Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Godzilla Chronicles: King Kong vs. Godzilla

The season is once again upon us, and what better way to kick it all off, than with a look at another great Showa era Godzilla film? Warm up those engines, because Halloween-time is upon us! 

The US poster, a meeting of two Titans.

So thus far, in these Godzilla Chronicles, I've covered my early Godzilla memories, and then started going over the original 50s films, Gojira and Godzilla Raids Again. If we're going chronologically, then that brings us to a sizeable gap (the largest in fact) in that original Showa (50s-70s) era. Godzilla Raids Again released in Japan in 1955, somewhat of a rushed sequel to meet the massive success of the original. But while Toho followed this with other solo monsters films, introducing the likes of Rodan (1956), Varan (1958) and Mothra (1961), the second Godzilla offering didn't exactly light up the box office. So it would seem that they kind of slept on the big G for the better part of six years, before finally releasing the third movie in the series. And to "justify" a third film, they obviously wanted to go big. It was hard to top the original classic, so instead, they figured they would try and bring the world it's first BIG monster mash film, pairing the iconic Japanese monster, with arguably cinema's first real giant monster (all due apologies to the Brontosaurus from 1925's The Lost World), that of course being King Kong himself.

The original Kong.

The 1933 original classic was actually one of the first "monster movies" I probably ever saw, certainly before I saw a Godzilla film, and of course I loved it. Not the least of which because it featured many dinosaurs, an early childhood obsession of mine (and a lifelong obsession of special effects guru Willis O'Brien.) So naturally, after I got into Godzilla movies, and then saw King Kong vs. Godzilla on a Wal-Mart VHS rack, of course I was thrilled and had to have it.

Just look at that face.

Now a couple of things need to be gotten out of the way, to start with, when talking about this movie. The first and most obvious is "How the hell would King Kong even be a challenge to Godzilla?" And obviously, given their "real" stats, poor ol' Kong would not, in point of fact, be able to do literally anything of real consequence to Godzilla. Kong in the original film was about, at most, 25 to 30 feet tall. Godzilla, even in the original film, when there weren't too many super tall buildings in 1950s Japan, was roughly 50 meters tall, which comes out to around 124 feet tall. To remedy this, Toho decided they needed to just go ahead and make Kong around the same size as Godzilla, so that they would be an "even" match.

Which brings us to the second most obvious point: "What the hell is wrong with Kong's face?" Originally, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya had wanted, as probably noted in previous articles, to do Godzilla as a stop-motion model, inspired by the effects of movies like King Kong and Ray Harryhausen's Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Toho could not afford, or would not give up, the budget nor time necessary for such effects, so instead this lead to Tsuburaya innovating what would come to be known as "Suitmation", the art of actors in suits, smashing through miniature sets and landscapes. Now, many of these suits and miniatures over the years, looked pretty cool. But this film is notorious among Godzilla and monster movie fans, for both Godzilla himself, and especially Kong, looking, bluntly put, goofy as hell.

Kong's fur looks like a crappy, shaggy carpet, and his face, as you can plainly see, looks comically goofball, even kinda stoned. It's obvious to me, while Godzilla's suit for this film also features what I consider to be a pretty goofy looking face, that they spent a lot more time on that suit, whereas Kong's kinda looks last minute and slapped together. Maybe it wasn't, but it certainly doesn't look great. MIND you, that doesn't really detract from the film overall, but it does lessen any kind of menace that Toho was probably hoping Kong would have for audiences. Even as a kid, I found him funny looking, and not scary at all (whereas I was probably at least a little scared of the original 1933 Kong, upon first seeing it).

Promo art that did not, and would not ever happen.

Now those things aside, let's dig into the actual film itself. So this was one of the very first Godzilla films that I saw as a kid. The first I really remember seeing, was probably Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, though it's possible I saw something else first. This was definitely one of the first VHS tapes of his films I owned, though, and while it was not one of my TOP favorite Godzilla films, for reasons I'll get into, I still loved it. I did not completely understand as a kid, until reading in a book I borrowed from the library years later, that Godzilla had different suits for most movies. So it bewildered me that he looked so different in this film, than he did in movies like Sea Monster and Monster Zero. I did not, and still do not, prefer this look, though it's fine. His eyes and face are just too narrow.

But the OTHER thing, the big offender that I didn't like as a little kid, and would subsequently go on to initially dislike about Mothra vs. Godzilla, is that nobody, and I mean nobody, should beat Godzilla. I obviously liked Kong as a kid, he was a big ape, and on his own, perfectly fine (though I'll admit I was probably rooting for that T-Rex in the original film too). But against my MAIN MAN, Godzilla? Fuck no! Godzilla shouldn't lose, especially not to some crumb-bum gorilla! The same book that I read about different Godzilla suits from, also related a rumor that allegedly, the Japanese version of King Kong vs. Godzilla featured a different, alternate ending, where Godzilla wins. So it was only the American film in which the American monster wins the final battle, right? Well....no, actually. Turns out, that was a false rumor, and no such alternate ending was ever filmed. Toho always intended for Kong to "win" the fight. Regardless, my childhood self felt slighted, because there was no way Godzilla, the coolest, strongest, most powerful monster on earth, could lose a fight to that goofy looking drunk.

THAT'S more like it!

But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves, so I'll back it up a bit!  As I would come to learn in my adult years, this movie started life as a concept for a Frankenstein vs. Kong movie. Yes, you read that right. A somewhat giant version of Frankenstein's monster would fight a regular sized Kong. This evolved, thankfully, into Godzilla replacing Frank, though the idea would have echoes throughout some of the later 60s Toho films. For one thing, Kong winds up inheriting the "grows stronger from electricity" element that they originally were going to give Frank. And later still, when they were going to do another Kong film, it was going to feature him fighting a sea monster....that's right, that project turned into Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and for whatever reason, Godzilla wound up kinda getting the electrical thing, as he gets revived from his slumber by lighting. Toho even wound up finally making a Frankenstein movie, in 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World, or as it was originally known in Japan, Frankenstein vs. Subterranean Monster Baragon (say that five times fast).

So as for my joke about Kong being a drunk in this movie, the basic plot goes something like this: a Japanese pharmaceutical company, which also sponsors and produces television programming, has had expeditions to remote "Faro Island", finding a indigenous red berry that has many medicinal properties. They also brought back with them stories of a giant "god" on the island, whom the natives call Kong. So the head of the company, wanting better TV ratings, orders his men to make another expedition to the island, this time to find and capture this Kong creature.

Meanwhile, Godzilla busts out of a glacier (yes, just like that), apparently revived from (one would imagine) his encasing in ice at the end of Godzilla Raids Again, by being attracted to the nuclear energy from a submarine that is in the area. He attacks the sub, and what else, heads for Japan. The expedition goes to Faro island, Kong winds up having a fight with a giant octopus (yes, just like that), and then he drinks giant jars full of red berry juice, that the natives make for him as an offering. Apparently, along with medicinal properties, the stuff also gets Kong drunk, and after downing two (or four) jars full, the dude straight up passes out. So he's easy pickings to tie up to a boat and take back to Japan. Or so they assume.

Probably the most famous image from the film.

Things never go according to corporate plan, however, and Kong wakes up while still on the open sea, busts out of his flimsy trappings, and decides to swim towards Japan himself, as if drawn there by fate. Now something else that I guess should be touched on, is that, like the first two Godzilla films before it, this movie received some...alterations when being brought stateside. The biggest change, really, was that they completely replaced a lot of the original Akira Ifukube score, with basically stock music from old Universal films. Some scenes were also removed, and much of the dialogue was changed. The original Japanese film actually featured a nice subplot basically poking fun at commercialism and capitalism. That is almost entirely gone in the American cut, which is the one I (and most Americans) originally saw.

So, getting back to the plot, obviously, the two monsters seem destined to meet, and after Godzilla does what he does best, and goes rampaging around Japan for a bit, Kong meets up with him, and is initially repelled, because Godzilla is awesome. And it doesn't hurt to have thermonuclear radiation breath either. The scene pictured above, is from their more climactic fight near the end of the film. The Japanese military, as usual, proves utterly ineffective at hurting, much less stopping Godzilla, and in the meantime, Kong is just going around being Kong. They manage to knock him out with gas made from his favorite berry juice, and transport him via stronger-than-steel wire (yup), to the Mt. Fuji area, where Godzilla has wandered off to. The hope is, of course, that they'll somehow destroy each other in battle.

The best of friends.

So, that leads to the big payoff, the REAL fight between Kong and Godzilla. And I must say, it is one of the more entertaining monster battles in the series, not the least of which because the suit actors spent hours beforehand planning out their fight, and basing it heavily on pro wrestling moves, as pro wrestling was steadily becoming very popular in Japan at the time. I don't want to give away the WHOLE fight, but it does feature some memorable moments, including a nice little stop-motion dropkick that Godzilla delivers to Kong (the last vestige of them wanting to use stop-motion effects, the giant octopus featuring a tiny bit as well). At one point, that jerk Kong even stuffs a full grown tree into Godzilla's mouth, which is incredibly rude.

Ultimately, as I've already spoiled (sorry), the two tumble right down a cliff-side and into the ocean. After many moments of bubbling and churning waves, Kong emerges the "victor", promptly deciding that he's had enough of this shit, and swimming off into the sunset, back to his own island. Godzilla, meanwhile, does not surface in the final scene, leaving the viewer to wonder if he's really dead, or just swam off himself. Nonetheless, as a kid I was thoroughly displeased with the ending. Toho made the decision to let the American monster win, both because at the time Godzilla was still essentially a "villain" monster, but also because even after nearly 30 years, King Kong remained very popular, worldwide. So it made business sense for them to have the damn ape win.

My Original VHS cover.

Now for all my bellyaching about that ending, and poking fun at other elements of the movie (like that damn Kong face), I want to point out that I actually really do like this film. In fact, if put on the spot, I very well might include it in my Top Five Godzilla Films of All Time. And it's certainly in my Top Ten. It's a fun little movie, notably goofier and more lighthearted than the first two films, which are both rather dark and brooding "horror" or disaster style movies. With the exception of the following film in the series, this was also a turning point for Toho, as they pushed Godzilla films more towards family and children audiences, trying to make him more popular. And eventually even turning him into a full blown "hero", which was the Godzilla I first knew and loved as a kid myself.

Of all the original Showa era Godzilla films, this would not be the first, or even second film, possibly not even third, that I would recommend people see, if they've never seen Godzilla movies before. The highest recommendations would likely be things like the original Gojira, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (my favorite), and perhaps the epic Destroy All Monsters. But otherwise, I absolutely WOULD recommend King Kong vs. Godzilla, to anyone who might be able to appreciate it and enjoy it. It is most certainly a goofy affair, and does not really take itself too seriously. But it is a very fun movie, and still one of the highlights of what I consider to be Toho's prime (the 60s).

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Charming Madman: A Tribute to Gene Wilder

I realize that as time goes on, I will likely be compelled to write more of these tributes, postmortem, not less. That is just the nature of time, and life. But that won't make it suck any less. Another one of our entertainment legends has left us, a man who was one of my favorite all-around actors, comedic or otherwise, and a man whom I consider to have been a true artist. Not that so many other great actors are not artists also.....just that this was a unique individual who truly mastered his craft, and brought the art of it to the forefront.

I'm mainly going to give some of my personal experiences and memories of seeing Wilder's works throughout my life, but it doesn't hurt to give a bit of background. He was born Jerome Silberman, on June 11th 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He gained an early taste for acting, and showed promise at it, so he pursued acting in his teens and 20s, eventually adopting the stage name Gene Wilder, which he would be known as for the rest of his life. He would land various TV parts in the early to mid 60s, but it would be the year 1967 that really stood out as a landmark for his career.

An irreverent classic. 

Wilder landed his first theatrical role in the film "Bonnie and Clyde", in 1967. But it would be a collaboration with a (relatively) young writer/director by the name of Mel Brooks, that would help him really establish himself as a Hollywood star. Brooks had previously written television for shows such as "Your Show of Shows" and multiple Sid Caesar vehicles, as well as his own break-out project, the classic spy comedy "Get Smart". He made his own true debut as a film director, in the movie "The Producers", starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. A very offbeat, frankly weird film, about a dead-beat Broadway producer who is deep in debt, and involves Wilder's character (an accountant) in a scheme to make "the worst play in history", which they would get major financial backing for, but through tax loopholes would not owe the money back when it bombed. That's the basic plot in a nutshell, and while not a massive box-office hit, it was a major blip on the radar for Wilder and Brooks, both of whom would go on to see increasing success in the 1970s.

Quite possibly his most iconic role, to many.

My own personal experience with Wilder did not include "The Producers", a movie I would not rent and finally see until well into my 20s at the earliest. My earliest memory of knowing who this marvelous man was, was the 1971 hit "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factor", an adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl book. Dahl himself reportedly did not care for the film, feeling it was too commercial (it was used to help promote actual candy), and that it deviated from his original story, but for most film audiences, they absolutely loved it. And that was due in no small part whatsoever, to the absolutely brilliant performance by Mr. Wilder himself. He WAS Willy Wonka, he totally engulfed the role and brought it to incredible life, in a way few actors can ever achieve.

He was so iconic in the role, in fact, that to this day, much like Bela Lugosi for Dracula, or Boris Karloff for Frankenstein's Monster, Gene Wilder is who people envision when they think of Willy Wonka. I'm not sure that Gene himself loved being so associated with the role later in his career, but it must be said that few actors ever achieve the kind of immortality connected to a role that he did as Wonka. "The Producers" put him on the map, and he starred in a couple of very quirky film roles in between (other films I would see in my later adulthood), "Quackster Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx" and "Start the Revolution Without Me". But it was playing Willy Wonka that really cemented Wilder as a major player, and it was that film that landed him the big roles. Though his further success, ironically, in the mid-70s, would again be tied to his friend Mel Brooks.

As far as my own memories of "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" goes, I certainly liked the film. There were many things about it that appealed to my childhood self, such as a mysterious and sinister plot afoot, having to do with a nefarious man named "Slugworth". Or the mystery surrounding Mr. Wonka and his reclusive ways. Or the majestic factory itself, a candy wonderland with all sorts of weird shit that would appeal to most children. OR the fact that the main character (aside from Wonka), Charlie Bucket, just so happened to remind me a bit of myself. Being a poor kid with (at least seemingly in the film) no father around, struggling and having to do without in life, dreaming of a better tomorrow....not to put too fine a point on it, but that role was something I could, as a child, identify with.

And of course the character of Wonka himself won me over, even if he could be a bit terrifying, as well as hilarious. BUT, it also needs to be stated that my mother, who lived with my grandmother and I on and off again as I was growing up, more of a (often contentious) house guest more than an actual mother figure, she went through a phase when I was around 8 or 9 years old, where she would pick some movie, and watch it so often that I would actually get sick of it. Whether it was "The Little Mermaid", or "Spaceballs", or "Willy Wonka", she would watch the ever living shit out of it, to the point that I didn't want to see it again. So because of that, in my pre-teen and early teen years, I'm sure I was rather burnt out on what was otherwise a beloved and great film. But I later got over that and came back around to cherishing the film for what it is: a bit of an oddball masterpiece.

A very underrated, lesser known gem.

One of my other early memories of Gene Wilder, was in an 80s film he directed, called "Haunted Honeymoon". It was the second film where he would co-star with his then-wife, Gilda Radner, in what would sadly be her last film role, as well as a collaboration with the great Dom DeLuise. "Haunted Honeymoon" is an homage to both classic pre-television radio dramas, as well as "old dark house" type films. As a kid, of course, while funny, I took the scary moments of the movie seriously, and so my early experience with it might have been more as a scary film, and not so much a comedy. Much of the comedy is a bit over the heads of children, and definitely distinctive to Wilder's unique brand of humor. It was a film that did not succeed at the box office, but has come to be a bit of a "cult classic" to many fans like myself. It's a film I wish more people would see, because I think it's one of his best works, and it's a great comedy besides.

Such an incredible pair.

The first film he directed was actually another lesser known movie, from 1975, called "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother". Right on the tail of what would later come to be my favorite film of his (more on that later), it was his first hand at movie directing, and his second major turn at writing (after the aforementioned film). Much like "Haunted Honeymoon", the script definitely has his signature wit. His teaming with British funnyman Marty Feldman was very much on point, playing the "Watson" type character to Wilder's "Sigerson Holmes". They have really incredible chemistry together, which makes me wish they had worked together in more films. The plot basically revolves around the infamous Sherlock Holmes' brother having to leave a case up to his brother to solve, and it turns out to involve Holmes' archvillain, Professor Moriarty. The film also stars Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise, and Leo McKern as the villain Moriarty. This is, of course, another film I would not come to see until adulthood, but I really do love it and can't recommend it enough.

Arguably the best film ever made. At least to me.

So the movie I was alluding to, naturally, is Mel Brooks' classic "Young Frankenstein". Wilder agreed to team up with Brooks once more in the 1974 hit "Blazing Saddles", on the condition that Brooks would co-write and direct a project that Wilder had been wanting to do, an homage to classic Universal horror films. Now I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention Saddles a bit more before moving on, because while not the iconic kind of role that I feel really defined Wilder's career, it is still a cherished classic, and to many was Mel Brooks' finest work. I myself first saw "Blazing Saddles", either on TV or video rental, around the age of 14 or 15. It was, of course, hilarious, and far more than "The Producers" had done before it, it really "made" the career of Mel Brooks. In it, Wilder played the role of "The Waco Kid", a drunken, fallen outlaw, whose once-steady shooting hand was now rather shaky. Wilder has a penchant for kind of "taking over" films he stars in, and to me, Saddles is no different. Brooks, Harvey Korman, Clevone Little, Slim Pickens, etc. all shine in the film, but for my money, Wilder's smart-alec outlaw really brings the whole thing together.

True to his word, Brooks agreed to work with Wilder on his pet project, and thus the movie that I personally feel is the best thing either of them ever produced was born, the (in my humble opinion) masterpiece "Young Frankenstein". I don't want to go TOO deep into this film, because I will absolutely be writing about it on it's own later on. But sufficed to say, "Young Frankenstein" is kind of the perfect movie. It is the perfect example of a lot of little parts coming together and working incredibly well. Both Brooks' and Wilder's humor and style shine through, while at the same time, the film manages to be a really great throwback to the "Golden Age of Horror" Universal films that it lampoons. A black and white film in the 70s was already fairly unheard of, not to mention a classic styled horror/comedy hybrid, which was long since "out of style". Yet it worked, to the tune of $86 million at the box office. It worked well enough to give Wilder the kind of leeway to try his hand at direction on Sherlock, and it further established Mel Brooks at the genius he is.

Real life friends, incredible film partners.

Shifting back to my earlier memories of Wilder, I actually saw him in another, darker film as a child as well. He had a cameo in a 70s adaptation of "The Little Prince", in which he played the role of The Fox. That movie was particularly philosophical and deep, not really child's fare at all, and the ending, especially for a kid, was particularly dark. Dark enough to maybe scar me a little, in fact. I actually did not remember Wilder being in it, but upon seeing the film later in my 20s, I realized he was The Fox, a character that I had not really remembered. Which is funny, because again, outside of the snake ("Satan"), The Fox is the most memorable character that the Prince runs into. But I digress.

As seen above, the other key thing in his career that Gene Wilder is probably most well remembered for, outside of his turn as Willy Wonka, was his many pairings with comedian Richard Pryor. The duo had a natural chemistry together, born of a real-life friendship that blossomed, and they made a perfect "odd couple", Wilder being the manic "white" man and Pryor the street-wise black man. Yet the most remarkable thing, perhaps, about their pairings is that while they certainly had jokes that played of their races, the relationship their characters had always seemed to transcend petty issues of race, much like I'm sure there real life friendship was.

The first such teaming is arguably their best, in 1976's "Silver Streak", a dark comedy that also passes as a fairly competent action/mystery film.If you've never seen it, and could only see one of the movies they did together, I'd say to see that one. It is, again, one of the best projects either of them ever worked on. However the first movie I remember seeing them in together, was when my grandmother rented the 1989 film "See No Evil, Hear No Evil". It's another comedy/mystery/thriller type of affair, by the same director (Arthur Hiller) as "Silver Streak", though this time the gag is that both men are disabled.

Wilder is a deaf man, while Pryor plays a blind man, and in the course of the adventure they both unwittingly get wrapped up in, they have to rely on each other and their accompanying senses (to hilarious effect, naturally). While I'm certain I must have heard such language in movies earlier than that during my childhood, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" is the first instance that stands out to me that I clearly remember hearing the word "Fuck" in a film. Specifically, a hilarious scene early into the movie, where their characters have not yet realized each other's maladies, and Pryor asks Wilder sarcastically "What man, are you fuckin' deaf?", to which Wilder, in his classic, singular crazed style, roars in reply "YES! I'M FUCKING DEAF!!" 

The epitome of chemistry.

In total, Wilder and Pryor would make four feature films together, including 1980s "Stir Crazy", a film that sees them going to prison (and thus trying to escape), and the film that would wind up being both men's last theatrical film role, 1991's "Another You". The latter is, I would say, the "least" of the four, with Silver and Evil, at least to me, being #1 and #2. But that isn't to say it isn't still funny, as it is, and while Pryor was starting to seriously show the effects of multiple sclerosis, the chemistry between the two still manages to shine. For Pryor's part, it was his last theatrical role because his disease would take it's toll on his body. For Wilder, he simply, in his own words, "got tired of the business part of the movie business."

Wilder would go on to do various television projects, before ultimately retiring from acting completely to focus on writing and other interests. Not having as long of a theatrical career as many other big-name actors, having only starred in around 20 or so himself, Gene Wilder still proves the axiom that sometimes "the brightest flames burn quickest". While he did not "burn out" on drugs or other vices like so many other Hollywood types do, he did in fact get "burnt out" on Hollywood itself, and decided to walk away. And while, as a fan, I would have loved for him to have given us even more film roles to enjoy, as an artist myself,  I can and do also respect him for valuing the art of filmmaking and acting over the money.

Wilder described himself as being "an actor, not a comedian", and I think that's true. He happened to have an impeccable sense of wit, and incredible comedic timing, along with his signature manic personality. But as an adult film connoisseur, it's easy to tell that that was definitely his approach to even his funniest roles: taking them on seriously, as an actor first, the comedy being secondary. And I think that is why his performances, in part, are so unique and memorable. Because while a lot of comedians and comedic actors make a career out of trying to be funny...I'm not sure it can be said that Gene Wilder ever tried. He just was.

Thank you for all the laughs and the memories, Mr. Wilder. Know that you are a legend, and you made more impact than most actors could even dream of. You'll be sorely missed.