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Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla Crop 1

by Steve Habrat

In the land of Atomic Age beasts, aliens, monsters, and blobs, one name makes all these other radioactive creatures quiver in fear: Godzilla. Made in Japan in 1954 by Ishiro Honda, Godzilla (or Gojira, as it was called in Japan), is perhaps one of the most significant science fiction films released in the wake of World War II and the Hydrogen bomb. It is even more essential because the country that witnessed the horror and devastation of the atomic bomb first hand made and released Godzilla. Over the years, Godzilla became more of a campy character rather than one that is meant to scare the pants off the viewer. He would rise from his watery habitat and stomp into downtown Tokyo to do battle with a slew of attacking mutant monsters (and King Kong), all while poorly dubbed Japanese citizens would dart around the dueling monster’s feet. They were a far cry from the suspenseful original, where the low rumble of Godzilla’s footsteps had the viewer holding their breath and gripping the arm of the couch just a little bit tighter. When the suspense and the downright impressive action sequences don’t have your attention, you’ll be transfixed on the intelligence of the script, which finds a country still reeling from the mushroom cloud devastation they witnessed in 1945. There is a reason the Criterion Collection picked this monster movie up, folks.

Just off of Odo Island, a Japanese fishing boat is destroyed by a blinding flash of light that appears to emerge from the bottom of the sea. Another boat is sent to investigate, but it meets the same fate as the first boat. As more boats are destroyed, salvage ship captain Hideo Ogato (Played by Akira Takarada) is called in for duty by the coast guard. Meanwhile, the villagers of Odo Island have been cursed with poor fishing and they blame it on a mysterious sea monster known as “Godzilla.” In the evening, the villagers perform ancient ceremonies to keep the beast at bay. That very night, a violent storm destroys Ogo Island, but many villagers claim that there was something else in the storm. Archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Played by Takashi Shimura) travels to Ogo and discovers a giant radioactive footprint. He then travels to Tokyo and presents his findings. He reveals that H-bomb testing has disrupted Godzilla’s natural habitat, causing him to emerge from the bottom of the sea and come to land. As fear of Godzilla spreads and more sighting are reported, Dr. Yamane’s colleague, Daisuke Serizawa (Played by Akihiko Hirata), who is also arranged to be married to Dr. Yamane’s daughter, Emiko (Played by Momoko Kochi), has developed a secret weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer, a device that disintegrates oxygen atoms causing organisms to die of asphyxiation. As Godzilla’s attacks grow more and more devastating, Emiko and Ogato plead with the reluctant Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the destructive beast.

Director Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata transform Godzilla from a simple monster movie into a surprisingly intimate human drama. We genuinely care about the characters that Honda and Murata have come up with and we especially hang on the fragile love story at the core of the film. Emiko is engaged to Serizawa, but she wishes to break off the engagement and marry the brave salvage captain Ogato. Meanwhile, as this love triangle plays out with devastating results, Honda focuses his camera on Dr. Yamane and his exasperation with the military and media, who are hellbent on killing Godzilla rather than trying to capture and study him. He continuously drives the point home that this creature has been exposed to heavy levels of radiation and lived through it. He then warns that if the world (meaning America) continues to detonate these weapons of mass destruction, we are bound to face another Godzilla-like creature. The warnings against these experiments extend to Serizawa, who fears that his Oxygen Destroyer will draw the attention of the military and they will force him to further develop another weapon of mass destruction, something he swears he will never do. It’s these meditative conversations about H-bombs, destructive weapons, and violence that pulls Godzilla out of the B-movie realm and places it firmly on the A-list.

Godzilla Crop 2

Then there is the monster of the hour: Godzilla. At times, Godzilla is obviously a man dressed in a heavily detailed rubber suit, but he signifies so much more. The first few glimpses we get of him are effective teases, leaving us wanting just a little bit more, but fearing the terrifying wrath that is sure to accompany those longer glimpses of the legendary monster. When he is finally revealed in all of his glory, we can’t help but be awestruck by how cool he looks, even if his movements are a little jerky. He breathes down smoke (which is meant to resemble fire but this is 1954, folks) on the Tokyo skyline and produces a sea of fire that brings to mind the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo. When he stomps through the buildings, he begins to resemble a living, breathing nuclear blast that is leveling everything in his path. Honda then pans over the twisted wreckage left in Godzilla’s wake, eerie images that call to mind the black and white photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla may be destructive, but he is also a sympathetic creature. He has been chased out of his home and he appears to be wandering aimlessly, simply looking for a new place to hide away from the world that wants to destroy him.

As if a weighty script, likable characters, impressive monster, and a human core weren’t enough to make Godzilla a must see, the action sequences will certainly convince you to seek it out. Sure, there are a few moments where it is blatantly obvious that rubber-suited Godzilla is stomping miniature buildings, but there are several pieces that have held up quite well over the years. Godzilla’s battle with several Japanese fighter jets will get the adrenaline pumping and his demolishing of a gigantic electric fence is a pretty nifty demonstration of his sublime power. You’re obviously not going to see destruction like you saw in Cloverfield, but you have to give Honda and his effects team credit for crafting some chilling smashing and crashing (wait for the sequence with Godzilla attacking a building loaded with press). The action sequences are made all the more effective due to the tension slowly built between each attack. Our dread really begins to get the best of us and Honda plays with this every chance he gets.

If you are one of those individuals who have written off Godzilla as a campy drive-in relic of the 1950s, you really should consider revisiting this moody monster mash.  I’ll admit that even I had forgotten the power that this film wields over the years and I was very happy that I decided to both revisit and add the film to my horror/science fiction collection. If you have surround sound lining your living room, you’ll be giddy over how great Godzilla’s roar and thunderous footsteps sound. Overall, Godzilla is a haunting and influential epic that rewards the viewer with multiple viewings. It will shake your house down and bring you to your knees with one mighty roar.

Grade: A

Godzilla is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Chronicle (2012)

by Steve Habrat

How refreshing it is to finally see a mockumentary blockbuster that doesn’t feel the need to be a horror film! Behold Chronicle, a mysterious, mean, and sometimes flawed mockumentary that chooses the route of superpowers rather than supernatural. The thanks should go to director Josh Trank and writer Mike Landis for thinking outside the box, attempting something different, and breaking some new ground within the genre. Similar to Cloverfield but without the big budget and monsters, Chronicle makes a whole lot out of very little and, boy, did it thrill the hell out of me. It also refuses to dumb itself down which causes it to be fairly thought provoking, psychological, and extremely driven to earn our respectable. Much of the success also falls on the shoulders of the unknown actors in front of the camera who pull off a naturalism that many of these films lack. It all comes together to shape a shocking final act that turns downtown Seattle into a battlefield.

Chronicle is told from the perspective of loner Adam (Played by Dane DeHaan), who sulks into the camera with circles under his eyes. He cares for his sick mother, who seems to adore every moment she gets to spend with him, and he avoids his alcoholic father’s rants and beatings. He begins documenting his day-to-day routine, taking his camera to school with him and capturing the hell he endures. He is the target of bullies, ignored by girls and most other kids, and many call him “creepy” when they see his camera. His only true friend is Matt (Played by Alex Russell), his cousin who consistently encourages him to come out of his shell and reluctantly looks over him. When Adam and Matt attend a secluded party, they go exploring in the woods with the popular kid at school Steve (Played by Michael B. Jordan) and they end up finding a strange cave-like hole in a clearing. They decide to explore the hole and make a mysterious alien-like discovery, which rubs off on them and as a result, they end up with telekinetic powers that they at first use for teenage pranks. Soon Adam begins sharpening the powers and he beings abusing his gift, which leads to a destructive and bloody showdown in the streets of Seattle between Matt and Adam.

Chronicle scores brownie points for putting us on the side of the villain, giving us insight into Adam’s evolution from loner with good intentions to a murderous antagonist. His descent into villainy is piteous and we do feel for him. Every victory he has is ruined for him and his father’s physical and mental abuse sends him over the edge. He begins to suspect that Steve isn’t truly his friend and rejects his friendly concerns. The result is multiple deaths and the creation of a monster that deems himself an apex predator. In the beginning we can smell whiffs of anger in Adam, a ticking time bomb, but when his fury is unleashed, it sucks all the air out of our lungs.

The early bonding scenes are a treat to watch and when Adam, Matt, and Steve play pranks with their new found powers, they are often times hilarious, typical antics of puckish teenagers. The standout is when the three boys discover they can fly and they pass around a football above the clouds. There is also a wonderful talent show sequence where Steve and Matt reveal their powers to their fellow high school students. The scene belongs to Adam and I got the feeling that Steve was trying to give Adam his moment in the sun, which makes their sudden falling out all the more dramatic and crushing. Yet it is these scenes that also bring out the true humanity of these teenagers, who come off like real everyday teens you’d pass on the street. They discuss girls, popularity, sex, parties, and their dreams, all while never missing the opportunity to give each other a hard time. These teens also quote Carl Jung, which is a bit left of center but brave nonetheless.

Chronicle packs epic battle sequences that will shake the walls of your theater. They also end up being the most flawed aspects of the film, sometimes being a bit incomprehensible and distant. There are shots that are too far away to really tell who is winning in the climatic showdown and I was left wishing that Trank had focused his camera in a little bit closer. I understand the approach he is taking but he has to understand that he is yanking us out of the moment when he pulls away. Yet he makes a mountain out of a measly pile of dirt. Chronicle reeks of having a shoestring budget yet we get explosions, cars crushing like soda cans, helicopters smashing into the panic-stricken streets, and destruction of the famed Seattle Space Needle. We get scenes of the kids leaping through the air, dodging airplanes, making heroic catches of both each other and innocent bystanders. Trank makes the action unfeigned, bloody, and yes, the kids get hurt. Bad. It’s far from the standard superhero films where the blows don’t really faze either individual. Our dueling characters are barely standing halfway through their confrontation.

In the end, Chronicle features well-written dialogue, multidimensional characters, booming action sequences, and an unforgettable climax. The most glaring issue with the film is the lack of an explanation over what the kids find in the cave and all we really get is some shaky neon shots of what looks like a giant neon crystal spider (trust me, it’s actually pretty cool looking) that emits rumbling electronic booms. The film never backtracks to explain further which I found to be frustrating. The true hero of Chronicle ends up being the villain, DeHaan, who is a little too convincing at times in his rage. For a February release, Chronicle manages to be a step above the other warmed over releases by Hollywood. It’s a step above because it captures how kids in this situation would act and react. And you can’t help but reflect on what you would do if you suddenly gained superpowers. Would you play pranks? Use it for destructive purposes? Use them to protect your family at any cost? Or use them to make a teddy bear levitate to scare a young girl? But kids will be kids I suppose and the shenanigans are expected. There is no question or doubt that Chronicle is one of the coolest movies of 2012 so far.

Grade: B+

Apollo 18 (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Is it just me or is every single mockumentary horror movie that is “uncovered” a letdown to its audience? It seems like the individuals involved can’t quite help themselves in the final moments and add some unrealistic CGI scam that throws the whole film off balance. This is a problem that plagued Paranormal Activity, a film that had a stellar build up only to shoot itself in the foot with an out-of-place facial distortion that was achieved by CGI in the final seconds. It actually ruined this film for me. It doesn’t help that they made an unnecessary sequel that further clipped the wings of the somewhat effective original. Then we have horror master George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, a film that used the same mockumentary approach. Diary acts as a restart to his famous Dead series that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The film has some tense moments but it embraces camp with some CGI kills and blood spurts that suck the realism right out of the film. This one hurt because the film is supposed to be taking place at the exact time that Night of the Living Dead is and that film relied on it’s shoestring budget to create realistic scares. It lacked elaborate death scenes and silly weapons. Overall, Night achieved more of an atmosphere of realism that Diary can even dream of. Or Cloverfield, an action/sci-fi/horror mockumentary that has a jumpy tone that is ruined by showing the alien/monster up close and preposterously personal. It’s a classic case of never show the monster!

Apollo 18, a film that mixes history and fiction quite successfully, ushers the summer movie season out with a slight whimper. Perhaps you’ve seen trailers for this film, which was originally supposed to be out in the spring, then summer, and then settled for September. The film suggests that NASA put together a final hush-hush space mission in the 1970’s that sent three astronauts to the moon to set up sensors that alert the United States of an ICBM attack from the Soviet Union. Once on the moon, the two astronauts in the lunar module Liberty, Captain Ben Anderson (Played by Warren Christie) and Commander Nathan Walker (Played by Lloyd Owen), head out to complete their mission and also collect moon rock samples. In orbit over the moon aboard Freedom is Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Grey (Played by Ryan Robbins), who is the watchful eye for the two tough-as-nails astronauts below. Walker and Anderson soon begin hearing strange noises and bangs which naturally disrupt their sleep. Their moon rock samples begin mysteriously moving and they hear strange gargling static over their radios. They then stumble across an abandoned Soviet lunar module and a dead cosmonaut near the ship. As the events become more and more bizarre, Anderson and Walker begin to suspect that they are on the moon for an alternative reason—to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the moon.

The film is fairly uneventful for the first half-hour or so. The astronauts engage in bland conversation and complain about their cramped space in the ship. They groan over the meals provided for them and play practical jokes on each other. The film picks up once the two men stumble upon the Russian lunar module and this actually leads to one of the more disturbing moments of the film. While out investigating strange occurrences, a spider-like alien worms its way into Walker’s suit and burrows into his stomach. Walker slowly begins getting sick and becoming homicidal in the wake of the attack. The infection scene, which culminates in a surgical scene that nods to Alien, also manages to be one of the more fascinating sequences in the film.

Almost every critic under the moon has critically panned Apollo 18. They have criticized it for a lack of depth and complained that the film established no atmosphere or mood of any kind. They also cry that the film isn’t scary. I will agree that the film isn’t the most terrifying motion picture experience, but a couple of scenes will give you the willies. Yes, the film is slow moving and a bit droll at points, but in my humble opinion the subtly adds to the film. A moon rock twitches here and the American flag is shredded there. Apollo 18 does pack a few of the inevitable boo moments, but the film isn’t overly reliant on this cheap technique.

There is really nothing for the audience to connect with here. I’ll admit that. The characters are not relatable and the film is ultimately unremarkable. The climax is brief but thrilling and the few clips we see of the aliens are relatively creepy, mostly because much of them are left to our imagination (are you paying attention Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark?). There is a clip at the end of the film that, just like all the other mockumentary horror films before it, resorts to CGI overload and ruins what was otherwise a tense scene. The filmmakers did a good job mixing stock footage with the low budget stuff they came up with. The film’s premise is inspired and is a fresh idea to the countless other middling alien invasion films that have taken over the box office (Super 8 was the crown jewel). The film is worth a watch but you will never find yourself clamoring to experience it again. It does appall me that this film is actually receiving worse reviews than the abysmal Battle: Los Angles did. Perhaps we didn’t see the same movie. Apollo 18 is disappointing, that I will not deny, but it is also a disposable and fun gimmick. Grade: B-

Favorite Mockumentary Horror Film….GO!