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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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Review: Kong Skull Island, or “Hold onto your butts… again!”

As the second entry in Legendary’s newly established Monsterverse, “Kong: Skull Island” revives one of cinema’s oldest icons in a colossal way. The film begins with two pilots, one American and one Japanese, crash landing on the beaches of Skull Island near the end of World War Two. They fight, chase, and scrap their way into the jungle and are quickly met by the giant ape himself. Fast Forward to¬†1973, just as the Vietnam war is coming to a close, and we’re met with an introduction to the Monarch corporation as it tries to secure funding for one last venture into the mists of the unknown, a journey to the fabled Skull Island. “A place where God never finished creation” is how John Goodman’s Bill Randa explains it in his pitch, however it’s his associate Houston Brooks, played by Corey Hawkins, that sells the idea to the gatekeeper by suggesting that the Russians and Chinese will have the same data they do soon enough, and if there is something to benefit from, shouldn’t America be the first ones there?

“Kong: Skull Island” quickly introduces us to the remaining heavy hitters in the cast’s lineup. There’s former British SAS tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) who’s recruited after showcasing his barroom brawling skills, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver as the anti-war Vietnam photographer, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard- a discouraged Vietnam Army officer that leads the military helicopter escort to the island. Once assembled they fly into the storm forever swirling around the eponymous island. Once there they quickly begin dropping bombs to survey the land and retrieve the seismic data. This immediately triggers the first large scale set piece wherein Kong smashes the entire fleet of helicopters like the annoying gnats they are to him.

So let’s talk about what the film does right. From my perspective, this film adequately does what a giant monster movie should do. It focuses on the monsters. It keeps the pace breezy and yet tense. The film gets its tone right. Most importantly though, Kong is a constant force throughout the film. Kong’s motivation was also clearer than that of say, Godzilla in Gareth Edwards 2014 iteration. Kong is the protector of the island, he respects nature and those who care for it, and he chooses peace over violence unless provoked. In Godzilla’s case, it seemed to simply be his need to challenge and reign supreme over the M.U.T.O.s? Or to align some monster’s code of balance?

Anyhow, back to Kong. I loved Sam Jackson’s revenge storyline with Kong, he went full Ahab and Kong was his white whale. Though admittedly I never tire of Jackson’s Shtick, it just works for me. John C. Reilly’s Hank Marlow, was also incredibly noteworthy. He gets the most complete storyline, and while he provides some comic relief, he never wanders into any zany or out-of-place performances. His character retains the heart of the flick, and it shows in palpable ways throughout the runtime. He’s also the connection to the natives of the island, which were represented not as savage tribesmen, but as a small peaceful community trying to survive in this hellish environment.

Speaking of the cast, I know the film has been steamrolled at times for “wasting” such a talented cast. However I don’t think they were wasted in the least to be honest. It’s a giant monster movie with “B-genre” aspects throughout it. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect any Oscar nominations to come from a King Kong movie, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be the most fleshed out and layered monster movie-Godzilla certainly wasn’t with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character, not to mention that film actually wasted Bryan Cranston. To that end, story and background information can be told in ways other than dialogue. The sets, locations, subtle acting, and even over-the-top acting all combine to tell a story. Sometimes it feels as though people simply watch films to point out as many problems and issues with a performance or story as possible, and that’s a shame. When did we all become so consistently cynical? Honestly, if you don’t love something, that’s okay-not everyone has to enjoy everything.

In the end I had a ton of fun with “Kong: Skull Island”. I loved the shameless “Apocalypse Now”¬†influences. I thoroughly enjoyed the chaos, the variety of monsters, the fight sequences, and of course the king himself, Kong.

Final Score: Two Kong-sized thumbs up

 

 

 

 

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Rant Time: Godzilla better hit the Gym to prep for Kong

The Summer of 2014’s blockbuster season opened with a bang in the form of Legendary studio’s re-imagining of the King of all monsters, “Godzilla”. The film soared to new and exciting heights for the big budget monster mash with word of mouth and generally favorable reviews helping to boost its solid earnings. As a self proclaimed lover of the giant monster sub genre of B movies I understand the love of a cheesy monster romp and I adore some of the old Gojira classics, even some Gamera flicks have won my heart in years past. However, I did not particularly love this new iteration of the famed atomic fire breathing baddie/hero/savior/destroyer.

My issues lie in the fact that the movie is incredibly slow for a towering slamfest between monolithic legends, er or at least one legend. I can handle slow movies, (there’s a special place in my heart for “The Good The Bad and The Ugly”) that’s not my personal issue, it’s that if the human melodrama had been compelling in any sense of the word then I would have been fine. The subpar, disinterested, and wooden acting from Aaron Taylor-Johnson was borderline unbearable though. He is the most useless character I have seen in a movie in a long time. He frequently mentions his character’s purpose of disarming, or arming I forget, EODs (bombs) but never once utilizes this skill and somehow gets close to some of the monsters for money shots, but that is the breadth of his character’s usefulness, getting a good shot down. It’s a real shame they wasted Bryan Cranston here as well because while he was onscreen, he was brilliant. Quite a shame. There were several outstanding moments of action that were phenomenal, but an entire movie can’t ride on “That one awesome scene”. And I will give credit where credit is due in that the visual homages to Toho’s Godzilla flicks over the decades of their work was right on the money, specifically in the colorization.

I bring all of this up because recently it was rumored, then confirmed, that Legendary studios will be utilizing their new King Kong feature as an eventual set up for another clash between cinema’s greatest monsters of all time. This is worth getting excited about if you love the genre and the B movie mayhem that flows through the vein of these movies. I certainly do! But my concern here is that if we’re going to have this film exist, then we must at least try and make it compelling when the titular beasts are not onscreen, right? If we’re taking a moment to harken back to the last Kong movie as well and compare it to this latest Godzilla flick, well, I’d have to give it to Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” as the better movie overall. It’s, simply put, a more entertaining film. and structurally I believe it is superior, especially when concerning pacing.

My point being that if this new “Godzilla VS King Kong” movie is to be any good then we have to reassess what makes a monster movie good. There will be several movies before the big showdown between the two heavyweights however so there is plenty of time to prep and train. Godzilla will be getting a sequel in which he will be taking on both the continually underestimated Mothra and the immense brutality of the space dragon known as King Ghidorah as well, that should be a blast. Kong will also be making his debut (again) in a period piece that takes place before the events of last year’s Godzilla flick, along the lines of how Captain America’s origin tale fit within the Marvel Studios universe at the time. At one point both Michael keaton and J.K. Simmons were attached to roles within this film and I am deeply saddened that they will reportedly not be in the flick if reports and rumors are to be believed. This movie can be both bombastic AND compelling if the people involved are willing to learn from their (granted they are “perceived”) mistakes and transcend the expectations of the genre to create something grand. or just fun, as long as it’s good ole escapist fun I will be sated and drunk with happiness.

In today’s world of filmmaking the threat of spectacle may be overwhelming to some, but I say there is room for all types of movies to coexist and this is one I’d gladly see right alongside Spielberg’s upcoming cold war drama “Bridge of Spies”, different stories come with different rules and expectations. Such is the rich world of cinema we find ourselves in today, we can go out and see Danny Boyle’s cold and calculating “Steve Jobs” biopic, or the next offering from Marvel Studio’s pantheon of morality tales. it’s all up to choice at this point, and the future is what we make of it. Hopefully that is a future in which I will not be groaning in the theater at the sight of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s unmotivated face again but one where I am awash in the glory of giant fisticuffs soaring through skyscrapers with at least an ounce of acting charm thrown in for good measure.