Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Destroy All Monsters (1968) movie poster

director Ishirō Honda
viewed: 12/28/2014

My childhood favorite Godzilla movie.  The title itself is just plain awesome.  But the real reason that this movie was a childhood favorite was because it featured “all of the monsters” (more my perception at the time).

It’s not just Godzilla versus so-and-so but it’s got Rodan, Mothra, Anguirus, King Ghidorah, Varan, Baragon, Minilla, Manda, Gorosaurus, and Kumonga!!!

Okay, half of those you’re probably not going to know who they are or where they came from.  Part of what’s cool and funny about the movie is how all of the characters recognize them like movie stars: “Look! It’s Manda!”  (This Manda appeared in Atragon “Undersea Warship” (1963) — I didn’t know.  I’m taking Wikipedia’s word for it.)

I had actually seen this about 10 years ago while on hiatus from the film diary, so I hadn’t written about it at the time.  So, I’d kind of learned that this wasn’t really the “best” Godzilla movie of all time (though it still gets credit for concept and title).

All of the monsters are living on “Monsterland” or “Monster Island” depending on the translation.  That’s when an alien race appears and takes control of the monsters’ minds and has them attack spots around the globe.  Eventually, they besiege Japan, of course.  When the humans take control of the monsters, the aliens bring in space monster Ghidorah and at the end, we get an all out monster battle.  But it takes a while to get there.

I think the best Godzilla movies are typically the ones with Ghidorah (Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) or Monster Zero (1965) or the ones with MechaGodzilla (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) or Terror of MechaGodzilla (1975)), but this one still deserves some kudos.

It had been a while since the kids and I had watched a real Godzilla movie.  Oddly enough, Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) were the two of the original Godzillas that I couldn’t get my hands on via Netflix back in the time we originally were watching them.  Now, those two are on Fandor.  And interestingly enough, Christmas weekend, Roberto Rodriguez’s El Rey television network was having a kaiju-fest, featuring a lot of Godzilla movies, but these two were not on the list.

Go figure.

Q – The Winged Serpent (1982)

Q (1982) movie poster

director Larry Cohen
viewed: 12/27/2014

This is the movie about a giant flying lizard who makes its home in the top of NYC’s Chrysler Building.  As unlikely a scenario as that is, the great Larry Cohen throws in a lot more super unlikely things in this entertaining oddity from 1982.

Of course, if it’s Larry Cohen, then there’s Michael Moriarty.  Moriarty here plays a two-bit crook, a bottom rung guy, who stumbles upon the next of the beast when he’s trying to avoid capture following a failed jewel heist.  Cohen gives Moriarty not just a lot of rope and screentime to develop his oddball character, but ends up giving him virtually the whole film.  I haven’t done a time analysis here but I’m willing to guess that maybe two thirds of this thing is Moriarty.

He’s entertaining, improvisational, off-beat, but ultimately, all that screentime feels like padding in the long run.

David Carradine and Richard Roundtree are cops on the trail of the mysterious rooftop beheadings and disappearances, as well as a series of cult murders that include flaying people alive.  It turns out that it’s all connected.  Some guy is performing human sacrifice to bring back Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec deity that happens to be a winged serpent.

The serpent itself appears in brief shots of stop-motion animation and in some other brief shots in part in practical effects of giant beaks or talons grabbing people.  It’s actually kind of cool, especially if you’re like me and appreciate a stop-motion monster.  Though I have to say that I more than once thought of the super-camp The Giant Claw (1955), which would make a fun double feature with this.

You’ve also got the Chrysler building itself and the New York City streets of the early 1980’s, still part of the pre-Giuliani New York that has come and gone.  Actually, shot mostly in the midtown area, it’s not as stark as some images of New York at that time.  There are also lots of aerial shots of the city, the Quetzalcoatl-eye views.

All in all, not a bad flick.  Not Cohen’s best, but still worthwhile.

Bronson (2008)

Bronson (2008) movie poster

director Nicolas Winding Refn
viewed: 12/25/2014

Nicolas Winding Refn was on the scene long before his breakthrough 2011 film Drive.  Pusher (1996) and its sequels essentially established him.  In 2008, he helped bring actor Tom Hardy to notoriety in his lead role in Bronson, the type of notoriety that would lead Hardy on to his role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) for Christopher Nolan.  Winding Refn developed his style, hewing to the brutal realm of the crime film, imbued with his signature neon blues, reds, and greens and his penchant for 1980’s New Wave or New Wave-inspired music tracks, and that style is on display here too.

The story of Bronson is interesting.  Curious.  Based loosely on the true life and times of “Britain’s most famous/violent prisoner,” Michael Gordon Peterson (a.k.a. Charlie Bronson), I’d long sort of thought this movie might be like Australian Andrew Dominik’s fascinating Chopper (2000), another biographical fiction about a notorious criminal.  But the film is much more a sort of A Clockwork Orange (1971), a tale of crime and punishment, maybe more aptly considered as “How Do You Solve Problem Like Charlie Bronson?”

The real Bronson/Peterson, like his counterpart played effectively by Tom Hardy here in the film, is the definition of a malcontent.  Raised in a middle class London home, Bronson raged with untold anger, was eternally bristling for fights, brutal, harsh, violent to the Nth degree.  But his actual crimes never ascended to murder or rape or anything quite deserving of a life sentence.  The problem is that on the inside or outside of prison (whichever prison), he was eternally angry and fighting, resulting in him spending almost every moment of his adult life behind bars or in mental institutions.

As portrayed by Hardy in a rather whimsical array of narrative approaches by Winding Refn, Bronson is intelligent but unsolvable by the state, his doctors, guards, therapists, family, or himself.  It’s a frustrating image of a problem person without a solution, and the truth of the story is how much money has been spent on this brutal, myopic individual.

Winding Refn’s style mixes stylized imagery with Hardy’s surly, accented voice-over characterization of Bronson’s mentality and self-perception.  While it often “looks” quite good, with fine cinematography, it has an unsettled tone of comic pathos and moderate melodrama.  Winding Refn sees Bronson as somewhat of an artist, performing onstage in monologues or drawing or crafting things to find his personal expression.  But it’s also an unsolvable portrayal.  There is no redemption, no moral to the story.

I didn’t really care for Bronson.  I think Winding Refn’s style is a little much and while it may well be the case that the intention is to show that Bronson himself is an impossible society curse as well as a living, breathing, intelligent human being, I don’t know, the film wasn’t satisfying to me.  I may have colored a bit after seeing Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013), which I thought awful.  There are a lot of those motifs here: the neon, the 80s music, the street fighting, underworld, so themes and consistency do run through as well.

I’m reconsidering my thoughts on Nicolas Winding Refn still.


The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects (1995) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 12/25/2014

The 1990’s American indie film boom.  Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects was one of those movies that had cachet and word-of-mouth, predicated on the film’s notorious twist ending.  It had people talking and re-watching. It launched or boosted a number of careers, most specifically Singer’s himself.

You know, it’s oddly enough another one of the movies of that era that I saw at the time and enjoyed, but never saw again.  Like Pulp Fiction (1994) and later Memento (2000), it was a breakthrough film for an up and coming new talent, one who would come to establish himself in Hollywood.  The 1990’s indie film scene offered a fair amount of scenarios like this.  Lots of young directors made their names with one good (or great) film.

The Usual Suspects, I would say, isn’t a great film.  It’s a good film with a gimmicky but effective script that really drives its qualities.  Starring Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio del Toro, and Chazz Palminterri, it’s a noirish set-up, with a group of mid-level crooks pulled together on a series of crimes by a mysterious employer who turns out to be…SPOILER ALERT…the devil!  Or Keyser Söze.  It could just have easily been called “The Red Herrings”.

It all unfolds after an explosion at a San Pedro, CA dock that left two dozen men dead, and the gimpy Kevin Spacey is hauled in for questioning on this convoluted backstory.  To give credit where credit is due, I’d like to suggest that credit belongs largely to writer Christopher McQuarrie, who collaborated with Singer on this film (and others) because while it’s probably full of holes and maybe more convoluted that like some elaborate Swiss watch in its construct, the pulpy story works pretty well.  Credit should go to Spacey, too, who was at his prime here in the mid-1990’s, a compelling screen presence playing whatever character he was.

Singer, though, does a sort of workmanlike job here.  Really, it’s not great filmmaking.  I wasn’t overly warming to the direction in general but the flashback within a flashback to the killing of Keyser Söze’s family with that stilted action camera effect, I realized that this was no master director.  Capable at best.

It did launch Signer’s career, though, which he parlayed into success with the X-men movies.  I guess his otherwise unimpressive output seems less a surprise.  McQuarrie and Singer have continued to collaborate, too.

I guess the upshot of my reaction from watching The Usual Suspects for the first time in 20 years is that it’s a decent movie.  It has its qualities.  (You can say that about a lot of things though — and I probably have.)  But it’s not as clever as others, certainly not as well-produced, though it has a very good B-level cast.  It’s not one of “the great” movies of the 1990’s, though it was a significant film in the time.

“Who is Keyser Söze?” How many fledgling screenwriters watched this movie and tried to re-create its gimmicky shtick?

Come and See (1985)

Come and See (1985) movie poster

director Elem Klimov
viewed: 12/25/2014

“War is hell,” that oft-quoted understatement is attributed originally to William Tecumseh Sherman and is no doubt applicable in many contexts.  I imagine that many a War genre film has portrayed its topic as such and has probably evoked such a response in its viewers.

Elem Klimov’s 1985 film, Come and See, doesn’t depict a battlefield but rather an occupied country by an invading force.  It’s 1943 in Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the peasants of the country are rising up in partisan troops to fight off the invading Nazis.

Klimov’s film is a visceral sensoria, a harrowing nightmare whose surrealism is evoked through utter naturalism paired with the subjective psychological effect of bearing witness to terror and atrocity.  The witness of the hellishness of this war is teenage Flyora (an absolutely amazing Aleksei Kravchenko), from cheery pluck and naiveté to shell-shocked horror and trauma.  The film opens on him playing with a younger boy, until he finds a rifle and declares himself fit to go and fight the war.  He is quickly taken in by the partisan troops, but also left behind by them.

Abandoned in the woods he finds a beautiful teenage girl named Glasha, played by Olga Mironova, who has similarly been left behind by the troops.  They share a brief, playful interaction before the bombs start strafing the woods, shattering trees and cascading down in destruction.  It’s an amazing sequence, the first of several.

From there, Flyora’s journey goes from bad to worse: he finds his home abandoned (he doesn’t see what Glasha does, the bodies piled up behind it), a struggle through a mire to an isolated island, a hunt for food that winds up killing all his companions and the cow that they steal from a Nazi conspirator farmer, and ultimately the destruction of a village in which all of the people are corralled into a church which is then set on fire, killing all inside.

Toward the film’s end, photo-journalistic images invade the screen of death camps and marching soldiers and Adolph Hitler himself.  And a title card reads “628 villages in Byelorussia were burnt to the ground with all their inhabitants,” signifying that the horror depicted was not conjured up in fiction nor by any way an isolated occurrence.

The film was made in part to remember to atrocities inflicted upon Belarus (Byelorussia), perhaps not one of the more well-known horrors enacted by the Nazis in their reign of terror in WWII.  It was also, in part, made to recall the victory of the Russians over the Germans in 1945, the 40th anniversary of that event.

It’s an amazing film.  Unbelievable.  Aleksei Kravchenko was a non-professional actor when employed here and bears all the most amazing traits and genuine naturalism that come from the best uses of non-professional actors.  His performance is completely amazing and harrowing and heartbreaking.  This film is much more than his face but this film is also entirely embodied on his face, the stark-staring horror and tragedy and psychological trauma.


Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) movie poster

director George Lucas
viewed: 12/24/2014

This was for my 10 year old daughter who had never seen the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  Last year, we completed the first cycle of Star Wars movies and I had wanted to let that sink in.  The prequels tarnished the reputation of the original series, but it’s easy to imagine that someone of a more modern generation not fully grasping the difference right off the bat.  So, I figured we’d wait to see episodes I-III.

I don’t think it’s radical to state that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the worst of the six movies.  Starting next year, with the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), the J.J. Abrams-directed first of the new Disney franchising of Star Wars, we are about to enter an all-new onslaught/glut of Star Wars as never before seen or conceived.  Who knows, they might be good, great, meh or terrible, but the only thing for certain is that the original films and even this second series will soon be diminished at least by volume in an ever-growing empire (haha) of franchise-ization looming far into the future

Hard to imagine The Phantom Menace as quaint, but I reckon it will be by comparison.

I recall vividly first seeing trailers for The Phantom Menace and being overwhelmed with excitement.  The John Williams score on top of the vivid visual images from the film tapped into a deep, deep part of me.  It looked great.  And frankly a lot of the movie still “looks” pretty good.  There is a lot of great design and costuming.

But it’s terrible, too.

George Lucas somehow managed to expose his greatest weaknesses in this film, like some confluence of his worst elements, which overshadow any qualities the film actually retains.  The Phantom Menace traded on immense goodwill.  People freaking love Star Wars.  They were ready to be awed and amazed.

Then there was Jar-Jar Binks.  Even if Binks wasn’t intended as racist a caricature as he appeared, he was massively annoying.  In 1999, fully digitally animated characters interacting with live-action actors was still moderately new and was far from perfected.  Jar-Jar is both a horribly conceived character and also weak from an overall execution standpoint.  Digital animation makes massive strides every year, and Jar-Jar, technically innovative at the time, does not read well visually.  It’s not surprising that Lucas suppressed him through the latter films of the series in large part due to critical and fan response.

Jake Lloyd, bless him, is also completely awful.  It’s hard to blame an 8 year old for his performance in such a critical role as the young Anakin Skywalker (and eventual Darth Vader), and so I don’t blame him at all.  He’s terrible and it’s entirely Lucas’s fault.  He wrote the lines Lloyd has to speak, selected the kid, directed the kid, and ultimately put him up on screen as wooden, awful, and pandering a presence as one could imagine.  At least he draws some attention away from Jar-Jar Binks.

You’ve got good actors like Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and many others contending with Lucas’s dialogue.  It’s not hard to understand why a kid would come off the worst for the whole in comparison.

The racial stereotypes are also extremely hard to fathom.  It was 1999, not 1931, but yet you have the Stepin Fetchit-esque Binks and the Jamaican cum Creole Gungans, the insidious East Asian inflected Neimoidians, and Watto, a pawn dealer-like Jewish character seemingly from another era.  Lucas has of course denied such claims up and down but the reality is there onscreen.  It’s hard not to read them as racist stereotypes.

Reductive analysis of Lucas’s Star Wars universes typically can be insightful.  I had a film professor who equated Tatooine with Modesto, CA (Lucas’s home planet) and the more beautiful Yavin 4 as the Bay Area.  Maybe the Death Star is Los Angeles and Hollywood, I can’t recall.  But with planets of snow and planets of desert, it’s easy enough to read singular places and races as representative of individual groups or countries of our real world.

The film has a convoluted plot set-up that of course lines up the narrative for the other five films.  And oddly enough, if it wasn’t for all the really awful parts of the film, maybe there is a reasonable amount of good stuff too.  The bad stuff certainly distracts from the good.

Clara found Jar-Jar annoying and Jake Lloyd really awful but I think she enjoyed the movie otherwise.  I actually hadn’t seen it in full in some time myself.  I think it runs on regular television enough that I’ve managed to catch parts off and on to have almost seen the whole more than the one time I sat through it in the theater in somewhat shocked disappointment.

This time through, I still found it awful and annoying in the aforementioned ways, but I enjoyed aspects of it as well.  Clara has an understanding of the whole from pop culture and video games and other things, so though Felix claimed to have watched The Phantom Menace six to ten times, we’ll be sitting down before too long to take in the final films of the series.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940) movie poster

director George Cukor
viewed: 12/23/2014

It’s kind of hard to imagine that Katharine Hepburn was once referred to as “box office poison” but following the poor performance of Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) (I know, what!!!??), she was. But Hollywood stories aren’t stories without just these types of twists and turns.  Hepburn bought out her contract at RKO and headed to Broadway, where she starred in Donald Ogden Stewart’s The Philadelphia Story.  She also managed to finagle the rights to the film and parlayed it into her comeback to the silver screen and return to commercial success.  Box office antidote, I suppose.

Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by George Cukor, 1940’s The Philadelphia Story bears its stage-based qualities rather significantly.  While it has a lot of solid humor and some good scenes, it’s also very actorly and heavy on the speechifying monologues heightening dramatics that the Oscars was created to appreciate and glorify.

Hepburn plays socialite Tracy Lord, divorced from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and engaged to George Kitteredge (John Howard).  Step in slop reporters Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) hired to cover the wedding for Spy Magazine.  You’ve got yourself a comedy of class and divorce (comedy or remarriage), an Oscar for Jimmy Stewart, and a film for the National Film Registry.

Oddly enough, I’d never seen it before, or at least, not all of it.  I enjoyed it, but after having just watched Bringing Up Baby, which is a hysterical screwball comedy also featuring Grant and Hepburn, it was hard not to compare and contrast the two  Actually, TCM was playing several Grant and Hepburn movies that night.)  I’m much more a Bringing Up Baby man.  But that is Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for you.  And apparently the American public as well.

Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged (1988) movie poster

director Richard Donner
viewed: 12/18/2014

Of the 86 bajillion Christmas movies ever made, at least half of them have to be adaptations of Charles Dickens’ 1843 “A Christmas Carol”.  It’s doubtful that Dickens could have forseen the ongoing cultural impact of that one novella, much less the litany of interpretations of it.

Of those 43 bajillion versions, I’d be willing to guess that more than half of them are relatively straightforward and literal attempts to bring the story and its original settings to life.  But of that still enormous number of lesser half, there have been so many modernizations filtered through so many popular characters and schemes…I imagine that the list goes on and on and on.

So what of this (then contemporary) late 1980’s modernization called Scrooged, directed by Richard Donner and starring Bill Murray?

It’s one of those movies that I’ve always liked despite myself.  And I say this because though I don’t recall exactly the first time I saw it, I wasn’t expecting to like it at all, I believe.  And while I might have begrudgingly appreciated it at first, I came to like it more and more, as I saw it (however many times — many!) over the eons and eons since 1988.

It’s Bill Murray, of course, in what would have at the time seemed like mid-career Bill Murray.  Though technically, being more than 25 years old, might these days still fall into his “early” film career.  It came in a fecund mid-career resurgance among the likes of Ghostbusters II (1989), What About Bob? (1991), and Groundhog Day (1993), cementing his movie star cred.

He plays the Scrooge character TV executive without a heart Frank Cross, who makes his whole network perform a live version of A Christmas Carol on live television.  Everything is modernized and renamed but it’s the visit from his old colleague and the trio of ghosts of Christmases past, present and future that ensure that we’ve got a modified but not really irreverent interpretation of the classic.

It’s got quite the supporting cast including the wonderful Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Karen Allen, Bobcat Goldthwait, Alfre Woodward, and John Murray (actually all of Bill Murray’s brothers appear in different roles).  It’s also got Jamie Farr, Buddy Hackett, John Houseman, Robert Goulet, Lee Majors, and Mary Lou Retton in various cameo roles.  I’ve always been very partial to Carol Kane’s ghost of Christmas present, but the kids liked David Johansen as the ghost of Christmas past.

Yes, I shared it with the kids.  Clara had been asking about “A Christmas Carol” and for all those 43 bajillion traditional interpretations, I don’t know which of them is the best to choose.  I knew Scrooged and figured they would like Scrooged, and they did.

I haven’t been feeling the least Christmasy this Christmas season.  But I too enjoyed watching Scrooged again for the umpteenth time (though the first time in a long, long while).

Team America: World Police (2004)

Team America: World Police (2004) movie poster

director Trey Parker
viewed: 12/18/2014

Timeliness is a slippery thing.

On Thursday, December 18, when I watched Team America: World Police on Netflix streaming, it was one day after theater chains in America had decided to not release Sony Pictures’ The Interview (2014) on Christmas Day.  This had been a reaction to threats made by hackers who had breached Sony’s internal servers, releasing emails and other information to the web.  It was even after Sony had further capitulated and decided to not show The Interview anywhere on Christmas and was actively pulling down advertising for the film.

The brouhaha is far from over.  Less than a week later, Sony is back suggesting that some limited release for The Interview may happen.  That’s today, of course.

One of the first reactions of one or more cinema chain was to play instead Paramount Pictures’ Team America: World Police (2004) as a tongue-in-cheek protest.  The reasoning for wanting to play this film is that it also features a lampoon on North Korea, though with puppets, specifically caricaturing Kim Jong-Il (RIP), rather than his son, Kim Jong-Un, who is the target of assassination in Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s now highly controvertial film.

The story of The Interview and the Sony hacks and cancellations, government reprisals, and everything is far from over and has turned into a much more interesting story than I’m sure The Interview itself has to offer.  I don’t doubt for an instant that there is much more to unfold and hindsight will shape the overall story of this ongoing melee into something of real interest.

But at the moment, on Thursday, it seemed as apt a time to watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 parody of espionage thrillers, American uber-patriotism, actors playing in global politics, and yes, to an extent, North Korea.

Frankly, in 2004, I had yet to come back around to Parker and Stone and South Park.  Back when it began in the late 1990’s, I thought it was funny and crass and relatively two-dimensional (literally and figuratively).  I don’t know when it exactly evolved into one of the most incisive and timely social and political commentary TV shows of its era, but Parker and Stone have shown that their humor and wit was no one-trick pony by any means.  In fact, South Park itself has gone on to what I would consider real cultural significance and of course they also have their The Book of Mormon stage musical to prove out that their strengths are also not just limited to their Comedy Central animated program.

All that said, Team America: World Police, made with puppets that lampoon British television’s Thunderbirds, didn’t look like the most convincingly intelligent piece of art/entertainment.  It was most notorious for a sex scene done with the puppets, which was both risque and ridiculous (and it is).

Well, anyways, perfect storm was in place to watch it.  So I did.

It’s funny, but not hilarious in my book.  But then I am always saying that I lack in the humor department myself.

The best thing in my opinion are the songs, most significantly “America (Fuck Yeah),” “Everyone Has AIDS,” and “Freedom Isn’t Free”.  Not only do they skewer the music genres in which the songs are written but the whole mentality of the writing of the such music.

When Parker and Stone nail a particular joke or parody or send-up, it’s really hard to imagine funnier, more apt comic interpretations of whatever it is they glom onto.  And I think that they scattershot their output on South Park in timely and outrageous fashion.  And often very, very well.  I’d say that Team America isn’t their best, though it is good and has its moments.

Felix had wanted to see The Interview.  I was not super bothered about it.  Now it’s taken on an elevated context and questionable availability.  So, who knows?  Maybe 10 years out isn’t the best way to see social parody.  But it does raise the question of how relevant it remains.