January 24, 2009

Night of Suspense Part II: "Why do I have to be the champion blind lady?"

It was just an hour shy of midnight when our merry little group began our second film, “Wait Until Dark.” How appropriate. I almost didn’t stay for it, but I’m glad I did. One member of our group did have to leave, unfortunately, though she tried her best to get off of work for the next day. She sure missed out. After Rear Window, we were all laughing and talking about how much of a damn fun ride we’d had. When the end credits rolled for Wait Until Dark, we were definitely more apprehensive.

Hepburn smells a rat... in a trench coat.

I will say here that any potential viewer would definitely benefit from not knowing anything about Wait Until Dark before seeing it. I’d never even heard of it before. When I inquired about the plot, Jared simply told me to wait and see. I’d say this would apply for nearly any movie. Wait Until Dark doesn’t have any mind-bending plot twists, but going in completely fresh made all the small surprises and tense moments much more engaging.

So, I would recommend than anyone who has not yet seen this film stop right here and go rent it now. Come back later. I’ll wait.

Reminds me of Freddy.

Ah, screw it. While not rich and diverse enough to completely trump “Rear Window” (that movie is so well rounded, as I’ve said), Wait Until Dark gripped me and pulled me down into the lightless world of the blind protagonist, played by Audrey Hepburn. The film is based on a play, and besides the opening and a few minor scenes, the entire plot unravels in Hepburn’s apartment.

The story begins with a heroin-filled doll on its way to the States. When the woman responsible for the doll discovers an unfriendly welcoming party upon her arrival (a lone villain played to the hilt with extra slime by Alan Arkin), she entrusts the doll to a man she met on the plane, who unknowingly takes the smuggled drugs into his own house with his wife (Hepburn). When the two parties come to claim the doll, Hepburn is thrown in the middle of what becomes a terrifying struggle to survive. Any movie featuring characters at their wits’ end against an insurmountable enemy, any tale centering on survival in the most hopeless situation, is embodied in this minimalist film and magnified ten times when the protagonist’s ability to see her tormentors is taken away.

"Yah, we're bad..." Roat (Arkin) seems to be the only one who enjoys it.

Fortunately, Hepburn’s character isn’t alone in her struggle, as one of the neighborhood kids who helps around the house becomes entangled in the battle. Two women, one blind, and one a child, against three hardened thugs; it’s a classic story of brains over brawn.

There isn’t much more I’d wish to say without taking away from the film’s many tense situations. More so than in Rear Window, all of us were on the edge of our seats. Even though we knew nearly every move the thugs made, the suspense lied in seeing Hepburn slowly figuring out the situation. There are moments when her disability keeps her from seeing danger that is right under her nose that left us breathless, not knowing what to expect next.

Just because she's blind doesn't mean she can't turn the situation to her advantage.

Hepburn’s performance shines here; every wrenching expression of fear is put on display, and the viewer can’t help but feel her terror. We definitely did. One particular scene caused all of us to shout out loud (one person squeaked, while I found myself nearly jumping out of my chair with a booming “Goddamn!”) For those who've seen the movie, you'll know what scene I'm talking about.

Why would anybody ever wear horn-rimmed glasses?

Wait Until Dark is every bit as good as Rear Window, though in slightly different ways. Both plots are constructed with the same gleefully sinister intent to leave the viewer drowning in suspense. However, while Rear Window’s story is backed up by the colorful apartment complex full of life, the setting of Wait Until Dark is barren. This is part of what made the film - for me, at least - more terrifying. It’s just the protagonist, a child, and three ruthless bad guys who have every advantage. There is no one else for Hepburn to turn to, and she is completely isolated in her own home.

No one does "terrified" like Hepburn.

As I said before, to be a great movie, a film must excel in many levels. Besides the expertly constructed plot, Wait Until Dark has a downright foreboding soundtrack that, on the very first note, lets the audience know they are in for a very dark tale. The performances are also award-worthy. As mentioned before, Hepburn’s fear and desperation are palpable, and the main villain is so smugly evil that he seems to enjoy it (Arkin seems to enjoy his extra roles in the movie even more; you‘ll see).

"What's that you say? Wait until dark? It's already dark! What? You're blind? I knew that."

So, as the credits rolled, we again wiped our brows, only this time catching our breaths, which had been held up to this point. Again I stepped outside and the layers of fog than inspired light-hearted contemplations of the evil beyond now brought true dread: real slime slicks the streets every night. And now, it was past four in the morning, the prime time for the world’s evil to prowl. It was at this point that I felt the need to make sure my car doors were locked.

Original poster. I love the typography.

G.H.I.D.R.A.H. W.U.R.F. V: "For We Are Many"

Since the practice came about last fall, I've found that I tend to arrange roughly two and a half kinds of movie nights. Roughly. One is the impromptu, "Ho! I have the house to myself tonight!" movie night where I call up a couple friends and we hang out and watch whatever sounds good at the time. It's nothing fancy and we all get to bed early enough to make it to our respective schools and workplaces early the next morning.*

* This is the official story but God knows we're still up into the wee hours of the morning.

The "half-breed," as it were, is sort of a mix between the preceding and proceding examples - we invite a bunch of people (whether they come or not) and make an event of it but the film selection isn't limited to the antics of irate, city-destroying monsters. These include the screenings of North by Northwest, Rear Window, and Wait Until Dark that you may have read about here on LET'S WATCH MOVIES! UNTIL WE CAN'T FEEL FEELINGS ANYMORE! and if you haven't then you ought to go do that now.

And then there is is the all-powerful, ultra-absorbant dorkfest that is the Wholesale Urban Renewal Festival or W.U.R.F. for short. The tricky thing about W.U.R.F.s is that we insist that all four primary G.H.I.D.R.A.H. members be involved in their planning, plotting, and implementation and even though we're all very flexible it can get to be very confusing sometimes. This particular W.U.R.F. has been pre-planned, planned, re-planned, cancelled, reinstated, re-cancelled, had its philisophical merits debated, reinstated again, totally made-over, totally un-made-over, re-scheduled, re-re-sceduled, boiled...

...and at some point we wound up with this. I'm not sure how much it resembles its original form at this point but whatever, here we are.

But that's not actually important at this particular moment. The point is that for better or for worse it's come to be that time of the month again - that time of the month where we all gather together and watch giant monsters smash the crap out of each other while copious amounts of dazzling pyrotechnics explode around them. Oh yes.

And without further ado, here is this month's line-up, complete with a slam-bang, awesome addition that none of us saw coming! Read on to find out more!

Kaitei Gunkan (1963)

Not everyone is a huge fan of Atragon, stating that it is full of wasted potential or Manda just isn't in it enough or something. I respectfully disagree - I love Atragon. The ship itself is one of the coolest Toho vehicles ever, this side of the Maser Cannon. I mean, it's a super-submarine that not only drills underground but it freaking flies!! It's pretty damned tough to top that.

The plot concerns the forgotten undersea empire of Mu and the one man who may be the only person able to stop them from destroying all civilization on the surface. The problem is that as far as anyone knows, he's dead.

Yeah, maybe a few more sequences of wanton destruction on the Muan's part or a longer battle with Manda could have added some neat things to the film but to me it is primarily about the transformation of Captain Jinguji - played by Jun Tazaki, turning in what is possible the best performance of his career (though I still can't help but wonder what Toshiro Mifune would be like in the role). In this respect the film is about perfect and the drama plays out excellently, particularly between Jinguji and his estranged daughter.

The effects work - especially the signature destruction of Tokyo at night - is of Eiji Tsuburaya's typically high standards and the film is very well put together for having had such a short production time (only six months!). If you've never seen a classic Toho film, you could do a lot worse than to start with this one.

Tadao Takashima
Yoko Fujiyama
Yu Fujiki
Ken Uehara
Jun Tazaki

Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa

Music by: Akira Ifukube

Special Effects Directed by: Eiji Tsuburaya

Directed by: Ishiro Honda

Gamera 2: Advent of Legion
Gamera 2 Region Shuurai (1996)

Now let's turn the clock all the way back to G.H.I.D.R.A.H. W.U.R.F. II. As Dante had never seen Shusuke Kaneko's acclaimed 90's Gamera Trilogy we kicked off the night with Gamera Guardian of the Universe (1995), an excellent film that completely trounces Godzilla's offering for the same year, the famous Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah (1995). Now after going several months constantly postponing the second film in lieu of other selections, we're finally going to be showing the stunningly epic sequel, Gamera 2: Advent of Legion. Maybe.

No, we really are! I for one cannot wait.

Advent of Legion picks up a year after the events of the first film when a freak meteor shower brings with it a mysterious swarm of insect-like alien invaders. In a fairly unprecedented move, director Kaneko has Gamera and the military form an uneasy alliance to defend the Earth from annihilation. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think an alliance quite like the one presented in this film had ever been shown in a kaiju movie up to this point. The story is one of the most epic in the genre and Shinji Higuchi's effects work is top-notch, putting Toho to shame once again.

Amazingly enough, Gamera 3 still managed to top it but that's another story...

Akiji Kobayashi
Toshiyuki Nagashima
Miki Mizuno
Ayako Fujitani

Written by: Kazunori Ito

Music by: Ko Otani

Special Effects Directed by: Shinji Higuchi

Directed by: Shusuke Kaneko

BUT WAIT! There's more!


Yes! The wonderful folks over at Sci-Fi Japan tipped us off a couple of weeks ago that as part of their monthly "Silver Scream Spook Show," Atlanta's very own Plaza Theater will be showing...

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters' All-Out Attack!
Gojira Mosura Kingu Gidora DaiKaijuu Soukougeki (2001)

Friggin' GMK!

No, not this GMK. I don't even know what that is.

This is the GMK that takes place in an alternate reality from the rest of the Godzilla series - where Godzilla was apparently killed by the military some fifty years before. Now there are strange occurances beginning to occur all over Japan - an earthquake with a moving epicenter, a giant cocoon appearing on the surface of a lake - and a mysterious old man says that Godzilla's return is imminent.

I cannot express how excited we are for this one. Also directed by Shusuke Kaneko, it's easy to see why he's considered one of the best directors in the genre today. Giant Monsters All-Out Attack is not without its flaws but is is a fairly solid film and easily the best Godzilla movie made in the past twenty years. Much like Gamera 2, it is an excellent blend of fun, fantasy, and serious drama, hearkening back to the best Toho films of the 1960s. Contrary to what many a fanboy might tell you, this is not the dark, end-all, be-all Godzilla film for the ages - it ranges from giddy fun to a serious commentary on Japan's ignorance of their war crimes in WWII but it never ceases to be good entertainment that practically anyone can enjoy. Effects-wise the picture scores another win and Kaneko continues to excel at combining monster action with human drama.

And guys, Baragon is adorab-b-ble.

Chiharu Niiyama
Ryudo Uzaki
Hideo Amamoto
Masahiro Kobayashi

Written by:
Kei'ichi Hasegawa
Shusuke Kaneko
Masahiro Yokotani

Music by: Ko Otani

Special Effects Directed by: Makoto Kamiya

Directed by: Shusuke Kaneko

And hell, if that's still not enough for you a few of us are planning on watching a bunch of Ultraman episodes the next morning.


G.H.I.D.R.A.H. W.U.R.F. V: "For We Are Many" will be held Saturday, January 31st, with the first film starting at around 2:30 PM. Be there around 2:00 for bests results.

The main showing at my house is a private affair so I'm not going to be announcing the location of it here. However, if you are interested (and we hope you are!), live in Georgia, and can somehow get in contact with the parties involved, please feel free to drop one of us a line by instant message, private message, e-mail, comment, Facebook, MySpace, phone call, etc. because we'd love to have more people join us. Keep in mind though that space at the house is limited - even with the makeshift balcony seating we've implemented.

The Plaza Theater is not nearly so limited so you should definitely join us at the GMK showing even if you can't make it for Atragon or Gamera 2. If you're joining us for the other films, we're planning on carpooling to the theater from my place afterwards. The show starts at 10:00 PM and I think we're going to try and stop somewhere for food beforehand.

Hope to see you there!

- DaiKamonohashi

January 18, 2009

Night of Suspense, Part 1: "What did you do with her, Thorwald?"

So, it was a rainy, foggy night (dark, but not stormy) when us young bucks gathered around and, after hours of lively conversation, started our first movie for the night, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” My mom always said I should see Hitchcock’s films. To a contemporary filmgoer, his movies are clich├ęd. That’s because, of course, he did it first and others copied off him! To boot, Hitchcock does it good. Real good.

The only other Hitchcock film I had seen at this point was “North by Northwest,” a precursor to today’s non-stop action thrillers, but a hell of a lot more gripping and funny. For “Rear Window,” I was prepared for more first-class thrills, but I was also looking forward to a particular actor’s performance. No, not Jimmy Stewart, but Raymond Burr, who I was quite familiar with from “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” and “Godzilla 1985.” I had never thought of Burr as one to play a scary role, but he creeps it up for Rear Window as the suspicious neighbor who may or may not have killed his wife and snuck her body out of his apartment… in small pieces. He starts out normal enough, but the more we see of him, the more sinister he becomes.

Jimmy Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies, an action photographer for a magazine. As the story begins, Jefferies is stuck in a wheelchair with a broken leg after getting too close to a tumbling race car. An action man with nothing to do, he sits in his apartment all day and stares out at the courtyard and the windows of other peoples’ rooms. He takes particular interest in an arguing couple, becoming alarmed when the wife suddenly disappears and the husband leaves the house on late-night excursions. Too bad nobody else shares his suspicion. Or his interest.

Stewart gets snoopy

The plot to Rear Window is suspenseful but simple. One might liken it to one of today’s thrillers. But what makes the film good isn’t just the plot, but everything about it. From the performances, the cinematography, and the use (or lack of) music, the film is rich. This is true of all movies; it does not matter what the plot concerns, or if there are great special effects or an awesome soundtrack. A truly good film excels at many or all aspects. Rear Window is then truly a great film. Jimmy Stewart is likeable and funny, cutting it up with both his nurse (Thelma Ritter) and would-be wife (Grace Kelly) in clever and witty dialogue that is apparently a Hitchcock trademark (I can only assume this, as “North by Northwest” contained much of the same sharp banter between its main characters). A particular line that lives in my mind is when Stewart’s character fails to convince his detective friend of the murder. The detective, on his way out, asks if there’s anything else he can do, to which Stewart replies, “Yah, bring me a better detective.”

It's a bitch when you can't reach your itch.

The stand-out quality of Rear Window is definitely, however, the incredible set - the only one used in the film - and how Hitchcock uses it to paint a lively and diverse world within Jefferies’s apartment complex, full of characters, and each with their own very personal story. As the film opened, my friend Jared pointed out the elaborate set. I was impressed; the camera started at a busy city street (which, later in the film, is doused in a deep red sunset that could only exist in filmland) then panned inward through a courtyard bustling with activity: a middle-aged woman catching the afternoon rays of the sun; a young sexy lady dancing half-naked in her living room with the blinds up; Raymond Burr’s character tending his garden; a woman lowering a basket carrying her dog from the top floor. Then the camera travels inward more, through the window of Jimmy Stewart’s apartment, past a smashed camera on a table, past a picture of a race car, past a picture of a race car in flames, then to a leg bound in a cast bearing the message “Here lie the bones of L.B. Jefferies,“ and then to a full view of Stewart himself, sitting in his wheelchair and looking painfully bored. All of this is done in only a few shots; the only cuts are merely used to establish the setting and the situation. There is no need to cut away to avoid revealing the end of a stage, because the whole world of Rear Window is all right there in that intricate set.

Only a small part of the massive set - even the waning sun and cityscape are props!

What a way start the movie! Not only was the opening a technical achievement, but it told enough stories to fill a whole book in just one minute, the final tale being how Jefferies ended up in the wheelchair in the first place, and without a line of dialogue. Now that’s filmmaking for ya.

Along with Stewart, we are constantly staring out the rear window at the going-ons of his residence. We see a man exhausted by his newlywed wife who is constantly demanding more bedroom time, a musician living in a studio apartment who is always inviting over company, including a group of guys competing for the half-naked dancer, a woman on the bottom floor who is driven mad her desperate loneliness, a couple that enjoys sleeping under the stars on the fire escape, and a husband who is so fed up with his nagging wife that her sudden absence from the daily activities seems more than a little suspicious.

"Well George, it's big and terrible!"

The action and suspense builds up gradually, never going over the top and remaining steady enough to hold the viewer’s attention. We were glued to our seats. We laughed at the banter between Stewart and his nurse (Ritter injected a so much wit and humor into her character that it's a shame she is often overlooked in this film) and were engrossed in the mini-stories happening all over the courtyard, and gripped when the one sinister plot began to gain momentum. Small moments built up into a final crescendo, never missing a beat. When we peered into Burr’s pitch-black apartment to see only the burning glow of his cigarette, we couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching us. And as Kelly and Ritter become interested in Burr’s activities, we got excited with them.

Even the nurse gets interested in invading the privacy of others.

It was in these tense scenes that I recognized moments from more contemporary films. When Stewart calls Burr’s apartment to tell him he knows about the murder, we see Burr’s reactions through the lenses of a telescope, and I was reminded of a nearly identical scene in the Nicolas Cage thriller “8MM.” When the only sign of an approaching killer was the sound of his footsteps and his shadow blocking the light under the crack of a door, I was reminded of the 2007 Academy Award Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men,” and it was here that I realized that Hitchcock has laid the groundwork for the pictures that hold our attention today, whether we or the filmmakers know it or not.

By the end of the film, we all felt fulfilled by this short and effective thrill-ride. We were as much invested in the outcome of the lonely woman as we were the main murder plot, and in the end we were wiping our brows, now safe in the house. When I stepped outside to get some fresh air before our next film, the dense fog filtered the light from neighbors’ windows, and I could only wonder what was going on behind them. Yep, we had seen a great film, because it stayed with us.

Quintessential '50s Hollywood glamour

Rear Window as a “fun” type of scary; our spirits were high at its conclusion. For me, the streets wouldn’t seem nearly as sinister until we finished our second film, “Wait Until Dark,” which was nearly devoid of humor and left me wondering if I should check the back seat of my car before driving home. In the thirteen years that passed from the filming of “Rear Window” to “Wait Until Dark,” Hollywood became much more dark and gritty, and ever more gripping.

January 15, 2009

The Good Stuff Appreciators (Enter The Mondo Boss)

"We can't feel feelings anymore!"

Let’s get this straight - I’m a genre fan. My preferred type of film has giant monsters, plenty of urban renewal, and is made in Japan. Extending from this, I love a good horror film. Before I started kindergarten, I was raised on TBS’s “Super Scary Saturday” and movies like “Jaws,” “Piranha,” and “Orca” (I suppose I had an affinity for all things aquatic). I was a film enthusiast in the making, and my mother always stressed that I should “branch out” from the usual fair and appreciate other genres. She had to drag me to “Forrest Gump” when I was ten years old, but I ended up enjoying it.

I have branched out, though I still generally prefer movies with city-smashing in them. I am now able to enjoy dumb action movies and serious dramas equally on their own merits, and I am thankful for that.

Most of my friends appreciate the mainstream or lowbrow stuff, however. One of the last movies I got together with friends to watch was “Meet the Spartans.” Definitely wouldn’t make mother proud. The Scary Movie/Epic Movie/etc. spoofs can hardly be considered films by any stretch of the imagination. Unfortunately, movies for the “mainstream” don’t aspire to much, and the loyal moviegoers seem to have become desensitized to the trash. I tried to get a good friend of mine to watch “Shaun of the Dead,” but two minutes into it, she had to stop. She didn’t get it.

“I thought this was a spoof of “Dawn of the Dead,” she said.

“It’s not a spoof, more of a tribute,” I explained. “It stands on its own merits; you don’t have to see any of the “Dead” movies to enjoy it.”

That is true. My mom loved “Shaun of the Dead,” and she is barely familiar or enthusiastic about George Romero’s other films. My poor friend was expecting “Shaun” to be just like “Scary Movie,” and that’s a shame. Like I said, I’m glad I have that appreciation of the “good stuff.”

Luckily I’ve made friends with other Goof Stuff Appreciators, a fraction of which also share the appreciation of Godzilla and his destructive friends. More often than not, we’ll have a “Wholesale Urban Renewal Festival” of giant Japanese monster films. Lately we’ve been branching out ourselves, and have been watching some damn good movies (not to say that the monster movies aren’t good. In fact, the films from the 1960’s, especially those by director Ishiro Honda, are awesome movies that stand up to the “good stuff”).

Just recently, five of us got together for a double-feature of two great films, a perfect subject for my first review: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Terence Young’s “Wait Until Dark.” Not exactly the usual selection that a group of young people would choose to sit down and watch, but we’re the “Good Stuff Appreciators.”

Up next: Peeping Toms and Blind Women