The buildup: After a giant MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) emerges from a long slumber in Japan, it escapes to wreak havoc towards our West Coast on its way to a rendezvous with another MUTO. While the deadly duo bring human forces to their knees, it awakens another giant predator, the nuclear-powered Godzilla, whom the government has kept the existence of a secret for 60 years. A giant clash of the titans emerges as Godzilla takes on one then both of his enemies between Japan and San Francisco. There’s a human story as well: following the giant monsters, a beleaguered Navy lieutenant heads east from Japan to reunite with his wife, who is caught in the Bay Area chaos.
The breakdown: I have to admit that after the horrible 1998 remake directed by Roland Emmerich, I was really skeptical about a new Hollywood reimagining of Godzilla, even if it was sanctioned by Toho Studios. But Monsters director Gareth Edwards did a solid job bringing the Big G back to life in a respectful manner and one that clearly shows that he was a part of his childhood. The interesting twist here lies in the way Edwards shot all the creature battles from strictly human points of view, whether on the ground, in buildings, or in the air, giving the movie a different sense of scale. The numerous bonus features delve into the monsters and the film’s creation.
GODZILLA 2000 (1999)
The buildup: A strange alien meteorite discovered by Japanese officials soon transforms into a flying saucer and later a highly evolved monster named Orga that seeks to find a new home for its alien race on earth as well as learn the secrets of Godzilla’s fast regenerative capabilities. Naturally our monstrous lizard anti-hero, recently risen from the ocean depths, dukes it out with his new adversary and decimates half of Tokyo.
The breakdown: Although Toho Studios killed off the Big G (sort of) in 1995 for a long deserved break, rumor has it that the 1998 American remake so tarnished his global reputation that its original creators brought back the original King Of Monsters for his first real digital age romp. The effects still look pretty good after 15 years, and a bonus here is the original Japanese language cut that is eight minutes longer and reduces the jokey humor while retaining some cut scenes that give the alien’s invasion plans a more serious subtext. Godzilla 2000 is one of the best of the franchise and one of the few to get a theatrical U.S release.
REBIRTH OF MOTHRA I, II, & III (1996-1998)
The buildup: The Elias Triangle are three tiny sisters, two of whom have a telepathic and life force connection to the mighty Mothra and stir her into action whenever their evil sister Belvera tries to use other giant kaiju for world domination over the environmentally destructive human race, whom she abhors. But when the three-headed threat King Ghidorah comes to rid the world of children and possibly destroy the earth in the third installment, the squabbling sisters must unite for the greater good of the planet.
The breakdown: Mothra was quietly off-screen for nearly over 25 years when she was brought back for Godzilla Vs. Mothra in 1992 and then this kiddie-friendly trilogy in the mid- to late ’90s, the third part of which has never seen home video release here before. We still get giant monsters in rubber suits, and the additional effects straddle the line between old school blue screen work and then developing CGI technology. Thus the movies look dated and hokey in spots. That said, some of the epic kaiju battles in the first and third chapters are pretty rad, including Mothra traveling back in time to take on baby King Ghidorah (the baby part being relative) in the dinosaur era. This newer Mothra is also enhanced: she has greater magic powers, shoots out energy blasts, and can even transform to look more badass. She takes a real bruising but keeps on cruising through the skies.
THE NORMAL HEART (2014)
The buildup: Larry Kramer’s acclaimed, autobiographical story of his struggles to bring awareness to the growing AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s is translated by the author to the small screen. Writer turned activist Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) and the concerned Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts) seek to wake up NYC’s gay community to the existence of AIDS while battling the homophobia of politicians and even his own lawyer brother (Alfred Molina). As the deaths start to mount, with Weeks’ own lover becoming infected, members of his organization the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello among them) struggle to maintain unity within their ranks while taking on the outside world.
The breakdown: While perhaps nothing can top the power of seeing this tragic tale unfold on stage before a live audience, Kramer and director Ryan Murphy did a very good job of translating the material to television (it was nominated for 16 Emmys and won two). More things can be focused in closer visual detail: the physical intimacy, Fire Island hedonism, and sadly, the bodily deterioration of AIDS victims up close. The Normal Heart grimly reminds us that despite greater acceptance of the gay community and increased awareness of AIDS, we are still without a cure and must not become complacent regarding this crippling disease.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED (2014)
The buildup: After convincing the Muppets to go on a European tour, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) makes way for Kermit to be quietly abducted into a Russian gulag in place of his evil criminal doppelganger Constantine, who comes aboard to lead the Muppets and secretly work with Badguy during the journey to find clues to a puzzle that will ultimately help them steal the Crown Jewels of England. Almost no one seems to notice why “Kermit” is not acting like his usual self, and Muppet music, mirth, and mayhem ensue, plus lots of cameos.
The breakdown: While not as charming as the previous Muppets movie (it has two or three songs too many), this installment still has its magic moments, with Gervais, Tina Fey (as a gulag guard), and Ty Burrell (as an Interpol inspector) gleefully hamming it up. The badge showdown between Burrell and CIA agent Sam Eagle is hilarious, and watching hardened Gulag prisoners (including Danny Trejo) putting on a revue is also a hoot. The extended cut runs 12 minutes longer, but the theatrical version is a more appropriate run time. Then again, if you’re impatient, you could always go with the highly truncated Statler and Waldorf Cut, which clocks in at under two minutes.
The buildup: A deranged killer escapes from an asylum and traps a musical cast and crew inside their rehearsal space, dons a creepy, oversized owl head, and begins a nasty bloodbath. Amid their quarrels, the artists try to stay united to survive their night of terror, which is enhanced by colorful cinematography and an over-the-top ’80s soundtrack.
The breakdown: Michele Soavi’s first fiction directorial effort (credited as Michael Soavi) found him capably setting the stage for a visceral slash and stalk film that effectively uses nearly every part of the theater setting, from its dressing rooms to overhead perches and water tower. Forgiving its flimsy plot and hysterical fever pitch at times, Stagefright is a fun ’80s fear fest for those who appreciate the craziness of the Italian movies of the time. Interviews with some of the cast and crew illuminate the challenges of making this low budget slasher, which gets a gorgeous transfer from Blue Underground.
FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966)
As soon as a foreign scientist defects to the U.S. with vital information, he is gunned down in an assassination attempt that places him in a coma. Thus a five-person American team (Stephen Boyd, William Redfield, Donald Pleasence, Arthur Kennedy, and Raquel Welch) gets shrunk down to miniature size in a special craft and injected into his body via syringe. They journey into his brain to try to laser away the blood clot causing his condition. Ironically, our government needs his knowledge of shrinking people and things for longer an hour, which is all the time our heroes have to save his life. To make matters worse, a traitor may be aboard the ship. This far-out ’60s sci-fi flick won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, and it’s easy to see why—the shrinking sequences and the organic set pieces replicating internal organs are creative and clever. It helps that the characters are engaging as well. Pleasence in particular enlivens the show.