Usually, when I review outright pornography on this blog, it’s got some kind of vintage appeal. Somewhere in the back of my repressed Catholic skull, I must believe smut can only be assessed as Legitimate Art after a few decades have passed, whether it’s the exquisitely refined melodrama of Equation to an Unknown (1980) or the crass home movies amateurism of Bat Pussy (197?). 2004’s Ecstasy in Berlin, 1926 snuck past that personal bias in the most obvious way: by looking vintage in its 1920s setting & fabricated sepia tone, in contrast to standard mid-00s pornography’s flat, digital sheen. Ecstasy in Berlin is artsy BDSM erotica with an aesthetic that falls somewhere between Guy Maddin’s wryly retro film textures & Annie Sprinkle’s DIY video-art pornos. Its Black & White patina & ambient score announce its intention to be considered Art, but its 40min slack-jawed stare at lingeried women relentlessly spanking each other is a purely prurient indulgence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
As you can imagine, there isn’t much plot to speak of here. A woman in Weimer era Germany shoots up in her boudoir, the camera lingering on the needle & her bare crotch for a relative eternity. Her subsequent doped-out fantasy is one of drowsy lesbian erotica – mostly consisting of spanking, bootlicking, and light bondage. Any motions towards storytelling are restricted to juxtaposition: our de-facto “protagonist” split-screened with her erotic fantasy; a corset fitting paired with an actual hourglass; lipstick smears contrasted against the razor-sharp arches of 1920s eyebrows. Meanwhile, director Maria Beatty is clearly having fun with editing room trickery, establishing an intoxicating rhythm with some intense vignette framing, triple exposures, and languid dissolves. The film looks great. Still, the spanking sequences are endless and never really escalate to anything substantial, which can test even the most dedicated kinkster’s patience at feature length no matter how many costume changes reset the scene.
I don’t know if Ecstasy in Berlin has convinced me to seek out & assess more narrative-free, post-VHS pornography as Legitimate Art, but it works well enough as a calling card for Maria Beatty as a filmmaker. There’s an exciting mix of aesthetic beauty & unashamed transgression at work here, even if it’s purely in service of erotic titillation. Like most long-working porno directors, Beatty’s got a couple horror films listed in her credits (lurking among titles like The Elegant Spanking & Strap-on Motel), which are now calling my name like softcore siren songs. I may not know how to properly approach a plotless, over-stylized porno, but plotless & over-stylized is my exact sweet spot when it comes to genre schlock.
Our current Movie of the Month, the 2015 true-crime musical London Road, is a grim, misanthropic work adapted word-for-word from transcripts of suburban English locals reacting to the 2006 serial murders of prostitutes in their neighborhood. It’s an impressively odd, daring film considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactments portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. London Road really digs into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic by just letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves – a feel-bad emotional & political palette that’s unusual for a movie musical.
London Road is a little too unconventional to recommend other movies exactly like it. However, there are plenty of other musicals that touch on its grim urbanity & conversational song structure, even if only in flashes. Here are a few recommended titles if you loved our Movie of the Month and want to see more dour, urban-set musicals on its miserable wavelength.
Jacques Demy’s gorgeous melodrama might be the pinnacle of the recitative movie musical as an artform. London Road‘s central gimmick is in adapting the natural rhythms of human speech into song, turning a real-life tragedy into a modern-day opera. Demy does the same in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, except with the gorgeous colors & soaring emotions of a Sirkian melodrama – tracking the tragic missed-connection romance of working-class sweethearts whose lives are disrupted by unwanted pregnancy & war. It’s a musical heartbreaker about the conflict between practicality & romance, and it’s sung in the same recitative style as London Road‘s real-life tale of serial murder.
Of his two Technicolor musicals, I still strongly prefer Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, simply because the more traditional musical numbers of that one are more fun to listen to than the conversational opera of this one. London Road faces similar roadblocks in its entertainment value; the songs themselves are too restricted by its recitative conceit to be especially memorable when considered in isolation. Like Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however, it’s a fascinating clash between artificiality and realism, and the two films glumly sing in tune when considered as a pair.
Les Misérables (2012)
2012’s movie adaptation of the stage musical Les Misérables is much, much more traditional than London Road. The longest-running musical in the West End and the second-longest running musical in the world, Les Mis might be the very definition of tradition, which makes it an unlikely pairing. What the two movies have in common—besides their blatant Britishness—has more to do with theme instead of form. Like London Road, Les Mis is a grim-as-fuck reality check about harsh cultural attitudes towards sex workers and other societal cast-offs.
Making a Les Misérables movie turned out to be a logistical nightmare, getting stuck in production limbo for decades as the rights drifted from movie studio to movie studio. The 2012 version that eventually hit the screen earned great box office and Awards Season accolades upon initial release, but it’s mostly remembered now as a kind of pop culture punchline – mainly because of Russell Crowe’s awkward singing voice and director Tom Hooper’s follow-up musical disaster Cats. Personally, I enjoyed the film both times I watched it: in the theater in 2012 and on my couch almost a decade later. Anne Hathaway’s performance as a single mother who is punished for selling her body—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—for temporary survival is especially heartbreaking and feels totally at home with the pitch-black misery of London Road.
Chances are that if you’re looking for more musicals along the lines of London Road, Les Mis might be a little too traditional for a proper pairing. A major part of London Road‘s charm is its unconventional musicality and modern, urban setting. For another modern history lesson that sidesteps the movie musical’s conventional modes of song and dance, I’d look to 2018’s Leto, which chronicles the Soviet punk scene in 1980s Leningrad. Most of the actual music in Leto is diegetic, featuring bands from the time like Kino & Zoopark performing in heavily censored & regulated Soviet rock clubs. When it does break reality for traditional song & dance, the characters perform toned-down, conversational versions of classic glam & punk tunes from acts like The Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Then, a Greek-chorus type character called The Skeptic enters the frame to inform the audience that “This did not happen” just to keep the film as grounded to its real-life history as possible.
While not as much of an overt subversion of the movie musical as London Road, Leto upends expectation in its own small, laid-back ways. It’s more of a historically set hangout film than the all-out glam phantasmagoria of similar works like Velvet Goldmine or Lisztomania. It’s always a little alienating to watch a hagiography of musicians you’ve never heard of before, but I find the film solidly charming, if not only by the graces of its killer soundtrack. More importantly, it shares a downtrodden urbanity & casual demeanor with London Road that you don’t get to see in a lot of movie musicals – even stripping away the theatricality of over-the-top performers like Iggy Pop & David Byrne to make their work as matter-of-fact and casual as possible.
There’s usually very little room for surprise on the morning Oscar nominations are announced, but this year really did catch me off-guard. I was amazed that even though I watched over 80 feature films released in 2020, only four were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals. Usually, I’ve seen at least a dozen without trying. And of the four films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy. Judas and the Black Messiah was decent-enough, but I honestly only watched it because I knew it would be nominated. Meanwhile, Borat 2 was meh, Shaun the Sheep 2 was bleh, andEmma. was one of my personal favorite films of the year but was only nominated for Best Costuming & Best Makeup awards – which feels like the Academy on autopilot, treating it like a standard-issue costume drama. Looking at the 42 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important. Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now. Hard to tell.
Knowing that I’ll end up watching this year’s Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I used that moment of surprise as an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me. I set a couple rules for myself: only movies I could access for free or via a streaming service I already subscribe to (so no outrageous $20 rentals of films like The Father or Minari) and only movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing (so no enduring whatever the fuck is going on in Mank). Usually on this website, we post a ranked list of films we’ve reviewed that happened to be nominated for Oscars. This year, I have a ranked list of movies I watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb. It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony. Enjoy.
Nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Holy shit, this rules. Matteo Garrone applies the same dark fairy tale wizardry he established in Tale of Tales to a much more widely familiar story. The uncanny prosthetics & CG effects make the old feel new again in a deeply unsettling, uncanny nightmare that had me laughing and recoiling in horror, often in the same moment. Shocked I loved it as much as I did; bummed it was so readily dismissed by online film nerds for ~looking weird~. It does look weird, as more movies should.
I should confess that I have whatever defective gene makes Roberto Benigni funny, so I found his tragic-comic Geppetto wonderfully effective. Regardless of that much-mocked casting choice, this is some deliciously dark Movie Magic. Easily the best discovery of my Oscars Catch-up, and so far it’s the one title from last year I wish I’d seen before our Best of 2020 list-making ritual.
Sound of Metal
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Riz Ahmed), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Editing, and Best Sound
I really connected with this on an emotional level in a way I did not expected to, especially after a year where so few straightforward dramas cut through the constant background chaos churning around in my head and the world outside. The disability and addiction narratives aren’t realms I personally know, but the D.I.Y. music scene and the struggles with explosive anger & codependency are definitely a world I recognize, and Riz Ahmed’s performance feels true enough to them. More importantly, it’s just a solid drama on its own merits.
For all its modern-world authenticity, it actually reminded me a lot of traditional Old Hollywood melodramas, particularly an Ida Lupino picture I reviewed recently called Never Fear about a dancer who’s rapidly paralyzed by polio. Nothing wrong with some broadly traditional structure, though, especially when it still hits so effectively.
Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)
This one did help clarify why I hadn’t seen many of the major Oscar noms this year: they’re emotionally tough! It’s not so much that they’re Homework, but most of my major blind spots tackle dead-serious subjects I would’ve been reluctant to engage with in a year that was already difficult enough to get through without filling my free time with discomfort watching. This one’s a prison abolitionist doc about a Louisiana woman’s decades-long, uphill battle to get her husband released from Angola. I’m glad the Awards Season ritual finally pushed me to watch it; it’s as deftly crafted as it is emotionally draining.
Listening to Fox Rich advocate both for her husband and for wider prison reform in present-day footage is powerful in itself, but it’s the poetic use of her decades of home video recordings that really weighs on the heart. You watch her family age in her husband’s absence in a way that constantly emphasizes exactly what he’s missing out on, often directly addressing him just to fill him in on the smallest details of their day-to-day life. Looks great, feels awful.
Nominated for Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects
I resisted Nolan’s urging to spread a lethal virus by waiting to see this for free on a borrowed library DVD with the subtitles flipped on. Turns out it’s a dumb-fun action movie with the absurd intellectual self-esteem of a freshman Philosophy student. I had a ton of fun with it. Reminded me of the eerie, off-putting mutation of the modern action film in Gemini Man, in that it’s just slightly off in a way that’s compelling but difficult to pinpoint. Also reminded me of that episode of Wonder Showzen that stops halfway through to run the same gags backwards.
Its nomination for Best Visual Effects feels totally deserved, especially in a year with so few genuine blockbusters. I was tickled by the hyper-convoluted dialogue in lines like “We’re being attacked by the future, and we’re fighting over time,” but during the backwards-fighting sequences I was genuinely wrapped up in the spectacle of it, no questions asked. At least no questions that matter more than watching stuff get blowed up real good (and then un-blowed-up even gooder).
Love and Monsters
Nominated for Best Visual Effects
An adorable creature feature about a young coward’s travels with a heroic stray dog across a post-apocalyptic wasteland to reconnect with his long-distance girlfriend. Shares a lot of weirdly pandemic-relevant dark humor with last year’s Spontaneous, although maybe without the same emotional heft. I probably should not have been surprised they also share a screenwriter.
Its coming-of-age neuroticism is cute enough on its own, but it wouldn’t be much without the inventiveness & grotesqueness of its creature designs. There are about a dozen uniquely nasty beasts spread throughout, and that variety was a smart choice in keeping the novelty alive once you settle into the rhythms of the plot. The dog could’ve also used an Oscar Nomination for Best Boy, though; quite the snub.
Nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)
A historical documentary about a hippie-run summer camp for kids with disabilities, tracking how its radically inclusive environment inspired its alumni to protest for Disability Rights in their adulthood. Straightforward in its presentation, but in a way that’s smart to stay out of the way of the inherent power of its subject.
The overload of archival footage is the true wonder. It has so much to work with that it can just hang out with the campers as they joke at length about a genital crabs infestation going around the bunks or debate whether they should eat lasagna for dinner. It lets the kids be kids (which is exactly what it’s praising Camp Jened for doing in the first place) then clearly demonstrates how empowering that can be as they grow into themselves. Unfortunately, its conventionality gradually overpowers its exciting first hour the further it gets away from the camp, but it’s still solid overall as both portraiture & political advocacy.
Judas and the Black Messiah
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield), Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Music (Original Song), and Best Cinematography
Since The Academy is unlikely to ever change the type of movies it tends to award, the best we can apparently hope for are changes in subject & cultural representation. Enter Judas and the Black Messiah, an Awards Season historical drama about a charismatic, radical Black Panther Party leader who was assassinated by the FBI when he was only 21 years old.
If the Oscars nomination machine is only going to recognize sobering dramas & grim actors’ showcases, then at least we can celebrate that one of this year’s chosen few is a Trojan Horse for leftist, Revolutionary politics. At least it’s not a birth-to-death biopic of Fred Hampton; it’s a snapshot of him at the height of his power, arguing for the effectiveness of Revolution over the empty promise of Gradual Reform. Using the Awards Season movie machine to get people re-incensed over Hampton’s police-state execution is a genuine, real-world good. The format might be a little dusty & traditional, but the politics are as relevant & vital as ever.
Da 5 Bloods
Nominated for Best Music (Original Score)
I initially avoided this because I’m generally bored by the Vietnam War Movie template to the point of total numbness. Instead of dodging the redundancy of genre, this one dives headfirst into it — directly commenting on its tropes & untruths. It’s revisiting & unpacking Vietnam War Cinema as much as it’s picking scabs leftover from the war itself. Which means there are Apocalypse Now-themed dance parties, Rambo jokes, and deliberately corny helicopter warfare. No CCR needle drops, though, thankfully.
Can’t say I completely overcame my genre bias here, and I’m not convinced the movie overcomes the hurdle of Netflix Flatness either. Still, I’m always on the hook for Spike Lee’s messy multimedia jabs at all ugly corners institutional racism, and this particular topic opens up a wide range of opportunities for his deliciously unsubtle political commentary. Would’ve been much more excited by an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay over Best Original Score.
Nominated for Best Director and Best International Feature Film
Look, I only have enough capacity to care about one self-amused film about pathetic men’s midlife crises at a time, and right now that space is occupied by Deerskin. This one’s mildly engaging once it heats up, but it’s a chore getting there. The wonderful, much-praised ending almost felt like earning a lollipop for enduring a doctor’s visit.
To be fair, it does a good job of covering all the positives & negatives of social & antisocial alcohol consumption, but I kinda found that to be a mundane topic at this length — almost as much as the macho fears of losing virility in old age. It’s fine overall, but considering it in the context of Awards Season doesn’t do it any favors.
Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (France McDormand), Best Director, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Cinematography, Best Editing
It’s an undignified ritual, but every Oscars cycle I end up watching something mediocre solely to be in tune with The Discourse. Everything I’ve heard about this film’s muddied labor politics, Malickian awe with the American landscape, and emphasis on rugged individualism had me convinced it’d leave me either bored or annoyed. I watched it anyway because it’s pretty much a lock for Best Picture, like a rube.
It was mostly fine. Not exactly for me, but I knew to expect that. The corporate sponsorships & celebrity protagonist occasionally had me rolling my eyes, but I do think it’s critical enough about America’s complete lack of a social safety net to get by okay. The poetry it finds in life off the grid and the vastness of the West is completely lost on me, but that’s more a personal hang-up than a fault of the movie’s.
It’ll probably win Everything, then promptly be forgotten – another ritual that happens every Oscars cycle.
One of the more surprising narratives this Awards Season has been the glowing accolades for Borat 2(aka Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), including multiple nominations for Academy Awards in pretty major categories. Not only is the Borat sequel middling as a comedy loosely stuffed with hit-or-miss gags, but its staged-pranks format has gotten incredibly dusty in the decades since series like The Ali G Show, Jackass, and The Tom Green Show first premiered on television. This is especially true of the Borat schtick in particular, since the popularization of platforms like Twitter & Fox News have made it so the modern ghoul no longer needs to be tricked into broadcasting their ghoulish beliefs in public. They just do it openly & proudly now. I left Borat 2 wondering if the post-Jackass prank movie had anywhere left to go that hadn’t already been seen dozens of times before. I should have known that the much-delayed Eric Andre vehicle Bad Trip would have an answer for that, as his own modern mutation of the Ali G-era prank show has been pushing that medium to new, weird extremes in recent years. What I didn’t expect is that Andre’s innovations within that format would be so glaringly Retro.
In Bad Trip, a stunted-adult loser (Eric Andre) travels up the East Coast with his best friend (Lil Rel Howery) in a car stolen from that bestie’s tough-as-nails sister (Tiffany Haddish) in order to profess his love to his childhood crush (Michaela Conlin). Hijinks ensue along the way. That absurdly simplistic premise is repeatedly derailed by one-off gags in which the three professional comedians at the film’s center interact with an unexpecting public through candid-camera pranks, crassly blending fact & fiction in an otherwise traditional road trip movie. The pranks portions of Bad Trip are exactly what you’d expect from a candid-cam comedy starring Eric Andre: shocking absurdist gags, abrasive gross-outs, and a constant tension between chaos & artifice. You can tell Andre grew up admiring shows like Jackass and revels in the opportunity to create one himself on such a large scale. There’s nothing especially innovative or surprising there, outside maybe the shocks of individual gags. The surprising thing about Bad Trip is how much Andre (along with frequent collaborator Kitao Sakurai in the director’s chair) taps into the other kinds of comedies he grew up watching in the film’s scripted portions.
The scripted connective tissue between Bad Trip‘s pranks oddly shares more DNA with mainstream 90s & 00s comedies than it does with Borat or Jackass. The film is practically a parody of the gross-out humor that flooded Hollywood comedies after the Farrelly Brothers hit it big with There’s Something About Mary; it just happens to invite an unaware public into the grotesque mayhem of those films’ juvenile humor. It even openly acknowledges its connection to that vintage comedic past by citing the Wayans Brothers comedy White Chicks as a specific touchstone, both in its scripted portions and in its in-the-wild pranks. The film is effectively an act of post-modern scholarship, connecting the candid-cam pranks era to an even earlier wave of gross-out shock comedies – freshening up both formats through the juxtaposition. That may seem like highfalutin praise for a film where Andre posits public streaking, puking, and urination as the height of modern comedy, but I really do believe there’s an academic thrust behind that retrograde buffoonery.
Unfortunately, not all of the ways in which Bad Trip is Ironically Retro are fun to watch. Some of the films’ post-Farrelly Brothers humor did not sit right with me, especially the pranks on people just trying their best to get through their shifts at work and the extensive gag in which Andre is sexually assaulted by a gorilla. They’re jokes that you would totally expect to see in a mainstream comedy twenty years ago, though, for whatever that’s worth. It’s the juxtaposition of that grotesque humor with real-life participants that makes the film feel fresh & dangerous in the first place, a tonal clash exaggerated by its often-wholesome story about two adult men bonding on a haphazard road trip. Even given some of its mood-killing misfires, Bad Trip is on the whole much funnier and much more excitingly innovative than the softball political jabs of Borat 2 – an Oscar-nominated mediocrity. At the very least, it’s a film that’s aware that it’s participating in a dead, moldy genre, and it goes out of its way to acknowledge how its staged-pranks format is out of sync with modern comedic sensibilities.
I’m generally curious about vintage sexploitation films as a genre, the kinds of nudist novelties that were made obsolete in the 1970s when hardcore pornography creeped out of stag parties and into public theaters. When digging through the back catalogs of sexploitation greats like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman, however, I find myself clearly divided on which half of the sexploitation era tickles me and which I can barely stomach. Following Meyer’s debut The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959, the first half of the 1960s was dominated by “nudie cuties” – a wave of kitschy, oddly innocent nudist films you almost wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch with your mother. Things took a dark turn in the back half of that decade, however, when nudie cuties were supplanted by “roughies” – vile black & white crime thrillers that intend to titillate through softcore simulations of sexual assault. I usually suffer through roughies as an ill-advised completionist’s obligation when boning up on the works of directors like Meyer, Wishman, and Ed Wood; they’re uniformly grotesque. I was shocked, then, to recently discover a roughie that I found just as adorable as the nudie cuties I’m usually searching for in those directors’ catalogs: the 1968 lesbian girl gang thriller She Mob.
The titular “she mob” is a gang of ex-con women who hire a gigolo for an afternoon lay, then hold him for ransom against the wealthy businesswoman that keeps him as a house pet. Their leader, Big Shim, is a tough-as-nails lesbian in leather bondage gear, whose gigantic bullet bra doubles as a lethal weapon as she wages war against the fine folks of suburban America. Her underlings are swinging-60s delinquents, cartoonish exaggerations of femininity who immediately launch into one of three activities the second they wake up: masturbation, go-go dancing, or pillow fights. As you can imagine, not much happens in this softcore novelty; it’s mostly a hangout film as the gigolo waits to be set free by his girlfriend/employer. The climactic action before that rescue mission is a forced-feminization fantasy sequence where the girls dress up their captive boy-toy in lingerie, declaring “He thinks he’s such a man … Let’s see what kind of woman he’d make!” They then take turns lashing him with a whip. Besides that indulgence in light bondage & crossdressing, the sex in the film is about as tame as the plotting; it mostly consists of actors wriggling on top of each other in the nude. Still, the forced crossdressing angle is strikingly kinky for the era, and you can practically hear Ed Wood panting in the background.
That femmes-in-charge power dynamic just works for me – both as a subversion of the usual sexual assault eroticism of roughies as a genre and, frankly, as just plain erotica. It’s like the difference between Russ Meyers’s godawful biker gang roughie Motorspycho!and his all-time-classic girl gang thriller Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. The one where men torment female victims is gross, and the one where women torment male victims is hot stuff; those are just the rules. Beyond that, She Mob scores a lot of easy cool points in its proto-punk filmmaking aesthetics. The opening credits read like a xeroxed zine. All on-screen sex is intercut with close-ups of characters’ profuse sweat and heavy breathing. Masturbation scenes leer at performers’ breast surgery scars. And then there’s the scene where Shim gores her captive victim with the points of her bullet bra like a charging bull. It’s all effortlessly punk-as-fuck, just as much as it is generally effortless. The gender dynamics subversion at the core of its eroticism is a huge part of that proto-punk energy, and I think it helped clarify exactly why roughies don’t usually appeal to me. I usually avoid the genre at all costs if I can help it, but find me another dirt-cheap novelty picture where women kick the shit out of men while modeling complicated underwear and I am there (especially if the men get to try on the underwear).
Welcome to Episode #132 of The Swampflix Podcast. For this episode, Britnee and Brandon investigate the urban legend that Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers/Seven Beauties) is actually an alias of Shirley Kilpatrick (The Astounding She-Monster), a relic of pre-Internet rumor & speculation.
03:45 Sabrina (1995) 08:30 What Lies Below (2020) 12:50 The Demon Lover (1976) 16:30 Demon Lover Diary (1980)
21:21 Shirley Stoler vs. Shirley Kilpatrick 30:30 The Astounding She-Monster (1957) 40:30 The truth about the Shirleys 43:55 Seven Beauties (1975)
Keeping track of which titles are available to stream on what platform when is a constant struggle for sub-professional movie nerds. This has been doubly true in the past year, where the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred & warped the traditional theatrical window into near oblivion. That might explain how I showed up to HBO Max intending to watch the new Godzilla vs Kong film a week early, confusing the date of its Chinese market theatrical debut for the date it was supposed to start streaming on HBO Max in America. Getting jazzed to watch a big-budget kaiju spectacle only to discover I’d have to keep that excitement on ice for an entire week was a letdown, and I was determined to do something with my giant-monster energy in that moment of panic so as not to waste it. I needed to watch Godzilla fight a formidable foe that night, so I scrambled to come up with which opponent would be a worthy replacement for the mighty Kong. The answer was immediately obvious, as the last time I saw Godzilla breathe atomic fire in 2019’s King of the Monsters re-sparked my interest in the mystical femme kaiju Mothra, who I’ve seen in too few of her own onscreen epic battles.
Choosing to watch Godzilla battle Mothra might’ve been a quick, easy decision, but it immediately led to another, trickier what-to-stream crisis. Having appeared in 15 feature films to date, Mothra is second only to Godzilla in her number of onscreen battles in the sprawling Zillaverse. Whittling down the list of options from there was a complicated process. I removed titles where Mothra appeared on her lonesome, terrorizing only the puny, Earth-polluting humans in her path. I was looking for a fair fight. I then discarded titles like Destroy All Monsters & Giant Monsters: All Out Attack where Mothra had to share the screen with the dozens of other kaiju baddies who have beef with the King of the Monsters. That left me with two clear contenders for the perfect Godzilla vs Mothra match-up, which should’ve been obvious by their titles alone: 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla and 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Choosing between the two of them was essentially a coin-toss—given their near-identical titles—so I did the only sensible thing: I watched both. And they were both great. All I can really do here is attempt to distinguish them from one another in case someone else finds themselves in that hyper-specific scenario – wanting to watch Godzilla fight Mothra and having to make a snap decision on where to satisfy their kaiju craving.
The 1964 film Mothra vs Godzilla is the platonic ideal of what you’d want out of a retro kaiju battle film. A beloved classic from Godzilla’s Shōwa era, it’s earned both populist praise as a fun action romp featuring two of the greatest movie monsters of all time and the recent stamp of approval from The Criterion Collection as a culturally significant work of Art. In the movie, Godzilla is a monstrous personification of nuclear waste & coastal erosion who can only be vanquished by the righteous Earth-protector Mothra. Only, the corporate greed of the smiling chumps at Happy Enterprises make Mothra question whether humanity is worth saving at all. The foot-tall fairy women from Infant Island who represent Mothra’s wishes (as Happy Enterprises jokingly declare have “the power of attorney” over the beast)—and can summon her in song—eventually broker a deal for Mothra (and her freshly-hatched larvae) to fight Godzilla to protect humanity for destruction. In the ensuing battle, she flaps up punishing winds with her wings, puffs out a poisonous pollen, and drags Godzilla around by his tail until he retreats back into the ocean. It’s wonderful. The entire movie is a pure, kitschy delight, registering as the Godzilla equivalent of The Bride of Frankenstein in its balance between cutesy humor and retro terror.
1992’s Godzilla vs Mothra (marketed in America as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth) is a little clunkier in its build-up to its titular monster battle, even though it repeats most of the 1964 film’s broader details. The Infant Island fairy women (originally played by The Peanuts) may have been replaced by a new generation of foot-tall mystic beauties called The Cosmos and the easy-target villain Happy Enterprises may have been replaced by the hubris & pollution of Humanity as a species, but story-wise Godzilla vs Mothra is near-identical to Mothra vs Godzilla, just as it is in title. Only, it delays that traditional story with some hokey Indiana Jones-style adventurism and the crash of a CGI asteroid in its early goings, needlessly inflating its runtime. That unnecessary delay may mean that Mothra vs. Godzilla ’64 is the better film overall, but once it fully unleashes its monster mayhem Godzilla vs. Mothra ’92 has much more exciting kaiju fights, which is a pretty major qualifier. Mothra fully emerges into battle about an hour into the film in a cloud of poisonous, glittering pollen, and attacks Godzilla with sparks, lasers, and underwater brawling in a huge step up from her original move set. She’s also teamed up with a goth frenemy named Battra (decorated with Guy Fieri flame decals on its wings) who adds an entire new dynamic to the titular fight. Together, they shock Godzilla into submission, smash a Ferris wheel into him, and ultimately, as the kids would say, “throw the entire man away” as a team.
I’m not enough of an expert in the kaiju battle genre to declare a clear victor here. All I can report is that the two Godzilla vs. Mothra films have their own distinct flavors despite the ways they overlap in narrative and lore. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) is a perfectly calibrated rubber-monster creature feature from start to end, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of surprise in what you’d expect from a Shōwa era kaiju picture starring these particular two monsters. By contrast, Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) is a much more uneven picture that spends a little too much time building up to its creature-feature payoffs. However, its actual kaiju battle scenes are much more exciting than its predecessor’s, staging absolutely gorgeous rubber-monster battles within the hyper-femme color palette of a teen girl’s bedroom. Choosing between the two movies is no easier now that I’ve watched them both, so my selection process would have to revert to the kinds of arbitrary filters that narrowed down my field of options in the first place. Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64) is ten minutes shorter, currently streaming in HD, and carries the art-film prestige of Criterion Collection canonization. It wins by default, but Godzilla vs. Mothra (’92) put up a hell of a fight.
Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film. Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.
The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over. Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography. Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series. Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been. Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.
Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something. In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting). The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative. Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween). They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.
Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences. Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance. Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”. When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled. When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory. This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning. By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”
I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow. Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit. Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017). As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date. When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe. Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring. It’s fun as hell.
I really do try my best to not be a snob. I pride myself in being able to evaluate films on their own terms, careful not to dismiss a work outright because of its genre or budget or level of prestige. Still, I obviously have personal hang-ups & biases I’ll never be able to look past, and they do make me helplessly snobbish about certain movies from time to time. One of these major hang-ups is my general distaste for computer-animated children’s films, including from widely beloved institutions like Pixar. Outside of more adventurous experiments in form like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, the majority of CG animation looks like dogshit to me. Even films that’re praised by industry experts for their exquisite, time-consuming animation of ocean waves or animal fur look lazy & uninspired to my biased eye, so I know this is a personal hang-up and not some objective truth. Meanwhile, I’m easily wowed by traditional 2D animation even if the movie is objectively lazy & uninspired, as is the case with the straight-to-video sci-fi anime The Humanoid.
The Humanoid is a 45min relic I found collecting dust on YouTube, where all forgotten media goes to effectively disappear. At first glance, it appears to be a backdoor pilot for a retro Saturday morning cartoon show, introducing the audience to a Alien-knockoff spaceship crew who travel from job to job, planet to planet, collecting paychecks by doing Good. This particular mission feels fairly self-contained, as the crew meets the titular humanoid—an android named Antoinette—who’s learning to become more human while also protecting her home planet from colonizer corporate villains. There are a couple stray laser fights & chase scenes peppered throughout the film, but most of the story concerns Antoinette’s struggles with human emotions & desires, as well as her ultimate decision to sacrifice herself to save the spaceship crew, so they can putter onto their next adventure. The result is that the only compelling character in this would-be series pilot dies at the end of the “episode,” making it difficult to imagine the adventure continuing in future installments. There’s also a decisive finality to this hilariously overwritten epilogue addressed to Antoinette, which also suggests this was always meant to be a standalone piece:
“Who can say a machine has no soul? Aren’t humans machines too? Mechanisms of flesh and blood. Across the endless light-years . . . life, mind, and spirit must flourish in a variety of forms. And as long as there is life, there will be love. Antoinette — I’m sure we’ll meet again, somewhere in the vastness of time. Until then, I send my blessing. Wherever you may be.”
If The Humanoid isn’t a pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon show, what is it exactly? My best guess is that it’s a coffee commercial — not for any particular brand of coffee, mind you, just for the general, basic concept of Coffee. There’s very little in the way of thrilling robo action in this film, but there are plenty of hilariously inane conversations about how great the coffee is on the planet-of-the-week. Seriously, there are at least five lengthy discussions of its robust flavor & aroma. The film’s opening narration includes the line “It’s only memories of Earth and the rich smell of this coffee that keeps my spirits up.” It’s closing scene muses “Coffee? my salvation from my day-to-day drudgery”. In-between, characters occasionally interject “This coffee tastes great!” just to keep the product at the top of the viewer’s mind. It’s maddeningly inane, making you question whether the generic villains’ quest for a MacGuffin “energy source” on the planet will ultimately result in the discovery that there is no power source greater than the rich, bold pick-me-up you can find in a hot cup of joe. And, as an advertisement, it totally works! I desperately want a cup of coffee right now.
So, here we have an action-light sci-fi cheapie that’s supposed to be about an android’s quest for human emotion, but it is actually about how great coffee tastes. The thing is, though, that it still looks great. This might be straight-to-VHS fluff with a retro Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but its animation is intricately detailed & vibrantly imaginative, especially as it builds to its explosive, overwrought climax. It’s hard to imagine any modern-day, computer-animated children’s media putting this much effort into its visual aesthetics, and this really is the bottom of the barrel in terms of passionate anime artistry. I try my best not to be a grump about how modern media doesn’t stack up to my nostalgia-tinged memories of the types of media I happened to grow up with. Comparing the look of low-effort 80s schlock like The Humanoid to today’s $200mil CG animation monstrosities is too depressing to ignore, though. I genuinely feel like we’ve lost a basic attention to visual craft (or at least a collective sense of good taste) in animated media over the decades. At this point, it’s only the memories of vintage cartoons and the rich smell of coffee that keep my spirits up.