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Rapid Fire Reviews #12 A Christmas Smorgasbord of Random Movies!

Over Christmas Break I went on a random binge of movies. This monstrous marathon of magnanimous movies provided an atmosphere both mystifying and majestic. Or at the very least, this assortment of titles were just a fun way to pass the time with a few friends and family in a decidedly noncommittal viewing over the Holidays. Thus, these films that lay before you aren’t exactly the peak of artistic expression, but they were quite fun! Sometimes that’s all you need, and given the year we all just suffered through, I figured a less academic series of films was warranted in rounding out this terrible, downright awful, hell of a year.

THEM! (1954)

Written by Ted Sherdeman, based on a story by George Worthing Yates, and directed by Gordon Douglas, “Them!” is a cheesy 1950s giant monster movie that’s exactly as complex as you might expect. However, that’s not why you watch these movies anyways. In my experience, giant monster, or Kaiju, movies are for either A) Enthralling spectacle, or B) Practical effects that are admirable but wonderfully, gloriously, bad. These aren’t necessarily films with narratives that leave you in awe, or writing so compelling that it makes you question the morality of man, though the original “Godzilla” still has that effect. “Them!” is one of many similarly styled genre movies that exploded onto the silver screen in the 1950s, partly due to the King of the Monsters influence, but also partly as audiences felt an urge to gorge themselves on escapism after the second world war left many craving sheer entertainment value over other more taxing dramatic themes. Obviously, that’s not a sweeping statement, but it is part of my understanding of the era, there are many, many, examples that fly in the face of that thesis though. “12 Angry Men”, being an excellent example against it (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2019/03/21/old-school-review-sidney-lumets-12-angry-men-1957/). “Them!” begins with two police officers discovering a young girl wandering by herself in the New Mexico desert. After examining several scenes of curiously destroyed structures the officers alert the right officials which kickstarts the rest of the film’s momentum. There are many staples of the genre that find their way into this film, one example being the two scientific experts in Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon) who go to great lengths to explain the enormity of the problem with giant ants to the Military Brass and Government officials. The short version is simply; unless we destroy this menace, we will face the annihilation of the human race. After diving into the giant ants nest in the desert and mercilessly gunning down the monsters, they discover that two flying queens have escaped! One brood is found on a battleship at sea and essentially bombed to the ocean floor because, well, its the only way to be sure. The scientists, generals, and cops eventually pinpoint the final nest underneath Los Angeles, deep in the sewer systems. They save a few kids and kill every last squirming giant insect in their paths! I also enjoyed this film on the basis that it partly inspired the gameplay and atmosphere of the video game series, “Earth Defense Force” (Which I highly recommend!). You probably know by the poster alone if this is your sort of thing or not. Solid practical effects for it’s time, over-the-top violence, and cheesy black and white monster movie goodness. Recommended!

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Written by Charles Lederer, adapted from the story Who goes there? by John W. Campbell Jr, and directed by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, “The Thing from another World” is a fun 1950’s sci-fi thriller that John Carpenter would eventually remake roughly thirty years later. This one has always been on my list because of its relation to Carpenter’s film, which I would classify as a modern masterpiece of sci-fi horror. However, I did not know that Howard Hawks himself had a hand in producing and even directing some scenes of this one. If you’re aware of Hawks’ style of rapid pace dialogue with snappy attitude, you’ll recognize that influence here immediately. The first departure from the Kurt Russell version that I noticed was the flip in polar geography with this film taking place near the North Pole whereas Carpenter’s was set in Antarctica. The actual titular Thing (James Arness) was also wildly different. This monster was humanoid in form, still an alien as in Carpenter’s version, though this one wasn’t a shapeshifter, but instead a figure that was composed of a plantlike matter and obsessed with growing seedlings in the scientist’s onsite green-house. The “breathing” plant babies was also kinda creepy looking and fun. This one’s pretty straightforward in plot and execution, much like “Them!”, but this film had better characterization (the little of it that was present) and is probably a better made film overall even though I may have enjoyed “Them!” a bit more. Mildly recommended if you enjoy old school genre sci-fi!

King Kong (1976)

Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr, from an idea conceived by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, and directed by John Guillermin, “King Kong” is a reimagining of the 1933 King Kong film with a 1970s twist to the whole affair. Out of all the “King Kong” adaptions that have come and gone over the decades, this one is…. fine. It’s not my favorite Kong flick, but it was solidly entertaining throughout. If you’ve seen any of the other standalone Kong movies, with “Skull Island” being the exception here, the formula is the same with details and characters changing every so slightly. There’s always a Blond, Dwan (Jessica Lange), that Kong grabs and is mesemerized by. Check. There’s always a male lead that has a character defining goal to joining the voyage to Skull Island, Jack Black’s film director character took on that role in Peter Jackson’s rendition of the film in 2005, and here that role belongs to Jeff Bridges’ Jack Prescott. Check. Bridges does a fine job as the moral authority figure who challenges the oil executive spearheading the journey to the island, Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin). Yes, this time they go to Skull Island for oil, or at least, they believe the island holds a bounty of black gold underneath it. The practical effects that bring Kong to life were a lot of fun and it textured the fantasy of the film with a suitably 70’s grit. The monarch ape even fights a giant snake to the death in a surprisingly violent sequence. Once they get to New York it’s only so long before Kong escapes from his shackles, grabs Dwan, and heads for the tallest building he can find, which for this film, is two very famous towers in Manhattan proper. I’m always surprised when seeing the Twin Towers in the New York Skyline in older movies, it seems so long ago now that whenever you see them in Seinfeld re-runs or older films like this it kind of jolts you awake for a second. Anyways, the violence hinted at in the snake fight earlier comes full circle here when helicopters with gattling guns shoot an ungodly number of bullets into Kong once atop the towers. It has to be the famed creature’s most violent death by a mile. All in all, it was a fun alternate universe “King Kong” movie, if you like giant monster movies, this one should suit you just fine. Though I have to be point out that the scenes with Dwan and Kong do seem to take a bit too long for my money. If you’re patient and enjoy the “King Kong” story, I’d recommend this one!

The Great Race (1965)

Written by Arthur A. Ross and directed by Blake Edwards, “The Great Race” is a surprisingly long, and incredibly silly, vehicular race around the world from New York to Paris! A friend of mine wanted to revisit this comedy from his childhood over Christmas so we did just that. This one will not be for everyone, and that’s okay. For one, this movie is almost three hours long, and there’s an absurdist comedic tone running throughout the entire film that’s reminiscent of Looney Tunes, The Three Stooges, and Vaudeville theatrics. So, if you’re not into that, this ain’t the movie for you. The film was inspired by the real life 1908 race from New York to Paris, though I doubt the real one had a massive pie fight in a tiny Eastern European country near the end. The film stars Tony Curtis as Leslie, the charming heroic daredevil. Which kinda blew me away as the only film I knew him from was “Sweet Smell of Success” which is a VERY different kind of movie (https://spacecortezwrites.com/2020/02/06/old-school-review-sweet-smell-of-success-1957/). Then there’s Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, a literal mustache-twirling-villain whose also a turn of the century daredevil that considers The Great Leslie to be his eternal competitor for fame and glory. Fate’s antics should be familiar as it’s quite similar to any cartoonish villian that’s ever existed. Though there’s more than a few performance notes that made me wonder if Jim Carrey was actively homaging Lemmon’s “Fate” for his role as Dr. Robotnik in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie. The third major character is that of Natalie Wood as Maggie Dubois, a suffragette campaigning for the women’s right to vote and representation in the workforce who makes her way into the race and ends up riding with both Leslie and Professor Fate during various points of the race. This movie is simply a cartoon in live-action form, and if that’s your thing, go for it. Somewhat recommended.

The Monuments Men (2014)

Written by Grant Heslov and George Clooney, based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, and directed by George Clooney, “The Monuments Men” is a World War Two film that charts the course of older academics and professors that enlist in the line of duty to recapture Europe’s cherished stolen masterpieces of artwork. This one was a delight, it may not have done anything extremely outstanding with it’s execution in direction, writing, or even in performance, but it was just good enough in all categories to be thoroughly entertaining. I missed this one when it was in theaters and have always meant to give it a watch, but just never got around to it until now. I’ve gotta say, it was solid. The film follows Frank Stokes (George Clooney) as he convinces the military to fund and fuel a small operation to go into active warzones in France, Belgium, and Austria to recover and return culturally famous paintings, sculptures, and fragments of buildings. The unit, nicknamed The Monuments Men, consisted of museum directors and curators, art historians, and an architect. While initially being scoffed at by men in the field who refuse to coordinate bombing patterns and plans of attack that may cost them time and manpower, the team begins to gain success and acclaim after recovering a veritable treasure trove of stolen artwork hidden in abandoned mines that the Nazis left behind in their retreat. Though eventually after the war begins to come to a close the team has to race against the clock as Hitler eventually orders the artwork left behind to be set aflame and destroyed forever. My interest in this one was essentialy driven by the casting, and everyone involved did perfectly fine in their roles, though no one truly stood out from the crowd. Sometimes you just wanna see Bill Murray, John Goodman, and George Clooney together in a World War Two film with lower stakes than your average war film, and that’s okay. Moderately recommended.

Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna (2020)

Written by Akatsuki Yamatoya, adapted by Jeff Nimoy, based on a story by Akiyoshi Hongo, and directed by Tomohisa Taguchi, “Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna” is a series ending film that takes the characters from the original TV show that aired in the 1990s and caught up with them as adults in their mid to late twenties with a story that was far more compelling than I ever expected. To be fair, I was unaware of Digimon’s apparent resurgence over the last few years. I was told by friends after our viewing that while this film does an excellent job serving as a return to the series after the initial run back in the 1990’s, this was the capper to the new “Digimon Adventure” reboot series that used the same characters, themes, and voice actors from the American release (I’m sure the original Japanese voice actors returned as well in some fashion, but I watched the english dub version, which I only do so in certain situations, otherwise it’s subtitles all the way for me! #Nostalgia). We’re reintroduced to most of the original characters as adults, but with a heavy focus on Tai, Matt, and Izzy. Some of the original Digi-destined have succeeded in their professions of choice, Joe is a Doctor, Izzy runs an advanced tech company, and Sora runs a popular internet startup company. Tai and Matt however have drifted a bit, they’ve stuck closer to their roles as protectors of the worlds both digital and earthly. Early on Tai, Matt, and Izzy are clued into a wider phenomenon affecting other digi-destined kids around the world with their Digimon evaporating out of thin air while each human counterpart is instantaneouly placed in some sort of coma. So they investigate, and eventually discover that everything is tied to another former digi-destined, now an adult. As it just so happens, the bond between Digimon and their human partner is strong because of the potential that children have. As they age and become adults, that potential wanes, and thus they begin to lose that connection until they become permanently separated from each other. There are some damn good themes and imagery as the film goes on. The villain, who also had a Digimon partner and lost them prematurely years ago, is trapping the other Digi-destined in crystalized forms of their most cherished memories, and our heroes must learn how to grieve, accept loss, and adulthood in it’s many shapes and forms. This film has more emotional maturity than the majority of films I’ve seen over the last few years, and that was shockingly satisfying. Oh, and the quality of the animation is 100% slicker and more polished for this film, this one’s a perfect (in my opinion) love letter to the series. If you grew up with this cartoon as I did, this is delightful, sad as hell, and I couldn’t have asked for a better send off to characters that I thought I’d seen the last of more than a decade ago. Highly recommended.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) *Slight Spoilers*

Written by Dave Callaham, Geoff Johns, and Patty Jenkins, and directed by Jenkins, “Wonder Woman 1984” is the superhero sequel to one of DC Comics’ most popular and adored characters. Okay, so initially I wasn’t going to toss the Wonder Woman sequel into this Rapid Fire Review piece, but it was the last movie I watched during my “Christmas Smorgasbord”, so here are my thoughts. First and foremost, I will point out that I really enjoyed the first “Wonder Woman” quite a bit. It was a fine Superhero movie and I legitimately enjoyed the characters and the story being told. This movie, however, is far messier and shockingly mediocre. There are some really well done sequences and scenes here and there, I really enjoyed the opening action sequence in the Mall, or when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) saves Barbara (Kristen Wiig) early in in the film from a scummy guy in the park, that was shot in really neat way. Unfortunately that’s how the whole film operates, there’s an inordinate amount of questionable story decisions being made at every corner, but some scenes are downright cool and have some neat artistry to them. Like previously stated, it’s shockingly mediocre. The character performances were entertaining enough, but they lacked depth. Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), despite being cheerfully hammy in his villainy, didn’t really seem to have any consequences to almost destroying the world. His motivations seemed flat at best, I mean sure, he’s greedy and ‘wants‘ greatly, but his plan didn’t seem to have any coherance other than, “create as much global chaos as possible“. Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) part in all of this was sweet and endearing, the two leads still share a magnetic charisma. So, I do understand wanting to have them together in the sequel, but it was handled so strangely. For example, if he was brought back to life through the power of magic, why did he have to inhabit another man’s body to do so? None of the other wishes in the film come with such strange caveats, other than the general “Needful Things” tit-for-tat repercussions for wishes- which Diana does eventually get as her powers lessen over time. Which by the way, speaking of Maxwell Lord, the performance from Pedro Pascal was quite good, but the way he is used throughout the story, especially his resolution in the third act, felt incomplete and somewhat confusing. The inconsistency of the wishes really threw a wrench in the plot machinations if you think about it for too long. Oh, and we can’t forget Cheetah, the superhero sequel pre-requisite side villain who’s mishandled throughout the film. She… uhhh doesn’t really have much of a purpose in the movie and essentially only exists for Wonder Woman to fight in the third act and I have to be honest, the CGI used to bring Cheetah to life was laughably bad, and I mean, it’s just… plain bad. So, if you’re willing to shut your brain off during superhero movies, this one MAY be for you, but personally, this one was not for me. Not highly recommended.

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #12 Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

Writer/Director: Daisuke Ito/Kenji Misumi (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and The Chess Expert” begins with Zatoichi being pursued by henchmen from previous films still holding a grudge. Zatoichi boards a ferry to Honshu island, leaving his pursuers on the mainland to take the long way around. While on the boat Zatoichi decides to make a bit of money through some dice gambling among the passengers aboard. As expected he employs some expert sleight of hand tricks to see if they’d take advantage of a blind man if the dice fell outside of the cup, the raucous group were all too eager to exploit the blind man’s weakness and Zatoichi let them build their expectations up before pulling the rug out from under them- resulting in a large sum of winnings (Though later we see Zatoichi legitimately lose at dice, a first for the series). While aboard the ship Zatoichi finds a fast friend in the samurai going by the name of Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Impressed by Zatoichi’s skill in dealing with a couple of the resentful gamblers aboard, he accepts Ichi’s request for a game of Shogi Chess, and is again nearly caught off guard by the blind swordsman’s skill- even in intellectual games. Later, on the island, the aggrieved gamblers track him down and set a trap for the blind masseur by having him massage the local Yakuza boss that they happen to be in touch with. While they do get the jump on Zatoichi at first by pinning him to the ground, he escapes their grip and in the scuffle he dropkicks one of the men out the 2nd story window resulting in a young girl getting a broken foot. Once outside, Zatoichi attempts to help, feeling profound guilt as her injury was an unexpected consequence of his brawl. When the girl’s aunt, who she’s traveling with, can’t afford the medicine required, Zatoichi heads out to make enough money with his usual gambling tricks, and after some trial and error, he returns with the medicine in hand with some help from Jumonji. The four of them then decide to travel to the hot springs not far from their location to further heal Miki.

Once there the group meet new guests at the inn and hot springs, a young lord named Sagawa (Gaku Yamamoto), his retainer Roppei (TarĂ´ Marui), and the lord’s sister Kume (Chizu Hayashi) dressed as man (to avoid unwanted suspicions on the road). The trio are on a fact finding mission to track down the murderer that killed their father, who had been cut down over a heated game of shogi chess. When Roppei turns up dead at a nearby temple with evidence of strangling, Zatoichi is perplexed- until some children bring back a lure found in the pond near the scene of the crime. After the facts begin to build Zatoichi’s suspicion grows. He, Otane, Miki, and Jumonji all head out on the road as planned, and to pass the time Jumonji suggests a verbal game of Shogi Chess. Each move between them seems to ratchet up the tension until Zatoichi lets Jumonji win thereby confirming his guilt as the killer with his known tell of scratching his nose and snapping his fingers. With that single action Zatoichi reveals his knowledge by showing Jumonji the red lure and engaging in battle. He only wounds Jumonji before Lord Sagawa and Kume arrive with swords to finish the job and secure their vengeance. At the same time the henchmen from the beginning of the film sneak up and kidnap Miki and run off with her, which prompts a fun one versus five end fight sequence in which Zatoichi skillfully slays them all before walking off into the distance once more.

My favorite part: With the Zatoichi series, a great villain can always spice up the familiar ingredients, and that’s exactly the case with “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert”. Jumonji was a clever and calculating villain- and one of the few enemies that seemed to be an ally to the blind swordsman for most of the film’s runtime. The performance by Mikio Narita was charming, sly, and cold blooded- perfect for a Zatoichi villain.

Why it’s great: Kenji Misumi is starting to become one of my new favorite Japanese directors with this series. His work on the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series in the early 1970s paired with his films within the Zatoichi series strike a tone that resonates with me deeply. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but I’ve been watching far ahead in the film series so I can always be ahead of the next quick review, but Misumi’s next film in the series is “Zatoichi Challenged” and it might be my favorite film of the bunch. Misumi seems to be very invested in stories where young children are protected by powerful swordsmen, and that element is very present in this film. While Zatoichi isn’t exactly on the road as the sole protector of Miki, her safety and health is at the core of his concern for this film. This one ranks higher for me than the last few films, good character development with a clear narrative can do wonders for this formula of popular genre film.

Final Score: 5 Ryo

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #11 Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai (4th film)/Kazuo Mori (2nd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” opens with Zatoichi imprisoned for illegal gambling and getting fifty lashes for the offense. While in his cell, the only other prisoner, Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), pleads for Zatoichi to help as he’s been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he claimed he did not commit. Zatoichi hears the man’s pleas, but once freed he ultimately decides not to pursue the request, he’s gotten into too much trouble in the past for involving himself in such situations. When he happens upon a small town he impresses a young man named Hyakutaro at a game house where he effortlessly wins the archery challenge gaining a large sum of winnings. Afterwards, the muscle from the gaming house tries to strong arm their money back, but Zatoichi slays them all, stunning Hyakutaro who only seemed interested in profits and the reliability of a good scam. Thus he convinces Zatoichi to let him travel with him for awhile. While on the road they run into a wounded man in trouble, and in need of a hasty solution to keep his restaurant nearby open for business. Hyakutaro offers to help by delivering the wounded man’s documents while Zatoichi helps him travel there at a slower rate. By the time Zatoichi arrives with the wounded man, it’s dark and the waiting party tells Zatoichi that they already “paid that guy called Zatoichi a large enough sum for the both of you“. Obviously, Hyakutaro had run off, pretending to be Zatoichi, and absorbing the spoils of life at the expense of those in need- and darting once he’s needed! This obviously rubs Zatoichi the wrong way, and once he finds out where he is, Zatoichi makes sure the charade is ended, though Hyakutaro continues to follow the blind swordsman to his displeasure. In-between all of this Zatoichi had inadvertently come to the town that the doomed prisoner Shimazo told him of and due to an alternate scam run by the local Boss, he earned a meeting with the local official that confirmed what Shimazo had said. There’s a lot of over-explaining that can go on at times with these plots, but the root of the issue is that Shimazo was too popular as the right hand man of Yakuza Boss, and that Boss feared a mutiny led by Shimazo, so he worked with another town’s boss to set up Shimazo for the death penalty to secure his power.

My favorite part: The idea that there would eventually be a false Zatoichi running around claiming to be the living legend himself is a fun concept. The performance from Kanbi Fujiyama as Hyakutaro (the usurper) was cheeky, he played the lovable scoundrel part well and his arrogance paired with complete ineptitude was a joy set against Zatoichi’s stern, but humble, morality. I also really appreciated the impact of discovering that Hyakutaro was Shimazo’s son.

Why it’s great: While the pacing, plot, and performances were all on point and fairly enjoyable throughout the film, there wasn’t anything particularly excellent that stood out to me. The end fight sequence set in a foggy seaside town was visually interesting with visceral kills and lots of tension, but aside from that the composition, framing, and cinematography overall was good, but a bit workman-like for the series at this point. I’m pretty sure this was the first time Zatoichi had ever been to the ocean as well, and having a child explain the enormity of the ocean to him was a nice moment for the character.

Final Score: 1 Doomed Man and his son

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: # 10 Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (6th film)/ Akira Inoue

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Revenge” may have the darkest plot points of the series, definitely of the first half of films, though I haven’t quite finished the series yet. This one’s fairly compelling, though it’s another example of more of the same ingredients from past films- but with a few new variations. It’s another case of corrupt government officials working with criminals to satiate their lust for money and power. As the film opens Zatoichi realizes that he’s near the village where he underwent his masseur training and decides to pay his sensei, Master Hikonoichi, a visit. Upon arrival he discovers that his old sensei had just recently been killed while traveling on the road nearby. Even worse yet, Hikonoichi’s daughter Sayo had been forced into prostitution! When searching for Sayo in order to free her, it’s revealed to Zatoichi that almost all of the daughters of the town have been forced into sexual slavery as well. The three main villains of this film are Tatsugoro, the local businessman that worked up financial crimes that preyed upon the lenders, his boss the corrupt Intendant Isoda overseeing the whole process, and Koheita Kadokura, the ronin samurai in town working as a blade for hire. Eventually through the usual information gathering process of rooting out corruption in gambling houses and intimidation through feats of swordplay skill, Zatoichi finds out who the culprits are and seeks them out. Pretty standard stuff for the series at this point.

My favorite part: Honestly, the ongoing fight sequences that litter the second half of the film are very entertaining. They’re well shot, captivatingly choreographed, and thrilling to watch. It also helps that all of the unfortunate fodder for Zatoichi’s blade are despicable people working to enforce the massive prostitution ring in the town. Good stuff!

Why it’s great: One of the great story beats of this film centers on Zatoichi’s friendship with the local dice dealer Denroku. The skilled dice dealer never wanted to cheat players, he admits to Zatoichi that he’s under the thumb of Tatsugoro and Isoda’s oppression, and Zatoichi forgives him. Later when the villains are starting to get uneasy about Zatoichi’s snooping around, they order Denroku to steal the blind swordsman’s cane sword or submit his own daughter, Tsuru, to one of the local brothels. When Tsuru overhears this, she steals the blade herself and hands it to her father, who finds his impression on her to commit such acts that he gets incredibly drunk and wanders the town in a funk. After awhile he stumbles into a noodle stand and openly bemoans his situation. To his surprise the proprietor of the noodle shop isn’t a normal noodle chef- but Zatoichi himself. Ichi encourages Denroku to give up the criminal life and to lead a better life for Tsuru’s sake, at which point the dice dealer acknowledges his mistakes, and hands the cane sword back to its owner.

Final Score: 1 Cane Sword versus dozens of henchmen