Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Retro Monster Movie: King Kong Escapes

What do you get when you combine the monster, sci-fi & spy film genres, and toss in a bit of a cartoon series for good measure? The result is 1967’s King Kong Escapes, a co-production between Japan’s Toho studios & Rankin-Bass, the US animation company responsible for classics like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer & Mad Monster Party. Based in part on the Rankin-Bass animated series The King Kong Show, the film features the evil Dr. Who (no relation to the title character of the long running BBC series) who has created a robot replica of Kong called Mechani-Kong. He’s using the robot to obtain an ore called “Element X” which will help his employer, Madame X, and her unnamed country, make weapons that will enable them to..…you guessed it….RULE THE WORLD. Meanwhile a submarine commanded by Carl Nelson (Rhodes Reason, brother of Rex, star of This Island Earth) ) gets waylaid while on a mission for the UN, and ends up at Mondo Island, the real Kong’s home. Nelson & his crew have an up close & personal encounter with Kong. The big, furry guy takes a shine to Lt. Susan Watson (Linda Miller), and battles a couple of giant creatures in order to protect her. Our stalwart heroes barely escape the island alive.

Back at villain central, the bad guys have a problem: the radioactivity in Element X has fried Mechani-Kong's circuits. So what’s a super-villain to do? Dr. Who sets out to find the real Kong and bring him back to his Arctic lair, so he can use the giant ape to mine the ore. Of course, it’s inevitable that the bad guys will cross paths with our heroes. And in true pulp movie fashion, we discover Dr. Who is an old nemesis of Nelson’s. When the nefarious villain successfully captures Kong, he has trouble controlling him, and kidnaps Susan (along with the rest of the sub's command crew) in order to control the lovelorn ape. The beautiful but deadly Madame X tries to use her charms to get Nelson to turn to the dark side, but has little success. Of course, an angry & not so complacent Kong escapes (hence the title), a repaired Mechani-Kong is sent after him by Dr. Who, and a battle of titans ensues in Tokyo, with Susan in the middle. Can Kong rescue his lady love and save the day? Will Tokyo get stomped once again? You have seen one of these films before, right? ;)

A blogger meets Kong's lady friend:
With co-star Linda Miller at Chiller Con in April 2015
King Kong Escapes is an enjoyably silly Saturday matinee adventure. Dr. Who & his minions seem to have stepped right out of a 60s spy film, and the movie even features a bona fide Bond girl, Mie Hama of You Only Live Twice, as Madame X, the evil femme fatale. Ms. Miller (who also appeared in The Green Slime) makes for an attractive damsel in distress, and Reason is a determined square-jawed hero, along with Akira Takarada as his right hand man, Jiro Nimura. You’ll also notice the talents of the ubiquitous Paul Frees, who did vocal work for a lot of cartoon shows in the 60s & 70s, as the dubbed voice of Dr. Who. If you’re in the mood for some old school monster mayhem, grab some popcorn & drinks, and sit back & indulge the young creature features fan inside you: this is the perfect film for it. It’s the second and final Toho epic to feature Kong, after the battle of titans in King Kong vs. Godzilla. The monster clashes (with a dinosaur & a giant snake on Mondo island and Mechani-Kong in Tokyo) are fun, and while the movie may not be quite as well-regarded as some of the other late 1960s Toho entries, like Destroy All Monsters, it’s still a great ride for genre aficionados. I've certainly had a soft spot in my heart for the film since my younger days, and still enjoy watching it. The movie is now available on Blu-ray & DVD: sadly, there are no special features. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Furious 7: Dom & The Crew Ride On

The “Fast & Furious” films have become a very successful franchise for Universal Pictures. The latest entry in the series, Furious 7, continues the series’ tradition of being well-produced, big budget popcorn flicks. It’s got all the elements these films are famous for: action scenes & stunts, explosions, fight scenes & of course, car chases. This time out, our heroes are facing a threat that hits close to home. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is the brother of the villain from the last film, Owen Shaw. Deckard vows revenge against Dom (Vin Diesel) and the rest of his crew for what they did to Owen, and the injuries Owen suffered in their battle. Deckard begins hunting down the “Fast & Furious” crew and trying to kill them, starting with Han, whose character debuted in the third film, and appeared in the subsequent sequels. Deckard murders Han, and lets Dom know he's coming for him.

As the attacks on Dom & his friends continue, he realizes he’ll have to take down Shaw to keep his family safe. This leads to an alliance with a covert ops agent, Frank Petty, played by Kurt Russell. Petty wants Dom’s help with a mission before he’ll help him get Shaw. It turns out that Petty’s request will put Dom & our heroes into direct conflict with Shaw, as well as a new & dangerous enemy, a terrorist named Jakande. Of course, everything & everyone will converge as we get to the movie’s climax. Some of the ongoing plot strands from Fast & Furious 6 are dealt with as well; Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is still dealing with her memory loss, and Brian (Paul Walker) is struggling with settling down to be a family man, and no longer being in the midst of the action all the time. Can our heroes defeat Shaw and survive to live & drive another day?

The action & stunts keep getting more spectacular in these films: this time out, we’ve got cars dropping out of a plane & using parachutes to land, and a car driving out of a high rise building window and into another building across from it. They’re completely unbelievable moments, but you can’t help but be dazzled by them. But despite the amazing stunts, one of the things that make this series so successful is the likable characters, and their relationships. We enjoy seeing these people on screen, and can feel the bond these characters share; we care about what happens to them. When the series was essentially relaunched in 2009 with the fourth film, Fast & Furious, the filmmakers knew what worked, and reunited the cast of the original film, as well as bringing in new characters, such as Dwayne Johnson as DSS agent Hobbs in the fifth entry in the series. It helped rejuvenate the franchise, and each film since then has been more successful than the last, reversing the usual trend with sequels and their box office take.

If you’re not a fan of popcorn entertainment, this isn’t the film for you. But if you enjoyed the previous movies, you'll have a great time watching this entry in the series. There’s action to spare, humor & a few sentimental moments as well. These characters have become like family to fans of the series. Sadly, Paul Walker died in an off-set accident before filming was finished. Some digital magic, along with the help of Walker’s brothers & stunt doubles for some scenes, was used in order to help complete his role in the film. The movie concludes with a tribute to Walker using clips from his appearances in the series, and is dedicated to him. Furious 7 was directed by James (Insidious, The Conjuring) Wan, and written by Chris Morgan. It’s now playing in theaters: here’s a link to the trailer:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

King's "Revival": The Secret of Electricity?

I’m a longtime fan of Stephen King, and I always enjoy digging into a new work by the man who’s given fans a lot of memorable reading experiences over the years. His latest novel, Revival, follows several well-received recent works including the Kennedy assassination centered time travel opus, 11/22/63, the elegiac ghost story Joyland and a mystery/detective thriller, Mr. Mercedes. His new book, Revival, brings us King in classic horror mode, in a tale of faith, rock & roll, religion, & one man’s obsession to see what’s on the other side of death. The story opens in the early 60s, where we are introduced to young Jamie Morton and his family, who live in a small Maine town. They meet their new pastor, Charles Jacobs, along with his wife & young son. Jamie & the rest of the town are impressed & won over by the preacher & his family, and their kindness. Everyone loves them, and they have a positive effect on the community.

Jamie is initially dazzled by Jacobs’ interest in electricity & how it can be used as more than just a power source. When the pastor heals an injury suffered by Jamie’s brother using a strange method, he’s amazed. But tragedy is just around the corner; the pastor suffers a devastating loss, which turns him against his faith. He gives a sermon (later known as the “Terrible Sermon”) in church that rages against God; it’s so negative and anti-religion that he loses his job, and leaves town. Charles & Jamie will continue to meet over the years, and their fates are more intertwined than Jamie suspects. As Jamie grows older, he starts playing guitar in rock bands & travelling the country. He also becomes addicted to heroin, and his life is falling apart. In essence, he's crashing out.

When Jacobs & Jamie meet again, the former pastor is performing in a carnival, mystifying audiences with tricks & illusions using electricity. He tells Jamie he can help him with his drug problem by using the things he’s learned about the power of electrical current and its properties. He does successfully cure Jamie of his addiction, and Jamie becomes his assistant for a time, working with Jacobs in his act. But Jacobs' cure has some unexpected side effects. The two part ways again. However, it wont be the last time their paths cross. Jacobs becomes a faith healer, curing people of terminal illnesses and devastating diseases. Jamie follows his progress on the internet, but stays away from him.

There’s a darker element at work in Jacob’s uses of what he calls “the secret electricity.” Many of the people he heals are suffering even more terrible side effects than Jamie did. And what is Jacob’s ultimate goal? When fate brings them together again, Jamie realizes Jacobs may be fooling with forces he really doesn’t understand. The former preacher is trying to open a door that should never be opened, into a world man was never meant to see. He needs Jamie to do this, and isn't above using his weaknesses against him. If Jacobs succeeds, there may be devastating consequences. It's up to Jamie to stop Jacobs before he unleashes a terrible evil on the world. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot so you can enjoy its surprises, and if you’re a fan of the Cthulhu mythos, then the chilling finale will really resonate with you.

King's storytelling skill makes you care about the people in the novel and what happens to them. There’s memorable dialogue and some truly scary scenes, and the author's usual mentions of music & pop culture are sprinkled throughout the novel, which help it feel even more relatable. Some of the supporting characters are a little thinly sketched, and a couple of secondary plot points aren’t fully fleshed out, but that’s a minor weakness. This is really a two-character story, and Jamie & his mentor/nemesis Charles Jacobs are memorable, multi-faceted men. This is King at his creepy best; the novel has allusions to the works of Mary Shelley, Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, and has an eerie atmosphere. If you’re a horror fan, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. It’s a fun read. Revival is now available online & in stores.