Friday, December 19, 2014

Gamera vs. Zigra (1971) - MST3K Review


It all starts on the moon, when a candy colored space ship arrives and blasts a moon rover with a strange beam, causing it to vanish. Later, some marine scientists working at Sea World perform some experiments in their rowboat, when two things happen. Their kids Kenny (Yasushi Sakagami) and Helen (Gloria Zoellner) have stowed away, and then the aliens abduct all four. Turns out these aliens are comprised of one space babe (Eiko Yanami) and one huge beaked monster called Zigra. They have the power to cause earthquakes and eruptions, so that isn’t good.

Luckily Gamera (friend to all children) is on the case. He is able to save the four humans, and even attempts to take on Zigra. But little does he know that Zigra can grow to enormous size, fight with amazing skill under water and pretty much trounces Gamera. Meanwhile the space babe arrives in Sea World to kill Kenny and Helen, Zigra takes over the television and telling everyone how cool he is, and there is a really long scene with two men arguing about fish. You can bet your bottom dollar that this will all end with two monsters beating the tar out of each other while the Gamera theme song plays triumphantly, or else they wouldn’t have called it Gamera vs. Zigra.

Movie Review:
Joel tastes the rainbow of fruit flavors.
Every year since 1965, a new Gamera film hit theaters. But by 1971, the old rocket powered terrapin has pretty much run his course. The folks at Daiei had run out of stories, run out of monsters and run out of time as the studio went into bankruptcy after this film was released. Still, looking at the way Gamera vs. Zigra plays out, you could argue that the time had come to put the series aside and let some new ideas percolate. Gamera would return in 1995, with a new look and a new story line.

In some ways Gamera vs. Zigra is kind of like a celebration of the previous Gamera films, kinda like Die Another Day is like a celebration of the first 20 James Bond films. Another similarity is that both films aren’t that good.

One of the big problems with the Gamera film is that the story beats are oh so predictable at this point. One of the reasons Gamera vs. Guiron is so much fun, is because it goes in completely new direction with the giant monster storylines. Sure it’s a goofy direction, but it is still new and surprising. Here, everything that happens, you’ve seen before – and it was done better in the earlier films.

The space babe's plan is evil. You can tell by the
green under lighting.
Alien beings from space threaten earth and the space babe? Both right out of Gamera vs. Guiron. Alien unable to withstand the light? Got that one from Gamera vs. Gaos. The marine scientist and Sea World doctor look familiar? They both appeared in key roles in Gamera vs. Barugon. Even the space babes from Gamera vs. Guiron appear again, but in different roles as a housewife and … wait… as a space babe? To be fair, Daiei was using a pool of actors for all its films, very similar to the studio system in the golden age of Hollywood. So seeing familiar faces in films was nothing new. But it all adds to the feeling that you’ve seen this stuff before.

However, like all the Gamera movies from Gamera vs. Gaos going forward, Gamera vs. Zigra has a lot of just plain goofy and off the wall moments. The moon base abduction sequence seems to have no purpose at all, until a very odd late film revelation – that does absolutely nothing for the story. The Sea World angle just seems bizarre, especially when they have living facilities and a hospital on site. The side story with the bathysphere and the long, long sequence featuring two men arguing about fish sales will cause you to wonder if you put a completely different movie in your DVD player. There are little things like Helen obsessed with drinking Coke, and the cartoonish chase scene with the space babe and the kids.

"Let's keep mugging and bantering. We can
stretch this scene out 6 more minutes at least."
Then there are the visuals. Gamera gets a bit of a redesign. Well that’s not exactly correct. He gets a tongue, which sticks forward from his mouth in a very disturbing way. The Zigra spaceship is a very colorful and silly looking thing, with jutting points and rounded Skittles lights all over it. But Zigra itself is a pretty cool monster, a fishlike beast who can swim very quickly and has blades all over its body. Gamera gets pretty beaten up and bloody by this fishy creature. It looks a bit like a Goblin Shark, a disturbing deep-sea creature that is a living fossil.

One of the odd things about Zigra is that this is the first time the monster in a Gamera film can actually speak. And boy is he an arrogant blowhard. Some of his ranting and raving provides unintentional laughs, mostly because the dubbing is so poor. And yeah, I know I keep saying that, but Gamera vs. Zigra may have the worst dub of the series. Lots and lots of nonsensical lines and moments that attempt to match the lip flaps, but do so with the most bizarre lines or sounds we’ve heard yet.

Part parrot, part horseshoe crab, part manta ray - all evil.
Still it all makes for some entertaining moments. Unlike the slow pacing of Gamera vs. Barugon or the original Gamera film, at least Gamera vs. Zigra moves pretty quickly. The outlandish visuals are fun for a little while. And you can attempt to untangle the storyline, which seems to be really thrown together this time around (I’ll admit the edit used by MST3K doesn’t help things, it really feels like whole scenes are missing). As far as a finale for the monster series goes, well it could have been a lot better. But as a finale for Joel and the bots to celebrate their final Gamera movie on MST3K… well, read on and find out.

Episode Review:

No matter how hard Gamera tries, his new tongue
will never top Barugon's.
If Daiei studio was feeling some fatigue with the Gamera films, it is no surprise that the cast and crew of MST3K was also feeling some fatigue watching them. This comes through in the celebratory nature of the host segments, as well as the riffing of Gamera vs. Zigra. In a way, I kinda wish they spread out the Gamera (and Japanese movie) riffing over a couple seasons. It would have kept some of this a bit fresher for them. But when it is all said in done, we’ve got what we’ve got. Luckily the riffing is pretty solid for this episode.

What makes the best riffing are the really odd moments. These are still enough to give Joel and the bots material for funny jokes. When our marine scientists jump into the rowboat to head out for specimens, Joel quips, “Let’s get some tuna safe dolphin!” When the boys discover that the little boy is named Kenny they all yell “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” at the same time. Kenny from the first Gamera film really scarred them.

Does this shot look familiar to you too?
When the Zigra space ship is revealed the boys keep referring to it as a candy dish, and Crow tries to figure out if it is filled with Skittles, Dots or Jujubes. When Zigra starts talking Joel points out that “it is weird that the monster is badly dubbed.” One of the scientists asks Zigra why he does horrible things, Tom replies, “Because I didn’t get picked for cheer!”

Near the end after the Gamera vs. Zigra portion of the film concludes, Gamera does a kind of victory dance, to which Joel encourages him with “Bust a move, Gamera”. But then turns to Crow and says, “You know what? These films are weird.”

Unfortunately a portion of the riffing revolves around how familiar the plot is, how annoyed they are that they are watching another Gamera movie and a surprising amount of obvious observation (or State Park) jokes. It almost feels like an episode from Season One in that regard.

I'm not a real space babe, I just play one in Gamera
The episode begins with Joel and the bots enjoying a root beer kegger. They’ve got a Gamera piƱata and they are ready to party. Why? Because this is the last Gamera movie they have to tackle. For the invention exchange, the mad scientists have created 3 Stooges guns. Should be seen to be believed. For the party Joel had turned Tom into the root beer keg and Crow into a shish-ka-crow. At the first break, Tom and Crow have crated a model show how Gamera works. It turns out Gamera has a game room inside of him as well as sleeping quarters for Kenny. Joel ruins it when he opens the secret door leading to Gamera’s guts. When we come back from the next break, Joel and the bots show off their dioramas featuring their favorite scenes from the Gamera films. When we come back Joel and the bots are visited by Kenny and Helen (Mike and Bridget badly dubbed). It gets kinds surreal. When the movie ends Joel the bots and the Mads all sing the Gamera theme song in different styles. This final sequence is not for the feint of heart.

The bots reveal the inner workings of Gamera!

When it comes down to it Gamera vs. Zigra is a fun episode, but it falls somewhere in the middle of the bunch. Gamera vs. Guiron is still the funniest episode, and I think I’d take Gamera vs. Gaos over this one too. But it makes for a solid finale for any MST3K Gamera marathon.

This episode is available on the MST3K vs. Gamera boxset (Vol. XXI).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten - Favorite Electronic Film Scores

On one of the film score sites I frequent, there was some discussion about favorite electronic or synth film scores. This ended causing a lot of debate about the perceived decline of orchestral scores, and the dominance of electronics. All that was interesting, but not something I wanna get into here. Instead, I found the various top ten lists of electronic scores to be fascinating.

Compiling my own list, I found that it leaned heavily on the 1980s. And lets face it, if there was a decade that was in love with the Casio synthesizer, it was the 80s. So a huge helping of nostalgia is at work in this list. But you’ll find some modern stuff on here too. You may also find a couple scores with an orchestral base, but where the electronics play a key or prominent role.

10. Tron Legacy composed by Daft Punk
When I heard they were making a sequel to Tron I wondered how they were going to handle the music. Would Wendy Carlos come back? Well, the creators decided to keep the electronic style of the music, but modernize it (as they did with the visuals and concept behind the film). The result was bringing in electronic duo Daft Punk (and some composers from Hans Zimmer's music team) to create a sonic world that fits Tron Legacy like a glove. The score has a very modern feel with the orchestra, but Daft Punk's retro/techno/funk combinations turn this into one of the best scores of that year. I wish Carlos' Tron theme had made an appearance, but all in all, this is one of my favorite scores of the last five years.

9. Dune composed by Toto and Brian Eno
In the 1980s there was a bit of a craze of pulling in pop and rock groups to compose film scores. The results were often mixed, but they were almost always interesting. This score is really an anomaly. Who would have guessed that a David Lynch film would get a score by Toto? Not me. But hell, it works! There are a number of bold themes, with full throated electronics. But one of the most interesting pieces is The Prophesy by Eno. This is an atmospheric almost etherial piece that combines the mystery and mysticism of the film. Lynch uses the music very well in the film, but it makes for a great stand alone listen.

8. Backdraft composed by Hans Zimmer
You can't talk about electronic fusion with orchestral power and not mention Hans Zimmer. The man has perfected this combination and it has had a huge impact on film music, coming to dominate most Hollywood action, sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters for the last ten years and counting. It all started with his work on Backdraft. This score remains one of my favorite incarnations of this sound. Zimmer uses bold masculine themes, uses the electronics to modify the sound of the orchestra and really add resonance to it. The result was something no one had really heard before. It's a great fit for the film, but makes for some great listening if you want to feel like you are kicking ass while doing household chores.

7. Hoosiers composed by Jerry Goldsmith
Goldsmith was never afraid to experiment with electronic sound effects, and used them in his scores as far back as the mid 60s. But the man really dove into the synth revolution of the 1980s and composed some really unique and interesting scores. My favorite from this period has to be Hoosiers. While a good portion of the score is traditional orchestra, Goldsmith uses synth percussion. Specifically, he uses the recorded sounds of a basketball on a wooden floor as his percussion. The result gives this score a unique sound. The score also features a full synth version of the main theme, which is so 80s you may feel you necktie getting skinnier as you listen to it.

6. 1492: The Conquest of Paradise composed by Vangelis
The Greek electronic guru was asked to tackle a historical drama for 1992 film exploring the voyages of Christopher Columbus. This production was truly an international showcase, and while the film certainly has its flaws, the amazing score is not one of them. Vangelis fuses three distinct styles into the score: middle eastern (representing the moorish influence in Spain), medieval style choral work (for the catholic church) and a world music sound for the island nations that Columbus encounters. All these are brought together with some distinctive themes, and of course lots of electronics. But there is enough orchestra and unique instruments to make this one hell of a colorful album. His 13 minute finale cue is worth the price of the album alone.

5. Alexander composed by Vangelis
Really it only made sense to have Vangelis score a film about Alexander the Great. How could Oliver Stone resist. Much like the earlier film, Alexander is far from a perfect film, but the music is really something else. Vangelis takes the listener on a musical journey from Pella in Macedonia, across the plains of Gaugumela, into the rocky wastes of Asia and into the jungles of India. Vangelis gives us a couple of powerful themes, but focuses on specially instruments and various audio colors (with lots of synths of course). While the album listen it's quite as fluid as 1492, I prefer the musical journey of Alexander. Its a shame the official album is so short, plenty of great music in the very long film never made it to the CD.

4. Logan's Run composed by Jerry Goldsmith
Goldsmith was used to creating unique soundscapes for science fiction films. His work on Planet of the Apes is considered a massive triumph of his early career. But I really love what he did with his 1970s synthesizers. For the scenes based around the computer controlled society in the city, Goldsmith uses a purely electronic score. What is amazing is that he creates a motif for the city's overwhelming power. At first you hear only electronic pulses, but they do create a theme, and that theme appears in various guises throughout the film. Goldsmith introduces the orchestra gradually into the story, as Logan moves further from the city. But the motif is never left behind and often appears as his friend pursues him into the wilds, played by orchestra - but still the same pulsing theme. This score rubs some listeners the wrong way, the 70s electronics are very much of their time. But to me, they really give an identity to the world of the film: cold, brutal and inflexible. Something the warmth of the orchestral final track really shatter.

3. Blade Runner composed by Vangelis
As much as I enjoy his work on the historical films, there really was no better fit for Vangelis then science fiction. It was really a stroke of genius that caused him to work with Ridley Scott on what ended up being one of the best science fiction films of the 1980s. One of the reasons the film is so effective is that Vangelis score builds upon the visuals and adds depth to the atmosphere of the film. While the score is primarily known for its electronics and its energetic end titles piece, there is a heavy vibe of noire music styling in the film. The saxophone (with some synthetic layering) has a prominent role in the score. In addition there are some very dark moments in the final portion of the score that create a dissonance that I've never heard from the composer. All in all, this score may be Vangelis' best, and certainly one that helped Blade Runner obtain it's place as one of the best science fiction films of the 80s.

2. Tron composed by Wendy Carlos
This score appeared on my Top Ten Favorite Scores of the 1980s. So it really isn't a huge surprise to see it here. Once again we have a composer using electronics to create her own audio world for the film. One of the reasons I really admire this score is the way it ends up sounding so unique. Nothing else out there sounds like the score to Tron. Carlos uses a mix of orchestra and electronics, but her style is much closer to modernistic film styling of the 1950s and 60s. It deals more in atmosphere as opposed to Golden Age score methods focusing on theme and theme development. Carlos still takes us on a musical journey and there are a couple themes, but she fleshes out the emotions and world with her music. While not a unique approach, it wasn't something that was too popular in the 80s with the John Williams inspired Golden Age style resurgence. But Tron's fusion of electronics with that modern style is what make it so impressive.

1. Transformers the Movie composed by Vince DiCola
Well, here is another one from my Top Ten Favorite Scores of the 1980s. As much as I admire the skill and technique of Vangelis, Carlos and Goldsmith, sometimes you just need to rock out and have fun. Really it doesn't get much more fun than DiCola's score to Transformers the Movie. It's big, it rocks and it is bursting with action and adventure. To me this is the quintessential 80s synth rock score. No one could mistake this score as coming from any other decade. And once you tell someone that it is from a movie about transforming robots battling to save the universe... well what other kind of soundtrack can you really expect? But I don't want to sell DiCola short, because he does create themes and utilize them throughout the score. He does build a musical story, and carry the film along. He does what he was supposed to do with a film score. But he also made it one hell of a ride, and something that I love listening to over and over again, especially during the summer.

Well there you have it. I had a few other special mentions that didn't make it onto the list. Anime composer Ko Otani provided a couple of excellent electronic scores for Outlaw Star and Tenchi Muyo 2: A Midsummer Night's Dream. You also have the incredibly awesome videogame score Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon which will remind you of Vangelis, John Carpenter and pretty much every action movie from the 1980s. And speaking of John Carpenter, the man has brought us some really fun electronic/rock scores like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China. If you want to head into a more experimental style, Tangerine Dream also contributed a few scores such as Legend (for its US release) and Thief. You also have Giorgio Moroder who provided music for Cat People, The Neverending Story and a new score for the silent film Metropolis.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Anime Juke Box - Escape - Transformers: The Movie

Now some of you may be making faces because Transformers: The Movie is not technically an anime. But I think it sits right on the edge there. The series and toys originated in Japan, and the animation studio behind the original series was based in Japan. So I feel pretty good about including it in the Anime Juke Box.

The score was composed by an American Vince DiCola. It really is a blast. DiCola creates a number of themes and interweaves them throughout the film, often with fast paced and exciting action music. The score has a certain pop vibe to it, but it really fits the film, and he even gets some moments of wonder and even sadness with a beloved robot dies. DiCola's score fits the film perfectly and is oh-so-80s all at the same time. It ends up being one of my favorite scores from the 1980s and my favorite all synth score. 

Enjoy this track, Escape, which features various themes (and even a quote from one of the songs featured in the film, Dare). 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

I’ve always been a sucker for fantasy adventure movies. When I was a kid, it really didn’t get any better than the movies featuring Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation special effects. Some of the best Harryhausen work could be found in his Sinbad adventure films. This film fell in the middle of that trilogy, but was it a step down from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or was it an improvement on the crowd-pleasing adventurer and his journeys into the unknown?

Sinbad (John Philip Law) and his crew are returning from a successful journey when they run into a strange flying gargoyle creature. After shooting at it with an arrow it drops a golden bauble. Sinbad keeps this strange token. Unfortunately that little gargoyle was taking that treasure back to his master Prince Koura (Tom Baker) a deadly sorcerer. Koura pursues Sinbad, but the brave captain escapes to the city of a friendly Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who hates Koura after the wizard melted the Vizier’s face off.

The Vizier reveals that he too has a golden treasure that fits with Sinbad’s into a kind of map. It leads to untold power, and the Vizier warns that Koura must not be allowed to obtain it. The two join forces to race the lost island of Lemuria before Koura can get there. But the scheming wizard has many magical traps up his sleeve. Sinbad and his crew will face a living wooden figurehead, a centaur/Cyclopes hybrid, a griffon and more fearsome of all, a living six armed statue of Kali who wields swords like a demon. Will Sinbad, his crew and the lovely Margiana (Caroline Munro) survive The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or will evil triumph?

Good Points:
  • Amazing Dynamation effects by Harryhausen
  • A wonderful Golden Age style score by Miklos Rozsa
  • Maintains the feel of a real Arabian Nights story

Bad Points:
  • Some of the composite effects show their seams
  • Some broad acting choices lead to unintentional laughs
  • Takes a while to set up the adventure

Easily my favorite of Harryhausen’s Sinbad trilogy. The cast, Tom Baker in particular, sells the story and adventure. I love that the film feels like an actual Arabian Night story. This one also contains some of Harryhausen’s most unique and amazing creations – especially the living statue of Kali. Between all the action, wonder, Caroline Munro's slave girl outfit and adventure you get one of the best Harryhausen fantasy films.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Score Sample: Blade Runner

When it comes to electronic scores, especially in the 1980s, you really couldn't escape Vangelis. The man had been working with electronic soundscapes since the 1970s, and had scored a documentary or two. But his real break hit in 1981 with Chariots of Fire. The score was popular and won him an Academy Award for best film score. Now you could argue the appropriateness of the music for the subject matter of the film (and how it could have beat the score to Raiders of the Lost Ark), but that is not the subject of today's blog.

Instead I want to talk a bit about his score to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Scott is one of those directors who is not very good with his score choices (at least for most film score fans). But I can't argue with his selection of Vangelis for this film. Blade Runner relies heavily on its mood and atmosphere. A huge part of that comes from Vangelis' score. Almost completely electronic, the score uses a mix of dissonant material, middle eastern singing, noire style blues and even an old tyme 30s radio show ballad. The result is a score that is very much part of the world it evokes. While I think Jerry Goldsmith could have composed something just as interesting for Blade Runner, I just can't imagine the film without Vangelis' score. The two are really linked together. Here is one of my favorite tracks, the synth sax tune called Blade Runner Blues, and this video includes shots over modern Tokyo just for kicks. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Ray Harryhausen had specialized in visual effects since the 1940s.  While his works were prominently featured in films like It Came From Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth never had a single film been dedicated to his creations. When the time came for Harryhausen to step up to the plate, he selected an Arabian Nights style fantasy to really show his stuff. Fantasy films were changed forever.


Adventurer and all around hero Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is returning to Baghdad with the lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) when his ship takes an unexpected detour to the island of Colossa. There he meets Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) a scheming sorcerer who has just pissed off a huge Cyclopes! Sinbad and his men rescue Sokurah and discover that the man has a magic lamp complete with Genie (Richard Eyer). Unfortunately the Cyclopes have taken the lamp, and Sokurah demands it back. Sinbad knows a no win scenario when he sees one and he refuses. They sail from Colossa with a grumpy Sokurah in tow.

When they reach civilization Sinbad parties it up with the Parisa, but Sokurah uses his dark magic to shrink the princess to a handy pocket size. Of course the only way to restore the princess to her proper height is to return to Colossa and obtain the shell from the egg of a huge bird called the Rok. Sinbad grumbles, but he decides to go back, and face the dangers of the island. But it is more than just lumbering Cyclopes and huge birds. He will also face a fire breathing dragon and even an animated skeleton. Will The 7th Voyage of Sinbad be his final journey?

Good Points:
  • Impressive Dynamation effects by Harryhausen
  • Creates an immersive world on the island of Colossa
  • Wonderful golden age score by Bernard Herrmann

Bad Points:
  • Everyone seems awfully white and American to be from the Middle East
  • Some over the top acting (especially by Thatcher) leads to chuckles
  • Some of the effects lack the polish that we’d see in later films

Harryhausen knocks it out of the park with this one. His creatures are amazing and impressive, giving everything an overwhelming scale that hadn’t been seen since King Kong. Beyond that he builds his fantasy world using classic mythic tropes and fairy tale plot points. It makes for a fun ride, even if Mathews feels more like a cowboy than Sinbad. I also love Thatcher, in spite of the fact that he’s the exact opposite of subtle. While it is not my favorite of the Sinbad trilogy, it is a lot of fun.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.