Friday, December 31, 2021

#2,686. Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


Promising a battle for the ages, Godzilla Vs. Kong continues the trend set in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters: cringe-inducing dialogue, a ridiculous story, and kick-ass battle sequences that somehow make the shortcomings worthwhile.

After laying low for three years, Godzilla suddenly resurfaces in Pensacola, Florida, where he attacks and destroys a facility owned by Apex Cybernetics. Fearing that the mighty Titan may have turned on mankind, Apex CEO and founder Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) enlists the help of Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), a geologist who developed the “Hollow Earth” theory, which asserts that the Titans originated in a vast underground world located miles below the earth’s surface. It’s Simmons hope that a new power source, one strong enough to defeat Godzilla, exists in the Hollow Earth realm, and he convinces Dr. Lind to lead an expedition into this unexplored realm.

Looking for a titan to guide them to this lost world, Dr. Lind contacts Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a Monarch scientist who, along with her adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), has spent years studying the mighty Kong in an artificial habitat. Dr. Andrews agrees to “lend” Kong to Apex, all the while fearing that Godzilla, Kong’s natural enemy, may track them down before they reach their destination.

As Apex is busy pinning its hopes on Kong, Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), daughter of Monarch’s deputy director of special projects Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), believes that Godzilla must have had a reason for attacking the Apex facility. Along with her friend Josh (Julian Dennison) and Apex employee / conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), Madison infiltrates the Apex organization and makes a startling discovery, one that could potentially lead to the total annihilation of Godzilla, Kong, and all the titans.

In spite of the hackneyed storyline (I’m not a scientist, but even I know that some of the “science” thrown around in this movie is preposterous) and a few obvious characters (Bichir’s Walter Simmons is your typical, mustache-twirling villain), Godzilla vs, Kong does offer viewers a bit more than two giant monsters duking it out. Having played a major role in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Millie Bobby Brown is once again solid as Madison, who is convinced Godzilla was provoked into attacking Apex, and Brian Tyree Henry damn near steals the show as Bernie, whose wild theories may not be as far-fetched as he makes them sound.

As for “Team Kong, Rebecca Hall does a fine job as Kong’s caretaker, but the film’s most endearing character is Jia, played by young deaf actress Kaylee Hottle, who, despite having never acted before, has moments that will tug at your heartstrings in a big way (Jia is able to communicate with Kong via sign language, and their relationship is easily the most potent in the entire film).

Ultimately, though, the only two characters that matter in Godzilla vs. Kong are the titans themselves, and the special effects used to bring these mighty creatures to life are awe-inspiring. Godzilla starts things off with a bang by attacking the Apex plant in Pensacola, and the various scenes with Kong, especially his journey into Hollow Earth, are simply amazing. It’s their epic battles, however, that make Godzilla vs, Kong such a fun ride. Their encounter at sea, during which Godzilla attacks a ship transporting Kong to Antarctica (where the doorway into Hollow Earth is believed to be) is a thrill-a-minute, as is the fight between the two that reduces Hong Kong to rubble, an epic final act that also features the appearance of a third giant monster!

The budget for Kong vs, Godzilla was a reported $160 million, and while it’s safe to say that very little of that money went into polishing the script, it was the perfect amount to create jaw-dropping effects, which this movie has in spades.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, December 30, 2021

#2,685. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


Most people don’t go into a Godzilla movie expecting to be blown away by its storyline, and in the case of 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters that’s a good thing.

Set several years after the events of 2014’s Godzilla, Godzilla: King of the Monsters stars Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell, a paleobiologist working for Monarch, an organization dedicated to studying and - when needed - protecting the enormous Titan creatures that are now roaming the earth.

While observing the birth of yet another Titan (Mothra), Dr. Russell and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) are kidnapped by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who wants to get his hands on the “Orca”, a device designed to communicate with the Titans.

Upon hearing the news of their abduction, Dr. Russell’s ex-husband (and Madison’s father) Mark (Kyle Chandler) teams up with several of Dr. Russell’s Monarch associates, including Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr. Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) to try and track the terrorist down. But when Jonah and his crew unleash the creature known as “Monster Zero” - which had been trapped in the Antarctic ice - Mark and the others realize it may take a monster as powerful as Godzilla to prevent this newest threat from taking over the world.

The battle scenes in Godzilla: King of the Monsters come fast and furious, and are so wonderfully exciting, so gloriously over-the-top that you’ll barely have a moment to catch your breath. The first showdown between Godzilla and Monster Zero (which Kaiju fans will immediately recognize as the three-headed monster, Ghidorah) is thrilling, as is the scene where Rodan is first released into the world (a sequence that also features Monster Zero, Godzilla, and an erupting volcano).

Yet even these pale in comparison to the climactic fight, in which four – that’s right, four – giant monsters duke it out.

By way of some amazing CGI, the creatures that populate Godzilla: King of the Monsters are brought convincingly to life, and as you sit there, gazing in wonder at one incredible battle sequence after another, odds are you won’t even notice how trite the story is, or how one-dimensional many of its characters are (save Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison, who is always interesting).

And if you do notice these things, I doubt you’ll care.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

#2,684. Kong: Skull Island (2017) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


On a scale of one to ten on the fun meter, Kong: Skull Island comes in at an eleven. A wild, special effects-laden monster adventure, this 2017 film is a thrill ride from start to finish.

It’s 1973, and the Vietnam War has come to an end. Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of Monarch, has secured permission from the United States government to explore an uncharted island in the South Pacific, a place known as Skull Island.

With the help of a military helicopter squadron commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Randa, his assistant Brooks (Corey Hawkins), hired guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) head to Skull Island to check out the terrain, and in the process piss off a giant ape named Kong, who attacks the convoy, destroying every aircraft and killing a number of Packard’s men.

Intent on revenge, Packard and his remaining soldiers, including Mills (Jason Mitchell), Cole (Shea Whigham), Slivko (Thomas Mann), and Chapman (Tony Kebble), head to one of the wrecked copters, which was carrying enough explosives to destroy Kong once and for all. But as they will soon discover, Kong isn’t the only giant monster on Skull Island!

Kong and the other creatures are the real draw, but director Jordan Vogt-Roberts also manages to populate Kong: Skull Island with plenty of interesting characters and a cast of talented actors to play them. Samuel L. Jackson is strong as the militaristic Packard, a career soldier who intends to kill Kong for what he did to his men, and Hiddleston, Larson, Goodman, Hawkins, Mitchell and Whigham are solid as the key components of the Monarch expedition.

Stealing the show, however, is John C. Reilly as Hank Marlow, a World War II-era pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island for 30 years (the film opens with the dogfight that destroyed not only Marlow’s plane, but that of the Japanese flier who shot him down. It’s at this point we’re also introduced to Kong). A bit loopy, Marlow has been cared for by the island’s indigenous tribe, and knows more about the dangers of Skull Island than anyone.

Not only that, but he and the Japanese pilot, who became good friends over the years, had been building a boat made of spare parts from their downed planes, which they hoped would one day carry them back to civilization. By the time the Monarch team arrives, however, the Japanese pilot is dead, the victim of one of the island’s more aggressive species: underground reptiles Marlow calls “Skull Crawlers”. Reilly is just about perfect in the part, and also serves as the film’s comic relief (with a bit of pathos thrown in for good measure).

Still, the best thing about Kong: Skull Island are the giant monsters, starting with Kong himself. In what is easily the highlight of the film, Kong attacks Packard’s convoy shortly after their arrival, throwing trees and swatting copters out of the sky with his bare hands. It’s a thrilling sequence, and features superior CGI (yet another of the movie’s strengths… the computer effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen).

Joining Kong are the Skull Crawlers, truly horrifying creatures with a voracious appetite; according to Marlow, it was the subterranean Skull Crawlers that killed Kong’s parents, making Kong the last of his kind as well as the Island’s protector (Kong ensures that the aggressive Skull Crawlers don’t become the dominant species, and the final battle between him and a giant Skull Crawler is damn thrilling). Throw in giant arachnids, oversized water buffalo, and some gnarly looking birds, and you have an ecosystem that can be more than a little hazardous to your health.

An exhilarating creature feature that also boasts strong characters and breathtaking special effects, Kong: Skull Island is an absolute blast!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, December 27, 2021

#2,683. Shin Godzilla (2016) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


The 29th Godzilla film released by Toho and the third attempt by the studio to reboot the series, 2016’s Shin Godzilla stands apart from all previous entries by way of its unique approach, putting the focus squarely on the government and military responses to the sudden appearance of a very destructive – and immensely powerful – giant monster.

While investigating an abandoned yacht in Tokyo Bay, a Japanese Coast Guard vessel is inexplicably destroyed. An emergency meeting is called by the government to discuss this tragedy, during which Deputy Secretary Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) tells the Prime Minister (Ren Osugi) and the rest of his cabinet that he believes a sea creature is to blame.

Though dismissed at first, Secretary Yaguchi’s theory is proven valid when an enormous reptilian creature surfaces, trouncing through Tokyo’s densely populated Kamata District before retreating back into the sea.

As officials are scrambling to determine what this creature is and when it might attack again, the monster suddenly reappears. What’s more, it is evolving, getting larger and more powerful by the minute.

U.S. Special Envoy Kayoko Anne Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) informs the Japanese Prime Minister and his team that a scientist named Goro Maki had been studying the mutating effects of radioactivity right up to the moment he mysteriously disappeared (it was Goro Maki’s yacht that was found abandoned in Tokyo Bay). Maki believed it was very likely that a giant creature would eventually appear in Japan, and he dedicated his life to finding a way to stop it.

As the rest of the government is preparing for a mass evacuation of Tokyo, Secretary Yaguchi assembles a team of experts to examine Maki’s research, hoping it will shed some light on how best to destroy the monster – which Maki named “Godzilla” – before it levels Japan.

Directed by Hideaki Anno (who also penned the screenplay) and Shinji Higuchi, Shin Godzilla takes us inside conference rooms and laboratories, where we eavesdrop on government officials and scientists as they try to make sense out of what’s happening in Japan. Shot in a way that keeps the tension at a fever pitch, these meetings have an energy all their own, and are usually quite fascinating.

But like most films in the series, Shin Godzilla owes most of its bad-assness to Godzilla himself. When he first crawls out of the water, lumbering through the Kamata District on all fours with blood pouring from the gills in his neck, Godzilla is a force to be reckoned with. Then, without warning, he stands, and is walking upright. We watch as the big guy evolves throughout Shin Godzilla, changing from a clumsy monster into something resembling a titan of ancient mythology (the scene where Godzilla first unleashes his ability to breathe fire is awe-inspiring, and is one of my favorite sequences in the entire series).

The behind-the-scenes summits and conferences keep the movie rolling along at a nice pace, but it’s Godzilla who makes Shin Godzilla such a remarkably entertaining motion picture.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, December 25, 2021

#2,682. Godzilla (2014) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


I grew up watching Spielberg movies”, Gareth Edwards, director of Godzilla, told the Los Angeles Times back in April of 2014, adding “what they did so well – as well as having epic, fantastic spectacle – they made the characters feel real and human. We were trying to do the same thing here”.

The 30th film in the long-running franchise and the second produced by a Hollywood studio (after the 1998 misfire), this Godzilla puts the focus squarely on its characters, and how they deal with the sudden, unexpected appearance of giant monsters.

The story opens in 1999: Monarch scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigate two giant spores unearthed in the Philippines while, at the same time, a nuclear power plant in Japan, under the supervision of American Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), is completely destroyed by what at first appears to be seismic activity. This “accident” ultimately claims the life of Brody’s wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a technician at the plant.

Fifteen years later, Joe Brody, still looking for answers as to what actually happened that day, is arrested for trespassing in the area near the destroyed plant, which is still a quarantine zone. Brody’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an officer in the United States Navy, leaves his wife Ellie (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) and travels from San Francisco to Japan to bail his father out of jail, only to find himself pulled into a situation he never expected.

As it turns out, it was more than seismic activity that leveled the power plant all those years ago; it was a giant monster, hibernating underground, feeding on the nuclear energy. Without warning, this monster, which the authorities are calling a MUTO (for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), awakens, causing even more damage to the area before heading out to sea.

What’s more, there’s evidence that another MUTO may be active in the Nevada desert, and as the U.S. Navy, under the command of Admiral William Stenz (David Strathaim), consults with Monarch to determine the best course of action, yet another giant creature arrives on the scene, the mighty Godzilla, who may be the only one capable of defeating these MUTO invaders.

As you might expect from a movie with a reported budget of $160 million, the effects in Godzilla - especially the monster battles - are awesome; a sequence involving San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge absolutely blew me away. But like many of Spielberg’s best films (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Edwards doesn’t inundate us with monsters, deciding to show them sparingly at first, and increasing their screen time gradually as the film flows towards its big climax. Instead, we get to know the characters, especially Ford, who from the moment he arrives in Japan is front and center for the duration, trying in vain to get back home to his worried wife and child as the world starts to crumble around him.

The cast does a decent job; Bryan Cranston shines as Joe Brody, who knows there’s more going on than meets the eye, and Elizabeth Olsen is equally strong as Ford’s distraught wife. And while the action scenes may be a little sparse early on, those we do get are thrilling enough to bring us to the edge of our seat.

Many of the film’s detractors felt that the biggest problem with 2014’s Godzilla was there wasn’t enough Godzilla; in his positive review of the movie, Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times still said he “would have liked to see more” of the big guy. Personally, I thought director Edwards struck the perfect balance between spectacle and story, giving us just enough of both to keep us invested and entertained, and even if Godzilla isn’t the star of the movie (I think the MUTOs may have gotten more screen time, actually), the big guy is given ample opportunity to make an impression, which he does each and every time he takes center stage.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Thursday, December 23, 2021

#2,681. King Kong (2005) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


It’s hard to argue with the critics who attacked this special effects extravaganza; 2005’s King Kong is, indeed, too loud, too long (the runtime is listed as 180 minutes, with a director’s cut that features and additional 20 minutes), and downright exhausting (when the dinosaur stampede sequence had played itself out, I was ready for a nap).

But writer / director Peter Jackson - guided no doubt by his love for the Merian C. Cooper / Ernest Schoedsack original - pays tribute to 1933’s King Kong while at the same time giving this update a personality all its own.

Jack Black is at his smarmy best as the deceitful but oh-so likable Carl Denham, who hires (or should I say steals) a steamer and heads to a remote corner of the Pacific to make his newest film. Tagging along with Denham are writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), struggling starlet Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and ship’s Captain Engelhorn (Thomas Kretschmann), as well as a few technicians and the motley crew of Engelhorn’s steamer.

Of course, there’s more than an exotic locale waiting for them at their destination, aka Skull Island: there’s also a village of savage natives and the “God” that protects them, a 25-foot gorilla they call Kong.

Those familiar with 1933’s King Kong know where the story goes from there.

I will certainly concede that many of the film’s action sequences are over-the-top (especially late in the movie, when the story shifts back to New York), as is the “romance” between Watts’ Ann and Kong (though quite touching at times, it’s again a case of “way too much”).

What saves the movie from being little more than an overstuffed remake is the portrayal of Kong himself, a combination of CGI and the performance of Andy Serkis (who was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series and also plays Lumpy, a member of Engelhorn’s crew in this film). By way of motion capture, Serkis infuses the character with personality to spare, making him terrifying one minute and heartwarming the next (the scenes on Skull Island where Ann is trying to communicate with Kong are the best in the film).

I doubt I’ll return as often to Peter Jackson’s King Kong as I do the 1933 classic (I even prefer the 1976 version to this more modern take), but as hundred million dollar spectacles go (its budget was reported being just north of $200 million), I’ve seen worse.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

#2,680. Godzilla 2000 (1999) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


The 24th film in the Godzilla franchise and the second attempt by Toho to reboot the series (the first being Godzilla 1984), Godzilla 2000 stars Takehiro Murata as Yuji, the mastermind behind the GPN (or Godzilla Prediction Network).

Along with his young daughter Io (Mayu Suzuki), Yuji dedicates his life to studying Godzilla, and hopes to protect the giant monster from a rival organization known as the CCI (Crisis Control Intelligence). Under the leadership of Mitsuo Katagiri (Hiroshi Abe), the more powerful CCI wants to save Tokyo by destroying Godzilla.

But the recent discovery of an alien spaceship, which had been resting on the ocean floor for millions of years, has everyone wondering if Godzilla is, indeed, a threat to Tokyo, or its potential savior.

Godzilla 2000 gets off to a rollicking start; the GPN, joined by reporter Yuki Ichinose (Naomi Nishida), tracks Godzilla to a nearby power plant, only to be attacked by the monster while driving there. As with most of the previous entries in the series, this opening (and several other scenes) relies on practical effects to bring Godzilla to life (this time out it’s actor Tsutomu Kitagawa wearing the suit).

Unfortunately, Godzilla 2000 also features moments of shoddy CGI (a scene where Godzilla is swimming underwater is feeble enough, but the graphics used late in the film to bring his adversary, a monster known as Orga, to life are worse). Still, even with its weak CGI and an overly-sentimental ending, Godzilla 2000 has its charms.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Sunday, December 19, 2021

#2,679. Godzilla 1984 (1984) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


Working as both a reboot of the franchise (following the box-office disappointment of its predecessors) and a direct sequel to 1954’s Gojira, Godzilla 1984 (aka The Return of Godzilla) has everyone’s favorite kaiju once again rising from the depths, this time forced to the surface by a volcanic eruption.

After unleashing his wrath on a fishing vessel in the Pacific, Godzilla takes on - among other things - a Russian submarine and a remote nuclear facility before setting his sights on downtown Tokyo.

Reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) teams up with sailor Hiroshi Okimura (Shin Takuma), the lone survivor of the attack on the fishing boat, as well as Hiroshi’s sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawguchi) and her boss, renowned scientist Professor Hiyashida (Yôsuke Natsuki), to neutralize Godzilla before he destroys the entire city.

But with the Americans and Russians vying to be the first to take down the mighty monster, it’s anyone’s guess if the great Godzilla will ever be brought to his knees.

Though produced 30 years after the original Gojira (and nine years after the previous film in the series, Terror of Mechagodzilla), Godzilla 1984 doesn’t make any attempt to update the costumes or special effects of its predecessors. Godzilla is still played by a guy in a big rubber suit (actor Kenpachirô Satsuma, to be exact) and the buildings he flattens, as well as the military tanks and planes that try to prevent him from doing so, are miniature models. Herein lies the magic of Godzilla 1984: it remains true to the spirit of the franchise without falling back on the pratfalls and humor present in many of the less-successful entries of the 1970s.

In addition, Godzilla 1984 returns the series to its nuclear roots, laid out in the classic 1954 film. A scene in which the American and Russian delegates are trying to convince Tokyo’s Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) to use nuclear missiles to destroy Godzilla serves as a chilling reminder of the cold war that was raging at the time.

By successfully conveying the terror that Godzilla unleashes (the scene where the monster lifts a subway car full of passengers off its tracks then casually tosses it aside is poignant, to say the least) while also shining a light on the then-current political climate, Godzilla 1984 did more than continue the saga. It showed audiences that Godzilla could still kick ass without camping it up, making it a worthy addition to Toho’s Kaiju series.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Friday, December 17, 2021

#2,678. King Kong (1976) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


In October of 1976 - right around the time of my 6th birthday – I bought my very first comic book. It was an issue of The Fantastic Four, though I can no longer remember which issue.

What I do remember, though, is what was on the back cover: the poster for 1976’s King Kong, announcing its upcoming release.

By that point, I hadn’t even seen the 1933 version, so this would have been the first time I ever set eyes on the Eighth Wonder of the World, and it blew me away! In fact, I spent more time looking at that poster than I did reading the comic book.

It would be another 40 years or so before I’d actually watch this Dino DeLaurentiis-produced remake, and while I wouldn’t rank it nearly as high as the classic original, it’s still plenty of fun.

Oil executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin) leads an expedition to the South Pacific, where he believes there’s an uncharted island teeming with enough black gold to put his company years ahead of the competition.

Paleontologist Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), who stowed away on Wilson’s tanker, is convinced there’s more than oil on the tiny island. Having studied the area, Prescott contends it might also be home to a legendary creature, one of enormous size.

Along the way, the ship encounters a life raft carrying an aspiring actress named Dwan (Jessica Lange), who found herself stranded at sea when the yacht she was traveling on exploded.

When this ragtag crew finally reaches the island, they are shocked to discover it is inhabited by a primitive tribe, which has erected a large wall around its village. It isn’t long before Wilson, Prescott and the others find out why the wall is so big, and exactly what it is the natives are trying to keep out.

From there, you can pretty much guess what happens next: the natives kidnap Dwan and offer her to their “God”, the enormous ape they call Kong. Prescott, who has fallen in love with Dwan, sets out to rescue her, and when the island’s potential for becoming an oil reserve doesn’t pan out, Wilson decides to save face by capturing Kong and transporting him back to New York, where he’ll use the giant beast as an advertising gimmick.

That was not a good idea!

The cast of King Kong does an admirable job. Bridges and Lange (in her first screen role) are likable as the romantic leads, and Grodin is as funny as he is detestable (there are times when you kinda like Wilson, despite his obvious shortcomings).

As for the title character, this version of King Kong has taken a lot of flak for using a guy in a suit - as opposed to special effects - to bring the legendary creature to life. But that “guy” was make-up artist extraordinaire Rick Baker (the man behind the amazing transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London), and the suit was designed by Baker and special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi (who had lent his talents to Barbarella and, in later years would make a name for himself with Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.).

Yes, the green screen technology that allowed this Kong to interact with the rest of the cast doesn’t hold up as well as Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion work in 1933’s King Kong, and a few of the later scenes in New York are downright laughable (though Kong’s run-in with a subway car is pretty epic). But Baker nonetheless does an admirable job as Kong, especially during the close-ups, when we see his eyes behind the mask. In these scenes, and a few others, Kong feels more “human” than some of the film’s other characters.

Throw in amazing set pieces (the walled village is especially impressive) and an epic battle between Kong and a giant snake, and you have a King Kong that, while not the definitive version, definitely has its charms.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

#2,677. King Kong Escapes (1967) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon


Co-financed by Toho (the studio behind the Godzilla films) and Rankin/Bass (best known for animated Christmas specials such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman), King Kong Escapes is straight-up children’s fare.

The world is being threatened by a mad scientist known as Dr. Who (no, not that Dr. Who… this one is a pretty evil guy played by Hideyo Amamoto, with voice actor Paul Frees dubbing him for the American release). Headquartered in the North Pole, Dr. Who plans to dig up several tons of “Element X” and sell it to an unspecified but very ambitious country (Element X, we discover, can be used to make nuclear weapons more powerful than the atomic bomb).

To help him accomplish this nefarious undertaking, the good Doctor has created a mechanical version of the mighty King Kong, and it is up to U.N. submarine commander Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason) and his crew - as well as the real Kong - to stop Dr. Who and save the world.

While kids will certainly enjoy King Kong Escapes, adults might have a hard time sitting through it; the plot is simplistic at best, and at times the story will have you scratching your head. Doctor Who seems to change his plan every 3 minutes, first promising his financier Madame Piranha (Mie Hama) that the mechanical Kong will bring Element X to the surface, then when that fails he decides to capture the real Kong to finish the job. Why he didn’t just use Kong at the start remains a mystery. There’s also an ill-conceived “romance” that develops between Kong and Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Jo Miller), a member of Nelson’s crew (the scenes in which she interacts with Kong are pretty woeful).

Still, with the great Ishiro Honda (Gojira, Mothra) directing, King Kong Escapes is fun whenever the monsters are on-screen; during their initial encounter with Kong on his island, Capt. Nelson, Lt. Watson and Lt. Nomura (Akira Takarada) are treated to an epic battle between the great ape and Gororsaurus (a Tyrannosaurus Rex that would later make a cameo in Toho’s 1968 film Destroy All Monsters), and the finale, set (naturally) in Tokyo, closes the movie out in grand style.

King Kong Escapes probably won’t make anyone’s Top 10 Kaiju list, but if you’re looking for something to keep the young ones occupied for 90 minutes or so, this film will do the trick.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Monday, December 13, 2021

#2,676. The Ninth Configuration (1980)


There’s a scene in 1973’s The Exorcist where Reagan (Linda Blair), in the early stages of her possession, interrupts a party being thrown by her mother (Ellen Burstyn). Reagan approaches one of the guests, an astronaut scheduled to be launched into space, and says to him “You’re gonna die up there”. As if to drive her point across, young Reagan then urinates in front of everyone before being shuttled away by her concerned mother.

That astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw, is the lead character in 1980’s The Ninth Configuration.

Written and directed by William Peter Blatty (who wrote The Exorcist as well as the novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, which formed the basis for this movie), The Ninth Configuration is the second in what’s become known as the author’s “Faith Trilogy” (which concluded with 1990’s The Exorcist III).

In other words, forget the dismal Exorcist II: The Heretic; The Ninth Configuration is the true middle chapter: the sequel to The Exorcist as well as the prequel to The Exorcist III.

Though unlike the two movies that bookend it, this 1980 entry is not a horror film. In fact, it’s everything but; The Ninth Configuration features dark comedy, an intriguing mystery, a stirring debate on the existence of God, some trippy dream sequences, and a final 20 minutes that are as shocking as they are dramatic.

Set sometime during the Vietnam War, The Ninth Configuration takes us to a remote castle in the Pacific Northwest, where soldiers who have suffered mental breakdowns as a result of the conflict are being treated. Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a psychiatrist, has just been assigned to the facility, sent there to determine which of the inmates might be faking mental illness, and which are truly sick.

Kane takes a special interest in the only patient who did not serve in Vietnam: Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), an astronaut who, during the final countdown for his journey into space, abandoned the mission and suffered a complete psychological breakdown.

With the help of the institution’s medical officer, Col. Richard Fell (Ed Flanders), Kane does his best to reach the patients under his care, though it’s clear from the outset that Kane is battling a few demons of his own, and may be just as disturbed as any of the facility’s other residents.

The first two-thirds of The Ninth Configuration play like a comedy, with each member of the film’s all-star cast chipping in to get some laughs. Jason Miller (Father Karras in The Exorcist) plays Lt. Frankie Reno, who with the help of Lt. Spinell (Joe Spinell), is trying to stage an all-canine version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Maj. Nammack (Moses Gunn) believes he’s Superman, while Lt. Bennish (Robert Loggia) is convinced he’s no longer on earth; he is being held captive by aliens on Venus. Also along for the ride are the institution’s guards and caretakers; Neville Brand is the ornery Major Groper and Tom Atkins appears in a few scenes as Sgt. Krebs.

The real standouts, though, are Stacy Keach as the subdued Kane, whose troubling dreams (the most bizarre of which is set on the moon) suggest he himself has experienced severe mental trauma, and Scott Wilson (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance) as the out-of-control Cutshaw, the astronaut who argues bitterly with Kane over the existence of God. Cutshaw is convinced God does not exist, and evil rules the world, whereas Kane contends that there is also good to be found among their fellow man, which in itself suggests there is indeed a God. While these debates are occasionally humorous (Cutshaw asks Kane to take him to a Catholic Mass, for which the astronaut dons a schoolboy’s uniform), they also form the nucleus of the film, giving insight into each man’s psyche and what it is that’s troubling them.

In fact, the mystery surrounding Kane’s trauma and what caused it is just as intriguing as the film’s theological diatribes, and while I was able to figure out this mystery well before the big revelation, Keach’s understated performance is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering when his character will finally snap.

Despite resting comfortably outside the horror genre, The Ninth Configuration definitely feels like a spiritual sequel to William Friedkin’s award-winning 1973 film, which I consider one of the most frightening movies I have ever seen. The Ninth Configuration may not scare you like The Exorcist or even The Exorcist III, but it will make you laugh, make you think, and, ultimately, move you in ways you did not expect.

The Ninth Configuration is not a genre film because it defies genre; like its characters, the movie has many personalities, all of which blend together brilliantly to create a motion picture unlike any I have experienced before.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, December 11, 2021

#2,675. A Private Function (1984) - Spotlight on England


Michael Palin has always been my favorite Monty Python alum, and both he and co-star Maggie Smith do a wonderful job as the mismatched husband / wife of director Malcolm Mowbray’s 1984 comedy A Private Function.

ut this is far from a two-person movie; it features a supporting cast that’s every bit as impressive as the leads.

Palin and Smith play Gilbert & Joyce Chilvers, an upwardly mobile couple (if Joyce has anything to say about it, that is) in Post-WWII England.

The small Yorkshire town in which they reside has decided to stage a celebration in honor of the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Unfortunately, food rationing restrictions put in place during the war have yet to be lifted, making it difficult to plan a menu for the festive occasion. So, some of the town’s more prestigious residents, including Dr. Charles Swaby (Denholm Elliott) and Accountant Henry Allardyce (Richard Griffiths) decide to thumb their nose at rationing by illegally raising a pig to serve as the main course.

Hoping to improve their standing within the community, Gilbert - following Joyce’s lead - kidnaps the pig from the local butcher (Pete Postlethwaite). Joyce is convinced this theft will force the town to notice them, but are the Chilvers truly prepared to keep such an animal hostage in their modest home?

A Private Function features some very funny moments (especially the scenes in which Gilbert and Joyce try to control the pig they’ve so callously unleashed on their humble abode), and the filmmakers did a fine job recreating the late 1940’s time period.

But it’s the cast that makes this one such a treat. Palin is quite good as the meekly Gilbert, a door-to-door foot doctor whose wife looks down on his profession of choice (“Can we please not bring feet to the table?”, she snaps when Gilbert tries to discuss his day over dinner), whereas Smith is hilariously frantic as the wife who wants nothing more than to be accepted by the town’s upper crust (“It’s not just pork, Gilbert”, she says at one point, “It’s power!”).

As for the supporting players, Denholm Elliott is at his pompous best as the snobbish Dr. Swaby, while Griffiths’ Allardyce eventually finds himself enjoying the pig’s company, looking on it more as a pet than a main course. Also strong are Bill Paterson as an uptight meat inspector who comes snooping around and Liz Smith as Joyce’s mother, who is afraid of being put in a home yet acts more senile with each passing scene.

Written by Alan Bennett (who also penned the screenplay for 1994’s The Madness of King George), A Private Function and its wonderful cast of characters will have you smiling ear-to-ear. If you’re a fan of British comedy, this is one you won’t want to miss.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, December 9, 2021

#2,674. The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)


Two years after they wowed audiences with King Kong, Merian Cooper and Ernest Shoedsack teamed up to bring another grand adventure to the big screen, The Last Days of Pompeii.

Preston Foster stars as Marcus, a kindly Pompeiian blacksmith who, as the result of a personal tragedy, vows that he will never be poor again. Utilizing his natural strength and agility, he becomes a champion gladiator, during which time he adopts a boy named Flavius (David Holt), the newly orphaned son of his most recent kill in the arena.

When he tires of fighting, Marcus dabbles briefly in slave trading before going into business for himself, buying horses from abroad. Eventually, he travels to Judea, where he meets with Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) and has a run-in with Jesus.

The years pass, and Marcus, now managing the arena, is the wealthiest man in all of Pompeii. As for Flavius (played as an adult by John Wood), he cannot forget the “great man” they met in Judea, and works against his father by helping slaves (i.e. - potential gladiators) escape imprisonment.

But with nearby Mt. Vesuvius spewing more smoke than usual, this battle of wills between father and son will soon be the least of everyone's worries.

A title card in the opening seconds of The Last Days of Pompeii informs the audience that the movie’s “characters and plot” have no relation to those in the novel (of the same name) by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Which is a shame, really, because the story is this film’s weakest element; teetering between dull and preachy (the religious angle is more heavy-handed than what you’d find in a Cecil B. DeMille picture), it bogs the film down more than once.

Fortunately, the more spectacular elements: the gladiator fights, the amazing set pieces, and, of course, the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, ultimately save the movie, and are reason enough to see it.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

#2,673. Jabberwocky (1977) - The Films of Terry Gilliam


Terry Gilliam’s solo directorial debut (he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail a few years before), Jabberwocky stars Michael Palin as Dennis Cooper, an eternally optimistic peasant who finds himself out of a job when his father (Paul Curran), a renowned barrel-maker, disowns him moments before dying of a heart attack.

Determined to make his way in the world - and thus win the hand of his beloved, Griselda (Annette Badland), daughter of local merchant Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell) - Dennis sets off for the big city, which is currently being terrorized by an enormous dragon (the Jabberwocky of the title).

Anxious to rid his kingdom of this horrible monster, King Bruno the Questionable (Max Wall) stages a tournament to find the greatest knight in the land. If the winner of this tournament manages to slay the dragon, he will be married to King Bruno’s daughter, The Princess (Deborah Fallender), and awarded half of the entire kingdom.

Dennis, whose only interest is landing a job, finds himself unwittingly swept up in the quest to destroy the dragon, and in the end may prove the only person capable of accomplishing this very dangerous task.

Sporting a look and feel reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jabberwocky gets off to a grand start; as the movie opens, a poacher (played by Terry Jones, who was Gilliam’s co-director on Holy Grail) is emptying his traps when he is suddenly attacked by the dragon. This opening is both shocking (though his head remains intact, the poacher’s body is stripped down to its bones) and hilarious (we never see the creature – the entire scene plays out from the dragon’s perspective, and we watch as he lifts the Poacher a hundred feet in the air before dropping him).

In fact, “shocking” and “hilarious” pretty much sum up the rest of the film as well, which features barbarity (the king’s tournament is particularly bloody) interspersed with side-splitting humor (the royal advisor Passelwe, played by John Le Mesurier, tries to convince the King that, instead of having the knights butcher one another, they stage a friendly game of hide-and-seek to determine the winner).

Unlike Holy Grail (which maintained the skit format that the Pythons had perfected in their BBC television program of the early ‘70s), Jabberwocky focuses more on a single narrative – i.e. the misadventures of Dennis Cooper. Still, a number of different characters and side-stories are introduced along the way, from the city merchants and their desire to keep the dragon around (business has never been better) to the Squire (Harry H. Corbett) who would rather bed another man’s wife than serve his master, the Knight known as Red Herring (voiced by Max Wall).

By “bridging the gap” between Terry Gilliam’s Python roots and his later fantasy adventures (Time Bandits, Brazil, etc), Jabberwocky provided the dark humor many had come to expect from a Monty Python alum while at the same time giving the world a glimpse into the mind of a highly imaginative filmmaker.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Sunday, December 5, 2021

#2,672. The Short History of the Long Road (2019)


Written and directed by Ani Simon-Kennedy, The Short History of the Long Road stars Sabrina Carpenter as Nola, a young girl whose father, Clint (Steven Ogg), dropped out of society years earlier, and is teaching his daughter how to survive on the open road.

Driving from town to town in an ‘80s era van, the duo bathes in public restrooms and survives on what little cash Clint earns from the odd fix-it job (a skill he’s passing on to Nola).

But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, Nola finds herself all alone.

Though she does her best to maintain an independent lifestyle, a frightened and confused Nola longs to reconnect with the mother she has never known, and does what she can to make this unlikely reunion a reality.

There are solid supporting performances throughout The Short History of the Long Road; Steven Ogg is likable as the erratic Clint, and Danny Trejo shines as Miguel, the auto mechanic who, in essence, becomes Nola’s father figure when Clint is no longer in the picture.

From start to finish, however, The Short History of the Long Road belongs to Sabrina Carpenter.

It is not a glamorous part; Nola never wears any make-up, and prefers to steal the things she wants or needs (everything from gasoline to library books), even when she has the money to pay. Yet it is Carpenter’s subtle portrayal of this lonely young woman - whose life is suddenly turned upside-down – that keeps us watching, and hoping beyond hope that everything will work out for her, no matter how unlikely a happy ending may seem at times (even a reunion with her mother, played by Maggie Siff, doesn’t provide the stability Nola so desperately needs).

A former Disney Channel star and current pop singer (her 2021 tune Skin reached as high as #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts), Carpenter has, with The Short History of the Long Road, also proven herself a fine dramatic actress, and I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the years to come.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, December 3, 2021

#2,671. Bug (2006)


William Friedkin’s uber-creepy Bug stars Ashley Judd as Agnes, a waitress who lives in a rundown motel. One night, she is introduced to Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter with no place to call home. The two immediately hit it off, and it isn’t long before Agnes is head-over-heels in love.

Not even the reappearance of her abusive ex, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), or the memory of her child - who was kidnapped ten years earlier and has never been found - can damper Agnes’s feelings for Peter.

Then, one night, Peter is bitten by a bug…

and then another…

and then another.

At first, Agnes can’t even see these mysterious insects, and some people, including her friend and co-worker R.C. (Lynn Collins), believe that Peter might be insane. Peter, however, continues to insist that there are bugs, and Agnes eventually believes him. But how far are the two willing to go to rid themselves of these miniscule parasites?

Based on a play written by Tracy Letts (who also penned the screenplay), Bug is a deeply disturbing motion picture, with masterful performances by both Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as the lovebirds slowly losing their grip on reality. Shannon is especially strong as Peter, whose shy demeanor early on gives way to all-out paranoia by the end of the movie (a Gulf War vet, Peter is convinced the military implanted the bugs in his mouth, and the scene where he pulls several of his own teeth to destroy the “egg sac” is horrifyingly brutal).

These two characters drag us screaming into their world of fear and obsession (the opening scene, which features a ringing phone, suggests that Agnes herself may be delusional from the outset), and the more bugs they “find”, the more precarious their grip on reality becomes, resulting in a final 20 minutes that is positively harrowing.

Expertly directed by Friedkin, Bug is an absolute shocker.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

#2,670. Waltz with Bashir (2008)


A stunning yet ultimately disturbing animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir is more than a war movie; it is a journey into the mind.

In 1982, when he was 19 years old, Ari Folman (the film’s writer / director) was in the Israeli military, and served as an infantryman during the war in Lebanon. For years, his memory of this time period has been hazy, but when his old friend Boaz (voiced by Miki Leon) relates the story of a recurring nightmare he’s had since serving in Lebanon, Folman himself experiences a dream about the war that he cannot explain, and wonders if it has something to do with the Sabra and Shatila Massacres, for which he was present, yet remembers nothing.

In an effort to trigger his memory, Folman visits with fellow veterans of that war, hoping their stories will somehow help him recall what his mind seemingly wants him to forget.

Though it paints a harrowing picture of warfare (the skirmishes can be tense and unflinchingly violent) Waltz With Bashir is more effective as a human drama, an exploration of how a soldier’s mind can alter, manipulate, even suppress painful memories as a means of coping with the trauma of battle. Shmuel Frenkel (voiced by himself) served in the same unit as Folman, and while talking with him one day, Folman is surprised to find that he has completely forgotten an incident involving a young Palestinian boy, who was shot dead after firing on them with an RPG.

All this, combined with a number of memorable sequences (the opening scene, a visual representation of Boaz’s dream in which 26 angry dogs run through the streets of Tel Aviv, is especially intense); an intriguing mystery at its center; and a (non-animated) ending that will shake you to your core, does its part to ensure that Waltz with Bashir will stay with you long after it is over.

It is unlike any animated film I have ever seen before.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10