Saturday, December 16, 2017

MACGUFFIN GODZILLA, AND A COUPLE OTHER THINGS


Rising from the depths to wreak havoc and terror it's . . . oops! Never mind!


Apparently, Toho Studios, the original creators of Godzilla, weren’t entirely happy with Gareth Edwards’ Americanized rendition of the venerable fable from 2014. I wasn’t entirely happy with it myself—matching up twin monsters against the Big Guy defused the thrills, and even the underlying message of Godzilla as the price humanity pays for its environmental destruction. It flirted with making him into the friendly toy puppet he played for the bulk of his cinematic life. (That view may have inspired Barney and Friends, a crime that should forever soil modern pop culture--I’ll bet a month’s pay on that.)

So hardly two years later, Toho returns with a new remake, titled Shin Godzilla, (Godzilla: Resurgence) that boots the extra monsters and tries to strip the myth back to its atavistic soul. I truly wish I could say I liked this one as well as the 1954 original, still much the best (both with and without Raymond Burr). Unfortunately, Shin Godzilla comes with problems of its own.

Image result for Shin Godzilla 

There, that's more like it . . . that tail's a bit much, though.


This Godzilla (or “Gojira” as real fans call him) saw a limited U.S. release this year and is now available on video. It wastes little time, in keeping with our impatient era, as he rumbles and lumbers ashore in the first five minutes to wreak havoc on Japan. Interestingly, he’s virtually legless at first, a scaly slug dragging and flopping upriver, like a turtle without its shell. Someone also goofed his makeup, because they’ve stuck what amounts to two plastic-looking goofy doll eyes, in his head, like they grabbed him off the shelf at Toys”R”Us. It’s not a good look.

Fortunately, this error passes as we learn that this Godzilla can rapidly evolve himself. Soon, he’s up on his two feet (with a weirdly long tail you may not be able to stop from staring at, it seems so out of proportion) and happily raising hell wherever he goes. The filming is truly and awesomely spectacular here, much of it shot from high angles that give epic perspective to the destruction. His powers also evolve and before long he’s firing death rays from all parts of his body, cutting skyscrapers off at the first floor.

Before long, the people of Japan, namely politicians, the military and scientists, all crash into the narrative. The screenplay skips frantically about in documentary style, rationalizing and explaining Godzilla in scientific and evolutionary terms in great and painful detail, while, at the same time, presenting a step-by-step procedural account of how authorities, after much frantic drama, finally unite to fight the beast (In case we ever face this situation here in the Bay Area, we’ll have this movie as a guide). We never get our feet down or find any focus. This time, I actually missed Raymond Burr.

They finally reach a point where they’re able to temporarily stop Godzilla in his tracks. Unfortunately, the movie stops too as it whips and jumps back and forth and around the various parties, detailing the assembly of each moving part as they mount their final attack on Godzilla.

This sequence goes on to the point the Big Guy becomes like a Hitchcock MacGuffin, an excuse for the characters to get together rather than the raison d’├ętat. Godzilla as a symbol for the horrors of Fukushima needs no emphasis. But this version seems determined to use Godzilla to portray Japanese society uniting to fight off disaster. None of these scenes are memorable, with most of the dialogue and performances strictly functional and almost none of the characters making an impression, except for a young Japanese-American female diplomat with presidential aspirations . . . yes, U.S. presidential aspirations. (The U.S. takes a few sharp elbows throughout.)

In its frantic attempt to wow us—at which it occasionally succeeds—Shin Godzilla comes close to rationalizing its title character to a nub. A fine-grained scientific explanation isn’t required in a fantasy film. They’re better off without one. The awe and mystery, which I believe to be at the heart of all monster stories, won’t be found here. In fantasy stories, a little explanation goes far enough. 
Image result for it came from outer space


It Came from Outer Space, the 1953 science fiction movie that inspired Steven Spielberg to one of his greatest, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, still plays pretty well over sixty years later. Its story of a spaceship crashing in the Arizona desert (here nicely played by Southern California) is a bit by-the-numbers. Even so, it was the dawn of science fiction movies so audiences had a perfect right to be startled and scared.  It’s still atmospheric and entertaining.

It Came from Outer Space was adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury and directed by Jack Arnold, with musical contributions by Henry Mancini, including a fine use of the Theremin. The special effects deserve an A for effort, and the alien beast is quite pleasing of aspect. Clifford Stine’s cinematography shimmers with unseen menace. The stars, Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush and Charles Drake, do their best with the on-the-nose dialogue and earnest speechifying, typical of much science fiction. Unlike Shin Godzilla, discussed above, they explain just enough and no more. The movie also stands against the anti-communist paranoia that soured the world at the time, portraying the alien others as victims of misfortune, even if they are gross looking.

Trivia Note: Among the supporting players we like are Joseph Sawyer, once a reliable Warner Brothers stock player and Russell Johnson . . . yes, that Russell Johnson, aka “the Perfesser!” and a former Zodiac suspect. Gilligan, happily, is naught to be seen.

Image result for it came from outer space 
 always wondered about him....
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Image result for Tristan Jones Saga of a wayward Sailor

Research for my next novel, Captain Zigzag, is taking me across vast oceans of research (with no shore on the horizon). Some of the books I read land right in my boat. Others miss, but still manage some insight and a fair amount of pleasure.

Saga of a Wayward Sailor by TristanJones, is one of the latter. Jones was something of a notorious character in the last century, a yachtsman who sailed the globe, achieving the odd distinction of sailing at both the highest (Lake Titicaca in the Andes) and lowest (The Dead Sea) bodies of water on the globe, a stunt he recounts in his book The Incredible Voyage.

He also wrote other memoirs that, on examination, seem to expose him as true-life unreliable narrator. (His account of having served in the British Merchant Marine during World War II seems to have been easily scuttled by one researcher). 

How much of Saga is factual didn’t concern me too much, as Jones is a colorful and excellent yarn-spinner. Whatever the facts of particular events, the details of sailing and life aboard his little yacht The Creswell with his faithful three-legged Labrador, Nelson, ring with right details, boisterous humor, high color and deep affection.

As he tells it, Jones endured hair-raising hurricanes, pesky passengers and a near-fatal midnight deep-sixing by a whale in the mid-Atlantic. Set during the mid-1960s, the book also leaves a vivid impression of the world at that time as Jones makes his way back and forth across the Atlantic and in and around the coastlines and canals of Europe. His accounts of life ashore under Spain’s Franco dictatorship are fascinating and fairly compelling.

In this post-truth area, some readers may find even the idea of such a book offensive, but, true or not, Tristan Jones makes for good company, so long as you wear a healthy scowl and keep a shaker of salt on your bed stand.

After all, we ain’t talking about the President of the United States here.

Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield


Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel has been called “incendiary by David Corbett (The Art of Character) and “A sexy, violent non-stop thrill ride deep into the seedy underbelly of post-World War I San Francisco” by Booklife/Publishers Weekly. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark scorerd the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil, and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand Magazine and he published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Burchfield at the Bijou: "A Ghost Story"





I'm a major fan of ghost stories. Besides sending me into shivers, they're one of the most underrated literary and cinematic forms. At their best, they poetically touch on such themes as mortality, the power of the past over the present, and fundamental human loneliness and vulnerability. 

While not great, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (seen on a Friday afternoon at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland) is a genuinely poetic film that quietly captures some of the crucial themes drifting through the best the genre has to offer.

The movie is both modest and ambitious. Like all the best supernatural tales, the plot as simple as a bed sheet. A young man, played with great patience by Casey Affleck, dies and returns to haunt his wife, played with equal stoic grief by Rooney Mara. The twist is he’s draped in the classic white sheet—with the eye holes, done just right—I first recall seeing in an Abbott and Costello movie Hold That Ghost. It’s a trope found in the work of the master M.R. James before becoming the go-to costume for millions of little kids at Halloween.

A Ghost Story could well have become Ed Wood on a big budget. But it's not. Nor is it some sniggering post-modern camp artifact or an Airplane-style parody (which I might have tolerated). The costume really expresses the loneliness and alienation whispering under most ghost stories. How can you reach out to anyone when your soul is trapped under a bed sheet? To be a ghost is to be alone and the sheet makes the character’s loneliness as palpable as a cold breath.

Lowery films his odd little tale brilliantly in long quiet takes, shot in traditional 1:33 ratio (with rounded edges, like in old Polaroid photos!), a great format for films where the intimacy imposed by the tight frame compresses the feelings so you get a sense of hearts and minds about to burst. I wish more filmmakers—especially of smaller films—considered this format. And it’s all handled with great delicacy and just enough wit to leaven the great sadness underneath.

Unfortunately, the movie gets a little abstract toward the end—there’s a side trip into beery kitchen table metaphysics I might have done without and a time travel twist that made me scowl and broke some of the tension. But it's wrapped up with an eerie sense that can be truly called “ghostly.”

Through it all Casey Affleck maintains exquisite patience having to act from under a bed sheet. (Most actors would eventually lose it.) Filming must have taken enormous patience for all concerned. Cast and crew—including composer David Hart whose score moans and seethes throughout—deserve credit for this worthwhile haunting. And given the generic title, it’s clear the ghost story matters as much as it ever did. They will be with us so long as we continue to live, and die.


Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield



Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.