzilla, but in reality putting in motion an insidious plan for… well, you know how these things work. The film explains Godzilla’s origins (he’s a surviving dinosaur mutated by the radiation of H-bomb tests in the South Seas islands), then wipes it away with alien hocus pocus. In his place the Futurians create the dreaded three-headed, gold-scaled flying dragon King Ghidora, whose snaky, bobbing heads scream lightning bolts, and send him on to level Tokyo. Fear not, for no simple time travel paradox can stop the creation of the planet’s greatest lizard king and Godzilla is back, bigger, badder and angrier than ever. Don’t try to make sense of the time travel shenanigans for the plot has more holes than sieve. Just enjoy the no holds barred giant monster battles (including a bout between the Big G and a rebuilt flesh and metal Mecha-King Ghidora) and loopy sci-fi flourishes. He returns in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992), which is practically a modern remake of the original Godzilla vs. Mothra, with an evil twin Mothra tossed in for good measure
The big monster battles continue in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II / Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (Sony, Blu-ray), which pit the Big G against the giant robozilla built to protect the world and a bizarre clone from space, respectively, and in Godzilla vs. Destroyah / Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (Sony, Blu-ray). The former celebrated his 40th Anniversary by killing him off in a knock-down, drag out match where Godzilla passes the torch to Godzilla Junior with a blast of radioactive energy. It was the final film in the Heisei series and the Japanese franchise took a break while Roland Emmerich made his misguided remake. After it flopped, Toho came back with the Millennium series, of which Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000) was the second installment.
The Japanese series comes to an end with Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S./ Godzilla: Final Wars (Sony, Blu-ray). Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) brings back both Mechagodzilla and Mothra (along with her singing pixie princesses) and in an inspired bit of nostalgia has Hiroshi Koizumi reprise his role as Dr. Shin’ichi Chujo, his character from the original Mothra. This chapter is set in the culture of mecha mechanics and pilots that inspired Pacific Rim and pits both of its guest stars against Godzilla. Watch the post-credits teaser for the set-up for the 40th Anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), to date the final Japanese Godzilla film.
Godzilla: Final Wars is at once tribute, celebration, summing up, and send off, and quite possibly the first Godzilla film directed by an honest to goodness fan of the old-school movies: genre stylist Ryuhei Kitamura (of the cult hit Versus). It’s the first Godzilla film in decades to embrace that early “history,” bringing back all the old monsters for one last fight, and for good measure it tosses in an alien invasion force and a team of Power Ranger-like mutants to enlist Godzilla in their battle to take back the Earth. It’s lusciously, knowingly, lovingly cheesy, an affectionate farewell with a hilarious parting shot at the American remake. Every creature brought in to battle Godzilla is a classic suitmation monster with one exception, a suspiciously familiar CGI lizard who is easily tromped by the real lizard king in record time.
All eight films feature original Japanese language and English dub editions and original Japanese trailers. The final double-feature includes featurettes on each film.