Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 31, 2024

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2024)

Honestly, it wasn't a sure bet. Legendary's "Godzilla" and "Kong: Skull Island" were successful, while falling short of the culture-defining, Marvel-like domination the studio probably hoped for from their monster-filled cinematic universe. "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" was, in fact, a box office disappointment. "Godzilla Vs. Kong" underwent numerous reshoots and delays, enough that I began to wonder if the MonsterVerse was going to collapse during what was meant to be its finest moment. Timing, however, is everything. "Godzilla Vs. Kong" was one of the first major Hollywood releases after the COVID-19 lockdown eased up. It turns out watching a giant gorilla and a big-ass lizard beat the shit out of each other was exactly the kind of escapist entertainment the world needed after a year of real world horrors. The titanic title bout was announced as "saving cinemas." Naturally, Legendary, Warner Brothers, and Toho put their heads together to figure out a sequel. Godzilla and Kong would rumble again. Legendary was so determined to have a repeat of their previous success that they made sure Adam Wingard stayed on as director, making him the first person to direct more than one entry in the MonsterVerse. Three years later, the rematch between Godzilla and King Kong has roared into theaters, with the ungainly title "Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire." 

Since the events of their last struggle, Kong has remained down in the Hollow Earth while Godzilla has stayed on the surface, brutally smashing any kaiju that challenges him. An infected tooth forces Kong to the surface, making Monarch worry another confrontation might ensue. Yet something worst is brewing. A strange signal from within the Hollow Earth is effecting the dreams of Jia, the last of the Skull Island natives and the adoptive daughter of Dr. Ilene Andrews. She follows Kong into the Hollow Earth with kaiju conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes, Titan veterinarian Tracker, and Jia. Inside, two civilizations are uncovered. One, a lost tribe of Iwi natives that have mastered the powers of the Hollow Earth. The other is a race of enormous apes, like Kong. They are ruled over by a sadistic tyrant known as the Skar King, who enforces his rule with an ice-spewing Titan known as Shimo. Kong, with Monarch's assistance, seeks to free his kind and prevent the Skar King from invading the surface. And he's going to need Godzilla's help to achieve that, something the thunderous lizard may not be willing to give. 

"Godzilla x Kong's" awkward title points towards its overstuffed, incident-heavy story. Plotting wise, "The New Empire" is a convoluted mess. For much of its runtime, the film is following three or four story threads at once. Kong explores the Hollow Earth, discover his people, and comes into conflict with the Skar King. Monarch is tracking Godzilla across the globe, as the monster charges up his power and battles other beasts. Ilene tags along behind the ape, hoping to figure out what is effecting her daughter so much. Multiple characters are introduced and reintroduced, some of them swiftly being killed off. The plot leaps all over the world, the monsters rumbling in several different cities across multiple continents. There's so many giant beasts in the film that it's a bit tricky to keep track of all of them. By the chaotic last act, so much is happening that I nearly got lost. "Godzilla x Kong" is jam-packed full of stuff happening, to the point that it risks becoming incoherent at times. 

While the mainstream critical press have largely dismissed the film for these reasons, it's hard for me to complain too much about "Godzilla x Kong's" action-heavy plotting. I'm not sure it all makes much sense but who cares when the whole thing is paced like a rocket sled? While most modern, effects filled blockbusters have bloated runtimes that exceed two hours, "The New Empire" runs a comparatively tidy 115 minutes. The movie has so much going on, that it never has time to get boring. Insane ideas right out of a comic book – like anti-gravity generating crystals, Kong having an enormous Power Glove grafted to his hand, or Godzilla morphing into a super strong, super pink new form – are introduced with whiplash inducing frequency. The film simply never stops barreling forward, introducing another dopamine stimulating bit of madness every second. Who can notice any plot holes when you're always cackling with glee? 

And cackle I did. "The New Empire" is even more of a kaiju Royal Rumble than Wingard's previous monster mash. That pro-wrestling comparison isn't just me being colorful. At one point, Godzilla suplexes Kong off the Great Pyramids of Gaza. This is, mind you, after he slayed the crab-beast Scylla with a giant sized Shoryuken earlier in the movie. "Godzilla x Kong" absolutely delights in displaying the fighting prowess and superpowers of his enormous entities. It says a lot about the movie that Kong bludgeoning a fleet of other huge apes with a juvenile giant simian doesn't even rank among the script's most outrageous moments. Finishing moves abound, as Kong literally rips apart numerous giant threats. Skar King whips skyscrapers at our heroes, Shimo freezes half of Rio de Janeiro, and a special kaiju guest star literally flies through the middle of the movie. This is following a zero-G rumble of massive proportions within the Earth's core. It is abundantly clear, every minute of its runtime, that Wingard and his team were having an absolute ball cooking up more and more insane scenarios for these supersized beasts to perform in. "The New Empire" radiates with the joy of a kid slamming his action figures together. 

"Godzilla x Kong's" focus on its monster ensemble beating each other up finally resolves the biggest problem that has repeatedly faced the MonsterVerse projects. The giant beasts are, truly, the stars now. Much of "The New Empire" is a non-verbal, wholly visual epic that tells its story through the body language and facial expressions of its giant beasts. Kong's existential loneliness as the last of his kind is made clear as he travels through the Hollow Earth. His disgust at the Skar King's tyranny is visible on his grunting face. An influence from Hong Kong martial arts cinema is felt, as we learn more about the creatures through their fighting styles. The Skar King's lanky posture, somersaults, and choke holds speak to his duplicitous nature. Kong's mixture of booby traps and brute strength shows his intelligent but direct style of combat. Godzilla, meanwhile, always goes for the direct approach, usually running right into his enemies. "Godzilla x Kong's" commitment to visual storytelling is such that you could probably cut the humans entirely out of this film and still be able to largely follow it. Unlike the frantically edited, overwhelming chaos of the "Transformers" franchise or the increasingly same-y CGI hodgepodges of superhero movies, this film feels almost experimental in its focus on telling as much of its story strictly through its non-speaking giant beasties. "Godzilla" fans have long dreamed of a movie starring the King of the Monsters without any humans in it at all. "The New Empire" comes as about as close to that goal as might be possible. 

However, there are people in the film. Even if 85% of it is made up of CGI monsters throttling each other, this is still technically a live action movie starring flesh-and-blood humans. Being the lowly mortal hero in a "Godzilla" movie has always been a somewhat thankless job and that's never been more clear than it is here. With Kong essentially functioning as the protagonist throughout the film, the human cast go with two distinct approaches. The first is bare minimum effort. Rebecca Hall as Ilene does get an actual character arc, of worrying about Jia and what decision she'll make. However, Hall spends the whole movie in a state of vaguely worried anxiety, never giving the role much energy. When the script reduces her to delivering a heaping ream of exposition about the history of the monsters and their conflict, she sounds audibly bored. The other direction the actors go in is over-the-top hamminess. Dan Stevens plays Trapper as a pseudo philosophical surfer dude type, seeming continuously in awe of everything around him and never getting down about the end-of-the-world stakes. Stevens is definitely having a good time playing such a cartoon character. Brian Tyree Henry is basically the movie's comic relief as Bernie, a ridiculous character who exists to react to everything with oversized fear. It's borderline annoying but Bernie is never the focus of a scene too long, so it's alright. Most of the rest of the cast either get killed by the monsters or literally don't talk. 

So, yes, King Kong is the proper hero of this film. His search for companionship drives the story. He's a giant gorilla Moses, arriving to free his people – or apes rather – from cruel subjugation. Wingard's previous Kaiju brawl openly compared Kong to Mel Gibson in "Lethal Weapon." The action movie star energy continues to resonate here. Kong is as beefy as Arnold was at his peak. He runs and dives behind pyramids like Bruce Willis in "Die Hard." When a haughty henchman gets in his face, he lays the ape out in a way that recalls Seagal. More than any other, Kong resembles Stallone as Rocky or Cobra, an uncompromising murder machine one minute and a weirdly warm average joe the next. He can conquer any foe with brutal strength but also gets his lunch stolen by Doug, the goofball giant lizard. Unstoppable hero but also slovenly everyman/ape, constantly getting the shit kick out of him but always triumphing in the end, the film creates an undeniably lovable hero out of Merion C. Cooper's eighty year old beast. 

This aligns the giant gorilla with a generation of father-like figures to anybody who grew up on eighties pop culture. Kong radiates Dad vibes throughout, even taken a shower in a waterfall to wash off the guts of an enemy at one point. I practically expected him to pop open a giant sized beer after that. All of this is fitting, since "The New Empire" sees the gorilla become an adoptive dad of sorts. Clearly paying homage to "Son of Kong," the sequel introduces a smaller Kong for the king to bond with. Identified in the credits as Suko, the ape is given giant, yearning eyes. His body language suggests a battered kid who is nevertheless eager to show his bravery. That makes Suko a little scrapper, who is introduced trying to shank Kong but quickly becomes attached to the big guy. That fearlessness, an ability to keep going even when everything seems bleak, is a trait that he shares with his adoptive dad. Kong and Suko's growing relationship clearly mirrors Ilene's bond with Jia and completes the gorilla's arc of trying to find others like him. 

Something "The New Empire" is really setting out to do is expand Kong's narrative. For most of his existence, the great ape has been defined by the same story, of being taken from his homeland and dying in a strange city. The MonsterVerse has freed Kong of this narrative. Unlike Godzilla, who has had many adventures and an extensive rogues gallery, Kong hasn't had much to fight outside of some persistent theropods. "The New Empire" gives Kong a supervillain of his own, in the form of the vile Skar King. The character is set up as Kong's intrinsic opposite. He's long and lean, where Kong is stout and buff. Kong's fur is dark black. Skar King is bright red. Kong fights his own battles, whole Skar King calls own Shimo – which he controls through magical torture, it must be noted – whenever he starts to loose a fight. While Kong is content to remain in the Hollow Earth, Skar King wants to expand his empire. The film does a wonderful job of emphasizing just how evil this big monkey is. He chuckles with sadistic glee, points and laughs at his enemies. Everything about how he's animated and acted gives off a deceitful, villainous vibe. Shimo, meanwhile, is like an attack dog, an innocent animal forged into a weapon by cruelty. She joins the Indominus Rex in the league of eerily pale reptilian antagonists but is ultimately redeemable, where the Skar King is a slave-driving villain through and through. 

But what of the other half of the title match-up? This might be more of a Kong vehicle but Godzilla still gets top billing. While Kong clearly has a complicated inner life here, Godzilla is treated much more like a straight-forward force of nature. The giant, radioactive lizard is driven by his desire to remain the Alpha Titan and will literally swim half-way across the world to smack down anyone who dares challenges his authority. This, surprisingly, has the result of making Godzilla a lovable bastard, a pure hater who simply wants nothing more than to pummel his opponents. We see this when he seeks out another Titan – the aquatic Tiamat, who has a cool, ribbon like fin around her neck – simply to steal more of her power. This need to dominate anyone who doesn't submit to him is paired with a very cat-like attitude. After tearing Scylla apart, Godzilla curls up in the Colosseum and takes a nap. He swats at jets like they are mice. He sneers at helicopters in contempt. You can't help but love the guy, no matter how big of an asshole he is. Like a typically selfish cat, this is just Godzilla's nature and all we can do is love him for it, as judging him for it will do nothing. It's a fun take on the character.

We are five films deep into the MonsterVerse. Yet it really wasn't until the last installment that the films started to feel like part of a bigger universe. "The New Empire" digs even deeper into this, in a way that allows for another star kaiju to appear half-way through. The world is really stated to feel fully flesh out now, to the point that crazy sci-fi tech existing or another monster being alluded to are taken for granted. My favorite element of the world-building here is how fantastical the Iwi colony inside the Hollow Earth is. They communicate via telekinesis. They carry spears made of pure crystal. They've harvested the otherworldly environment around them to create miraculous tech, like forcefields or anti-gravity. It feels very alien but is presented in such a matter-of-fact manner. These wacky ideas are introduced, they exist in this world, and we as a viewer just have to go with it. This freewheeling style of sci-fi/fantasy storytelling has always been commonplace in the Japanese "Godzilla" films and I love that the American ones have picked up on it. All of these touches do a lot more to make this shared universe feel like a fully formed, comic book universe of its own than all ten hours of "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters" managed. 

As with the last film, "Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire" belongs more to a grander tradition of giant monster movies and Showa sci-fi than to any one director. This is a King Kong and Godzilla movie first, an Adam Wingard film second. However, the director's influence can still be felt. His love of neon, synthwave visuals continue here, this time via the otherworldly portals and lava-heated caverns of the Hollow Earth. Even Godzilla's power-up, his eyes and spines shimmering with hot pink energy, seems influenced by this aesthetic. Wingard is informed here by the monster movies, action flicks, cartoons, toys, comic books, and rock videos he grew up loving. This is especially true of the soundtrack, which is filled out with multiple Dad rock favorites. While you can say most of these choices are copied from James Gunn's playbook – not an altogether unfair accusation – I still can't deny that Kiss or Loverboy kicking up on the soundtrack made me smile. (The needle drops are certainly far more memorable than Tom Holkenborg's score. Which is totally serviceable but is seriously lacking in the powerful, recognizable themes that highlight any good "Godzilla" movie soundtrack.) 

The MonsterVerse has come a long way from the grim realism of Gareth Edward's "Godzilla." The series now embraces a highly entertaining mixture of Showa era absurdity, where just about anything can happen, with the more grounded, manga-like tone of the Heisei films. All with a Hollywood studio mega-budget that allows for spellbinding visuals and a massive sense of scale that grants these cinematic icons the sense of grandeur they deserve while respecting their legacy as camp icons. The comparison to the thoughtful, humane drama of Toho's most recent "Godzilla" film will do the sugar-high chaos of this one no favors. I'm not surprised most of the negative reviews have unfavorably brought up "Godzilla Minus One." Yet there's room in this world for many different approaches to Godzilla and his super-sized pals. "Godzilla X Kong: The New Empire" is an exceedingly loud, chaotic, and goofy motion picture that I found immensely entertaining. [Grade: B+]

Monday, March 25, 2024

RECENT WATCHES: “Skull Island” (2023)

In 2016, everyone's favorite giant gorilla would return to animation via everyone's begrudgingly most commonly used streaming service. “Kong: King of the Apes” would be a CGI cartoon produced by Allen Bohbot, the same executive who co-created “Kong: The Animated Series.” It took a more sci-fi approach, Kong fighting robot dinosaurs in a near-future where gorillas are almost entirely extinct. While adequately animated and mildly compelling, the simplistic writing made it clear that young kids were the primary target audience. (The occasional gross-out humor did that as well.) The show was even more disconnected from the “King Kong” movies than Bohbot's previous “Kong” cartoon, abandoning all links save for the big ape and the dinos. If it wasn't for a sexy, dryly sarcastic fembot villain, I doubt I would've finished watching all twenty-six episodes. 

Last year, King Kong would return to Netflix for a decidedly different animated program. “Skull Island” was directly linked with the movies, taking place in the MonsterVerse continuity created by Legendary Productions. It was also not really approprite for young kids. In line with Netflix's brand of adult-skewing cartoons – which they call “anime,” despite being produced outside Japan –  it featured some gory violence. Despite being part of a multi-million dollar cinematic universe, “Skull Island” would drop on Netflix with little hype last summer. Those that did see it where not all that impressed. Considering how underwhelmed I was by Legendary Television's bigger budget entry into their MonsterVerse – and that it's only eight half-hour episodes, running a little less than three hours in total – I decided to review the whole series as one chunk. 

Set twenty-some years after the events of “Kong: Skull Island,” the show follows a crew of cryptozoologists sailing through the South Pacific. The expedition is led by Cap, with his teenage son Charlie and best friend Mike also among the team. Charlie rescues a mysterious young woman named Annie and brings her onboard. Mercenaries attack, in pursuit of her, before the entire boat is pulled under by a tentacled monster. Everyone washes up on Skull Island, where Charlie and Mike discover Annie has been living with a loyal, monstrous companion she calls Dog. Cap, meanwhile, encounters a woman named Irene, the leader of the mercenaries. As the parties seek each other out, and attempt to survive the vicious wildlife, they realize nobody will be leaving Skull Island as long as the huge squid still stalks the waters around it. The only creature strong enough to defeat such a monster is the enormous gorilla living at the island's center...

As with any animated project, it's hard to give any one person primary credit for molding "Skull Island." Willis Bulliner is credited with directing each episode, with a variety of talent being listed as co-director. I'm sure individual animators and producers also shaped the show. However, one voice is present throughout all eight installations. The script is by Brian Duffield. While Duffield is most acclaimed for the dialogue-free "No One Will Save You," his other projects are hyper-verbal, replete with frequently sarcastic and references-filled conversations. This is very true of "Skull Island." Even when on an island surrounded by killer monsters, potentially minutes away from death, the characters never stop cracking light-hearted jokes. Charlie and Mike are always trading fast-paced dialogue, sometimes about events unrelated to their current peril, and even when near death from an infected wound. Annie, despite spending most of her life isolated from humans, is maybe the mouthiest, snippiest character in the show. 

It's definitely distracting at times. The dialogue hits its nadir when Charlie jabs a giant ant with a rusted sword, the unsuccessful move causing him to cry "No stabby!" The sarcasm is even present in the episode titles, which have names like "What's Up, Croc?" and "Doggone It." The constant Whedonisms made Duffield's "Spontaneous" and "The Babysitter" hard to stomach at times. It's even more annoying in a series concerned with life-and-death situations against giant monsters, from an older, more classical time. 

As much as Duffield's attempts at Buffyspeak can grate on the ears, he does manage to frequently get me invested in the interactions between his characters. (Such as in "Love and Monsters," the best project to sport his name and the film that probably got him this job.) In "Skull Island," this is most true of Annie's partnership with Dog, a beast the size of a pick-up truck that resembles both a lion and a bulldog. The sixth episode, "Terms of Endearment," explores her backstory and how she met, and bonded with, this particular creature. This unlikely friendship, between a free-spirited teenage girl and her pet monster, is probably the highlight of the show. "Skull Island" frequently teases an attraction between Charlie and Annie. By the end, I think I was actually invested in these two, especially in the desperate choices they make to protect one another. A relationship between parents and children, humans and monsters, characterizes the whole show. When the cast isn't cracking wise – which isn't often – you can actually feel a real sense of emotion between these mismatched pairs. This is most apparent in the moment Irene reveals her connection to Annie or the way our heroes work to keep each other safe. 

As a monster show, "Skull Island" also isn't bad... Depending on the perspective you take. Though the snarky dialogue does it's best to undermine the tension, Charlie and Mike escaping a beach full of giant crabs in episode two is decently executed. Even better is a sequence from the third episode, where the boys are chased by an agile, Pristichampsus-like crocodilian. If nothing else, the show has fun cooking up some bizarre creatures, such as a giant rollypolly-like crustacean hiding in a rock, shape-shifting monkey beasts, man-eating plants, a turtle with huge aloe leaves growing from its shell, and a literal hedge hog. If your favorite parts of the "King Kong" movies have been the puny humans fleeing the extremely deadly animals of the island, then this show might satisfy you. 

However, you might have noticed that a specific monster was not mentioned in that last paragraph. Many of the negative reviews of "Skull Island" seem especially peeved that King Kong isn't that present in the show. Yes, much like the other MonsterVerse streaming series, "Skull Island" is weirdly reluctant to feature its star kaiju much at all. Kong doesn't even appear on-screen until the third episode and doesn't start doing much of anything until even later than that. Unlike "Monarch," which seemingly waited as long as possible before having Godzilla do anything cool, "Skull Island" does devote its last two episodes almost entirely to Kong. The penultimate installment is largely a flashback, showing Kong's ultimately tragic friendship with a Spanish speaking native. It's a largely nonverbal half-hour, all about the emotional connection between this small human and the giant ape, and features a pretty cool action sequence with some enormous chameleons. (Which, amusingly, change color every time Kong whacks them.) The final episode finally has Kong throw down with the cephalopod Titan, a cool Cthulhu-like adversary that fits in well with the MonsterVerse's menagerie of kaiju. While watching Kong thrash an eldritch abomination to death, I found myself thinking that "Skull Island" had finally turned into a pretty decent cartoon. 

Then, of course, it ends. The series wraps up in an abrupt fashion that leaves plenty of unresolved plot points for a potential second season to occupy itself with. As is all too typical of modern serialized television, the show stops just as it was getting good. Netflix hasn't committed to a continuation yet and, considering the lack of hype "Skull Island" generated, I'm doubtful it'll be greelit. Ultimately, I did find "Skull Island" a less frustrating watch than "Monarch: Legacy of Monsters" or "Godzilla Singular Point." It's similarly stingy with its A-list monster, in a way that leaves the viewer continuously wanting for more. 

Yet at least it's not occupied with a number of dull subplots or a preponderance of stifling lore. The characters slowly grew on me, despite Duffield's annoying dialogue. The narrative is fairly straightforward. Even if Kong is obnoxiously kept just off-screen for most of the program, there's at least plenty of other mysterious beasts to occupy the viewer. It doesn't live up to the awesome potential of an animated series set in the MonsterVerse and based around Skull Island. However, compared to the low standards of previous "Kong" cartoons, "Skull Island" admittedly clears a very low bar. [6/10]

Sunday, March 24, 2024

RECENT WATCHES: Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (2024)

The release of 2021's "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" did not seem to generate much enthusiasm. The noxious backlash to the 2016, women-led reboot seemed to have sullied the entire brand in many people's minds. "Afterlife," in general, took a weirdly reverent approach to the legacy of a movie where Dan Aykroyd got a blowie from a sexy lady ghost. However, "Afterlife" made enough at the box office for Sony – still determined to turn this series into a profitable franchise – to justify making another one. The idea of a sequel to "Afterlife" seemed to excite few people. Even Jason Reitman, who pushed through the legacy sequel as a homage to his late father, passed on directing the follow-up. Instead, Gil Kenan, previously of "Monster House" and the instantly forgotten "Poltergeist" remake, would take the helm of what is technically the fourth addition to this storyline. Eventually entitled "Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire," the film hasn't inspired much praise, even among fanboys of the series. Maybe the low expectations worked in the sequel's favor, as I found myself surprisingly enjoying it. 

Two years after the events of "Afterlife," the newest additions to the ghostbusting legacy have moved to New York City. Callie Spengler – along with her kids, Phoebe and Trevor, and boyfriend Gary – have taken over her dad's old business. Yet busting ghosts still proves to be a perilous exercise, with the teenage Phoebe soon being benched from participating, much to her frustration. When a stranger named Nadeem brings an ancient artifact into Ray Stantz' shop, it unwittingly begins a chain reaction that unleashes an ancient god of ice and ghosts named Garraka. As Garraka turns Manhattan into a frozen wasteland, the latest generation of Spenglers must team up with friends new and old to fight the evil entity. 

Despite giving it the softest of recommendations, I can't say I remembered much about "Ghostbusters: Afterlife." My main issue with that follow-up, from what I can recall, was that it was far too beholden to the first movie. "Frozen Empire" certainly contains its fair share of callbacks to the franchise's history. Slimer, the baby Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, and some mood slime all make brief appearances. William Atherton is back as Walter Peck, now the mayor of New York and just as antagonistic as ever. Composer Dario Mariabelli extensively quotes Elmer Bernstein's original score. Another set piece takes place in the city library, with the shrieking ghost librarian getting a cameo. The sequel even canonizes the Ray Parker Jr. music video, the toys, and the breakfast cereal as things that exist in-universe. Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray all have much increased roles from the previous installment. In general, the firehouse, the containment unit, the Proton Packs, ghost traps, and the Ecto-1 are all prominently placed in the story. "Frozen Empire" is absolutely cashing in on any nostalgia people may have for "Ghostbusters" as a cultural phenomenon. 

Despite all this, "Frozen Empire" doesn't do a whole-sale regurgitation of the original's plot, like "Afterlife" did. It actually expands on the ghostbusting premise in some interesting ways. In-between the events in of the various sequels, Winston Zeddemore has set up a whole institute for ghostbusting technology. This leads to some new gadgets, like a wrist-mounted proton blaster and a machine that can extract ghostly spirits from possessed objects. This laboratory is set up in an old aquarium, acting like a zoo/prison for a whole group of different ghosts. This allows for an ensemble of oddball spirits, such as a mischievous poltergeist that can leap from object to object or a weird little guy that sprays goo everywhere. "Frozen Empire" is invested in the idea that there's many different types of spirits and entities, governed by different rules, existing on different dimensional planes, and requiring different methods to confront them. This is more-or-less what I've always wanted to see from the "Ghostbusters," proving the idea that we saw in the two eighties movies were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what spirits exist and the technology used to capture and study them. 

In fact, that's exactly the approach that "The Real Ghostbusters" animated series, and it's underrated sequel "Extreme Ghostbusters," took. Those cartoons seem to have been a big source of inspiration for "Frozen Empire." Like the episodes of those shows often did, the film introduces a new threat with its own surrounding lore. In this case, that would be Garraka, a smoky evil god who can commands any other ghost and brings with him a freezing storm. Garraka is depicted as a threatening presence, towering and demonically horned lich that is always taken seriously. The design seems like it could fit in with the cartoon's character designs while also working within the film's reality. The backstory surrounding the villain, linking him with ancient societies and dead languages, is properly mythic. As is the idea that modern ghostbusting techniques are just the latest version of a practice that goes back centuries. The gear has changed but encircling ghosts with rays of fire and trapping them within sacred containers is nothing new. 

"Frozen Empire" is definitely an ensemble piece. The film's cast is quite large, juggling the original generation of Ghostbusters, with the Spengler family and friends introduced in "Afterlife," and a new set of supporting characters introduced here. It can be a tall order at times and some actors really just put in token appearances. Finn Wolfhard's Trevor doesn't really have much to do, while Carrie Coons' Callie is reduced to a supportive mom and not much more. Meanwhile, the friends from last time, with names like Podcast and Lucky, float around the margins the whole time. Even more roles are filled with familiar, colorful personalities, like Patton Oswalt as a typically nerdy folklorist, Kumail Nanjiani as Nadeen, and James Acaster as a very dry, supernatural engineer. Honestly, when paired with Paul Rudd as the lovably warm Gary, you get the feeling that these are the sort of guys that might've started in a "Ghostbusters" installment ten or so years ago. In comparison to their extended cameos last time, Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, Annie Potts have bigger roles here as well, acting more as mentors to the two new generations of comedians and heroes. This makes "Frozen Empire" feel like more of a proper legacy sequel, the old guys showing up, getting one more chance at glory, and passing the baton to the next era. And it doesn't hurt that Venkman, Ray, Winston, and Janine are just as funny and eccentric as they were back in the eighties. These performances clearly still have it. 

Even though "Frozen Empire" is clearly an ensemble picture, at the center of the film is what might be a star-making performance. McKenna Grace was likable as Phoebe Spengler in "Afterlife." The character is going through a lot more here though. In its best moments, "Frozen Empire" is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl at a pivotal moment in her life. Phoebe is trying to define herself, to stand up to her parents, to become her own person. She a forges a friendship with a female ghost – played nicely by Emily Alyn Lind with a Rachel haircut, subtly cluing us into when the character died – that quickly turns into a lot more, causing her to take some big risk that end up costing her. Grace says so much with just a glare, telling the viewer everything without saying a word. The biggest improvement "Frozen Empire" could've made, as much as I could've enjoyed it as a hang-out movie, if more focus has been given to Grace, it would've been even stronger. She absolutely controls the screen, playing a riveting young woman blooming into maturity. 

Oh yeah, another improvement that could've been made is that subtitle. "Frozen Empire" really only refers to New York getting iced over, when something speaking to the themes of growing up, family, or history would've been preferable. Or they could've just called it "Ecto Cooler." I would've liked that. Anyway, most people seem to be dismissing the sequel. Even hardcore fans have responded pretty softly. I guess I'm the odd-one-out here because I actually had a really good time with "Frozen Empire." It's overstuffed, yeah. It skates by a lot on a build-in love for the franchise. Yet it's also an imaginative creature feature, with excellent effects work, a really fantastic central performance, some fun supporting takes, and a willingness to expand the premise in interesting ways. Maybe trying to continue the "Ghostbusters" franchise is like trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. Yet, ya know, I have to say, this one made me feel pretty good. [7/10]

Saturday, March 23, 2024

RECENT WATCHES: Kong: Return to the Jungle (2007)

That “Kong: The Animated Series,” a largely forgotten and deeply mediocre cartoon, got a sequel movie four years after it ended is surprising. That it received two seems irrational. Yet it is true. In fall of 2006, a special extended edition of Peter Jackson's “King Kong” was released on DVD. BKN International took the opportunity to ride those coattails one more time and see if they could squeeze a little more blood out of this particular stone. While “Kong: King of Atlantis” was practically indistinguishable from the TV show that spawned it, the second follow-up is notable for an all together different reason. “Kong: Return to the Jungle” would ditch the serviceable, if bland, traditional animation of the show for what the DVD cover refers to as “state-of-the-art CGI.” I don't think anyone will be surprised to learn that statement is misleading, to say the least.  

“Return to the Jungle” goes back to Kong Island and reintroduces us to “The Animated Series'” heroes: teenage adventurer Jason Jensen, his genius scientist grandmother, comic relief buddy Tann, island shaman girl Lua, and the giant gorilla Kong that connects all of them. Their peaceful existence is interrupted when arch-nemesis Ramon De La Porta returns. He leads a big-game hunter named Stag Hunter to the island. Hunter has built a high-tech zoo in Manhattan and intends to populate it with Kong, the dinosaurs, and other extinct megafauna that populate the island. It's all a scheme to unleash the animals on the city, so Stag can hunt them for sport and De La Porta can take the fall. Jason and his pals head to NYC to save their hairy friend from the unhinged hunter and a military eager to protect the city. 

By 2007, CGI was well established as the primary animation format for feature films. Maybe this is why the “Kong” producers decided to go this route. However, within minutes, it's clear that the budget was not available to realize this vision. At least one Letterboxd review compares the film's appearance to a PlayStation 2 game, which I think is really unfair to the PS2. “Return to the Jungle” is, simply, one of the ugliest movies I've ever seen. The models are shiny, their movements stiff and weightless. Characters seem to frequently float through the air. Any time someone interacts with another person or the environment, the two simply don't seem to occupy the same space. This results in action scenes where characters limply flop around against each other. The facial expressions are robotic and gap-mouthed. The colors are flat, the environments lacking details. At one point, the animators used pixelated photographs and literal GIFs in lieu of art design. On more than one occasion, backgrounds can clearly be seen glitching out. But that implies that the entire movie doesn't look like one long glitch...

Even if “Kong: Return to the Jungle” had fantastic writing, it would be impossible to overlook how hideous the animation is. Of course, the movie doesn't have a decent script. I can't believe I'm saying this but I don't think this cartoon respects the lore of “Kong: The Animated Series.” Despite ending the show in a vegetative state, Professor De La Porta returns without any explanation here. He showed nothing but contempt for Kong and the Jensens in the show but seems to have a begrudging respect for them now. Originally, Lua had an independent and often stubborn personality. Here, she's nothing but a fawning female lead, going along with everything the boys offer. Jason's grandmother becomes another totally subservient female figure, baking pies for the guys and dropping exposition. None of the show's other extensive mythology, like the Primal Stones or the island's history, are mentioned. I didn't think “Kong: The Animated Series” had an especially deep or well thought-out cast of characters or plotting. Somehow, “Return to the Jungle” dumbs down what was already a middling, shallow cartoon show.

Part of why “Kong: Return ot the Jungle” comes off as so didactic is because the dialogue is loaded down with exposition. In addition to simplifying already flat characters, “Return to the Jungle” goes out of its way to explain who everyone is and what their deal is. The first half-hour of this 78 minute movie is largely devoted to explaining Kong and Jason's background. That the giant gorilla is a clone of an original Kong, though seemingly not the original Kong from the 1933 movie. That Jason shares his DNA with him, that this allows the two to magically connect. The script is burdened with “As you know” dialogue, such as the repeated references to Lua being the island's shaman or Tann being the son of a billionaire. While “Kong: The Animated Series” occasionally featured an environmental message, “Return to the Jungle” really hammers home this moral about respecting wild life. Making the villain such a cartoonishly evil animal hater defangs a message that kids probably do need to hear. 

Making the previous “Kong: The Animated Series” movie a musical was incredibly distracting, not to mention embarrassing. “Return to the Jungle” kind of maintains this change, though it finds a compromise of sorts. There are three original songs in the movie but they simply play over action scenes. The heroes don't burst into song and dance, thankfully. The first song, which introduces Kong's status as king of the jungle, is even kind of catchy. The second number, played during a painfully animated flashback to Jason and the gorilla's childhood, isn't great but was tolerable. The third song, however, played when our heroes are running around New York City, made my teeth clench pretty hard. All things considered, I really don't understand the desire to make songs such a big part of an action movie about a giant gorilla. 

I'll give “Kong: Return to the Jungle” positive notices for one element: The movie returns to “King Kong” tradition by having the gorilla rampage through New York City and fight a T-Rex, something “The Animated Series” downplayed. In fact, the movie makes the Tyrannosaurus Rex Kong's biggest enemy. All things considered though, “Return to the Jungle” is extremely dire slop only suitable for the most undiscerning child audiences. In the department of computer generated hemorrhoids, it avoids being as eye-scorchingly hideous as “Rapsittie Street Kids” or those weird, low budget Christian cartoons... But just barely. It's hard to be too down on a movie clearly made with so little resources, by so few people. (IMDb only lists forty people in the entire credits.) I suspect the entire movie was rushed through production in a few months. Yet there's no way around how deeply uncomfortable it is to look at this thing. When paired with a totally half-assed script, it makes “Kong: Return to the Jungle” an intensely unpleasant viewing experience. [2/10]

Friday, March 22, 2024

RECENT WATCHES: Kong: King of Atlantis (2005)

King Kong might be one of the original giant monster movie stars. Yet, in the modern era, the enormous gorilla has too often been a second banana. The 1998 American remake of “Godzilla” was a disappointment, critically and financially. The blockbuster would, at least in the hearts of kaiju devotees, be outshined by a Saturday morning cartoon spin-off. “Godzilla: The Series” was popular enough that someone decided to cash-in. European animation company BKN International – perhaps better known as Bohbot Entertainment to old millennials like me – would create a competing cartoon based on King Kong. “Kong: The Animated Series'” original run last from 2000 to 2001, totaling forty episodes. The series would even, for a short while, air on the same network as “Godzilla: The Series.”

Much like the previous “King Kong” cartoon, “Kong: The Animated Series” took very little from the original films. The series followed a modern day clone of the original big gorilla, made by a scientist named Dr. Jenkins. The ape shares a bond, and some DNA, with her grandson, Jason. After a villain attempts to capture the gorilla, Dr. Jenkins moves him to the remote Kong Island. (I guess the name “Skull Island” was too gruesome for the kiddy crowd.) Now a teenager, Jason arrives on the island with his best friend, the meat-headed pilot Tann. There, Jason, Kong, Tann, and jungle girl Lua have a number of adventures. 

The show mostly turned King Kong into a standard action cartoon hero. Through a device called the Cyber-Link, Jason and Kong can combine into a shared consciousness. A villain named De La Porta seeks the power of the Primal Stones, thirteen magical MacGuffins linked to the history of Kong Island. He grabbed his own Cyber-Link, fusing with different animals, in other to give Kong an anthromorphized creature to grapple with in every episode. The show invented a convoluted backstory linking Kong to the lost continent of Atlantis and an evil god named Chiros, the ultimate antagonist of the entire series. A whole litany of mystical plot devices, shamanism, mythologies from all around the world, and even time travel get involved eventually. 

Despite all the ideas floating around inside it, “Kong: The Animated Series” was an extremely mediocre cartoon. The animation was bland, the character designs deeply uninspired. The ensemble never rose above being shallow cartoon archetypes. The voice cast – largely made up of familiar performers like Scott McNeil and David Kaye – did not contributed especially memorable work. Most episodes don't even take advantage of what we associated with “King Kong,” the giant ape rarely fighting dinosaurs or rampaging through cities. Instead, it had a standard structure of our heroes travelling around the world, usually foiling the same villain every week. Compared to the grotesque enemy monsters of “Godzilla: The Series,” the antagonistic beasties here are completely forgettable. I watched all forty episodes on Tubi and I've endured much shittier cartoon shows. However, “Kong: The Animated Series” has rightly been consigned to the dust bin of animation history. 

Why am I bringing this up? In 2005, King Kong would return to theater screens in the big budget and much anticipated remake from Peter Jackson. Hoping to cash-in on the hype, “Kong; The Animated Series” would find its way back onto TV around this time. Yet the coattail riding did not end there. BKN decided to resurrect the show for a short, hour long, direct-to-video movie. Two weeks before Jackson's “Kong” roared into multiplexes everywhere, “Kong: King of Atlantis” would shuffle onto video store shelves. Ignored by most, the cartoon's technical inclusion as part of the “Kong” legacy made me morbidly curious enough to give it a look.

“King of Atlantis” takes place after “The Animated Series,” though it doesn't reference any of the show's events. (In fact, I'm pretty sure it contradicts some of them.) A strange eclipse is beginning above Kong Island, worrying Lua and making Kong antsy. Jason and Tann notice strange things around the island, such as a tar pit seemingly springing to life. Soon, it becomes apparent that evil, reptilian Atlanteans emerge from an alternate timeline. They take Kong back to their world, where the evil Queen Reptilla intends on brainwashing the big ape. Jason, Tann, and Lua follow behind and team up with the local rebels, in order to save Kong and stop the evil queen.

Though it was made four years later, “King of Atlantis” basically feels like a double-length episode of “Kong: The Animated Series.” The movie does little to distinguish itself from the show that birthed it. The quality of the animation is slightly higher than the average episode. They throw in a cave bear sidekick to follow the heroes around that wasn't present in the show. This is totally standard stuff. The sci-fi setting is equal parts generic and slapped together, mixing together many different types of aliens with little coherence. The evil queen is a stock-parts villain and her sycophant henchman – literally named Scyophantis – is annoying. Jason and Lua's sexual tension carries over from the show to uninspired results. Tann becomes attached to the Amazonian leader of the rebels, in a totally last minute subplot. Kong fights some cyborg dinosaur critters after spending most of the movie moping and being bossed around by the bad guys. 

It's not much to write about. While “Kong: The Animated Series” at least didn't talk down to the viewers with obvious moral lessons, the movie does include one. Jason and Lua can't agree throughout most of the film and their bickering alienates Kong. It's only after everyone works together that everything turns out okay. How is this message communicated to the viewer? Through something that the series definitely didn't include: Musical numbers! Yes, “Kong: King of Atlantis” is somehow the second direct-to-video, animated “King Kong” musical. Let me tell you, the songs here make me pine for the lyricism of “The Mighty Kong.” The lyrics are deeply inane, the melodies annoying. Each time the characters burst into song, I felt a full body cringe come over me. Moreover, there's absolutely no reason for these songs to be included. The show never featured any singing. Why does the movie? 

In other words, “Kong: King of Atlantis” is only for the most obsessive of Kong Kompletest. With the exception of those shitty songs, it's really no worst than any two episodes of “Kong: The Animated Series.” It is also, I must point out, also no better than any episode of the series. Much like the show it's attached to, “King of Atlantis” is a project that little effort was expended on. The writing is kids show slop. The animation is unambitious. The characters and acting are lacking in any memorable personality. Unless you are really desperate to see a giant gorilla wrestle some monsters, and have exhausted all other options, there's zero reason to seek this out. I wish I could say something pithy like “But at least there's no singing and dancing” but, inexplicably, there is. You have my permission to keep doing what you were going to do with this movie anyway and ignore its existence. [4/10]

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Episode 1.10: Beyond Logic

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters: Beyond Logic

“Monarch: Legacy of Monsters” finally fulfils some of its promises in the final episode. “Beyond Logic” has Lee and May finding Cate, in the company of her grandmother, within the Hollow Earth. Shaw has a tearful reunion with Keiko, who is dismayed to learn that sixty years have passed while she's stayed the same age. She refers to this realm as Axis Mundi, calling it a half-way point between the surface world and the deeper inner Earth. Keiko fashioned a distress signal out of the device that came down with her. With Lee's help, they are able to increase the strength. This catches the attention of Kentaro and Hiroshi on the surface. The quartet find the Project Hourglass shuttle, still in working condition because of the time dilation. Just as they are about to use it to blast out of there, the Ion Dragon attacks. The cavalry comes in the form of the King of the Monsters.

All throughout “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters,” I've characterized the show as an extended tease for giant monster fans. Every time a Titan appeared on-screen, it rarely did anything truly noteworthy. You know something is amiss when an ice-spewing giant rat-thing has more screen time than Godzilla himself. “Monarch” has continuously done nothing to dissuade this notion. Whenever the Big G did bother to show up, he didn't do a damn thing beside glare at the human characters. In the final episode of the season, “Legacy of Monster” finally gives kaiju fans something to chew on. This is exactly by design, of course. The show gave us just enough monster action to get us to stick around, never actually satisfying us until Apple TV+ producers could be certain we're going to watch all of it. 

I'm extremely reluctant to say it was all worth the wait. However, the kaiju battle in “Beyond Logic” is pretty damn cool. Godzilla's arrival is given the proper amount of respect, the King of the Monsters stomping into Axis Mundi like a pissed-off stepfather. The camera swirl around the massive beasts as the Ion Dragon takes flight. As far as CGI kaiju duels go, this is a good one. We find out that the Ion Dragon even has a projectile weapon, spraying noxious slime into Godzilla's face. The MonsterVerse version of Godzilla is all but unstoppable, as far as strength and superpowers go. It's not a long battle. Yet, as a life long fan of this particular radioactive dinosaur, watching him beat the shit out of an opponent is always a good time.

As entertaining as this monster brawl is, I can't help but feel like it is too little, too late. Even in its final hour, “Monarch” still drags its feet at times. Whenever “Beyond Logic” cuts away from Shaw, Cate, and Keiko in the underground realm, I felt exhausted again. Kentaro and Hiroshi have the heart-to-heart you'd expect from a son confronting a cheating father. It's resolved when Kentaro's mom forgives him. This meeting is, ostensibly, something we've been waiting to see all season. Ideally, this family reunion should be just as hotly anticipated as Godzilla fighting another monster. That is undeniably not true though. Ten hours into this show and Hiroshi is still a character we're more informed about than we actually know. It robs this meeting of any emotional impact. 

Still, at the very least, “Monarch” does live up to its subtitle in this final episode. The multigenerational element comes full circle. Three generation of Randas are reunited. Even if the characters have never been as resonant as the showrunners clearly hoped, Hiroshi finding a mother he assumed was gone forever is still a good moment. John Goodman is even given a little cameo. “Legacy of Monsters” never truly succeeded in making us care about every generation of this family. Yet it's still a cool idea, to show the history of a monster-hunting organization through the clan that molded it. 

“Beyond Logic” ends with another predictable time leap, seemingly bringing the TV show up to date with the events of the MonsterVerse. The final moments include a cameo from another A-list monster, continuing the formula of insuring viewers stay hooked by dangling the possibility of future kaiju appearances in front of us. Simply because it actually delivers on Godzilla dueling it out with another enormous beastie, “Beyond Logic” almost has to rank higher than every other episode of “Monarch.” Any other issue I have with this particular program, I can't give an all-together negative review to any hour that features Godzilla ripping a dragon's wings off. [7/10]

Ultimately though, I came away from “Monarch: Legacy of Monster” extremely frustrated. The show follows every trademark of modern, serialized television that I absolutely despise. Over the course of ten hours, there's maybe sixty or so minutes of shit I actually cared about. Legendary's MosnterVerse films have struggled to make viewers care about its human cast members. Devoting an entire TV show to this only made those weaknesses more apparent. After watching all ten episodes, I still don't entirely know why the show wasted as much time as it did with May's entire subplot. Most frustratingly of all, when “Monarch” was good, it proved that the show didn't need to be as much of a waste of time as it was. It's unknown if Legendary plans on producing more of “Monarch.” I suspect that depends on how many eyeballs it attracted to Apple TV+ and how well “Godzilla x Kong” does at the box office. Truthfully, I sincerely hope another season isn't produced, so I don't have to suffer through so much nonsense just to get a few minutes of Godzilla being cool. At least it was less annoying than “Singular Point,” so that's something, I guess. [Monarch: Legacy of Monsters: 6/10]

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, Episode 1.09: Axis Mundi

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters: Axis Mundi

In its penultimate episode, “Monarch” finally begins to provide some answers. In 2015, Kentaro is pulled out of the remains of the Kazakhstani power plant. He is told that Lee Shaw, Cate, and May all died in the collapse. This is not true. Instead, the trio have been transported to the Hollow Earth, the biosphere within our planet where the Titans dwell. Lee and May navigate the perilous world. He explains that he's been here before. In 1962, after Keiko's disappearance, Shaw was part of a team that attempted to enter the Hollow Earth. The mission would fail and most of the team was killed by a kaiju. Only Shaw survived, making it back to the surface... Twenty years later. It turns out time works differently within the Hollow Earth, which also explains when Cate is rescued by a very unexpected figure.

I suppose this shouldn't be surprising but “Monarch” was obviously saving most of its budget for the back half of the season. “Axis Mundi” features probably the most exciting sequence in the entire show, up to this point. That would be Project Hourglass, the shuttle exploration into the inner Earth led by Shaw. When the portal goes wild and the ship explodes in a blur of color, that's pretty cool. Even better is when Shaw recalls the crew being attacked by the same dragon-like Titan that was spotted in the Philippines. It's a frenziedly edited sequence but an exciting one, that reflects the scrambled mind of the man recollecting it. 

This episode also fills in gaps in the backstory and explains a few inconsistency. The idea that time flows different in the Hollow Earth explains why a ninety year old Lee Shaw is played by a still rather spry 73 year old Kurt Russell. That he was dragged, disoriented, into a version of Monarch he no longer recognized also explains a lot about his distrust of the organization and his desire to change it. These flashbacks also show how Hiroshi, having grown up without his Uncle Lee around, met the woman who would become the mother to his son.

“Axis Mundi” is probably among the better directed episodes of “Monarch” thus far. Andy Goddard, who has a lot of experience directing big budget streaming shows like this, nicely captures the fractured memories and mindset of Lee Shaw after he gets back to the surface. The moment where he takes a nurse hostage, in hopes of finally getting some answers, is very well done. The sense of confusion May and Lee feel upon arriving in the inner Earth is also nicely conveyed. This is a good looking hour of TV, with the shadowy but colorful Hollow Earth being an especially striking sight. 

Granted, the season is almost over and show is still extremely stingy with its giant monsters. The Ion Dragon has what amounts to a cameo in Lee's flashback. A giant boar with some tree branches growing out of its back shows up at the end. However, “Axis Mundi” is actually a solid hour of television. It answers some important questions and fills in a lot of gaps. Unlike the previous episodes, which simply seemed to be filling time, this one actually moves the story forward and keeps us fascinated. Only a single scene, of Kentaro being despondent around his mom, feels unnecessary. If only the rest of the series had been as good as this episode! One more left to go... [7/10]