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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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

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All the rage this year for horror fans has been the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016), and with good reason:  it’s a phenomenal show.  Among the many things it gets right is its near-perfect homage to the horror films of the 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter.

But for me, before STRANGER THINGS, a film that also captured the spirit of John Carpenter’s early works was the stylish horror flick IT FOLLOWS (2014).  While not a clear homage to the 1980s— in fact, it’s unclear when this film takes place, and this timelessness seems to have been done on purpose— the film definitely has that 1980s horror vibe.

In fact, there are several specific shots that bring to mind John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The neighborhood where the main characters live looks similar to Laurie Strode’s neighborhood in HALLOWEEN, and there’a scene where main character Jay sits in a classroom listening to her teacher drone on before looking out the window and seeing a threat.  There’s a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.  In that movie, Laurie looks out the window and sees Michael Myers’ car.  In IT FOLLOWS, Jay looks out the window and sees the old woman walking towards her.

IT FOLLOWS is a stylish, sexy horror movie that ranks as one of the best horror films to come out in the past ten years.

The film opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and is reminiscent of the electronic scores of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, no one uses cell phones, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

Definitely check out IT FOLLOWS, but if you look out your window and  see someone slowly walking towards you, someone that nobody else seems to be noticing, take my advice:  run!

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Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

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STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

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