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

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Godzilla” (2014)

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Last year brought us “Pacific Rim”, an unashamed homage to the old creature features of the 1950s. By all right it should have been terrible but “Pacific Rim” was a decent film. It was far from perfect but it was a fun and entertaining romp. This year we get “Godzilla”, another monster movie that didn’t have me a bit excited at first and that could have been really awful. But it’s actually not. In fact not only is this new incarnation of the well known reptile better than last year’s “Pacific Rim”, it’s one of the better recent blockbusters and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the theaters this year.

It doesn’t take long to notice several surprising differences in this film from what you might expect. The movie is built upon a very deliberate and methodical story. It certainly has its huge creature-feature action but we are never bombarded with it. The film is also set apart by its spectacular cast. “Godzilla” features a number of great performers that automatically enhance the experience. Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Straithairn make up the film’s great supporting ensemble.

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Cranston plays a nuclear physicist who was present during a 1999 disaster at a nuclear plant in Japan. Fifteen years pass and he is still dealing with the consequences of the disaster while also determined to expose what he believes is a cover up of the true cause behind the event. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays his son, a military man married to Olsen. Watanabe plays a scientist studying hidden findings at the disaster site along with his assistant Hawkins. Obviously towering monsters come into play as the story unfolds and revelations are made. The inevitable global threat takes center stage but not before an intense and very well conceived buildup takes place.

Almost every character is given their moments. At first I was wishing I had seen more of this person or that person, but each serve the plot very well. A couple of performers don’t get a lot of screen time but I’m okay with that mainly because they work really well within the story being told. Better yet, everyone is really good. Taylor-Johnson is probably the weakest of the talented cast but he is certainly adequate for what he is asked to do despite his moments of blandness. Cranston is fabulous and Watanabe is rock-solid as always. Hawkins is always good although she is reserved to an almost background character. Olsen continues to impress and Straithairn is a really nice fit as a Navy Admiral in charge of stopping this massive scaly threat.

But perhaps what I like the most is how the movie doesn’t cater to preconceived notions. As I mentioned, it very slowly develops its story but I found it to be incredibly intriguing and always tense. This may not impress those looking for a constant barrage of big creature effects, but I found it to be a wonderful approach which made those big creature moments all the more satisfying once they come. Director Gareth Edwards constructs his film well which hearkens back to the fun sci-fi monster movies of the 1950s. He uses their formulas of build up, buildup, slight reveal, buildup, big finale. I loved that.

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Now an argument could be made that the “big finale” is a bit too big. There is some merit to that. But even during those moments the story is moving in different directions which kept things interesting. Better yet, we had only seen passing glances of Godzilla up to that point so watching him duke it out in the finale was pretty exciting. It also helps that the movie looks great. There is a touch of the disaster genre here so we get several wide shots of massive destruction. They are always in context and they look fabulous. I also loved the look of Godzilla. Clearly there is CGI used, but yet he maintains an undeniable familiarity with the old classic Godzilla models. I got a real kick out of that. There is also a brilliant use of sound through the picture from big earth-shattering roars to perfect moments of ominous silence.

I think it’s safe to say that “Godzilla” is one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I had such a good time with the film and I was surprised at how well made and well written it is. The cast is committed and there’s no winking at the camera at any point. It literally had me glued to the screen for the entire running time and more than once I was smiling as it reminded me of those old monster movies that I still adore. Maybe there is a bit of nostalgia talking but I’m fine with that. I had a great time with “Godzilla” and I can’t wait to see it again!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 Phenomenal Tom Cruise Movies

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With the release of his new science fiction romp “Oblivion” this past weekend, I thought it would be as good a time as any to look at the career of Tom Cruise. Now unlike many I actually like Cruise and think he’s a very capable actor. I certainly understand the backlash that followed his past comments and infantile sofa jumping with Oprah. But that was in the past and much more importantly I think his movie resume is pretty impressive and speaks for itself. So today I’m listing 5 Phenomenal Tom Cruise Movies. Now with almost 40 feature films to his credit I wouldn’t go as far as calling this the definitive list. But I have no problem calling these 5 Tom Cruise movies absolutely phenomenal.

CRUISE TOP GUN#5 – “TOP GUN” – I originally had “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” in this spot. I love that film and consider it easily the best of the franchise. But even though I tried, I couldn’t leave “Top Gun” out of a Tom Cruise list. I fully recognize that “Top Gun” is filled with enough corn and cheese to make a casserole. I also understand that it’s a product of the 80’s and it’s shameless in its display of gratuitous hunk shots. But you know what? I still love it! I still remember being excited about seeing the Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone” video before the film was released and how it amped up my anticipation for the movie. I remember seeing it in the theater and leaving on high. While these days my feelings are more nostalgic, I still hold this 1986 flick from the late Tony Scott close to my heart.

CRUISE JERRY#4 – “JERRY MAGUIRE” – For a long time I heard people I knew singing the praises of “Jerry Maguire”. I had friends who were constantly yelling “Show me the money!” at the tops of their lungs. But I wasn’t able to chime in because I was late coming to this 1996 Tom Cruise drama. But once I finally caught up with it I understood what my buddies had been so excited about. Now I have to admit that it wasn’t Tom Cruise that drew me to this picture. I was really interested in catching up to Cameron Crowe’s work and I was attracted to the sports element of the story. But I found that it was Cruise who really carries the film. I love his performance. He had me sympathizing with him during some scenes and he had me wanting to slap his face in others. It’s a showy performance but it feels right at home in this really good film.

CRUISE MINORITY#3 – “MINORITY REPORT” – This is another of Tom Cruise’s films that I caught up with well after its theatrical release. But it’s another one of his films that blew me away after I saw it. This Steven Spielberg science fiction thriller completely caught me off guard. I went in with pretty mediocre expectations but I was surprised to find a well written and deeply layered story that grabbed me from its opening moments. Cruise gives yet another strong performance as an officer in a preemptive crime task force. He’s faced with a variety of moral quandries and soon finds himself in the middle of a complex murder investigation. Again it’s Cruise who drives this movie and he’s an absolute blast to watch as things in the movie go absolutely bezerk. This is a great sci-fi picture.

Cruise Collateral#2 -“COLLATERAL” – Whether you like Tom Cruise or not you have to admit that over his career he has branched out and hasn’t been afraid of tackling fresh new roles. There’s no better example of that than his role as a professional hitman in Michael Mann’s “Collateral”. In the film Cruise pays an unwitting taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) to drive him around Los Angeles to his five important “appointments”. Armed with firearms and funky dyed hair, Cruise moves effortlessly between his cold-blooded contract killer persona to waxing philosophically in the back of Foxx’s cab. He kills it with his performance and I think it’s some of the best work of his career. If you want to see Cruise’s range, this is a good film to get that.

Cruise Samurai#1 – “THE LAST SAMURAI” – I’ll never forget the first time seeing “The Last Samurai”. I went to the theater on a Friday morning with no expectations whatsoever. I mean we are talking about Tom Cruise as a samurai, right? I left that theater blown away, so much so that I returned the next day to see it again with my wife. First off, Cruise gives a fantastic performance. It may not be his very best work, but for me this is hands down my favorite Tom Cruise movie. Whether it’s his scenes as a burnt-out alcoholic or the great moments he shares with Ken Watanabe, Cruise makes what sounds like a ridiculous role for him into one of of his more multifaceted performances. I never get tired of “The Last Samurai” and for my money it’s Cruise’s best.

So there they are. My 5 phenomenal Tom Cruise movies. See some you like or dislike? Have different films that would make your list? Please take time to share you thoughts below.

REVIEW: “Inception”

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After the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” back in 2010, I wrote a review on my earlier blog site praising the film. After several more viewings, I would continue to applaud this production and it was easily my favorite film of that year. But as excited as I was over “Inception”, I still don’t think my previous review did justice to what has become one of my favorite movies of all time. Yes, I said of all time! I still find “Inception” to be one of the most original and most ambitious movies I’ve ever seen. But ambition doesn’t always equal a great movie. “Inception” not only aims high but it succeeds in creating a brilliant and unique picture that’s unlike anything I’ve seen.

It’s hard to pigeonhole “Inception”. It’s a heist film, a tragic romance, science-fiction, and an action film. But the best thing is it uses all of these ingredients flawlessly. The bulk of its success can be traced right back to Nolan. For my money Christopher Nolan is one of our greatest working directors. He wrote , co-produced, and directed this film and I truly believe he’s one of the only visionary filmmakers who could have pulled this off. It took him almost ten years to write and rewrite the script and it took the huge success of “The Dark Knight” to secure the big budget needed to make “Inception”. But you sure can’t argue with the results of the finished product. “Inception” ended its box office run making over $825 million worldwide.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor Nolan had wanted to work with for some time. He plays “Dom” Cobb, a dream thief for lack of a better title. He, along with his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), are paid to infiltrate the subconsciouses of their targets via their dreams and steal information. When the dream extraction from a wealthy Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) goes wrong, Cobb and Arthur find out they were being tested. Instead of extracting information, Saito wants the them to attempt inception on a business rival of his. The idea of inception is that instead of stealing information you plant it in the target’s subconscious while they’re dreaming. There are questions as to whether inception is even possible but Cobb is enticed to take the job when Saito promises to use his influence to clear Cobb’s name of a mysterious murder charge that has kept him out of the United States and separated from his two children.

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To do the job Cobb needs a top-notch team of experts. Eames (Tom Hardy) is basically a forger or probably better described as an impersonator. Once inside a dream he has the ability to take on the identity of anyone. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the architect. She is able to construct mental labyrinths inside the dreamers subconscious. This is essential if the team is going to know their way around the dream. Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is basically the team’s pharmacist. He’s the one who controls the sleep via his numerous concoctions. Saito also insists on going and keeping an eye on his “investment”. Nolan takes us through the formation of the team, bits of their training, and of course their attempt at inception. As the story moves forward Nolan plays with our minds as he begins placing dreams within dreams and he causes his audience to pay close attention as their well planned heist encounters more and more complications.

One thing I’ve always loved about a Christopher Nolan film is his ability to put to gather the perfect cast. This may be his best yet. DiCaprio has been a critic’s darling with several of his performances, but I think this is one of his very best. Cobb knows his business but he’s a tortured man with loads of emotional baggage. Leo handles all of this perfectly. I also loved Tom Hardy here and he steals nearly every scene he’s in. Eames is a confident wisecracker and some of his best scenes are when he’s giving Arthur a hard time. Speaking of Arthur, Gordon-Levitt gives another strong performance and he has one particular action sequence that’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. And then there’s Ellen Page who I liked as Ariadne. Her character is new to the dream scene and she brings a needed sense of caution and reality to the mission.

But there are some other great performances that are important to the story and worth mentioned. One of my favorites was Marion Cotillard as Mal. She has a special bond with Cobb and repeatedly appears within the dreams potentially compromising the mission. Cotillard’s performance is multi-layered and fascinating. Michael Caine, a Nolan favorite, is very good as Cobb’s father-in-law and caregiver of his children. Cillian Murphy plays the team’s central target for inception and he too is a great fit for his role. It was also great to see Tom Berenger given a nice role to work with and the great Peter Postlethwaite in what would be his last performance before his death due to pancreatic cancer. All of these performers are sharply in tune with the material and the cast serves as just one of the movie’s many high points.

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Nolan is also a visual filmmaker and there is some incredibly eye candy in “Inception”. The movie was filmed in locations all over the world including Tokyo, Morocco, Paris, and Alberta. Each of these places have their own separate and distinct look and feel to them within the movie whether they take place in reality or in a dream. This was an intentional move by Nolan who wanted to place his film in the contemporary world while also playing with our perceptions of what is real and what’s not. And of course since we’re talking about dreams, Nolan has a spectacular and diverse visual sandbox to play in. He wows us with several amazing special effects sequences that include rotating hotel rooms, trains barreling down big city boulevards, and a shootout at a fortified arctic base. “Inception” hits you with one spectacular set piece after another and all of this gels nicely with the movie’s deep and layered story.

“Inception”isn’t a movie with a straightforward by-the-books narrative. It’s a film that requires you to pay attention and I like that. I’ve talked with people who didn’t care for the movie because of its complexities and I can’t help but be puzzled. So many movies are simple and formulaic genre films that never challenge their audiences in any way. For me it’s refreshing to have something completely original and fresh and I appreciate how the film doesn’t dumb things down for the audience. I’m also amazed at just how well this complex story unwraps. Nolan constantly throws new kinks into his story to the point where I questioned whether he could bring it all together. But like a skilled and crafty pro he pulls everything in during the last 20 minutes, right up to the beautiful final shot. And that final scene, well it gets a little misty for me every single time.

For me everything in “Inception” works. The special effects, the action sequences, Nolan’s phenomenal script, the incredible cast, Hans Zimmer’s pulse pounding score. This is why I go to the movies. There’s nothing conventional about “Inception” and there’s no way to watch it and not appreciate its craftsmanship. That said be prepared to think. The story is a bit of a challenge but that’s just another joy I get from watching it. I understand it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it gives me everything I want in a motion picture experience. For me this is a modern cinematic masterpiece.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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