REVIEW: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

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In 2014 director Gareth Edwards brought Godzilla back to the big screen. His monster reboot was the 30th film in the near 70-year-old Godzilla franchise and the first film in Warner Brothers’ interconnected MonsterVerse. I loved the movie and its slow-burning, old-school, creature-feature vibe.

Relatively new director Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”) takes the reins of the sequel “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and delivers a movie quite different from its predecessor. The slow-burn is gone and the large-scaled Kaiju action is front and center. And where the Edwards’ film could also be sold as a stand-alone movie, this one feels very much a part of something bigger and broader.

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I wouldn’t call this a spoiler but the last film ended with Godzilla sinking back into the ocean after leveling San Francisco in a fight with an earth-threatening monster. Jump ahead five years. Paleobiologists Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) lost their young son during the destruction of San Francisco. They have since divorced under the stress of loss leaving their 12-year-old daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) caught in the middle.

While Mark has been off the radar Emma has been working with the super-secret shadow organization called Monarch. They’ve been monitoring not just the movements of Godzilla but the locations of numerous other monsters (called Titans) scattered across the globe in various forms of hibernation. Even more, Emma has constructed a device called ORCA that emits a sonar pulse which can either calm or rile the Titans. This catches the attention of a devious eco-terrorist group, Mark is drawn into the chaos, and a lot of big monsters rise up.

The human dynamic is interesting in a variety of ways. The Russell family drama is easily the most intimate, but it’s the broader human story that’s most compelling. As Dougherty himself describes it to Entertainment Weekly, “The world is reacting to Godzilla in the same way we would react to any other terrifying incident, in that we are overreacting.” We see mankind responding to the monsters impulsively – out of fear and uncertainty. And the question becomes how far can humanity’s intelligence and ingenuity take them in the face of such mighty threats?

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All of this is explored through a fine ensemble – Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Bradley Whitford, David Strathairn, Zhang Ziyi, among others. They all fall in nicely with a script that hearkens back (in a measured way) to the classic Toho Studio films. We get countless reaction shots, stunned utterances, and quick quips. Some may not like what they’re going for, but I got a kick out of it. And I appreciate how the film steers clear of drawn out exposition and loads of scientific mumbo-jumbo.

A handful of characters do get pushed to the side but that’s okay because they do exactly what they need to do – service the story and keep it moving towards what we really are there to see – the monsters! And the Titans really are the showcases. In addition to Godzilla we get classic Toho creations Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. The creature designs are stunning and their epic-scaled clashes are breathtaking spectacles. The special effects, Lawrence Sher’s crafty cinematography, and top-notch sound design makes for some truly satisfying and immersive Kaiju mayhem.

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I can already hear the pushback from those wanting more human drama in a movie about massive earth-moving monsters. I actually like the way they unpack the human story amid a breathless array of action. And I appreciate how they add layers of intriguing mythology without drowning us in babble. And I can also hear those wanting more of Godzilla on the screen. There are indeed huge segments where we don’t see him. But I was fine with it because his presence never leaves our mind. While things were playing out in front of me, I kept thinking “but Godzilla”.

So it makes sense to me that many have dismissed “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” the way they have. But at the same time it saddens me. Michael Dougherty has delivered a Godzilla movie that is unquestionably action-heavy, probably too much for those with no affection for the classic creature-features. But while the film is tipping its hat to its roots, it’s also subtly holding a mirror to modern society. I feel many have missed that element which is unfortunate. But when that human detail is combined with some of the best big monster action ever put on screen, all I can say is ‘Long Live the King’.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Green Room”

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Jeremy Saulnier’s mesmerizing 2013 film “Blue Ruin” was (as MTV.com’s Kevin Sullivan astutely put it) a prime example of “what Kickstarter is really capable of when it comes to movies”. Saulnier’s crowdfunded American thriller not only managed to get made, but it was one of the best film’s of that year.

His follow-up came with 2015’s “Green Room” which features a bigger budget (though still modest by today’s standards) and a broader cast of talent. The film is listed as a horror movie yet it plays out like an insanely intense survivalist thriller. It employs a familiar framework found in many horror movies yet it is very much its own crazy unique thing.

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In one of his final roles Anton Yelchin stars as a bass player for a punk band who gets by playing hole-in-the-wall clubs around the Pacific Northwest. Flat broke, they agree to take a gig at a neo-Nazi pub deep in the forest near Portland. The setting alone is uncomfortable and a bit frightening. But things really go south after the band witnesses a violent backroom crime. Along with another witness (Imogen Poots), the band find themselves holed up inside the bar while outside the subtly sinister club owner (a brilliant Patrick Stewart) gathers his army of hatemongers to clean up the messy situation.

From there Saulnier throttles up the survival element and a sizzling white-knuckled tension drives every scene for the rest of the way. And you’ll quickly notice (especially if you haven’t seen “Blue Ruin”) that Saulnier can really build and sustain suspense.

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Also prepare to be shocked. The movie’s second half is savagely brutal and the violence often hits with a bloody primal jolt. But Saulnier manages to walk an important line and doesn’t allow the violence to become gratuitous despite being incredibly graphic. It feels right – jarring in the best way and in tune with the ugliness of the situation and setting. It won’t be for the squeamish but it’s very effective.

For many “Green Room” seemingly came out of nowhere. But for fans of his previous film it only solidifies Jeremy Saulnier’s status as a formidable filmmaker worth following. It features fine performances throughout (sadly one of the final ones from Yelchin) and a superb turn from Stewart. As a whole the story is pretty simple, even a bit familiar. But once you dig in you realize this thing has a pulse all its own and once you’re in its grip it doesn’t let go.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Greta”

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Over the years Isabelle Huppert has proven herself to be an incredibly versatile actress. With over one hundred movies to her credit the 65-year-old Huppert has done a little bit of everything. She is certainly no stranger to playing unhinged and unsettling characters. Look no further than her role in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” – still one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever watched.

Huppert taps back into that outright derangement with her new film “Greta”. It’s not as nuanced as the role she played in “The Piano Teacher”. This is a much more straightforward psychological thriller and her madness comes into focus pretty early on.

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Chloë Grace Moretz plays Frances, a young woman who has recently moved to New York from Boston following the death of her mother. She shares an apartment with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) and waits tables at an upscale Manhattan restaurant. Her father (Colm Feore) has moved on with his life which has caused tension between the two. Frances hopes her new start will help her cope with the loss of her mom.

But then she finds a purse left behind on the subway. Turns out it belongs to a lonely piano teacher (ironic) named Greta (Huppert). A kind-hearted Frances finds an address and takes the purse to a surprised and relieved Greta. The two end up hitting it off, each seemingly filling a void in both of their lives. But when Frances makes an alarming discovery she cuts ties which pushes the obsessive Greta over the edge.

Moretz does a good enough job but a large chunk of the script keeps her handcuffed. Several of Frances’ scenes with Erica and all of them with her father come across as shallow and they leave out some potentially good character development. It’s as if director and co-writer Neil Jordan wasn’t interested in letting Moretz dig further into her character’s background. The overwhelming focus is on Frances and Greta which admittedly is the strength of the movie.

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It is Huppert who makes it all work mainly because she is so convincing. Her turn from uncomfortably obsessive to full-blown maniacal is utterly seamless. She delivers such a genuinely unsettling character who melds right into the New York City canvass due to her unassuming appearance and mild-mannered demeanor. Even when Greta comes unglued Huppert maintains an element of that creepy gentle facade. It’s a really good performance.

Almost inevitably things get pretty crazy in the film’s final act which I feel works pretty well. The problem is there are some gaping holes in logic that are simply too hard to overlook. Still “Greta” manages to deliver what most fans of the psychological thriller genre are looking for. I was still left thinking it could have better. At the same time I admit to being entertained by its madness.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

 

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REVIEW: “Glass” (2019)

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Has any filmmaker had a more up-and-down career than M. Night Shyamalan? When he hits his target the results are often magical. But when he misses he tends to miss badly and some of those pictures have turned out to be unbearable disasters. Yet he still pushes out his brand of movies and many of us still watch his films hoping we’ll get one of the good ones.

His 2016 picture “Split” was one of the good ones. It was a crafty thriller featuring a fabulous James McAvoy performance. But Shyamalan’s biggest twist came in the film’s final moments – a super cool surprise connecting “Split” to his 2000 movie “Unbreakable”. That brings us to his latest project “Glass”, his first dive into this wild and unexpected shared universe.

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As someone who really went for his big twist, I was excited for “Glass”. It had huge potential both as an individual film and as a franchise launching point. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and James McAvoy are all onboard as well as the return of some key characters from the two earlier films (Anya Taylor-Joy from “Split” and Spencer Treat Clark from “Unbreakable”). Yet despite having all the pieces in place for something really special, “Glass” turns out to be a hard nut to crack.

Sarah Paulson is a new piece in Shyamalan’s 130 minute puzzle. She plays Dr. Ellie Staple, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients with delusions of being superheroes. Turns out Philadelphia has just the test cases she’s looking for. With Elijah Price (aka Mr. Glass) already in custody, that leaves Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a man with 24 distinct personalities known as The Horde, and David Dunn (Willis), a home security salesman who moonlights as a mysterious vigilante.

As the trailer so clearly reveals, Dr. Staple gets her wish. Kevin Crumb and David Dunn are apprehended and sent to Ravenhill Psychiatric Hospital where Elijah has been kept since his arrest 19 years earlier. Dr. Staple is given three days to ‘cure’ them by deconstructing their delusions and disproving their so-called superpowers.

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Of course this all plays into Elijah’s hands who (if you recall from “Unbreakable”) believes comic books are a reflection of the real world. His goal has always been to prove to the mankind the existence of super-powered people. And now he finally has his three essential pieces in one place – a hero, a super-villain, and the mastermind.

All of this allows Shyamalan to dig into what interests him most – psychological face-offs over physical ones. I can see this disappointing those with more action-packed expectations. This is not that kind of film nor is it remotely similar to what currently passes for superhero movies. The modest $20 million budget all but spell it out. “Glass” is very much the anti-blockbuster that sets its own rules and proudly sticks to them.

Yet with all of its promise and ambition, “Glass” sometimes has a hard time getting all of its pieces to fit. For example there are some noticeable holes in the story’s logic. There are also some glaringly obvious questions you would expect to be asked or answered by different characters along the way. Shyamalan attempts to offer some explanations to these things but I’m not sure he quite covers it all.

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The performances are strong across the board. James McAvoy is given the most to do which is nice considering how good he was in “Split”. My only beef is that he bounces between personalities too frequently. There’s a perfectly satisfying reason for why he does so, but it leaves little time for him to dig deeper into any of them. Jackson and Willis are a lot of fun, Clark adds some extra heart, and Taylor-Joy is good even though some of her character’s motivations are a bit suspect.

Defining how I feel about “Glass” has proven to be a lot tougher than I thought it would be. I left the theater conflicted, but 24 hours later I felt I had a better grasp of what Shyamalan is going for. “Glass” is far from being the dumpster fire some proclaim it to be, but it’s no perfect film either. Still I think there is something to Shyamalan’s slow-boiling psychological approach and there is some real craft behind his visual technique. As it turns out “Glass” actually worked for me and I’m anxious to see it again. But it took some time to get there and I still find myself mulling over the final act..

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Green Book”

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The unlikely true-life friendship between an African-American concert pianist and an Italian nightclub bouncer is the inspiration (and that’s a key distinction) for Peter Farrelly’s comedy-drama “Green Book”. The film’s name comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual travel guide for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. It listed restaurants and lodging that allowed black visitors in segregated America.

The story takes place in the 1960s and opens in New York City. Bouncer and general tough guy Tony Lip Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) has to find work while his boss’ nightclub is shut down for renovations. He is hired to be both driver and bodyguard for Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an immensely talented African-American concert pianist who is about to embark on an eight-week concert tour starting in the Midwest before heading through the Deep South.

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“Green Book” is all about the central relationship between these two polar opposites. Don is an educated man of art and culture. Tony is streetwise and rough around the edges. It sets the table for some really good and often funny interactions. Especially when Tony’s meat-headed simple speak clashes with Don’s snobbish penchant for proper speech and etiquette.

As the road trip takes them further south both men run face-first into some harsh realities that adds a new layer to their relationship. The slightly discreet prejudices of the North gives way to the more pronounced racism of southern segregation. Some of the encounters lean a little too heavily on backwoods stereotypes but others are more effective. Take Don’s hosts who see him as offering up a good slice of culture yet he’s not good enough to use the white folks bathroom. But it’s in the more subtle moments where the racial injustice is the most profound. For Don this is real life. For Tony its eye-opening.

The biggest strength lies in the chemistry between Mortensen and Ali. Without it the entire movie would fall apart. There are moments where you can sense the story wearing a little thin and other times where it ventures into some peculiar waters only never to return to them. But even then the two stars carry the load, Mortensen with cagey finesse and Ali with a captivating elegance. Toss in some fantastic supporting work from Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores. It’s a small role but full of warmth in scenes otherwise full of routine Italian caricatures.

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There have been several criticisms hurled at “Green Book”, many of which I can’t quite get behind. Accusations that the film has a rose-colored view of racism either miss or interpret differently the quieter portrayals of discrimination I found most effective. Other gripes that the story sometimes forces Don Shirley to take a backseat to Tony (pun absolutely intended) seem to overlook that it’s told from the perspective of Tony’s son who co-wrote the script.

Ultimately “Green Book” may not dig as deep into racial injustice as some would like and it may not offer a cure for the modern day remnants of hate. It may be too charming and too humorous for those looking for an edge. But it does push a powerful message and does so through some infectiously strong performances. Turns out they’re enough to drive us through even when the story sputters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Guilty” (2018)

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By now it’s pretty obvious that a hefty budget or a grand scale doesn’t automatically equal a good thriller. In fact several movies have shown the opposite to be true. The Danish film “The Guilty” is the latest glowing example of how great writing and a good actor’s steely intensity is more than enough for a genuinely gripping thriller.

Director and co-writer Gustav Möller’s feature debut doesn’t suffer a bit from the film’s obvious small budget. Instead he utilizes it by restricting his entire story within one space while at the same time allowing our imaginations to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. And the entire framework of his story is built around a taut, economical narrative that is confined by demand.

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Jakob Cedergren is the movie’s engine. He drives the entire film appearing in every frame of every scene. He plays Asger, an operator for Copenhagen emergency services (akin to our 911 here in the States) who receives a mysterious call from a distraught woman named Iben (voiced by Jessica Dinnage). She relays to Asger that she has been kidnapped but is disconnected before giving much more information.

“The Guilty” spends its brisk 85 minutes following Asger as he parses the various voices he encounters through his headset. We only hear these people through phone conversations, but when combined with Cedergren’s spot-on intensity, we are given more than enough to compose our own mental images and develop our own conclusions.

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The genius of “The Guilty” is that it never feels gimmicky or contrived. Möller’s screenplay (co-written by Emil Nygaard Albertsen) creates tension and then ratchets it up through smart and crafty story twists that come about in the most organic of ways.  It also maintains an undeniable Hitchcockian flavor which Möller leans into.

“The Guilty” is the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language category at the upcoming Oscars and hopefully it will find a spot at the table. It’s a riveting thriller deserving of the attention and of broader exposure. And as I mentioned, it is another example of how a minimalist approach from an inspired filmmaker can be incredibly effective when the writing is sharp and you have a lead performer as convincing as Cedergren. Give this film a look.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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