What I'm Watching: Kong Skull Island

I wanted more Godzilla, but the classic Toho collections are unclearly listed on 'Zon and elsewhere, I want only Japanese-language (English subtitle) theatrical versions and many are 4:3 English-dubbed TV versions. So… I'm putting this off until I can do some real research, and bought an iTunes two-pack of Godzilla (2014) and Kong: Skull Island (2017). Silly American films, but at least I know what they are.

Sort of: I didn't realize Kong Skull Island was a Vietnam-era period piece. That's kinda cool. Sam Jackson at 71 was really way, way too old to be a field officer (Lt Colonel); he's badass and insane, as usual, but it's like your grampa being badass and insane, not like a midlife officer going all Colonel Kurtz up in the jungle. The grunts are mostly personality-free, except for one played by Shea Whigham, and they serve only as expedition "hit points", getting picked off one by one so we can see how much danger the civilians are in. It is very, very, very Apocalypse Now-derived in style.

Hiddleston as the tracker J. Conrad (ha ha Heart of Darkness reference, but yeah…) is bland but effective, a Ken doll with all the hunting accessories and a lot of dialog which he recites competently, but slightly less than alive. Brie Larson as the photographer "Mason" Weaver has no motivation, and a weird boxy face, but at least she has an active role, and only once has to be saved by Kong and improbably held in his hand during a fight. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins do great as the lunatic scholars/scientists organizing the mission; sadly Jing Tian as the biologist does nothing and has almost no lines, despite this being exactly the kind of thing a biologist should be interested in and have a bunch of infodumping to do. The film fails the Bechdel Test because there's really only one female speaking role.

John C Reilly's comic relief role is… well, not the worst thing I've seen. They didn't spend too much time making jokes at his expense. He's awful fat and pale for a guy who's lived among skinny primitive people on an Indian Ocean jungle island for 30 years.

The chopper pilots are really foolish and don't understand the point of a long-range gun. A realistic (OK, physics of titans whatever man) fight between Kong and a bunch of Hueys with heavy machine guns and bombs does not go well for Kong; they should hover 100-500m away and just whittle him down to chipped beef, not go mano a mano with an ape who likes throwing rocks and trees.

The giant bugs and pseudo-pterodactyls all do physically implausible things, but they're scary monsters in a kaiju film. OK.

"We're not gonna talk about this? This is not normal! Stuff like that does not happen!"

The face/heel turns for Sam Jackson and Kong midway through were obviously telegraphed from the start (which is why I don't even bother to say "spoiler"). The soldier's love of war for its own sake, against Kong's self-defense and (usually) mercy for Humans who don't attack him.

So all of this makes a functional movie by itself. Then there's the bad kaiju, and here it kind of falls apart.

The "Skullcrawlers" are weird. They're based loosely on the two-legged skinks from the original King Kong, but the skull head is ridiculous, and they're very smart tactically (completely at odds with how lizards hunt) and then just line up to attack one at a time; they're all CGI, so why are they shot like there's just one suit?

The extreme plot convenience of a skullcrawler giving the tracker useful information during the fight, I would normally give a pass to one deus ex machina, but then the confrontation is almost completely ineffective.

I barely noticed the music, other than some '70s rock records which the grunts inexplicably took along on a 3-day combat mission; a soundtrack driving the tone of the film would've helped.

★★★½☆

The problem with King Kong movies (other than the Toho ones which just use him as a normal kaiju), they all struggle with complexity. The basic premise is:

  • Voyage to Skull Island
  • Horrible Natural Hazards
  • Primitive Tribe
  • King Kong is huge and terrifying
  • Explorers run away

That's enough for a good story, but then each filmmaker piles a bunch of stuff on top:

  • Kong fights dinosaurs
  • Trappers take Kong to the circus
  • Kong fights a bunch of aircraft
  • Kong picks up a girl (romance seems out of the question, it'd be like a Human and a 9" pixie… YOU PERVERT, put Tinker Bell down!)
  • Jessica Lange struts or sits in a boat nearly naked for long periods of time, and then professes love for the beast; as noted, problematic.
  • Jack Black tries to act in a dramatic role

And pretty much none of this works. They pad out a film to 2-3 hours and take away from the thing that matters: King Kong.

What I'm Watching: Godzilla, King of the Monsters

Lovely film. The monsters look and sound amazing, the music is great, the monster fight scenes are long, complex, and more visible than the previous American Godzilla (2014). This really is on par with the Toho movies, and respectful. It takes thousands of people and $200M to accomplish what Ishiro Honda did with $175K ($1.662M after inflation), a few dozen people, and a rubber suit. They have a nice credit memorial to Haruo Nakajima (1929-2017), the original Godzilla actor.

The mythology and backstory for the monsters is a nice touch, the kind of pseudo-scientific gobbledigook Toho does. The literal deus ex machina plot device is annoying, but functional, it drives the plot along.

Naturally, I sympathize entirely with the villains. Their motivation is the only sane response; the evil megacorp (led by the dumbass CEO from Silicon Valley) and military trying to destroy the kaiju are insane and species-suicidal. Ken Watanabe is great, and Zhang Ziyi and Bradley Whitford (who I think of as TV's Frank Jr, but he was on West Wing) are interesting and given good lines. Most of the other Humans I could do without, especially the annoying screaming child and the "hero" who shares my name.

The credits sequence bears rewatching, there's a lot of details there and I couldn't follow all of them; and there's a post-credits sequence, so stick around for that. The next sequel should be interesting.

This is PG-13, but there's nothing above PG in it, and really should have been in a few places; it's obvious scenes were cut or written around to avoid violence and, uh, suggestive monster behavior. So I'm dinging it a half-star for that and the screaming girl who should've been the first one eaten.

★★★★½

What I'm Watching: Shin Godzilla

Recently I've watched the Godzilla anime, which are silly but sometimes fun. So, I felt I should rewatch Shin Godzilla, the most recent live-action Toho movie, by Hideaki Anno. I saw it in theatre, but I remember little of it.

The start isn't at all clear about the timeline. GMK, my favorite Godzilla movie, was based on only the original movie happening. This one doesn't even have that, Gojira has a new origin story.

The early form is ridiculous, it (normally I refer to Gojira as "she" since Minilla, Gojira Junia, Godzuki, and the terrible Roland Emmerich movie imply that she can reproduce; but here that's not the case so "it") looks kind of like Anguirus. Then it "evolves", recapitulating the costumes from the entire series… By the end it's the late '90s overpowered disco-ball of lasers form.

The mid-movie rampages are fantastic, and the SDF and US forces put up a good fight. This entire sequence is one of the best Gojira fights in any movie. Just horrifying and beautiful.

But the politics are most of this film, and Japanese politics are slow, boring, bureaucratic, bloodless and cowardly. Even if it's meant as parody, it's just not funny, it's exhausting. They literally spend half the film doing paperwork and formal meetings. The young rebel politician Yaguchi is OK, but the vast herds of men in bad suits and binders are so dull, and the supposed half-Japanese American attaché has maybe the worst fake-American accent I've ever heard. There are several others who have bilingual lines, so I don't know why they cast her.

Finally the heroic plan engages, in a race against the most stupid plan possible. They actually know what they're doing, get all the computer simulations and chemical engineering, use the city to fight Godzilla… But it's very stationary, and I find it anticlimactic.

★★★½☆ And it'd be lower if not for that epic central battle.

Update: On rewatching:

The ground-crawling instar is so adorable. It's the tiny head and goofy smile it has.

I find the Japanese bureaucracy as villain more interesting this time.

"Wishful thinking and armchair theories by the old Imperial Army in the last war led to 3 million Japanese lives lost. Beware of unfounded optimism."
—Shin Godzilla

Maybe ★★★★☆

What I'm Watching: Godzilla

I grew up with KSTW-11 every weekend playing monster and kung fu movies (those being cheap air-filler for a non-network station), and Godzilla to me is rubber suits smashing balsa-wood cities and toy trains. After a long dry spell of the '80s and '90s Godzillas being pretty terrible, I loved the Lovecraftian GMK: Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and the very goofy Godzilla Final Wars. But I haven't kept up with the last few.

So, anime Godzilla on Netflix? Sure. Long weird backstory about aliens coming to Earth, Godzilla winning anyway, Humanity & two alien species (who look just like pale or red Humans; no Xilians or mutants in this one) fleeing to space, was this in the last couple movies? Anyway, long recap/setup I didn't care for at all.

Then 20 years in deep space later, after spacing the old people, they argue a long time and eventually space-warp back to Earth, but it's 20,000 years later there.

Earth is overrun with Godzilla and smaller monsters, the atmosphere full of chaff from the monsters so long-range comms don't work, but criminal/Space Captain Awesome is gonna save the day.

"What? Send the landing ships to the front line? It's too dangerous. If they get shot down, how will we return to the mother ship?"
"But we're already home. There's nowhere else to return to but here. Isn't that right?"

The alien high priest says Godzilla is divine punishment for thinking you rule the world. Or as the song says, "History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man. GODZILLA!"

Of course, the Godzilla you can defeat is not the true Godzilla.

Visually this is OK, a lot of it is just filtered 3D CGI to look cel-shaded, which I've mostly only seen in shitty sports anime or later-generation Transformers; it doesn't look bad, exactly, but it doesn't look like animation. Give me Neon Genesis Evangelion any day.

Plot, there's a lot of arguing and not much gets done from that arguing. A serious editor could cut 50% of this and make a better movie with the same plot. Most of the dialogue is "Space Captain Awesome! Sempai!" "Yes, we must throw our lives away for heroism!" and screaming, it's not good.

Godzilla's new wrinkly metallic look isn't my thing, but it's functional; she doesn't move much, just stands there and fires atomic breath, occasionally swinging at something. I so much prefer the classic rubber suits jumping around and being physically in the scene.

Meh. I'll watch the rest, but at present I'm not impressed. Maybe I'll just rewatch GMK.

What I'm Watching: Jurassic Park III

Jurassic Park III (2001): Oh sweet Raptor Jesus this starts out with the worst green-screened "para-sailing" fake I've ever seen. Lovely helicopter shots of the island, tho. A couple scenes of Laura Dern with appallingly bad hair/wig and lame new husband, but she does no science. No trace of Goldblum, alas. Sam Neill back as Dr Grant is great, and William Macy as the idiot plot hook patron. Every time I see Téa Leoni I think I've seen her in something good before, and I haven't; she's lovely but she's an awful actress, a walking meatstick who rarely hits her mark and mumbles out lines; in one scene the director apparently tied her to a tree so she'd stay in shot, and even then she flails around looking everywhere but who she's talking to. Sidekick Billy and the other disposable characters are unremittingly incompetent, and it's a mercy when they die.

Massive improvement in up-close dinosaurs and bloody action. Spinosaurus as the primary antagonist is interesting, tho I always thought it more likely to be an aquatic predator than on land, the fin is useful in swimming and it has an elongated jaw like crocodilians for snatching fish; and lo, it does some swimming in this film, so the writer knew this, too. Tyrannosaurus ought to kick its ass on land with much stronger legs and jaws.

One thing that annoys me about the writing in these films, everyone either has a gun or runs away from dinos. Nobody ever picks up a melee weapon. Theropods had lighter bones than reptiles, not quite at bird fragility, but a good hard hit from a club should shatter them. A spear would work fine. Fire, like on a torch, should terrify them like it does all other animals. Humans are the dominant species because we're tool-users, and our simplest tools would kill anything except the apex predators. But no, only guns allow you to fight in these films.

So in this one, the "Raptors" which are fantasyland variations on Utahraptor, but we never see them use their switchblade claws, can caw like crows, and are as smart as primates or wolves, able to set traps, work around novel obstacles, and negotiate hostages. I don't buy this. I don't think their environment was complex enough to evolve intelligence, and they didn't have the brain case for it.

Pterosaurs! Vicious and beautiful Quetzalcoatlus northropi swooping down and carrying away annoying characters! And they sorta fly like a condor and not an airship! This makes me so very happy. I forgive a lot just to have some competent Pterosaurs; it'd be nice to also have little Pterodactyls pecking your face off, but I know when to say "thank you".

Gratuitous shot of peaceful riverside/plain full of Ankylosaurs, Apatosaurs, and Duckbills with the first movie's theme.

Alas, the down side as always: Annoying children. Lost boy scout is not the worst, but I could do with him being eaten. It would be good. The other one subjects me to a minute of Barney the "dinosaur", which is infuriating. The literal Deus Ex Machina: One phone call (and how they get that phone is so stupid… whatever) brings a carrier group to rescue everyone from the sky. But my beloved pterosaurs get to fly free and terrorize the Holocene, so I'm fine with it.

There's a lot to bitch about here, but this film works as a dinosaur island adventure, which the second one sure didn't. ★★★★½

What I'm Watching: How It Ends, Lost World: Jurassic Park

  • How It Ends: Mellow lawyer and Forest Whitaker's most annoying asshole character ever, take a road trip to rescue fiance/daughter in an indestructible Cadillac (sponsor!) from Chicago to Seattle after an unclear apocalypse. I can't stress enough how much I dislike Forest's character, even after he turns out to be useful. But the lawyer is OK, and Rikki picked up along the way is OK. Pretty exciting, realistic fight and car chase scenes. It's not a combat film, but there's some.
    The early parts of the apocalypse behave like atmospheric nukes: EMP, weather disruption, low-latitude aurorae borealis. Except no city is actually nuked? Later there's other effects that don't fit that, and I don't know what or if the writers had any clear idea.
    The response is that every community arms up a militia and there's bandits everywhere, the military are seen at distance but never live and doing anything useful. It's a fine post-apocalypse setting, but 1-5 days after the end is silly. It'd take months or years to fall apart like this. When Seattle lost power in terrible storms and flooding for days some years back, there was no mass hysteria, no banditry, no refugees, just generator rentals, calmly fixing things, and everyone got on with their lives.
    Still, I enjoyed this despite being almost the definition of cheap shovelware video. ★★½☆☆
  • Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997): So as to prepare myself to watch the new stupid JP movie, I went back to almost the beginning. I've seen the original Jurassic Park (1993) a dozen times, it's great; sure the dinos are leathery-skinned and it left out much of the novel's best parts like the Pterodactyl dome, but a classic good film, a ★★★★★.
    This second one is Hollywood sequel disease at its most fetid. I watched this one in theatre, and had forgotten almost everything about it, and I see I have made a terrible mistake watching it again. The first third is a tenuous premise and then a ripoff of the original with little charm; the cast is a lot to blame. Goldblum is fun but he spends half the film clutching at his face "OH NO my child!", Burke (Thomas Duffy?) is a shitty Sam Neill and I was happy to see him eaten, and Julianne Moore is not any kind of Laura Dern, Vince Vaughn and the late Pete Postlethwaite ("Best actor on the set of JW!", says Spielberg) aren't the worst, but they have very limited, stiff writing. The child is so annoying there should be a special Oscar award for most annoying child in a movie.
    Then a long running/being hunted sequence with disposable mooks, then San Diego. SD has potential to be fun, but Hammond Jr is pathetic, the dinosaur rampaging thru the city for comic effect is lame, the bloodless PG-rated kills are beyond lame. The very end shows a Pterodactyl hovering like a balloon, not like a hundred-kilo Condor-like glider. Goddamned horrible. I dread what is to come. ★☆☆☆☆