Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Kaiju Kavalcade: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein noble Sempai Travis Kirkland and meek Nanami-kun yours truly… watch some kaiju movies and report on them!

king_kong_escapes_poster

TRAVIS:

Despite losing to his hairy adversary, 1962's KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a world-wide smash hit that propelled Godzilla to box office stardom. The King of the Monsters had successfully made his way into Technicolor and was soon off to battle butterflies in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA. Other Toho monster flicks began to invade theaters with movies such as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, GORATH, ATRAGON, and MATANGO giving us beasts of all shapes and sizes. Strangely though, the furry victor of the KKvG smackdown lay dormant for quite a few years. While big reptiles, bugs, and aliens decimated Tokyo, where was the Eighth Wonder of the World? Kong's fate was soon given fresh life in the hands of US animation company Rankin/Bass (best known for RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER and other beloved stop-motion holiday specials). In 1966, they partnered with Japan's Toei Animation to bring THE KING KONG SHOW to cartoon television, and the giant gorilla was once again in the spotlight. With success on the small screen, Rankin/Bass decided to license Kong to Toho for a return to the silver screen. By now, the big G was starting to settle down for a domestic life in SON OF GODZILLA, so maybe it was time for Kong to reclaim his glory with KING KONG ESCAPES!

Per usual Showa fashion, ESCAPES eschews the continuity of KKvG to begin the story anew. King Kong now lives on the mysterious Mondo Island where an American submarine has also conveniently landed. He soon encounters the sub's crew as they explore the island and in particular falls for the lovely Lt. Susan Watson. Now, this being a Japanese kaiju film, the story can't simply be a rehash of Kong/Ann Darrow relations, so they also throw in the nefarious mastermind Dr. Who (no, not THAT Doctor Who)! Who has created an exact robo-clone of Kong cleverly named Mechani-Kong to dig for the radioactive Element X deep down within the North Pole. If successful, Element X will be handed over to his financial overseer Madame Piranha so that her country (never named in the movie) can become the ultimate nuclear superpower in the world. However, Mechani-Kong malfunctions due to X's radioactivity, and Who and his henchmen head off to Mondo to kidnap and hypnotize the real Kong so that he may finish the job. Will Kong be able to break from his hypnotic trance? Can the beautiful Susan Watson tame the beast to fight for the forces of good? Will Kong and Mechani-Kong face off in Japan and destroy many building miniatures? If you don't know the answers to these questions, then you haven't been reading these reviews!

One fun way to watch this movie is to view it as though the original black-and-white KING KONG never existed, and Toho had created the Eighth Wonder from the ground-up instead of Miriam Cooper and RKO. It hits those familiar Kong beats (fights a dinosaur, crushes on a pretty lady, climbs a tall thing) but is spruced up by those fun tokusatsu tropes. Why should the humans simply reach Mondo Island by boat when they could use a sub that also has a flying transport ship? And Kong shouldn't simply grapple with a dinosaur either! The dino (in this case a pre-DESTROY ALL MONSTERS Gorosaurus making his debut appearance) should kangaroo kick him a lot to elongate the running time! Also, when Kong climbs the tall thing, he should be punching a big robot that looks like him! It's similar to all these modern fantasy movies that take old fairy tales and stretch them out into all-new re-tellings with a grim & gritty look and Tumblr feelz. Except here an enormous gorilla is hitting his mecha-clone in the face a buncha times. I'll take this over MALIFICIENT any day!

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 10.44.02 PM

LUCA:

Hey, at least Toho didn’t wuss out on having a female villain of some complexity (well, grading on a tokusatsu-curve here). Madame Piranha (that’s how big the curve is) as portrayed by Godzilla/James Bond veteran Mie Hama has a redemptive arc that, while simplistic, makes sense given the story and plays out in a satisfactory climax. Take that, MALEFICENT! Wait, why are we talking about MALEFICENT? If we must talk about FEELZ, I’ll admit that I was kinda touched by the captive Kong on the North Pole spotting his (inactive) metal doppelganger on the other side of the hangar and starts waving enthusiastically until he notices that he isn’t responding. Aw, man! I mean, I understand that Kong as the last of his species is something I’m bringing in myself as a viewer, but it was still kinda touching. Because LOL the movie doesn’t attempt drama at any point! Taken wholly without any cultural baggage, it’s just another dopey Kong moment (of which there are plenty).

I’d say King Kong is two for two in his Toho appearances. Between the lovely KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and KING KONG ESCAPES, director Ishiro Honda seemingly had quite a knack for realizing scripts with the big hairy guy in ‘em. It helps that, as you say, Travis, there’s no continuity between Toho’s Kongs, nor was the giant ape used in any more than these two outings. No time to get stale!

You’d think that with all the rehashing of OG KONG set pieces (Travis, you didn’t even touch upon the serpent delaying Kong and allowing the human heroes to escape, just like in Cooper’s film), KKE would be a bore for anyone with even a smidgen of movie monster knowledge. Not so! Greatest contributor to this not being the case is definitely the fact that the whole Sku—uh, MONDO Island sequence takes up all of fifteen minutes out of a hundred minute movie. Sure, he fights a T-Re—uh, GOROSAURUS and there’s a sea serpent, but Toho-Kong gets the fuck ON with it, man! Favorite part of the Mondo Island sequence for me was the ominous underwater shape approaching Commander Nelson’s hovercraft as Jiro, Susan and he all go back to the ship chased by Kong. In what appears to be a raging frenzy, Kong hurls a boulder at them. But I say thee nay! Kong just knows the miscreants of Mondo Island so well that he could accurately predict when the sea serpent would pop up and attack the hovercraft. Said monster’s reveal, followed a millisecond later with a boulder crashing into his face with a hilarious THUNK sound effect had me on board for this movie SO HARD. Any other winning moments for you, comrade Travis of an unnamed nation?

Mechani-Kong_vs_King_Kong

TRAVIS:

For me it's amusing to see a Toho kaiju joint infused with the old fashioned views of American adventure serials. For instance at the UN press conference, Susan is asked why Kong didn't harm her. The pretty Ms. Watson demurs, but the dashing Nelson pipes up with, “It's very easy to understand. As ridiculous as it may sound, Kong is a male, and Ms. Watson is... [motions toward Lt. Watson] ...well, see for yourselves, gentlemen.” The gentlemen in the room of course laugh. Ha! Dames. It's also funny that we've mentioned James Bond, as the two Asian antagonists (or I guess one antagonist and one turncoat) are given that special foreign exoticness Western audiences might be used to in 007 movies. Despite the fact that Dr. Who is portrayed by Japanese actor Eisei Amamoto, he's given a wild-haired look that includes full, pointy eyebrows that you could surmise might highlight his natural slanted eyes. Hama as Madame Piranha meanwhile is a sultry figure, an idolized representation of the alluring seductress of the East. Is this a bit overreaching? Maybe, but when examining ESCAPES and its co-production between studios of different nations, observing the cultural differences can be interesting.

What makes ESCAPES most memorable of all though is the big ape himself. Of course everyone loves Godzilla, but he can mostly be recognized as a bit of a surely guy. Even when he's fighting for the forces of good, he can still be a destructive force if his brash temper acts up. Kong on the other hand is a roly-poly furry friend who generally doesn't smash anything unless he's intentionally provoked or swayed by the object of his affections. He's a tender soul that embodies our base instincts. Haruo Nakajima (best known for his many years inside the Showa Godzilla suit since GOJIRA) is excellent here as the giant primate, showing some nice pathos that he probably couldn't normally bring to his other kaiju roles. I particularly enjoy how he distinguished G and Kong by their walking. G could be lumbering but moved precisely when he was ready to destroy buildings in his path. Kong meanwhile has a carefree stride with his two big ol' arms dangling to the sides (though this may be because the costume's arms were apparently too long for Nakajima). This is clearly not a creature with annihilation on the mind.

Despite his popularity, ESCAPES would be the last time that Kong would appear in a Toho feature. He was originally part of the all-star monster cast of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS but was ultimately dropped because Toho's license for the character was about to expire. In the 1990s Heisei era, the studio tried to work around Kong's copyright by planning a Godzilla vs. Mechani-Kong movie, yet even using his robotic likeness was going to be difficult to clear with his American rights holders, and the idea was soon scrapped. It's a bit ironic that it would be so hard to bring Kong back to the Land of the Rising Sun when he could actually claim to be the first film kaiju in Japanese history! In 1933 following the release of the original KING KONG, Shochiku Studios quickly put out their own remake titled WASEI KINGU KONGU (or JAPANESE KING KONG in English). The film unfortunately wasn't preserved for history, and no copies are currently known to be in existence. However, a single still frame remains as the only remaining evidence of it, showing an actor in a Kong suit holding onto a miniature woman. Though GOJIRA would proudly claim to be the film to kick off suitmation SFX, it's clear that the Eighth Wonder of the World staked his claim in the man-in-suit business almost twenty years earlier. Maybe he deserved that victory over Godzilla after all!

968full-king-kong-escapes-screenshot

LUCA:

Coming back to your earlier statement, Travis, I gotta agree, there's absolutely no threat to Toho's Kong whatsoever. People complained about Peter Jackson's neutered beast, but methinks those people haven't seen KING KONG ESCAPES! Then again, maybe they have, and deemed a friendly Kong not worth the bother of complaining about when faced with a brisk 100 minute runtime. And then there's the fact that this isn't really a remake of the 1933 original, so who cares what they do with their big ape? Besides looking BLAZED AS FUCC at all times -- seriously, the "opening his eyes" close-up shot when we are introduced to Kong looks less like the awakening of an awesome leviathan as much as a gigantic stoner being roused from his Dora The Explorer marathon -- Kong just never does any damage to anyone who doesn't deserve it by being really, really cartoonishly mean. This THC-induced dopeyness extends to his titanium counterpart as well, as the screwhead eyes of Mechani-Kong remind me of nothing less than Kylie from FANTASTIC MR. FOX when he zones the fuck out. Also, the poster might SEEM to promise a robotic Kong who shoots lasers out his eyes, but in reality they're just some big headlights that make Kong throw his arm up in front of his face. "Ughhhh noooo wanna snooze some mooorrre!!!"

Dr. Who's appearance actually quite amused me, since his wardrobe and hair seemed to be a very deliberate "homage" (hmmm) to the BBC's good Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell, the very first of the titular Time Lords. It's somewhat disappointing that Who is a (very loose) adaptation of an actual cartoon villain, since Toho's always been very good at giving us goofy human villains, as far back as the greedy industrialists in MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA in '64. This is largely academic, however, as Amamoto gives a wonderfully hammy performance nearly the equal of Akihiko Hirata camp-tastic turn in TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA! Speaking of that GOJIRA veteran, it's very nice to see Akira Takarada (the romantic hero Ogata from the first G-movie) back as the do-gooder Captain Jiro. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I felt at times like Jiro was actually the one hinted to be Susan's human love interest, rather than the more-appropriate-for-1967 Commander Nelson. INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER had already done an intercontinental (planetary, even!) romance, so it's not beyond Toho!

KING KONG ESCAPES, two opposable thumbs up from me! And stick around, my Mondo Island friends, for some exciting stuff is coming up...

Friday, January 16, 2015

I Live Near A Cinema: EXODUS: GODS & KINGS

I recently moved back to my hometown, within walking distance of a cheap movie theater. While this is a great amenity for anyone who likes movies, it also presents a conundrum for the ever-entertainment-seeking First Worlder. It turns the cinema into a really big TV set. “Maaaan, there’s nothing on… ugh god, I don’t wanna get up though… ughhhh FINE, I’ll watch MONEY TALKS.” So in this situation, sometimes you’ll walk to the cinema, realize you’ve actually seen everything that’s playing that you wanted to see, and you end up seeing…

Exodus-Gods-and-Kings-Poster-Bale-and-Edgerton

One of the delights of being with a person who was cut off from a large part of popular culture during her youth, is the ability to introduce them to movies that, in time, have perhaps gained a rose-tinted sheen borne from many a youthful, uncritical viewing. It’s wonderful to have films taken for granted by movie geekdom being examined freshly by rational adult eyes. It was during a viewing of Ridley Scott’s HANNIBAL that my lovely wife deadpanned:

“So ALIEN was a fluke, I guess…”

This caused no end of amusement for me, and actually triggered a more thorough examination of Scott’s work. Though I am not as harsh as to say I only like ALIEN, my opinion of him had shifted from “He’s fallen off a bit in recent years…” to “Holy shit, he only does care about a pretty picture, doesn’t he?”

Ridley Scott, not that far off from Tim Burton!

The latest must-see Sir Ridley, EXODUS: GODS & KINGS, had me hurrying to the cinema only a month after release and also because my sister bought us dinner nearby. That old Scott magic…

I also figured having a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness with me surely would result in some interesting running commentary on Biblical adaptation choices, and I was not proven wrong!

First, the bad news: EGK is a piece of shit of the worst kind. It starts off genuinely int—no, wait, hold up, it doesn’t. My bad.

It starts out as promising hilarious revenge porn, with title cards saying that the Hebrews had been enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. But they had not forgotten their god… and HE had not forgotten them…

This was already pretty giggleworthy: Ridley playing to the cheap seats and just laying out the setting in the laziest possible way. Unfortunately, the movie gets sorta good for the next 15-20 minutes. Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton and John Turturro make a compelling triumvirate as the two sons (natural and not) of an aging pharaoh and their father. Bale is actually jesting and smirking in this part of the movie. His Moses is a cocky prince who’s pretty happy with his station in life – wow, not since AMERICAN PSYCHO!

Joel Edgerton’s Ramses meanwhile is amazing! The young(ish) pharaoh is basically a trust fund bro who wants what’s coming to him and can’t handle any situation in any fashion other than “Uhhh hang more Jews!!” At one point Moses finds him posing like a male model with a white cobra draped around his shoulders as he wistfully gazes into the flames…

An Egyptian soothsayer (Indira Varma, too good for this shit) says that in a battle to come, one guy will save another. The saved guy will go on to have a high status, but the guy who did the saving will be the true leader. You know where that’s going!

After a battle with invading (or are they?) Hittites, Ramses is pissed because that very thing happened. This is a weird thing to put in, because it kind of shows us that either the god of the Hebrews isn’t the One True God, or that he was speaking through an Egyptian soothsayer, allowing her to falsely claim his words as those of Sekhmet. That doesn’t sound like our guy to me! It’s almost as if the film’s five credited screenwriters were just tacking shit onto an ancient  to adjust it for 21st century blockbuster viewers’ expectations… I must disappoint you: Moses did not turn out to have Super Blood.

A sekhment (hehe) follows where Moses is appointed to oversee a quarry and unmasks Egyptian corruption by an unscrupulous viceroy. It’s solid stuff, showing Moses to be a wily politician as well as an able warrior. It is here that his Hebrew lineage is revealed to him by Jew #1 played by Ben Kingsley. This movie is very good at wasting great actors on nothing parts, to the point where I believe a Director’s Cut not unlike Kingdom of Heaven is surely forthcoming.

This insult ticks Moses off so badly that he kills two soldiers who beckon him as “Hey you there, Hebrew!”. Now, the soldiers WERE sent to kill him by the corrupt viceroy, but they had not yet attacked him at that point. It’s pure white hot racist denial rage by Moses. I thought it was very impressive to have a mainstream blockbuster lead character exhibit such malevolence!

Alas, it was not to be.

The idea of Moses as a complex, maybe even bad man, is struck down when he is exiled from Egypt after Ramses learns of his heritage. He bullies some shepherds away from a well because he is more thirsty and has a sword. But these shepherd were actually bullies themselves, who bullied some hot chicks with sheep away from the water, whom Moses then gracefully invites back to the well.

The casting of Spanish actress Maria Valverde as Moses’ wife-to-be Sippora (after a mildly pleasant conversation in which he was apparently highly impressed by her weaving) is perhaps even more dubious than casting Australian/Welsh/American actors as Egyptians and Hebrews. Casting a latina as a Middle Eastern woman cuz…. Ridley scott he say “ehhh sorta brown”? Glad to see latina actresses in high profile roles but it’s a double edged sword here!

Speaking of female characters! Haha! Well, it’s always shaky ground if you’re gonna adapt Bible tales – often you can just give the character a NAME and you’ll have improved on the source material, but EGK has one scene where they hilariously rub your face in the off-screen story of a female character that maybe could have been interesting?

During the dramatic confrontation with Ramses and his mother (Sigourney Weaver, she of the five lines in the entire movie) about Moses’ heritage, Miryam (Game of Thrones’ Tara Fitzgerald), Hebrew handmaiden to Moses’ adoptive mother Bythia, reveals herself to be Moses’ real sister.

Years ago, a prophecy (another one!) was made that a great leader of Hebrews would arise and shake Egypt to its core (another CORRECT one!), so the Pharaoh had a bunch of Hebrew babies killed. Moses’ parents were clever though, and gave him to his older sister Miryam to hide. She put him on the Nile in a basket, placed cleverly so that he would end up at a spot where the barren Bythia bathed. Then, all she had to do was worm her way into the palace and become Bythia’s maid and presto! Moshe saved!

Wait, that’s some really fucking clever maneuvering from a teenage slave girl. How the hell did she do that? You’re really just gonna have her tell us this in thirty seconds?

Anyway back to the men!

Now here’s where all the god shit comes in, and I was actually still sort of on board here. Moses actually gets CONKED on the head while tending some sheep, and this is where he sees God, a whiny little English kid.

Clever, you movie you! Make it ambiguous as to whether or not Moses was a crazy man or if he was actually God’s chosen… but nope!

After some terrorist attacks on granaries, the whiny kid returns and tells Moses this shit isn’t going fast enough, so he’s gonna start doing it himself. Cue the ten plagues!

The ten plagues are actually a really fun bunch of setpieces where people are eaten by crocodiles and covered in locusts and stuff, and here’s where Ramses absolutely shines! He gets to do cartoon shit like stare angrily and scowl while frogs hop onto his head, and he gets covered in boils as he thwacks flies off his face. There’s even a running gag where he hangs advisors who have proven useless!

Now the movie AGAIN tries to have it both ways, with a scientist played by Ewen Bremner explaining away the first four or five plagues. But then God keeps coming and either you have to believe in a shit-ton of coincidence or just acknowledge that it’s God, guys.

While the ten plagues are a good bit of fun, they’re also pretty much where the movie dies like an Egyptian baby, as it resolutely takes the side of “God is real” and much more important than Moses, as Bale pretty much spends this portion of the movie going “oh no!” and “you sure, God?” if he’s on screen at all. This is where my wife’s later remark that “they took away Moses’ staff and gave him that stupid sword instead!” really hit me. Although the Biblical Moses is too firm a believer at that point to make a compelling protagonist, the staff/serpent throw down incident being completely erased from the narrative to make way for Moses just fretting and standing idly by as God takes care of shit is indicative of a boring, non-committal script.

After this CGI-and-lulz onslaught, the actual titular Exodus is an underwhelming affair. Moses is pretty much the only Hebrew we got to know a little over the course of the movie, so it’s basically a bunch of really expensive crowd shots of people walking away. There’s a final cool bit of empty spectacle a bit later, with a mass crash of chariots and the sadistic death of a weaselly Egyptian we’d been following the entire movie, but by that time any enjoyment you’re picking out of the movie is completely apart from what the filmmakers were intending.

Put it to you like this: EGK is a movie that has Moses and Ramses facing each other at the bottom of the Red Sea one on one, charging each other, but it DOESN’T end in a fist/swordfight. If you’re gonna go stupid, go all the way stupid! Not since THE PATRIOT and Emmerich’s disgusting refusal to have Jason Isaacs be impaled on the Stars ‘n Stripes have I seen such negligence…

The ten commandments also sort of happen in a half-assed way, with a hilarious shot of the golden calf far off into the distance, unacknowledged by either God or Moses who are too busy exchanging “hehe we made it bro” pleasantries on top of Mount Sinai. It comes across not as a dramatic illustration of the Hebrews’ faithlessness in the desert, but a wacky cultural tic we just hadn’t been told about, like the Egyptians and their love of Mascara.

“The Israelites have lives outside of Moses too, you know!”

E-40 once said “Imagine all the Hebrews going dumb, dancin’ on top of chariots and turnin’ tight ones”. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS sometimes flirts with being that movie, sometimes with being a decent, religion-free retelling of the tale of Moses, but never commits to either.

Keak Da Sneak probably would have made a better Joshua!