Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Japanese Monster Movies

(Movie glutton's note: One of the dangers of being a movie glutton is watching movies at a faster rate than I am able to blog about them.  I only posted once in December, and have only posted 3 in January so far.  From now on, when appropriate, I will be posting some of these in groups of loosely related movies.)

A loving father playing with his son.
 One of my favorite movie-going memories is lining up around the theater, waiting for what must have been hours with my dad and brother, to see the latest Godzilla movies.  These cheesy Japanese imports with terrible special effects surely were bad back then.  Even though my 7-year-old brain loved them, surely my dad hated them.  After watching Son of Godzilla, I gained a new appreciation for what dads tolerate for their sons.

I don't remember if Son of Godzilla was one that we saw in that Corpus Christi theater.  This 1967 release was 8th in the series that started with Godzilla in 1954.  I have to believe it was a low point in the series.  Baby Godzilla's midget in a rubber suit is worse than Godzilla's man in a rubber suit.  Godzilla's training sessions with his son are wonderful, if low, comedy (especially if you're 7).  The scientists living on this remote island get caught in the battle between Godzilla and the giant spider, but manage to escape the mysterious island. 

You don't want a hug from the Strangling Monster.

One of the great things about the Japanese monster movies is their self-referential mocking comedy.  Big Man Japan, a mockumentary about a man who grows to giant size when called on to fight monsters, mixes a little bit of monster action with reality-show-type interview with the big man.  He's past middle age, not too thrilled about his lot in life, and does not get much respect from the community.  To maintain his career, his agent sells ad to wear on his body; she is more concerned with ad placement than fighting monsters.  The monsters themselves are stranger than what I remember seeing on any monster movies.  Unfortunately, they take a minor role.  I would have enjoyed more monsters, less interview.  The ending seemed tacked on and a bit out of character with the rest of the movie.  Nevertheless, it's still a funny movie.

The third Japanese movie isn't really a monster movie; in fact, it's not a Japanese movie--it's Korean--but it fits well with these others.  Save the Green Planet has the silly title going for it--you know this isn't going to be an art film classic.  Well, maybe it is.  This was surprisingly dark and had some heavy social themes, not of which is revealed by the silly picture on the DVD cover.  Byeong-gu is an everyman who believes aliens are plotting to attack the Earth.  He kidnaps a prominent businessman whom he believes is an alien.  Byeong-gu tortures him and thwarts his escape attempts, revealing his insanity.  As more was revealed about Byeong-gu, I almost began to feel sorry for him.  But the more he tortured the businessman, my sympathy declined.  Sure, the businessman is a bad guy, and was directly or indirectly responsible for some bad stuff, but no one deserves that kind of insane treatment.

I have to admit, half-way through this movie, I was thinking it was a waste of time.  I kept watching, simply because I rarely turn off a bad movie.  By the end, it had totally redeemed itself with a satisfying, if bizarre, climax and a surprise ending that made me want to watch it again.  Save the Green Planet was strange and sometimes disturbing, but the dark comedy, the social commentary on labor disputes, corporate greed, and medical research, and the unpredictable pacing makes this one worth watching.

Bottom lines:
Son of Godzilla, 1 star, but only if you're a Godzilla fan.
Big Man Japan, 2 1/2 stars
Save the Green Planet, 3 stars

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


This movie seems absurd on its face, setting up an impossible scenario with a ridiculous premise--so I thought!  Three college kids have gone to ski and try to get in one last run before the ski area shuts down.  Through a series of mishaps, they are stranded on a chair lift on a deserted ski mountain.  Of course the ski area only opens on weekends, so the trio faces the possibility of being stranded there all week.  Then a storm comes in.  Desperate to get out of there, one of the kids jumps, hoping to walk to get help.  He breaks both legs.  Soon comes along a hungry pack of wolves. . . .
I watched this movie a few weeks ago, before the ski season had begun.  Then I started noticing these headlines:
  • "200 skiers stranded on Mountain High chair lift" (California)
  • "Stranded Skiers Rescued from Alpine Valley Chair Lift" (Ohio)
  • "Boyce Park Lift Open After Ropes Used to Rescue Stranded Skiers" (Pennsylvania)
  • "Skier Dangles 25 ft from the Ground as Six are Injured and 200 Stranded When Chair Lift Derails at Maine's Highest Resort"
There are all in the first few weeks of this winter's ski season!  And there are more. . . .

So Frozen might be a bit over the top.  In all the cases above, skiers were rescued; there was never a chance that someone would be stranded overnight or without help from the ski area itself (and I suspect the ski areas in question bent over backwards to compensate the stranded and injured skiers).  But is it really that much of a stretch to think that someone might get stranded overnight, after everyone goes home?

Frozen is a low-budget, high-intensity thriller.  Given the frequency of ski lift incidents indicated by the above headlines, the premise of Frozen is all too real.  Like Open Water, the 2003 movie that depicted scuba divers who were left behind by their boat, Frozen takes what should be a fun situation and turns it into a nightmare.  The viewer thinks, "That could happen to me!" and wonders what in the world he would do to survive. 

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Here's a movie with some pretty good actors, remaking an old movie from the 1950s, twisting and twisting the plot until you get a crick in your neck, and definitely requiring you to suspend disbelief completely.  The popularity of shows like CSI have upped the bar for realism and accuracy in crime movies and TV shows.  Beyond a Reasonable Doubt has one foot in that ethos and one foot in the 1950s. While not a complete waste of time, it makes me wonder if I should have, instead, picked up the original, which was directed by the great director Fritz Lang.
Michael Douglas is a creepy, power hungry DA.
The concept is intriguing: a young reporter suspects that the popular, successful DA plants evidence to bolster his record.  He develops a scheme by which he'll frame himself for a murder, allow the conviction to proceed, then have his co-conspirator reveal the evidence that he is innocent and that the conviction is proceeding on false evidence, planted by the DA.  Just when it looks like the plan is going to work, the reporter's friend is killed in a car accident.  In the meantime, the reporter has to convince his girlfriend, who works for the DA, of his innocence, and bring her into the plan after the fact.

If it all sounds confusing and unlikely, you're right.  The twists at the end only add to the groan factor.  "Yeah, right,"  I thought.  The whole thing was just too unbelievable.  The final product was sort of entertaining, though.

Bottom line: 1 1/2 stars.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Extraordinary Measures

At my Reading Glutton blog, I have written about John Crowley's book, Chasing Miracles: The Crowley Family Journey of Strength, Hope, and Joy, and Geeta Anand's account of the Crowley family's journey in The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million--and Bucked the Medical Establishment--in a Quest to Save His Children.  Besides having really long titles, these books tell the remarkable story of John Crowley's role, as a biotech executive, spearheading the development of a drug to treat Pompe syndrome.  I'm sure a cure or treatment would have eventually been developed, but Crowley made it happen much sooner than it ever would have, if ever.
Brendan Fraser plays Crowley, even though he's about a foot and half taller than the real Crowley.  Harrison Ford plays Dr. Robert Stonehill, the cranky, but very committed medical researcher who joins up with Crowley.
This story captures the hearts of anyone who hears it.  Geeta Anand brought it to many people's attention with her Wall Street Journal articles, which formed the basis of her book, and various media appearances spread the family's fame.  It was inevitable that their story would be made into a movie.  Extraordinary Miracles captures much of the essence of the Crowley's story, but, of course, abbreviates it and alters it in the dramatization.  A Notre Dame Law School graduate with a Harvard MBA, Crowley had the wits, the will, and the connections to carve out a lucrative place for himself in American business.  He used all of that to focus on the highest priority of his life: finding a cure for the disease that was killing his children.  (And, incidentally, became a multi-millionaire in the process!)

Give the complexity of the disease, of the business deals, and of the people affected, both in the family and in the research and business community, the story had to be greatly simplified for the movie, but they also sanitized it a bit.  Great family though they are, the movie made them seem even more happy, cheerful, and optimistic than is likely.  Not a big deal, but it robs the Crowleys of their humanity, giving Extraordinay Measures a Lifetime Channel movie of the week fairy tale feel, cheapening a great story.  And this is a minor quibble, but why did they move the research facility from Oklahoma to Nebraska?  Did OU refuse to cooperate?  Did the state of Nebraska bribe them to do so?

Quibbles aside, Extraordinary Measures brings the Crowley's story to a much wider audience than the books or WSJ articles could.  More than that, it brings attention to the importance of research for rare diseases.  The drug companies may not deem it cost-effective to research cures for diseases that affect a very small number of patients.  The Crowleys remind us that we don't have to sit around and wait for a cure; even an ordinary guy like John Crowley with no medical background can make something extraordinary happen.

Bottom line, 3 stars.