Movie Reviews

Mini-Reviews #12

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“Varan, The Unbelievable” (1958)

Don’t believe the title, Varan is very believable. In fact, I’ve seen this story before. It was called “Godzilla.” Except “Varan, The Unbelievable” is devoid of all the character, awe, suspense and respect for the world around it that “Godzilla” had.

While watching this film, moments and scenes from “Godzilla” kept playing through my head and noticing how similar the two are. The mysterious accident that leaves people dead which sets the events into action, the natives who believe it was their god that attacked these people, the ultimate reveal of the monster that leads to the destruction of the natives land, and the military designated to stop the monster from destroying Japan. This is a plot we would see in several other monster films, but in “Varan, The Unbelievable,” it is rushed and forced to get to the monster sequences.

This film feels like it was made by people who were impressed by “Godzilla” but didn’t understand what made it so great. Which is extremely odd and depressing, considering “Varan” was made by the same creators as “Godzilla.”

“Varan, The Unbelievable” was the fourth monster film created by Ishiro Honda and crew, following “Godzilla,” “Rodan” and “The Mysterians.” It is also the only other black-and-white monster film that Honda would ever make, yet it often relies on stock footage from “Godzilla,” especially for the scenes involving the military. There are even some shots where we see Godzilla’s tail or foot, but the film wants us to believe it is Varan.

However, “Varan, The Unbelievable” does get better near the end, as the military develops new techniques to combat Varan, including the use of flares and making the monster eat explosives. Like most of these Toho monster films, the effects can be impressive, if a bit laughable on the military vehicles. I’m not entirely sure why the film was shot in black-and-white when the vast range of colors is what made “Rodan” and “The Mysterians” stand out. Nothing impressive, but I do not regret seeing the film.

Final Grade: C-

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“Atragon” (1963)

Awesome ideas in this film, but mostly laughable execution.

To illustrate that point, the plot consists of an underwater empire, known as Mu and is said to be more powerful and advanced than Atlantis, has decided to invade the surface world and take back what they feel rightfully belongs to them. The Mu Empire knows that its weapons and technology are far ahead of ours, except for one piece of weaponry that has been in secret development for years – Atragon, a flying submarine with a giant drill on its front with a weapon that freezes everything to absolute zero.

Yet most of “Atragon” is spent on our cast of characters, almost all of whom would be used again in later Godzilla films like “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” and the drama of their lives, like the photographer who wants take pictures of this woman he finds attractive, but she has daddy issues with the guy building Atragon. It takes at least 50 minutes for something interesting to happen in “Atragon,” when the film has less than half an hour to go.

Granted, once the film gets to that point, the effects kick into overdrive as Tokyo literally falls into the ground and we get a cool (although short) battle between the Atragon and Manda, a giant sea serpent. The Atragon is a ridiculous concept that you can’t help but respect the filmmakers for being able to bring such an idea to life. There is also a neat theme involving the captain of the Atragon, who is so devoted to the Japanese mentality of honor and devotion that is blinded to the fact that Japan has evolved since the end of WWII and now cares more about the world around it.

Overall, it takes a while for anything to happen in “Atragon,” but when something does occur, the film pulls out all the stops. It is clear this movie was made by the same people as the Godzilla films, especially with the eccentric tone that rolls with the punches. There is a cheerful atmosphere throughout, so the film is never dull or a pain to sit through. Give this one a watch if you’re bored and want something new to appreciate.

Final Grade: B-

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“The Giant Claw” (1957)

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What is wrong with your face?

I’m not sure what else I can say about this film. Just look at this thing. This is monster that everyone is supposed to be afraid of, with big dumb doofy eyes, huge flaring nostrils, a mouth that is never fully closed and a wing span that makes an Ostrich feel embarrassed. And the characters would not stop calling it a “flying battleship.” This is the most laughable monster I have ever seen.

Like most B-movies, “The Giant Claw” has its charm but it is full of techno-babble right out of Star Trek, and a plot that makes little sense as it tries to understand that this giant bird came from outer space and has an energy barrier that prevents anything from getting through.

“The Giant Claw” is stupid, nonsensical and overly dramatic about a monster that looks like if Dopey from “Snow White And The Seven Dwarves” got beat up, and then turned into a monster to fight those who wronged him.

Final Grade: C

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“Mortal Kombat” (1995)

This might be the first movie I’ve watched that is based on a video game. I’ve attempted to avoid such films, like “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Street Fighter: The Movie” and “Max Payne” (starring Mark Wahlberg), because they attempt to turn video games that have very little character and even less plot into a feature-length production. The results have always been disastrous.

“Mortal Kombat” falls into the same category when it comes to story and character – It is a martial arts tournament with the fate of the world in the balance. The characters are little more than stereotypes, like the female military leader that bottles up her emotions, and the cocky and smug Hollywood type that is somehow good at kung fu, especially at punching four-armed demons in the private parts.

But let’s face it, people don’t watch “Mortal Kombat” for the story, they watch it for the action.

One of the main attractions of the Mortal Kombat video games is the ultra-violent finishers with characters getting ripped in half or burned alive, yet they decided to make “Moral Kombat” PG-13, with next to no blood for the kids to enjoy. Most of the charm of the video game is removed by doing this, making the movie a standard kung-fu film with a kick-ass soundtrack.

I’ll admit, the main theme to “Mortal Kombat” gets me excited to watch two warriors duke it out to the death. Listening to the opening cords makes me want to punch a wooden board. The theme gets the job done at building up the action and making it seem all the more grand and exciting. Easily the best part of the film.

Overall, “Mortal Kombat” is devoid of any good character moments and very few action sequences that stand out, even a few hours after watching the film. Johnny Cage has a few good moments of being a dick, and the soundtrack is amazing, but that’s all this film has to offer.

Final Grade: C-

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“The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957)

Sometimes all you need is the tiniest of set-ups to have a great B-movie with effects that transport you to another world.

“The Incredible Shrinking Man” does not dwell on details of why or how this man, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), began to shrink from a man who hardly fit his clothes, to the size of a child, to hardly fitting in a doll house, and then to the point where a common spider is utterly massive to him. We get the basic understanding of how it happened, but it is so rushed that you almost miss it. Not that it matters, the film only uses it as an excuse to show the true highlight of the film – making us feel like we’re right along Scott in this tiny world.

Truly great special effects do not make the impossible possible, but make us care and rejoice in the impossible. Films like “Godzilla” (1954) and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” not only have impressive effects, but effects that make you terrified for the characters. The same can be said about “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” as we watch Scott’s world deteriorate from phones being too big for him, to using a pencil as a lifeboat, to a bobby pin acting as a sword. The effects never go over the top and compliment how even the tiniest of menaces in our world can become life-shattering problems when you’re smaller than an ant.

My only complaint with the film was the closing monologue about how being so tiny made Scott feel one with the universe and how pretentious it was. That type of speech didn’t fit with the rest of the film, so it came out of no where and didn’t do the film any favors. If anything, I found that speech laughable because of all the 1950s cheese attached to it.

Overall, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is an impressive piece of 1950s science fiction that deserves more recognition. It might not have changed much, but its use of size manipulation and sets helped to elevate this above most other B-films. With a great performance by Grant Williams, this one is certainly worth a watch.

Final Grade: B-

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“The Red Shoes” (1948)

This one might get added to the list of films I hate, but everyone else loves.

I have made it no secret that I’m not a fan of musicals at all, as most of the subtleties and nuances of music go over my head. I admit my lack of the basic understanding of music is the problem, but a film should still rely on visual storytelling and stand on its own merits even without the music.

While there are parts of “The Red Shoes” that are impressive, such as the 15-minute sequence that comes in the middle of the film where Vicky Page (Moria Shearer) enacts the entirety of the Red Shoes ballet, there are so few scenes that left an impact on me that it is hard to remember exactly what happened.

We are told about a plot about the start of the ballet falling in love with the composer, as the director of the play being completely against it, but I don’t buy for a second that the ballerina and the composer are in love. As I said, we are simply told about it, never shown it. The cast and crew talk about how great it is that love has blossomed, but we never see any chemistry between the two until after the romance has supposed started. After that, it is only kissing and making googly eyes at one another.

The only character actions that seem logical are the emotional reactions from the director, Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), as he watches the greatest dancer he’s ever witnessed and his miraculous composer fall in love and his jealousy consumes him. He is a man who only sees the beauty of art in life, and sees anything else and childish and a waste of talent and time. This does lead to a memorable ending where Vicky must make the ultimate decision as to which world she wants to live in – a world of love, or a world of ballet.

Though it does beg the question – Is it too much to ask for both?

“The Red Shoes” has moments of ingenuity and passion for the art of ballet, but it is surrounded by scenes of unimportance and banal that it makes the experience feel forgettable. Like other films that tackle art forms, such as “Almost Famous,” there is clearly a love for that almighty art, but the movie never bothers to keep the audience in the loop. The only people who would utterly get this piece are those understand ballet and theatre inside and out.

Final Grade: C-

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“The Exorcist” (1973)

Why do you think people find “The Exorcist” so scary? Why do people keep coming back to this horror film, year after year, to return and find out they’re still terrified by it? Shouldn’t most of the creepy factor fade after the first or second viewing? What is so special about “The Exorcist”?

Well, I think I have an answer. Part of it is because the film plays it with the utmost seriousness and sincerity. “The Exorcist” takes the concept of a little girl being possessed by the devil and never once plays it up for laughs, never shying away from how graphic and disturbing the devil can be. This is the ruler of the underworld that we’re talking about. He is sneaky, under-handed, fiendish and will do just about anything to mess with people. We see the intensive therapy, the logical reactions to what is happening to this girl and the world trying to rationalize what might be happening, only to come up with no definitive answer. All we know is that what is happening is not of this world.

Another part is the unknown. Like most great horror films, what we don’t see is often the most terrifying aspect of a horror film. Is this the devil we’re dealing with? It’s possible, but not necessarily true. What we do know is that Regan (Linda Blair) is not alone in her body and mind, and that her body is being torn apart by these hellish creatures. Is the exorcism actually working, or is the devil letting them only think it is working? Has the devil orchestrated this from the beginning? We may never know.

The final part of what makes “The Exorcist” one of the greatest horror films is Linda’s mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn). It isn’t enough that the devil possesses a little girl, but that we witness her mother watch her pride and joy fall to pieces. Her daughter is being torn apart by some spawn of evil, and there is nothing she can do about it. Yet, like a good mother, she attempts every treatment, every psychologist, every person or source that might help save her daughter. Her emotional outbursts drive home how heartbreaking and tragic something like this could be and make it feel all the more real.

This isn’t just a possession, but a life being taken away by some force we’ll never hope to understand.

Final Grade: A-

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“Rush Hour” (1998)

This is exactly what you would expect it to be. Lots of great prop fighting from Jackie Chan, and Chris Tucker being almost as annoying as Jar-Jar Binks.

Jackie Chan is an immensely talented entertainer, who is able to balance comedy and action without really trying, because his style of fighting is often hilarious to behold. Whether his drunk, falling from insane heights or fighting someone with a steering wheel, Jackie Chan is never short of awesome moments.

Chris Tucker, however, could burst ear drums just by being himself. I don’t think there was a single moment in “Rush Hour” where Tucker wasn’t talking with that unbelievably high tone of his that makes me feel bad for any dogs that happen to be around. Sometimes Tucker’s comedy works, but most of the time he is running his mouth to an audience that wants him to shut up and get back to Jackie Chan whacking goons around with pool cues.

Together, Chan and Tucker make a buddy cop film that is not only formulaic, but has very little interesting going between the two of them. In most buddy cop films, the two will have their differences that make them butt heads as we watch the two learn to appreciate others and notice their strengths. But in “Rush Hour,” these two have way too many similarities – they’re both hot-headed, bold, don’t trust others, lost a partner in the line of duty and charge ahead whether their superiors told them to or not.

The only different between the two is their ethnic backgrounds, which gets played out fast. In fact, Chan often knows the American culture that Tucker speaks of, including John Wayne and popular songs. Tucker even admits at the end of the film that he knew Chinese the entire time. Really, these guys are two peas in a pod.

Overall, “Rush Hour” has its moments of glory, especially when Jackie Chan pulls off some amazing stunts and fight choreography. But the plot is predictable, Tucker is hard to watch and listen to, and the buddy cop dynamic is some of the weakest I have ever seen. Watch a good Jackie Chan kung-fu flick instead of this and you’ll get the same experience.

Final Grade: C+

 

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