Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Release: Friday, May 31, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Zach Shields; Michael Dougherty 

Directed by: Michael Dougherty 

The sequel to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is undeniably a different beast, dispensing with its predecessor’s drip-fed action and methodical pacing for more direct, adrenaline-spiking payoff. Edwards had his chance to thrill us and apparently he botched it so in steps Michael Dougherty, the dude who gave us the anti-Santa horror-comedy Krampus. He offers himself up to fans as a most humbled servant, giving the world’s most famous kaiju a few new friends to hang out with, effectively creating a much bigger spectacle that puts primal, brutal showdowns front-and-center.

King of the Monsters may not make any move bolder than killing off its presumed main characters within the first fifteen minutes, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have big things in store. Over the course of an indulgent two-and-a-half hours Dougherty sends us on a visually spectacular journey from the plush greens of the Yunnan rainforest to the blinding white of the Antarctic Circle, establishing the monstrous battles for supremacy against a backdrop of environmental apocalypse and human hubris — precisely the kind of thematic posturing you’d expect from a movie about a creature born of the nuclear age.

From an action standpoint King of the Monsters absolutely lives up to its title, presenting a series of city-leveling confrontations as an epic territorial dispute wherein we lowly humans are caught on both sides of an ideological divide: Do we attempt to force our hand or do we let Mother Nature run her course? The film features several of the classic Toho creations and captures them using all the bells and whistles of breathtaking modern CGI. Behold the luminescent beauty and grace of Mothra as she unfurls her wings; the screaming intensity of the volcanic-born predator Rodan; the sickening size and freaky three-headedness of “Monster Zero” (King Ghidorah, if you prefer) — the latter serving as the film’s primary villain and fulfilling his classic role as arch-nemesis of Godzilla.

King of the Monsters inherits its predecessor’s human problem but that component of the story is slightly more involving this time around, even if the characterization is again pretty generic. But let’s be reasonable here, it’s nothing if not par the summer blockbuster course and it’s certainly not pre-2000 Godzilla, where Roland Emmerich had us all on pins and needles wondering whether anyone would actually pronounce Matthew Broderick’s character’s name correctly. An ecoterrorist named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) despairs at the overpopulation crisis and humanity’s wanton disregard for their environment and so endeavors to return the planet to a “more natural” state. On a collision course with his special brand of crazy are the Russells, a science-minded family who have helped the secretive government agency Monarch develop technology used to measure the activity of the many known “titans” across the globe, technology Mr. Jonah seeks for his own nefarious agenda.

Stranger Things‘ Millie Bobby Brown may only be 15 years old but in her big-screen début she stands out among her more experienced co-stars, particularly a tired-looking Kyle Chandler and an uncharacteristically unconvincing Vera Farmiga who play her parents now separated after the loss of their younger child. At least their anti-kaiju stance advances the modern narrative in a way that’s believable. They are remnants of a world that didn’t quite know how to negotiate a 390-foot-tall, upright-walking reptile who also spits nuclear radiation. A world that didn’t really understand what his relationship was to us, what his purpose was.

Brown’s Madison convincingly bridges those eras. She doesn’t share her parents’ hatred for the big guy. Her compassion proves an evolution of understanding. With her mother held hostage physically and ideologically by Mr. Jonah she emerges as one of the few voices of reason in a world gone mad. Well it’s her and Ken Watanabe, who reprises his role as Monarch scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa. As one of the elite few Japanese actors who got to take part in these big American event films, it’s about damn time he gets more of a say in these matters, his arc not only emotionally resonant but vital to the story.

King of the Monsters is an old-school-feeling, globetrotting smashing adventure that prioritizes big time fun over mood and pathos — kinda the opposite of Godzilla of five years ago. Not that that movie wasn’t entertaining, of course. I miss the discipline Edwards showed in building up to that incredible, vertical-panning shot that gave us our first good look at the main star. I miss that raw power of adrenaline. The sequel, however, offers its own excitement. The action is revved up to more crowd-pleasing levels, while the sheer amount of effort poured into the creature design and indeed the fights justifies the price of admission, whether that’s the sound engineers edging Godzilla’s roar closer to the original 1954 sound, or Dougherty urging his visual effects team, led by Guillaume Rocheron, to really imbue the creatures with their innate animal-like behaviors and physical traits — Ghidorah memorable for not just having three heads but those heads each moving independently like cobras waiting to strike.

King Ghidorah, and indeed King of the Monsters overall, makes a fairly strong case for bigger (and more) being better. It left me eagerly awaiting what comes next and in my opinion that’s what a good movie, a good second chapter, should do.

“Count your blessings. Your lines are better than mine.”

Recommendation: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, don’t be a nunce like me and miss the end credits! (Is this movie still even playing theatrically?) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Goodbye, old friend.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Commuter

Release: Friday, January 12, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Byron Willinger; Philip de Blasi; Ryan Engle

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Commuter is the fourth time director Jaume Collet-Serra and Liam Neeson have teamed up to deliver you the questionable goods. Sure, it was Pierre Morel’s Taken that discovered the fountain of ass-kicking youth within the 66-year-old actor, but it’s Serra who has really taken that template and run with it, testing its flexibility by placing the aging but clearly still agile action star in a variety of gritty situations. He’s experienced identity fraud, dealt with the Irish mafia and beaten up terrorists at cruising altitude. Though he hasn’t achieved much distinction with this approach, in championing quantity over quality the barceloní is at least giving us options.

Which is why it is so difficult for me to actually recommend something as . . . . bleghhh as The Commuter. Of all the vehicles built around Neeson’s very particular set of skills, the train thus far has proven to be the least effective. Or at least its villains have. The story is also disappointingly a retread of 2014, borrowing everything but the pilots and tray tables in their upright and locked position from that year’s Non-stop. 

In this one Neeson plays an ex-cop named Michael MacCauley who has been working in life insurance for the last ten years. He has taken the train in and out of the city every single day and because he has, Michael begins the film like everyone else, as persona very grata, before invariably getting roped into a murder conspiracy that could have fatal consequences for all. Think you’ve had a bad day? Try having this shoved on your plate after being unceremoniously let go from a job you desperately need.

Moments into yet another ordinary commute home (minus the whole being fired part) Michael is joined by a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her capacity) who can’t help but dump the plot all over his lap. In an Agatha Christie way she informs Michael there is one passenger on board who “does not belong,” and that, hypothetically, if he were to locate that person he would be rewarded with $100,000. The catch is he has no idea what the person looks like, the days of profiling complete strangers are far behind him, and (again, hypothetically) he must find the individual before the train reaches the end of the line. When Michael finds a stash of Ben Franklins in a lavatory he discovers that there is nothing hypothetical about this proposal.

Rounding out cast notables are Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill. The former, who reunites with Farmiga for the first time outside the realm of The Conjuring universe, offers a confidante in ex-partner Alex Murphy (like in RoboCop!) when things go all pear-shaped for Michael. Meanwhile Neill is absolutely wasted in the vastly underwritten role of Captain Name’s Not Important. At least one of them is meant to suggest something about corrupt cops and departments, but there’s just not enough material here to get a feel for what is being said about it. Yes, crooked cops. Those are . . . those are bad.

The Commuter should be praised for its commitment to realism — insofar as ‘real’ means mundane, uneventful. Yet that same tactic tends to tip the film itself into mundanity. Despite there being an attempt to survey the moral depths of his character, Michael just isn’t interesting enough to justify the sheer randomness of his involvement. On one hand, the film’s lack of big action feels appropriate, but then it leaves you with plenty of time to ponder on the motives of the villains. Or how many trains derail every year.

Look, what mechanizes these kinds of late-career action films doesn’t have to be some sophisticated scheme nor do they need to be borne out of a sociopolitical movement, but at the very least there should be some kind of weight behind the nefariousness. And if we never do believe the threat is strong enough to actually overpower him, for the love of Qui-Gon at least make the adventure compelling. The Commuter does neither of these things, and as a result leaves fans wanting off at the nearest possible stop.

“My career is running off the rails. Pah. Says who?”

Recommendation: B-grade Serra if you ask me. When much of life is about choice, why would you choose the rather uneventful and dramatically uninspired The Commuter? For those dreaming of the day they get Non-stop set on a train, well . . . . . . . dream no more.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “What’s in the bag?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Special Correspondents

'Special Correspondents' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 29, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Ricky Gervais

Directed by: Ricky Gervais 

I’m suspicious of any movie that literally ends with the line “This is like the end of a movie.” While exemplary of the meta flavor of comedy that’s been en vogue since at least the mid-2000s, that line is also symptomatic of a bigger issue: the movie it’s stuck in is atrocious.

Sure, that’s pretty brutal. But what’s more brutal is the thought that, should I hold my tongue, I might just bite it off and swallow. How is Ricky Gervais’ most recent palavering, the media-jabbing comedy Special Correspondents, this unfunny? Disregard the pedigree of pure comedy behind the camera and the script, how can a movie be this devoid of logic, coherence, entertainment value and, oh yeah did I mention logic? One of the ways you can get there I suppose is by concocting the following nonsense:

A radio journalist (Eric Bana) and his technician (Gervais) fake their coverage of a war erupting in Ecuador by hiding in the loft of a restaurant adjacent to the very station they work at in Manhattan. They can see through concealed windows they’re even on the same floor as their offices. This is as opposed to actually traveling abroad to do their jobs. Are they just feckless, ethically challenged professionals looking for a fancy way to get fired? Gervais doesn’t think that big. No, his character just accidentally throws their passports away. Proving at the very least they are unburdened by the weight of journalistic integrity and basic human morality, the pair feign a serious news report that ultimately culminates in a nationwide fundraising effort in the name of the two radio guys who went suddenly missing behind borders.

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross claims — and bear with me here for a second — that most people, as they go through the grieving process, deny first and will eventually come to accept later. But in trying to process the immense pile of fuckery that has been put before me, I think the mission is far more do-able if we work backwards through the Five Stages. First, let’s address how inane a concept Special Correspondents is working with. The absurdity and lack of forethought, the sheer number of loopholes and contrivances that are needed to make the story work is difficult to accept, even by Gervaisian standards. So difficult, in fact, it’s impossible. The constant provocation of the suspension of disbelief is alarmingly thin cover for a director who doesn’t know how to tell a story.

Moving on past acceptance — which likely won’t be reached but let’s go with this anyway — we arrive at depression. This is actually dually appropriate given Gervais’ character is somewhat of a depressed mope whose marriage to the pretty awful Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) is a sham, and it’s depressing how bad Bana is in his role. Overacting as though his first day on the job, Bana’s Frank is either yelling incoherently at Gervais’ bumbling, nervous Ian or he’s generally being an ass just to be an ass. There’s a modicum of refreshment in watching the roles reverse, as Gervais goes nice and his co-star hams it up like John Ratzenberger in Toy Story. Most depressing of all, the movie turns Farmiga, a highly likable actress, into a gold-digging shrew of a woman absolutely devoid of redeeming qualities.

Bargaining. What can we bargain with here, then? I’ll concede that Special Correspondents strikes the right tone for what Gervais is going for: it’s as silly as the plot is ridiculous. Supporting turns from America Ferrara and Raúl Castillo as a pair of hospitable Latino immigrants help perpetuate the willy-nilly, carefree zippity-doo-dah. How do these two exactly expect this all to work out — like it did for Orson Welles? Will they become the heroes of their own fiction? I’m also willing to bargain with folks who think I’m dwelling too much on logical cohesion. Fair enough, I probably am. After all, it’s just comedy.

The talent that’s theoretically on display is enough to make a reasonable person who doesn’t throw away passports by mistake assume Special Correspondents delivers the laughs in spades. Barring some amusing exchanges between the two — basically whenever Ian does something Frank doesn’t like — the film is a poor effort on that front as well.  If you’re seeking Gervais’ raging Britishness (or that signature laugh) you’ll be left out in the cold. That’s enough to make me angry, and one step closer to fully cycling through this very difficult, very unusual grieving process. Someone help, because I know what comes next.

There’s some sort of socio-political commentary pasted in here about how we, the blind sheep of the American populace, form these relationships with the media and hang on their every word. Overreaction is an epidemic in a plugged-in society and David Fincher was brilliantly attuned to that in his recent Gone Girl adaptation. Of course it wasn’t really funny then, nor is it in other cinematic treatments of these curious societal habits of ours. But Gervais is simply not making any accurate statement about society, about the way media deals with hot button topics like securing American troops and journalists in peril. His is not a movie made to wake you up but rather to dumb you down. To not be aware of its massively underachieving status is to be in a true state of denial.

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Recommendation: Painfully inadequate on all fronts, the only real laughs inspired by the misguided, nonsensical plot and awkward direction, Special Correspondents suggests that perhaps the mouthy Brit should apply his talents to other areas — like in resurrecting David Brent. Why not stick with acting? I’m hoping there’s more to him that I can discover beyond his Office personality, because I like the guy and want to get the taste of this one out of my mouth as soon as possible.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “It’s quiet. Too quiet. In the sky, combat helicopters stop. An explosion rings out. My own technician has another near-miss. A bullet flies *inches* above his head. Lucky for him he’s so short, or he’d most certainly be dead by now. This is Frank Bonneville, Q63.5 News.”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

The Conjuring 2

'The Conjuring 2' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: James Wan; Carey Hayes; Chad Hayes; David Leslie Johnson

Directed by: James Wan

The horror event of the year has arrived and no one is safe. Not the Warrens from nightmarish visions; not the British family whose home turns into a petri dish for malevolent spirits; not James Wan from criticism. I don’t want to spoil anything and say it’s all going to be okay for everyone, but at least for Wan it will be. He’s back with a fresh set of haunting images in The Conjuring 2, a literal spiritual sequel to the 2013 smash hit that found real-life paranormal activity investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) coming to the rescue of an innocent Rhode Island family.

The Conjuring established itself as elite horror in terms both commercial and critical, raking in roughly seven times its production budget ($20 million) in American box office receipts alone. Though Wan relied heavily on the jump scare tactic to rattle audiences, he compensated for familiarity by developing characters that were, for once, well worth embracing, particularly in the Warrens. The net effect? These people have become endeared to us, and now in their second outing, we dread what lies ahead because now we too are experienced.

It is true: The Conjuring 2 is really just more of the same stuff. Instead of the Perrons we are introduced to the (very British) Hodgsons. We watch as another family is torn apart without mercy. But isn’t that what we wanted anyway? Back then it became apparent, and fairly quickly, that audiences were willing to pay to become highly strung-out. And while we’re on the subject, let’s dispel a myth: the mark of a good horror film is measured by the stress it induces rather than how many times it physically startles you; if you want something scary, watch a war film or this year’s American presidential elections.

Did we not want a supernatural tale that feels undeniably human and that satiates, via convincing special effects and odd camera placements, our morbid curiosity for what on the surface appears to be demons rising from the underworld? How would it not be fair for us to anticipate another signature exorcism (with apologies to William Friedkin, of course) to wrap things up? The fairly familiar beats The Conjuring 2 delivers are everything we asked for. And then some.

This is less of a retread than you might think, and its foundation isn’t built upon dollars and cents. There’s a legitimate reason we’re going through this again. The haunting in Enfield represents another terrifying case file in the Warrens’ infamous career. There’s a sophistication about proceedings absent in lesser, cheaper offerings, the sort of B-flicks that would be more fun if they weren’t so painfully obviously rushed off the assembly line. Wan, a director who lives, eats and breathes horror, seizes the opportunity to delve further into the lives of the paranormal investigators and to provide a cinematic experience that could go on to be as difficult to forget as its predecessor.

Once again he uses love, not hate, as a driving force. We already know how capable the Warrens are — their many decorated shelves back home are testament to years of dangerous, grueling work — but this time they’re genuinely vulnerable, with Lorraine having a difficult time ridding herself of visions she’s been having since their Amityville days. Her husband’s concerned though he remains keenly aware of the hippocratic oath that binds them to their duties. That’s not the only moral conundrum addressed. The Warrens’ public image comes under fire when skeptics start coming out of the woodwork, including a live television debate that incenses the Warrens and, later, Franka Potente’s Anita Gregory, who challenges the pair directly over the validity of any of their claims, past and present. Media also play a role in creating, even influencing, perception.

The Enfield poltergeist (incidentally the project’s working and far superior title) is a being of exceptional power and takes as much pleasure in tormenting the Warrens as it does single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor). O’Connor, saddled with the unenviable task of mimicking Ellen Burstyn as she bears witness to severe behavioral changes in younger daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), commits to the single-mom archetype with ferocity. Fortunately for her, her story takes a backseat to how the Warrens respond to the latest call. This particular phantom takes on many forms, both clichéd (an old bitter man named Bill Wilkins) and more novel (green-eyed nuns and crooked men who move like the Babadook). While the evil is diluted somewhat by flimsy justification — Bill just wants the family to stop squatting in his house — its physical appearance is more than enough to disturb.

As was the case in The Conjuring, where we got to know the Perron family to the point where fate and consequence actually meant something to us, this is so much more than a ghost story. The spotlight falls more intensely on the Warrens this time around. Now it’s less about their expertise as it is about unwavering faith, about the deep love and trust these people have in one another. The Enfield case has haunted England ever since 1977, and manifested as one of the Warrens’ most notable challenges, if for no other reason than how personal everything became. Lorraine is convinced taking this job could spell disaster, and she pleads with her husband that, if they are to visit, they’ll operate in a more observational capacity rather than going fully hands-on. Of course, none of that matters when push really comes to shove.

I’m with Lorraine here. I’m not sure who else is, but I can’t be alone. I’m perfectly okay with playing the part of observer. I’d rather not get my hands dirty. Sitting back and watching lives fall apart amidst typically dull England weather is emotionally taxing enough for me. Touché, James Wan. You’ve made me believe sequels to horror films actually can be good.

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Recommendation: Highly anticipated horror sequel manifests as a potent elixir featuring dramatic, thriller and even romance elements that help steer it away from films cut from the same cloth. As someone who has yet to experience the Insidious franchise, I can’t say whether these are Wan’s best efforts, but there’s little use in denying he has officially established himself as the go-to director when it comes to big-budget horror. This was so good I personally see no reason why a third and fourth couldn’t be produced. Like, I am actually asking for more for once. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “It’s so small and light!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Judge

the-judge-poster

Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque 

Directed by: David Dobkin

The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.

Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.

At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.

We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?

Maybe a little.

Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.

For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.

Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.

It ain’t all bad, though.

The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)

Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.

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2-5Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

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