CHILD’S PLAY (2019) – Smart, Funny, and Gory Remake Updates Chucky Story for 2019

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Do we really need a remake of CHILD’S PLAY?

Sure! Why not?

See, I’m not of the mindset that remakes are a bad thing. Did we really need remakes of the Universal monster movies? Yet Hammer Films made some of the best horror movies ever made doing just that. Did we need a remake of THE THING (1951)? Yet John Carpenter made arguably one of the finest horror movies of all time with his remake.

Sure, there are plenty of faulty remakes/reimaginings out there, but I like to keep an open mind and refuse to knock them on principle since a lot of amazingly good films have been remakes.

The original CHILD’S PLAY (1988) was a decent horror flick from the 1980s about a toy doll named Chucky possessed by the soul of a serial killer, and it starred Chris Sarandon as a police detective, following upon the heels of his success as vampire Jerry Dandrige in FRIGHT NIGHT (1985). It spawned a whole series of Chucky films.

So, how does the current reimagining hold up?

Very well.

In fact, the new CHILD’S PLAY (2019) gets off to a strong start within its first few minutes thanks to some sharp writing and spot-on storytelling.

This CHILD’S PLAY opens with a video of the president of Kaslan Industires Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson) speaking to the camera about how their company cares for children, and he showcases their new Buddi doll, a doll that is more than just a toy. With its interactive technology, it connects to computers, phones, drones, and with its advanced robotics, it pretty much is the next best thing to a human companion/babysitter. And Kaslan stresses its safety factors, as it has safeguards that make it nearly impossible to do anyone harm.

And so you realize right off the bat that this is not going to be a story about a doll possessed by a serial killer, but about a doll with very real technology which today most likely could do all the things it does in the movie. Suddenly, Chucky’s story is based less on fantasy and more on reality. Very cool.

And when a disgruntled employee on his last day on the job removes all the safety protocols from one doll, that plot point makes sense as well.

Thirteen year-old Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) lives with his young mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) in a modest apartment. Since Andy has been having a hard time with their recent move, Karen decides to get her son an early birthday present. She works at a department store and when a customer returns a defective Buddi doll, she decides to rewrap it and give it to her son, believing it’s not all that defective since the main reason the customer cited for returning it was that it wasn’t the latest model which is due out in days.

When Andy comments that he’s kind of old for Buddi, Karen tells him that it could be a joke gift and that they could just have some fun with it. But the Buddi doll’s friendship program proves to be irresistible, and Andy, a loner, finds himself enjoying the company. When the doll asks Andy what he should name him, Andy says “Han Solo,” which is an in-joke since the doll is being voiced here by Mark Hamill, but the doll ignores Andy and says, “Chucky. My name will be Chucky.” Andy laughs off this unexpected moment of independence and fully embraces his new Chucky companion.

Of course, this is the doll without the safety protocols, and as a result it takes its job as Andy’s friend and protector very seriously. Too seriously. Anyone Chucky views as a threat to Andy ends up dead, and in the most unpleasant of ways.

I really enjoyed this new CHILD’S PLAY for a lot of reasons. For starters, Mark Hamill’s voice work for Chucky is outstanding. He’s creepy, he’s funny, and for a talking doll he’s very real. There’s a reason Hamill in spite of his STAR WARS superstardom is more known for his voice work than his onscreen acting performances. His voice work is very good. No knock against Brad Dourif who voiced the original Chucky, but Hamill made it so I wasn’t pining for the Chucky of yesteryear.

The rest of the cast is strong as well. Gabriel Bateman does a nice job as thirteen year-old Andy, and when he and his friends are on the case trying to stop Chucky, the film channels a STRANGER THINGS vibe.

I really liked Aubrey Plaza as Andy’s young mom Karen. Plaza has a comedic background. She played April on PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015). Her comedic timing is on full display here, and she takes things to the next level as she’s more than just a comedian in this movie. She makes for a convincing single mom.

I also enjoyed Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Mike Norris. He also has the light touch, as his Mike Norris is much more humorous than the character Chris Sarandon played in the original. Henry has been in a lot of stuff lately, appearing in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018), WHITE BOY RICK (2018), WIDOWS (2018), and he provided voice work for the critically acclaimed animated superhero movie SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018).  His roles in these films have all been different, and his work here in CHILD’S PLAY was much more playful than his roles in the aforementioned films.

CHILD’S PLAY has a smart and funny screenplay by Tyler Burton Smith. It carves out—heh, heh–likable characters, creates a surprisingly realistic threat in the Chucky doll, and tells a believable and often riveting story, even as it keeps things light throughout.

Director Lars Klevberg keeps the pace quick and the movie’s 90 minutes fly by easily. This one is rated R so be prepared for some grotesque horror movie violence in the spirit of the horror films from the 70s and 80s.

Speaking of which, how does this new CHILD’S PLAY stack up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well. First off, I thought it did a good job bringing Chucky into 2019, where our present day technology makes the notion of a murderous doll not that far-fetched since the science for making it happen exists in the real world. So, you have a realistic threat.

The gory murders hearken back to older films of this type and serve as an homage to these movies.

I didn’t really find CHILD’S PLAY scary, but that didn’t take away from my enjoying it. I cared for the characters and didn’t want to see them fall victim to Chucky. I also liked the look of this new Chucky, which had just enough differences to make it stand out from the original doll.

The film’s climactic third act, when Chucky exacts his revenge inside the department store at the unveiling and first sale of the new Buddi dolls, amid the rush of stampeding crazed customers, serves as a nice metaphor for the insanity of current day Black Friday shopping.

So, I’m not sure if we really needed a remake of CHILD’S PLAY, but this 2019 reimagining is a good one. So good in fact that you won’t even have to save your receipt. No refunds or returns are necessary.

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ROCKETMAN (2019) Rocks

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The best part about ROCKETMAN (2019) is that its magical flamboyant style captures the essence of its subject, Elton John, all the while telling a story that is anything but.

The real Elton John is on record as telling the film’s producers who were pushing for a PG-13 rated movie that he hadn’t lived a PG-13 life. The film is rated R and is better for it. This is a no holds barred look at one of rock and roll’s most eccentric performers.

Nearly everything about this movie works.

ROCKETMAN is the life story of Elton John (Taron Egerton). Starting with his troubled childhood where as a young boy named Reginald Dwight he had to deal with parents who didn’t show him affection and worse, abused him emotionally. In spite of them, he becomes a young piano prodigy, and as he grows older he becomes a fan of rock and roll. He also realizes that he is gay.

He develops a strong friendship with songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), which is a good thing, because Reggie’s strength is music, not words. His collaboration with Bernie is extremely successful, and once he chooses his stage name, Elton John, there’s no looking back.

The two sign a record deal and travel to the United States for an inaugural tour that instantly catapults John to superstardom. He never looks back. But fame has its price, and drug use, friends’ betrayals, and a family that never is interested in loving or supporting him, take their toll on John until he has a major collapse. But life goes on, true friends like Bernie Taupin never abandon him, and he’s able in 1983 to record another hit “I’m Still Standin” which is symbolic of his victory over the pitfalls of fame.

I loved ROCKETMAN.

Director Dexter Fletcher pushes all the right buttons. The film captures so much of the pain of John’s life and shows how he managed to succeed in spite of these obstacles. There are some truly cinematic scenes in this one. Probably the best sequence in the film is the concert at the Troubadour club in LA. Not only does the scene recreate what John accomplished on that day, on August 25, 1970, but it’s also the moment the film explodes with life. You could feel the theater audience mirroring the emotion of the concert audience in the movie.

There’s also a shot of the neighborhood surrounding the Troubadour that stood out because it looked so authentic, and it turns out that it was. Fletcher took stock 35 mm footage of the street and simply cleaned it up digitally. It’s only a few seconds of film, but it adds to the authenticity of the movie.

I loved the style of the film, which is pretty much a musical fantasy intertwined with a hard-hitting bio pic, which captures the essence of Elton John perfectly.

The acting is phenomenal. Taron Egerton, who before ROCKETMAN was known for THE KINGSMAN movies, EDDIE THE EAGLE (2015) and for his voice work in SING (2016), knocks it out of the park as Elton John. He completely loses himself in the role and becomes the rock and roll icon. It’s the best work I’ve seen Egerton do yet. Considering the big names that were originally associated with this project, actors like Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, and Daniel Radcliffe, I can’t imagine anyone else doing as good a job as Egerton does here. And, he does all his own singing! It’s an exceptional performance.

Jamie Bell is also very good as John’s best friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin. In a world full of insincere people, Taupin’s sincerity sticks out and is welcomed throughout. Bell plays Bernie as a man who loved John very much, but who was friend enough to tell the singer that he didn’t love him in “that way.” I’ve seen Bell in other movies, such as his role as the Thing in FANTASTIC FOUR (2015), and he was also in the exceptional actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), but like Egerton, this is the best performance I’ve seen Bell deliver.

Likewise, Richard Madden delivers a strong performance as John’s promoter and love interest John Reid, who is pretty much symbolic of all that goes wrong with John’s life in L.A.

And Bryce Dallas Howard is cold and endlessly annoying as John’s mother, as is Steven Mackintosh as his even colder and distant father. Their scenes with their son are among the most emotionally charged in the film, especially the one where John after he has become famous visits his dad and has to suffer through watching the man pour on the love to John’s younger stepbrothers while continually dissing John’s career, showing no interest in it whatsoever. When he asks John to sign one of his albums, he points out that it shouldn’t be made out to him, but to one of his friends, forcing John to cross out “To Dad” and instead write the friend’s name. Mackintosh was similarly annoying on the show LUTHER (2010) where he played DCI Ian Reed and became a real thorn in the side of Idris Elba’s main character Luther in that superior TV series.

I also loved the screenplay by Lee Hall. Not only does it tell Elton John’s life story in a truly satisfying way, it’s also chock full of memorable lines of dialogue. One of my favorite lines in the film is when a fellow rocker gives John this advice, “You’ve got to kill the person you were born as in order to become the person you were born to be.” Which is in many cases true.

Likewise, when John says, “Real love is hard to come by. So you find a way to cope without it,” also smacks of truth.

And there are many more.

And of course the film benefits from the music of Elton John, as his songs pepper the story throughout, with so many of the lyrics capturing pivotal points in John’s life.

About the only drawback I had with ROCKETMAN is I thought at times it pulled back from moments it should have stayed on. Things happen, often emotional and upsetting things, and then it would be on to the next item, rather than lingering on the trauma felt by the iconic rocker.

But other than that, I loved ROCKETMAN. With so many things going for it, and led by a superior performance by Taron Egerton, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year so far.

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SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

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DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) – Mixed Bag of A-List Actors and Mediocre Giant Monster Battles

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), the latest American made Godzilla film and sequel to Warner Bros.’ GODZILLA (2014), is a well-acted action-filled monster movie that somehow in spite of these strengths is sadly underwhelming.

And that’s because this movie contains an odd mix of often ridiculous plot points combined with a tone that simply takes itself way too seriously. Instead, the film should have gone for one or the other. A campier tone would have aligned itself better with the goofy superficial plot points. Likewise, a much more realistic and gritty storyline would have fit in better with the film’s serious feel. As it stands, the movie mixes both, and it just doesn’t work.

Following the 2014 Godzilla attacks which left the world a different place, the secret organization Monarch is in charge of monitoring all the new giant monsters which have been discovered in various places around the globe (silly plot point #1), but the U.S. government and military want to shut down Monarch so they can destroy the monsters and save the Earth. But the Monarch scientists argue that the monsters really aren’t here to destroy the Earth but to save it from its worst enemy: humankind.

Top Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) lost their son in the previous Godzilla attack, and his death caused them to separate, and Emma alone is raising their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). It also caused Emma to have extreme ideas about these monsters, and so she aligns herself with the dubious Jonah Alan (Charles Dance)— cue evil villain music!— and the two plan to release the giant monsters so they can unleash their wrath on the world and “cleanse” it of its human cancer.  Hmm. Where have I heard this before? Is that Thanos I see whispering into Dr. Russell’s ear?

But Dr. Russell isn’t arguing a la Thanos that half the population has to be wiped out by the monsters, only some of it, and that at the end of it all there will be new growth and the planet will be greener for it.  Come again? 

Of course, when this starts happening, the rest of Monarch and the U.S. military go ballistic, and they not only form an uncomfortable alliance to thwart Emma’s efforts, but they also call in Mark Russell to help them. Mark is mostly interested in finding and saving his daughter, and speaking of Madison, once she learns what her mom has planned, she changes her tune about which parent she wants to be spending time with.

Things grow more complicated when one of the monsters, King Ghidorah, is discovered to be from another planet, and he decides that he’s going to control and lead all the monsters in a battle against Godzilla for supremacy of the Earth.

Godzilla? That’s right! This is a Godzilla movie!  Funny how I haven’t mentioned him yet. Real funny. Not. Which is to say more Godzilla in this story and less elaborate saving-the-world-nonsense would have been most welcome.

Anyway, it’s up to Godzilla to take on King Ghidorah and ultimately save the world.

But as you may surmise from this plot summary, it’s a helluva convoluted way to tell a story about everyone’s favorite fire-breathing radioactive giant lizard!

Poor Godzilla. He was supposed to appear in this movie more than he did in the last one, the 2014 film, and while that may have been the case, it sure didn’t feel like it. For a movie that’s called GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS it sure seemed like he took a back seat to the other monsters in this one..

The best thing that GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS has going for it is its cast. It boasts a really strong cast of actors, led by its three principal leads.

Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell and Millie Bobby Brown as daughter Madison were both excellent. This is Millie Bobby Brown’s film debut. Brown, of course, plays Eleven on the hit TV series STRANGER THINGS (2016-19) so her effective performance in this movie is no surprise.

Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses working today, and while her movie performances have all been superb, it’s her work on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) based on PSYCHO (1960) where she played Norma Bates that I think is among her best stuff. Her interpretation of Norma Bates was much more nuanced and three-dimensional than the character ever was before in both the Hitchcock movie and Robert Bloch’s original novel.

Kyle Chandler is always enjoyable in nearly every movie he’s in, and he’s been in a lot, from light fare like GAME NIGHT (2018) to more serious stuff like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) to small supporting roles like in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), Chandler always makes a lasting impression. His work here in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is no exception.

When these three actors are on-screen, the movie is at its best and most watchable, and the good news is they’re on screen a lot, but the problem is they are stuck in a ridiculous storyline and are often uttering some very superficial and god-awful dialogue that really detracts from the seriousness of their performances.

Incidentally, Kyle Chandler also appeared in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) which is not part of the current Warner Bros. giant monster universe, and he’s set to appear in the next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG.

The supporting cast is every bit as good as the three leads.

You have Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER [2017]), Ziyi Zhang, and Bradley Whitford as fellow Monarch scientists. Watanabe and Hawkis are reprising their roles from the previous Godzilla movie, and in Watanabe’s case, he’s playing Dr. Serizawa, a name that goes back to the original GODZILLA film from 1954.

Bradley Whitford gets the liveliest lines in the movie, but strangely, his frequent attempts at humor seem to misfire repeatedly. Again, it’s that odd mix, and his campy lines seem out-of-place with the serious tone surrounding him.

David Strathairn plays Admiral William Stenz, another character back from the 2014 film, and Charles Dance does his villainous best at bad guy Jonah Alan, although at the end of the day the character is pretty much all talk and no action. In short, he does very little here.

The true villain is King Ghidorah, which brings us finally, to the monsters. After all, you don’t see a Godzilla film for the actors. You see it for the monsters. So, how do the monsters fare here?

Well, the main monsters here are Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, and while they are all given modern-day looks, I can’t say I was all that impressed. It sounds strange to say this, but with all our current CGI technology, I find that I prefer the old-fashioned man-in-suit monsters from Toho’s glory days. These monsters all look okay, but nothing about them I find special nor memorable.

In the Toho films, for better or for worse, the monsters, both good and bad, had personality. The monsters here have no personality. They are quite simply generic and not at all cinematic, which is a major knock against this movie, and quite frankly against the other Warner Bros. monster universe films. If the Marvel superheroes lacked similar charisma that series would have never gotten off the ground.

Also, I did not like the look of this movie at all. Most of the action takes place during various weather events and storms, and so it’s always difficult to see what the heck is going on. For example, the film’s climax takes place in Boston, and at Fenway Park specifically, and I have to say it’s one of the poorest and most fake looking interpretations of Boston I’ve ever seen in a movie. What could have been iconic and devastating is instead cartoonish and superficial.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS was directed by Michael Dougherty, and he also wrote the screenplay with some help from Zach Shields. This is the same creative team that gave us the horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), a film I actually liked quite a bit. In fact, I enjoyed KRAMPUS more than I enjoyed GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.

Dougherty gives us plenty of monsters and monster battles, but since 1) the monsters didn’t look outstanding, and 2) the settings of these battles were often in storms and difficult to see, as presented here, the monsters’ presence didn’t really lift this one to great heights.

The screenplay is superficial at best. It never gives us real terror— real people are noticeably absent here—- other than the scientists and a few military types, we see no one else reacting to the monsters. The film lacks real world emotion big time.

While it attempts to be an homage to earlier films at times, like the use of the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon from the 1954 GODZILLA, it does it all in a fleeting manner that never really gets to the heart of the matter.

Dougherty has a cast of seasoned and talented actors that make this movie better than it is,  but he doesn’t really help them out. They are in few cinematic scenes and more often than not are uttering lines of dialogue that are pretty bad.

So, where do I stand on GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS? For the most part, I did enjoy this movie, especially when watching Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, and Kyle Chandler, but whenever Godzilla and his fellow monsters showed up, I would lose interest, and for a Godzilla movie, this is NOT a good thing.

The film is a mixed bag to be sure, and while I enjoyed it more than GODZILLA (2014), I still prefer the Toho films of old, from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Now, Toho continued the Godzilla series into the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, even making the critically acclaimed SHIN GODZILLA (2016), and while those films in general are okay—I like the aforementioned older ones more—, they’re about on par with this current Warner Bros. series.

The next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG, slated for release in 2020, is one that while I’m definitely interested in, based upon the Warner Bros. films so far, I can’t say I’m excited about.

So, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is okay, but since the best part about it is NOT Godzilla, I don’t think Godzilla himself would approve, and for me, that’s all you need to know about this one.

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BOOKSMART (2019) – Raunchy Teen Comedy Has Its Moments

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BOOKSMART (2019), the new R-rated teen comedy by first-time director Olivia Wilde, has a lot of things going for it: a fun premise, sharp comedic and oftentimes poignant writing, a talented cast, and energetic direction.

But what it doesn’t have is a strong sense of realism. While I enjoyed most of BOOKSMART, I can’t say that I believed in much of it, which is too bad because parts of this movie have a lot to say.

With BOOKSMART, director Olivia Wilde takes the coming of age stories found in films like EIGHTH GRADE (2018) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and turns them into a raunchy R-rated comedy. The good news is the film never deteriorates into mindless vulgarity, but the bad news is it never reaches the level of truth and sensitivity found in the aforementioned movies either.

In BOOKSMART, high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of graduation realize that their classmates who goofed around through high school still got into the colleges of their choice, and so they decide if their classmates can do both, that is party and still get into top colleges, then they can as well, and so they decide to party hearty for one big night just to say they did before they graduated high school.

The film follows their attempts to find the huge class party (since they weren’t invited) which leads to one mishap after another since they’re not very good at this sort of thing, but they’re determined, and do eventually make it to the party to end all parties where they hope to finally engage in the relationships they only thought about during their four years of high school.

BOOKSMART is lively and energetic from start to finish. At times, the girls’ mishaps on their quest to find the elusive party reminded me of the situations in the HANGOVER movies, although nothing here reaches the level of insane comedy found in that series, although this film certainly tries. Director Olivia Wilde lets everything fly, even including a hilarious scene featuring Amy and Molly as animated figures.

The screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman is very funny. The best part about the humor is it takes the usual drug and sex jokes and keeps them honest and prevents them from being cliché. Indeed, the humor works best when the situations are honest. For example, one of the funniest sequences involves Amy’s long-awaited and first sexual encounter with another girl.

The party scenes are also a cut above the usual mindless shenanigans of drunk teens. But not all the humor works, as some of the situations like when the girls try to hijack a pizza delivery driver to get the address of the party, simply aren’t taken far enough to be truly funny. Still, there are a decent number of laugh out loud moments.

BOOKSMART is a female driven movie to be sure, with its woman director, four women screenwriters, and predominantly female cast. As such, this film has a lot to say about young women and their relationships. Probably the deepest part of the story is Amy’s dealings with her sexuality. The discussions regarding gender and sexual preferences are spot on. The problem is the film doesn’t go there enough. These topics take a back seat to the raunchy comedic parts of the story.

The bigger culprit though is the believability factor. The bottom line here is most of the students in this film simply didn’t seem all that real to me. Sure, the story takes place in California, and the characters here are all from an affluent west coast neighborhood, but they certainly didn’t seem like they were living in the real world. And at the end of the day, this lack of realism works against the movie and what it’s trying to say about the life of high school students, especially female high school students, in 2019.

The cast was excellent. Both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein stand out in the lead roles as Amy and Molly. These two did seem like real people, and I enjoyed watching this story about the two of them and their lifelong friendship. Dever has already had some notable roles in films like DETROIT (2017), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), and BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018). Her role here only adds to her impressive resume.

Beanie Feldstein impressed in LADY BIRD (2017), playing lead character Lady Bird’s best friend Julie.

Other notable performances in the young cast include Victoria Ruesga as Ryan, Mason Gooding as Nick, Skyler Gisondo as Jared, Diana Silvers as Hope, Molly Gordon as Triple A, Eduardo Franco as Theo, Austin Crute as Alan, and Noah Galvin as George. All these actors have key moments in the movie, and they’re all very good.

The cast also includes veteran actors Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, as well as Jason Sudeikis as the school principal.

While BOOKSMART is certainly funny, it never reaches the level of all-out hilarity it needed to be really memorable. Likewise, while its script and story do possess moments of sensitivity and insight into the teenage condition in 2019, these moments are sporadic at best. And while the dialogue is realistic and raw, unfiltered to a fault, the situations the two leads find themselves in are more often ludicrous than real. As such, while I had fun with BOOKSMART, I can’t say I believed most of it, which works against the stronger thematic elements of this comedy.

I liked BOOKSMART, but had it been a tad smarter, I would have loved it.

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BRIGHTBURN (2019) – Predictable Horror Superhero Tale

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What if Superman didn’t turn out to be a nice guy? If his powers made him a monster instead of a superhero?

That’s basically the premise behind BRIGHTBURN (2019), the new horror superhero movie—is there even such a thing? I guess there is now— that asks the question: if you discovered the baby you always wanted in the woods, how long would you turn a blind eye on his murderous shenanigans in the name of love? In this movie, a bit too long.

Now, this movie is not about Superman. The Man of Steel is not in this film, but the two origin stories share obvious similarities.

Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are struggling to have a baby, but one night, their prayers are answered, as something crash lands outside their farmhouse, and there they discover a baby boy which they decide to adopt as their own. The story jumps to a decade later where young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is celebrating his 12th birthday.

These are unsettling times for Brandon. He’s in middle school, going through puberty, and he’s hearing voices in his head from the ship hidden beneath his parents’ barn telling him to take on the world. In short, he’s an angry little tyke, and in this film he unleashes his anger by hurting people he deems as threat in horrific ways that include glass shards to the eye, breaking a young girl’s hand, and dropping a car to the ground in order to shatter the driver’s face. Yup, it’s a horror movie.

Brandon’s parents want to love their son, but eventually they realize they had better do something about him— you think???— but by the time they decide to take action, it may be too late.

I enjoyed BRIGHTBURN well enough, but not as much as I wanted to. The two main knocks for me against this film are that 1) it’s very predictable, and 2) there’s not a whole lot of imagination behind it.

Once the story is introduced, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. You know that Brandon is bad news, and the plot unfolds in ways that offer no surprises. The screenplay by Brian and Mark Gunn offers little in the way of imagination, which is too bad because there were a lot of creative directions this one could have taken, but it doesn’t.

A scene early on in the movie where Brandon is in a science class features a discussion of bees and wasps in which it’s said that wasps are so ruthlessly busy they enslave others to raise their young, hinting of course that this may be the rationale behind Brandon’s real otherworldly parents. This notion had the potential to be something really sinister, but the film never returns to it. We learn absolutely nothing about Brandon’s real parents or where he came from.

When Brandon gives in to his evil ways, he wears a mask. Why? It’s not clearly explained and seems to be a thin excuse to tie this tale in to the superhero motif.

It also takes his parents forever to do anything about their son. They wait so long it strains credulity.

BRIGHTBURN is also another of those origin stories that gives its audience 85 minutes of mundane storytelling, only to offer much more imaginative ideas in the final 5 minutes, as if to say, this is what we have in store for you in the sequel. BRIGHTBURN would have been a better movie if some of what is shown in the last five minutes had happened midway through the film.

Director David Yarovesky tries hard to have the film earn its R rating with some graphic shots of facial mutilation, but sadly, this doesn’t really make much of an impact. There really aren’t a whole lot of memorable scenes or images in BRIGHTBURN. It’s all rather flat.

Elizabeth Banks is fine as mommy Tori Breyer. She’s hell-bent on defending her son to the last, and at times it almost seems as though she’d be okay with her son being an evil monster, but the film doesn’t take things that far.

Likewise David Denman is okay as daddy Kyle. And his big dramatic scene where he decides that enough is enough, and he takes Brandon deep into the woods to hunt, where he plans to shoot his son, is symptomatic of what’s wrong with BRIGHTBURN. On its surface, it’s a fairly dramatic and watchable sequence, but it’s not riveting, we don’t see Kyle in anguish over this decision, nor do we see him in impassioned rage that he has to save the world from his son. Nope. It’s just sort of there.

That’s how the whole movie is. It’s watchable, but it’s just sort of there.

Jackson A. Dunn is sufficiently creepy as Brandon, but that’s about it. We never really learn what Brandon is really about, nor do we know what’s going through his mind in most of his scenes.

Matt Jones, who played Badger on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), enjoys a few lively and humorous moments in a small role as Brandon’s uncle Noah.

For a brief while, BRIGHTBURN was almost the perfect metaphor for middle school angst, both for the student and the student’s parents, but the film simply isn’t creative enough to sustain such symbolism.

BRIGHTBURN is an okay movie. It’s a horror movie because its main character can and does kill people with ease and in horrific ways, but it’s not scary nor even suspenseful. It’s a superhero movie in appearance only, as Brandon dons a mask and flies around, and of courses possesses super powers. But there’s no depth here, no conversations about the responsibilities that go with great power, no human interactions which shape Brandon’s world outlook. There’s just anger, aggression, and murder, and from a protagonist we know little about.

And we know nothing of Brandon’s otherworldly parents, but based on his actions in this movie, I’m guessing they’re more like the Predator species than Jor El.

There’ll be no inspirational daddy videos at the Fortress of Solitude here.

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