Monday, May 26, 2014
On this day in 1907, Marion Morrison was born. He is now better known as John Wayne. Wayne may still be the most popular American movie actor of all time--heck, he's probably more popular than about 95% of all the actors currently working in the entertainment industry right now.
John Wayne was the first movie star I remember knowing about. That's because when I was a kid in the 1970s, his films were shown on TV constantly. Even when I was little, and didn't really know anything about movies, I understood that John Wayne was JOHN WAYNE. His stature was that important among the American public.
The one TV station that always showed John Wayne movies was WGN-TV, Channel 9, out of Chicago. When I say WGN showed a lot of John Wayne movies, I mean that it seemed WGN showed them every single day. I bet that in the 1970s at least 75% of WGN's programming was devoted to The Duke or the Chicago Cubs. (Now it seems that 75% of WGN America's programming is devoted to reruns of "Law & Order" and "How I Met Your Mother".)
There seemed to be certain Wayne features that WGN favored, such as BIG JAKE, THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, and ROOSTER COGBURN. Of course WGN would show THE QUIET MAN every St. Patrick's Day. But whoever was Channel 9's director of programming back then must have loved THE WAR WAGON. I swear there must have been an FCC rule demanding that WGN show THE WAR WAGON at least once a week. I can still hear Jack Brickhouse or Steve Stone saying something like, "After tonight's Cubs game stay tuned for The 10th Inning Show. And then stick around for the action-packed John Wayne feature, THE WAR WAGON."
WGN did show other classic films. They didn't show all the old horror and sci-fi movies that good old WFLD, Channel 32 did--WGN played more mainstream material, such as Westerns, war films, and crime dramas. The had Sherlock Holmes Theater (the ones with Basil Rathbone), Charlie Chan Theater, and they had a lot of the Abbott & Costello movies.
I'm sure a lot of people from the Midwest recall the WGN program "Family Classics", hosted by legendary Chicago TV personality Frazier Thomas. I saw a lot of great films for the very first time on "Family Classics", including such titles as THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and TREASURE ISLAND.
There's no doubt that WGN played a huge role in my old movie education. I will always associate Channel 9 with John Wayne, and vice versa. There are certain things that bring back memories of my childhood, and the combination of WGN and John Wayne always does.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
There were dozens and dozens of beautiful women that appeared in the Hollywood film productions of the 1930s and 1940s. Trying to choose the best-looking one of them all is a hopeless task, but no one would put up much of an argument if you picked Linda Darnell.
Darnell was simply drop-dead gorgeous, and she's the star of FOREVER AMBER, recently released on DVD-R by the Fox Cinema Archives.
FOREVER AMBER (1947) is based on a novel written by Kathleen Winsor. The book was apparently considered quite salacious at the time and gained a fair amount of notoriety. 20 Century-Fox bought the rights to the novel, and tried to make it into a historical romance epic along the lines of GONE WITH THE WIND.
The movie had a troubled production history--the original director, John M. Stahl, was replaced by Otto Preminger, and Linda Darnell replaced Peggy Cummins as Amber St. Clair.
FOREVER AMBER is set in 17th Century England. The attractive and vain Amber wants to leave her home and her adoptive Puritan parents and travel to London. She attaches herself to mercenary Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde), makes it to London, has a child by Carlton (who leaves her to go to sea), and goes from one escapade (and man) to another--all the while still in love with Carlton, and scheming to somehow get back to him.
It's quite easy to tell that 20th Century-Fox spent a lot of money on this movie. The costumes, the sets, the production design, are all worthy of a first-class, prestigious film. The cinematography (by Leon Shamroy) is excellent, as is the music score, which was written by David Raksin. The screenplay covers such material as a swordfight duel, the Plague, and the Great London Fire.
However FOREVER AMBER comes nowhere near the class of GONE WITH THE WIND. 17th Century England (at least as depicted in this film) is not as interesting as the American Civil War, and Amber St. Clair is no Scarlett O'Hara. That's not the fault of Linda Darnell--she does the best she can, but Amber's actions seem silly instead of provocative, and Cornel Wilde is a bit underwhelming as the romantic hero (one wonders why Amber is so obsessed with him). FOREVER AMBER is really just a historical romantic drama, and there's nothing very explicit about it (especially to a 21st Century audience). The movie is also 138 minutes long, which is rather unusual for a film made in the 1940s.
FOREVER AMBER does have an impressive supporting cast, including Leo G. Carroll, Jessica Tandy, Richard Haydn, and Ann Revere. The performer who really steals the show is George Sanders as the acerbic King Charles II. Sanders is so good, one wishes that the movie had been about him.
This movie is recommended for Linda Darnell fans. Most of her best work was in supporting roles in such films as HANGOVER SQUARE, FALLEN ANGEL, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, where in each one she played a sultry temptress who is punished for her "sins" by being killed off in the story. FOREVER AMBER gives Darnell a lead showcase all her own, and she looks stunning throughout the entire picture. She also gets about 50 costume changes. Some have blamed Darnell for the movie's lack of success (it did not do well at the box office or with critics when released), but it is not her fault.
A Technicolor movie like FOREVER AMBER really needs to be remastered and put on Blu-ray. The DVD-R picture quality is fine, but the colors are a bit faded. There are no extras. It's too bad a company like Criterion did not put this out on home video--they would have included a fair amount of material detailing the troubled history of FOREVER AMBER from book to screen.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Here's something that will make you feel old....on this day 30 years ago, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM made its theatrical debut. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's prequel to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK made a huge sum of money during the summer of '84, but it certainly does not live up to its predecessor.
It's fair to say that TEMPLE OF DOOM may be one of the strangest mainstream summer blockbuster movies of all time, right alongside BATMAN RETURNS. This Indiana Jones adventure saddles the archaeologist with not just an annoying leading lady, but an annoying kid sidekick as well. The movie is filled with goofy attempts at humor--and as every film buff knows, any time George Lucas (or Spielberg for that matter) tries to be funny, it usually falls flat. (There was humor in RAIDERS....but the humor there came out of the situations, instead of being forced.)
What makes TEMPLE OF DOOM so strange is that, right alongside the silly comedy, there is a huge amount of very disturbing plot material. This is a movie that features:
Dozens of malnourished children being held as slaves and forced to work in a mine.
A cult that worships an evil god, practices strangulation, and believes in human sacrifice.
A man being strapped down, having his heart torn out, and then (while still alive) lowered into a lava pit.
The female lead also being strapped down, and almost lowered into a lava pit.
The hero and his kid sidekick being tied up and whipped.
The hero becoming possessed by evil and striking his kid sidekick.
And that list doesn't even mention the infamous "chilled monkey brains" sequence, where various Indian characters are shown eating bugs, snakes, worms, and other slimy animals. (For being supposed left-wing guys, Lucas and Spielberg somehow manage to offend a lot of ethnic groups in their movies.)
The juxtaposition of weird humor and dark tidings makes for a very uneven script. Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of RAIDERS, was originally offered the chance to write TEMPLE OF DOOM, and he wisely turned it down. The final script was written by the team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, old friends of George Lucas (in fact they had polished up Lucas' script for the original STAR WARS).
Apparently Huyck and Katz were "experts" on India and its culture, but it seems that they gained all their knowledge from old cartoons. One gets the feeling that Huyck and Katz put in all the goofiness to offset the dark violence.
Harrison Ford IS Indiana Jones, no ifs ands or buts, and he does the most to make the picture work. Indy is a bit more rougher around the edges than in RAIDERS, and there are times when the real Ford looks personally exasperated on having to deal with Kate Capshaw as leading lady Willie and Ke Huy Quan as sidekick Short Round. One assumes that these characters were put into the story to "humanize" Indy, but they just spend most of the time getting in the way. Steven Spielberg fell in love with Kate Capshaw during the making of TEMPLE OF DOOM (they later married), and maybe that's why as a director he wasn't able to see how problematic the role of Wille is. I can understand wanting someone who was different than Karen Allen in RAIDERS, but Willie winds up being nothing more than a caricature.
As for Short Round....the idea that Indy would drag this kid along into so much danger kind of makes Indy look like a jerk instead of humanizing him. The poor kid has almost the same type of legacy now as Jar Jar Binks and the Ewoks.
Now that I've gotten the whining and moaning out of the way.....there are a number of spectacular action scenes in TEMPLE OF DOOM, especially the mine car chase and the rope bridge sequence. This movie showcases ILM at its very finest--and remember, all this work was done before the age of CGI. Douglas Slocombe's cinematography gives the film an almost David Lean-like look (before you say anything, I said "almost"), and John Williams contributes another epic musical score. TEMPLE OF DOOM certainly isn't perfect, and it certainly isn't RAIDERS, but it does deliver a wild, exciting movie-viewing experience....which is the reason why it was made.
As stated earlier TEMPLE was a huge financial success (I believe it broke the record for the biggest opening weekend ever). TEMPLE also generated a fair amount of controversy for its mix of children-in-peril and grossness, so much so that it helped lead to the development of the PG-13 rating. Because of this you could truly say that TEMPLE changed movies forever. The PG-13 rating has now become the Holy Grail for anyone wanting to produce a major mainstream box-office hit.
What is the real legacy of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM? Well....it makes RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK look that much better.
Saturday, May 17, 2014
The summer movie season has begun with the release of GODZILLA, the second American re-boot/reworking/re-imagining of Toho Studios' world-famous giant monster.
The reviews I have read of this film, by professional critics and regular moviegoers on the internet, have been all over the place. Some say it is one of the greatest giant monster movies of all time, others say that it is a disappointment. I guess I would have to say my impressions upon seeing it are somewhere in between--it's not a great film, but it's not terrible.
What director Gareth Edwards has done is graft a 21st Century big-budget disaster film on to a giant monster flick. He tries to individualize the massive destruction by focusing on a small group of characters and how they interact with the on-going events. GODZILLA features an above-average cast (Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe), but in all honesty I wasn't very interested in the human drama. The real leads of the film are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, and in one of those incredible movie coincidences their roles happen to be an Army explosives expert and a nurse--which means they have a reason to be where all the action is, instead of running away like most normal people would do.
Johnson and Olsen (Olsen & Johnson?) are a pretty generic typical young couple, but you really don't spend your time at a movie like GODZILLA wanting to worry about them. (At least, I don't.) The real reason for a new GODZILLA is to...see Godzilla in action. The problem is....Godzilla doesn't really have much to do here. Edwards teases us throughout the majority of the film by giving us a few brief glimpses of him. It isn't until the end that we get a real good look at the 2014 King of the Monsters--and even then, most of his scenes are at night and in the rain (an old FX trick to make the CGI look better). He is impressive...but I have to admit he looks like he's been using steroids.
The real stars of this film are brand new kaiju called Mutos, who have way more screen time than Godzilla (or any of the human cast, for that matter). The Mutos are giant winged insect/bat-like creatures, and they are realized very well--but after awhile I was starting to wonder if the movie's title should have been MUTO.
Godzilla battles the Muto, but the fight scenes aren't as great as they could have been. Just when one of the fights is getting good, Edwards obscures our view of it, or switches to another scene. I understand what Edwards was trying to do--he wanted to save all the "good stuff" for the end--but this is a Godzilla movie, after all. As a matter of fact we don't get to see a lot of destruction--instead we are mostly shown the aftermath of destruction.
I know I sound like I hated this movie. Trust me, I didn't. There are a lot of nice things in it--the production design, the FX, the scope of the film, and just the fact that you get to hear an actor like David Strathairn say the line, "Where's Godzilla?" Most of the things I liked I can't really tell you about, because I'd spoil it for you if you haven't seen it.
It's just that I wasn't really blown away by it. All the "urban apocalyptic" backgrounds that we see in this picture are things that we've now seen numerous times before in recent years, in everything from THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW to I AM LEGEND to the remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS to the recent MAN OF STEEL. Major CGI destruction is now almost a prerequisite for any major summertime blockbuster, and I've seen so much of it lately that it just doesn't have a major effect anymore.
Guillermo del Toro's PACIFIC RIM was a modern monster movie that I really enjoyed. That movie was made for geeks like me, and that's probably the reason why it did not do all that well at the U. S. box office. The new GODZILLA is made for a more mainstream audience. If you enjoy the typical modern summer blockbuster, you will like this film.
Friday, May 16, 2014
In honor of the opening of the new Godzilla feature film, here is a list of my five favorite Godzilla movies. I'm have a feeling some of you reading this will say "Aren't all Godzilla movies the same?" Well, they're not. I realize there are a number of folks who think Godzilla films are shoddy crap....but I love them. The wild plots, the monster fights, the various models & miniatures...all that stuff fascinated me when I was a kid, and they still do today. You need to have a certain type of imagination to appreciate these movies--and that type of imagination is sadly lacking in today's society.
You may notice that most of this list is comprised of entries from the mid-1960s. In my opinion that is when the Godzilla series was at its apex. I'm using the common American titles for these films because....I'm an American.
1. GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO (1965)
Not only my favorite Godzilla movie, it's one of my favorite movies of all time. This one has everything--direction by Ishiro Honda, FX by Eiji Tsuburaya, a thunderous musical score by Akira Ifukube, aliens trying to use various kaiju to take over the earth, guest star roles for King Ghidorah and Rodan, a monster fight on the moon....and there's more! You also get the best leading man in Japanese fantastic film (Akira Takarada), the best leading lady in Japanese fantastic film (Kumi Mizuno), and a American guest star (Nick Adams). The ultimate Godzilla adventure.
2. GODZILLA VS. THE THING (1964)
The "Thing" is Mothra. Many kaiju movie experts (yes, there are people like that out there) consider this the greatest Godzilla outing. This has some spectacular battle scenes, and some of the best miniatures in the entire series. Akira Takarada is in this one also.
3. GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (1965)
This outing features the introduction of the stupendous King Ghidorah, the three-headed golden winged dragon who is Godzilla's greatest foe. Ghidorah is such a threat that Rodan and Mothra have to help the King of the Monsters in defeating him. Just pure monster madness.
4. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968)
Toho Studios was planning to this to be the final Godzilla movie, so they pulled out all the stops and included just about every kaiju from all of their fantastic films made over the last 15 years. Not only do you get Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah, you also have Manda, Anguirus, Baragon, etc. This is another "aliens using monsters to try to take over the Earth" plot...but this time the aliens send the monsters all over the world, not just Japan (for example, we are shown Godzilla attacking New York, way before that....certain movie was made). This film also explains the set-up of Monster Island.
5. GODZILLA (1954)
The original...a movie which has almost nothing in common with the rest of the series. A brooding and atmospheric cautionary tale about the use of nuclear weapons. Even the America version of this movie (with Raymond Burr) is far darker than the usual 1950s monster flick. Would the Godzilla series have continued as long as it did if it had kept the originals attitude? Probably not.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
My look at Kraken Releasing's three Godzilla movie Blu-rays comes to a conclusion with GODZILLA VS. GIGAN. Despite the disc packaging featuring the GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND title, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is the title shown on-screen.
This entry in the Toho Godzilla series came after the wild & wacky GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER. For this feature Toho brought back a director (Jun Fukuda) and a screenwriter (Shinichi Sekizawa) who had previously worked on the series. The film's script is something of a return to Godzilla's past--it deals once again with aliens who try to use various monsters to help them take over the planet Earth.
While in the past aliens tried to control Godzilla, the extraterrestrials concerned here decide to destroy him, by summoning the legendary King Ghidorah and the ridiculous-looking Gigan. It's always great to see Ghidorah in action, since that kaiju is one of Godzilla's greatest foes. Unfortunately the same can't be said for Gigan--he seems to have wandered in from a Gamera film.
Godzilla does have some help in the form of Anguirus (who fought Godzilla in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN). However Anguirus isn't exactly one of the most famous Japanese monsters, and one wonders why he was chosen to be in the story. It might have been that Anguirus was in much of the stock footage used for GODZILLA VS. GIGAN--there's a ton of scenes from earlier Godzilla films used here.
The "aliens vs. monsters" plot is one of the staples of Japanese fantastic cinema, but it doesn't work as well this time around. Almost the entire story takes place in a children's amusement park, which happens to be the aliens' hideout. GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is far from a globe-spanning sci-fi epic.
The Kraken Blu-ray of GODZILLA VS. GIGAN does not have the excellent picture quality of the company's other Godzilla releases. This may be due to the large amount of stock footage that was used in the film. The DTS audio does a fine job of showcasing Akira Ifukube's music score. The Blu-ray has the original Japanese dialogue track (with English subtitles) and a English-dubbed dialogue track. The only extra is the original Japanese trailer, which is subtitled in English.
All of the Kraken Releasing Godzilla Blu-rays (see my earlier posts for this month) can be had for an affordable price. These Blu-rays are more than likely going to be the best American home video versions of these particular films.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Synapse Films' latest Hammer Blu-ray release is 1971's COUNTESS DRACULA, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Ingrid Pitt.
Despite the title (and the film's original ad campaign), COUNTESS DRACULA has nothing to do with Dracula, or vampires whatsoever. The movie's story is based on a real-life Hungarian Countess who lived during the Middle Ages--Elizabeth Bathory, who according to legend murdered hundreds of young girls and bathed in their blood.
Ingrid Pitt plays the aged Countess (in this story named Elisabeth Nadasdy) who soon after the death of her husband discovers she can regain her youthful beauty through a young girl's blood. The Countess also discovers that her beauty is not permanent, and she must have more and more blood to stay youthful.
The Countess eventually has her own daughter kidnapped by the devoted Captain Dobi (Nigel Green) and begins to pose as her, attracting the attention of a young lieutenant (Sandor Eles). But all the various murders and deceptions come back to haunt the Countess.
COUNTESS DRACULA was meant to be a follow-up to Ingrid Pitt's huge success as Carmilla in Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS. The role of the Countess was certainly a great showcase for her....unfortunately her voice was dubbed in the final film. Pitt gives an excellent performance but one can only wonder how much better it could have been with her own voice on the soundtrack. (Why Hammer would dub the voice of an actress they were trying to build up as a new star makes no sense, especially considering that Pitt was an actual native of Eastern Europe.)
The vastly under appreciated Nigel Green steals the film (just like he did in ZULU and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS). His role as Captain Dobi is a complex one, as the character is in love with the Countess before she regains her beauty and totally loyal to her--despite the fact that he is repulsed by her actions. Green has enough screen presence to make Dobi believable despite his conflicting persona.
COUNTESS DRACULA is really more of a historical melodrama than a straight horror film (we see more gypsy dancing than we do severe bloodletting). The movie is more along the lines of Hammer's earlier RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK. I'm sure there were plenty of viewers back in 1971 who were disappointed that this was not a full-fledged vampire thriller. There's really very little gore (this movie was actually rated PG!), and by the end of the tale it seems to play out like a costumed soap opera. Peter Sasdy gives the movie plenty of style and ambiance (just like he would for two other Hammers he directed, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER), and COUNTESS DRACULA looks way better than most Hammer product released during this period. It's not a bad movie...but when you have the combination of Hammer and the legend of Elisabeth Bathory, one expects a lot more.
COUNTESS DRACULA had been previously released on DVD under MGM's "Midnite Movies" line. Synapse's Blu-ray is a major improvement, showing off the lush costumes and sets and making Ingrid Pitt look more gorgeous than ever (that is, when she's not being a horrific old woman). The sound (in DTS 2.0 mono) is very vibrant for a film of this type. There's also some impressive extras, courtesy of Ballyhoo Productions. These include a seven-minute stills gallery, a ten-minute featurette on Ingrid Pitt's film career (one wishes this had been way longer), and a eight-minute archival interview with Pitt (unfortunately the disc cover provides no information on when and where this interview was recorded). Also included is the audio commentary which accompanied the original COUNTESS DRACULA DVD. This features Ingrid Pitt, Peter Sasdy, and screenwriter Jeremy Paul. This package also includes a DVD of the film.
COUNTESS DRACULA isn't the best Hammer movie ever made, but Synapse has done a fine job in making this feature look and sound fantastic.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
Next up on my look at the Kraken Releasing series of classic Godzilla Blu-rays is GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (also known as GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH). This is one of the most famous Godzilla movies of all time, mostly because of the title, and for the lousy reputation it has.
The monster Hedorah is actually a product of mankind's pollution (although it is suggested in the story that the original version of Hedorah may have come from outer space). Hedorah is not only made of pollution, it feeds on it as well--which makes it almost impossible to destroy. Hedorah may be one of Godzilla's goofiest foes, but he certainly does give the King of the Monsters a run for his money (Godzilla acts rather silly throughout most of the film, and appears to be off his game).
GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971) is usually considered by most to be a horrible film, even by hardcore Kaiju fans. It's not so much bad as bizarre. On the one hand the movie has a wild early 70s psychedelic vibe to it--there's a theme song, a scene at a disco, weird animated sequences, and even some split-screen work. But on the other hand there are a lot of dark moments in the story--we see several views of dirty rivers and seas, smoke-filled skies, and various detritus and decay. The movie certainly does not have the bright, colorful look of the earlier Ishiro Honda/Godzilla extravaganzas. We are also shown individual deaths of innocent victims--something that was almost never seen in a Japanese fantasy film since the earlier Toho monster movies of the 1950s.
The combination of wacky weirdness and dark foreboding over the Earth's ecology makes for a story that resembles a Gamera tale instead of a Godzilla feature. There is of course, an annoying "cute" kid, who apparently "dreams" Godzilla into showing up to fight Hedorah. And not only is there the aforementioned disco scene, there's also a teenage rave held on the slopes of Mt. Fuji (I'm sure that if there were a couple of giant monsters fighting in my vicinity, I could think of better things to do).
The most memorable highlight in this production (other than the title song, which I'll get to) is the scene where Godzilla.....flies. Yes, that's what I said--the big G tucks his tail between his legs and uses his atomic breath as a sort of jet propulsion, and off he goes. I have to admit it's a rather impressive feat, but Godzilla never attempted the stunt again (maybe there were insurance concerns).
As for the title song, it is one of the reasons for so many people looking down on this film. That's because in the American version of this, the song was dubbed into English and called "Save the Earth". On this Kraken Blu-ray the song is in the original Japanese...but it is NOT subtitled, which is a shame. I think Kraken should have tried to include the English-dubbed version of the song as an extra, since it is one of the most remembered parts of the movie (for better or worse).
Kraken Releasing's Blu-ray of GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER is without doubt the best version of this title so far. The picture quality is fine (even though the film is supposed to be somewhat murky-looking), and the sound is excellent. There is the original Japanese dialogue track with subtitles (except for the songs, as mentioned) and there is a English-dubbed dialogue track. The only extra is the original Japanese trailer.
GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER is one of the weirdest films of all time. It tries to be a dark 1970s ecological thriller, while at the same time it is also a goofy kid-friendly monster flick. The fact that the director (Yoshimitsu Banno), the composer (Riichiro Manabe), and the FX supervisor (Teruyoshi Nakano) were all brand-new to the Godzilla series may account for the film's uneven tone. Monster movie and Kaiju fans will still want to add this Blu-ray to their collection.
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
The upcoming release of the new GODZILLA film has led to a number of new Godzilla-themed products. Among them are three classic Godzilla movies being released on Blu-ray in America for the first time by a company called Kraken Releasing. Of course I've purchased all three of them (what did you expect?). I got them for about $13 each from Amazon. The first one that I have viewed is GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (also known as EBIRAH--HORROR OF THE DEEP).
This entry in the Toho Studios' Godzilla series was made after INVASION OF ASTRO-MONSTER. GVSM is an okay Kaiju tale but certainly not as good as ASTRO-MONSTER. The story concerns strange activities on an uncharted island (called "Devil's Island" in the movie) where a SPECTRE-like organization called the Red Bamboo are building nuclear weapons. The evil group has also been kidnapping natives from nearby Infant Island and using them as slave labor, which is not a good idea, considering Infant Island is the home of Mothra.
The Red Bamboo uses a lobster/crab/shrimp-like creature known as Ebirah to help guard their lair. Ebirah is not one of the best of Godzilla's foes...one wonders why it takes so long for Godzilla to take him out (they spend most of their first battle bouncing a giant rock at each other). The film is more than half over before Godzilla wakes up from his "hibernation", and Mothra only gets into action at the very end.
Most of the film is taken up with the story of Ryota, who steals a yacht to search for his brother, who is missing due to a shipwreck. Ryota and his companions (including Akira Takarada, somewhat cast against type as a thief) are attacked by Ebirah and are washed up on Devil's Island, where they encounter one of the kidnapped Infant Island natives--the lovely Dayo, played by famed Toho actress Kumi Mizuno. Having Akira Takarada and Kumi Mizuno in the cast certainly helps the non-monster sequences, of which there are plenty of.
GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER represents a change in the Toho Godzilla series. Usual director Ishiro Honda was replaced in this entry by Jan Fukuda, who used a more leisurely pace in this movie. The film's music score was by Masaru Sato instead of Akira Ifukube. Sato's musical choices were a bit strange to say the least--during a battle between Godzilla and the Red Bamboo's air force, Sato uses a 1960s Go-Go theme. Sato later underscores a Godzilla-Ebirah fight with what sounds like a rip-off of the "Batman" TV theme.
The legendary Eiji Tsuburaya is credited with the FX, but according to August Ragone's biography of Tsuburaya most of the effects work was overseen by Sadamasa Arikawa. The Red Bamboo's complex is expertly realised, and as expected in a Toho Kaiju feature the monster battles are the major highlight of the film.
With elements such as an evil organization bent on world conquest, a secret island lair, an exotic leading lady, and a nuclear bomb set to detonate at the climax, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER seems more like a James Bond movie instead of a Kaiju film. It is not on the same level as the earlier Ishiro Honda Godzilla classics, but it is unusual enough to be worthy of a monster movie fan's attention.
Kraken's Blu-ray of this feature is very impressive. The picture quality is excellent--I doubt that you will see this movie look any better than it does on this disc. The audio is in DTS mono, and the disc features the original Japanese dialogue track with English subtitles and a English-dubbed track. The sound is very vibrant overall. The only extra is the original Japanese trailer, which is subtitled--a very nice touch.
I have not seen the other two Kraken Godzilla Blu-rays (I will be reviewing them soon), but I have to say that Kraken has done a fine job with GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER. Considering the low price, I'm sure many monster fans will be picking this up.
Friday, May 2, 2014
This is my contribution to The Romantic Comedy Blogathon.
I love participating in blogathons for a number of reasons. One is that it showcases my blog to various people who may not have been aware of it. Another reason is that it gives me a challenge--I always try to pick a movie that is not well-known, or I try to look at the subject being blogged about from a different angle.
When it comes to romantic comedies, I'll admit I'm certainly no expert on the subject, being a pathetic single guy and all. The "comedy" I've chosen to look it dates from 1934, which makes it an entry from the pre-code era. The term "pre-code" has now become a marketing slogan, and just about every Hollywood film made between 1930 and 1934 has been called a pre-code classic. But not all pre-code films are provocative, or subversive, or scandalous....some of them are just plain weird.
Which leads us to SMARTY, released by Warner Bros. in 1934 and directed by Robert Florey.
SMARTY starts out with upper-class married couple Tony (Warren William) and Vicki (Joan Blondell) getting ready for a night on the town. Vicki suddenly changes her mind about going out, and decides to have a bridge party at home with friends, which does not make Tony happy.
While playing bridge with Vernon (Edward Everett Horton), Anita (Claire Dodd), and George (Frank McHugh), Vicki goes out of her way to aggravate Tony. Tony finally loses it, knocks over the bridge table, and slaps Vicki.
This is a pretty shocking act--but almost immediately everyone in the cast begins making bad jokes about it, and it is rather obvious that Vicki is not exactly emotionally torn by the incident. Vicki starts immediately making a play for Vernon--who happens to be a divorce lawyer--and the next thing you know, Vicki is married to Vernon. But Vicki starts tormenting Vernon, all the while keeping and eye on Tony.
Joan Blondell had the best smile (and the best curves) of just about any actress of the early 1930s. She became hugely popular during the decade for playing several tough, working-class girls with a wicked sense of humor. The character of Vicki, however, is about as far removed from the typical early 30s Blondell role as you can get. Vicki spends the entire film being as annoying to Tony and Vernon as possible, all with a coy smile on her face and her expressive eyes working overtime. To Vicki being slapped in the face seems to be an excuse to have fun at every one's expense. Vicki knows she's attractive enough to wrap Tony and Vernon around her fingers, and the more angry both men get at her the more happier she becomes.
Vicki drives Vernon nuts by phoning him at his office, demanding that he meet her at a clothes boutique, and making him wait there for her for over 90 minutes. After Vernon leaves Vicki buys a dress that Vernon specifically told her not to buy, and then wears it at a dinner party that the couple are hosting that evening. Of course, Vicki invites Tony, and he shows up with a date (this being a pre-code film, Tony's date happens to be married to someone else). Vicki then enrages Vernon enough to the point where he slaps her, which causes Vicki to run out. She goes to Tony's apartment and hides before Tony and his date get back. Tony arrives, followed soon by Vernon, looking for Vicki. One thing leads to another, and Vernon says he's going to grant Vicki a divorce, and Vicki and Tony decide to get back together--but not before Vicki starts aggravating Tony again, casing him to rip off her dress, grab her hair, slap her, and pick her up and throw her on the couch, where Vicki looks up at him and moans dreamily: "Tony...hit me again!"
To paraphrase Bugs Bunny: "Romantic...ain't it?"
A description of the plot of SMARTY can not really give it justice.This is a movie that features lines of dialogue such as "Every girl needs a good smack at least once in her life" and "If he had really loved me, he would have hit me a long time ago." Apparently this is all supposed to be hilarious. Maybe if the movie where more of an out-and-out slapstick riot it could be understood as a satire, but it is hard to figure out what SMARTY is trying to be. On one hand, the movie seems to be trying to have the audience get a kick out of Vicki being adorable and annoying--but at the same time, the movie also seems to be saying that Vicki deserves to be slapped. There doesn't seem to by any reason for Vicki to act the way she does--you could understand her trying to get revenge on Tony for slapping her, but she aggravates Vernon for no good reason either--all the while trying to get back to Tony.
As most film buffs know, Warren William was the King of Pre-Code, the ultimate scoundrel and cad. Here he's not a cad at all--Tony is genuinely sorry that he struck Vicki, and he's the only character in the story that seems disgusted by all the outlandish behavior. (As a matter of fact, William looks as if he's not all that happy about being in the film period.) William and Blondell have a great chemistry together, just like they did in the earlier GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933. Unfortunately that chemistry is wasted in a story like SMARTY.
If there is anything stranger than a comedy about a woman getting slapped by her husband, it is a comedy featuring a love triangle of Warren William, Joan Blondell, and....Edward Everett Horton? Horton was best known for playing stuffy, prissy white-collar types--and seeing him lick his chops over winning Joan Blondell is somewhat off-putting. Horton's Vernon spouts several lines about how horrible it is that a man would strike his wife--and the way Vernon says these lines, you would think he was speaking out against Mom, America, and apple pie.
And that is the big problem with SMARTY--the whole attitude of the movie is that wife-slapping is pretty funny. I know that this is just a 1930s film comedy, and maybe one shouldn't read too much into it (I can only imagine what kind of blog a college-graduate feminist would write about SMARTY), but I have to wonder--did movie-goers back in 1934 actually think this was funny? Did they really think this was entertaining?
SMARTY was directed by Robert Florey, who is considered today as a visual stylist. The thing is, SMARTY is basically a filmed stage play (it was based on one), with almost no visual touches whatsoever. It is only 65 minutes long, and like most Warner Brothers pictures of the period, it moves. All the characters spend almost the entire movie wearing either tuxedos or evening dresses, and Joan Blondell in particular looks fantastic (the very first thing we see in the movie is a shot of Joan's legs). SMARTY has all the elements to be a great romantic comedy--but it's almost impossible to laugh at the subject, no matter what context you place it in. SMARTY is one rom-com you don't want to take a date to.
(NOTE: According to various sources on the internet, the British title of SMARTY was....HIT ME AGAIN!)