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: “The Commuter”

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I must admit, I do find some enjoyment in these January/February Liam Neeson action-thrillers. They are rarely great but almost always entertaining (to varying degrees). These things started with 2009’s “Taken” which reinvigorated Neeson’s career and made him an unexpected action star. Multiple films have followed (most with the same familiar flavor) and most do pretty well at the box office.

The latest addition is “The Commuter” which sees Neeson playing a 60 year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman named Michael MacCauley. Each day he takes the same train into the city with many of the same fellow commuters. His daily routine is shattered when out of the blue he is laid off from his job. Now unemployed with a son heading to college and a mortgage due, Michael boards his train for the ride home to break the news to his wife.

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As he takes his seat an unusually inquisitive woman played by Vera Farmiga sits opposite of him. Turns out she and the people she works for know a lot about Michael. The mystery lady tells him of $25,000 hidden in the train’s bathroom. If Michael takes the money they will consider him working for them. All he has to do is identify a passenger who goes by the name of Prynne before the train’s final stop. If he does that an additional $75,000 is his. The woman hops off and the train leaves the station.

The financially desperate Michael finds the money in the bathroom but quickly learns the task isn’t as easy or as innocent as it sounds. The people pulling his strings prove to be bad news and they will do anything to get the job done including hurting Michael’s family. From their the film becomes a cross between Michael identifying Prynne while also finding a way out of the mystery group’s clutches.

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As the train speeds along the track it’s the story that flirts with derailment. The further it goes the more intense and absurd it becomes. But that’s part of what I like about these things. Plus I enjoy watching Neeson who by now can do this role in his sleep. I also like the always good Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson who pops up playing Michael’s sympathetic friend and ex-partner (sorry, no Ed and Lorraine Warren shared universe stuff). But it’s Neeson who keeps the story rolling which isn’t the easiest of tasks.

“The Commuter” marks Neeson’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra. All four of their ‘race against the clock’ thrillers feature the same basic framework with a few narrative differences. In other words you know what to expect – a fast pace, good action, that Neeson growl, and some amusing corniness. If you don’t like their previous movies this one won’t change your mind. But if you’re like me and get a kick out of these things “The Commuter” will give you what it promises. Nothing more, nothing less.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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“THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS” – 4 1/2 STARS

There have been several powerful films that have dealt directly with The Jewish Holocaust. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a unique look at this murderous and genocidal time in world history. It’s based on John Boyne’s 2006 novel of the same name and looks at the Nazi movement through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy. It’s a tender but crushing tale of the loss of innocence as we watch this young boy discover the truth about the world around him. Some critics have said it exploits or trivializes the Holocaust with others going as far as to call it offensive. I found it to be a careful yet devastating drama that ultimately succeeds in the end.

Asa Butterfield, better known for his more recent starring role in “Hugo”, plays Bruno. His father Ralf (David Thewlis) is a Nazi SS officer who gets a new assignment which requires him to move with his family from Berlin to the countryside. Bruno’s mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) supports her husband’s decision, and his sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) finds a friend in a young German officer. But Bruno finds himself alone and missing his friends back in Berlin. His loneliness and boredom spurs his curiosity and he begins noticing several interesting things about his new location. One is a mysterious “farm” in the distance that he sees from his bedroom window but is forbidden to visit or inquire about. He’s also intrigued by a house servant who he notices is wearing what looks like striped pajamas. Of course we know the servant is Jewish and a captive but through young Bruno’s eyes things are more confusing.

One of the most engaging things about the movie is that writer and director Mark Herman is able to keep us inside of Bruno’s head even though we know exactly what’s going on outside of his knowledge. I found the film to be very effective in giving me the feeling of discovery at the same time that Bruno learns more. Perhaps his biggest lessons come not from a twice a week tutor who bombards him with all sorts of Nazi propaganda and revisionist history but from a young Jewish boy. Bruno encounters the boy after sneaking away from his house and stumbling across the “farm” which is actually a Nazi execution camp. He meets a young boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) who sits just inside an electrified fence, The two quickly develop a friendship. It is Shmuel that begins to shed light on what this “farm” really is and causes Bruno to question what kind of work his father really does.

The movie never loses sight of the fact that Bruno is only 8-years-old. He struggles with what he’s seeing and his attempts to reconcile certain things with his desire to see his father as a good man is truly enthralling. Even when his mother finds out why they’ve moved to the country and furiously confronts Ralf, we still witness these things through Bruno’s child-like reasoning. But there is an emotional balance. While we are seeing things along with Bruno, we also know of the atrocities that are taking place almost entirely off-screen. Yet these atrocities are relayed to us very well in a responsible and often times subtle way. Now the story does at times feel manufactured and its heart-wrenching ending could be construed as a shameless gimmick. But I was moved to tears and never once felt manipulated.

The performances throughout the film are fantastic. Farmiga is one Hollywood’s better actresses and she shows that here. I also appreciated Thewlis’ portrayal of a man who often times puts his role of father in complete subjection to his duties as a Nazi soldier. But it’s young Butterfield who gets the vast majority of the screen time and he is quite good. He draws a lot of sympathy and emotion from the audience and it’s always great to see a young actor able to pull that off. I also enjoyed his scenes with young Scanlon. While Butterfield is better in their scenes, they both handle the well written material nicely.

I can see where “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may put off some people. It’s hard to watch especially as everything comes to a head at the end of the film. In fact, it’s a movie that I’m thrilled to have watched but I’m in no rush to see again. That isn’t due to any major shortcomings that I saw in the picture. It’s due to the film’s intense emotional punch that will send some to tears and leave others feeling disconnected. I was incredibly moved and while there are certainly some legitimate questions that could be asked about the story, the movie’s main point resonated with me. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” asks several powerul questions about war, family, and morality. It also gives us a glimpse into a part of our world’s history that we may not want to remember but should never forget.

REVIEW: “Safe House”

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The 2012 movie year has offered several pleasant surprises at the local cineplex. “Safe House” is a high-octane action picture that keeps this trend going. While I can’t say there is anything particularly fresh or profound about “Safe House”, what it does it does well. It offers plenty of gunfire, car chases, and fist fights while employing several familiar elements into its story. But it never goes beyond it’s intentions and for my money “Safe House” entertains.

Denzel Washington plays Tobin Frost and ex-CIA operative who is now wanted by several international organizations including the CIA and MI6. After being leaked secret documents from an MI6 agent in South Africa, Frost finds himself on the run from a group of heavily armed contract killers. He flees to the American Embassy, a last resort, and is immediately taken into custody. He’s moved to a local safe house ran by a disgruntled Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Weston has seen no action and has petitioned for a transfer from his boring position. As you can guess, that changes once Frost is brought into his facility. The mercenaries arrive instantly leaving Weston to take Frost and run.

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Most of the film focuses on the pair as they try to escape their pursuers while also toying with the question of “Is Frost a good guy or is he a bad guy”? As usual Washington nails his character and often times carries some of the scenes that would have otherwise fell flat. He also relays his character’s moral gray area with the perfect amount of ambiguity. He’s hard to read and I loved watching him and his story unfold. Washington never shortchanges his character whether it be Frost’s grit or his personal affections. Reynolds is also quite good and shows again that he is capable of handling better material (sorry Green Lantern). He lays it all out during the action sequences and He and Washington have a good chemistry. There is also a fantastic supporting cast including Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, and Brendan Gleeson.

“Safe House” uses a grainy, gritty visual style throughout the movie and while it did take me a minute to get used to it, I found it really worked. The film features a lot of herky jerky camera work and is frantically edited which I’m sure is meant to capture the chaos and intensity of the action sequences. This works more often times than not but I can see where it may be a bit disorienting for some. There are a few instances where it tries to get too clever with the camera but not enough to hurt the movie. Overall it’s visually impressive and the sound design is stellar.

“Safe House” could be considered your standard action/chase picture and there is a good argument there. But I found myself interested in the international aspect as well as the “who can you trust” question that shows itself as the story unfolds. Washington has been consistently good in his career and he delivers a strong performance here as well. He can carry films like this but here he doesn’t have to. Reynolds holds his own and the strong supporting work helps make up for when the plot may not be as sharp. But I had a great time with “Safe House” and I don’t penalize it for aiming at a specific mark and hitting it. Sometimes a straightforward action picture is all I need.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

TOP 5 BEST LEAD ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2011

I hate to repeat myself but this was a good year for women in Hollywood. It was tough narrowing down my favorite lead actress performances to just 5. But after painfully omitting some genuinely great performances, I’ve come up with a list that I think shows the talent and range found from women leads in 2011. Here’s my top 5 lead actress performances of the year:

#5 – Michelle Williams (Meek’s Cutoff)

While the movie’s out-of-the-blue ambiguous ending didn’t work for me, Michelle Williams’ performance certainly did. Williams’ acting range certainly can’t be questioned and she is fantastic in this rugged film about the Oregon Trail. She always stays controlled in a film that counts on deliberateness. While she’s received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe, I was drawn more to this unique and challenging performance.

#4 – Viola Davis (The Help)

The performances in “The Help” more than make up for the occasional stumbling blocks found in the writing and Viola Davis is particularly good. She gives a stirring performance that often times rises above the material and there are several scenes where she takes the movie and carries it. That’s a mark of a great actress and Davis certainly has the chops. She always feels genuine and she’s able to relay the raw emotion that many of her scenes call for. She has certainly earned the Oscar buzz she has received.

#3 – Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

I really like Saoirse Ronan and her work in “Hanna” is just another reason why. It’s a tricky role in that it requires a child-like charm and an action movie-styled physicality. She keeps a steady balance to her character throughout the picture and had me sold hook, line, and sinker. Ronan shined in “The Lovely Bones” and I loved her in “The Way Back”, but this is her best performance yet and just a taste of what lies ahead for this immensely talented young actress.

#2 – Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground)

Vera Farmiga’s “Higher Ground” is a movie many people may have not seen, but it features one of the best performances of Farmiga’s career. She also directs the film but it’s her lead performance that carries the picture. She treats her material with care and compassion and I never found her anything but compelling. She was completely overlooked by Oscar which comes as no surprise. But there is no way I can’t include her performance as one of 2011’s best.

#1 – Juliette Binoche (Certified Copy)

From the start of “Certified Copy” I found myself absorbed in Juliette Binoche’s Elle. Who is she? I spent most of the movie mesmerized by her conversations and trying to figure out if she was real or simply a copy. I know that sounds vague but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. Binoche is marvelous and her work stood above the other great female lead performances I saw last year. If you haven’t seen “Certified Copy”, see it. When you do you’ll be treated to a brilliant actress who knows her craft and shows it with her performance.

Agree or disagree? Please share you thoughts. Comment on who your Top 5 were.

REVIEW: “Higher Ground”

Vera Farmiga has proven herself to be one of the most gifted and proficient actresses in Hollywood. In “Higher Ground” she once again shows off her acting chops but it also marks her directorial debut. It’s a thoughtful and sometimes challenging film that takes a more candid look at spirituality and how life’s difficulties make true faith seem out of reach. It’s also a story of decisions and the consequences that follow. It tackles some weighty religious issues but also looks at social troubles such as drug use, infidelity, and divorce. But at it’s heart, “Higher Ground” is the story of one woman’s conflict between the faith she envies and the lack of faith she feels.

Farmiga plays Corinne, a married mother of two who has watched her life take several drastic changes in direction. She was raised in church but was led away by her rebellion. After some poor choices lead to a premature pregnancy and marriage, she’s brought back to God by a near tragic accident. The family dedicates themselves to a small local church and we watch as Corinne grows in her personal relationship with God. But an inner conflict grows within as she struggles to see God’s hand in some truly difficult circumstances. She asks tough questions with genuine motivations and most of the picture focuses on her search for clarity. Corinne is a very earnest woman and Farmiga makes her believable and relatable regardless of your religious convictions. It’s a beautiful performance that drives the entire film and never shortchanges the character.

When it comes down to it, “Higher Ground” plays it pretty safe. It’s constructed in a way that different people can take away different conclusions largely based on their personal beliefs on Christianity and faith. The story certainly doesn’t target Christianity but neither does it shy away from asking some fairly provocative questions.  While at times it tries to paint faith into a corner and make Christians seem naive and disconnected, it also shows the deception and disloyalty of the faithless world. It may dabble in the occasional stereotype, but overall it stays on an even course which should allow it to speak to different people.

Farmiga’s direction is subtle and steady. She lets the story unfold without any overwrought theatrics or emotional gimmickry. The film looks and feels grounded in reality and Farmiga maintains a steady, natural tone. There are a couple of instances where it abruptly shifts to a new scene, but otherwise it moves at a smooth pace. The Christians are often times depicted well but at other times I couldn’t help notice how much they resembled a group of hippies from Woodstock. There are also several attempts at humor that are actually quite funny, but there are others that feel terribly out-of-place in the picture. One example is Corinne’s close friend explaining her method of keeping her marriage fresh. It’s not particularly funny and I found it pulled me out of the film.

There’s a lot to like about “Higher Ground”. Farmiga shows that she is certainly capable behind the camera even though the movie has it’s shortcomings. It’s a little clunky in some areas and it’s characterizations aren’t always consistent. But it is a careful and sincere picture that I bought into from the start. It clearly wants to speak to both sides of the faith issue but it does so without delegitimizing either position. It’s an intelligent and thought-provoking picture that may not be the best film of the year, but it certainly works on many levels.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS