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: “First Man”

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As “La La Land” showed us Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle have a pretty strong actor/director chemistry. They attempt to tap into it once again with “First Man”, a biopic of the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The film has received critical acclaim throughout the festival circuit but also faced a bit of undeserved controversy over the decision to not show the iconic planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface.

The film is an adaptation of James Hanson’s 2005 biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”. Clint Eastwood was the first to show interest in making the movie, planning to both produce and direct the film for Warner Bros. But it soon fell into ‘development hell’ before being resuscitated by Universal and Dreamworks. Screenwriter Josh Singer (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Spotlight”) writes the script with Chazelle directing. Talk about an exciting combination.

 

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“First Man” comes at Neil Armstrong’s life from an interesting angle. It covers roughly 8 years, from his time as a NASA test pilot to his historic Apollo 11 moon landing. But the film’s main focus is on the man himself and it views most things through a very personal lens. And even though we get a look into Armstrong’s life, by the end of the film he remains a bit of an enigma although an intensely sympathetic one. I loved that about the movie.

I’ve always found there to be a dryness to Ryan Gosling’s acting and it’s the material that often dictates the effectiveness of his performances. He turns out to be a perfect fit for Neil Armstrong, portrayed here as a humble man of few words who feels as distant and unexplored as the space outside our atmosphere. Gosling’s consistent restraint only adds to his character’s complexity. It’s through Chazelle’s camera (often in tight closeups of Gosling’s face) that we get clues to what Armstrong is feeling. Meaningful subtleties in Gosling’s expressions portray grief, fear, determination, even exhilaration.

Chazelle has shown a fascination with the idea of obsession. In “Whiplash” it was with drumming. In “La La Land” is was with jazz. Armstrong’s obsession is with his work but it’s rooted in something deeper. Very early in the film Neil and his wife Janet (a terrific Claire Foy) lose their 2-year-old daughter Karen to cancer. That shadow looms over the entire film as Neil buries himself in his work to keep from dealing with his loss. It’s what drives his determination.

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At the same time it adds an undeserved burden on Janet. A huge chunk of the film looks at the domestic side of Armstrong’s life. These scenes are far more than emotional filler. They show us the flip-side of Neil’s sorrow-fueled obsession. Foy is nothing short of superb here – showing Janet as supportive of her husband but slowly losing patience with his detachment. At the same time she lives under the constant fear that her husband could die on any given day.

In one of my favorite choices, Chazelle shoots the space sequences almost exclusively from the astronaut’s perspectives, avoiding the grand effects-driven spectacles we might expect. These scenes are sensory experiences, relying on movement, sound, and a camera that is mostly inside the tight confined cockpits with the astronauts. These scenes are intensely claustrophobic and relay the sense of tension and danger.

Look no further than the incredible opening sequence. During a test flight Neil finds his X-15 “bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere” before bursting back through and landing in the Mojave Desert. It’s a pulse-pounding scene of roaring engines, whirling gauges and fiercely vibrating metal. The mix of sound and close-quartered cameras is a good primer for the bigger sequences to come.

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Of course one of those scenes the film’s big finale. In one of the biggest non-spoiler spoilers Neil Armstrong does indeed walk on the moon. The brilliant final 20 minutes features the same stressful ferocity but also a striking use of silence. The scene is the closest the film comes to giving us an emotional release and offers new meaning to Neil’s iconic first steps on the moon. Chazelle doesn’t romanticize these moments. They are intimate and personal which I believe invalidates the entire flag “controversy”. But for those still unconvinced, we do get shots of the flag on the moon and in numerous other places around the movie.

While Gosling and Foy are the stars there is a wonderful supporting cast that help fill out their story – Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Ciarán Hinds and a host of other recognizable faces and good performances.

There are so many other things I love about “First Man”. I love Chazelle faithful Justin Hurwitz’s score which truly came alive after a second viewing. I love that the film doesn’t feel the need to hold our hand and explain every detail of the science or technology. I love that this reluctant hero is portrayed as a human being and not a pop culture icon. I love its apolitical focus which seems consistent with the astronauts who isolated themselves from the culture to focus on their missions. But most of all I love that it makes its own rules when it comes to storytelling. This is what happens when a biopic doesn’t cater to formula or expectations. The results are magnificent.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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“Zero Dark Thirty” – 4.5 STARS

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Kathryn Bigelow may be the boldest and gutsiest director in the business. One things for certain, she’s not scared to jump head first into a part of the film industry sandbox normally dominated by male directors. I think that’s the main reason I like her so much. Bigelow doesn’t allow others to define what type of director she is or what type of movies she’s going to make. She makes the movies she wants to make and lately they just happen to be gritty and realistic military pictures. But what’s really cool is that she does it better than almost anyone else. She doesn’t bow to gender trends, political positions, or industry traditions. She tells powerful and mesmerizing stories and does it her own way.

Bigelow’s latest film is “Zero Dark Thirty” and it didn’t take long for the cries of controversy to begin. This is also a movie that’s received a lot of praise even garnering several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. But Bigelow herself received what I think is the biggest snub of the Oscars when she was passed over for a best director nomination. This has brought speculations of gender bias from some while others believe it’s Academy backlash for what they perceive as bad politics from Bigelow. I don’t know about any of that but it’s an inexplicable snub. Bigelow has crafted a dense and thrilling film that surpasses her previous movie, the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker”.

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“Zero Dark Thirty” is an edge-of-your-seat procedural that follows the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. This isn’t a paper-thin conventional Hollywood action picture. This movie follows the CIA’s taxing search through evidence, information, and leads in order to find the terrorist mastermind. It’s an arduous and toll-taking mission that weeds through enhanced interrogations, misdirections, and loss of life. Bigelow manages to condense this decade’s worth of investigation into a gripping and concise 2 1/2 hours. She stops at critical points during the manhunt, some where we made important progress and others that were disastrous.

Bigelow once again teams up with writer Mark Boal and, as with “The Hurt Locker”, they aren’t out to make political points or deliver a heavy-handed statement. Regardless of the “pro-torture” accusations from the left and the “inaccuracy” claims from the right, Bigelow and Boal throw out a lot of information and allow the audience to sort through it, process it, and come up with our own conclusions. I like that. Unlike so many Hollywood productions of this kind, I wasn’t beaten over the head with a political slant. Instead I was allowed to view the events through my eyes and interpret them accordingly. That’s one of the reasons there has been such a range of reactions and I think it’s a sign of brilliant filmmaking.

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Before I move on let me address the “pro-torture” debate that surrounds this film. I think “pro-torture” is a self-serving term that doesn’t do the film justice. Yes the movie shows several scenes of enhanced interrogations and it does say bits of important information were gathered through them. But it also shows the heavy personal and emotional toll it takes and it asks the question ‘Was it worth it?’ Bigelow doesn’t gloss over the harsh and disturbing nature of the torture and it’s impossible to view those scenes in a “pro-torture” light. On the flipside, just when you’re questioning the at-all-cost approach to the search for Bin Laden, Bigelow injects a scene of savage terrorist violence that reminds you of the barbarism at the heart of the enemy. These scenes, along with the brief but sobering opening featuring 911 calls from the 9/11 attacks, really hit home with me and reminded me of the ruthless reality of terrorism. But I had to decide if the ends justified the means and the film makes that decision a challenge.

2012 has been the year of ensemble casts and “Zero Dark Thirty” may have the best of them. It’s a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of actors that I love. It all starts with Jessica Chastain. She plays Maya, a brash and determined CIA operative whose entire career has been devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. Early on she is assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan where she grows tired of the political wrangling and red tape. She may at times look like a supermodel but she’s really a firebrand who will stir things up to get results. Maya is devoted to her mission and at times she seems like the only one interested in succeeding. But as the movie progresses we see the physical and emotional toll the manhunt is taking on her. Chastain is simply phenomenal. There’s not one disingenuous moment in her entire performance and while 2011 was a great year for her, this was superstar making work.

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And speaking more of that ensemble cast, there are several other standout supporting performances. Jason Clarke is fantastic as a tough and slightly unhinged CIA interrogator. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as Maya’s CIA boss in Pakistan. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are perfect as members of the Navy SEAL team tasked with pulling off the final mission. I loved Edgar Ramirez as a skilled CIA ground operative. The great Mark Strong plays a CIA head caught in the middle of Washington politics and the mission at hand. James Gandolfini is a lot of fun as a heftier Leon Panetta. I also enjoyed Jennifer Ehle as Maya’s co-worker who starts as a rival but ends up a good friend. This is just an enormously strong cast from top to bottom.

Everyone knows how “Zero Dark Thirty” ends but that doesn’t keep it from being an intense edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story starts with the frustration of bad leads and dead ends but the intensity is ratcheted up to crazy levels once the first big break comes through. I was absorbed in what I was seeing. And then there is the finale, possibly the best 20 minutes of military action ever put on screen. Bigelow never Hollywoodizes the sequence. She makes it as grounded in reality as possible. But when it comes down to it Kathryn Bigelow likes to make movies about people. This is a movie about women and men who sacrificed their skills, their lives, and some may argue their humanity to accomplish a greater good. It’s a movie that’s not afraid of asking tough questions or of challenging popular sentiments. It’s also a movie made with impeccable filmmaking  style and skill which all comes back to Bigelow. So Academy, you’ve got explaining to do!

REVIEW: “Argo”

And you thought movies were for entertainment only! “Argo” is the third feature film directed by Ben Affleck. It’s also his best work to date. “Argo” takes place during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and is loosely based on CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez’s bizarre but daring rescue attempt of six US diplomats. For the most part Affleck steers clear of politics instead choosing to focus more on the intensity of the events. This results in a well conceived and focused story that sizzles from the opening scene to the end credits.

The film opens up with what’s arguably the best 20 minutes in cinema so far this year. Affleck instantly sets the stakes high by showing the immediate causes of the unrest in Tehran through a brief but effective opening montage. In 1979 Iran was in chaos after the people had overthrown their unpopular Shah and replaced him with an Islamic Republic. Anti-American sentiment boiled over after the United States granted asylum to the deposed leader. Led by Islamic militants, a mass of people break into the US Embassy and begin taking hostages. Six diplomats manage to escape and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The protesting and subsequent storming of the US Embassy is packed with tension and it’s brilliantly visualized through a mix of old news footage and clever camera work. And I’m not just speaking of the hostile crowd outside of the gates. We see diplomats inside, fully expecting a breach, frantically gathering sensitive documents to incinerate and shred. We see last-minute contacts being made which sends Washington scurrying. All of this is realized as truly riveting, edge-of-your-seat cinema.

As mentioned, six American diplomats manage to escape and hide in the home of Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Knowing the militants will soon realize that six Americans are unaccounted for, the State Department brings in Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) to come up with a plan to get them out. He convinces his superiors to allow him to enter Tehran, meet up with the hidden diplomats, and leave the country with them posing as a Canadian film crew scouting out a location for a sci-fi movie. Knowing how thorough the militants will investigate the ruse if suspicious, Mendez is sent to movie make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a semi-successful Hollywood film producer. Together they put all the pieces in place for their fake movie including a title (“Argo”), a script, a production company, and even a movie poster, all intended to give credibility to Mendez’s cover.

The film then follows the planning of the mission, the anxiety of the diplomats in hiding, and the ever-present uncertainty in Washington from those who don’t fully buy into Mendez’s plan. All of this is told by the able hands of Affleck who has certainly established himself as a skilled storyteller. His style fits perfectly with Chris Terrio’s sharp and layered screenplay. Terrio crafts a potent dramatization by adding just enough to the real events to give the narrative a real dramatic pop. A couple of fictional characters are thrown in and there are moments that are purely for dramatic effect. But that’s what cinema does and I can’t imagine this story playing out any better than it does here. It also has the sharp sting of relevance. I couldn’t help but think of the recent Benghazi embassy attack During the film’s opening sequence.

You also can’t help but be impressed by the movie’s impeccable attention to detail in creating a believable late 70s and early 80s atmosphere and vibe. The movie opens with the old late 70s Warner Bros. logo which perfectly set the table for me. Then there are the obvious things – the cars, the clothes, the hairstyles, the technology. But Affleck also employs several clever devices such as original news footage featuring the likes of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel. We see archived footage of President Jimmy Carter as well as authentic newscasts of the turmoil in Iran at the time. It blends in perfectly with the fictional additions to give a true credence to everything we see on-screen.

“Argo” is a rock-solid movie that does all of these things well, and I haven’t even gone into the fantastic performances. Some have said otherwise, but I found Affleck to be a compelling lead. Then you have the incredible supporting work of Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, and Michael Parks. And of course Goodman and Arkin are a blast. The performances are just another strength and this gripping and well-made film. It grabs you and holds you right through to its nail-biting finale. And be sure to stay through the credits for some great images of the real people involved in this amazing rescue attempt. It’s just icing on the cake of one of the better films of 2012.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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