Review: The Great Waldo Pepper

15 October, 2014 (09:59) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

I just realized I can’t remember how the line begins, so I’m going to fake it: “Technicians provide realism—artists supply truth.” “Technicians” almost certainly wasn’t the word but the rest is legitimate as a quote. A Hollywood director says it to Waldo Pepper, who was just too late to do his stuff as an ace in the Great War and now has a job, under a phony name, as a stunt flyer for the early talkies. Pepper has just pointed out that the wrong planes are being used by the movie squadron, which happens to be reenacting the legendary air battle he knows by heart and hearkens back to in support of his personal romantic code. George Roy Hill has left himself a lot of loopholes, as usual: The director who delivers the line is, or at least would be in many imaginable circumstances, right to prefer poetic truth to the documentary variety. But he’s wrong within the emotional context of the film, and he’s pompous and defensive to boot. But Waldo’s righteousness is somewhat compromised by our memory that he more or less opened the film by laying down a verbal account of the original battle, fascinating both his immediate, Nebraska farm family audience and its counterpart out there in the darkened theater, winning them and us with a charming blend of self-effacing softspokenness and ingenuous egoism, and shortly thereafter was exposed as a fraud for having cast himself in the story at all. But Hill implicitly tipped us to that particular con by preceding his Technicolor movie proper with monochrome archive stills showing aviation heroes giving up the ghost while stunting for movie cameras; this, plus our association of Robert Redford and Hill with that earlier, supposedly pleasurable screwing-over The Sting—similarly punctuated by (painted) illustrations of a movie crew filming con artists in their maneuvers—surely constituted some kind of fair warning.

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Videophiled: John Ford’s ‘My Darling Clementine’ on Criterion

14 October, 2014 (18:06) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews, John Ford, Westerns | By: Sean Axmaker

MyDarlingClemMy Darling Clementine (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), John Ford’s sublime reinterpretation of the Wyatt Earp story and the Gunfight at OK Corral, rewrites history to become a mythic frontier legend and one of the most classically perfect westerns ever made.

Henry Fonda plays a hard, serious Wyatt Earp leading a cattle drive west with his brothers when a stopover in the wild town of Tombstone ends in the murder of his youngest brother. Wyatt takes up the badge he had turned down earlier and tames the wide open town with his brothers (Ward Bond and Tim Holt), waiting for the barbarous Clanton clan, led by a ruthless Walter Brennan (“When you pull a gun, kill a man!” is his motto), to give him an excuse to take them down. Victor Mature delivers perhaps his finest performance as gambler Doc Holliday, an alcoholic Eastern doctor escaping civilization in the Wild West and slowly coughing his life away from tuberculosis.

Ford takes great liberties with history, bending the story to fit his ideal of the west, a balance of social law and pioneer spirit. Though the film reaches its climax in the legendary gunfight between the Earps (with Doc Holliday) and the Clantons, the most powerful moment is the moving Sunday morning church social played out on the floor of the unfinished church. As Earp dances with Clementine (Cathy Downs), Fonda’s stiff, self-conscious movements showing a man unaccustomed to such social interaction, Ford’s camera frames them against the open sky: the town and the wilderness merge into the new Eden of the west for a brief moment. It’s a lyrical ode to the taming of the west when manifest destiny was an unambiguous rallying cry. Ford’s subsequent westerns became less idealistic.

Along with the 97-minute release version, Criterion has included a new HD transfer of the 103-minute pre-release version (which was also on the earlier DVD), which features footage cut from the release version as well as alternate scenes and other minor differences (such as alternate musical cues). The differences are illustrative of the differences between Ford’s artistry and love of communal atmosphere and 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s efficiency. Ford’s preview cut (which is not a director’s cut) is more open and lanky, always responsive to the community around him, and quieter (he resists burying scenes in orchestral scoring). The release version is tighter, more dramatically pointed, scored more emphatically, and features new shots inserted into Ford’s scenes. It’s a companion, not a replacement, for as we may mourn the loss of Ford’s sensitive and subtle moments, the release version is still the Ford masterpiece. It just got some help from Zanuck, who pared Ford’s loving background to strengthen the characters at the core.

my_darling_clementine_04_blu-ray__My Darling Clementine has been released in multiple editions on DVD by Fox. Criterion has created a new 4K digital master from the 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art for the Blu-ray debut and DVD upgrade. The previous DVD edition looked very good. Criterion’s release looks amazing, crisp and clean with a rich gray scale. The 103-minute pre-release version is an HD master which has not gone through the same digital restoration and shows scratches and grit but otherwise looks mighty fine in its own right.

Criterion has packed this edition with supplements. New to this release is informed and informative commentary by John Ford biographer Joseph McBride (who provides historical and production background as well as critical observations), the 19-minute video essay “Lost and Gone Forever” by Ford scholar Tag Gallagher (one of the best practitioners of this relatively new form of critical analysis), and a new interview with western historian Andrew C. Isenberg about the real Wyatt Earp. Carried over from the Fox DVD is the 40-minute documentary “What Is the John Ford Cut?” with UCLA archivist Robert Gitt, comparing the versions, commenting of the differences, and filling in the gap with production details and studio records.

First among the collection of archival supplements is the 1916 silent western short A Bandit’s Wager, directed by Francis Ford (his brother) and starring John and Francis. This is not a restoration and shows a lot of wear and tear but this transfer is stable and shows great detail, and it features a bright piano score by Donald Sosin.

Also features excerpts from the TV programs David Brinkley Journal (on Tombstone, from 1963) and Today (on Monument Valley, from 1975), the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film from 1947 starring Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs, and a fold-out leaflet with an essay by critic David Jenkins.

More new releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

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Review: Sssssss

14 October, 2014 (08:20) | by Robert C. Cumbow, Film Reviews, Horror | By: Robert C. Cumbow

[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]

Like Bug, its current traveling companion, Sssssss (which made the rounds as a top feature in 1973) is a preposterous horror film that never quite gets itself organized enough to make you want to suspend that old disbelief. But it is definitely the better half of the double feature, if for no other reason than that Bernard Kowalski knows a little bit more about making movies than Jeannot Szwarc. Kowalski, a Corman alumnus, knows enough, for example, to play for comedy until he can win audience credulity with more fully developed characters and situations. He knows how to understate, build atmosphere, and even create a middling suspense sequence now and again. And if he hasn’t yet made a good movie, his efforts have not been without their fringe benefits: the memorable caricature of sweaty, sleazy Everglades lowlifes in Attack of the Giant Leeches; the sustained transposition of masculine and feminine sexual imagery in Night of the Blood Beast; the color composition and special effects of Krakatoa—East of Java; and the Fulleresque mise-en-scène of Stiletto.

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‘Horrors of the Black Museum': Herman Cohen’s Lurid Horror with a British Accent

13 October, 2014 (05:52) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Horror | By: Sean Axmaker

Hammer wasn’t the only studio in Britain mining the vein of horror films that made them such attractive imports for American theaters. Before Amicus and Trigon arose in the 1960s, American producer Herman Cohen made a deal with British studio Anglo-Amalgamated to produce a pair of lurid horrors with British accents. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), starring Michael Gough as a crime reporter who takes too much delight in the most grotesque murders, is the first of them, arriving in theaters after Hammer had brought new life to old horror icons with full, blood-dripping color, lurid Gothic style, bodice-ripping sexuality, and villains who revel in their power.

‘Horrors of the Black Museum’

Back in America, Herman Cohen took a different approach to reviving the old monsters for a new generation, aiming his film at the teenage audience by writing them directly into such low budget, high concept exploitation films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957), both of which became big hits for American International Pictures. Fresh off those successes, he headed for England and took a cue from Hammer, mixing continental class with grisly material and delivering production value (widescreen and brutally vivid color) and classy talent on a budget to AIP. Anglo-Amalgamated was not previously a horror studio—the biggest success for the British B-movie studio came from Carry On Sergent (1958), which spawned the lucrative Carry On series—but as the British distributor of AIP pictures it had successfully released its share of American horror films. Horrors of the Black Museum was their first homegrown horror.

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Videophiled Binge Watch: ‘Penny Dreadful’ and more horror TV

12 October, 2014 (15:14) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Horror, Television | By: Sean Axmaker

PennyDreadfulS1Let’s catch up on a month of TV releases. And as Halloween is coming, let’s begin with some shows from the dark side.

Penny Dreadful: Season One (CBS, Blu-ray, DVD) takes a premise similar to the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: the characters and supernatural beings of 19th century horror literature all exist in the real world.

Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan created this series, which revolves around a trio of original characters who take on the supernatural underworld of London, and scripts all eight episodes of the debut season. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) is searching for his daughter Mina, who has been taken by a vampire (as in the novel Dracula), with the help of Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a medium with a troubled past and a possible curse upon her. Josh Hartnett is the American Ethan Chandler, who comes to London as part of a Wild West show and hires himself out as a gunman to the team. Assisting the team is Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), whose first experiment (Rory Kinnear) has returned to demand a mate, and weaving through their stories is the decadent Dorian Gray, who woos Vanessa. One episode reworks The Exorcist and the season finale suggests that Bride of Frankenstein and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be part of the story next season.

The title captures the tone of the series and horror director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) sets the ominous, shadowy mood as he helms the first two episodes. It features impressive production values, strong writing, excellent actors, and a Gothic atmosphere that favors mood over spectacle, and Logan intelligently and creatively weaves the classic stories into this original drama. Dr. Frankenstein after all abandoned his first born, essentially setting the moral yardstick for his offspring, and the show offers a compromised human Frankenstein and an angry, outraged creature with both the sensitivity and the emotional instability of a child that can rip the heart out of another person. And while the vampire of this tale is never referred to as Dracula, the show offers an interesting take on the story. But it’s the original characters that are the most compelling, notably the rocky relationship between bereft father Malcolm and tormented Vanessa, a kind of foster daughter in the shadow of his absent daughter, both needed and rejected by Malcolm. If blood defines family in the first episodes of the show, loyalty and sacrifice defines it by end of the season, and it is the American cowboy who brings that lesson home. I have a fondness for dramas built around makeshift families and offbeat teams who earn the loyalty of one another, and through the course of the season, Penny Dreadful turns into that kind of series.

It’s one Showtime’s most popular and most acclaimed shows to date, and outside of a Showtime subscription or a la carte digital purchases of individual episodes, disc is the only way to see the show. If you’re a horror fan, it’s definitely worth it. Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with numerous featurettes and bonus episodes of other Showtime original shows.

More TV on disc and streaming at Cinephiled

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A Dalmatian Called Nixon

11 October, 2014 (10:12) | by Ken Eisler, Essays | By: Movietone News contributor

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The Doberman Gang was playing all over Mexico City when I was there last June—including the front-page headlines. Passing up Byron Chudnow’s three-year-old dog biscuit (retitled El Gran Asalto de los Doberman) was easy, but I did find myself drawn guiltily, morning after morning, into the details of a real-life Doberman gang whose hefty dark chieftain went by the name of “La Jitomata” (“The Tomato”).

Her gang, according to the papers, had racked up more than two years of robberies, assaults, stabbings and homicides using a Doberman called “Samson,” a Dalmatian called “Nixon,” two bulldogs (“La Troya,” “El Goliat”), and assorted other attack dogs to terrorize victims. The gang’s depredations ranged from the capital to Puebla and Acapulco. Now the police, with much selfcongratulation, had rounded up the malefactors; and each day’s newspaper brought new revelations regarding the size of the gang and the Dickensian nature of its internal affairs. “Le Jitomara,” it seemed, was given to recruiting extremely young boys, orphans, seducing them, legally adopting them, and sending them out into a life of crime. Hence, I suppose, the gang’s own sobriquet: “La Banda del Pañal” (“The Diaper Gang”).

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The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for the week of October 10

10 October, 2014 (11:10) | by Bruce Reid, by Sean Axmaker, Links | By: Bruce Reid

Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich

“Wong’s acting was subtle and unmannered; her eyebrow game was on point. She had a piercing stare that made you feel as if she saw the very best and very worst things about you, and her signature blunt-cut bangs made her face seem at once exquisitely, perfectly symmetrical. Given the quilt work of exotic roles she’d played on the silent screen, audiences expected her to speak with a broken, accented, or otherwise un-American English. But her tone was refined, cool, cultured, like a slap in the face to anyone who’d assumed otherwise.” The latest excerpt from Anne Helen Petersen’s Scandals from Classic Hollywood salutes Anna May Wong and condemns the Orientalist prejudices of filmmakers and fans that had her running to Europe once she realized better parts weren’t on offer. Via John Wyver.

The new issue of Senses of Cinema is dominated by an exhaustive dossier on John Flaus. If you’re asking who, you’re apparently not from Australia, where his contributions as “scholar, teacher, poet, cinephile, actor, broadcaster, tireless board member, mentor, script advisor, milkman, receptionist and later script assessor for Patricia Edgar at the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, much in-demand voiceover artist, archivist collector, writer and, always, anarchist” (as Adrian Danks catalogues it) are legion and legendary. Danks, the aforementioned Edgar, Filmnews editor Tina Kaufman, and Bryan Brown, among others, offer the heartfelt tributes and biographical details; and a generous selection of Flaus’s criticism—including pieces on the “visceral rather than cerebral” style of Siegel, the “cognitive dissonance” of Sirk, Lang’s “exceptionally disciplined” mise-en-scène, and the mix of myth and realism (“they have had to travel through the cycle of myth and romance in order to regain the normal plane of action”) in the Boetticher-Scott collaborations—displays an informed, prickly, original voice it’s well worth discovering.

“The light is what brought people here: the good weather and the light. But the light is magical, because for me, it is like a happiness—a light that gives you energy and an indication that anything is possible. It’s, I think, critical for me to feel that light.” While the big news this week is that David Lynch will be returning to Twin Peaks, Michael Nordine praises how well Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire captured the qualities, including the light Lynch praises above, of the world-away-in-every-sense-of-the-word Los Angeles.

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Film Review: ‘Dracula Untold’

10 October, 2014 (10:17) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Luke Evans

The title is Dracula Untold. Which means that despite all the movies and TV shows and comic books over the years, there’s still something left to be said about Bram Stoker’s great fictional vampire.

Well, now it’s been told. And it’s pretty boring.

This movie skips past Stoker’s time period and concerns itself with the historical character cited as an inspiration for the blood-sucker: Vlad the Impaler. His rad nickname is just about the only thing that isn’t in dispute about the Impaler, but he was a 15th-century Eastern European ruler who battled the Ottoman Empire and managed to stick a number of his enemies onto large sharpened poles.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film review: ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’

10 October, 2014 (10:13) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Ed Oxenbould

A relatively simple children’s book gets pumped up into epic mayhem in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Apparently the filmmakers felt it necessary to live up to the humongous title. Published in 1972, Judith Viorst’s Alexander has charmed readers ever since. It’s about the travails of a kid who wakes up with chewing gum stuck in his hair — an early sign that everything is going to go wrong for him on this particular day.

Alexander (played by Ed Oxenbould) is having his birthday today, not that anybody else in his family seems overly interested — as usual. His unemployed dad (Steve Carell) has a job interview, mom (Jennifer Garner) has a big presentation at work.

Continue reading at The Herald

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Film Review: ‘The Two Faces of January’

9 October, 2014 (05:24) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst

Many people are milling around the Greek tourist sights at the beginning of The Two Faces of January, but our story will ignore almost all of them. It’s only the shady characters who interest us here. Con artists always have something at stake—exposure, the possibility of their past transgressions catching up with them, and suspense about their next game. Three of them meet in the shadow of the Parthenon: Rydal (Oscar Isaac), an American tour guide knocking around Athens in the early 1960s, and Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), a stockbroker and his younger wife on extended vacation.

Patricia Highsmith, the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, hatched this group of expat swindlers, so there’s likely to be at least as much psychological game-playing as conventional suspense.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘The Zero Theorem’

9 October, 2014 (05:21) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

‘The Zero Theorem’

Since creating the dystopian classic Brazil in 1985, Terry Gilliam has directed just eight more features—a disappointing total for such a feverish imagination. And those films have frequently been half-cocked or messed up, as though damaged in transit. His newest is signature Gilliam: visually exuberant and robustly cynical, it shows the director still circling the big ideas he’s been nursing since his Monty Python days.

Pat Rushin’s futuristic script is draped around the defeated shoulders of a worker drone named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). Convinced he is dying, he pesters his manager (David Thewlis) to be allowed to work—Qohen inputs “entities” into a fearsomely complicated database—at home.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Film Review: ‘The Judge’

9 October, 2014 (05:18) | by Robert Horton, Film Reviews | By: Robert Horton

Robert Downey, Jr. and Vera Farmiga

Leave out Robert Downey, Jr., and The Judge looks like a painfully old-fashioned exercise in the Tradition of Quality. Big-city defense attorney Hank Palmer (that’s Downey) comes home to Indiana just in time to see his father (Robert Duvall), a respected judge, arrested for vehicular homicide. Father and son do not care for each other, but the dominoes are poised to let Hank stick around and mount a spirited defense.

In the course of the trial, family dynamics are tested, Hank brushes up against an old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga), and zero coolness points are awarded to anyone involved in the movie. Well, maybe Billy Bob Thornton earns a few as a sleek prosecutor (think George C. Scott in Anatomy of a Murder), but otherwise this is a very square film, suitable for limited Oscar buzz and a safe choice for seeing with your parents.

Continue reading at Seattle Weekly

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Odysseys: VIFF 2014

8 October, 2014 (08:00) | by Sean Axmaker, Film Festivals | By: Sean Axmaker

After the official fall film launch of the Venice/Telluride/Toronto triumvirate, the first significant American fest is the New York Film Festival. But due to the quirks of international film festival branding, another event that plays out during roughly the same period offers many of the films showcased in New York as well as a great variety of additional international films. While New York provides the American launches of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (among many others) to great media attention, Vancouver quietly screens them across the country almost simultaneously, hot off their respective World or North American debuts at Toronto. For folks on the West Coast, the Vancouver International Film Festival is not just a great alternative to see these and other films, it’s an easier festival to navigate and an affordable festival to play in. Plus, if you have a particular interest in Asian cinema, it’s the place to find films from those directors yet to be anointed and celebrated in the anchor festivals around the world.

‘Wild’

Opening night was set aside for a Canadian filmmaker continuing his Hollywood success story. Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby (who also scripted An Education), is more than a vehicle for its star/producer Reese Witherspoon. It’s an odyssey on a human scale: a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1700 mile journey undertaken without any preparation or training. For Sheryl, pulling herself out of depression and a self-destructive detour into drugs, it’s an American walkabout cleansing by way of a dare, though the only person she has to prove anything to is herself.

Continue reading at Keyframe

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Videophiled: ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ restored

7 October, 2014 (18:05) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

OnceUponAmericanBDOnce Upon A Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) is Sergio Leone’s portrait of a 20th century American success story as a gangster epic of greed, loyalty, betrayal, and power, seen through the haze of an opium high. Shuffling back and forth through the century, from New York’s East side in 1923, where scrappy street kids Noodles and Max form a partnership that will blossom into a mob empire, though the glory days of the depression cut short by mob warfare, to 1968, when the graying Noodles (Robert DeNiro) returns from a 35 year exile to the scene of the crime to discover what really happened to his partner and best friend Max (James Woods) all those years ago, this is Leone’s most passionate, elegant, brutal, and elegiac film. William Forsythe and James Hayden complete the gangster quartet, with Joe Pesci and Burt Young as gangster cohorts. Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Danny Aiello, and young Jennifer Connelly co-star. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his most haunting and beautiful.

The film was originally released in the US in a butchered version cut by over an hour and torn from its evocative time-shifting structure to a traditional linear narrative. It was restored to its 229-minute European cut decades ago but earlier this year it was expanded with an additional 22 minutes of footage that Leone was forced to cut out before its Cannes premiere in 1984. The added footage was taken from workprint material and, faded and sometimes damaged, stands out against the well-reserved and beautifully-mastered material from the previous cut. Among the restored sequences is a legendary scene with Louise Fletcher as a cemetery director, previously only glimpsed in publicity stills (you can see the clip below). Susan King goes over the history of the cuts and the scope of the restoration in an article for the Los Angeles Times.

It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray along with an excerpt from the documentary Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone and trailers. A deluxe Blu-ray Book edition also features the previous Blu-ray release of the 229-minute European cut, which features commentary by Richard Schickel, and an UltraViolet Digital HD copy of the “Extended Director’s Cut.”

More new releases on disc, digital, and streaming at Cinephiled

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‘Destroy All Monsters': Rumble in the Jungle with Godzilla and Friends

7 October, 2014 (08:40) | by Sean Axmaker, Essays, Science Fiction | By: Sean Axmaker

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.

‘Destroy All Monsters’

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.

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