Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Life of the "Master of Monsters"

After this past summer’s release of a new version of Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, many fans have been re-visiting the movies from the original Toho series on DVD, Blu-ray & online. One of the men responsible for the success of those films was Eiji Tsuburaya, who was the special effects wizard behind such films as Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), among many others. Author and film historian August Ragone has released a fascinating book about this talented man, entitled Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film. The book covers Tsuburaya’s life before, during and after his involvement with the many Toho projects he worked on, along with director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and composer Akira Ifukube. Those four men are widely considered to be the “fathers of Godzilla” and the chief architects of Toho’s well-remembered monster, fantasy and sci-fi films released during the 1950s, 60s & 70s. There's background information about production of the classic Godzilla movies, as well as other science-fiction and fantasy films, including The Mysterians (1957), The H-Man (1958) and War of the Gargantuas (1966).

Ragone also offers information about Tsuburaya’s younger days, and his life during World War II. He also focuses on the clever technical ideas that Tsuburaya came up with during his many years working in Japanese cinema. While many non-fans have scoffed at the “monster in a suit” techniques used in these films, the book shows why Tsuburaya and his crew chose to use that technique, and details their innovative work with miniatures & models. There’s also an in-depth look at Tsuburaya’s working relationships, and his feelings and philosophy regarding his work. He never lost that “sense of wonder” that all great filmmakers possess. Tsuburaya eventually opened his own effects company, and helped create many more successful films & TV series, such as UltramanIt’s nice to see an artist like Tsuburaya get his due in an English-language book. These genre films are still fondly remembered by a large number of fans, and their influence is still being felt in movies like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) and this year's re-imagining of Godzilla, both of which already have sequels in the works. 

The book is filled with behind the scenes material, production photographs and concept drawings from Tsuburaya’s long career. It’s a visual marvel, and so beautifully designed that it’s a treat just to flip through the pages and enjoy the many rare stills, film poster reproductions and amazing photos. As an added bonus, there are some wonderful essays between chapters from other noted Japanese film scholars, including Ed Godziszewski and Guy Tucker, and a fond remembrance from Eiji’s son, Akira. Ragone has written extensively about Japanese fantasy films, and his expertise has served him well in creating this wonderful book: I'm sure you'll learn some interesting facts about Tsuburaya that you may not have known before. The book is a compelling, enjoyable read, especially for monster movie fans. Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters: Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla, and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film is now available at online retailers like Amazon & Barnes & Noble, among others.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said: An Exceptional Romantic Drama

Romantic comedies have been around since the early days of movies, and when done right, they’re very enjoyable. There are many fine examples of that genre, from City Lights (1931) to Sleepless in Seattle (1993). But it’s much tougher to do justice to a realistic relationship story between two adults and still have it be entertaining. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener pulls it off in Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorcee who lives with her teenage daughter. She attends a friend’s party and meets Albert (Gandolfini) who is also divorced. Despite some misgivings on her part, they go on a date, and find they enjoy each other’s company. At the same time, Eva, who’s a masseuse, gains a new client (who she also met at the party) a poet named Marianne, played by Catherine Keener. Marianne is bitter about her own divorce, and as the two women become friends, she tells Eva about her awful ex-husband, who she cant stand. Marianne is irritated and angry about the end of that relationship, and it shows.

As the story goes on,  Eva realizes Albert is Marianne’s ex. She starts to doubt her own interest in him, and sees the things Marianne doesn’t like about him, rather than the things she appreciates about him. Should she dump Albert, who she’s growing to love, because she & Marianne are becoming friends, and she doesn’t want to make a mistake? And should she tell Albert that she knows Marianne? Meanwhile, Eva is also going through a tough time with her daughter, who’s going off to college. Eva is becoming closer to one of her daughter’s friends, and her daughter is angry about that relationship. And Albert & Marianne’s daughter, who is also heading to college, has some issues of her own.

While all of this may sound like you’ve seen it before, Holofcener’s incisive script makes it work. The dialogue is strong & there are some sharp observations about life, love & relationships. Louis-Dreyfus is perfect in her role, a strong yet insecure woman who can’t seem to do the right thing, but has her heart in the right place. You alternately root for her and want to give her a good talking to during the course of the story. Gandolfini is excellent in one of his final roles; Albert is a regular guy who comes out of a bad marriage, and just wants to find a partner he can enjoy being with, who loves him for himself. He has several standout scenes, including when he finds out Eva has been friends with Marianne behind his back. The hurt he shows on his face, with little dialogue, conveys all the betrayal he feels at that moment. There's also strong supporting work from Keener & Toni Collette, as a friend of Eva's.

There are no easy answers or Hollywood endings here, though the film does offer some hope before the fadeout. This is a story of real people with real issues, and there are both laughs & tears to be found in this entertaining film. Holofcener has also directed films such as Walking & Talking (1996) & Friends With Money (2006) and her movies often polarize critics & viewers (including myself), but she’s done some fine work here. I guess you can call this one a romantic dramedy. Enough Said is one of the best films of 2013, and it deservedly received a lot of critical acclaim. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and some streaming services. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Next: The Master of Toho's Monsters

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion - Andrew Curry & Friends Rule On This Fabulous Album!

One of the best records I heard last year was executive producer Andrew Curry’s Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute to Lite Rock. A group of indie rock & pop artists like Mike Viola & Lisa Mychols covered mid 70s-early 80s AM radio staples like “Steal Away” & “Don’t Give Up On Us.” It’s a really fun disc – and I still listen to it frequently. Well now Mr. Curry & some friends have returned with an equally enjoyable follow-up, Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion. This time out, another group of indie artists tackle songs from the British bands who exploded onto our TV screens during the years when MTV ruled the airwaves. Come on, you remember the Modern Rock/New Wave era, don’t you? Songs like The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” whose videos played in heavy rotation when MTV still played music? Well, those songs are on this excellent tribute album, along with a batch of other tunes from the glory days of music video.

The styles range from faithful covers like David Mead’s rendering of Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” and Linus of Hollywood’s version of Paul Young’s “Everytime You Go Away” to splendid re-imaginings such as Taylor Locke’s rockabilly rave on “Dancing With Myself” which adds Beach Boys style harmonies to the Billy Idol hit, and Graham Alexander’s clever gender switch reading of Tracey Ullman’s 
“They Don’t Know,” a song written by the late Kirsty MacColl. Other highlights include Eytan Mirsky & Alyson Greenfields' country-esque cover of the Howard Jones track “No One Is to Blame,” People On Vacation rocking out on Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” and Cliff Hillis’ gorgeous interpretation of Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good.” (Love those horns, mate!) There’s also Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne doing Dream Academy's “Life In A Northern Town,” as well as Minky Starshine with Spandau Ballet’s “True.” And did you know that Soft Cell's hit "Tainted Love" was itself a cover of a 1960s tune by soul singer Gloria Jones? On this album, Eric Barao gets that 80s vibe just right on his version of the song.

Another positive aspect of this marvelous album is the song selection: There are well known hits like rocker Bleu powering up on Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” alongside somewhat lesser known (in the US) numbers like the Yaz song “Only You,” beautifully covered by The Wellingtons, and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies with a masterful rendition of The Blow Monkeys tune “Digging Your Scene.” Kudos to Curry for gathering together another eclectic group of artists, including Freedy Johnston, who offers a jazzy re-do of the Naked Eyes song “Promise, Promises,” Rachel Yamagata, who does an intense, emotional take on Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” and Tracy Bonham who gives a unique slant to the Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” There are also some returning artists from the Drink A Toast To Innocence project, including Kelly Jones, who does a delicate, lovely remake of Level 42’s “Something About You” and the aforementioned Cliff Hillis, Mike Viola, Bleu and Linus of Hollywood. I haven't touched on every track on the album, but they are all amazing.

Whether it’s a dead-on accurate cover or awe-inspiring re-imagining, all the songs here are fantastic, and will take you back to those pre-internet days when we were glued to our TV sets watching all the videos on MTV. Like its predecessor, this disc is going to ignite memories, make you smile, and get you singing along & probably even dancing around the room. Andrew Curry & his team are to be commended for hitting another one out of the park. Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion is an awesome record, and one of the best albums of 2014. This isn’t some low rent, hastily thrown together collection or shoddy project. Curry & these artists really care about this music, and it shows; they’re fans, just like we are, and they give these songs the respect they deserve. Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion will be available soon; it was originally a Kickstarter funded project, so backers have already begun to receive their music, and an official release should be coming in the near future.

Here’s a link to an old school style ad/trailer for this smashing collection: There’s also a Facebook page you can check out for more info on the album: The song list is below, not including a couple of bonus tracks that were Kickstarter only exclusives. I also recommend listening to these talented artists’ own music – they’re all well worth checking out. And if you're interested in my review of Andrew Curry's previous project, Drink a Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock, that article can be found here:

Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion
Track Listing
Disc One
1. Life In A Northern Town - Chris Collingwood
2. Goody Two Shoes - Jim Boggia & Pete Donnelly
3. Everybody Wants To Rule The World - Mike Viola
4. Kids In America - Big-Box Store
5. West End Girls - Secret Friend
6. True - Minky Starshine
7. Cruel Summer - People On Vacation
8. Everytime You Go Away - Linus Of Hollywood
9. Something About You - Kelly Jones
10. Only You - The Wellingtons
11. Tenderness - TeamMate
12. Don't You Want Me - Chris Price
13. Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) - Tracy Bonham

Disc Two
1. Wouldn't It Be Good - Cliff Hillis
2. Tainted Love - Eric Barao
3. Promises, Promises - Freedy Johnston
4. Do You Really Want To Hurt Me - Rachael Yamagata
5. Save A Prayer - David Mead
6. Relax - Mike Doughty
7. Dancing With Myself - Taylor Locke
8. Digging Your Scene - Ken Stringfellow
9. Freedom - The Davenports
10. They Don't Know - Graham Alexander
11. No One Is To Blame - Eytan Mirsky & Alyson Greenfield
12. Our House - The Corner Laughers
13. Life's What You Make It - The Nines
14. Don't You (Forget About Me) - Bleu