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Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Island at the Top of the World (1974) – Review

Walt Disney Studios was chiefly known for their animated projects but after their adaptation of Treasure Island in 1959 they also became quite well known for their live action family adventure films. In 1974 the studio released a family-orientated roadshow package containing the animated featurette Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too along with the feature film The Island at the Top of the World.

The movie is based on the 1961 novel The Lost Ones by Ian Cameron which was a contemporary story that followed the adventures of a father looking for his son who was lost in the arctic, the Disney adaptation on the other hand takes place in the year 1907 and instead of the father using a helicopter, as he did in the book, the change of time period lent the studio to go with a more cinematic vehicle in the form of a marvelous airship.


The Hyperion, named after the original address of Disney Studios.

The movie opens with Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) recruiting Scandinavian-American archaeologist Professor John Ivarsson (David Hartman) for an expedition to find his son who had gone missing while searching for the mythical graveyard of whales. To aid them on their search is French inventor/aeronaut Captain Brieux (Jacques Marin), Sir Anthony having purchased the Captain’s dirigible and services without letting him know what their mission would exactly entail, and this is a kind of running theme with deal ole Sir Anthony. He practically cons Ivarsson into joining the expedition, even having his ship sail with him on board before Ivarsson had even agreed to join the excursion, and later when they make a stop at an Eskimo he practically shanghais Oomiak (Mako) an Inuit man who had went off with Sir Anthony’s son but sadly had returned alone.


Standard entitled British asshat.

Sir Anthony isn’t the real villain of the peace, he’s more a man just overly focused on finding his son and damn the lives of those needed to achieve that goal, but he does do some idiotic things like forcing the dirigibles engines to full speed when they hadn’t been thoroughly worked in which causes a propeller to break and leads to Captain Brieux performing a daring midair replacement job. Later when they arrive at the mysterious cloud shrouded island he ends up pushing the Captain to continue on despite the dangers of the ship being smashed against the island cliffs.


Which is of course exactly what happens.

After crashing into the cliffs Sir Anthony, Ivarsson and Oomiak are tossed out of the dirigible while Captain Brieux and the damaged Hyperion floats up into the storm where they both disappear into the clouds. The three survivors trudge through the snow until they eventually come across a lush green valley that seems to be kept in a permanent summer by the islands volcanic activity and hot springs.


The movie has the occasionally dodgy optical effect but the matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw are great.

The valley is occupied by a lost civilization of Vikings, cut off from the rest of the world for centuries, and our heroes are quickly captured by a group of angry locals. Turns out Sir Anthony’s son Donald (David Gwillim) did make it to this lost paradise but with the appearance of these new “barbarians” the Vikings fear that Donald is a spy and that Sir Anthony and company are the forefront of an invasion. No matter how hard our heroes try and explain their true intentions they are not believed because of the dark omen seen flying through the sky (obviously the crippled dirigible), and they are sentenced to death by a religious fanatic named Godi (Gunnar Öhlund).


In the halls of Astragard.

Lucky for our heroes young Donald managed to get a beautiful Viking girl named Freyja (Agneta Eckemyr) to fall in love with him and she manages to rescue them from a Viking funeral pyre. The group flee up the mountains and across the volcanic craters of Astragard to the Bay of Whales, Freyja is at first against this idea because that place is sacred and taboo but this just means her fellow Viking warriors are less likely to follow them there. It’s not a fun trip as they get caught up in a volcanic eruption where Sir Anthony comes close to being engulfed by a river of lava.


A trip through Dante’s Inferno.

With the Viking warriors hot on their heels the group eventually do make it to the Bay of Whales, after climbing into a dormant volcanic crater and entering through a series of catacombs, and then they are gobsmacked by the sight to hundreds of whale carcasses of every imaginable species. Freyja tells them that her people will not follow them down here because legends tell of sea monsters that guard the entrance to the bay. This seems to be the case as the Vikings just set up camp at the rim of the valley to watch our heroes die. Turns out that the sea monster isn’t quite the Kraken of Norse legend but instead a pod of excessively violent killer whales who try to turn our group into lunch.


Shouldn’t it be hunting Richard Harris?

Just when the end seems very well-nigh a rifle shot echoes across the valley and the killer whales are driven off with some crack shooting by Captain Brieux. Seems the Hyperion had crashed in this very bay and with a little work of lightening the load, cutting loose the Hyperion’s engines and gondola, our intrepid heroes are once again in the air. Unfortunately the wind shifts and the Hyperion drifts back towards Astragard and the still encamped Vikings. The sight of the massive airship terrifies the Vikings, who all flee in panic, all except one.


I’m not a member of a lost Viking civilization and that would probably terrify me.

The religious nut Godi stands his ground and fires a flaming arrow at the Hyperion, because that seems like a reasonable course of action. The ship quickly catches fire but they are near enough to the ground that everyone is able to escape the burning dirigible. Not so lucky is the idiot Godi who soon finds himself under the plummeting burning wreckage.


“Oh, the humanity.”

The film than jumps to our group back in the halls of Astragard where The Lawspeaker (Rolf Søder) informs our group that the gods were indeed angry but not at them but at Godi for leading their people down the path of hatred and violence. He tells our heroes that they are free to go as long as Donald remains as a hostage; this infuriates Sir Anthony but then Ivarsson steps in and volunteers to stay because Astragard is an archeologists dream. Sir Anthony, Donald, Freyja, Captain Brieux and Oomiak, are allowed to depart in peace, promising not to tell the Outside World about Astragard.


Or about the millions of dollars’ worth of whale bones and ambergris.

The Island at the Top of the World didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, nixing the plans the studio had for a sequel, but it is a fun adventure story that hearkens back to the pulp adventure tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In fact there is a lot in this movie that owes itself to the legacy of Burroughs; the hidden paradise surrounded by arctic ice is right out of The Land that Time Forgot, and the mythical whale’s graveyard is an aquatic echo of the elephant graveyard that appeared in numerous Tarzan movies. Tarzan himself took an airship on an adventure to a lost world in Tarzan at the Earth’s Core and there was even an episode of the Filmation Tarzan series where the Ape Man encountered a lost outpost of Vikings. The Island at the Top of the World may not be up with there with such Disney classics as Treasure Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but it’s still good wholesome family fun that new generations can find and discover.

Note: Aside from the change in era Disney also altered the ending a tad, in the movie Freyja survives whereas in the book she tragically dies while sacrificing herself to save Donald and Sir Anthony.  This kind of change isn't shocking as Disney Studios have never been all that keen on depressing endings for their family films.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) – Review

With the titanic battle of King Kong vs. Godzilla being such success that Toho would then pit Godzilla against one of their own stars seemed only natural, so the benevolent giant moth known as Mothra was tapped to battle the King of the Monsters. Mothra vs. Godzilla also is the last of the Shōwa period Godzilla films where Godzilla would be the “villain” as later films in the series he would move to a more “anti-hero” status, often even teaming up with Mothra against more dangerous foes. Back at the helm for this outing was Ishirô Honda, the director of the original Gojira, in what is easily one of the best of the early Toho monster smackdowns.

The movie opens with a typhoon washing a giant egg ashore which really excites the locals but not in a "Run for your lives!" kind of excitement.  This I find rather puzzling as one would think a giant anything would warrant more suspicion than adulation.  The entrepreneur behind Happy Enterprises, Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima), offers the local fishermen 1,224,560 Yen so that he can use the egg as a tourist attraction and surprisingly is allowed to do just that. One of the few believable moments in King Kong vs. Godzilla was that when the pharmaceutical company tried to bring Kong to the mainland, to be used as some idiotic promotion, but the Japanese government stepped in and used a naval blockade to prevent this giant monster from being brought ashore. This to me seems a rather sensible attitude when your country has been rampaged on several occasions by various giant monsters, but in Mothra vs. Godzilla the government and the laws seem unable to prevent such an occurrence from happening.


What could possibly go wrong?

It’s this change in attitude that makes the crux of the conflict in the film and works as an indictment of big business and corporate interests that don’t necessarily gel with the best interests of the public welfare. Leading the charge against these financial villains is cynical news reporter Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada) and rookie photographer Junko Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi) who we first meet as they investigate the wreckage caused by the typhoon, it's also where Nakanishi discovers a bluish-gray object in the debris that later is discovered to be radioactive.


He didn’t just pick up that thing, did he?

Along with Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) they want to find out just where that egg came from, a question that no one else seems to be asking, but they are stymied by Kumayama’s shady business partner Jiro Torahata (Kenji Sahara) and their plans to build a multi-billion yen amusement park around the giant egg. Now our three heroes aren’t the only ones with concerns regarding the mysterious egg as Kumayama and Torahata are confronted in their hotel room by two tiny twin women (Emi Itô and Yumi Itô) who come from Infant Island, the tropical island home of Mothra. These six inch women are known as Shobijin and are the priestess of Infant Island and Mothra and they beseech the two businessmen to return the egg. It’s no surprise that when these two asshats see the girls dollars signs immediately appear before their eyes and they try to capture the fairies in the hopes of making them an added attraction for the park.


“Give us back our egg!”

The twin fairies escape and meet with Sakai, Nakanishi and Professor Miura in some nearby woods and while there they explain that if the egg is not returned to Infant Island the it will hatch and the larva “will cause great trouble” in its search for food on its way home. The larva will have no malevolent designs towards mankind but a hungry giant child can be very dangerous. Our trio is startled see that Mothra is just hanging around the woods, it being the mode of transportation for the fairies, and the twins leave after one further request that the egg be returned. Sakai does his best to use his news articles to sway public opinion but the law favors the Kumayama and Torahata and the “Grand Opening” soon approaches.  But before Kumayama can start counting ticket sales something develops concerning the pieces of weird debris that Nakanishi found at the beach. Professor Miura reveals that this strange debris is radioactive and when they return to the beach where Nakanishi found it the ground soon begins to shake and a certain atomic fire breathing monster pops out of the ground.


“Hey guys, surprise!”

And how exactly did Godzilla end up under this beach? The movie never makes this clear but the area was being pumped clear of water for some local manufacturing facility, so it’s possible that this part of the beach was underwater when King Kong and Godzilla fell into the sea at the end of King Kong vs. Godzilla, with the King of the Monsters being buried in the silt and then when the shore got expanded his watery grave was uncovered. Of course he also could have been blown in with the typhoon and just buried under mud but I like my theory better. Well regardless as to how Godzilla pulled off this startling return the citizens of Japan now have to deal with some more atomic fueled rampaging. The government sends the military into action as they try to develop plans to stop Godzilla, meanwhile Sakai, Nakanishi and Professor Miura take a flight to Infant Island to ask for Mothra’s aid in stopping Godzilla.


Budget cuts really hurt Infant Island.

Nuclear fallout has caused much devastation on Infant Island, strangely enough the natives don’t seem to be suffering from any signs of radiation sickness which is kind of a nice clue that they aren’t exactly human, and Sakai, Nakanishi and Professor Miura do not get much of a warm welcome from these residents. The chieftain informs our heroes that, “We on this island do not trust humans! Our trust almost cost us all of our homes.” He demands the return of Mothra’s egg and when even the fairies basically tell our hereos to "Get bent" though a bit more politely than that, but it looks like mankind is going to have to fight Godzilla on their own.  Then Nakanishi explains that if Mothra doesn’t help stop Godzilla many innocent people will die right along with the bad ones that have earned the islanders distrust, and he even notes that “Evil people have the right to live.” Strangely enough this sways Mothra and she agrees to help, but the fairies warn our heroes that Mothra is at the end of her life cycle and she is due to die very soon.


But not before laying a heavy smackdown on Godzilla.

Just as Godzilla gets a chance to make an omelet out of that giant egg Mothra shows up and uses its wings to create gale force winds that send Godzilla tumbling away from the egg.  She then grabs the King of the Monsters and proceeds to drag him across the countryside as if he was an errant puppy. Things look good for a while, with Mothra seeming to be winning as she doses Godzilla with poisonous dust, but then a lucky atomic breath attack hits Mothra in the wing and she goes down. The poor creature makes its way back to egg were she finally expires.


Is this the end of Mothra?

It’s after this shocking defeat that we get a very rare moment in the history of the franchise; the military actually come up with a decent plan on taking out Godzilla. Having established in his battle with King Kong that Godzilla is weakened by lightning the military set up massive towers rigged with “Lightning Generators” and with tank brigades and napalm strikes provide by the air force they manage to drive Godzilla towards the towers. Godzilla is able to take out one of the towers but then cargo helicopters drop huge steel nets over the him that help conduct the “lightning” even better.


What a shocking development.

Unfortunately the military commander, sensing victory is finally at hand, orders more power to the towers even though he is warned that the system is already at maximum output. This of course results in the system overheating and failing and thus Godzilla is once again free to rampage across Japan. I have to admit I found the whole “lightning generator” thing a bit iffy, as I do the whole concept of Godzilla having a weakness towards electricity as in Gojira he didn’t seem to have any problem tearing through electrical barriers the military instituted in that movie. Making the military seem even slightly useful is probably one of the biggest challenges writers of these movies have.


“Give it your best shot, I can take it.”

Do you remember the humans in this story? Our intrepid trio or the two greedy businessmen who wanted to exploit Mothra’s egg? Well Kumayama and Torahata story line ended abruptly when Kumayama demanded the money he was owed, having fronted all the expenses for the amusement park while Torahata did basically nothing, the two end up dead when Kumayama gets shot in the back by Torahata who in turn is killed when the hotel collapses around him during Godzilla’s rampage. It’s almost your standard EC comics’ comeuppance deaths, and though these characters were more antagonists than true villains they did add a nice bit of vitality to the story with both actors doing tremendous work even if they don’t survive to the third act. As for our “heroes” they are basically relegated to sidelines once Mothra and the army battle with Godzilla.  The screenwriters throw in a side adventure where they have to get to a nearby island to save a group of school children who are in the path of Godzilla’s rampage but it's nothing we care about.  What gets our blood pumping is the hatching of the egg and the arrival of not one but two larvae.


“Congratulations Mothra, it's twins!”

Ishirô Honda was working with a smaller budget this time out and so the citywide destruction scenes don’t really manifests themselves as they did in Gojira, in Mothra vs. Godzilla much of the monster combat takes place in pretty generic countryside locations not densely populated cityscapes. We do get some moments of Godzilla wrecking buildings but its handled more as an incidental and accidental at times, this isn’t the rage fueled allegory for the nuclear holocaust we've seen in the past as this Godzilla is more of a force of nature than a figure of revenge. The film’s final fight between the Mothra twins and Godzilla isn’t the typical free-for-all that would be seen in later entries but instead has the two larvae taking out the big guy by cocooning him with their silk spray.


“Hey guys knock that off, this isn’t funny!”

One can’t expect the same kind of slugfest from Mothra as we’d later get with Mechagodizlla or King Ghidorah but the fight between Godzilla and the larvae is still pretty gripping and beautifully executed by the suit actors and holds up pretty well. The heroic trio of Sakai, Nakanishi and Professor Miura is an almost complete lift from the trio found in 1961's Mothra, but I guess if it's not broke don't fix it and it’s no surprise that next to Godzilla the wonderful Mothra is the most popular of the Kaiju.

Note: The North America release of this film made surprisingly few changes from the original Japanese cut, certainly nowhere near as many changes as Gojira or Godzilla Raids received, but it was released as Godzilla vs. The Thing which kind of implied he'd either be fighting James Arness or a member of The Addams Family.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Fate of the Furious (2017) – Review

If you’ve seen the last few movies in this franchise you may have noticed it’s veered slightly away from bad boys street racing with undercover cops who occasionally take on villainous drug dealers, it’s now more in the vein of films like Captain America: Civil War where heroes take on super villains in over-the-top action set-pieces, and like our current line of superhero movies the obvious death toll occurring on screen is kept rather sanitized and downplayed. Seriously, the amount of innocent lives lost that can be laid at Dominic Toretto’s feet in this film would land him about twenty life sentences if this was the real world.

Of course this isn’t the real world it’s the “Fast and the Furious World” where reality is for chumps.

The movie opens with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) on their honeymoon in Havana, in which Dom and a local tough guy race for pinks in what could be considered a nod to where the series started, but there is trouble in paradise as villainous cyberterrorist Cypher (Charlize Theron) has arrived to recruit Dom for her nefarious world dominating scheme. Toretto would like to tell her where she can stuff her offer but Cypher has something in her clutches that is very near and dear to his heart. You would think by now that villains would realize that if you need the talents of the hero, because the hero is so badass only they could pull it off, at some point those particular talents are going to turn around and bite you in the ass.


Betrayal is just a heartbeat away.

Meanwhile Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) has his afternoon soccer game with his daughter’s team interrupted and he and the team are assembled and race off to Berlin to retrieve an EMP device from a military outpost. It’s while making their daring escape that Toretto reveals he’s not playing for their team anymore and Hobbs ends up in a maximum security prison, one that also happens to be holding the Deckard (Jason Statham) who was the villain in Furious 7, and Dominic disappears with the EMP device.


Will these former enemies join forces to stop the rogue Toretto?

The Fate of the Furious is a ludicrous movie and if you embrace the insanity you will have an amazing time. With the right mindset you will giggle along with our heroes as they race through the streets of New York City while Cypher remote controls a thousand autonomous cars to steal the nuclear football from a visiting Russian Minister of Defense, you will laugh as cars make insane jumps, flip and crash all while still remaining fully functional, you will snicker at every tough guy line that Diesel, Statham, and Dwayne Johnson utter at each other, and you will cheer as our heroes out race a nuclear submarine, avoid massive explosions and fireballs, dodge bullets and even evade a heat-seeking missile as if this was simply a normal Tuesday for them.


I’d love to see how these guys spend their weekends.

Basically what I’m saying here is that as action-comedies go you will not be disappointed with this installment, but if you are the kind of person who is bothered by plot holes big enough to swallow said nuclear submarine than you may want to avoid this entry in the genre. Director F. Gary Gray does solid work here in keeping the action and banter coming at you so fast and furious that you won’t ask questions like, “If Cypher obtains the codes for Russia’s nuclear arsenal wouldn’t the Russian government immediately change those codes?” This film doesn’t even bother to give Cypher any kind of motivation or plan that makes a lick of sense, at one point she tells Toretto that she wants to, “Hold the world’s governments accountable.” Accountable for what exactly? Does this mean if America invades Syria she will nuke Manhattan, or if Russia rigs an election she will wipe out Moscow? Nothing is made clear pertaining to her long-term goals so I’m not sure if she was being set-up to be some crazed altruistic supervillain but the film spends so little time with her that we never find out.


As former villains tend to pop-up in sequels I’m betting she will return.

It is great to see the gang back in action, and it's truly sad that Paul Walker is no longer with us, and as an action blockbusters go there is worst ways to start your summer off. This is a fun film with fantastic stunts, lots of good laughs, beautiful women, cool cars, and then of course there’s Kurt Russell who is always a treat no matter how small the role.

Now that all said there was one element that bothered me greatly, setting aside the ridiculous plot and the indestructible nature of our heroes, the one element in the film that made no sense whatsoever was everyone using what looked to be bloody CB radios during those insane car chases. Have none of these idiots heard of hands-free phones? If you are crashing through city streets or barrelling across frozen wastelands you’d think you’d want both hands on the wheel.


That's standard driver safety, people!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Mothra (1961) – Review

If Godzilla is “The King of Monsters” than Mothra is clearly the queen, with the increasing popularity of kaiju like Godzilla and Rodan it’s fascinating that the next biggest star to Godzilla would be a creature that didn’t rampage out of malice like its peers but instead was on a rescue mission, albeit a rather destructive rescue mission. Mothra’s heroic nature was so well received that one could readily assume she was most responsible for Godzilla becoming a bit of an anti-hero during the latter half of the Shōwa period, and of course one of the most notable factors in Mothra’s popularity is the very fact that she is female, which is rather rare among the kaiju.

The dangers of nuclear weapons continues to pop up in the Toho monster movies but in 1961’s Mothra it’s not nuclear testing that creates or even wakes up the titular monster, instead this time out nuclear fallout is just an element that appears at the beginning of the film and is quickly forgotten. The movie opens with a typhoon sinking a ship off the shores of Infant Island, an area that greatly concerns the captain as it’s where many atomic bombs have been test detonated, but when four survivors are found alive and well on Infant Island with no ill effects from radiation poisoning, questions of how this is possible arise. The survivors reveal that their lack of radiation sickness must be due to the red juice that the local natives gave them to drink, and this of course raises even more questions as apparently no one knew that there were inhabitants on the island. I guess military surveying before detonating an atomic bomb was rather lax back in the day.


“Yeah, this island is looks perfect for some nuclear testing.”

The Japanese government unable or unwilling to fund a scientific expedition to Infant Island end up co-sponsoring a joint venture with the Rolisican Embassy (Note: Rolisica is widely interpreted as a stand-in for both the United States and the Soviet Union with the New Kirk City looking very American while the military uniforms look closer to those worn by the Russians.) With the Rolisican Embassy providing the cash this allows them to put entrepreneur and evil capitalist Clark Nelson (Jerry Itô) in charge, much to the dismay of Japanese linguist/anthropologist professor Shin'ichi Chūjō (Hiroshi Koizumi) who is infuriated when he learns that all his research is to be first passed through Nelson.


I don’t think Clark Nelson is a man of science.

Professor Chūjō isn’t alone in his disdain for Nelson and he is helped along by tenacious reported Zenichiro Fukuda (Furanki Sakai) and his faithful and beautiful photographer Michi Hanamura (KyokoKagawa) who do their best to thwart Nelson’s evil machinations (Note: The formula of this heroic trio is almost exactly duplicated later in Mothra vs. Godzilla), and Fukuda is even able to stowaway aboard the expedition's ship to further get in Nelson’s way. It’s when Chūjō is almost eaten by a vampire plant, while exploring Infant Island off on his own, that things start taking a bizarre turn as he is saved by two young women only twelve inches tall (Emi and Yumi Itō). These are the "Shobijin" (small beauties) who are basically the priestesses of Infant Island and the summoners of Mothra. The actresses playing the fairies are real life twins who were a very popular music act called The Peanuts, and for non-professional actors these two are pretty amazing.


The twin fairies of Infant Island.

Chūjō’s claims of being saved by tiny women are at first chocked up to shock but when the scientist eventually see the fairies for themselves they are all awestruck, unfortunately this is when Nelson reveals his true reason for being on the island, which is to get an attraction for one of his theatrical shows, and he tries to snatch the fairies.  Not so fast evil dude, just before he can make off with the fairies the local natives finally make an appearance and put a kibosh on the kidnapping. This of course doesn’t stop Nelson from returning to the island with a group of henchmen, gunning down several of the locals that get in the way, abducting the fairies and bringing them to Tokyo. If a showman travelling to a mysterious South Pacific island to bring back an attraction, one that will lead to city wide destruction, seems a tad familiar that’s because this was basically a Japanese version of King Kong, only this time out director Ishirô Honda was shooting for a less tragic tale. In all the previous kaiju films from Toho they each ended with the monsters being destroyed but in this film as Mothra is not technically the villain of the piece she is allowed to live. The theme of greed and exploitation is not subtle here but this actually ads to the fun as Fukuda, Michi and Professor Chūjō try and rescue the twin fairies, being hampered by the political influence that Rolisica has with the Japanese government, and the final revelation that fairies may look helpless but they have a very big guardian.


And she’s heading straight for Tokyo.

My favorite element of this movies is the attitude of the captured fairies, they are saddened at being locked in a gilded cage but you quickly get the idea that they are actually not so much concerned with their own fate but that of the people of Japan, for they know what untold damage will be caused when Mothra arrives. They are quite confident they will be rescued so their desire to be freed quickly is only to minimize the destruction when Mothra reaches shore and not for their own personal safety or comfort. That Carson is forcing the fairies to sing, not realizing that the song they are performing is a call for Mothra, is particularly brilliant. My one question is “How do audiences members enjoy the act when the performers are only a few inches high?” Sure the singing is amazing but Nelson doesn’t even provide big screens for those not in the first row.


"Ladies and gentlemen I bring you the 9th Wonder of the World!"

That the Japanese authorities turn a blind eye to what is basically forced imprisonment and slavery is really odd and a complete indictment of political corruption, and for some reason Nelson allows our heroes an unsupervised visit with the fairies who are then told by the twins about Mothra, “She will come to rescue us, regardless of what happens to your country, and that fills us with great sadness.” Yet this threat isn’t enough to get the government to grow a spine and stand up to the Rolisica Embassy, even after Mothra in larva form destroys an ocean liner while on route to Japan. In an interesting twist our heroes provide Nelson with a box that can block the fairies telepathic call to Mothra, being more concerned with the potential loss of life if Mothra is led straight into the heart of Tokyo than the freedom of the fairies. You really don’t expect these kinds of moral dilemmas in a giant monster movie. Of course this plan proves less than effective and it’s only after a failed attempt at bombing Mothra at sea, and she comes ashore and destroys a damn, do the authorities race to free the fairies. Unfortunately it’s too little too late as Nelson, worried about losing his cash cow, flees back to his Rolisica with the fairies.


Mothra doesn’t even stop to ask for directions.

The destruction as Mothra tears across Japan is wonderfully executed, once again the miniature cityscapes are great and the design of Mothra is as unique as it is spectacular, who would have even thought to make a monster movie based on a giant larva that charges across the South Pacific to save twin fairies? The one thing that could have used some work was the stand ins for people as though the miniature buildings and tanks all looked quite good some shots dwelled too long on the toy people in them, those static little figures really kill the illusion. On the plus side this movie introduces the “Atomic Heat Cannons” that were the precursors to the “Maser Cannon” that would become a staple in the battles between kaiju and the military for years to come.


Atomic Heat Cannons seen here attacking Mothra’s cocoon.

Of course the real devastation doesn’t happen until Mothra emerges from her cocoon and her mighty wings unfurl to unleash death and destruction in an unparalleled display of force as vehicles and even building are sent flying. Where before in larva form Mothra seemed indestructible to the weapons of man here in her final moth/butterfly form the military are barely able to function. This spurs the populace into action in the hunting down of Nelson and the returning of the twin fairies.


Mothra in all her glory.

As mentioned earlier this is the first of the Toho films that doesn’t end with the creature's destruction instead Chūjō spots a church cross backlit by the sun, which is a key hieroglyph he recognizes from the Infant Island native's written language, and that with the radiant cross-shaped star it translates as Mothra. Our heroes spur the authorities of New Kirk City to paint the symbol on the runway of the local airport, while also having all the local churches ring out their steeple bells at 3:00 o’clock as the sound of them may mimic the song the twins sing. This works and Mothra arrives at the airport to pick up the fairies who bid “Sayonara” as they fly back to Infant Island. So in this movie the “monster” is neither killed in a fight with another monster nor is it defeated by the military, instead our lead characters figure out a way to end the dispute peacefully.

Note: Also an interesting change is that Nelson is killed by police, while trying to flee the mob who want the fairies returned so their city will be spared, where as in the original draft it was Mothra who killed him.

Mothra is a fascinating entry into the franchise as not only does the titular creature cause quite a lot of damage with the death toll of innocent victims being pretty damn high, yet this never once stops her from being a sympathetic character, much as the original King Kong was. Mothra will continue to be a guardian of Infant Island as the series progresses but her role of protector will often times expand to save the world from many other monstrous threats which cements her as one of the few truly heroic kaiju despite the amount of human deaths that can be laid at her wings.


The return to Infant Island.

Ishirô Honda’s Mothra is one of my personal favorites the title character isn’t just a rampaging monster but more of an avenging god, and the human characters aren’t just passive viewers of the destruction but are actually able to impact the proceedings and help resolve the situation without killing the kaiju.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Follow Me, Boys! (1966) – Review

When discussing actor Fred MacMurray film buffs will cite such classics as Double Indemnity and The Apartment but even if those clearly show the power and range of this actor’s talent, and no one can deny how good he was in those films, those titles are not what he was most known for. If one were to look up the word “affable” in the dictionary and found a picture of Fred MacMurray you’d not be surprised, and this is why he's most known for playing such sweet and caring characters and why he became a staple at Disney Studios. He’s played so many “nice guys” that he almost makes Jimmy Stewart look like a monster in comparison. Follow, Me Boys! is based on the book God and My Country by MacKinlay Kantor and is a Norman Rockwellesque look at the Boy Scouts of America with Fred MacMurray playing the scout master who would help shape the lives of many boys over the years.

Starting in the 1930s the movie opens with Lemuel "Lem" Siddons (Fred MacMurray), a saxophonist in a traveling band with dreams of being a lawyer and growing roots somewhere, who he finally gets that chance when the band’s bus stops in the quaint town of Hickory and he decides to give up the road for good. The sweet idyllic nature of this town may have been a key factor in this decision but the primary one would be him bumping into the beautiful Vida Downey (Vera Miles), a bank teller who is currently dating the town’s bank manager Ralph Hastings (Elliott Reid). Lem steps on Vida’s feet while backing up to catch a pop fly ball from a group of boys playing in the street, and that accidental assault is all it takes to get romance a blooming.


A 1960s movie "meet cute."

This is the second time we’ve seen Fred MacMurray facing off against actor Elliot Reed, in 1961’s The Absent Minded Professor Reid tried to steel Nancy Olson away from MacMurray with about the same amount of luck this time out. The character of Ralph Hastings is your typical “strawman” rival that pops up in many films of this genre, he doesn’t stand a chance against the hero and he’s almost always depicted as a pompous ass, and though this movie doesn’t veer to far from this clichéd character Reid is one of those actors that can really own this part and he blends inept villainy with a nice bit of comic aplomb. And just how villainous is Ralph Hastings? Well he almost runs down the Boy Scout troop as he blows by them in his car, leaving them in a cloud of dust, and he tries to have his elderly and forgetful aunt (Lillian Gish) declared incompetent so that he can get control of her real estate holdings. We can assume the scene where he kicked puppies was left on the cutting room floor.


If cast in the 80s this character would have been played by William Atherton.

Lem takes a job as a clerk at the general store owned by John Everett Hughes (Charlie Ruggles) and while there he plots his tactics for winning the heart of Vida. His first opportunity comes when he is invited to a town meeting and the problem of “What to do with all these boys running loose in the streets” is addressed, he spots Vida sitting next to Hastings and sees that she has written down “Boy Scouts” as a solution to this problem, so when the mayor asks for ideas Lem suggests the Boy Scouts, much to Vida’s delight, and when he is told the only reason the town has never implanted such a plan in the past is that no one will volunteer to be Scout Master. Of course Hasting vehemently refused when Vida suggested he volunteer for the position which gives Lem the perfect opening to declare he would be willing take on the job. I’m not sure how this would play out in real life as I doubt small townsfolk would be all that keen for a newcomer, one who previously played saxophone in a traveling band, to be put in charge of their children.


This is where the Fred MacMurray likability factor works to the film’s benefit.

Follow Me, Boys! is a slice of Americana told in a way only Disney can pull off, the movies running time is over two hours long yet at no point does the film seem to drag as its cast of characters are constantly fun and engaging. The story takes place over a twenty year time period with Lem helping generations of young boys make the journey to manhood, and though it mostly a comic movie it does have some pretty dramatic moments that can easily bring a tear to one’s eye, such as Lem and Vida not being able to have children of their own, but the key one being local tough kid Whitey (Kurt Russell) who is angry at the world because he is both ashamed of his drunk father but also deeply caring for the man. The scenes between Fred MacMurray, Vera Miles and young Kurt Russell are the heart of the movie and the slow winning over of this troubled kid can resonate with modern audiences just as it did with those that saw it during its original run. This was the first of ten pictures at Disney Studios for Kurt Russell, even at the tender ages you can see he was loaded with talent, and later during his teen years he’d star in the Dexter Riley movies starting with The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.


Someday this kid will grow up to be Snake Plisken.

Dramatic moments aside this is mostly a family comedy with MacMurray having to deal with problems of teaching scouting while knowing nothing about it himself, all while trying to win the hand of Vera Miles, there is a particularly brilliant moment when Lem is captured by the United States Military during war games, believing his scout paraphernalia to be spy equipment, and is freed after his kids accidentally capture a tank. Disney has never been accused of being overly realistic and these moments of high comedy balance out the films more tear inducing moments.  This may be a sugar coated look at the time period, the horrors of World War II being a backdrop deftly avoided, but overall it is a delightful movie with a fantastic cast and one I can easily recommend.


“Tanks for the memories.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Rodan (1956) – Review

Catastrophic monster fights now in colour! Toho’s 1956 film Rodan was the first of their kaiju (giant monster) films to be shot in colour and it deals with the first appearance of one of Godzilla’s primary foes. Long before Marvel Studios and their “Cinematic Universe” existed Japan was developing a shared universe of their own that would rival the one Universal had created with Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man, but instead of creatures duking out in some European castle the monsters of Toho Studios would have their creations battle across cities and countrysides, causing untold amounts of death and destruction.

Rodan was the first of the stand-alone monster movies following Godzilla Raids Again, the next one being Mothra in 1961, and though this prehistoric flying menace wouldn’t cause as much onscreen damage as seen in 1954s Gojira the threat from a creature that could travel at supersonic speeds, striking Japan one moment and then Manila or the Philippines moments later, made Rodan a menace to be reckoned with.


That is if his wires don’t get fouled up.

The fascinating thing about 1956’s Rodan is that it starts out almost as a murder mystery; after the mysterious flooding in a mine outside the village of Kitamatsu resulted in the disappearance of two miners Shigeru Kawamura (Kenji Sahara), a tunneling and safety engineer, is sent into investigate. What is discovered is the floating corpse of one of the missing miners, sporting wounds made by something incredibly sharp, and as the other miner is still missing foul play is suspected. Kawamura tries to comfort his fiancée Kiyo (Yumi Shirakawa), who is also the sister of the missing miner, stating he doesn’t believe her brother could have committed murder, but when two more local miners and a policeman are found dead, and also horribly lacerated, the popular opinion becomes that the missing miner is some kind of psychopath. But before the mob can get their pitchforks and torches ready Shigeru and Kiyo are interrupted in her home by large insect like creature.


“Could I trouble you for a cup of sugar?”

The young lovers flee this terrible apparition but Shigeru quickly returns with some villagers and the local police to confront the monstrous intruder. They chase the creature, which is about the size of a small car, up a nearby hillside until eventually it gets annoyed by their small arms fire and snaps up two policemen in its deadly pincers, killing them instantly. The wounds on the dead police match the same lacerations of those killed in the mine so Kiyo’s brother is in the clear, unfortunately his body is later found dead in the mine so Kiyo isn’t really able to celebrate this revelation for long. The pistols of the local constabulary are useless against the creature so the military are called in but their machine guns seem about as useless as the handguns of the police so Shigeru improvises an excellent attack by releasing a train of mine cars loaded with coal down at the monster which crushes the creature.  But before they have a chance to pop champagne bottles it’s revealed that there are several more of the beasties to contend with and soon Shigeru finds himself cut off from his compatriots when the mine begins to cave-in.


“Get me the hell out of here!”

Poor Shigeru is assumed to be either crushed by the cave-in or been made into lunch by the creatures, but science must march on and we are then introduced to Professor Kyuichiro Kashiwagi (Akihiko Hirata) who identifies the giant insect as a Meganulon, an ancient species of dragonfly larvae that had lived on the Earth millions of years earlier. But just when you think things can’t any worse an earthquake strikes the area around Mount Atso, which greatly worries the locals as these quakes could trigger a volcanic eruption. Things may look bad for the people of Kitamatsu but Kiyo gets some good news when Shigeru is soon discovered wandering aimlessly across the crater floor by Mount Atso. Unfortunately Shigeru is pretty much catatonic, suffering from amnesia due to either a blow to the head during the cave-in or from witnessing something truly horrific, you can guess which one, but regardless of the reasons for his memory loss he is unable to help the scientific community with any added details of the threat.


“Is this the kaiju who attacked you?”

By now you are probably wondering, “Where the hell is Rodan?” Those murderous larvae and their pincers of death are pretty cool but they certainly don’t resemble the winged monster on the poster, but it’s not until almost halfway through the movie that the titular monster makes an appearance, and when he does it is also is drawn out as a bit of a mystery first. I can’t stress enough how well executed Takeshi Kimura’s screenplay is; first we have a murder mystery, then that quickly turns into a hunt for underground dwelling creatures that seem to like to slice up humans, but then in the second act a new threat is revealed when something travelling at great speed has invaded Japan’s airspace.


Could this be our culprit?

A fighter jet is sent up to intercept this intruder and he reports back that he is seeing an unidentified object, one of incredible size, performing impossible maneuvers and at supersonic speeds. He is ordered to pursue but when the UFO makes an impossible turn, heading directly at the poor pilot at high speed, his aircraft is hit and destroyed. This is another great example of the tension being ratcheted up slowly as each horrific element of this prehistoric puzzle enfolds

Note: Ken Kuronuma, who wrote the original story for this film, was inspired by an incident in Kentucky in 1948, when Captain Thomas F. Mantell, a pilot for the Kentucky Air National Guard, died in a crash while allegedly pursuing a UFO.

Reports from all over the world begin to come in about the UFO, and rumors of a secret military weapon test begin to circulate, but more concerning is the news that cattle and people are disappearing as if just plucked off the face of the Earth. A break in the case happens when Kiyo shows her still catatonic fiancé a bird’s nest with an egg inside, this spurs his memories of being trapped inside the mine where he witnessed the hatching of a huge egg, and with the his help they recover a piece of the egg’s shell and Professor Kashiwagi is able to determine that this new threat is 200 million year dinosaur from the Pteranodon family.


That is one big egg.

During Shigeru’s flashback the script brilliantly demonstrates how this new threat is of greater concern than that of the insect like Meganulon by showing the newly hatched Rodan eat them as if they were tiny grubs. Monsters that were previously terrifying are now shown to be nothing more than food for this new monstrous menace. Now Professor Kashiwagi does try and theorize that both the Meganulon and Rodan may have been awoken from their million year slumber by nuclear bomb testing but nothing is given to explain their size. Rodan isn’t just a large Pteranodon he is a fucking colossally massive Pteranodon, one that dwarfs buildings and whose very passing causes vehicles to be tossed around like tinker toys, roofs are ripped loose and sent flying, and bridges are torn from their moorings.


Rodan is a dick to municipal travel.

After the standard scenes of the military being useless, a theme rarely abandoned and found throughout the franchise, we find out there are two Rodans. Things look really bad for mankind but then our heroes deduce that the Rodans can be found at their old nest inside Mount Aso and then the Japanese Self-Defense Forces come up with a plan to bombard the cave with missile and tank fire. The locals are worried this could cause a volcanic eruption, destroying their lovely village in the process, but as two Rodans wreaking havoc across the globe is a tad worse than one tiny village being destroyed, so the military evacuate the civilians and attack the monstrous pair. Shockingly this plan works, but the real mystery here is, “Just how does this plan work when both creatures could easily fly away once the bombardment starts?”


“See you later, assholes!”

It’s theorized that the first Rodan succumbed to fumes pouring out of the active volcano, falling back down to its death, which certainly makes the creatures a lot less formidably than we’d been led to believe, and then the second Rodan shows up and dives into the lava to die with its mate. That all seems rather poignant except for the fact that we have no idea where that second Rodan came from if not from the same nest the original one hatched out of, and if so than is it not the creatures mate but a rather a sibling? Why wouldn’t it seek revenge on those currently blowing the crap out of it's nest and the murderering of one of it's family? I know we shouldn’t place human emotions on animals but I doubt a mother bear, if its family was threatened, would go the suicide route to solve the problem.


“It is a far, far better thing that I do.”

The movie ends with the cast looking on, all sadden by the tragic deaths of the Rodans, and sure seeing magnificent creatures that should be extinct dying in flames is pretty tragic but these people lost homes and loved ones to those things. I’m betting a little more sighs of relief would be happening and a few less tears. Aside from this implausibly sappy ending Rodan is a fantastic entry in Toho’s Shōwa period, the creature designs are excellent and the miniature work during the city destruction scenes are fantastic.

Now at the head of this review I compared Toho’s films to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but that really is an unfair comparison as Toho tended to kill off their monsters at the end of their early films and so it’s clear that any kind of shared universe was never intended.  With the same actors popping in and out of the series playing different roles, major tonal shifts between movies, and the series itself being rebooted numerous times prevents the idea of any sort of planned shared universe. Of course now Hollywood is doing just that with their versions of Toho’s legendary monsters with 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island forming the beginning of their MonsterVerse.

Note: This film was released in the United States under the title Rodan! The Flying Serpent as in Japan the monster was called Radon, the name was anagrammed into "Rodan" for the English audience, so as not to confuse the fictitious monster with the actual atomic element radon.