Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

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As a young man in the 21st Century, growing up while great advancements have been being made in special effects and animation, it’s easy not to hold some of the great films of the past in low regard.  I watch the old Universal Horror films at Halloween time and do not get scared. I watch the old Superman serials and let my mouth hang open during the animated flying sequences. I get bored as I see the same stock footage used in cheap films over and over again. Besides the effects, lack of emotion in the characters and poor plotlines could easily ensure boredom in modern viewers who are used to action-packed, gory, and high tech pictures. However, there is one black and white film from the fifties that continues to amaze me to this day for its quality and emotion-laced storyline.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the American version of the Japanese film Gojira and the first of the on-going Godzilla franchise, was released in 1956. The Japanese version had come out two years before, but never reached far outside of Japan. The film only appeared in some small Chinatown theaters in the United States, where it was eventually discovered. In order to appeal to a wider audience, American actor Raymond Burr (known for his role as Perry Mason) shot several new scenes that were superimposed onto the edited original footage. The resulting plot had Burr’s character Steve Martin, a Chicago reporter en route to Cairo, get caught up in a developing story about mysterious ship destructions off the coast of Japan. Joining a team of scientists tasked with uncovering the source of the ship disasters, Martin and the scientists find themselves on an island under attack by a thirty-story tall monster. Naming him Godzilla based on legends of the islanders, and determining that he was awakened from prehistoric slumber by America’s atomic bombs, Tokyo prepares itself for yet another invasion.

To this day I still have trouble viewing the film without grasping the concept that Godzilla was actually an actor in a rubber suit. The film is shot so masterfully with sets constructed very lifelike that there was only one scene in the entire movie that was obviously that of a toy and not a life-sized object. I still watch the movie believing that Godzilla was a giant and that the city he is destroying is in fact Tokyo and not toy sets. Unlike some of the overly-dramatic or emotionless characters that existed in films during that time, Raymond Burr gives a strong performance, and the film’s documentary-style adds to the suspense. The opening scene, a glimpse of the horror to come during the film, is an instant attention grabber.

While many of its numerous sequels descended into cheap comedy territory, this film captures the seriousness and suspense that might actually occur if a giant kaiju were rampaging across the country. Obviously people would be frightened and there would be massive casualties, which are greatly focused on in this picture but rarely touched upon in later Godzilla films. This makes Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, in my opinion, a true science fiction film as it focuses on potential reality instead of cosmic or romantic fantasy as several of the later films do. The fact that a new blockbuster Godzilla film was just released owes to the legacy of this fifties classic. Just as Godzilla is King of the Monsters, this movie is king of classic monster flicks.

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FROZEN In My Tracks

Disney-Frozen

At the risk of sounding sexist or biased, I have to admit that I put off watching Disney’s 2013 blockbuster hit Frozen because, honestly, I thought that it was a “girl movie”. Even more than that, it was a Disney musical “girl movie”. But when my Disney-loving, movie-guru girlfriend finally convinced me to watch it with her after weeks of putting it off, I found that my pseudo-macho, geeky, “manly” taste in movies had kept me from seeing what I now consider one of the best animated films of all time. “For the first time in FOREVER” I found myself a fan of a Disney Princess film (*Note: As of 07/17/2014 the sisters from Frozen are not yet officially part of the Disney Princess lineup*).

The film centers on princess-turned-queen Elsa, who was born with amazing cryogenic powers. After a childhood accident in which her powers accidentally injure her younger sister, Anna, the king and queen isolate Elsa from Anna and have a magical troll erase Anna’s memories of her sister’s abilities. The rest of the film, for spoiler purposes, is about the consequences of Elsa’s isolationism when her powers are finally revealed to her kingdom.

Filled with catchy Disney songs, lovable characters and, literally, the right amount of magic, Frozen grossed over one billion dollars in the box office. As always, there are plenty of moral lessons to be learned. What I thought was really neat was that instead of simply re-teaching the classic values of “don’t judge a book by its cover” and “follow your heart” that most Disney films convey, this movie has added a bit of modernism to the mix. In an age where young people are rushing to get married and jumping into relationships without thinking things through, Frozen humorously reminds us not to jump into marriage with someone you just met.

When you think of someone having cryogenic powers one would usually think “superhero”, especially with Disney pushing out box office hits left and right after its acquisition of Marvel. Instead, Disney has given us a tale of sisterly love, a snowman who longs to feel heat, a man who talks to his reindeer and match-making trolls. All in all, a fantastic film without falling into the old (and new) Walt Disney Company clichés. My one criticism of the film is that the trolls, tiny, stone creatures with vibrant personality and wisdom, only appeared in a couple of scenes. The animators put a good deal of work into them and gave them a great deal of potential but in the end only gave them minor screen time. I am very anxious to see if Disney will give them either a TV show or their own spin-off movie. A short film would even suffice. I just felt that the trolls were such an intricate part of the plot that they deserve more time on the big screen.

A solid “A” effort.

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INAUGURAL POST: “The Adventures of Captain Marvel”

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The 1940s were a monumental period for the science fiction film. Before the end of the decade several important milestones would be reached that have had far-reaching effects on both film-making and science fiction in general. 1948 would mark the end of the Universal Horror series with Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Batman and Robin made their screen debut in serial-form in 1943, with Captain America following in their footsteps the following year. Superman flew onto the scene (pun partially intended) in a 1948 serial, and the first Batman (and superhero) film sequel the year after that. Also, seeing as how the world was engulfed in World War II during the early part of the decade it is not surprising that there was also a call for highly patriotic and inspiring science fiction, both in book and movie form. Out of all of this, however, there was one film (serial, actually, but a film nonetheless) that stands out above the mentioned masterpieces and failures above. This is the world’s first film ever featuring a comic book superhero, 1941’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Starring Tom Tyler as the hero and Frank Coghlan, Jr. as his alter-ego Billy Batson, it is widely considered to be one of the finest movie serials ever made, and indeed one of the best of the 1940s.

It was originally intended to be a Superman film, but failure to acquire rights to the character led to the Man of Steel being replaced by the very similar Captain Marvel. At the time Marvel was equally as popular as Superman, but over the years mismanagement and improper treatment led to him falling out of popularity for a long while, during which time Marvel Comics snatched up the rights to the name for its character Mar-Vell, who is also usually known as Captain Marvel. As a result, the modern Captain Marvel character, under the ownership of DC, is called Shazam.

The plot, as with the vast majority of film serials from that time period, has the hero attempting to stop the villain from using a death ray weapon to take over the world. This villain, the original masked mystery villain The Scorpion, is as clever as Marvel is strong and thus is able to foil Marvel’s (and his human alter-ego Billy’s) attempts at capturing him. All that is known of The Scorpion is that he was a member of the same scientific expedition that Billy Batson had accompanied overseas. There, in the desert, the expedition had discovered an ancient scorpion-shaped device that has various capabilities, such as turning any substance into gold or disintegrating people. The device is powered by several lenses, which are divided up by the scientists so that the scorpion device cannot be used without the consent of all the scientists. As this is happening, the young reporter Billy stumbled upon a secret passage that lead him to an ancient wizard who warns him of the scorpion’s dangers and gives him the ability to transform into Captain Marvel (by uttering the word SHAZAM) in order to “protect innocents from its evil use.”

This happens at the perfect time, because almost immediately afterwards The Scorpion unleashed his henchmen on the scientists in order to retrieve the lenses to further his claim for world domination. During his pursuit of the Scorpion Marvel had to contend with attacking Siamese natives, a guillotine, a flood of molten lava, and the constant danger his friends find themselves in. To make some of the cliffhangers even more exciting for 40s moviegoers, there are several instances where Billy Batson finds himself bound, gagged and unable to repeat his catchphrase in order to transform and fly out of danger. Billy is noticeably the only captured character in the film to have had this happen to him, even though the villain does not learn until the bitter end that Billy and Captain Marvel were the same person.

At the end of the final chapter, having exposed the identity of The Scorpion and destroying the Golden Scorpion artifact, the wizard reverted Captain Marvel back into Billy permanently, as there was no longer a need for a protector. It is worth noting that, with the exception of a cheap live-action 1970s show featuring the character that had almost nothing to do with any comic book material that this 1941 serial is the only live-action appearance of Captain Marvel/Shazam, despite its return to popularity under DC’s ownership. Over the past several years, there has been talk of a live-action Shazam film being in the works, but so far nothing has come of it (as of June 25, 2014).

Regardless, no matter what the future has in store for the Captain Marvel character he will always be remembered as the very first comic book superhero to appear on the silver screen.

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