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September 12, 2006

You would not believe the summer I’ve had.

Not to get into gory details, but two of the most painful conditions it is possible for a guy to have hit me in rapid succession early in August, accompanied by various other debilitating and lingering ailments. I didn’t watch many movies last month, nor, if truth were told, have the mental clarity and concentration to coherently write about them.

However, it appears that the worst is now over. I’m about neck-deep in missed deadlines, but I’m slowly clawing my way out. With luck – the good kind, for a change, I hope – I’ll be able to get back to that weekly schedule for the column that I was achieving earlier this summer.

Anyway, today, I’ve got a few short reviews to tide you over until next week, which will be a full-fledged, full-service Late Show, crammed with B-movie goodness.

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Classic Media has done a great service for fans of kaiju eiga and, specifically the Big G, with their release of the original, uncut, Japanese version of GOJIRA (1954), paired in an attractive new DVD package with the American version, known as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956).

American nuclear testing creates a towering prehistoric monster with radioactive breath, which heads straight for Tokyo, leaving devastation in its wake. Japan’s only hope of defeating the creature lies in the Oxygen Destroyer a weapon as potentially deadly as the A-bomb itself. Can Dr. Serizawa, the Destroyer’s inventor, be persuaded to use the weapon before it’s too late?

Directed by Ishirô Honda, GOJIRA is a dark, occasionally moving, anti-nuclear allegory with powerful performances by a top-flight Japanese cast. The script is excellently constructed, never losing sight of the human stories that might easily have been lost in the devastating spectacle of the primeval giant’s fury. Played utterly straight and with complete sincerity, the film – while derivative of American efforts like THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS – has an emotional weight unique in the genre. Only the Japanese have suffered the consequences of a nuclear attack, and the memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were still very vivid in 1954. The scenes showing the wounded victims of the creature’s first Tokyo attack, lying en masse on hospital floors as they slowly die from radiation poisoning, have a verismilitude that could only have come from real-life experience.

The U.S. version, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, is a pretty effective creature feature in its own right, but much of the human suffering and character drama has been cut out, replaced with new footage of actor Raymond Burr, playing an American journalist on the scene. Although the structure of the movies is quite different, played out mostly in flashback, the movie is still quite grim. Burr’s scenes are really quite expertly integrated into the Japanese footage, with excellent use of body doubles and carefully matched sets and lighting. Burr, too, deserves credit for playing the role very straight, describing the devastation his character witnesses with credible conviction.

Classic Media presents GOJIRA for the first time on American home video in fine form. Although the print – direct from the vaults of Toho Studios – shows considerable wear and damage, due to the inferior stock used, the transfer is as fine as modern technology could make it. There are still scratches and specks riddled throughout, but the image is mostly sharp, with solid blacks and good contrast. The movie also uses lots of stock footage of the military, and when that film appears, it is noticeably inferior to the rest of the footage. Overall, though, the transfer is excellent for a movie of this vintage. The print of GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, is okay, but looks about the same as it has on every previous domestic video presentation: slightly washed out and grainy.

GOJIRA includes clear English subtitles accompanying the original mono audio soundtrack, while GODZILLA keeps its familiar English mono tracks. Both films include informative, detailed audio commentaries by Godzilla scholars Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, and there are two featurettes, one focusing on the development of the original film story, the other on the film’s elaborate special effects.

The two films come in a classy, attractively designed “hardback” clamshell, and the package includes a 16-page booklet with extensive liner notes.

For fans of kaiju films or serious students of science fiction cinema, Classic Media’s GOJIRA/GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may be the most important DVD release of the year. And if that’s not enough to be grateful for, they’ve announced similar editions of other Godzilla and vintage Toho kaiju films in the months to come.

Highly recommended.

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Hungarian actor Peter Lorre made quite a career for himself in sinister character roles, but probably his most offbeat characterization was that of Japanese detective/secret agent, Mr. Moto. In eight films for 20th Century Fox, Lorre played the devious, crime busting jiu-jitsu master and Fox Home Video has just released four of these classic B-movies in THE MR. MOTO COLLECTION VOL. 1.

The first film in the set, THINK FAST, MR. MOTO (1937), introduces the Japanese sleuth as a San Francisco importer/exporter who takes it upon himself to track down and break a diamond smuggling ring operating out of Shanghai. Atmospheric, moody, and filled with devious characters, it’s a strong start to the series.

The second disc, THANK YOU MR. MOTO (1937), finds our hero in China, searching for the tomb of the legendary Genghis Khan. Disc three, MR. MOTO TAKES A CHANCE (1938), finds the inscrutable secret agent deep in the jungles of Cambodia, posing as an archeologist. In the final disc in this first set, THE MYSTERIOUS MR. MOTO (1938), Lorre’s character heads for London, where he attempts to destroy an organization of professional assassins.

Each film is presented full frame with cleaned-up mono sound. Fox has done a marvelous job restoring these early thrillers (each disc has a restoration comparison), and has packaged them together in a smart box set. Each disc includes a featurette focusing on a different aspect of the series’ production – including profiles of Lorre and series director Norman Foster.

I love these old B&W mystery series, and Fox is to be complimented not only for releasing them on DVD, but putting the effort in to restore and present them properly. A great set, and well-worth buying if you’re a fan of classic Hollywood mysteries. I can’t wait for Volume Two.

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I haven’t actually watched a new Jean-Claude Van Damme movie since KNOCK-OFF, I think. While there was a time when I made an effort to see each of the Muscles from Brussels’ movies – I particularly liked BLOODSPORT, DOUBLE IMPACT, HARD TARGET and MAXIMUM RISK – his transition in the early 90’s from theatrical action star to direct-to-vid leading man left me behind, I’m afraid.

Well, Sony Home Video just sent me the latest action effort from the man, a surprisingly involving little flick called THE HARD CORPS (2006).

Van Damme plays Phillipe Sauvage (gotta love those movie names), a Desert Storm vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Through a somewhat contrived series of events, he is hired as bodyguard for an ex-boxing champ-turned-philanthropist (Razaaq Adoti). Unfortunately, an ex-con rap music producer with a grudge has marked the former boxer for death, and Sauvage finds himself trying to protect an uncooperative client in the midst of a hip-hop shooting war.

There’s not really all that much action in this one – maybe one hand-to-hand bout and a couple of gunfights, but what there is fairly well staged. Direction (by Van Damme vet Sheldon Lettich), production values and cinematography are surprisingly slick for a direct-to-DVD flick, and the story (despite how it may read above) is actually quite interesting and well executed, with solid performances by most of the cast, especially Vivica A. Fox and Adoti.

Van Damme mumbles his lines and delivers them in his usual stilted manner, but since his character is supposed to be emotionally damaged, it sorta works.

Setting Van Damme down into the middle of a hip-hop gangsta war makes for some interesting character bits and gags; I particularly liked a scene where his character is training some young bodyguard recruits how to shoot properly, berating them for holding their guns sideways. Sure enough, in the final gunfight, only he and his team seem able to hit anybody, with the bad guy gangstas shooting their sideways sidearms wildly.

Sony Home Video’s bare bones DVD offers the feature in a crisp1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby 5.1 audio. The only extras are trailers for other recent and current Sony action releases, including Van Damme’s SECOND IN COMMAND.

Ultimately, I found THE HARD CORPS (the name that Van Damme’s bodyguard team is given by their employer), to be an entertaining diversion, and far better than I expected it to be. It’s not a classic – but it’s one of the man’s better movies.

Next week, I’ll have a big ol’ bunch of reviews for you – nearly a month and half’s worth, actually – including the softcore thrills of FELICITY, the vintage sci-fi of THIS ISLAND EARTH, the video game horrors of STAY ALIVE – plus: I WAS A TEENAGE MOVIE MAKER, 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, the VICE ACADEMY Trilogy… and did I mention pirates?

Comments about this column or DVD-related questions? Feel free to contact me at dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com.

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