Japan: Ishiro Honda, 1954, Criterion
Ah, Godzilla! One of the biggest hits in the history of Japanese cinemas, and certainly one of the most fecund of all Japanese movies and movie franchises, Godzilla was the brainchild of several highly gifted people who all hit their career peaks while bringing this beast to life, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, original story writer Shigero Kayama, co-screenwriter Takeo Murata, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, and, perhaps most important, the show's vastly underrated director-co-writer Ishiro Honda -- a master of cinematic action, who was one of Akira Kurosawa's lifelong best friends, and who was also his old buddy's action director on the period masterpieces Kagemusha and Ran.
Kurosawa has said that the secret (or sometimes not so secret) subtext of all his movies is the paranoia of the nuclear age, and Honda could say the same thing -- especially of Godzilla. The movie's inspiration came from a real-life nuclear accident: the irradiation of a huge area around the American H-bomb test site at Bikini Atoll, and the poisonings and deaths of Japanese fishermen on the trawler Lucky Dragon Number 5, which had strayed into the danger zone. Godzilla begins with a virtual re-creation of that incident, with monster instead of radiation. And the clear implication is that we can take the monster attack as a metaphor for nuclear poisoning -- even though the movie's Godzilla has apparently been around for a while. Soon the humungous lizard-being is invading islands, attacking more sea craft, and edging closer and closer to his Grand March on Tokyo.
Arrayed against Godzilla, demonstrating almost constant displays of futility, are the Japanese army, police, and all the country's top scientific brains, plus the media. But there is hope. Chief among the dauntless humans on the job are the classically paternal Takashi Shimura (who led Kurosawa's Seven Samurai into battle that same year) as the maverick professor Kyohei Yamane, along with a triangle comprising Kyohei's beautiful daughter Emiko (Momoki Kochi), her handsome newsman admirer Hideto Agata (played by the soon-to-be big star Akira Tarada) and her other admirer, the brilliant but tormented scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hurata).
Somehow we sense that this quartet will be able to carry the day against Godzilla, who is actually a couple of guys in a lizard suit, cut into special effects or miniature shots of villages and cities in flames.
For Japanese audiences, who stormed into the theaters for their first glimpse of what would become their favorite monster (and one of the world's), this movie certainly fulfilled all their expectations -- raising up some of the country's worst fears and inflating them to wild, gigantic proportions, and then laying those fears to rest, with the help of the clichéd ending almost everybody actually wants.
Honda's unlikely classic -- which had the unfortunate effect of typecasting him as the Japanese film industry's main monster man -- remains the best of all the Godzilla movies and also one of the best of all monster movies, period. Certainly it's better than the Godzilla show that most Americans saw first: an English-language version (included in this Criterion set) that was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Listed as "directed by Terry Morse and Ishiro Honda," it is Honda's version, dubbed into English, shorn of 20 minutes of footage, and with new scenes shot and added by Morse. It features that classic film noir heavy Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin, an amazing chap who's always on the site of every fresh attack and catastrophe, though never in the same frame with Shimura or the others, and who keeps offering dolorous commentary and urbane synopsis.
It's easy to knock Godzilla, King of the Monsters! But it was a hit too, and it's still a lot of fun to watch. Morse respected the original film enough to try his damnedest to make his additions seamless and his dubbed dialogue flow -- and it does. I like Morse's version better than the 1998 giganto-budget American remake directed by Roland Emmerich. (Extras: excellent commentaries by Godzilla expert David Kalat; interviews with actor Akira Tarada and Haruo Nakajima, special effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, and stellar composer Akira Ifukube; featurette on Godzilla's photographic effects; interview with film critic Tadao Sato; The Unluckiest Dragon, an illustrated audio essay by Greg Pflugfelder about the Bikini Atoll nuclear incident that inspired Godzilla; trailers for both films; and booklet with very good essay by J. Hobernan.)
The Innkeepers (B)
U.S.: Ti West, 2011, Dark Sky Films
A neat little horror movie that keeps trying to remind us of The Shining, The Innkeepers pulls us instead into a creepy world of failing hotels and troubled economies and weird guests and mildly obsessed hotel co-workers -- the wreckage and mildly rotting corpse of a New England tradition that's older than Stephen King (or Bronx kid Stanley Kubrick for that matter). The locale is the Yankee Pedlar Inn, reputed to be haunted and due to be shuttered forever after this night's occupancy. In what little time is left them, the two somewhat hip last employees -- twentysomething Claire (Sara Paxton), who changes the towels and walks the halls, and older guy Luke (Pat Healy), who mans the desk and pulls paranormal activity gags on his computer and obviously has an unspoken crush on Claire -- are going to try to roust out the spooks, either see one for real or lay the legends to rest.
Helping them out are the guests from hell: TV actress turned psychic Leanne Reese-Jones (Kelly McGillis), Gayle the mad mom (Alison Bartlett), and an old, old man who checks in and obviously means to come to a bad end. Two little girls also wander around, in tribute to to their obvious inspirations, the Grady sisters from The Shining.
Ti West's movie is loaded with seedy atmosphere and cracked wacko personality, and I much preferred it to the overexpensive blood-drenched massacres they usually give us. Paxton's Claire and Healy's Luke are engagingly scarable protagonists. The cellar is a doozy. West, this movie's director-writer-editor -- and also the auteur of The House of the Devil and Trigger Man (both nifty, effective shows), is a horror classicist with a good scrappy sense of character, and he seems refreshingly uninterested in breaking any decapitation records or in exploring the far boundaries of found footage. (Extras: commentaries with West, Paxton, Healy, producer Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok, and others; featurette The Innkeepers: Behind the Scenes; trailer.)
Joyful Noise (C)
U.S.: Todd Graff, 2012, Warner Home Video
Joyful Noise -- in which squabbling small-town Southern gospel divas Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton take their small-town Georgia church choir to the improbable finals of the National Joyful Noise Competition in Los Angeles -- is really two movies: one good, one bad.
One of the movies is a set of rousing gospel and '60s-'70s rhythm-and-blues numbers socked across by the so-called Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir, under the feuding leadership of co-divas Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) and G.G. Sparrow (Dolly). And that musical half rocks and rolls with such show-biz fervor and exaltation, such smoking songs and funky toe-tapping accompaniments, and such a boatload of talent headed by Dolly and Latifah, that the movie gets you to respond (and enjoy yourself) despite yourself.
The other half is a truly idiotic small-town soap opera in which the actors pelt each other, and us, with cornpone clichés and phony show-biz baloney, just as lustily and pointlessly as G. G. pelts part-time waitress Vi Rose with hot biscuits in the restaurant foodfight scene, Joyful Noise's stupidest.
One of these movies (the musical half) is entertaining. The (the story half) other is ridiculous. One is Joyful. The other is Noise.
We never learn exactly why this integrated but combustible choir -- from a church so dinky it might have trouble fielding a basketball team -- got good enough to make it to Los Angeles, especially since Vi Rose and G.G. keep up a running verbal/insult/busybody battle from the moment Vi Rose gets appointed by Pacashau's smug preacher man, Rev. Dale (Courtney B. Vance) to the choir leader post G G. thought was hers by right, since her hubby Bernard (Kris Kristofferson) was, after all, the previous director.
In a way, Kristofferson makes the definitive comment on the movie's storyline by grabbing his side during the first song and keeling over dead outside the church. (We can sense a ghostly duet with Dolly in the offing.) Soon after Bernard's death, a hell-flock of clichés and inanity begins invading Joyful Noise like Hitchcock's birds attacking Bodega Bay. On and on they come, shamelessly, screechily, devilishly -- including a stormy romance between two talented young Sacred Divinity songbirds, Vi Rose's dedicated daughter Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G.G.'s grandson, the aptly named Randy (Jeremy Jordan).
One of the more amazing things about the Pacashau Sacred Divinity choir, though, is their repertoire, which includes Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee," and a final killer contest medley that starts with Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want to Take you Higher" and climaxes with Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." Hey, I love these songs too, but are they gospel?
New Year's Eve (D-)
U.S.: Garry Marshall, 2011, Warner Home Video
New Year's Eve may be the punishment audiences get for making director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate's Valentine's Day such a big movie hit. That schmaltzy, heart-up-your-sleeve, all-star show strung together a lot of cliched romantic comedy vignettes or plot lines, each with big name mini-casts, against the backdrop of Los Angeles on Valentine's Day.
Like many critics, I watched the movie, said a few nasty things, and forgot about it. Little did I know, little did we all know, that the damned thing would gross 200 million dollars and give birth to New Year's Eve -- the latest romcom-arama from Marshall and Fugate, in which eight big-star love stories are plastered against the backdrop of New Year's Eve in New York, New York.
Hilary Swank, who's newly in charge of the Time Square New Year's Eve Ball drop, faces crisis after crisis as the ball get jammed during a dry run (complete with Ryan Seacrest), forcing her to try and fix things with the help of a friendly cop (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) and the only technician in New York who can handle this job: Hector Elizondo, whom she once fired.
Zac Efron, a bike delivery boy with lots of chutzpah, hooks up with Michelle Pfeiffer, a mousey dreamer who just quit her corporate job as a music company president's assistant, and she offers him prime party tickets if he'll fulfill her top ten wish list in one day. It's no slam dunk. The list includes such whoppers as a Balinese feast, but Zac accomplishes it with astounding speed -- unfazed even by the logistics of putting together an on-stage Radio City Music Hall revue with Michelle, in what seems like a half an hour or so.
Meanwhile, Zac's buddy, smirking artist rebel Ashton Kutcher, gets caught in a freight elevator with Lea Michelle, a backup singer for Jon Bon Jovi, who is also present and here cast, in a slight stretch, as a legendary rock singer. Jon Bon, who's providing entertainment that night (along with Lea), spends much of the day trying to win back the heart of fetching food boss Katherine Heigl, whom he fled last New Years, when he got cold "relationship" feet.
Chic mom Sarah Jessica Parker tries to rescue daughter Abigail Breslin from any possible sex in the city with glib teen Lothario Jake T. Austin, who smirks almost as much as Ashton Kutcher (never a good sign). And Josh Duhamel, who got encouraging signals from some unknown woman last New Years' Eve, wrecks his car on a day when all the mechanics are on holiday, and races to the city with some loveable provincials in a van, to try to find his mysterious dreamgal again.
Robert De Niro plays a man dying of cancer, tended by nurse Halle Berry, and De Niro's last wish is to watch the ball drop on New Year's Eve, from the roof of that very hospital. Naturally, it's against hospital regulations.
By the end, everything in New Year's Eve will be resolved and tied up in ways that should satisfy anyone who loves phony, schmaltzy movie stories.