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Wednesday, Jun 6, 2007

The fact that an ex-Beatle would ditch the major label factory to pact with the world’s biggest coffee shop is definitely a sign o’ the times but as far as McCartney’s recorded legacy itself, that’s another story.


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Tuesday, Jun 5, 2007


The great debate among Godzilla fanatics goes a little something like this. On the one side are the purists, the people who scoff with sour indignation at the very idea of this venerable Japanese kaiju having to suffer through poor English dubbings, badly mangled prints, and edits mandated to make Western audiences more comfortable with the genre. For them, it’s pure untouched Toho or nothing at all. And then there are those on the side of the Saturday matinee, the generations who grew up with the whole man-in-suit ideal and embraced it as a combination of camp and cross culture craziness. In their mind, the mismatched voices and mediocre miniatures give anything Godzilla a true kitsch quality that definitely gets lost when you return to the source material. Unfortunately, DVD has only made the problem worse. Due to its inherent nature as a preservationists medium, the lovers of the original giant lizard have bemoaned the consistent release of poorly framed, faded versions of their favorite movie monster’s oeuvre.


So, how does one appease the persnickety while indulging the memories of those lost in front of a 19” ‘60s TV screen, bag of Cheetos clutched to their chest? Well, if you’re Genius Entertainment and Classic Media, you pow wow with the holders of the Japanese rights, make a deal to deliver the best Godzilla product possible, and come up with a combination disc that holds both the original Toho release as well as the mangled Americanized efforts. Making their first appearance on the digital medium as part of the heralded Master Collection, the fifth and sixth films in the Gojira franchise – Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Astro-Monster (later renamed Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) - show the scaly reptile with a prehistoric penchant for kicking creature keister as feisty as ever. They also argue for a clearly defined formulaic approach to this type of monster movie that would, initially, keep audiences clamoring for more. Eventually, such sloppy storytelling would drive the series to ridicule and ruin.


In Ghidorah, the story picks up just after the events of Mothra vs. Godzilla. The larval offspring of the giant insect have defeated our Hellbent hero and have slinked back to Infant Island, Lilliputian tenders (the then famous Japanese singing duo The Peanuts) in tow. A massive meteor shower brings a big interstellar bolder to a mountainous region outside Tokyo. A new beast named King Ghidorah springs forth, determined to wreck his own special brand of three headed menace on the populace. The cosmic anomaly also takes its toll on a potential political assassination. The Princess of some far off fictional country is almost assassinated. She is saved by the spirit of a spaceman from the planet Venus and arrives in time to warn the world about the upcoming creature chaos. Sure enough, Godzilla and Rodan are roused from their slumber, and with the help of the minute minders of Mothra, everyone gangs up to send the nasty newbie back from whence it came.


As for Invasion of the Astro-Monster, a joint American/Japanese space program discovers a new satellite traveling around Jupiter – Planet X. The two man crew of Glen and Fuji go off to explore, and soon find themselves face to face with the sunglass wearing, underground dwelling residents of this weird world. Technologically superior, the aliens have a big problem for which they require the Earthlings help. They are terrorized by an entity known as Monster Zero (actually King Ghidorah given a mistaken extraterrestrial moniker), and want help destroying it. Their plan? They will trade the ability to cure cancer (?) for Godzilla and Rodan. Seems like a win/win situation for all involved. But soon the swindled Earth men learn the truth – the X-men are actually evil, and want to use all three beasts to destroy mankind and take over their terrestrial territories. And without another supersized beastie to battle on their behalf, everyone’s doomed.


Clearly benefiting from the bigger budgets that international popularity can provide, both Ghidorah and Astro-Monster offer up the two major components of successful Godzilla films – surreal storylines and lots of special effects. To many of the uninformed, a cursory explanation of the kaiju film usually states “giant monster is awakened and goes on a destructive rampage”. But the truth is, by this time in the series, the concept of nonstop spectacle was no longer an option. Indeed, almost all the Godzilla films are parables, using current political or social problems to highlight Japan’s inner anxieties and post-war identity crisis. The first film was a clear allegory to the horrors of nuclear technology run amok. The Mothra film that predated these was linked to a heavy handed environmental message. Ghidorah has an unusual combination of peace and politics. By placing the endangered member of an unknown nation’s royal family into the role of chief spokesman for the planet, her predicament and its pro-life focus is even more severe.


Astro-Monster, on the other hand, is all about invasion. It’s the Godzilla series answer to war, about a desire to work with - not against - America this time around and defeat an enemy greater than our own. The Planet X types are pure fashionista fascists, the kind of sinister slicks who easily sway and betray. Their desire to use might (Godzilla, Rodan and Ghidorah) instead of their remarkable scientific advances (why not work those tractor beams over a few nuclear silos, guys?) plays directly into the fear of technology failing in its ultimate goal to protect and serve us, while the underlining subplot involving the inventor who has the potential defensive weapon right under his nerdy nose is another parallel to the ultimate value of knowledge and skill over power and heft. Part of the reason that film fans respond to these movies with such ardent attraction are the rather obvious themes at play. Similar to how horror defines a society and its approach to art, these films are like windows into the uneasy world of ‘50s – ‘70s Asia.


Of course, the fabulous old school rubber and balsa wood F/X are a heck of a lot of fun as well. More money meant more attention to detail, and master craftsman Eiji Tsuburaya really outdoes himself here. While campy and kind of crude, the spaceships and Planet X interiors present in Astro-Monster are pure pop art poetry. In addition, King Ghidorah is an equally impressive creation, its flailing heads looking like death-dealing chaos personified. There will be those who giggle at the model tank/plane/car/truck/ dynamic at play in the action scenes, and our creatures do possess some very odd voices (King G’s is nothing more than vibrating notes on a Hammond organ). But when you consider the near flawless recreations of the surrounding landscape, the massive explosions of dirt and debris, the relatively realistic use of water and other natural elements, the Toho kaiju films are very impressive. So what if the buildings blow apart like badly set up Lincoln logs. The combination of filmmaking and finesse more than compensate for such quibbles.


Even purists can breathe easy thanks to the relative respect these movies are given via these delightful DVDs. Preserved in their original aspect ratios with as close to a pristine print as possible, we are treated to wonderful widescreen images, vibrant colors, crystal clear detail and the original Japanese language soundtracks. In addition, a wealth of entertaining and informative extras is provided, including commentaries, biographies and original trailers. When you consider you get both versions of the title along with all the other goodies, there should be very little to kvetch about.


One would also be remiss for failing to mention what an important undertaking this is. DVDs’ lasting legacy appears to be rescuing marginalized movies from the pigeonholing chasms of popular culture. Prior to embarking on this remastered retrospective, Godzilla and his ilk (Gamera et. al.) were relegated to a kind of entertainment exile, deemed either too infantile for adults or too oddball for the wee ones. As a result, our humungous heroes have been cast aside as a dated dimension of an equally antiquated cinematic aesthetic. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. When viewed through the veil of their original creators’ intentions, when comparable to their effervescent US counterparts, when contextualized by individuals who spent their lives trying to decipher the many layers of meaning buried within these oversized metaphors, any previous discrediting seems petty at best.


Still, the battle wages on. With the help of these amazing digital dossiers, perhaps one day a peace can be brokered. It will be difficult, but not as tough as trying to change 40 years of drive-in b-movie madness. Godzilla in all his forms was always much more than a science fiction schlock jockey. Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster and Invasion of the Space Monster is definitive proof of that.


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Tuesday, Jun 5, 2007

The German word is somehow more effective at conveying the ghastliness of the concept of guest workers, though the phrase in English is not without its chilly air of euphemistic frostiness. Guest workers, however, will not be staying at the Holiday Inn and they won’t likely be enjoying an exhilarating experiences at Six Flags Theme Parks; chances are they won’t even be “guests” at Target, buying designer lampshades and environmentally friendly lightbulbs. Instead, we will be hosting them at our chicken-plucking plants and our lettuce-picking fields, but heaven forbid they try to pass themselves off as real Americans— a real American wouldn’t be could doing such work at this point.


The main problem with a guest worker program is that it creates a permanent underclass with no particular investment in the host society (host society, because so many nativist ingrates see immigrant workers as parasites). This exacerbates tensions between newly arrived immigrants and natives, which has the effect of confirming the prejudices that led immigrants to be cordoned off in the first place. Denied an opportunity to integrate into society if they wanted to, immigrants are expected to accept second-class citizenship without any grudges, as if we are doing them a favor by letting them make the reduced labor costs in our companies’ business models more realistic, more workable.


In the most recent New Yorker, James Surowiecki tries to mount a defense for the recently proposed guest-worker program along these very lines. As illegals, they are second-class citizens anyway, so why not offer them limited rights, which are better than no rights at all.


Guest workers would no longer be tied to a single employer—within certain limits, they’d be able to change jobs if they wanted—and would be guaranteed all the protections that the law extends to native workers, including the freedom to join a union. These protections would not necessarily insure fair treatment, especially given the Bush Administration’s poor record of enforcing labor laws. But guest workers would have more rights than illegal workers, and be better treated. They’d also be paid better—better than they would as illegals, and far better than if they had to stay at home.


Never mind the thorny problem of deciding who the guests will be (and who will remain illegal). The problem is that the separate class created for guest workers makes it very likely that labor protections will be applied differently with regard to them. Otherwise what is the purpose of the subordinate classification. It seems that there should be no half measures when it comes to making provisions for the guarantee of rights to workers; at a certain level of abstraction, it becomes a matter of qualifying the level of a group’s humanity. This may be why immigration is an issue that brooks no compromise, since the logic behind the arguments on either side tend toward absolute, definitional premises. Either labor is permitted to move freely, as all economic factors should have free movement to allow for maximum efficiency, or national prerogatives trump all efficiency arguments and protecting the interests of nationals is more important than whatever suffering is taking place on the other side of the border. Otherwise what’s the point of being an American if it doesn’t guarantee you some inherent advantages?


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Monday, Jun 4, 2007


It’s another odd week for the home video aficionado. On the one hand, you’ve got a true celluloid auteur getting the digital admiration he so richly deserves. On the other hand, you’ve got the clear frontrunner for Worst Movie of 2007 – maybe of all the ‘Naughts’. There’s a new take on the same old moldy J-Horror, an even older Oliver Stone effort, an imaginative take on a silent classic, and a callous cash grab for fans of a certain comic book foursome. When you add in the completely gratuitous sex comedy from the late ‘70s, and the rest of the aluminum disc dregs, the payout potential is limited at best. But it’s a weak Friday for first run films (your choice – another Ocean’s sequel or more Eli Roth ‘gorno’) and Lord knows what the pay cable channels are about to cough up. So do yourself a favor, stick with the rock solid SE&L pick and kiss the rest goodbye. It will make your 5 June all the more productive:


The Sergio Leone Anthology


Drop whatever you’re currently doing, grab your cash card, and head out to the local B&M the minute it opens and plunk down your pennies for this amazing spaghetti western box set. Featuring the entire Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) along with Leone rarity Duck, You Sucker! , all four films are given a Special Edition treatment that is long overdue. That means you get a quartet of Italian gunslinging goodness, eight DVDs, and lots of cinematic supplements for a minor monetary outlay. And if you want to add a copy of the director’s masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West, to your shopping cart along the way, no one will complain. Long considered a filmmaking genius, Leone’s legacy has only grown in the DVD era. Perhaps it’s because the format fits his wide open epics so well, giving them room to breathe and grow. Or maybe it’s his amazing artistry. Either way, it’s film fans who win.

Other Titles of Interest


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


This is either a really creative idea or cinematic sacrilege. Using modern technology and the original film’s inventive Expressionistic designs, writer/director David Lee Fisher scanned the original sets into a computer and then digitally inserted his modern actors. The story’s the same, and in this version, the characters speak for themselves. Think of it as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow mixed with the classic silent film and you get the idea.

Fantastic Four: Extended Edition


How do you make a mediocre movie a little less lame (and a lot more profitable)? Simple - revamp the narrative with added scenes, reconfigure the film for DVD, and sell it just as the real sequel is about to hit theaters. That’s the case with this rushed to retail redux of the mangled Marvel mess. Initial reviews claim the changes are for the better. Considering the source, that’s not saying much.

The Messengers


The Pang Brothers, Hong Kong’s premiere horror maestros, come to America at the very end of the Asian angst fad and proceed to sink the final nail in the slick subgenre’s coffin. Aside from the fact that they’re three years too late, the subtle scares of the whole ghost world spook show have long since been decried and dismissed. Not the best showcase for a pair of foreign fright film icons.

Norbit


Oh Lord, this is BEYOND bad. Everything you’ve heard is true – this is a ridiculous, racist mess, the kind of unbelievably bigoted filmmaking that should set the cause of African American pride back 400 years. Eddie Murphy is awful, desecrating geeks, the obese, and Chinese people everywhere. This entire film feels like the beginning of a mean-spirited gag that never discovers its punchline. Sadly, the joke appears to be on us. 

Seizure


Here’s an intriguing title finally arriving on the digital domain. It stars Dark Shadow’s Jonathan Frid and Fantasy Island favorite Hervé Villechaize, and was co-written and directed by a young maverick named Oliver Stone. The plot sounds like the ‘Old Dark House’ married to a proto-slasher feast. Could be good. Could be garbage. Whatever the case, it could make for an interesting night of early auteur nostalgia.


And Now for Something Completely Different
H.O.T.S.


This film always tried to position itself as the modern female equivalent of Animal House. Part of the problem of course is that the National Lampoon classic was more concerned with satire and less with skin. All this film has going for it is boobs, boobs, and more boobs – that and some very gratuitous Danny Bonaduce (who actually looks halfway human here). The title sorority – the name is taken from the four main girls (Honey, O’Hara, Terri, and Sam) in the club – is the bane of Fairenville University, or F.U.’s, existence. There’s a crusty old dean, some snobbish villains, and a last act game of strip touch football.  Along the way, our gals discover sex, self-esteem…and umm, more sex. Indeed, softcore eros is the point behind this collegiate comedy. If you’re looking for story, move along. If all you’re interested in is curvaceous pre-‘80s flesh, then step right up. This so-so silliness will be your cup of carnal tea. 

 


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Monday, Jun 4, 2007

PSF writer Calliope Kurtz is profiled in this San Francisco Bay Times article, talking about how transgenders (not to mention women) get little respect in the music biz.  You’d think with all the gender-confusion that’s been a rock tradition for decades, it would be otherwise…


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