Sunday, February 15, 2015

SNL: 40 YEARS, 20 THOUGHTS


Sorry Ive been away for such a long time. Between my full-time job, a freelance gig writing an original X-Files story for an upcoming prose anthology, and starting graduate school—Im going for a Master's degree in Creative Writing—Ive been more busy than usual since the end of last summer.

But with Saturday Night Live having begun its 40th season, and the three-and-a-half-hour special airing tonight on NBC, I realized I had enough thoughts about the show as a whole to jot them down in a list and use it to get back into the blogging waters. 

Overall, while I’m impressed that it’s lasted for so long, I have no great love for Saturday Night Live, especially these days. Its gone through rough patches before, certainly worse slumps than the show is in now. But I think the most frustrating thing is knowing that there's genuine talent putting the show together, and yet there is still so much garbage that gets on the air. After 40 years, the show is still far too erratic in quality, it's filled with missed opportunities, and the writing is often lazy, dumb, and uninspired. And in recent years, the musical performances have become too reliant on pre-recorded tracks and vocals—thus demonstrating just how untalented todays music stars are compared to those of decades past. 

And yet... when the show is firing on all cylinders, its a joy to watch.

So here are my thoughts. Feel free to contribute your own in the Comments section.

Favorite Cast Member: Phil Hartman



From Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Frank Sinatra to Phil Donahue to the Anal-Retentive Chef to the totally-obscure-but hilarious Giant Businessman, it seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do. Even when a sketch was bombing, he was almost always the best thing about it, and always managed to maintain his dignity. I think I enjoyed watching Phil Hartman more than any other cast member in the show's history.


Favorite Host: Alec Baldwin



No matter how bad a season is on the whole, if Baldwin is hosting, I have to watch. And I'm rarely disappointed.


Favorite Sketch: A two-way tie—
The Sinatra Group,” starring Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra, Sting as Billy Idol, Chris Rock as Luther Campbell, Jan Hooks as Sinead O'Connor, Mike Myers as Steve Lawrence, and Victoria Jackson as Eydie Gorme—here's just a taste:


  

And “Carl Sagan’s Global Warming Christmas Special,” starring Mike Myers as Carl Sagan, Tom Hanks as Dean Martin, Jan Hooks as Crystal Gayle, Phil Hartman as Isaac Asimov, Dana Carvey as Paul McCartney, and Chris Farley as Dom DeLuise




Favorite Weekend Update Anchor(s): Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon



I enjoyed their chemistry, and the fact that they genuinely seemed to love with that they were doing, and that they were doing it together.

Least Favorite Weekend Update Anchor(s): Seth Meyers


Never liked this guy, never found him funny, always found him exceedingly smug, arrogant, and self-satisfied—not just on Weekend Update. In ANYTHING he appeared in. 


Cast Member Who Started Off Okay But Got Really Annoying Really Quickly and Became Overexposed to the Point of Absurdity: Kristen Wiig



She’s undeniably very attractive, and had some genuinely good moments when she first got on the show (her Megan Mullally impression was hilarious) but given her overall limited range and her abundance of awful characters (Gilly? The Target Lady? Aunt Linda? Judy Grimes?), I figure Executive Producer Lorne Michaels was madly in love with her, or she had photos of him with a goat. In her last few seasons, you would think there were no other women in the cast. 



Favorite Unscripted Moment:
The camera catches Ian Mckellen sitting on the side of the stage, bopping away joyfully, as Kylie Minogue performs “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”




All-Time Least Talented Cast Member: Horatio Sanz



Couldn’t do decent impressions of the celebrities he played, couldn’t read off the cue cards convincingly, couldn’t get through sketches without cracking himself up, always came off as woefully underrehearsed. It’s a show-business crime that he was on the show for as long as he was.    


Most Successful Cast Member With the Least Amount of Talent: Adam Sandler 




I enjoyed one—and only one—sketch this guy starred in: “The Denise Show,” in which he played a guy with a talk show in which he would spend the whole time talking about his ex-girlfriend Denise, then calling her and hanging up, and then he would call her new boyfriend and tell him in a threatening voice, “I'm gonna kill you.” That was pretty funny. He went on to make a string of some truly moronic movies that somehow became big hits. More power to him—but I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan.


Most Talented Cast Member Whose Talents Were Wasted on SNL: Chris Rock 



I thought this guy was a real waste of space... until I saw his 1996 HBO comedy special “Bring the Pain,” and I realized that he was one of the best stand-up comedians the world has ever seen.



Favorite Musical Performance: Paul Simon and George Harrison duet on “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound”






Stayed With the Show Far Too Long: Tim Meadows



It was starting to get a bit sad.


Didn’t Stay With the Show Long Enough: Chevy Chase



This is a no-brainer. Even HE admits it now.


Should STILL Be On the Show: Martin Short

This is based on his absolutely STELLAR appearance hosting the December 15, 2012 episode. I’ve watched it at least four times. He killed in every sketch. This man is a comedy treasure.





Never Performed on SNL, Surprisingly Enough: The Who, or any member of the Who


You would think they would have by now, given that the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, three ex-Beatles, and Eric Clapton all turned up at one time or another.  


Performed on SNL, But Probably Shouldn’t Have: Brian Wilson



Oy vey. Happily, Brian is doing MUCH better these days.

Never Appeared or Performed on SNL, But Probably Would Have Eventually: John Lennon



All the other ex-Beatles made memorable appearances on the show, so it’s unthinkable that John would not have shown up eventually. Unfortunately, he probably would not have come alone:





All-Time Most Valuable Player: Eddie Murphy



He practically single-handedly saved the show when it came closest to being cancelled, during the disastrous 1980-1981 season. His “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” sketch still cracks me up. 


Cast Member With the Most Impressive Career After Leaving the Show: Bill Murray



Ghostbusters. Rushmore. Lost in Translation. Groundhog Day. Quick Change. Kingpin. Zombieland. Saying no—repeatedly—to Ghostbusters III, thus ensuring it would never see the light of day. Need I go on?    


Most Notorious Guest Host, in Retrospect: O.J. Simpson




Hosted the show on February 25, 1978 — “Uh... LOOK OUT!”


    

Thursday, July 24, 2014

THE GEORGE TAKEI INCIDENT


Since I started this blog back in 2010, I’ve been waiting for the right time to share this story. And with the upcoming release of the documentary film To Be Takei, about Star Trek actor and frequent Howard Stern Show guest George Takei, along with his ongoing status as a pop-culture icon, and his much-publicized recent appearance on Real Time With Bill Maher, during which he launched yet another attack on his former co-star William Shatner, it seems that time has finally come. So here’s the tale of my one and (thus far) only face-to-face encounter with the man best known as Mr. Sulu.   

It was July of 1998, and I was writing the five-issue limited series STAR TREK: UNTOLD VOYAGES for Marvel Comics, which featured adventures of the original crew set after Star Trek: The Motion Picture and before Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  


For issue #4, I wrote a story about Mr. Sulu taking command of the Enterprise when Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy leave the ship on a diplomatic mission. An emergency situation arises that Sulu must confront, and he is forced to take the ship into combat. Sulu, with the help of Scotty, Chekov, and Uhura, manages to save the day, and we get to see the beginning of his ambition to command a starship of his own. Longtime Star Trek fans know that we finally got to see Sulu as a starship captain in the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, in which he is the commander of the U.S.S. Excelsior. This promotion of Sulu to the rank of captain was something that had been lobbied for by the actor who played him, George Takei, for many years.  

Okay, so here’s the incident. I had recently finished writing STAR TREK: UNTOLD VOYAGES #4 when I was sent by Marvel to Chicago, to represent the company at the annual Wizard World comic-book convention during the Fourth of July weekend. On the Saturday night of the convention, I was heading out to dinner with a Marvel contingent that included my friend and fellow staffer Bill Rosemann, artist extraordinaire Adam Kubert, and Marvel’s then-publisher, Shirrell Rhoades. Walking through the hotel, we passed by one of the conference rooms, and Bill noticed that a party was going on inside, and that Star Wars actors Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader) and Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) were there. Bill wanted to check it out for a few minutes, so we all went in.

As we were leaving, Bill pointed out to me that Mr. Sulu himself, George Takei, was standing right near the exit, and nudged me to say hello. “Come on,” Bill said, “didn’t you just write a story about him? You gotta tell him that!” 

I shrugged my shoulders and casually made my way over to the actor, who was chatting with a group of fans and hangers-on. Bill and the others waited for me outside, and I patiently awaited my turn to speak with Mr. Takei. Then I got his attention.

What follows next is the exact exchange between me and George Takei, which I immediately committed to memory. 

“Mr. Takei,” I said, “I’m Glenn Greenberg from Marvel Comics.”

“Ahhhhhhhhh,” he replied in his rich, distinctive voice. “Marvel Comics . . .”

“Yes,” I continued. “We have the Star Trek license now. I’m one of the writers, and I just finished writing a story about your character!”

“Oh?” he said with interest. “You’ve written a story about Captain Sulu?”

“Yes,” I told him enthusiastically. “But he’s actually not a captain in my story.”

He looked puzzled. He said to me, “Well, you know, I am a captain now.” (Please note that he said “I am a captain,” not “Sulu is a captain.”)

“Yes, I do know that,” I told him earnestly.

He continued, “I became a captain in Star Trek VI. I was supposed to become a captain in Star Trek II, but the scene got edited out. With each film that followed, I pushed to be made a captain: Star Trek III, Star Trek IV, and Star Trek V. But each time, it didn’t happen. I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, I guess.’ So when I got the script for Star Trek VI and saw the words ‘Captain Sulu of the Starship Excelsior’ on the very first page, you can imagine how delighted I was!”

I knew all of this already—he’d related it in numerous interviews over the years—but I didn't want to be rude, so I just let him go on uninterrupted.

When he was done, I said, “Well, my story actually takes place a number of years before you became a captain.” (To be exact, as per Star Trek’s chronology, my story took place about 14 years before Sulu was given command of the Excelsior.) I continued, “But it shows how you decided that you wanted to become a captain, and how you gained the experience necessary to eventually become one.”

He thought for a moment, and finally asked me, “Well, do I become a captain at the end of the story?”

I looked at him and said simply, “No.”

He replied, obviously bewildered (and perhaps even a little offended), “Well, who wants to read about that?” The fans and hangers-on surrounding him burst out in laughter and spurred him on. “I am a captain now! You should show me becoming a captain!” I felt very much alone at that moment. 

“Yeah, but—yeah, but,” I stammered. How do I explain this to him more clearly than I already have, I wondered. But I just gave up. Time to get out of this conversation, I told myself. So I politely took my leave of Mr. Takei and rejoined my colleagues, who of course were having a great laugh over my encounter with Mr. Sulu—I mean Captain Takei—I mean Captain Sulu—I mean . . . oh, whatever.

You know, reflecting on this incident again, I’m now inspired to come up with a sequel to that story—one in which Sulu gets bumped down to ensign. That’ll show him!


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

LATER, LOUIE


So Louie aired its season finale this week. And based on this season as a whole, I don’t think I’ll be back next time around. I found it pretentious, preachy, overly moralistic, disjointed, self-indulgent . . . and perhaps most egregious of all, not funny

Somewhere along the way, Louie C.K. seemed to buy into all the glowing press about him and decided he was now an auteur with something IMPORTANT to say. What was once one of the funniest shows on TV, with a little seriousness and pathos sprinkled in every now and then (the Afghanistan episode, the Parker Posey episodes), and occasional lapses into self-satisfaction (an entire segmented devoted to him singing the Who’s “Who Are You” as he’s driving his two daughters upstate) has become a full-blown drama with half-assed attempts at humor once in a blue moon.

A 90-minute flashback episode about Louie’s childhood, complete with brutal bullying, theft, drug use, an adversarial relationship with his mostly absent father and a disintegrating relationship with his overworked and stressed-out mother, topped off by him in the present realizing that the way to deal with his daughter—whom he found smoking pot and who LIED to him about it, insisting that she hadn’t done anything even though he SAW her doing it—is to simply tell her that he loves her. I guess the message there is that any parent who doesn’t handle it that way is doing it wrong.

Episode after episode of him romancing an utterly uninteresting woman from Hungary who speaks no English. His completely disfunctional—even disturbing—relationship with the extremely unpleasant and downright unlikable character played by Pamela Adlon. (Did he or did he not actually try to sexually assault her in his apartment in a recent episode?) His younger daughter displaying very troubling behavior. The seemingly endless lecture he received from a date about how society treats overweight women. It was all just . . . not enjoyable to watch. Not for me, at least.       

It kind of reminds me of the situation with M*A*S*H. The first few seasons were often very funny. But as the show progressed, Alan Alda gained more and more creative control and decided that it was no longer to be a straight-out comedy. Now it had to make big, meaningful statements, it had to bring home just how horrible war really is, and it had to give the cast opportunities to show off their dramatic acting chops. Uh, okay, but as an audience member, that’s not what I signed up for. 

There is very little I remember about the last few seasons of M*A*S*H. I may have stopped watching by then. But I do remember that I watched the final episode with my dad the night it aired, and neither of us laughed once. And I remember that Alan Alda, who co-wrote and directed the episode, gave himself the juiciest of parts, with Hawkeye having a nervous breakdown brought on by witnessing a mother killing her own baby to prevent being discovered by enemy troops in the middle of the night. Hilarious stuff, huh?

I know this season of Louie has many supporters and defenders, people who genuinely enjoyed the direction it went in this season. But in my opinion, when it reaches a point when Maron is actually the funnier show, it’s probably time to give up on Louie.

If the comedy part happens to make a comeback next season, let me know.


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

REVIEW: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST


The X-Men movie franchise continues to emerge from the creative tailspin it was in a few years ago, after the one-two punch of the loud, brain-dead mess that was 2006’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand and 2009’s soulless, pointless, utterly disposable X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Things started to look brighter when the director of the first two films, Bryan Singer, returned from his ill-fated excursion into the world of Superman to produce and co-write 2011’s highly enjoyable prequel/stealth reboot, X-Men: First Class. And then Hugh Jackman, the only member of the original cast to have appeared in every single one of these films, teamed up with director James Mangold to make last year’s excellent The Wolverine. Which now brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past, based on the seminal 1981 comic book story by John Byrne and Chris Claremont published in The Uncanny X-Men #’s 141-142. Singer is back in the director’s chair this time, and it is clear that he is one of the very few people in Hollywood who really has a handle on this material.

The plot, which was set up at the very end of The Wolverine, involves the surviving X-Men of the future fighting a hopeless war against the Sentinels, an army of highly advanced mutant-killing robots. With their numbers dwindling and time rapidly running out, the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), launch a desperate plan to send one of the team back in time to 1973 to change history. The mission: Prevent the shape-changing mutant known as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from carrying out an assassination that ultimately leads to the creation of the Sentinels and the extinction of mutantkind.



It is determined that only Wolverine can make the trip back in one piece, and he submits to an unusual procedure in which Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) projects his consciousness back 50 years to inhabit his younger body. (In the comic-book version, it was Kitty herself who made the journey.) Arriving in 1973, eleven years after the events of First Class, Wolverine must convince the young Xavier (James McAvoy), who is wallowing in self-pity and drug dependency, to help him find and stop Mystique. Even more complicated, they need the help of Xavier’s friend-turned-arch-enemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who is imprisoned beneath the Pentagon for his involvement in a certain presidential assassination that took place in Dallas. After their bitter split, which left Xavier in a wheelchair, can these two men possibly work together again? Can history really be changed? Can this movie series finally and fully emerge from the shadow cast upon it by X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine? For at least one of these questions, the answer is, “Ehhhhh, could be!”

Seriously, Days of Future Past is a blast. It’s the ultimate X-Men movie, bringing together nearly all of the elements from all of the previous films. The scenes set in the future bring back cast members from the first three movies, including the aforementioned Stewart and Page, Ian McKellen as the older Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake/Iceman, and Daniel Cudmore as Colossus. In addition to First Class returnees Lawrence, McAvoy, and Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult is back as Henry McCoy/the Beast. And of course, at the center of it all—but very much part of an ensemble this time instead of the dominant figure—is Jackman as  Wolverine. (Hugh Jackman, now a star in his own right, truly epitomizes the term “team player.”)



I wasn’t sure such a massive undertaking would work, but it does—quite well. Given the nature of the story, and the fact that the majority of it is set in 1973, not everyone has a big part (poor Anna Paquin, especially!). There’s not a lot of screen time devoted to the X-Men of the future, but despite their limited roles, Stewart, McKellen, and Page make an indelible mark on the film. (I’m now convinced Ellen Page is simply incapable of ever turning in a weak performance.) On the other hand, Halle Berry is pretty flat here—and it doesn’t help that she has an absolute minimum amount of dialogue. Her inclusion seems more a matter of “for old times’ sake” than anything else.

One of the things I loved most about First Class was the character building and the relationships, and I feared that would be lost here, with so many characters involved and so much going on. My fears were quickly dispelled. The chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender is wonderful, and I very much felt like I was revisiting the characters of First Class, ten years later. Fassbender in particular is an incredibly strong presence, rivaling even Jackman, and it’s a pleasure to watch him. 



Jennifer Lawrence, in a pivotal role, is able to convey so many different emotions and deep internal conflict, even buried under all that blue prosthetic makeup. As the Beast, Hoult does not get as much of a story arc here as he did last time, but he brings a quiet sadness and dignity to the role and successfully conveys a sense of tragedy. His scenes with Jackman are a highlight.

Beyond the series veterans, the absolute standouts here are Evan Peters as mutant Peter Maximoff and Peter Dinklage as Dr. Bolivar Trask. Maximoff, who has the gift of super speed (and is also known as Quicksilver in the comics) is recruited by Wolverine to help break Magneto out of the Pentagon. Trask is the mutant-fearing scientist who develops the Sentinels. 

Evan Peters, who has been so consistently impressive in the TV series American Horror Story, is simply fantastic. He’s funny, energetic, arrogant, and mischievous—absolutely on target. The entire section of the film involving his character is extremely well done, both in terms of performance and direction. The scene at the Pentagon had me smiling from ear to ear and laughing out loud. 



It will be interesting indeed to see how Aaron Taylor-Johnson portrays the same character in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. One thing’s for sure: He’ll have to show a lot more than the one-dimensional stoicism he displayed throughout the new Godzilla to match what Peters accomplishes here.      

I’ve never seen Peter Dinklage be anything less than excellent—he is one of the main reasons for the success of Game of Thrones—and he is very effective as Trask (complete with an early-70s porno mustache). 



I do wish the movie developed his character just a bit more and provided greater context for his motivations. It is notable—and admirable—that throughout the movie, no reference is ever made to the fact that Trask is a little person. It’s simply not an issue. But I can’t help but think that director Singer was subtly aiming for a sense of irony here, in that someone who, as a dwarf, would himself be considered “different” in our society is so determined to eradicate an entire race of people because they are outside the mainstream. Sort of along the same lines as Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, adopting some of the same tactics as his oppressors for the sake of his own “superior race.”

(Incidentally, who knew that legendary comic-book writers Chris Claremont, who wrote most of Marvel’s X-Men titles for 17 years, and Len Wein, who led the successful revival of the X-Men in 1975 and created Wolverine, were such fine thespians? I sure didn’t! Both appear as U.S. senators early in the film, both have lines of dialogue, and both deliver their lines quite convincingly. Nice work, gentlemen!) 

There are some wonderful surprises, clever in-jokes (“My mom used to know a guy who could do that”), call-backs to previous movies, and, despite all the heavy drama and apocalyptic stakes, a genuine sense of fun. (Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Warner Bros. would do well to take that last part into account as they move ahead with their super hero movies. But somehow, I doubt they will.) 

Diehard fans of the X-Men movies may find themselves perplexed, frustrated, or even appalled, as this film does play havoc with the continuity set up in the previous films. (To be fair, so did First Class, but this film goes much farther.) It seems there are no sacred cows here—Singer is even willing to mess with, and sacrifice, stuff from the films he directed. Casual fans and newcomers probably won’t mind all this, and some viewers may not even realize the extent of what has been done—I’m sure even I don’t. But there is a story reason for it all, and as far as I’m concerned, the end definitely justifies the means. I know I’m being cryptic here—to do otherwise would be to get deep into spoiler territory.

It is safe to say that Days of Future Past is one of the best X-Men movies ever made. I place it in the top three, alongside X-Men 2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. Stay to the very end, after the final credits, as a seed is planted for the next installment. With the series now firmly back on track, and the knowledge that the next film, tentatively titled X-Men: Apocalypse, will take the First Class cast into the 1980s, I am looking forward to spending more time with the movie mutants.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

OH MY GODZILLA!


With the new Godzilla movie now in theaters (check out my review here), I thought this would be the perfect time to give Grumblings readers a rundown of the previous films in the franchise that I consider to be the cream of the crop. They range widely in terms of tone and overall approach, but in my opinion, out of the 30 Godzilla movies that have been produced since 1954, these “magnificent seven” provide the best, most satisfying, or most downright fun viewing experiences.  
  1. Godzilla aka Gojira (1954)


    Without a doubt, the original is the very best. There is no other film like it in the entire series. Filmed almost like a documentary, especially during the scenes depicting Godzilla’s relentless attacks on Japan, it is a stark, grim, dead-serious allegory about the horrors of nuclear warfare, produced by people who lived through those horrors and saw them up close. It is a tale of nature striking back at us for daring to tamper with forces beyond our control and full understanding.

    Takashi Shimura, a noted actor who frequently worked with director Akira Kurosawa, brings gravitas and dignity to the role of Dr. Yamane, a scientist who wants to study Godzilla instead of simply destroy him. Akihiko Hirata conveys anguish, regret, and, ultimately, brave determination as Dr. Serizawa, whose tortured genius provides the key to ending the threat of the monster. Momoki Kochi as Yamane’s daughter Emiko, and Akira Takarada as her secret lover Ogata (she’s actually engaged to the aloof workaholic Serizawa), are not as compelling, but the forbidden nature of their romance and the sacrifices they are willing to endure for the greater good make them worthwhile characters.    

    The big question, in terms of watching this movie: The Japanese version or the 1956 Americanized version with footage of Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin edited into the narrative?   


    Both versions have their strengths. I like how Burr treats the material with respect, and the way in which he is inserted into scenes to interact with the Japanese characters is quite clever and, for the most part, well executed. But the Japanese version is a bit more substantial, with the connections to World War II and Hiroshima and Nagasaki made much more explicit, and the sheer tragedy of Godzilla’s rampage shown in full (particularly when a mother and her young children are caught in the monster’s path and they await their fate).

    The last couple of home releases of the original Japanese version, through Classic Media and most recently the Criterion Collection, included the U.S. version, so you can watch both and decide which one you prefer. 

  2. Godzilla Vs. The Thing, aka Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)


    This is the third sequel to the first Godzilla movie, and it also a sequel to 1961’s Mothra, which makes it the first “crossover” film featuring the Toho monsters. The Godzilla suit in this movie is arguably the best one ever made. He’s never looked meaner, with cold, angry eyes and a flapping upper lip that makes him seem even more bestial. Godzilla is portrayed as a malevolent, unstoppable engine of destruction here, which is just how I like it. I particularly love how, in his battles with both Mothra and her offspring, he reacts and fights like a wild animal instead of an oversized professional wrestler. Unfortunately, the wrestling antics became more and more of a staple of the series as time went on.


    Despite the elements of fantasy (including Mothra’s miniature twin emissaries, played by Japanese singing duo the Peanuts, Emi and Yumi Ito), the movie mostly plays it straight and delivers a compelling and fun story about the need for human compassion and cooperation. The human characters are well developed and you don’t mind following their storylines when the monsters aren’t on screen. The special effects are very effective, clever, and innovative, especially for the time. Even the English dubbing, produced by Titra Studios, is top-notch. And composer Akira Ifukube’s score captures the mood of the whole thing perfectly. All in all, this is a great Godzilla film.  

  3. Monster Zero, aka Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)


    This is a follow-up to the previous year’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which introduced the space creature that has become Godzilla’s most popular foe. It was in Ghidorah that Godzilla began to shift away from being a malevolent force to become Earth’s protector, to exhibit signs of humanlike intelligence, and to provide moments of humor. That trend continues in Monster Zero. I am not, nor have I ever been, in favor of anthropomorphizing the monsters, or playing them for laughs, which this movie does in spades when Godzilla, triumphing over Ghidorah in a preliminary bout, does an infamous “victory dance.”

    And yet, I enjoy Monster Zero, primarily because I found the human characters so likable. First and foremost, there’s the character of Glenn, a United States astronaut played by American actor Nick Adams.


    Adams is absolutely wonderful here, bursting with energy and chewing up every single bit of the scenery in a thoroughly entertaining manner. He really gives it his all, at times doing a quasi-James Cagney impression as he delivers his lines (“You rats! You stinkin’ rats!”). His enthusiasm reportedly endeared him to the Japanese cast and crew, and he exhibited strong onscreen chemistry with romantic interest Miss Namikawa, played by the lovely and sexy Kumi Mizuno (whom Adams was rumored to have pursued off-screen, supposedly to no avail) and best friend Astronaut Fuji, played by Akira Takarada. I also liked Akira Kubo as the bespectacled nerdy scientist who is forced to become a man of action. While Monster Zero continued the distancing of Godzilla from his roots and moved the series more towards kiddie-oriented fare, I still find it to be a fun movie.

  4. Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991)


    Without a doubt, this is the loopiest, most nonsensically plotted Godzilla movie ever made. Time travelers from the future convince the people of 1991 to allow them to go back in time and make sure that Godzilla never mutates into the radioactive creature that has menaced the world over and over again—but after they succeed in doing so, everyone on Earth still remembers Godzilla and all of the destruction that he caused, even though, as a result of the time travelers’ actions, none of it ever happened. Plus there’s a silly new earthbound origin for Ghidorah (thanks to the secret master plan of the time travelers, he basically takes Godzilla’s place in history), some extremely dicey, downright laughable special effects, and some of the worst attempts at humor I’ve ever seen (the “Major Spielberg” bit has to be seen to be believed). So you may be wondering why I have this movie on my list.

    For starters: It features one of the best-looking Godzilla suits ever made, without a doubt. The fight scenes between Godzilla and Ghidorah are very well staged. And as dopey as the storyline is, I love the fact that Godzilla is first presented as a major threat to humanity, and then becomes our only hope when Ghidorah replaces him and turns out to be even worse. And then, after a restored Godzilla defeats Ghidorah, he turns around and attacks Japan in what I consider to be one of the best “rampage” sequences ever done in a giant-monster movie. The final battle, between Godzilla and a Ghidorah resurrected with 23rd-century technology, is a hoot.
     
  5. Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)


    Mechagodzilla, first introduced in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (released in the U.S. in 1977 as Godzilla vs. Cosmic Monster), gets a complete reboot and makeover in this well-done adventure. (I’m not sure why there’s a “II” in the title, since this has no connection to the previous Mechagodzilla, which was set in a different continuity.) The film also brings back Rodan, the giant flying creature that debuted in 1957’s Rodan and disappeared from movie screens after 1968’s Destroy All Monsters. And it reintroduces the concept of a baby Godzilla, but thankfully, it’s done much better here than in 1967’s Son of Godzilla, which was aimed solely at children and depicted the baby (then called Minya) as a cross between a tadpole, Uncle Fester, and Beetlejuice from The Howard Stern Show:



    "Who, me?"

    The human characters are likable. The Godzilla suit isn’t quite as fantastic as the one in King Ghidorah, but it’s good and it gets the job done. The film begins with Godzilla and Rodan at each other throats, but eventually both creatures come to see Mechagodzilla, built and controlled by Earth’s anti-Godzilla task force, as the greater threat to their survival. This movie was originally supposed to end with Godzilla’s death, and the final version stops just short of that, which gives the climax an intensity and a dramatic air that most of the other films don’t have.    

  6. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)


    Godzilla is the bad guy in this one-off movie that doesn’t tie in to any of the franchise’s previous continuities. It’s far more spiritual than any of its predecessors or the films that follow it. The events of the original 1954 film are more or less part of the history, but instead of being the living embodiment of mankind’s nuclear ambitions gone wild, Godzilla now represents the souls of all the Japanese soldiers who died during World War II—and the creature is intent on destroying Japan because their great sacrifice during that global conflict has been forgotten. But, as described in an ancient legend, other monsters emerge to defend Japan against Godzilla: Mothra and, surprisingly enough, King Ghidorah, who, up until this film, had always been portrayed as more of a menace than Godzilla ever was. (Also of note: In this film, Ghidorah is smaller than Godzilla—in all of his previous appearances, he was noticeably larger.)

    The Godzilla suit gets a refurbishing in this film, and it looks fantastic—his eyes are completely white, making him look like he’s possessed by an evil demon.



    And Godzilla has rarely been as malevolent and destructive as he is here. There’s a scene involving him and a hospital that is one of my all-time favorite Godzilla moments. The human characters didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I really joined the monster stuff—even though the changes made to Mothra and Ghidorah struck me as a bit odd. All in all, this is a very interesting and atypical Godzilla movie.

  7. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1963)


    This is included for sentimental reasons. When I was a kid, it was my absolute favorite movie. It worked for me on every level. Not so much anymore. I’ve since seen the Japanese version, which is significantly different from the U.S. edition, and I can report that it is a better film than what we Americans got. For one thing, there are no cuts to totally bland, boring, and smug middle-aged white guys in a newsroom describing the events of the movie instead of just letting us watch them. And Akira Ifukube’s masterful musical score is presented in its entirety. But it doesn’t change the fact that the King Kong suit is horrendous and the characters—the humans and the monsters—are often played for laughs. This is the movie where the pro wrestling maneuvers started to creep in during the monster battles. I can excuse the fact that Kong is about 10 times bigger than he should be—how else could he stand up to Godzilla? But the idea that electricity makes him stronger comes out of nowhere and just seems arbitrary. He’s a big ape! Why would lightning give him added strength, not to mention the ability to send shocks through Godzilla’s body?

    And yet . . . the Godzilla suit is absolutely iconic, one of the most popular ever created.


    Godzilla himself is still portrayed as an unstoppable force of destruction. The special effects and miniatures are well done. It’s the first Godzilla movie in color. And I have to admit, the character of Mr. Tako, played by Ichiro Arishima, is genuinely funny and fun to watch. It’s not a great movie or a great Godzilla movie, but my 8-year-old self still has enough of a hold on me that I can’t help but feel affection for it.

    By the way—having seen the Japanese version, let me take this opportunity to dispel a myth that has persisted since the 1960s. The U.S. version and the Japanese version of King Kong Vs. Godzilla have the same ending: Kong and Godzilla fall into the ocean, Kong pops up and starts swimming home, and Godzilla is not seen again. Godzilla does not win in the Japanese version. Tell your friends, okay?


    © All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.