REVIEW: Godzilla (1954)

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Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeo Murata and Ishirô Honda, Story by Shigeru Kayama
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

The Big One. Or rather, the Big G.

Godzilla, the first of many films starring the titular gargantuan reptile, ignited a tradition in the then-infant Japanese film industry, the tokusatsu, or special effects, film, and forced the island nation to come to grips with their unique and unfortunate history with humanity’s deadliest invention: the nuclear weapon. Godzilla still stands as a triumph above that final chapter of imperial shame, above much of tokusatsu that came after, and indeed, above most science fiction cinema in general.

Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk, the results of neither natural phenomenon nor foreign action. An expedition to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were lost, led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.

I’m sure most of you know the story by now: several Japanese fishing vessels are lost at sea, while a giant creature living off the coast of Odo Island is discovered to be at fault. An ancient reptile awakened by nuclear weapons testing, it is dubbed Godzilla by the inquisitive Dr. Yamane before it begins walking ashore towards Tokyo, bringing a trail of fiery destruction with it. What some of you may not know is just how topical and in tune with the events of the time this film was, or how unfortunately relevant it remains today. Conceived by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka after another project fell through, Godzilla is still the apex of tokusatsu, equaled by none.

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Tanaka’s idea was born out of two of Japan’s biggest events of 1954. That year saw the official end of the American occupation and the return of complete control to the new republican government and the newly-established Self Defense Forces. Before Godzilla, all Japanese entertainment had to be approved by the occupation, which severely limited portrayals of Japanese military might and government stability. Watching the film proves that this was no longer the reality by the time of its release, with the valiant efforts of the SDF against the monster and the scenes of the Diet locked in fierce debate.

The other major event of 1954 was the Lucky Dragon incident, from which the film’s first act takes heavy inspiration. During the American Castle Bravo H-bomb test of that year, the fishing trawler Lucky Dragon No. 5 strayed too close to the fallout, resulting in the crew suffering radiation sickness and even one death. This sparked a chill in American-Japanese relations right after the occupation, and stunned a population who still harbored fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cue the opening scene of Godzilla, aboard the fishing vessel Eiko-maru:

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In the midst of this fealty to the outside world, director Ishiro Honda presents some fairly traditional scenes of two lovers, Ogata and Emiko, trying to navigate their young relationship in the face of not only the fishing disasters, but Emiko’s father Yamane, and her fiancé Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a reclusive, scarred war vet with a terrible secret locked in his lab. Their affair quickly spirals into the background of a bitter debate when Godzilla is revealed to the world at large: Honda’s film excels at navigating the moral and ethical grey areas of the existence of such a monster, whether in the salient Diet debate over whether to publish the truth of Godzilla’s threat or conceal it to preserve order and the economy, or in Yamane’s quiet torment over being the only person to want to save the creature, seeing only its potential to unlock the secrets of radioactivity, and its resistance to it.

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In this subplot is where Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata begin to truly play with the real-world consequences of the nuclear age. While the original storywriter Shigeru Kayama made Yamane a Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque cloaked figure, engaged in sabotage against the SDF to protect Godzilla, Takashi Shimura’s Yamane is much more contemplative and down-to-earth, desperately trying to salvage something noteworthy and meaningful to mankind out of its most foolish and terrible mistakes, manifest in the monster itself. Shimura becomes the easily the best performer in a strong collection of actors on screen, preserving a countenance of regret over the futility of his efforts.

Image result for godzilla 1954 serizawaSo too Akihiko Hirata as Serizawa, whose secret lab is revealed to house a new and terrible superweapon: the Oxygen Destroyer, a substance capable of liquefying any organic material in water, a sure way to kill Godzilla. But therein lies his dilemma: the Oxygen Destroyer is an easy contender for a new weapon of mass destruction in the ever-escalating Cold War, and he fears that his discovery will become another tool of the superpowers against innocent people unless he can find a better, more humane use for his compound. Like Yamane, Serizawa seems to be trying to salvage a workable future from mankind’s violent past and present, although his character arc is much more reminiscent of the real life J. Robert Oppenheimer, the remorseful creator of the atomic age.

Undoubtedly, however, the main event of Godzilla to most viewers would be Godzilla himself. Portrayed by a combination of puppets and a large, 200-lb rubber suit, Godzilla, in this original film at least, remains a wholly-convincing special effect. While the puppet shots have most certainly aged poorly and don’t fit with the rest of the footage, the cumbersome suit, worn valiantly through fainting spells and buckets of sweat by Haruo Nakajima, portrays a confused and tortured beast, staggering around a highly-detailed miniature Tokyo as if it is constantly in searing pain (the presence of keloid scars across its hide does much to bolster this observation). Honda’s stark black-and-white photography captures all of the nuances of Nakajima’s performance and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, resulting in an image eerily reminiscent of wartime footage that would have been very hard to watch for those who had survived it. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s still-haunting score, the effect is palpable.

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Godzilla would become a smashing success in Japan and several other markets in its original release in 1954, convincing a skeptical public that Japan was a new contender in big special effects pictures, while still telling a dark and emotional story at its core. For its wide American release, Transworld Pictures commissioned a re-edited version, starring Raymond Burr in reshoots as Steve Martin, a newspaperman on whom the altered story would center. While toning down its more anti-war and nuclear age arguments (most certainly due to American Cold War attitudes of the time), Godzilla, King of theImage result for godzilla raymond burr Monsters! is still a solid Americanization of the original film, indeed, probably the best of them. Burr’s Martin, acting as a narrator to smooth the gaps in the story caused by the editing, is a fascinating character in his own right, and unlike later dubs, much of the original characters’ dialogue remain intact, creating a respectful image of the actors and their heritage. Indeed, without this version of the film, Godzilla may not be as popular as he is today, owing to the fact that King of the Monsters! was much more widely distributed across the world.

Godzilla seems to be an acquired taste, even with viewers who claim to be fans. Still thought of by the general populace as “that green dinosaur who fights aliens,” Godzilla may surprise those folks with its chilling realism and somber tone–if they manage to survive a viewing. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a film that I wish was, for in today’s world, it seems the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t taken seriously anymore. I can’t count on my hands how many times in a week I hear co-workers or passersby dismiss the Middle East or North Korea with a simple ‘nuke-em’ statement, and I can’t help but wonder if the Earth decided to regurgitate a monster born from this ignorant view to wreak havoc upon their lives, would they regret what they so often think?

This is the message of Godzilla. Heed it well.

REVIEW: King Kong Lives (1986)

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Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield
Starring Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton, John Ashton, Peter Michael Goetz, Peter Eilliot, George Antoni

Dino De Laurentiis’ remake production of King Kong was a success in 1976, but hasn’t aged quite as well as its predecessor. Does King Kong Lives overcome the sequel curse, or does it fall like Son of Kong?

Barely surviving his fall from the World Trade Center, Kong enters a 10-year coma and desperately needs a blood transfusion in order to have an artificial heart implanted. Suddenly, in the rainforest, another gigantic ape is found – this one a female. She is quickly brought to the States, and with her blood Kong’s new heart is successfully implanted. But when he awakens, Kong senses the presence of  his lady counterpart, and breaks loose, sending both the military and scientists Hank (Brian Kerwin) and Amy (Linda Hamilton) into a scramble to contain and capture them.

As noted in my review, the ’76 King Kong contained a little too many moments of cringe-worthy and creepy theater to be considered a true classic in the Kong tradition, but it is downright sublime compared to this film. From the very beginning, I was scratching my greasy morning scalp trying to figure out which of the writers came up with this bone-brained idea for a opening: A long tracking shot through a hangar where Kong lays comatose, past the SUV of Jarvik artificial hearts, and finally into a control room where a bunch of biologists give Linda Hamilton’s Amy grief for Kong being on death’s door. Really? Let’s say he could undergo that open-heart surgery you want to take place: he’s been laying down for ten years. Aren’t his muscles mush anyway?

We quickly shift to Borneo, where Brian Kerwin’s character Hank stumbles upon a female Kong, who is swiftly tranquilized by a contingent of natives with poison darts. Maybe the natives of Kong’s island should take a few pointers? While a lazy reversal of the Kong/Ann dynamic takes shape, the big ape gets his surgery in one of the most bizarre and laughable medical procedures put to celluloid. It’s quite the shame Linda was subjected to this so soon after The Terminator, because you can tell she really tried, but the material just isn’t there. The same cannot be said for Kerwin; with such a fake swagger and annoying disposition, I can’t believe he even gets the opportunity to bed (or sleeping-bag?) Amy.

Carlo Rambaldi returns to provide on-set animatronic effects for Lives, but these were wisely limited to the arms this time, as the filmmakers learned a valuable lesson from the first film: stick to the suits. The problem is, the suits aren’t as convincing this time around. Lady Kong is passable, but Kong himself has been redesigned with a chest so big that he looks like he’s wearing hockey pads. Mattes and miniature work are wildly inconsistent, and despite there being way more battles with the military, the action never reaches the levels of spectacle inherent in Kong’s wall scene or the train derailing.

Roger Ebert called Lives a boring movie, and I’d say, for the most part, I agree. Halfway through, Lady Kong is recaptured while Kong escapes to rampage through redneck country in search of his mate. I’m not joking when I say redneck country, because in between startling naughty teenagers, Kong has to contend with polka parties and the stereotypical beer-swilling hunters, who rightfully get their just desserts but not before what feels like an excruciating eternity of bad punch lines.

Only by the end did I find any real enjoyment with the film, in the climactic offensive by Kong against the military in defense of his now-pregnant Lady. Blood spews from his wounds as explosions fill the screen, with plenty of busted tanks and men to thrill at. And once this orgy of monster mayhem is over, there actually is a somewhat touching moment–if you have a distinct, bad-80s-movie taste. I think I kinda do, but the jury is still out.

I actually think Son of Kong is a better movie, shocking as that is. There’s a lot more Kong, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing, even when done right. I would only recommend this film to fans of 80s monster cinema, Kong enthusiasts, or if you’re planning a night of laughingly bad movies to riff, MST3K-style.

REVIEW: King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

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Directed by Ishiro Honda
Written by Shinichi Sekizawa
Starring Tadao Takashima, Kenji Sahara, Yu Fujiki, Ichiro Arishima, Jun Tazaki, Akihiko Hirata, Mie Hama

Odds are, if you and your friends had any love for giant monsters growing up, you’ve definitely had the big argument: who would win in a one-on-one fight, Kong or Godzilla? I know I did, and I always bet on the Big G. It wasn’t until I finally saw the actual fight on my newly-purchased VHS tape at age 10 that I realized it was a little more even-sided. And silly.

Mr. Tako (Ichiro Arishima), the producer of a low rated television show called “Mysteries of the World”, decides his show needs some spicing up. So he sends two of his staff, Osamu Sakurai (Tadao Takashima) and Kinsaburo Furue (Yu Fujiki), to Faro Island to bring back proof of a giant ape named King Kong. Meanwhile, a submarine collides with an iceberg releasing Godzilla, who was trapped there seven years earlier. When Sakurai and Furue arrive at Faro, they do battle with a giant octopus, and uncover the mighty Kong. While in route to Japan aboard a giant raft, Kong breaks free and swims toward Japan, toward an inevitable collision course with Godzilla.

King Kong vs Godzilla has a long gestational history. After the financial and critical failure of Son of Kong, visual effects pioneer Willis O’Brien spent the next two decades attempting to craft a suitable followup to the original Kong. In the 1950s, he began pitching a project entitled King Kong vs Frankenstein, in which the giant ape would battle a likewise gargantuan version of Frankenstein’s monster, constructed by the mad doctor’s grandson in San Francisco from animal parts. After fleshing out the script with producer John Beck and writer George Yates into King Kong vs Prometheus, he continued trying to sell the film, to no success. Beck, however, managed to secure a buyer in Toho Studios, the owners of Godzilla. Having long wanted to produce their own official Kong film after several unauthorized shorts in the 1930s, Toho leaped at the chance, replacing Prometheus with Godzilla, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, how does the finished product hold up? Not too badly, as a matter of fact. Toho managed to take to heart some of the anti-colonialist themes of greed and avarice present in the orginal Kong and translate them well to what is essentially the third movie in the Showa-era Godzilla series. What is interesting is that director Honda, now famous for having helmed the immortal Gojira, decided to take the series in a lighter direction, radically redesigning Godzilla to appear less frightening, and toning down Kong’s personality to be less brutal and more comical. Corresponding characters of the Kong formula, such as Carl Denham’s Japanese counterpart Tako, and siblings Famiko and Sakurai, are played more for laughs.

Overtones of Godzilla’s nuclear menace, whilst not being completely jettisoned, are appropriately toned down, giving the film room to produce a fun atmosphere, focusing on a satirical look at consumerism and pop culture. At many places in the story, characters are seen to argue and chat over which monster is better, just like my friends and I did years later. Tako continuously schemes to use Kong in a giant advertising campaign to sell pharmaceuticals. Godzilla, despite being a nuclear terror roasting innocent people across the mainland, is said by Tako’s assistant to be getting a movie deal soon. On paper this sounds rather frustrating given the past outings of both monsters, but the film works very well with it. There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t feel amused watching it.

Now these days, with the over-proliferation of CGI and modern effects techniques, it is a bit harder to fairly critique films from KKvG‘s decade, especially those from an entirely different culture. Most American audiences would find the film to be one of the silliest and most patently fake things put to celluloid, but one must put themselves into the shoes of a moviegoer of then. Japanese “tokusatsu” films were typically produced on smaller budgets than American special effects films, and with a different set of talent. Eiji Tsuburaya’s effects philosophy was built around suit acting and miniature sets, and this he excelled at greatly. Looking through this perspective, it delivers the goods as promised: hundreds of model buildings and war machines are trampled underfoot by the beasts, who proceed onward towards a climactic clash that, while taking almost the entire film to set up, is worth the wait, as it clocks in as almost the longest kaiju battle of the Showa films. The feats accomplished by the suit actors eclipse any shortcomings of the ropey effects work, once you realize how heavy they were: around 400 pounds. Just remember that when you see Shoichi Hirose in the Kong suit throw Godzilla over his head with no wires.

The third member of the Godzilla tripod after Honda and Tsuburaya was undeniably composer Akira Ifukube, and he turns in another masterclass effort with KKvG. This film’s rendition of the Godzilla theme is one of my absolute favorites, and the “battle theme” is also noteworthy, being reused in 1991’s Godzilla vs King Ghidorah. The only weak link I find with the score is Kong’s theme; it’s just too slow and bland to really stick with you. In fact, at times it feels woefully out of place with the rest of the music.

After KKvG went on to become the highest-grossing Godzilla film in Japan and internationally, John Beck set about bringing it back to the United States with a recut version, which was common practice at a time when the market for foreign films wasn’t what it is today. Unfortunately, the American version is plagued with several problems. In reshuffling many of the scenes, Beck felt it necessary to include many subpar “news show” sequences featuring English-speaking actors into the story to clear up plot points missing from his version. These scenes are truly laughable in their delivery and setup; the UN newsroom always has the same story props and the anchor is always wearing the exact same outfit, as if it was all shot in one day. His guest, a supposed paleontologist, espouses plot hole-producing contradictions and shows off children’s dinosaur books as if they were scholarly texts, while regurgitating speeches as if they were theatrical trailer taglines. Ifukube’s score is also completely removed and replaced with stock music, much of it from Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. While there are a few places where it works undeniably better than the Kong theme, it feels like sheer blasphemy that the entire end battle is scored like a ’30s film.

I would recommend that anyone interested in seeing the original clash of the towering titans, especially before WB recreates it in 2020, do so by viewing the original Japanese version first. It is simply a better paced, acted, and scored film, and doesn’t force you to set through a newscast that combines the worst parts of CNN and old-school newsreels. Sadly, KKvG suffers the indignity of being the only Showa Godzilla film whose original cut is still unavailable in the US. There is a Region A Japanese blu-ray available to import, and of course, there are always other, less legal ways to get around this problem. Whichever way you do so, just remember to go easy on it as far as effects and acting go. This is a different breed of film from a different era, one that just so happens to be one of the more entertaining Godzilla films out there, and is not a bad Kong film either.

REVIEW: King Kong (1976)

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Directed by John Guillermin
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Original Screenplay by John Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, Based on an Idea by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange, John Randolph, Rene Auberjonois

In the mid-1970s, Dino De Laurentiis felt like he was on top of the world. Having already produced such successes as Serpico, Death Wish, and Three Days of the Condor, he probably got a little cocky, hence his next project, a remake of the Eighth Wonder of the World itself, King Kong. Throwing $24 million at the project, it took in over $90 million, making it a certified success. But how is the film itself?

The owner of the Petrox Corporation, Fred Wilson, invests all his possessions searching for oil in an unexplored island. As his vessel leaves Surubaya, in Indonesia, a stowaway, biologist Jack Prescott, sows discord among the crew with historical accounts of a gigantic creature living on the island. While traveling, they find the castaway actress Dwan, having survived the sinking of her yacht in a life raft, and bring her on board. Together, the unlikely trio disembark onto the mysterious landmass, encountering the local natives who abduct Dwan to offer her in a sacrifice to their god, Kong, in reality a gigantic ape-like beast who makes off with the blonde-haired beauty.

The ’76 Kong is an impressive production, of that there is no doubt. Having first hired Carlo Rambaldi to design and build a full-size, 40-ft. tall animatronic Kong, they soon found out how difficult this task would be, and ended up turning to a young Rick Baker, who brought to the fray a detailed and expressive suit which ended up becoming the main method of portraying the monstrous ape onscreen. Despite the negative connotations (and inherent blasphemy to some) of going from stop-motion photography to essentially a furrier Godzilla, Baker’s work both in crafting the suit and acting within it is top rate and worthy of the Kong legacy.

The rest of the production is appropriately scaled up to compensate for the seemingly-low-tech ape himself, featuring impressive matte paintings and epic staging–three helicopters with miniguns buzz the World Trade Center? Yeah, that takes a lot of money.

The film’s screenplay, however, falters a bit. Semple, who wrote Condor for Laurentiis, opts to modernize Cooper’s tale, transplanting the action to the then-present day, updating the Ann/Jack/Carl trinity: Driscoll is now Prescott, a bearded, liberal gentleman and scientist, Carl Denham becomes Fred Wilson, a driven and greedy oil baron, and Ann is given the annoying name of Dwan, but is still an actress. Tough break. Quite frankly, as beautiful and talented as Jessica Lange is, this was her first film, so she doesn’t exactly elevate the material she is given. Most of the time she comes across as a spaced-out yuppie, regurgitating so much astrology that she single-handedly dates the film severely. Grodin doesn’t fair much better as Wilson, who while is a logical update of the Denham character, is far more mean-spirited, and therefore much less lovable. Jeff Bridges is by far the best of the three, showcasing his youthful ruggedness to ground the more intellectual streaks of the character. But, sadly, there are moments in which he just seems pretentious.

The “Skull Island” setting (it is never referred to as such in the film) is unfortunately pretty bland. For much of its appearance in the picture it simply looks like any other island, until Kong and Dwan reach the island center, and then it looks like the alien set of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In some ways you could argue that it lends a otherworldly feel to Kong’s lair, but when the ’33 Kong was giving us lush jungles with paintings and little crab grass, it leaves a lot to be desired. And then there’s the lack of life on the island. Early on in the film Prescott suggests that the fog surrounding it is generated by animal respiration. Kong must have incredible gas then, because the only other monstrous denizen we see is a rather fake-looking giant snake, which also happens to provide the only monster battle of the film. And it’s over in less than a minute. It’s as if Semple bizarrely decided to put all of his energy into the excrutiatingly dull dialogue between Bridges and Lange.

While the Kong suit and Rambaldi’s animatronic arms were worthy of praise, the rest of the effects work is wholly inconsistent.Blue screen work ranges from passable to full of washed-out blacks and matte lines. The few glimpses of the full size Kong at the stadium are laughingly bad. And I kid you not, you can see the ceiling about Baker’s head in the same scene. And in what is probably the ultimate downgrade, the thrilling Empire State Building sequence becomes boring and uninspired atop the WTC, with Kong barely putting up any fight. John Barry’s score also doesn’t live up to his usual standing, with an epic and foreboding main theme but not much else. The lazy love melody really lets the film down.

But don’t take my complaining to mean that this is a terrible film, just one with many missed opportunities. There is still lots to love: the train sequence and Kong breaking through the wall doors are mighty effects pieces, Kong himself is one of the better monster suits ever made, and as mentioned before, Jeff Bridges is always going to be at least ok in whatever he does.

So what to make of Kong ’76? I would say it is best to approach it as a curiosity, a relic from a simpler time when remakes weren’t the money model they are today. From what I see of Kong: Skull Island, it looks like they borrow quite a bit from this film, so I’d say its legacy might be secure. Whether that is true or not will have to wait for that review. As for this one, seek it out only if you are a Kong fan or an aficionado of ’70s cinema. If not, you won’t miss too much.