Sunday, September 28, 2014

My Favorite Films Of All Time: #61-#70

61. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES Directed by Mario Bava

62. NORTH BY NORTHWEST Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

63. DIE NIBELUNGEN Directed by Fritz Lang

64. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN Directed by John Sturges

65. BLAZING SADDLES Directed by Mel Brooks

66. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN Directed by Nicholas Meyer

67. JURASSIC PARK Directed by Steven Spielberg

68. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH Directed by Roger Corman

69. TAXI DRIVER Directed by Martin Scorsese

70. RETURN OF THE JEDI Directed by Richard Marquand

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Favorite Films Of All Time: #51-#60

51. KILL BILL VOLUME ONE Directed by Quentin Tarantino

52. CASINO ROYALE (2006) Directed by Martin Campbell

53. KELLY'S HEROES Directed by Brian G. Hutton

54. SEVEN CHANCES Directed by Buster Keaton

55. BLACK SUNDAY (1960) Directed by Mario Bava

56. NOSFERATU Directed by F. W. Murnau

57. X-MEN Directed by Bryan Singer

58. THE SEA HAWK (1940) Directed by Michael Curtiz

59. STAGECOACH (1939) Directed by John Ford

60. THE GETAWAY (1972) Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The REBIRTH OF MOTHRA Trilogy On Blu-ray

Among Sony's recent Toho Godzilla Blu-ray releases is a set of Mothra films made in the 1990s. Most Americans have probably never seen these--I had not--and I bet a lot of folks didn't even know they existed.

The 1990s Mothra movies are geared more toward younger viewers than the Godzilla series. Each of the three films feature children as the main human protagonists. The stories are more in the realm of fantasy than straight kaiju mashups. But make no mistake, Mothra does its share of heavy fighting. The Mothra featured in this trilogy has a number of special powers that seem to crop up out of nowhere when the creature needs them.

The recurring characters in the series are a family of sister fairies--Moll, Lora, and the trouble-making Belvera. In each film Moll and Lora have to perform the Mothra song to wake up the mighty moth--and they sing other songs as well. This trilogy is almost like a Disney version of Toho's kaiju world. More than likely the "cute" aspects of Mothra set up the series' tone.

The first film in the trilogy actually has two Mothras. The original Mothra dies fighting Desghidorah, a kind of off-shoot of King Ghidorah. However Mothra's egg hatches, and a new creature takes up the fight (this Mothra continues in the rest of the series).

The second film deals with a lost undersea ancient empire. A giant fortress rises from the ocean, and Mothra has to battle a kaiju known as Dagahra to defend it. This movie visually quotes from JAWS, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, and even THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. There's also a pair of bumbling adult treasure-seekers who seem straight out of a HOME ALONE movie. In this story Mothra is able to transform into a aquatic Mothra to fight Dagahra underwater.

In the third feature Mothra battles King Ghdorah. At first one would assume that this would be the equivalent of a pitching duel between John Danks and Clayton Kershaw, but the mighty moth holds its own. Mothra decides that it must go back in time to destroy Ghidorah when it is killing off all of Earth's dinosaurs (you didn't know about that scientific fact, did you?). How Mothra is able to time-travel is never explained...nor is Mothra's later ability to transform into a butt-kicking "Armor Mothra".

If you are looking for logical plot developments (and if you are, why are you watching a Toho monster movie?) you're not going to find them in this set. These are movies for young imaginations. Hardcore kaiju fans may find them a bit silly, but these films are a great way to introduce children to the world of Toho.

The picture quality on all three films is okay, and the sound quality is impressive. The only extras are Japanese trailers for each of the three movies. The first REBIRTH OF MOTHRA feature is on its own disc, and the sequels are on another disc.

GODZILLA 2000 On Blu-ray

Due to the theatrical release of the 2014 GODZILLA, most of the Toho Godzilla movies from the past 20 years have recently come out on Blu-ray. One of the latest has been GODZILLA 2000 from Sony. What is notable about this release is that the disc contains both the American and Japanese versions of the picture.

GODZILLA 2000 came out after the disastrous 1998 American feature film. It was Toho's attempt to re-boot the series (Godzilla had been "killed" in 1995's GODZILLA VS. DESTOROYAH). All the Godzilla movies made by Toho after GODZILLA 2000 are referred to as being part of the "Millennium" series. The Toho Godzilla features made from 1984 to 1995 are referred to as the "Heisei" series.

The Heisei Godzilla series stuck to a sort of rough continuity, but the Millennium series does not. In GODZILLA 2000, it is never explained why Godzilla is around--he just is, and the story goes along as if all the other kaiju films were never made.

GODZILLA 2000 is a typical Toho monster movie entry. It is not particularly special in any way (other than "reviving" Godzilla). While Japan tries to deal with Godzilla's latest rampage, a giant meteor is found deep in the Pacific. The meteor turns out to be a spaceship, and the alien inside wants to use the form of Godzilla to help it conquer the Earth.

The idea of a new, re-booted, "real" Godzilla must have been exciting for Sony Pictures, who prepared an American version for theatrical release in 2000 (and yes, I saw this in the theater). After the failure of the 1998 American pseudo-Godzilla, I can only assume that Sony felt that U. S. audiences would respond to the true representation of the King of the Monsters.

The American version of GODZILLA 2000 runs about 99 minutes, the Japanese version about 107. There's really not a whole lot of difference between the two. The Japanese version has a bit more destruction, and the ending is a bit more ambiguous. The American version tries to strike a more humorous tone in the dubbing, but for the most part the Japanese and American dialogue is pretty much the same.

Of course the highlight of any kaiju film is going to be the fighting and destruction scenes, and GODZILLA 2000 has plenty of those. One thing about this movie is that a fair amount of CGI was used, and it doesn't hold up too well (several of the matte shots here do not look very good). When GODZILLA 2000 sticks to the practical effects, it comes out great.

The Japanese version of GODZILLA 2000 presented on this disc is not as sharp -looking as the American version, and the picture image is significantly darker. The sound quality on both movies is excellent. The only extras are a Japanese trailer, a behind-the-scenes feature (which runs about two minutes), and a audio commentary with the filmmakers.

It's good that Sony has decided to release most of Toho's recent Godzilla movies to Blu-ray. There's been a lot of internet sniping on how the movies look, but it's better than not having them on Blu-ray. These Blu-rays are fairly affordable on Amazon, and most kaiju fans will want to pick them up to complete their Godzilla home video collections.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Fvaorite Films Of All Time: #41-#50

41. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT Directed by Hal Needham

42. FISTFUL OF DOLLARS Directed by Sergio Leone

43. THE GREAT ESCAPE Directed by John Sturges

44. GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO Directed by Ishiro Honda

45. THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM Directed by Michael Curtiz

46. ARMY OF DARKNESS Directed by Sam Raimi

47. ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE Directed by Peter Hunt

48. THE NAKED SPUR Directed by Anthony Mann

49. WHITE ZOMBIE Directed by Victor Halperin

50. THE LORD OF THE RINGS-THE TWO TOWERS Directed by Peter Jackson

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

J'ACCUSE At Notre Dame's Browning Cinema

Last night I attended a showing of J'ACCUSE, the 1919 renowned silent film directed by Abel Gance. This version of the movie was the recent Lobster Films restoration and it was presented in DCP.

Like HEARTS OF THE WORLD, J'ACCUSE was made during World War One and uses footage filmed during the actual conflict. Abel Gance was one of the greatest cinematic innovators of all time, and J'ACCUSE is filled with numerous impressive camera and editing techniques. Gance's audacity is never more apparent than at the beginning of the film, where a group of actual French soldiers form the word "J'ACCUSE". Gance then shows himself looking into the camera right after his screen credit.

The film is really more of a love triangle than a war epic. Sensitive poet Jean Diaz (Romuald Joube) loves Edith (Maryse Dauvray), the wife of the brutish Francois Laurin (Severin-Mars). Both Jean and Francois are called up when war starts, and they wind up serving together on the front lines. Both men display valor in battle, and they learn to respect one another. Matters become complicated after Edith is raped by German soldiers, and returns home with a daughter. It all leads to a grim climax in which Jean envisions the return of his dead comrades to the land of the living.

Abel Gance's films are not just audacious in their making, they are audacious in their running time as well. Both Gance's LA ROUE and NAPOLEON run well over five hours. J'ACCUSE has a running time of 166 minutes, and the love triangle relationship is a bit thin for a story of this length. It is Gance's cinematic flair which makes the movie interesting, but what really makes J'ACCUSE memorable is the ending.

After the Battle of Saint Mihiel (in which Francois was mortally wounded), Jean has gone mad from shell shock. He returns to his hometown and proclaims to his neighbors that he has news of their war dead. Jean then recounts his vision of dead French soldiers rising from their graves and returning home to see if their sacrifice has been worthy. The extras that Gance use to portray the dead were actual soldiers on leave from the front--and many of them would go back to battle and be killed themselves. This "phantom soldiers" sequence is a show-stopper, and one could even say that it may be one of the first zombie scenes in cinema history. Surprisingly the dead soldiers do not reap any sort of revenge--after making their appearance they go back to the battlefields on which they had fallen.

Because of the ending J'ACCUSE has been considered one of the greatest anti-war films of all time. I find that a bit ironic, considering that Gance's greatest film was about a man who spent his entire life creating war (NAPOLEON). I think Gance wasn't so much against war as he was against what he felt was the waste of so many men because of French military incompetence. Just about every character in J'ACCUSE is hurt by their wartime experience, but at the same time the movie is filled with examples of French patriotism.

J'ACCUSE deserves to be seen just for the ahead-of-his-time innovations of Abel Gance--and for the ending, which is almost a mini-movie in itself.

Abel Gance

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Favorite Films Of All Time: #31-#40

31. SEVEN SAMURAI Directed by Akira Kurosawa

32. THE GODFATHER PART II Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

33. CASINO Directed by Martin Scorsese


35. THE QUIET MAN Directed by John Ford

36. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE Directed by Sergio Leone

37. IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Directed by Frank Capra

38. REAR WINDOW Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

39. ZULU Directed by Cy Endfield

40. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES Directed by Clint Eastwood

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Favorite Films Of All Time: #21-#30

21. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI Directed by David Lean

22. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON Directed by John Ford

23. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST Directed by Sergio Leone

24. APOCALYPSE NOW Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

25. RIO BRAVO Directed by Howard Hawks

26. THE SHINING Directed by Stanley Kubrick

27. HOOP DREAMS Directed by Steve James

28. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925 Version) Directed by Rupert Julian

29. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Directed by Terence Young

30. HORROR OF DRACULA Directed by Terence Fisher

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

HEARTS OF THE WORLD At Notre Dame's Browning Cinema

The University of Notre Dame's Browning Cinema has started a new film season with a program of movies based around World War One. Last night D. W. Griffith's HEARTS OF THE WORLD was presented in 35MM with live musical accompaniment.

I respect D. W. Griffith's cinematic accomplishments, but I have to admit I've always found his stories overly sentimental and his characters somewhat one-dimensional. HEARTS OF THE WORLD is no exception. The lead couple in the film are only referred to as 'The Boy" (Robert Harron) and "The Girl" (Lillian Gish). Their families live side-by-side in a French village (which is called "The Village"). The Boy and The Girl are of course smitten with one another, and plan to be wed. But on the eve of their wedding war breaks out, and the boy is called up to serve. The Boy's regiment is posted just outside of The Village, and everyone's bucolic existence is soon shattered by the horrors of battle.

In doing some internet research for this blog post, I learned that the British Government commissioned D. W. Griffith to make HEARTS OF THE WORLD to persuade American citizens to support entry into the war by the United States. (By the time the film was finished and released, America had already entered the war.) Could you imagine what the mainstream media would say if such an arrangement between a country and a American film director happened today?

I also learned that Griffith went overseas with his crew and filmed a number of scenes in Britain and on various sights near the actual Western Front in France. How much of the film was made near the front lines seems to be a point of contention--nearly every source of information I've read gives a different answer.

Griffith also mixed in real footage taken during the war with his staged scenes. HEARTS OF THE WORLD certainly looks realistic--the battle scenes hold up even to 21st Century standards. Despite the heavy melodramatics of the basic plot, HEARTS OF THE WORLD should be seen just for the WWI spectacle alone.

The heavy melodramatics will be familiar to anyone with a basic understanding of D. W. Griffith. The Boy and The Girl are virtuous beyond measure, with Lillian Gish looking and acting like she's about 12 years old. The lead couple are saved from certain death by one of Griffith's famed last-second climaxes. Figuring in this climax is Lillian's sister Dorothy Gish, who plays a spirited French lass. Dorothy Gish's comedic turn with this character just about steals the movie. The moment in the film that impressed me the most was a sequence in which The Girl, disoriented after seeing family members die during an artillery shelling, wanders a desolate battlefield while wearing a wedding veil, searching for The Boy.

The 35MM print used at this showing was not in the best of shape....but hey, how many times can you go and see a D. W. Griffith film shown in an actual theater? The total running time of this print was about 90 minutes. Most of the listed running times I was able to find for HEARTS OF THE WORLD were from about two to two and a half hours. This was the very first time I had ever seen this picture, so I have no idea if anything was missing. The projection speed may have had something to do with the running time--but I did notice that once or twice there were a couple of abrupt jump cuts, so this may have been an edited version of the movie. It is almost impossible to come to an "official" running time for any silent movie, even the more famous ones. The live music for the showing was provided by Notre Dame student Nicholas Van Lieshout on the piano (and he did an excellent job, by the way).

Next week the Browning Cinema will be showing Abel Gance's 1919 WWI epic J'ACCUSE!. I'm looking forward to attending that showing.