Movie Review – “Ugetsu” (1953)

 

 

“Ugetsu” is an odd piece of work that takes two common Japanese genres, the ghost story and the jidaigeki (period drama), and combines them to produce a film that is accessible to a wide audience by giving us a uniquely human samurai tale with a supernatural edge. The film focuses on how war affects the minds of those who cannot fight and the toll it takes on them and their families, both physically and emotionally.

It starts in a small Japanese village during a time of constant civil war between rival clans. The village is populated by farmers and workers trying to make a decent living without getting involved in this conflict. These villagers include the pottery maker Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) who dreams of making it big and living a luxurious life with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of making a name for himself as a samurai. After Genjuro gets a taste of real money from selling his pottery, he becomes obsessed with getting more at whatever cost, even risking his life in the face of the evil clans.

After their village is attacked, the two families leave together and split up at the nearest town after they learn of the threat of pirates, leaving the men to head into town and make as much money as they can. But both Genjuro and Tobei get lost in their own greed and ambition, with Tobei looking for a way to make a name for himself as a samurai, while Genjuro is visited by a creepy princess who wants more than just his pottery.

 

 

There is not much else I can say about “Ugetsu” without spoiling the plot and the journey of self discovery and tragedy these two go on. But I will say that, like most Japanese period pieces, pain is a constant companion throughout their trip and the land of Japan has an odd sense of justice. While the film is slow at times, it only helps with the scenes involving Genjuro and the princess and the gnawing feeling that something is wrong with their forceful relationship.

If you are at least familiar with the genres at play in “Ugetsu” then give this film a try and see how they blend together in this sorrowful tale. And even if you do not know about the themes and atmosphere of a Japanese period piece, this is still a great tale about two small men who wish for something bigger in a harsh and brutal world.

Final Grade: B+

 

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Number 3 – “Godzilla” (1954)

 

 

These final three films in my Godzilla-thon are, in my opinion, all perfect A+ movies. These three movies range from deep thought-provoking tales about the horrors of nuclear aggression, to an emotional and uplifting film with superb storytelling, to one of the most exciting and fun movies I’ve ever seen. Each of them is a masterpiece in their own way and it is almost impossible for me to pick one of them over the other.

In that case, this comes down to my choice of favorites and which film leaves a bigger impact on me. Which is why the original 1954 “Godzilla” only comes in at number three on my countdown. Make no mistake – the first Godzilla is not only the most important film in the franchise, but the most important daikaiju film ever made. It basically created an entire genre and style of filmmaking. And while that genre has been diluted and changed over the years, “Godzilla” remains just as shocking and poignant today as it was in 1954. This is the “Citizen Kane” of giant monster movies, transcending its genre to be a great movie in general.

Part of the reason “Godzilla” still holds up today is, like “Shin Godzilla,” because of the focus on Japanese identity and its people. When this film came out, Japan was still healing from their defeat in World War II. The government was in shambles, major cities were still being rebuilt from the ground up, and they had a genuine fear after having two atomic bombs dropped on them. The Japanese people were broken at this time, still searching for their new identity in this world.

“Godzilla” emphasizes this by taking its monster attacking the city concept, but turns it on its head – Instead of being about the monster, it’s about the city and the people being stomped and burned by the monster. Some of the most powerful moments in this movie are smaller moments that show individuals reacting to Godzilla, including shots of people looking up at Godzilla from inside their apartment complex just as the monster destroys the entire building without a second thought, or the brave firefighters attempt to put out Godzilla’s radioactive flames but end up being surrounded by a sea of fire, or the survivors of Godzilla’s attack watching helplessly as the monster tears apart their city, yet cheering their hearts out when fighter jets arrive to drive Godzilla away.

 

 

Even from the opening of the film, this focus on Japan’s reaction to the terror is brought into the light. “Godzilla” opens with a fishing ship bursting into flames and sinking into the ocean. As soon as the Japanese officials find out about this, they send out another ship to investigate, only for that boat to be destroyed in the same way. Their headquarters are crowded with the families and loved ones of those who were on those ships, hoping, and waiting to hear news about the fate of the crewmen. When they get word there were two survivors, the room is sent into a state of panic, everyone hoping that its their loved ones that made it out alive.

Not a lot of focus is put on these grieving widows and loved ones, but it is enough to make a point that this is a tale about people coming to terms with the horror that they now face.

But the big sticking point in “Godzilla” is its focus on nuclear weapons. Not only is Godzilla awoken from his slumber by hydrogen bomb testing, but he has been transformed by the bomb, mutated to a point no creature should be able to withstand, yet he has survived. Godzilla’s design screams of pain, from the many tiny bumps and wrinkles on his skin that suggests being burned and scarred by the blast, to his amalgamation of many dinosaurs, complete with creepy piercing yet unblinking white eyes.

On top of that, Godzilla is a physical manifestation of the atomic bomb. He is indestructible, cold, uncaring, and kills without prejudice or intent. Anything he touches is reduced to rubble or ash, contaminated with radiation that would kill everything else. You cannot fight it or reason with it, and all he leaves is a massive wave of destruction. You’re only hope against something like this is run, but even then you probably can’t run fast enough.

 

 

This makes his rampage through Tokyo one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever seen, as the living atomic bomb tears through the city without remorse or feelings. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects almost make this scene look like a documentary as Godzilla bites into the side of a tower with news reporters on it, watching them fall to their deaths while Tokyo burns. All the excitement and thrill of monster destruction is replaced with fear and sympathy in this scene, as we bare witness to a society’s obliteration.

“Godzilla” sheds a different light on nuclear weapons though. It’s one thing to say that all atomic weapons are bad and should be destroyed, but “Godzilla” takes it a step further with the character of Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has developed a weapon that is stronger than a hydrogen bomb, the Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa uses his creation to make an interesting point – man will always try to create a more efficient killing machine at whatever cost. This led to the creation of mustard gas in the first World War, then to nuclear weapons in the second world war, and that led to Godzilla’s creation. We will always look for ways to pervert science to the benefit of weaponry and killing our fellow man, which is why Serizawa is so reluctant to hand over the Oxygen Destroyer to the rest of the world.

 

 

This not only makes “Godzilla” a sympathetic portrait of Japanese society, but a poignant film about the escalation of our weaponry, always attempting to make a bigger and better bomb than before. And the point of the movie is that we’re now paying for that aggression and inherent destruction with a living incarnation of those weapons destroying us.

“Godzilla” is smart, chilling, mysterious when it wants to be, and yet surprisingly uplifting. It takes the idea of a giant monster’s rampage and makes it about something relevant to the rest of the world by making it about people instead of the monster. This is one of the greatest monster movies ever made, and one of the most important movies to come out of Japan. If you only ever watch one daikaiju film, make sure it is the Japanese version of “Godzilla.”

 

 

 

Movie Review – “The Band Wagon” (1953)

 

Any movie that has a musical number featuring dancing triplet babies that talk about buying a gun they can shoot their other siblings is at least worth a watch in my book.

That, and it is the only movie I’ve ever seen that combines musicals and film noirs. “The Band Wagon” literally has a sequence that plays out like a hard-boiled detective story, complete with femme fatales and over-the-top cheesy narration, while it plays out like ballet with elaborate dance sequences.

I’m not sure I need to say anything else – Babies that want guns and musical film noirs. If that does not peak your interest in “The Band Wagon,” nothing will.

Or it could be that “The Band Wagon” is one of the last big musicals for Fred Astaire, as he plays a role that he was becoming more and more every day – an aging film star that had been forgotten by the Hollywood system and was looking for one last shot to remain in the limelight. Astaire goes all out on his musical numbers, especially one early on in the film where he dances around while getting his shoes shined and playing carnival games.

 

 

If my description of these events sounds odd, it’s only because this movie is odd. The musical numbers are intricate and elaborate, while fully embracing the insane situations, including the now famous “That’s Entertainment!” number that seems like a cut scene from “Singin’ In the Rain.” My personal favorite number is the aforementioned film noir musical bit, if only because I’ve never seen two genres that have nothing in common work so well together.

There are slow parts to “The Band Wagon,” but when this movie gets good, it is impossible to take your eyes off the screen.

Final Grade: B-

Number 29 – “Godzilla Raids Again” (1955)

 

 

Now that we’ve got the disrespectful and terrible Godzilla movies out of the way, we can move to just the terrible ones!

These next three or four entries are all ones that are simply awfully put together movies that are mostly harmless, but I would still rather watch two hours of C-SPAN than turn on these Godzilla movies again. Of these entires, the worst of them is my pick for the most boring entry in the series – “Godzilla Raids Again.”

This one was made less than a year after the release of the first Godzilla film in 1954 and is the only other movie to be shot in black and white. The film also sees the introduction of Godzilla’s long time ally, Anguirus (or Anglias, or Angurus, or Anguillas…he has more names and pronunciations than any other Toho monster), the spiky-backed Ankylosaurus that seems to be the only sticking point from this film.

Set roughly a year after the events of the first film, when the first Godzilla was killed by a chemical weapon known as the Oxygen Destroyer, the world is shocked to learn that there is not only a second Godzilla but another monster entirely, noting that these two kaiju love to fight each other. The forces of Japan scramble to come up with a solution to fight off the two monsters, or at the very least keep them away from Japan.

But that’s not the important part of the film, because far more than half of “Godzilla Raids Again” is spent with Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Koji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki), two airplane fishing scouts, and their every-day drama. They both live in a small fishing town in a tightly-knit community, Shoichi has a girlfriend whose a radio operator and Koji is terrible with the ladies. They’re the ones who find Godzilla and Anguirus on a remote island when Koji’s airplane is forced to make a water-landing.

Are you starting to see why “Godzilla Raids Again” isn’t the most well-received among Godzilla fans?

 

 

Godzilla feels like an after-thought in this movie, with the main focus being some pilots. It would be one thing if we cared about these guys and their struggles, but the film never gives us any reason to like or give a damn about them. Shoichi is too busy talking to his girlfriend that half the time he doesn’t do his job, and Koji is dim-witted and too focused on finding love. These elements would be fine if this was just a Japanese melodrama about finding love in a small fishing town, but this is the direct sequel to one of the darkest and most disturbing giant monster movies of all time. Everything involving these guys doesn’t feel like it belongs here.

While “Godzilla Raids Again” has one of the shortest runtimes of any Godzilla movie, just 82 minutes, the pacing is excruciatingly slow. While we get a glimpse of Godzilla and Anguirus fighting at the beginning, it lasts all of ten seconds, and then we don’t see the two again for what feels like an eternity. We’re given a recap of the events of the first film through recycled footage, though with no audio or music, so it’s about as exciting as your uncle showing you slides from his vacation to Mt. Rushmore. Then the military spends about ten minutes trying to come up with a plan and every single general takes his sweet-ass time to give his two cents.

And you would think that once Godzilla and Anguirus show up that would be the focus of the movie. But nope, there is a long scene dealing with prisoners trying to escape while being transported, only to set most of Osaka on fire, and Shoichi’s girlfriend constantly looking at the destruction from about five miles away at a safe location. To be fair, this leads to the only cool shots of the movie, as we slowly but surely see Osaka get engulfed in flames.

 

 

My point is that it takes this movie more than half of its runtime before we finally get to see Godzilla and Anguirus throw down. More than 45 minutes of slow, dull, uninteresting conversations that feel like they don’t amount to anything.

Even when we do get to the monster fights, the camera work gets strange. When focusing on solo shots of the two kaiju, their movements seem slow and lumbering, as they should be. But when the two are forced to fight, the camera movement speeds up to 11 and every little movement feels unnatural, like Godzilla and Anguirus are on drugs.

But strangely enough, after the two fight for a little while, Godzilla actually kills Anguirus and just leaves Osaka. Yet the film isn’t over. In fact, there’s still about 25 minutes left. And we end up spending most of with the pilots again and their drama. The big climatic battle between your two monsters wasn’t the end of the movie? We had to get 20 more minutes with these forgettable characters before one last showdown with Godzilla?

The film could have ended after everything in Osaka and our torture could have ceased! But hey, we had know if Koji ended up getting a girlfriend, right?

 

 

This leads to one last scene with Godzilla where the local fishing pilots literally start bombing the snowy mountains around him to encase the monster in ice. Let that sink in for a moment – you plan to surround a giant fire-breathing irradiated lizard with snow and ice. Yeah, I’m sure that will hold him for all of five minutes. Also this one mountain seems to have an endless supply of snow, since I swear these guys bomb the mountain about fifty times, each one as uninteresting as the last one.

There’s one last thing I’d like to point about “Godzilla Raids Again” and that is the English dub. I won’t normally talk about the differences between the Japanese version and English version in these reviews, but this one deserves special mention. Mostly because, in the English dub, all mention of Godzilla is removed from the movie. Instead, the movie is called “Gigantis, the Fire Monster” and Godzilla has now become the titular Gigantis. They also replace most of Godzilla’s roars with Anguirus’ roars, but don’t do anything with Anguirus’ roars, making it twice as confusing when you cannot tell which monster is roaring.

The explanation the scientists give for this is to say that Gigantis and Anguirus are of the same species. I don’t know if any of these scientists looked at a picture of these two monsters that look nothing alike or if they’re blind, but in any case I’m calling bullcrap.

In fact, I call bullcrap on the entire English dub; it takes an already slow, boring movie and makes it even harder to get through, with two monsters that have the same roar and below-average dubbing for the 1950s.

Overall, “Godzilla Raids Again” is not only the most boring Godzilla film, but also the most forgettable. You could marathon the entire series but skip this one and ultimately nothing of value would be lost. There are no note-worthy scenes here, the characters are unlikable, and the pacing is atrocious. As a direct follow-up to the first Godzilla film, this film misses all the marks.

 

 

 

Movie Review – “Marty” (1955)

 

 

“Marty” is one of the most simple yet easily relatable movies I’ve seen in a long time, all thanks to its main character and the heartwarming performance of Ernest Borgnine. The film follows the titular Marty, a 34-year old butcher who lives with his mother in New York. He has watched all of his other siblings, both older and younger than him, get married and start up a family of their own, but Marty has resigned himself to the life of a bachelor. Not because he likes the single life, but because he’s tried finding a woman who likes him for himself, and he has only known heartache.

This has given Marty some terrible self-esteem issues, even yelling at his own mother that the reason no woman wants him is because he’s “fat, old, and ugly.” Over the course of the film, we learn about his time with the Army and how he lost his purpose in life upon coming back. This is a normally quiet, kind man who normally keeps to himself, but wants the opportunity to do something with his life, even though no woman will give a chance. That is, until he meets Claire (Betsy Blair), a shy school teacher, at a dance and the two just listen to each others’ problems.

 

 

Borgnine’s performance is the highlight of this movie, giving us a vulnerable role that shows a man who has more than a few problems and a bit of a temper when it comes to those problems. I would describe his role as the flawed every-man. We sympathize with Marty, realizing how fragile he is, but he is relatable for that same reason. Unlike other every-man characters, especially those played by Jimmy Stewart, Borgnine’s character is so wrapped up in his weaknesses that he is blinded to his strengths.

I loved “Marty” for how different it was for the 1950s, at a time when other movies and television wanted to portray the perfect family. That every man should have a nice upper-class job and be the head of the house, while women worked on the house and kids, here’s a film about a damaged man with a job even he looks down on, and cannot find someone to love him. Yet, the film is ultimately an upbeat one about coming to terms with those flaws and loving someone anyway. I came for Ernest Borgnine’s performance, but I was transfixed by how understanding and accepting “Marty” truly was.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-