Friday, December 16, 2011

Message From Space

Message From Space (1978)

Dir. Kinji Fukasaku

     I’m being redundant in saying Kinji Fukasaku directed Battle Royale, as every critic and nerd has already pointed out, but before he directed that masterpiece (sarcasm), he worked on a large range of genres. One of his weirdest and earliest flicks was the campy ‘Black Lizard’ starring female impersonator Miwa Akihiro as the temptress that all the male leads would fight over. But that wouldn’t even scratch the surface on how much weirder Fukasaku’s only sci-fi movie ‘Message From Space’ would turn out.

      ‘Message From Space’ is one of the more notable blatant knock offs of Star Wars coming out of the 70s. It’s one of those films that’s hard to review, since while it may have had cutting edge special effects for the time of its release, it’s completely laughable today. On top of that, it’s hard to tell whether or not it was ever meant to be taken seriously. The main plot is straightforward, but the dialogue feels like it was done at a college improv class. On top of that, just about nothing in this movie makes sense, pointless scenes abound, and none of the characters or major plot points are coherent to the whole.

     Stylistically, ‘Message From Space’ can be labelled under the tokusatsu subgenre of Japanese live action movies. This is a genre that usually involves giant rubber-suited monsters and cardboard box space ships like what you would see in Godzilla movies or Ultraman. The similarity isn’t just limited to the special effects, though, since Message from Space also has some of the hammiest dubbing that would feel right at home with any Japanese monster movie.

Anyone who’s seen Space Balls will probably be able to spot similar characters, scenarios, and costume designs. Message From Space came out years beforehand, so I can’t help but wonder if it influenced Mel Brooks. If anything though, Space Balls isn’t as ridiculously stupid.

     I also need to point out the fact that as a victim of the 70s, ‘Message From Space’ takes more than one or two pages out of the Leiji Matsumoto book of scienceless science fiction where analogue technologies such as Spanish Galleons are suitable for space travel. People don’t need space suits to keep their internal organs from turning into exploding festival balloons, and my favourite; a scene with a robot, resembling Asimo, patrolling with a 17th century musket.

     As for the story itself, It’s basically about a planet called Jillucia that’s been invaded by a race of silver-skinned aliens called the Gavanas. In order to fight off the Gavanas, 8 seeds resembling walnuts are dispersed throughout the galaxy and are expected to just magically end up in the hands of 8 heroes who will stop the Gavanas and save Jillucia. Who or what kind of person do the magical walnuts favour, you might ask? Try not to care, because this movie certainly doesn’t. There’s no explanation at all behind how this works or how just 8 people alone are supposed to stop an invading alien race that whole fleets of ships weren’t able to. Don’t expect much exposition other than that. Why are the Gavanas interested in invading other planets? What are their belief systems? Just shut up, and stare at the cool ships.

     Well, this was a Japanese production, but that didn’t stop it from having an international cast made up of Japanese and western B-list talent. Probably the most redeemable thing about this movie is Vic Morrow’s straight-faced acting as General Garuda. He delivers the most priceless lines in the whole movie and every scene with him in it is solid gold. What I love about him is just how seriously he manages to deliver some of the dumbest lines. Like one where he remains defiant against a superior officer after he’s scolded for using an expensive military rocket to give his robot assistant a proper funeral. Or better yet, one scene where he’s sent as an ambassador to Earth to negotiate with the Gavanas. Out of his own brand of chivalry, he indignantly challenges one of the alien invaders to an 18th century style duel just for laughing at another human character. He declares that he cannot allow anyone to laugh at a ‘citizen of Earth’. The way he does it is completely spontaneous and makes no sense, but I just couldn’t help but love the guy for how much he got absorbed in his role.

     Regrettably most of the other performances in this movie aren’t as interesting, and are downright forgettable. Even Sonny Chiba didn’t have much of a presence. What’s even worse is that most of the movie is comprised of giving screen time to these blander characters, of which there are many. The only exception is a spoiled rich girl played by Peggy Lee Brennan, who at least manages to have some fun.

     There’s also one character that is only introduced within the last 20 minutes of the story. He might as well have just been a loaf of bread since he added zilch to an already inflated cast. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if he didn’t end up playing such a pivotal role in resolving the main conflict. Why would they give such an important role to a character introduced right at the end?

     Is this movie worth seeing? Yes, and no. The scenes with Vic Morrow almost made it worth watching for, and I must admit that the costume and ship designs are an interesting distraction from Star Wars, but there’s so much filler content that I have a hard time recommending it. It’s a very campy film and can be fun to laugh at with a friend, or if you’re high, but personally I would rather just watch Space Balls again. I guess you can say that it’s one of those very unique films that deserves a place in film making history. There have been Star Wars knock offs before, but this is one of the few from a Japanese perspective and by a great director like Kinji Fukasaku. Yet, I can very easily see why he stuck closer to Earth after making this.


-Gabe Stein

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Survival Of The Dead

Survival Of The Dead (2009)                                                                         
Dir. George A. Romero

     Director George A. Romero wrote the book on the zombie movie genre and despite superficial flaws his films are beloved by all horror fans, especially Night of the Living Dead (1968) and it’s next two sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). As with most films in the horror genre, their flaws are part of their charm and at least with his first three films Romero is no exception. His social allegory for zombies as a reflection on society has been stated and discussed numerous times. Whether it be commentary on race, consumerism, voyeurism etc his points are made and absorbed while also allowing us, the audience, to enjoy these intestine-tearing gore fests without getting too serious about the whole debacle.

     Survival of the Dead is the sixth film in Romero’s seemingly never-ending franchise.  I won’t go too far into the fourth and fifth installments but I will say that Land of the Dead  (2005) features Dennis Hopper as a crazed zombie-proof-skyscraper landlord. Which means you should probably see it.   Similarly, Diary of the Dead (2007) is actually fairly decent. It creates tension using the hand-held camera technique that other movies like The Blair With Project and Paranormal Activity were not quite able to pull off.  Two characters worth watching for: a university film professor who turns out to be English Rambo and a deaf, dynamite-chucking Amish man named Samuel. Need I say more?
     Let me begin with Survival by addressing a character that should have been killed even before he got screen time. I’m talking about that kid with the mopey haircut and an unhealthy taste for finger jewelry. In a survival situation this person would most likely die faster than you can say Pitchfork. If not at the hands of the “dead heads”, as the zombies are referred to in this film, then by the sweet mercy of his fellow comrades’ blazing machine gun fire. The fact that he is coolly adept with a sidearm is entirely ludicrous.  As a matter of fact, the only official name he is credited as is simply “Boy”. Not Ted, or Corey or some other bullshit like that; just “Boy”. Cut your losses and shoot Boy.
     Survival is a direct follow-up from Diary, picking up with minor characters from the latter. The fractured remains of a military unit find themselves on Plum Island and in the middle of what appears to be a decades long family rivalry. The islanders have some kind of Irish sounding accent and we’re never quite sure where exactly this place might be. It's off the coast of Delaware I think. Up until now the inhabitants of America’s east coast were blissfully unaware of an island nearby that was populated by, I’m assuming, highly inbred Irish people. According to the film, there are really only two families that live there. In any case Kenneth Welsh, Canada’s go-to crazy drunk old man, plays Patrick O’Flynn who was exiled for wanting to kill all the “dead heads” while his rival Seamus Muldoon wishes to find a cure, or simply just use them as bad-smelling appliances.
     As the movie progresses there is a lot of gunfire, a few zombies, fake Irish accents performed by Canadian television actors, and one lesbian. The only truly creepy image from the film is O’Flynn’s zombified daughter riding on horseback through the farmlands. The atmospheric greyness and her dark hair flowing in the wind brings to mind Wuthering Heights, as the image would not be out of place in Emily Brontë’s book.
     Whether they should be executing the re-animated corpses of their loved ones is a moot point. Kill them all. It’s been proven time and time again that if you don’t take care of them now they’ll get you later. Also human beings are ass-holes. I guess Plum Island doesn’t have television. If they did, they would have watched The Walking Dead and realized they were out of their league and should find a vocation other than zombie killing altogether.

     This is by far the worst entry in the series and should definitely NOT be chained in the backyard as a passing amusement.

Just shoot it in the head.


-Malcolm Jamison