My Week in Movies: Apr. 8-14

King of Kings (1961) One of the odder Biblical epics. Nicholas Ray doesn’t manage to translate his knack for smaller character studies into the epic genre, but he certainly tries, creating some beautiful imagery along the way. Philip Yordan’s screenplay helps him along by moving the focus to uncommon corners of the familiar tale – namely, by making half the film about an uprising led by Barabbas. It’s an effort to treat the material as a historical, not religious, drama (save for the final scene, miracles are left to play out off screen), giving the intrigue of Roman politics equal time with Jesus’ teachings. It’s an admirable touch, although it doesn’t always pay off. A miscast Jeffrey Hunter, while better than the film’s reputation may suggest, fails to create the sort of heft needed to keep Ray’s vision afloat. (His somber surfer dude performance would be more at home in the sort of Hippie Jesus works that were in vogue a decade later.) Curiously, the film often works best when its title character isn’t around.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) and Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) Here’s where the Godzilla franchise goes off the rails, and I mean that in the best possible way. These movies are flat-out nutty, expanding some seriously bonkers kaiju bits (the scene where the Mothra twins translate a heated debate between Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan!) with tales of gunslinging spies, psychic princesses, interplanetary corporate espionage, and epic adventures involving the discovery of/voyage to/almost-war with Planet X, which isn’t a planet at all. Also, this happens. It’s all unbridled psychotronic weirdness, and let’s face it: if you’re going to move your sci-fi series away from its somber roots, this is the way to go.

They Drive by Night (1940) I thought I had seen this one before, but I was wrong – and believe me, I’d remember a movie as schizophrenic as They Drive by Night. This, too, goes off the rails, but this time it’s no compliment. The film’s first half is a slightly hammy but fairly involving drama about the lives and loves of America’s truckers. Not bad, especially when you have George Raft and Humphrey Bogart playing brothers, and when you have real-life troubles like bill collectors making the story relatable. But then comes a mid-movie tonal shift into wild-eyed thriller, as Ida Lupino stops by to kill her husband and frame Raft for the deed. Despite being fun to watch as she slips into madness, Lupino’s crazy routine is the wrong plot turn at the wrong time in the wrong movie.

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002) I started the week with the goofball charm of 1960s Godzilla and end it with the genuine gee-whiz thrills of the Millennium series. Not counting Godzilla 2000 (I’ve only seen the iffy American re-edit) and Final Wars (oof, what a mess), this newest batch of Godzilla flicks remain my favorites; they’re pretty much everything you’d want in a modern update, serious but not dry, self-aware but not camp, with impressive effects, unexpectedly good character work, and, of course, some damn fine giant monster action. For a rainy day diversion, I went with Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, because what’s better than Godzilla? A robot Godzilla. Obviously.

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