Monday, March 31, 2014

Godzilla Through The Years - Part 3

The Original Series (1955-1975)

With the first Godzilla being a success, Toho rushed a sequel into production.  Over the course of the next 20 years, the original movie ended up having 14 sequels.  Yes, Godzilla was destroyed in the first film, but you just can't keep a good monster down!

Godzilla Raids Again

Released just 6 months after the original with a new creative team, Godzilla Raids Again (1955) finds Godzilla battling another gigantic beast for the first time.  Anguirus was an armored, ankylosaur-type monster who viciously fought Godzilla in a sort of turf war unleashing more mass destruction on Japan.  The film must not have been well-received as it was several years before Godzilla reappeared on the big screen.

For no apparent reason, this movie was renamed Gigantis the Fire Monster for its American release.

King Kong vs. Godzilla

Released in 1962, King Kong vs. Godzilla featured a showdown between the King of the Monsters and his American counterpart...  In color no less!

Apparently, this film's origin owes a debt to stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien the artist responsible for bringing King Kong to life in the original 1933 classic!  O'Brien had attempted to develop a King Kong sequel which would be called King Kong vs. Frankenstein.  This film was to feature the giant gorilla against a giant hybrid monster created by the mad doctor.  As awesome as that sounds, the concept for the film did not generate any interest until a producer brought it before Toho.  The studio, looking to create another Godzilla sequel took the idea and went in a different direction.

The creative team of the original film reunited for this movie which depicted Godzilla and King Kong's battle with a kinetic energy and ferocity not seen up to this point.  To make the battle more even, King Kong's size was boosted to match Godzilla's and the ape was given electrical powers.  Admittedly, the action was over-the-top and many of the monsters' moves emulated those of sumo-wrestlers, but fans of giant monsters still consider this effort a classic...  myself included!

A myth surrounding this film that persists to this day is that two endings were created, one for American audiences which had Kong winning and a Japanese version with Godzilla claiming victory.  In truth, there were no alternate scenes filmed and the movie ends ambiguously with both monsters toppling off a cliff and into the ocean, followed by a shot of Kong swimming toward the horizon.

Regardless of the film's ending, this movie signaled a new beginning for Godzilla, rejuvenating his popularity on an international level.  King Kong vs. Godzilla was wildly successful and guaranteed that more Godzilla films would be churned out for years to come.

Mothra vs. Godzilla

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) pitted Godzilla against another original Toho created monster.  Mothra is a mystical, over-sized moth creature merely trying to protect its offspring - a gigantic egg - from greedy humans and later, Godzilla.  Once more the original creative team returned again, creating yet another classic in the genre.

For this movie, the design of Godzilla's suit was changed again, this time being slimmed down, but with the tail being lengthened and the face being given a more malevolent look since Godzilla was once again playing the role of the villain.  This design is regarded as being one of the best in the entire series.

This film is perhaps most notable because it is the first to interpret Godzilla as an unstoppable "force of nature".  Through the course of the movie the military implements several elaborate plans to thwart Godzilla's advance, but the final plan is basically to just get out of the way.  This idea of Godzilla being like a hurricane or earthquake would be reappear in later films when a new series would attempt to return the radioactive monster to its roots.

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro-Monster

Both Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and the next film in the series, Invasion of the Astro-Monster (1965) featured a gigantic, golden multi-headed winged dragon, King Ghidorah.  Ghidorah serves as a sort of weapon of mass destruction for the alien races hoping to conquer Earth in these films. The extraterrestrial beast proves to be too much to handle for Mothra and Rodan (another original Toho monster, a giant pterodactyl capable of supersonic speeds).  Godzilla appears to aid the other monsters, eventually resulting in the space creature's defeat...  Until the next film which found Godzilla and Rodan being transported to the aliens' home-world, Planet X to do battle once more.

These movies mark the beginning of a shift in Godzilla's character from being less of a threat to mankind to becoming a sort of defender of Earth.  The filmmakers recognized that the audience was getting younger and wanted to appeal to that particular demographic.  To reflect Godzilla's more "heroic" role, yet another suit was designed, featuring larger eyes and smaller dorsal fins.

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep

This movie featured a giant lobster-like creature being controlled by a heavily armed military organization that operates a slave labor camp.  Inevitably, of course, the giant crab ends up battling Godzilla.

The plot is nonsensical (even for a giant monster movie), probably due in part to the fact that the film was meant to feature King Kong, not Godzilla.  Not only does Godzilla fight the titular giant crustacean, but also a renegade fleet of jet fighters and a giant buzzard which makes an inexplicable appearance.  Oh, and Mothra shows up too!

Personally, however, I find this movie is just all-around fun.  I have many memories of watching it on VHS with my Godzilla toys scattered all about the living room floor.

Son of Godzilla and All Monsters Attack

Perhaps Godzilla's most "kid-friendly" appearances are found in Son of Godzilla (1967) and All Monsters Attack (1969), which makes sense seeing that these films are blatantly geared toward children.

In Son of Godzilla, Godzilla takes on the role of gentle father-figure to a recently hatched monster resembling Barney the purple dinosaur.  The action takes place on an island, being bombarded by a series of weather-control experiments.  Of course, the experiments go horribly awry, mutating the island's wildlife, so Godzilla and his adopted son (dubbed Minilla) end up doing battle against giant mantises (Kamacuras) and a huge spider (Kumonga).

Godzilla's design was changed again for this film.  This time he was given an over-sized head with big eyes and a shorter snout to appear even less malevolent.  

All Monsters Attack is particularly interesting because the main protagonist is a lonely, bullied child who retreats into the fantasy realm of Monster Island which is inhabited by Godzilla, Minilla and a host of other monsters.  Life lessons abound as the kid befriends Minilla who is also being bullied, but is being trained to fight by his dad, Godzilla.  Minilla, who at the beginning of the movie can only blow smoke rings eventually learns to blow atomic fire (when Godzilla stomps on his tail) and defeats his bully, a giant monster (which sports, appropriately enough, a spiky mohawk).  This is turn inspires the kid to foil some bank robbers and stand up to his own bullies.

Destroy All Monsters

Taking place in the futuristic world of 1999, Destroy All Monsters (1968) initially depicts all of the monsters in a somewhat peaceful state, having been corralled onto an "inescapable" island bordered by force fields.  But, wouldn't you know it... Another evil race of aliens sets the monsters free and, using mind control, unleash them on Earth's major cities.  Eventually the monsters regain their free will and end up teaming up to take down the alien's enforcer, King Ghidorah.

The original creative team returned once again for this ultimate, monstrous epic.  This film was so ambitious that it was granted a much bigger budget to facilitate what promised to be a spectacle on a gargantuan scale. The movie features 11 different monsters (sometimes simultaneously) from numerous Toho films all together for a colossal mash-up.

Destroy All Monsters is an awesome feat of special effect wizardry.  The monsters were to attack cities around the globe, including Moscow, Paris, New York City, and, of course, Tokyo and ultimately engage in a climactic all-out battle through the course of the film.  Each scene of chaotic destruction had to be carefully coordinated using every trick Toho had refined through the years, including suitimation, puppetry, miniature work, and pyrotechnics.

 The movie ended up pushing Toho's special effects team to its limits, but the outcome is nothing short of spectacular for fans of monster mayhem and remains a standout of the original series.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) is a very unique entry in the series.  The movie conveys a not-so-subtle ecological message as Godzilla takes on a smog monster birthed from industrial waste.  Hedorah mutates through several distinct forms in a sort of bizarre metamorphosis through the course of the movie.  It starts out as a collection of tadpole-like creatures that morph together to create a single disc-shaped monster that inhales smog from smokestacks until it grows to a size to rival Godzilla, all while spewing deadly toxic fumes.

The movie is very ominous in tone and features some scenes of gruesome human casualties, the like of which had not been seen since the original 1954 movie.

But this movie is not a totally grim affair, it is infamous for featuring animated sequences, split-screen montages, and the revelation that Godzilla can apparently fly by way of using his atomic breath as a means of jet propulsion...

Godzilla vs. Gigan

The plot of Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) is plot centered once again on alien invasion, this time spearheaded by a species of roach-like aliens seeking out a less polluted planet.  This movie introduces one of my favorite monsters, the giant cyborg creature, Gigan.   This monster boasts an impressive arsenal of two large talons in place of arms, a buzz-saw in its chest, and a laser beam that emits from its single red eye.

As if this new menace wasn't enough, King Ghidorah also makes an appearance to wreak additional havoc, while Godzilla receives some assistance from his former foe turned ally, Anguirus.

Like the previous film, this movie shows off some interesting creative choices:  Godzilla and Anguirus speak to each other via comic book word balloons at one point!

Godzilla vs. Megalon

With Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the series became even more outlandish.  In this movie, the people of the underwater kingdom akin to Atlantis unleash a giant beetle monster called Megalon.  Along with Gigan, (apparently on loan from the cockroach aliens of the previous film) the massive insect sets about destroying everything in its path. Godzilla teams up with a robot ally called Jet Jaguar to take down the two monsters.

At this time there were several popular Japanese television shows featuring robot superheroes fighting giant monsters. This entry in the Godzilla serie seems to have taken its cue from such shows with its ramped-up action and ridiculousness...

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and Terror of Mechagodzilla

The beginning of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) appears to find Godzilla reverting to his old ways as the monster is seen once again laying waste to Japan.  Only after "Godzilla" brutally attacks his ally Anguirus is it revealed that it is actually a gigantic robot in disguise.  Godzilla seems to meet his match in the form of a mechanical doppelganger being controlled by aliens from a black hole who look like green apes.  With the help of a legendary monster who looks like a giant dog, King Caesar, Godzilla is able to defeat his technologically advanced adversary.

But Mechagodzilla is reconstructed in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) and is this time joined by a powerful amphibious monster called Titanosaurus.  Godzilla stands against this double threat alone and eventually emerges victorious once more.

Unfortunately, this would be the last Godzilla film for ten years.  It seems that Godzilla's popularity had waned, possibly due to over-saturation as Terror of Mechagodzilla was the fifth Godzilla movie in as many years.

But this wasn't the end of Godzilla...

Next Entry:
Part 4 - Return of Godzilla (1984)

Previous Entries:
Part 2 - Gojira (1954)
Part 1 - Past, Present, and Future... Godzilla and Me

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Art of Charles Knight

Charles Knight (1874-1953) was a superbly talented painter and sculptor who is most famous for his depictions of prehistoric life.  Despite being legally blind, Knight began his career in illustration primarily focusing on nature.

Knight had a keen interest in natural history and spent much of his time visiting the American Museum of Natural History where he was asked by a curator to do some restoration work.  Being thoroughly pleased with the final product, the museum gave Knight a steady stream of commission work.  others across the nation commissioned Knight to do a number of individual paintings and huge murals depicting prehistoric creatures including ancient mammals, neanderthals, and dinosaurs.

Knight sculpting a Stegosaurus
Knight later in life
Although he had a reputation of viewing his pieces as works of art first and foremost, Knight had a great sense of anatomy which he put to great use depicting creatures that had never been seen by modern eyes.  However, much of his work is considered to be anatomically incorrect by today's paleontological standards.  In spite of this, it is impossible to deny the inspirational legacy of Knight's artwork and the impact it has had on generations of aspiring fossil hunters.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Metallica - S&M

It was very early in high school that I was first exposed to the music of Metallica.  Surprisingly, I had never listened to any of their music until 1999 when they released their album S & M.  For me, personally, I can't think of a better introduction.

Up to that point I had listened to some Metal music, but it was still a genre I was warming up to.  My dad had exposed me to a wide variety of music growing up, but mainly Classic Rock.  The Beatles, Meat Loaf, Nazareth, Pink Floyd, and Queen were on constant rotation in our house.  While one could argue that these bands shared elements with Metal, my dad was convinced that Metal music was just too aggressively blaring to be called "real music".

But that all changed one night when PBS broadcasted the live performance of Metallica's S & M.

Metallica's S & M was a highly ambitious project which saw the popular Metal act performing live with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.  Conductor Michael Kamen approached the band with the idea of a live show combining Classical symphonic music with some of Metallica's material.  Metallica, which has never been a band afraid to take risks, was convinced enough to give it a shot.  The result is surprising blend of two seemingly incompatible genres and musical styles.

With neither entity overpowering one or the other, the band and the orchestra put forth a great effort and create a uniquely memorable listening experience.

From the liner notes:

Combining one of America's most powerful orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony with the world's most powerful rock band, Metallica, was really about imagining music on top of and alongside of their songs.  Conducting a conversation between two different worlds that share the language of music.  Creating a dialogue between two worlds that celebrate the power of music.

I live in both worlds...  now, so does Metallica.

I began by listening to and absorbing Metallica tunes and really believing that I was a symphony orchestra playing along...  listening to the orchestra in my head and writing down what I heard.  I reacted to the songs, inventing melodies and counter-melodies that wove themselves around the tunes and adding orchestral color and texture to songs that were already complete!

Sometimes we supported the chords or the riffs, sometimes we commented on the lyric or on a solo line, adding our voices to the song, playing the right parts on the wrong instruments...  giving every player something to say; above all making it feel and sound like it had always been there.

Rock bands invent their own parts to play.  Orchestras rely on a composer and conductor to tell them exactly when and how and what to play.  They will read 'fly specks' on paper if necessary, and add their own expressive skill to each note...  making it come alive.

When the busses loaded with the symphony members arrived the first day of the show, they were met with cheering hordes of Metallica fans that had been camped out in the park across from the hall - not the usual greeting for a Symphony Orchestra!  Something different was going on.

The first contact with the audience was a frightening roar which terrified the orchestra, more accustomed as they  usually are to polite applause.  The crowd's reaction was like adrenaline on stage, and we all thrived on it.  That kind of approval is inspiring!

The event was in a 'formalized' setting with orchestra members in ties and tails, ushers in uniforms, and band members and audience in stage and street wear.

To feel the audience give a standing ovation to me and the orchestra even before one note had been played was both reassuring and friendly, but I also got the feeling that the audience was applauding its own daring in being there.  They were ready for anything...  Brave fans!

The beauty of nearly one hundred musicians - each of whom has dedicated their entire life to perfecting their ability to speak and express themselves through the music and their instrument and playing together - reacting to each other and the music is why the orchestra was originally formed.  They play concertos accompanying solo piano or violin at almost every concert...  but this was something else...  a Brave New World!

As the evening unfolded there was a breaking down of barriers - not only between audience and players, but players and players.  The band wandered around the stage and into the sections of the orchestra; orchestra players leapt to their feet, excited to be making music on the edge of their seats.  We were not simply supporting; and certainly not 'sweetening'...  instead, the symphony actually became the 'fifth Beatle' - a member of Metallica.

Example:  'Call of Ktulu' is a symphonic piece even without the orchestra.  A story in music.  Metallica music is always a story.  Adding an orchestra was like writing a film score to that story.  Dancing around the sections of the tune.  Every player in the orchestra was working as hard as Metallica does, committed to the music.  

After two evenings of sturm and drang - I suppose the thing that sticks most in my mind was the sheer balance in power between electric and natural instruments.  The masiveness of it all was fantastic!  I keep returning to Metallica's 'Rolling Stone' quote:  "...We don't expect easy listening...  The band will match the 100-piece ensemble with full-on amplification..."

It was a full-on musical experience with all players playing hard and soaking through their tuxes and black formals from the exercise.  A bit like experiencing all nine of Beethoven's symphonies and the 'Rite of Spring' in one evening!  I remember during the intermission hearing string players saying how they should have brought a dry change of clothes, and "it's Mitchum deodorant time" from a perspiring horn player.  I think the physicality of conducting and playing was the Symphony's answer to Metallica's 'full on amplification' challenge.  

When the evening was over, it didn't feel like it was made up of individual songs - just one very mood provoking storm of sound.

Imagine taking a very stark black and white picture, tough and relentless, unpredictable yet hypnotic - as black and white as a piece of music on paper...  as driving and powerfully honest as pumping guitars, bass, drums and voice can be...  and adding orchestral light and shade, bursts of color, and surprising blocks of sound from all the incredible expressive musical instruments that have been created over hundreds of years to speak and sing our passion, our lives.  

They think it was my idea, I think it was theirs!

So thank to Lars, James, Kirk, Jason, (and to me too), and every member in the orchestra for taking it on and making it fly!  

Michael Kamen
September 23, 1999

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hellboy - "The Corpse" by Mike Mignola

2014 is a big year for special anniversaries for so many of my favorite things!  This year marks the 75th anniversary of Batman, the 60th anniversary of Godzilla, the 50th anniversary of Creature from the Black Lagoon, the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters and Metallica's Ride the Lightning, and the 20th anniversary of Mike Mignola's Hellboy!

I remember the first time I heard the name "Hellboy"... I just kind of scoffed and rolled my eyes.  Of all the possible titles for a comic book, this had to be the most ridiculous.  So, of course, from my discerning middle school viewpoint, it had to be bad.  For several years I resisted reading the comic.  Besides, at this point I was more caught up in high-brow stuff like Spider-Man and the X-Men.  It wasn't until later on in  my high school days that I finally gave Hellboy a chance...  and found out that I had been missing out on something truly special!

"The Corpse" was the first Hellboy story that I read and it remains my all-time favorite.  When anyone asks me to recommend them a "good comic" this is the one I pull out.  Mike Mignola has such a great sense of pacing in his stories, when reading his comics it's almost like watching a movie at times.  Mignola is not only an accomplished storyteller, but also an amazing artist.  At first glance his work may seem simplistic, but you can quickly appreciate his use of shadow which serves to enhance the mood.

Mignola's stories are often influenced by various folk tales that he has read though the years.  No matter where on Earth Hellboy finds himself in his travels, you can bet that Mignola has read the local folklore and is going to include a ghost or monster unique to that area  For this particular story Mignola borrowed elements from an old Irish folktale, "Teig O'Kane and the Corpse" and incorporated elements from other Irish folklore like the changeling, the bouncing rock, and Jenny Greenteeth.  

This story is great because it showcases pretty much everything that Hellboy is all about.  As a character, Hellboy is meant to be a "working-class guy" whose job just happens to hunting down monsters (despite his own heritage...  He's a demon who is destiny is become the Beast of the Apocalypse).  There's plenty of strange happenings, over-the-top action, and a some black humor tossed in for good measure!  

Take a look at a few pages of  "The Corpse" and you'll have some idea of why Hellboy has managed to endure for the past 20 years...