Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book reviews: Nine days, nine books.

Well, I've been in a reading fervor for the last week or so, and naturally you readers have to pay the price! Here’s the reviews that are the result of all that reading. Oddly enough, this time I picked my titles a little more carefully, so I didn’t read anything that sucked the big one.
The Annals of the Heechee by Fredrick Pohl. This is the fourth full-length novel in Pohl’s long-running and award-winning Heechee Saga. Everything’s tied up with ribbons to end the quartet of main novels that focused on the adventures of Robinette Broadhead. I enjoyed it, but there’s a lot of semi-theoretical physics in it. The main character is also dead, spending his time as an electronic consciousness. If you’ve read the others in the series, this is a must-read, but I wouldn’t advise someone to start with this book, as even genre fans will be a tad out of their depths. And I’d recommended reading at least the first two books anyway, as they are true modern classics of science fiction.
Ballpark Mysteries: The Fenway Foul-Up by David A. Kelly. I hadn’t realized this was a rather Young Adult title, but its baseball, so how bad could it be? It literally takes less than fifteen minutes to read. It’s a mystery about a stolen bat at Fenway Park, but the clues are way too obvious, even for a kid’s book. The book has a lexicon in back with definitions of a lot of the baseball terms used in the story, and quite a bit of Fenway Park trivia is revealed during the course of the tale. I wouldn’t suggest an adult buy this to read for themselves, but it might be a good tale for a parent and a child who were baseball fans.
Doc Savage: The Man Who was Scared and Doc Savage: The Shape of Terror. These are #138 and #139 in the series of pulp adventures featuring the Man of Bronze, written by Lester Dent (under the house pseudonym of Kenneth Robeson). Both are excellent examples of both Doc Savage stories and great pulp adventures. The first story opens with a man falling dead on Doc’s doorstep, with his plaintive final words being “my breakfast cereal.” The second tale opens with Doc being kidnapped by the RAF and being killed in an airplane crash. His aides Monk and Ham die in a fiery car accident soon after. Both are well-written, as these books are in the phase where Doc was often a somewhat more fallible than his reputation.
I Had the Right to Remain Silent, But I Didn’t Have the Ability by Ron White. A good three-quarters of this autobiography is just restatements of Ron White’s stand-up act. I’m sure even the most anti-redneck/Blue Collar Comedy Tour fan will get a chuckle here and there. There’s a great section on White’s travails in trying to get a couple of TV pilots on the network. It’s a good read if you have an hour to waste.
Godzilla Returns, Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla at World’s End by Marc Cerasini. These are the first three novels in a short-lived Godzilla series from the nineties, inspired by the remakes of the Godzilla movies that started with Godzilla 1984. Godzilla Returns is somewhat based on that movie, but the others have no true movie progenitors. As with most of the Showa and Millennium era G-films, Godzilla was last seen in 1954, where he was driven away (and not destroyed by the Oxygen Destroyer) until his reappearance in the first book. The first two books are pretty standard, though the characters in the Godzilla Returns are a lot more accessible. The storyline in Godzilla 2000 is a bit hard to follow in spots. The third novel is a monster tour de force, with most of the Toho rogue’s gallery out to face Godzilla. It loses a little as it goes, because the whole tale tries to be too much in too short a story. If you’re a kaiju eiga fan, they should be on your reading list. If you’re just a sci-fi fan, try Godzilla Returns before bothering with the others to see if you like the style.
You Might Be a Zombie, and Other Bad News: Shocking But Utterly True Facts by the Editors of If you aren’t familiar with, forget this review and head over to that website immediately. This book is like an actually relevant edition of The Book of Lists meets The Daily Show. There are a lot of oddball, trivia facts in this little tome, and unlike the aforementioned Book of Lists, they’re actually presented in a very readable and hilarious form. Quite a few of the chapters have appeared on the website, but there are a good number of lists and articles that are exclusive to the book. Funny, sometimes caustic and highly recommended.

Well, that's all for this go-around. I've got a couple of album reviews and an old-radio show review on plan for next week, as well as another comic book from the "New 52" reboot. Take care, folks!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kaiju Review: Space Monster Dogora (1964)

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I enjoy weirdness, especially in movies. Give me a goofy b-movie and I’m happy as a clam. Space Monster Dogora is one of those bizarre movies that I love watching.
It’s not the most well scripted film in the world, naturally. In fact, the story comes off as two separate movies that were filmed over at Toho Studios and then the directors just said, “What the heck, let’s put ‘em together!”  The movie starts with a scene of a NASA-like room full of technicians and consoles watching a satellite. Apparently Japanese TV satellites have been getting wrecked, but only on their sixth orbit. This satellite too is destroyed, by a cell-like creature that is vaguely reminiscent of the giant amoeba that Spock flew a shuttlecraft inside of during “The Immunity Syndrome” on the original Star Trek series.

Space Monster Dogora in ... well, space.

After the credits, the movie cuts to a jewel heist in progress, complete with a Rififi-esque crew of safecrackers. The police are drawn away by both the lovely Akiko Wakabayashi and a drunken salaryman, who is levitating through the streets on his side. The safecrackers are also levitated away from the safe, and off we go on a very strange celluloid journey.

Drunken guy floating to work. It is Japan, after all.
While the whole plot is somewhat segmented, it all does seem to work in a rather enjoyable way. Dogora consumed carbon, and isn't necessarily all the picky in what form the carbon is in; A string of diamond thefts around the world are later attributed to Dogora, since it does apparently like to get the purest form of the substance first. The diamond heist gang is angry because only one of the big thefts was their work, and is looking for whoever's cutting them out of the action. The rather shifty Occidental Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham) is also in the web, a lone wolf "diamond g-man" working for a special commission. His loyalties are unsure for most of the movie, as he's a thorn in the side of the crooks and Inspector Komai (Yosuke Natsuki).

Meanwhile, Dr. Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura), a professor of crystallography, has been tangentially connected to the diamond case because of his work with synthetic diamonds. He becomes more involved as after Komai and the professor's beautiful assistant, witness a colliery's coal supply being sucked into the sky. Munakata also theorizes that there's a possibility that the giant space cell could start being less discriminating in its lunch habits, noting that humans are carbon-based, too.

Munakata works with the military, led by an old friend of his, to develop a weapon to stop Dogora. Inadvertently, Dogora's end also closed the case for the diamond gang.

Dogora in the skies above Doikaiwan.

This is another film that proves that things don't always have to make sense to be fun. Dogora itself is an intriguing monster, but I think since its not a big lumbering, city-stomping lizard, we don't have the same sense of urgency about its appearances. Even when it destroys the Wakato Bridge, which is a great special effects scene for the period, there's not a lot of terror (or at least the fake terror you'd normally assume in these films). If the plot does have a flaw, its in the point that Dogora hadn't started eating people yet ... just lifting them up and moving them away from what he wanted to eat wasn't all that scary or intimidating. Dogora might as well have just said "Excuse me" first.

With these two plotlines showcased in the movie, the performances are a little stilted. The version I've watched is the original, subtitled Japanese version of the movie (I haven't gotten around to getting a copy of the American International Television cut yet), and everyone comes off pretty one-dimensional. The cast is excellent though, considering this being a monster movie. Akiko Wakabayashi has appeared in genre films before (Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster and King Kong Vs. Godzilla) and is noted for being one of the first Asian Bond Girls (along with Mie Hama in You Only Live Twice). Robert Dunham has appeared in numerous Japanese movies, including Mothra, The Green Slime and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorite, Godzilla vs. Megalon. The cast is further bolstered by genre veterans Jun Tazaki, Hideyo Amamoto and Hiroshi Koizumi.

Space Monster Dogora, for its obvious limitations, is really one of those rare movies that can't be compared to any other film. It is a piecemeal work that somehow manages to become a greater, and goofier, whole. This sci-fi/monster/heist flick is definitely worth watching!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Review: Godzilla Final Wars (2004)

Godzilla, standing amid the aftermath of doing his thing.

Godzilla: Final Wars was the last Godzilla movie in the current Millennium series of films. Right off, I have to tell you that this is not a great film. It’s barely a good film, but it’s mighty fun to watch.
The movie was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the original Gojira film, which began the many-storied Godzilla franchise. And as such, the movie is a virtual homage to Toho Studio’s science fiction/daikaiju (giant monster) output over the past half-century. The film itself is a melange of remakes of several previous Toho movies, notably Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters!
The story is pretty simple: The movie opens with the crew of the Gotengo managing to trap Godzilla under tons of Antarctic ice back in 1954. More monsters began appearing after that, and a race of mutants with vaguely-described physical enhancements also came into existence, working alongside humanity to protect the planet.  In 2004, all of the world’s monsters start attacking for no apparent reason. Then a seemingly-benevolent alien race from Planet X captures them all, and seeks to help Earth because a runaway asteroid is on a direct collision course with the planet. After a group of people discover something’s not on the up-and-up with the Xians, the monsters are released and the aliens reveal their plan to take over the world and use the human race for food. The rebels take off in a flying submarine to release Godzilla from his Antarctic prison, who proceeds to kick kaiju ass and the aliens are defeated. I could’ve labeled this “SPOILER ALERT,” but let’s face it, you know everything’s gonna be the status quo at the end.
I know, I know ... the story sounds rather trite and childish. Well, so what? If you want highbrow storylines, go rent some Kurosawa. Final Wars is merely a celebration of a genre that has given a lot of pleasure to a lot of kids (and kids at heart) for the better half of a century.
Let’s look at the special touches in this movie:
  • The storyline is a combination of the movies Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters!, both of which are near-classic giant monster slugfests.The Xians are very similar to the Kilaaks from DAM in motives, and the original Controller of Planet X is grabbed very much like the leader of the Xians was in MZ.
  • The monster tableau is almost the same as DAM, with a few of Godzilla’s other foes tossed in for good measure. Rodan, Gamackeras (the giant insect), Spiegas (the giant spider), Angillas, King Seesar, Ebriah (the Sea Monster - a giant shrimp/lobster), and Hedorah (the Smog Monster) all cause a lot of fun damage, as do two versions of the buzzsaw-bellied Gigan. A good number of the monsters are computer-generated this time around, rather than being regular puppets or man-in-a-suit-asauruses.
  •  Mothra and the tiny Twin Fairies make an obligatory appearance.  It's just not a Japanese monster movie without a pair of twins of indeterminate age to control a giant moth.
  •  The American version of Godzilla is acknowledged in the form of Zilla, who gets easily trounced by the real thing. “Stupid tuna-eating monster!”
  •  As in DAM, the flying fiery UFO from space turns out to be something else  ... Monster X, who transforms into King Ghidorah.
  • The plot point about an asteroid on a crash course with Earth was taken straight from the movie Yosei Gorasu, a sci-fi flick about a planet named Gorath that was going to play billiards with Earth. As over the top as this movie is, Gorath was prevented from destroying the world by moving the whole Earth out of its orbit with giant rockets. Again, I know, I know. But it’s another fun movie, so go watch it!
  • There are cameos of monsters from a number of lesser-known kaiju eiga, including Gaira from War of the Gargantuas, Baragon from Frankenstein Conquers the World, Titanosaurus from Terror of Mechagodzilla, Varan from Varan the Unbelieveable. Gezora (the giant, walking squid from Yog, Monster from Space), Manda, Destroyah and Megaguirus. Most of these cameos are film clips from the original movies.
  • The plot weaves in a lot of stylistic elements from The Matrix movies with a dash of X-Men. The main weapon of the defense forces, the flying, drilling, submarines, are taken directly from the movie Atragon, as was the monster from that movie, Manda, which is taken out of play by the Gotengo right after the opening credits.
  • The day is proverbially saved by the appearance of Godzilla's son, Minilla. He's too cute for words as usual. 
  • The cast is filled with Japanese stars of previous kaiju eiga, including Kenji Sahara, Kumi Mizuno, Masakatsu Funaki, Akira Takarada and Jun Kunimura.
I'm sure it sounds campy to anyone who isn't a fan of the genre. But you know what? It's fun! This film is a lot more enjoyable than some of the big-budget sci-fi blockbusters that tainted American screens back in 2004, like The Day After Tomorrow or I, Robot.

One has to always remember that, with one exception, giant monster movies are supposed to be just unbridled fun to watch. They aren't high art, and they don't have to make perfect sense. Godzilla: Final Wars is an hour and a half of simply pleasure that any fan should take the time to experience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The inevitable death of genres, or why isn’t the Cisco Kid still on TV every week?

I’ve been reading a lot about how soap opera fans are decrying network plans to cancel their stories, and I really think that they should just consider themselves lucky that things have lasted as long as they have.
When you think about it, the soap opera genre has had one of the longer periods of popularity than most other forms of entertainment. From their days as radio programming staples in the forties to their popularity as TV programs from the sixties to the nineties, they’ve been around for quite a long time. And what’s more, they’ve been around in virtually the same form, which is responsible for both that longevity and for their downfall.
People enjoy following interesting stories, and enjoy being able to do so often. Soap operas were a reliable source for that, giving folks five days a week of quality entertainment. But that only goes so far, especially as tastes and entertainment options evolve and expand. Right now, there are a lot more entertainment options for the typical soap opera fan than there were in the thirty years of their heyday. It’s not just young guys who are at war with themselves over choosing what to do at any given moment; Everyone, even the stereotypical bored housewife, can find a lot of interesting stuff to do besides watching soap operas.
One of the problems with soap operas is that they don’t really seem to reflect the times as they once did. Sure, they try, tossing in the occasional homosexual character or weather-controlling madman, and making sure everyone has an iPhone now. But adult situations really aren’t address with the propriety that modern society now allows. The selfsame sponsors who promote their products on these programs are very wary of being controversial. At least most programs allow such things as multiracial relationships now, since that’s a big demographic.
Soap opera fans should feel grateful that their genre has lasted as long as it did. For example:
·        The Cisco Kid, The Roy Rogers Show, Hopalong Cassidy, the Range Riderthe Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke.  The classic television westerns rode off into the sunset over thirty years ago. All western fans have now are sub-standard “modern” westerns guised as “family entertainment.” Rarely is a shot fired or a horse reared-up in the cause of action, adventure and justice anymore.
·        After the Kennedy assassination, cartoons went from the action-oriented likes of Space Ghost, Birdman and the Fantastic Four to mostly cute animals and adventures were Superman never throws a punch at a villain. Scooby Doo is fun and all, but solving the same basic mystery over and over gets real old.
·        CBS shut down all their rural situation comedies in the late sixties/early seventies just to try and put some gilt on their big bloodshot eye, even though shows like the Beverly Hillbillies were still getting top ratings.
Science fiction fans got lucky, since sci-fi is still such a big blockbuster box office draw, that genre is weaved into many a program nowadays. Most games shows are syndicated now, relegated to the bargain basement of reality television, which has taken over the small screen because of the low production costs.
Almost every genre of fiction has a period of unrivaled media popularity, before it gets into a sleepy lull and fades into nostalgia. Sometimes there are ways to keep things going fresh and new, but often or not, circumstances will just not allow that. I'm sorry, soap opera fans, but I think it's just about that time for your shows.
Popularity is a fickle mistress, and she likes to sleep around.

Friday, September 16, 2011

DC Comics: The New 52 - Justice League #1

I have to say that I can’t recall seeing commercials on TV for comic books since the early eighties, when Marvel Comics did one for G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero #1. I didn’t see much point to that one, and I didn’t see much point to the current one for DC Comics’ “The New 52” line. And after reading Justice League #1, I can’t see much point to that whole idea, either.
It’s been very hard to be an old-school comic fan over the past decade. The few remaining writers that we could count on for quality stories have gone completely commercial and sold out. I suppose I can’t blame them, considering what a dying art form and hobby comic books and comic book collecting has become. But when I sit back and read fantastic tales stories in the pages of Starman or Doom Patrol or JSA or even New X-Men and see the kind of confusing, monotonous tripe that writers like James Robinson, Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns are putting out now, it saddens me.  I quit reading most Marvel Comics after the lingering “Civil War” crossover event, and stopped reading most DC books after the fiasco of “Final Crisis.”
The hobby is in a downward slide. For example, back in 1968, the first Doom Patrol series was cancelled for selling only 250,000 copies a month. The version of the series that was cancelled in 2002 was only selling around 15,000 copies. The best seller that month sold around 148,000 issues. Huge crossover events that are so convoluted you need a scorecard haven’t helped matters. Readers want solid stories of the characters they enjoy - they don’t want to buy a bunch of comics they’ve never read in order to follow the plotline of a single story. And since new comics are about as valuable as new baseball cards, there’s not even a speculator market anymore.
Let’s take a look at the first issue’s story, written by Geoff Johns and featuring art by Jim Lee, which is set five years before the current continuity. For some reason, Cyborg is set to be a major player in the Justice League this time around. I hadn’t realized that Victor Stone, who has gone through lord knows how many transformations over the years, was suddenly a major commercial star. But we’re going to be seeing his origin over the course of the next few issues. I’m betting some major accident involving some of the other soon-to-be JLA’ers. As for the “heroes” we also see in this issue, not a single one of them have any original qualities that make them endearing to me. The Batman is, well, the Batman - stuck-up and overbearing. Superman appears to be a jerk as well, and Green Lantern Hal Jordan is pretty much an idiot. Batman even pulls a stunt he did in All-Star Batman and Robin by stealing GL’s Power Ring. At least this time, Robin wasn’t around to nearly kill the “Emerald Gladiator”...
If this book is representative of the New 52 continuity reboot, I’m very scared for the future of DC Comics. It has the scent of the disastrous revamping that Marvel Comics tried in 1996, giving their flagship titles to Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld of the then-popular Image Comics to remold into something new. That was a creative fiasco, no matter how you look at it. Having Jim Lee as a player in any reimaging of any comic book is not something I’d call a move that inspires confidence in the whole. I’ve also read where they’re bringing in Liefeld, who is perhaps the single worst artist in the history of comic books, to do another of the New 52 titles (The Hawk and the Dove), so I’m having the distinctly ominous feeling that this is a venture that is doomed to failure.
There’s nothing in Justice League #1 that makes me want to pick up issue #2. Much like Marvel did, DC Comics is completely abandoning the remains of their hardcore, old-time fan base. I hope that they realize that in this economy, it’s a bad thing to lose steady readers for the sake of bringing in a few short-term sales on a bunch of #1 issues. And I also hope they realize that in this age, even those old-time fans can find plenty of other diversions to make them forget about new comics, and stick with the old ones they can rely on for solid entertainment.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Concert Review: "The British Invasion Show." Penn's Peak September 8. 2001

Amid the overflowing waters of north central Pennsylvania, my wife and I took advantage of some free tickets that I had won on Facebook and ventured up to Penn’s Peak (in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania) for what was touted as “The British Invasion Show.” It headlined The Yardbirds, with special guest Badfinger Starring Joey Molland. Due to the weather, the 1,800-seat venue wasn’t close to being filled, with only about 400 chairs set up and only about people attending.
“The Doctor” from Penn’s Peak Radio came out to open the show, and after a long list of announcements of upcoming events, completely forgot to introduce Badfinger. No one came out later to introduce the Yardbirds, either. Even Joey Molland seemed a tad confused with that. It didn’t really affect the show, as Badfinger started right into “Baby Blue” and an excellent show was off and running.
I know there’s been a lot of press about the problems and tragedies within the original Badfinger, but none of that came through this show. Joey Molland was an original member as of the first album, so as far as I’m concerned, he can lead a band with that name. He actually seemed to want to be up there playing, and the whole group seemed to be actually having fun, a virtual rarity in today’s business-driven music landscape. I’ve always thought that “fun” equals “good rock ‘n’ roll” and it was definitely the case tonight.
The entire band was pretty laid back, and Joey would introduce a lot of the songs with a little bit of history; After all, Badfinger was groomed by Paul McCartney and the Beatles at Apple Records. This is the closest most of the folks around here will ever get to that sort of legendry. The band was very harmonious and everyone except the drummer took a turn on lead vocals at one point or another. All of their major hits were played at one point or another, though I would like to have heard “Rock of All Ages” or “Carry on Till Tomorrow” in the set. What was really notable was that this was the first opening act I’d ever seen at Penn’s Peak that came back for an encore, playing two more tunes, including “No Matter What.” The whole performance had a good vibe, with some great tunes. I’ll definitely have no trouble paying to see Badfinger the next time they swing by this area.

Let’s see ... what can I say about the Yardbirds? I suppose they really had a lot to live up to, considering the talent that worked their way through the group: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. But I have to admit that I was never a fan of any of those particular guitarists, I wasn't influenced by that lineage. The particular line-up at this concert only barely made it past the criteria I have for calling a band by a classic name, since the only original members present were drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja. My wife actually thought they were some kind of warm-up band when they took the stage. The same positive group dynamic that Badfinger had fifteen minutes earlier wasn’t there with the Yardbirds. Here was a band that really seemed to be using a name to get a paycheck and nothing else.
The set list was fairly good, performing most of the Yardbirds’ big hits, like “Heart Full of Soul,” “For Your Love,” and “The Shape of Things.” One problem for me was that, while Andy Mitchell is an excellent vocalist, I really don’t think his voice was suited to most of this material. His stand-out moment was his rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” He also managed a passable version of “For Your Love,” but most of the other tunes were lacking ... something. A good number of tunes were played off the "Little Games" album, including "Glimpses," a psychedlic number that just didn't come off well with Mitchell's vocal register. And it was considerably dated; Mitchell noted that the song hadn't been performed in concert before ... there's a reason for that. 
Lead guitarist Ben King does a good Clapton imitation. But that’s about all it was. Chris Dreja spent most of the show looking like he was frightened of coming too near his band mates, scared of his guitar, and completely terrified of the microphone (unless he was attempting to rap with the audience). I have to say that they did close the show with a fantastic version of “Dazed and Confused,” but the encore of “I’m a Man” was really uninspiring.
This incarnation of the Yardbirds is definitely a bar band and little more, but Joey Molland's Badfinger still has the chops and the verve to be a starring act. Badfinger made this concert into an old-fashioned rock show, and it's too bad that they weren't billed as the headline act.