erik lundegaard

Tuesday April 13, 2021

Oh Right. The Oscars. II.

So the DGAs and the PGAs recently made their choices, and both went with “Nomadland” as the best picture of our shut-in, theaterless, pandemic year. The DGAs has been around since the late '40s, the PGAs since 1989, which means there have been 31 Oscar seasons before this one in which both have given their opinions. Of those, how often have these two guild bodies agreed? A lot: 22 times or 71%. And of those agreements, how often did the Oscar for best picture go to a different movie? Five times: 77%. So I'd still put money on “Nomadland.”

Have to say, the early years when Oscar went a different path doesn't speak well for Oscar. It feels like the Academy was overly influenced by something tawdry: Weinstein PR pushes (“Shakesepare in Love”), homophobia (“Crash”) and whatever the hell happened in '95 to elevate Mel Gibson and “Braveheart.” More recent years have been better. Feels like the Academy is rewarding artistry. That bodes well for “Nomadland,” too.  Although if Oscar had been rewarding diversity, going with “Moonlight” and “Parasite” over “La La Land” and “1917,” then we could get an upset: “Judas and the Black Priest,” for example.

April 25, FWIW.

When the DGAs and PGAs Agree

2020 Nomadland Nomadland ???
2019 1917 1917 Parasite
2017 The Shape of Water The Shape of Water The Shape of Water
2016 La La Land La La Land Moonlight
2014 Birdman Birdman Birdman
2012 Argo Argo Argo
2011 The Artist The Artist The Artist
2010 The King's Speech The King's Speech The King's Speech
2009 The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker The Hurt Locker
2008 Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire Slumdog Millionaire
2007 No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men No Country for Old Men
2005 Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Crash
2003 Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings Lord of the Rings
2002 Chicago Chicago Chicago
1999 American Beauty American Beauty American Beauty
1998 Saving Private Ryan Saving Private Ryan Shakespeare in Love
1997 Titanic Titanic Titanic
1996 The English Patient The English Patient The English Patient
1995 Apollo 13 Apollo 13 Braveheart
1994 Forrest Gump Forrest Gump Forrest Gump
1993 Schindler's List Schindler's List Schindler's List
1991 Silence of the Lambs The Silence of the Lambs The Silence of the Lambs
1990 Dances with Wolves Dances with Wolves Dances with Wolves
Posted at 06:29 AM on Tuesday April 13, 2021 in category Movies - The Oscars   |   Permalink  

Monday April 12, 2021

Movie Review: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Kong before Kong, when he was just Erik. 


I’m probably the only person in the world who watched this early Universal horror film because of Arlene Francis.

Francis was a frequent game show participant in the 1950s and ’60s, sharp and sardonic, and she played the same as James Cagney’s wife in Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and did it fabulously. So I was curious what other movies she made. Sadly, not many: 19 actress credits, of which only seven are feature films. This was the first. She plays a bit part: “Woman of the Streets.” Yes, Arlene Francis. That’s what led me here.

Cerveau humain
The movie is one hour and one minute long, and it’s not much. Based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, it’s got Bela Lugosi hamming it up a year after “Dracula,” and Leon Ames as the boyfriend-hero a decade before he played the stuffy father in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

Ames is Pierre Dupin, a medical student and amateur detective, who, while investigating the recent, mysterious deaths of young women, takes his fiancée Camille (Sidney Fox) and their friends to a carnival, where they visit the sideshow of Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) and his caged ape. During the show, the ape grabs Camille’s bonnet and tries to strangle Pierre. Mirakle tries to make it up by offering to replace the bonnet and creepily asks for Camille’s address. They pass. But he has them followed.

Everything is related of course. In his investigations, Pierre discovers the same foreign substance in the blood of all the victims, and it’s something Mirakle injects into the victims to see if they’d make a good mate for the ape. I think. As for why Mirakle is looking for a human mate for his ape, the movie is silent. He just is. Cuz mad scientist.

A couple things stand out for me. One is personal:

Apparently Erik with a k was big for creepy villains in the 1920s and '30s: that Phantom, this ape. Now it’s big in the Marvel universe for villains whose dastardly schemes make sense: Magneto, Killmonger. I'll take the upgrade.

The police don’t come off well. Mirakle sends Erik to abduct Camille, Pierre hears her screams, bursts in and finds empty room. So the police arrest Pierre. Then we get the second thing that stands out for me: the most digressive bit of ethnic-based comedy I’ve seen in a horror movie. Three witnesses tell the gendarmes they heard screams and someone speaking in a foreign language, but each disagrees on the language: the German says it was Italian, the Italian says it was Danish, the Dane says it was German. The bit goes on for minutes until someone discovers Camille’s mother stuffed up the chimney, dead, with what looks like ape fur clutched in her fist. That, as they say, puts an end to the comedy routine. 

By now Mirakle has discovered Camille will make a perfect mate for Erik. But then he’s surrounded by the cops, Pierre’s pounding on the door, and Erik does the monster-movie thing of killing his maker. That leads us to the third standout moment: Erik the ape grabs Camille and carries her over the rooftops of Paris as he’s pursued by the police. It’s like a mini-version of “King Kong” a year before “King Kong.” In the end, of course, Pierre shoots Erik, Erik falls into the Seine, the lovers are reunited.

Outer limits
“Rue Morgue” was directed by Paris-born Robert Florey, whose career began with a 1920 silent short named “Isidore a la deveine,” continued with the Marx Bros.’ first feature, “The Cocoanuts,” and whose last credit is an episode of “The Outer Limits” from 1964. Think of that span and the technological changes within it. Somehow he navigated it all. 

Sidney Fox’s career was a great deal shorter. She was discovered by Universal in several Broadway comedies, was named a “Wampas Baby Star” of 1931, but never quite caught on. Her marriage to writer Charles Beahan was tabloid fodder, she tried Europe for a bit, but by 1934 her movie career was over. She killed herself with sleeping pills in 1942.

Overall, in these early films, it’s the oddities I like. The ruts of Hollywood storytelling hadn’t been dug deep yet. They were still throwing things on the wall to see what stuck. This didn't. Moments did.  

Posted at 06:39 AM on Monday April 12, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 11, 2021

Replacing Tucker Carlson

I keep thinking I've posted this passage from the beginning of chapter three of “Ragtime,” written in 1975 by E.L. Doctorow about turn-of-the-century America. Lord knows it's been relevant in 21st-century America. But each time a new xenophobic idiocy arises and I think to post it, and look at it again, I always go, “Nah. Too subtle for this doltish age.” But fuck it, here we go.

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn't pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes.

The latest xenophobic idiocy comes from the immigrant-founded Fox News, of course, spoken by Tucker Carlson, of course, this time about how the far-right “white replacement theory” is, to Carlson, a voting rights question. Immigrants come in, Carlson says, and dilute his voting power. Sure. And new babies are born that eventually do the same. Does Tucker want blanket, enforced abortions to protect himself? Does Tucker know he's going to die someday? And be buried and eaten by worms? There's your utlimate replacement theory. I like that the Anti-Defamation League is now calling for his repacement, on Fox News, sooner rather than later. Nice potential irony. But what a sad world that we have to parry all day long with such idiocies.

Anyway, read more Doctorow.

Posted at 07:03 AM on Sunday April 11, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Friday April 09, 2021

'Al Pacino's Jewish?!'

Another excerpt from Mark Harris' bio of Mike Nichols, this time about the casting of the HBO film “Angels in America,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Harris' husband Tony Kushner. The anecdote reflects something I've long been curious about:

[Al] Pacino had agreed to portray Roy Cohn, the play's vicious, droll, and profane embodiment of ruthlessness and self-deception. “I wanted Mike to cast Dustin Hoffman,” says Kushner. “I love Al Pacino, and of course I ended up thrilled with his Roy. My only initial worry was that when he was young, he was gorgeous. He was Michael Corleone—someone born into power. What I wanted for Roy was someone who'd had to struggle all his life for every bit of power he had. The day after Pacino was announced, I was at a party and I felt someone kind of hit me from behind. I turned around and it was Dustin Hoffman, and he said, 'Al Pacino's Jewish?! Fuck you, and fuck Mike, too!'”

I've always been curious if it bugs Jewish actors when Italians in particular are cast as Jewish characters. Apparently it does. Or at least this one Jewish actor. One wonders if Dusty did the same to Martin Scorsese after he cast the Jewish “Casino” gangsters with his usual Italian crew. “Robert De Niro's Jewish?! Fuck you!”

And it raises a couple of interesting points. Whenever people talk about inappropriate racial casting, they bring up almost every overlooked group but Jews, and probably for this reason: Jewish people are generally not absent from positions of power in Hollywood. Which means when most people talk about racial miscasting/appropriation, they're really talking about something else. They're talking about power. Ten white people deciding a white actress should play an Asian character is one thing; two Jews deciding a gentile should play a Jewish character is another. 

Which leads to the second interesting point—a pattern I've noticed in the way Nichols cast roles. “The Graduate” called for a blonde WASP and Nichols cast Dustin Hoffman. “Carnal Knowledge” called for a Jew and he cast Jack Nicholson. “Heartburn” called for a Jew and he cast Mandy Patimkin, then fired him and cast Jack Nicholson again. Then Pacino for Roy Cohn. Nichols' WASP antihero becomes Jewish while his Jewish villains become gentiles. Don't know if there's a there there, but it's intriguing.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Friday April 09, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Thursday April 08, 2021

Movie Review: The Last Gangster (1937)


Did Al Capone get a story credit on this? Or a cut of the dough? Because the first half of the movie is basically his story.

Joe Krozac (Edward G. Robinson) is a Prohibition-era gangster who is as charming with the press as he is ruthless with his rivals. When the cops can’t tie him to a Saint Valentine’s Day-like massacre of the three Kyle brothers, they bring in the feds to bust him on tax evasion charges. Capone got 11 years for that, Krozac 10. Capone was sent to Atlanta U.S. Penitentiary and then Alcatraz shortly after it opened in 1934; Krozac is sent straight to Alcatraz (anachronistically: it wasn’t open in 1927). In prison, Capone was bullied(!) and wound up being protected by a former associate; Krozac is bullied (by John Carradine, good in a small role), and protected by a former associate. Capone suffered cocaine withdrawal and cognitive difficulties from neurosyphilis; Krozac suffers because his wife, Tayla (Rose Stradner), takes their newborn son and leaves him.

After that, “The Last Gangster” diverges from Capone’s story simply because Capone was still in prison when the movie was made in 1937. Screenwriters had to make up the rest. They had to work for a living.

Jimmy Stewart, ass
This is MGM, by the way, not Warner Bros., and I’m curious if the moralists there wanted to play up the “crime don’t pay” angle; because they make Krozac suffer. Like really, really suffer. After he does time, he’s met by his right-hand man Curly (Lionel Stander), who convinces him to get back in the rackets before going after his wife and kid. Except it’s a trap. At the hideout, the gang wants to know where he stashed the extra loot from back in the day. First they disrespect him, then they beat him, then they torture him. They make him walk back and forth in a small room for 10 hours. They dangle a glass of water before him and then drop it. They take out rubber truncheons. None of this works. So they kidnap his now 10-year-old son, Junior (Douglas Scott), and threaten to torture him. And that’s what finally does it.

Here’s the thing: if they were trying to show that “crime doesn’t pay,” and “Hey, don’t be like this guy,” it kind of backfired. At the least, it makes us sympathize with Krozac. He becomes our guy.

Plus the upstanding citizens are the usual dull assholes. 

The wife is OK. She’s from the same Eastern European city Krozac is, doesn’t speak much English, doesn’t know he’s a gangster until too late. She’s an innocent. But the second lead? Paul North, a reporter, played by MGM’s then-rising star Jimmy Stewart? What an asshole. When Tayla and her baby are hounded by the press outside Alcatraz, North is the worst of them: He places a toy gun on top of the swaddled baby for a tabloid photo-op accompanied by the headline PUBLIC ENEMY JR. And when she goes to the newspaper to complain, his editor continues to condemn her and the child—"sins of the father” stuff—while North gleefully takes down her words. It’s only when she begins to cry that he gets that Jimmy Stewart look of guilt and solicitousness and becomes the Jimmy Stewart we all know and love. Then he quits his job, takes her away, marries her and raises the kid as his own. He becomes an editor himself and grows one of those William Powell moustaches. But for me he never recovers from the original sin of being an asshole.

Krozac’s post-prison plan was to kill his ex and take the boy. But after the kidnapping, on their long trek back in the rain and the cold, the boy demonstrates such scouting skills and toughness, learned from the step-dad, that Krozac decides the kid’s better off with them. So delivers the kid and walks away. His reward? The fourth Kyle brother, Frankie (Alan Baxter), who’s shown up periodically promising revenge, shows up outside the North house, leads him into a back alley, and shoots him dead. And sure, Krozac manages to get the gun and kill Frankie before dying himself, and meanwhile the old Krozac gang get theirs off-stage in a shootout with the cops, so all the crooks are taken care of. But that’s still some cold-blooded shit to play on our guy, MGM.

How sad that a studio makes a movie basically about Al Capone and they come off as the villains.

Mother of mercy
The woman who plays Krozac’s wife, Rose Stradner, is a sad story. Born in Austria, she was signed by MGM to be another of their exotic beauties like Hedy Lamarr, but she wasn’t that beautiful, her career didn’t take off, and then she married Joseph Mankiewicz, younger brother of “Mank,” and writer-director of such great films as “All About Eve.” While he rose, she stayed home, became depressed, drank. In 1958, she killed herself. She was 45.

The best MGM touch is the title credits. This is a ‘ripped from the headlines” story so that’s what the credits are: newspaper headlines. They look good. The movie was directed by Edward Ludwig, whom I only know from John Wayne’s HUAC-friendly “Big Jim McLain.” I’m sure he’s done better. (He has. His highest-rated via IMDb is “Let’s Be Ritzy” from 1934. This one is his fifth-best, supposedly; “Big Jim” is near the bottom.)

Robinson became a star a few months before James Cagney, both with Warner Bros. gangster flicks, but Robinson kept returning to the genre way more than Cagney. Because he didn’t object to it the way Cagney did? He wasn’t hard to handle like Cagney? Robinson did all the iterations. He played the gangster as Greek gambler (“Smart Money”), as Chinese assassin (“Hatchet Man”), as condemned man (“Two Seconds”), as intellectual (“The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse”) and as monk (“Brother Orchid”). He played a dual role: meek accountant and murderer (“The Whole Town’s Talking”). Twice he played a ’20s gangster comically adapting to the post-Prohibition era (“The Little Giant” and “A Slight Case of Murder”). That’s just up to 1940. They call this one “The Last Gangster” but we know that's a lie. As long as gangsters sell tickets, it’ll never be the end of Rico.

Posted at 07:07 AM on Thursday April 08, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday April 07, 2021

Mike Nichols as Director

“'It was glorious,' says [Audra] McDonald. 'He became a dad to all of us, and even though it was such dark material [the HBO adaptation of the play ”Wit“], we had a ball. What was so unique was that you didn't feel the direction. He did it so subtly that it felt like he was just lightly touching a ball that was already rolling down a hill. When it was great, he just said, ”Oh, man.“ And when it wasn't, he would say, ”I'll tell you what . . .“ and then he'd go into a story or he'd have a discussion with you, as if he wanted to figure out the moment with you.'

”'What I remember him saying is “This moment is like this,” says [young actor Jonathan] Woodward. 'Everything was a story or a metaphor or an analogy. If I was pushing too hard, he would say, “Why are you trying to give a prostitute an orgasm?”'“

-- from Mark Harris' ”Mike Nichols: A Life," recommended

Posted at 05:54 PM on Wednesday April 07, 2021 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Tuesday April 06, 2021

Movie Review: Underworld (1927)

Brook looking Jean Gabin-ish, Semon in the staircase, Bancroft and Brent. They're about to see that the city is theirs.


First, the firsts.

“Underworld” is one of the first films directed by Josef von Sternberg as well as one of the first great gangster pictures. It’s the first credit for legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht as well as the first film to win an Academy Award for best original story. Both films vying for the award that year—this and “The Last Command”—were directed by Sternberg, who received zero nominations, and got bupkis from the Academy for his career.

All of which gets into the tricky Hollywood problem of credit. In his book, “Who the Devil Made It,” Peter Bogdanovich recounts a university screening of “Underworld” and “The Last Command,” with Sternberg present, and the man wasn’t exactly quiet on the topic: 

During the credits of both movies he called out that several people listed on the screen—especially the writers—had nothing whatever to do with the film; their names were there only because the studio paid them regularly and had to put their names somewhere.

Let’s get into the gangster stuff.

Bank notes
“Underworld” feels like the movie that subsequent gangster movies either riffed off of or ripped off. It’s about a boisterous, childlike gangster, “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft), who, early on, gazes at an advertisement from A.B.C. Investment Co. that feels like a secret message to him: “The City is Yours.” Five years later, Howard Hughes’ “Scarface,” also written by Hecht, features a boisterous, childlike gangster, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), who, early on, gazes at an advertisement from Cook's Tours that feels like a secret message to him: “The World Is Yours.”

Near the end of the film, on death row, Bull commits as grand a sacrifice as any man can make, giving up what’s most important to him to benefit others. Eleven years later, in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), on death row, commits as grand a sacrifice as any man can make, giving up what’s most important to him to benefit others. (“Angels” also features Bancroft in a smaller role.)

In the real world, “Underworld” prefigured the difficulties gangster flicks would run into with censors. The British Board of Film Censors rejected the movie twice until extensive cuts were made to limit the lead character’s likeability and the film was retitled to something more properly scolding: “Paying the Penalty.” Overall, “Underworld” prefigures all gangster movies by portraying gangsterism as a world unto itself, where the real trouble is less the law than rival gangsters.

It opens with a literal (albeit silent) bang. As a drunk is weaving along in the night, an explosion goes off at a nearby bank and a second later “Bull” Weed emerges with the dough. Since the drunk recognizes him, Weed knocks him out and takes him along. I like the way, back at the hideout, almost in one swift movement, Bancroft is able to toss the man onto a bed while kicking the door closed with his foot. That’s some big-man grace. Even better is this exchange, after Bull realizes the man is an alcoholic and knocks the booze out of his hands:

Bull: That’s what makes bums and squealers!
Man [standing shakily but with dignity]: I may be a bum but I am no squealer. I might say, sir, that I am a Rolls Royce for silence.

So Bull not only gets him a job at the Dreamland Café but a nickname: Rolls Royce. He’s played by Clive Brook, who’s got a bit of a Jean Gabin thing going, particularly when he’s down and out, with a cig clenched in his mouth. 

The oddity of Bull is he has no crew: just a moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and an associate, Slippy Lewis (silent comedian Larry Semon), who’s more comic relief than tough guy. At Dreamland, he spins his hat in the air like a frisbee and it returns to him like a boomerang; then he puts 5¢ into a kind of vending machine that dispenses flower water for his handkerchief. (Did anyone else know these things existed?) Meanwhile, across the café, rival tough guy “Buck” Mulligan, neither stately nor plump, has about five guys hanging on his every word. Unlike Bull, he’s a nasty, cramped man who sees slights everywhere. Feathers doesn’t acknowledge him so he tries to impress her by humiliating Rolls Royce. He tosses a $10 bill into a filthy spittoon and says go fetch. When Rolls retains his dignity, Buck knocks him down. When Bull intervenes, their rivalry begins.

That basically sets up the rest of our movie. As Bull and Buck try to outmaneuver each other, a cleaned-up Rolls and Feathers fall for each other; but neither wants to betray Bull, the man who rescued them both. The centerpiece of the film is an annual gangsters ball, “The underworld’s armistice—when, until dawn, rival gangsters bury the hatchet and park the machine-gun.“ There’s a “moll of the ball” contest, where votes are bought, proudly and in the open, and which Feathers wins. Rolls is initially reluctant to go, feeling too attracted to Feathers, but Bull tells him, with his usual bonhomie, “Everybody with a police record will be there!” But it’s at the ball that he first gets an inkling of their attraction for one another, and he turns angry and jealous; then he gets drunk and passes out, giving Buck, amid the mounds of leftover ticker-tape, the opportunity to attack Feathers in a back room. I assumed it would be up to Rolls to save the day but I assumed wrong. Instead, Buck’s moll rouses Bull, who not only saves Feathers but follows Buck back to his flower shop and guns him down in front of the “Rest in Peace” floral arrangement Buck was saving for Bull. Nice touch.

I also assumed Rolls, who had once been a lawyer, would now come to Bull’s rescue in the courtroom. Wrong again. Instead, not only is Bull found guilty of killing Buck but he’s sentenced to die for it. I’m like “Really? A gangster tried to rape his girl and he killed him in self-defense—and no one could lessen the sentence?” It’s moments like that when you get what the British censors objected to. Justice system doesn't look too justice-y.

Like Cagney in “Angels,” Bull is taking his death sentence with a “Them’s the breaks” shrug until everyone starts talking up what an item Feathers and Rolls have become. They’re not, or at least they take every step forward reluctantly and suffused with guilt. They also try to spring Bull. The plot is convoluted and fails quickly, but Bull assumes it was never put into action, and he becomes so enraged at the betrayal that he breaks free. At his hideout, he confronts Feathers, who denies all; then he fends off the police, who—in another touch the British censors probably didn’t like—turn the apartment building into a shooting gallery. Alerted late, Rolls risks his life to get through the police line to give Bull the keys to a secret passageway that could lead to safety. (Wait, secret passage? In an apartment building? This would only work if they were in the basement, which, based on where the police guns are aimed, they’re not.) Seeing the sacrifice Rolls made for him, Bull makes one for them. He lets them use the secret passageway and then gives himself up. A cop mentions he went through a lot for just another hour. “There was something I had to find out,” Bull responds. “And that hour was worth more to me than my whole life.”

Grace notes
Silent movies can be a slog, and there were moments when this one dragged—the mopiness of the couple, gazing into the middle distance—but mostly I was mesmerized. It’s beautifully framed and photographed, and makes great use of shadows. Sternberg made his name with the early arthouse film “The Salvation Hunters,” and the artistry is there in this commercial project. There’s a great sequence at the hideout after Bull has escaped prison. Alone, he hears someone in the hall outside, and Sternberg shows us the shadow of an official-looking man skulking along. Bull listens at the door, peers through the keyhole, then throws it open to see ... nobody. Just a bottle of fresh milk left by the milkman, along with a small, interested kitten. He brings both inside while he sits in a chair and thinks. Becoming aware of the kitten again, he absent-mindedly sticks his thick finger into the bottle and lets the kitten lick off the milk.

There are so many grace notes like that, nice, unnecessary touches, like Feathers’ feather slowly floating down into the Dreamland Café and to the attention of Rolls Royce. (Sternberg to Bogdanovich: “I even had feathers sewn into her underwear.”) I also love the reminders—like with the milkman—of the disappeared life we used to live. Did we really use so much ticker-tape? I still can’t get over that flower-water vending machine. Was that really a thing? When did it come in and when did it go out?

Like so much that’s innovative and artistic, the suits didn’t know what to make of “Underworld,” and Paramount was initially reluctant to release it, then just put it in one theater in New York, where they assumed it would get no notice and drop from sight. Instead, it became a huge hit, helped make the careers of everyone involved, and helped make the gangster genre.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Tuesday April 06, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1920s   |   Permalink  

Monday April 05, 2021

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)


I know it’s stupid to talk about what’s unrealistic in a movie in which a giant ape battles a giant fire-breathing lizard, and then the two team up to battle a giant fire-breathing lizard robot, but here I go.

Early on, Godzilla attacks the Apex Corporation and CNN turns on him, intoning, “The massive titan, once thought to be a hero to humanity, made landfall in Pensacola, Florida...” First, that “made landfall” thing is just dumb. More, it’s the quick narrative turnabout. It’s reminiscent of an idiot moment in the first Godzilla film, when shortly after Godzilla’s war with the MUTOs we see this news chyron: “King of the Monsters: Savoir of Our City?” Right. A giant, fire-breathing lizard shows up out of nowhere and they’re already promoting a good-guy narrative. And now the opposite. If I felt all of this was a critique of the news media and its WWE-esque face/heel tendencies, I might dig it; but I think it’s just lazy filmmaking.

Anyway, that’s not the unrealistic thing I’m talking about.

One person not buying into CNN’s demonization of Godzilla is paranoid podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry of “Atlanta”), who has a low-level job within Apex in order to expose it. His most avid listener is Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown), the kid hero from the second film, who argues thus with her uptight dad (Kyle Chandler): 

Dad: Right now Godzilla’s out there and he’s hurting people, and we don’t know why. …
Kid: Godzilla attacks when provoked—that’s the pattern. Pensacola is the only coastal Apex hub with an advanced robotics lab—that’s the variable. And you add it up and your answer is that Apex is at the heart of the problem.

Dad spent that second movie 1) seething and 2) getting everything wrong, and it’s pretty much the same here. On the plus side, he’s barely in this one. But no, this isn’t the unrealistic thing I’m talking about, either.

Eventually, Madison and her comic-relief, Kiwi friend Josh (Julian Dennison of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) hook up with Bernie and together they all decide to break into Apex. How do they do it?

They just walk in.

That’s the unrealistic thing I’m talking about.

Apex is in ruins, but nothing’s been cordoned off—not by the cops, the FBI, the NSA, the EPA or Apex’s own security patrol. The kids just wander through the rubble. Then they take an elevator to Sublevel 33 where Bernie knows some top-secret shit is going on. And it is! They’re in a room with incubated skull crawlers … except it’s not a room, it’s a ship, and they’re locked in (by accident) and then transported (by tunnel?) to Hong Kong. There, they wander out into a vast warehouse-like area where the evil CEO, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), bourbon in hand, watches the beta-testing of his MechaGodzilla from the control room. The kids are actually in the test area when a skull crawler is released and comes within feet of killing them before Mecha pulls it away and tears it in half. And though one assumes tons of eyes and/or censors are on this beta test, not one person says, “Hey, are those kids supposed to be down there?” The idiocy is overwhelming. It’s like the kids are invisible. They’re even able to wander away from the test area, where, in another room, they discover the evil CEO’s evil right-hand man, Ren (Shun Oguri), sitting inside one of the skulls of Monster Zero and controlling MechaGodzilla via whatever AI tech they’re using. They immediately and correctly surmise that Monster Zero’s DNA was used to create MechaGodzilla as a means of battling real Godzilla. And it’s only after all this, after Madison pops her head into, I believe, the CEO’s control room, and Bernie follows, that a female exec finally sees them and goes, “Huh, meddling kids. Guess we better call the guards.”

I'll take a giant lizard. But this bullshit? Just stop.

You know what the worst part is? We don’t need these kids in the movie at all. They’re absolutely irrelevant to moving the plot forward.

Hollow Earth
Wait, who do we need in this movie? 

Our male lead is Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a professor whose discredited book, “Hollow Earth,” argues that the center of the earth isn’t “a moon-size ball of iron floating within an ocean of molten metal,” per National Geographic, but a Jurassic Park-like wonderland crackling with energy. It’s where the titans come from. It’s where Kong’s Skull Island comes from. That’s his theory. And the only one who believes him is the evil CEO, who wants that crackling energy source to power MechaGodzilla. So he contracts Prof. Lind to find an entryway to that world.

At first glance, then, Lind seems necessary. Except the Antarctic entryway has already been excavated. And once both men latch onto the idea of a titan guide—i.e., Kong— to get them the rest of the way, well, what use is Lind? None. At the 11th hour, sure, he’s the one who suggests using those dual-gravitational whizzy things (HEAVs) to jumpstart Kong’s heart but that could’ve been anybody. Our male lead isn’t necessary at all.

Our female lead is even worse. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) runs the Kong Containment facility on Skull Island, and she’s called the “Kong Whisperer” in science magazine cover features, so she seems necessary. Nope. She doesn’t even know that the deaf girl in her charge, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), the last of the Iwi tribe that once populated Skull Island, has taught Kong sign language. That’s right, Kong can speak! This revelation, as Kong is taken in chains on an aircraft carrier to the Antarctic entryway, is a good scene—one of the few in the movie—but it does point out how useless Ilene is. It’s all Jia.

So Jia we need. And the villains who set everything in motion. And our titans. And that’s about it. But the movie keeps piling on useless characters. We get one scene of expository dialogue between Ilene and a guy, Ben (Chris Chalk of HBO’s “Perry Mason”), and that’s it for Ben. Lance Riddick from “The Wire” has a scene. Forget what. Hakeem Kae-Kazim, ditto. All these nothing roles feature Black actors. Make of it what you will. 

Anyway, that’s the gist. Apex Corp. is creating a mechanized Godzilla to attack the real Godzilla so humans can become the apex species again. That’s why Godzilla attacks Pensacola. And Godzilla and Kong have an old, ancient rivalry, which is why Kong is being contained—so GZ doesn’t sense he’s there. But when he’s moved, GZ attacks. God, that’s another dumb idea, isn’t it? They need Kong as guide, but let’s make sure this battle happens where Kong will be at a distinct disadvantage: in the middle of the ocean.

Accompanying Lind, Ilene and Jia on their journey to the center of the earth is the evil CEO’s bitchy, superhot daughter, Maya (Eiza Gonzalez, call me), who comes off like a Mexican Ivanka Trump. Her job is to make sure they get that crackling energy source for Mecha. Love Dad sending daughter on this super-dangerous mission. Did she insist? Is it the bourbon? Is he sick of her, too? After the giant bats attack in the cave, she’s about to escape in the HEAV when Kong grabs it, sniffs it, crushes it. Bye, Mexican Ivanka. 

Daddy gets it, too. The Hollow Earth energy source not only powers MechaGodzilla but gives it sentience. So evil right-hand man’s brain gets fried within the skull, while evil CEO is fried by Mecha’s fire breath. Hope Apex Corp. has a good succession plan.

The final big battle takes place in Hong Kong—for the Chinese box office. Godzilla defeats Kong, is losing to Mecha, Kong is revived and the two team up to defeat the AI gone awry. Then they roar at each other and each retreats to its domain: Godzilla beneath the sea, Kong on his throne in Hollow Earth.

Hollow is right.

Regular idiocy
I’ll give it this: “Godzilla vs. Kong” is better than the two previous Godzilla movies as well as that other hugely anticipated fantasy matchup: “Batman v. Superman.” OK, low bar: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was my worst movie of 2019 and “BvS” was my worst movie of 2016. This one, at least, has moments. And while they continue to make Godzilla a tubby waddler, whose face is hard to see amid the scales, the CGI Kong is pretty amazing.

The studio publicity machine is playing up the Team Godzilla/Team Kong angle, and most people are playing along. Here’s my take. Fair fight, Godzilla kicks ass: tougher skin, fire breath. Plus Godzilla can sense almost anything happening anywhere in the world (Pensacola, Hong Kong), while Kong, that dumb ape, can stand right at the portal to the prehistoric Hollow Earth where he once ruled and have no inkling. He’s got to be told. But I root for Kong. He’s both underdog and us. He’s got a face. In a cinematic sense, the only thing better about Godzilla is his theme music.

One more complaint before I’m out of here. It’s when the three kids—or the two kids and Bernie—first meet. They’re sitting in a cafeteria and have this conversation:

Bernie: Before we go any farther, I got one question: Tap or no tap?
Madison: No tap.
Josh: Excuse me, what is tap?
Bernie: Water. They put fluoride in it. Learned it from the Nazis.
Madison: Theory is it makes you docile, easy to manipulate.
Josh: Oh. I drink tap water.
Bernie: Yeah, I kinda figured that.

In a world in which dipshit conspiracy theories are coming close to overthrowing American democracy, why engage in this kind of idiocy, Hollywood? C’mon. Just stick to your regular idiocy. That’s what you’re good at.

Posted at 07:58 AM on Monday April 05, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 2021   |   Permalink  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard