Versus. If ever a preposition was a tip-off to callowness in filmmaking, it’s versus. Inserted between two mutually antagonistic entities in a movie title, it immediately calls to mind ailing icons of sagging horror and sci-fi franchises propped up one last time to squeeze a few extra dollars out of sheep-like audiences.
Freddy Vs. Jason, currently in theaters, has surprised many by being (so they say) better than the average showdown between cynically resurrected movie monsters. Historically, though, when versus appears in a title, it has rarely bespoken cinematic innovation. There are a few exceptions, which we’ve scattered throughout this week’s round-up of movies with, um, versus in the title. May the cinephile beware!
Godzilla vs. ________
Godzilla—or Gojira, as he’s known in his native Japan—is the undisputed titan of versus movies. Since being roused from his 70-million-year sleep by atomic testing in the early ’50s, the redoubtable (and crabby!) plasma-spewing Tokyo-stomper has been called on to defend his heavyweight title against contenders ranging from a giant ape to an enormous crab to a malevolent blob spawned by pollution. Toho Studios’ grimly serious 1954 Godzilla: King of the Monsters was just the beginning. Since then, there have been almost 30 Godzilla films, most of them pitting an actor in a rubberized suit (the CG animation in the 1998 American Godzilla was but one of its many heretical acts) against a menagerie of things that go bump around the Ring of Fire. Among them: Gigantis the Fire Monster (1955), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964), Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973). Recommended titles: Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964), which pits the rubberized wrecker against a benevolent giant moth and is best remembered for the telepathic six-inch fairy twins who serve as the outsized insect’s ambassadors; and Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965), which features some of the most marvelously antiquated special effects of the Godzilla filmography.
Kramer vs. Kramer
While the battle scenes of writer-director Robert Benton’s 1979 Academy Award-winner may not produce the physical wreckage of a King Kong vs. Godzilla, the warfare is just as destructive when a husband and wife battle for custody of their 7-year-old son. Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a workaholic who has little time for his kid until his wife (played by Meryl Streep) leaves him, which leads to a new closeness between Ted and the young boy, Billy (Justin Henry). Streep doesn’t have much screen time, but the gut-wrenching dynamic between her and Hoffman is a large part of what earned this film Best Picture at the Oscars. Particularly monstrous is the courtroom finale in which each parent’s lawyer jabs at the other parent’s most sensitive shortcomings. Here, the two metaphorically tear each other apart, yet they don’t seem to enjoy the destruction the way Godzilla might. Rather, they are reluctant warriors driven to extremes by that most powerful force which, in its most intense form, can turn any human being into a beast: love.
Mexican Wrestling Movies
“It’s a real sport down there,” says Homer Simpson, but you’d never guess it from this unspeakably inviting genre, which throve south of the border in the ’50s and ’60s and made superstars (in Mexico) out of masked luchadors like El Santo and the Blue Demon. Several Mexican wrestling “classics” have been re-released on DVD in recent years (and once in a blue moon you can find video copies for sale on the dollar table at your local video store), but many of the more tantalizing ones—boasting titles like Santo vs. the Vampire Women, Santo vs. the Ghost of the Strangler and Rock ’n’ Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy—might just elude you forever.
Joe Versus the Volcano
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in this 1990 film about a terminally ill man hired to leap into a volcano to appease an angry Polynesian god. Though distantly related to It’s a Wonderful Life, Homer’s Odyssey and the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, there really isn’t anything else like it anywhere. Ryan is cute as a bug’s ear playing three roles: a ditzy secretary, a jaded Valley Girl, and the Valley Girl’s half-sister, whose father promises her her own boat for piloting Joe to the island, where he is hailed as a savior by members of a South Seas people with no natural sense of direction and a fondness for orange soda. Abe Vigoda (detective Phil Fish from TV’s Barney Miller) co-stars as chief of the Waponis. An underrated gem.
The People vs. Larry Flynt
With porn emperor Larry Flynt throwing his hat in the ring for the California governorship, there’s no time like the present to revisit Milos Forman’s idealized 1996 film biography starring Woody Harrelson as the erstwhile born-again Christian whose flagship publication, Hustler, once ran a cover depicting a woman being fed head-first into a meat grinder. First Amendment champion or opportunistic smut-pusher? You decide. Forman’s film definitely leans toward the former. In a textbook case of art imitating life, Courtney Love co-stars as a gold-digging junkie bimbo. In other words, as herself.