Thursday, July 11, 2013

Stomp Boston: King Kong, Monsters, 20 Million Miles to Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Cloverfield, and Q

Be proud of the Brattle! I can't vouch for the screenings I didn't attend, but I think they managed to go the entire series without mentioning Pacific Rim in the advertising and introductions, even though that was almost certainly part of the inspiration for doing a kaiju series now and might have gotten their announcements some web hits!

Whatever the reason, it was a good time, which didn't end with Q - I'll give The Lost World its own post because there's a part of me that considers giant monsters and dinosaurs to be their own things.

(Also, if you're looking for a giant monster fix, I highly recommend Hiroshi Yamamoto's novel MM9, one of the most clever takes on the genre I've ever seen)

There's not a whole lot to say about this series, aside from I had fun and wish I could have made some of the other screenings, but, hey, adorable nieces with birthdays, print issues (one print was in German, requiring the Brattle to reshuffle some screenings and screen one movie off a DVD), things I'd prepaid for and being really tired from a week staying up to watch baseball got in the way. It's kind of interesting to note which movies were left out, most notably the original Gojira. Not that it would really have fit - it's a much more serious movie than the rest of what was in the series, to the point where it's kind of crazy what grew from it.

Anyway, giant monsters. Lots of 'em. Even the ones that didn't have particularly high star-ratings are a lot of fun. We should do this more often.

King Kong (1933)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston: Giant Monster All Out Attack, 35mm)

Let's be honest: A lot of the standard talking points film lovers bring out when talking about movies like King Kong might not exactly be false, but they're a little exaggerated. There's not necessarily more life to its stop-motion creatures than there is to a modern CGI construct, the many hands involved in the writing make the story as much a muddle as any modern blockbuster, and its B-movie cast are generally just good enough to get the job done. And yet, even with all these things being more true than we would like to admit, King Kong still sets a high standard; the alchemy which makes base materials into fine entertainment is performed well here, and the thrill of creation (as opposed to eighty years of replicating its thrills) makes itself known.

The story, after all, doesn't really make a lick of sense; daredevil filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) has hired a boat to sail to the South Seas to make his greatest picture yet, but this time, he aims to satisfy his critics by giving it "love interest". That takes the form of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), a pretty but poor girl Denham snatches off the streets of New York City, much to the initial chagrin of the ship's first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). When they reach Skull Island, the group finds something beyond their wildest dreams - a huge wall meant to the monsters who live in the islands' wilderness away from the natives. The mightiest winds up being Kong, a twenty-five-foot ape from which Driscoll and Denham must rescue Ann.

The whole thing is ridiculous, of course, but it's such earnest, unapologetic pulp as to wind up charming. It's from a time when men could express a desire for pure adventure without qualifying it or being told that the true adventure was settling down and raising some kids - and, just as importantly, before this sort of pulp fiction mutated into a reactionary thing that reveled in its political incorrectness. Sure, Denham is somewhat bitter about people wanting to dilute the manly nature of his jungle adventures, but he never demeans Ann for it. His comment on how blondes are a rarity on Skull Island comes out a lot less racist than it could. The movie shows that 1930s America still had some growing up to do, but at least it's not going to make a modern audience wince too badly.

Full review on EFC


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston: Giant Monster All Out Attack, 35mm)

I wavered on hanging around for Monsters after King Kong, but I'm glad I did; it's a better movie than I remember. I still kind of wish it had been feasible for writer/director Gareth Edwards to call it "Aliens", even though I don't quite think he develops the border-crossing themes as much as he maybe hoped to.

One thing that I didn't give a lot of thought to two and a half years ago but which stuck out today was that it's a little bit surprising that this movie isn't done as found-footage. It's the sort that otherwise might, with a small cast (one of whom is a photographer) and a set-up built around poking around the world's details, but instead it's resolutely third-person and quite beautifully shot. There's a first-person opening, but I tend to think that should be excised anyway, and not just because that flash-forward dilutes the power of the end.

That end is still kind of brilliant, with its pairs of [would-be] lovers far from home, quite likely passing by and not seeing each other again. No need to kick us in the teeth with the metaphor.

20 Million Miles to Earth

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston: Giant Monster All Out Attack, 35mm)

Ray Harryhausen, it is said, set 20 Million Miles to Earth in Sicily because he could not afford an Italian vacation, and that's as good a reason as any. It's a pretty disposable B-movie, so why not get a few fringe benefits out of making it?

It starts off at sea, where a group of fishermen are plying their trade as a spaceship crash-lands. The occupants, it turns out, are human, though only two of the men are rescued, and of them, only one survives. Of course, something else gets loose, a sample that U.S. Air Force Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper) and his crew retrieved from Venus, which winds up in the hands of Roman zoologist Dr. Leonardo (Frank Puglia) and his American granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor), leaving Calder and a pair of American experts to chase them down as the hatched creature grows much larger.

20 Million Miles to Earth is a fairly basic 1950s sci-fi monster movie; it benefits from having Harryhausen's better-than-the-competition creature work but otherwise hits a lot of items on checklists: The gruff, manly astronaut and the lady doctor who pair off because the movie needs someone to kiss at the end, the hyper-capable military (it's kind of strange to see them as the ones who are sensible and incorruptible half a century later), the clipped dialogue and very simple characters. That extends to a lot of broad Italian accents, and situations where someone being more identifiable for their function than personality is occasionally the lesser of two evils.

Full review on EFC

It Came from Beneath the Sea

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston: Giant Monster All Out Attack, digital)

It Came from Beneath the Sea is the first collaboration between producer Charles Schneer and special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, and, well, they get better. The promise of the team is apparent, but things get pretty rough between giant octopus attacks.

And, heck, during the first one, really, as the thing is off-camera as it attacks one of America's first atomic submarines, commanded by Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey). It's brought to dry dock to be examined, where Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue) figure out that the problem is a giant radioactive octopus. Joyce & Carter are about to go back to their usual positions when it turns out that the beastie isn't just slinking back to its home in the Mindanao Deep, requiring them to scour the Pacific.

The main problem with the movie becomes readily apparent during the opening gambit: Things really should be a lot more exciting than they are. Director Robert Gordon and his cast actually establish the submarine as an interesting environment pretty quickly, both in terms of shooting the cramped environment well and establishing the feel of the crew, but when the strange signal starts appearing on their sonar, the tension doesn't kick up to the next level the way one might hope. Subs are a great place to set thrillers, and this should be a nail-biting little mini-movie, but the danger isn't really communicated. It doesn't help that the movie is holding the monster in reserve, and there's not even much of a tease here.

Full review on EFC


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston: Giant Monster All Out Attack, 35mm)

I saw Cloverfield twice in relatively close succession when it first came out - first run and then at SF/33 - although not really by design. As you can see, I really liked it back then, even when I was trying to temper my enthusiasm.

I'm not quite so over-the-top in love with it now, but I'm still pretty fond of it. Reeves & Goddard and company do an unusually good job of marrying large- and human-scale stories. Monsters shows that you don't really need a gimmick like found-footage to do it, although it does help the audience lock into what's going on with these guys rather than wonder about the rest. I do like the way it creates natural spots for the flashbacks, even if they're not quite so frequent or pointed as I remember them.

Still a pretty good movie, even disconnected from how exciting it was when it was first released - remember how it snuck into theaters with almost no pre-release "countdown" or hype, despite being a fairly elaborate action movie? J.J. Abrams would probably kill to be able to do that again.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Stomp Boston: Giant Monster All Out Attack, 35mm)

It is kind of impressive - well, it's kind of something - that the title creature of Larry Cohen's quickly-assembled monster movie Q (sometimes "Q: The Winged Serpent") is roughly the third strangest thing about it. Why? Well, in part, because this is quite possibly the most bizarre thing Michael Moriarty has done in his career, and that's a pretty high bar to clear.

"Q" is for "Quetzalcoatl", the name of a flying, feathered snake-god of Central American myth. These myths, it turns out, have a basis in truth, as a winged serpent (sadly featherless) is flying around New York City, occasionally picking people off rooftops and eating them, but not quite being seen. These cases - along with a flayed body found in a hotel room, are proving quite confounding to detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree), at least until small-time crook Jimmy Quinn (Moriarty) stumbles onto its nest in the Chrysler building.

Let's be fair - describing Jimmy Quinn as a small-time crook really doesn't do the sheer oddness of Moriarty's performance here justice. Jimmy's a weird, stammering fellow of so little wit that it's difficult to tell whether he's just uncouth and not very bright or if he's mentally impaired in some way. That Cohen and Moriarty make him seem kind of childishly delusional and put-upon as he joins an armed robbery and tries to find work at a piano bar (in an audition where he is not very good at a ll in jaw-dropping fashion) despite also mentioning that he's occasionally hit his girlfriend (Candy Clark) is kind of amazing. It's not unusual for a movie to have a rogue in the lead, but it's rare for him to be as thoroughly peculiar as this one.

Full review on EFC

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