Godzilla: King of the Monsters

I know a lot of people who have “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” high on their lists of most anticipated films of the year. If you grew up watching the many variations of Godzilla movies that were primarily a man in a suit, stomping on miniature versions of Tokyo, it’s easy to understand your attraction to this franchise. These were the original disaster films, that featured large swaths of civilization laid to waste by giant monsters battling one another. Before “Transformers” or the MCU, this was your go to fix for mass destruction.

A few years ago, I had a slight aversion to these types of movies, a hangover of 9/11. The thought of the death that would be involved took most of the joy out of this after a while. Maybe it is true that time heals all wounds because I did not have a negative reaction this time around. In part it may be that the cities are mostly abandoned in anticipation of the arrival of the monsters, but I also think that since there is such a heavy emphasis on the scale of the creatures, everything else looks like toys being crushed, despite the improvements of Computer Generated Images. It still comes across as if we have guys in rubber suits wrestling among the sets.

“King of the Monsters” does not waste time setting up a backstory or building a narrative. It launches right into what passes as a plot with Scientist Emma Russell, played by Vera Farmiga, plowing forward with a tool to communicate with “Titans” in a primitive way using sound. She is estranged from her ex-husband after they lost their son in Godzilla’s rampage in San Francisco five years ago. Her daughter Madison however is still in touch with her Dad electronically, and she has some worries about her mother’s obsessions. Millie Bobbie Brown from “Stranger Things” plays the young Maddy and to no one’s surprise, ends up in the middle of the “clash of the Titans”. Kyle Chandler is her Dad, and he is a veteran of these kinds of films having been in Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong” and the J.J. Abrams genetically derived from Spielberg “Super 8”.  Ken Watanabe returns as the character he played in 2014’s “Godzilla” and so do Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn. Their presence is not essential to the story, it merely adds a link to try and connect the events of the earlier film to these proceedings. New characters abound and are played by familiar faces but their parts have little impact on the main focus of this film…monsters fighting.

The pace of the movie is relentless, and that may sound like a good thing but I’m not sure it is. There is virtually no time to reflect on the implications of each new discovery or every turn in the tide  because the next plot complication arrives almost immediately. Maybe that’s why the movie feels so much like a cartoon and is more easily digested, because the human characters are so superfluous to the events happening on screen. The locations around the world keep shifting so quickly that we don’t get much sens of our bearings before we are whisked off to another battle on a different continent. The best things that the movie has going for it are it’s scope, size and volume. Spinal Tap must have left their equipment in the studio when the sound engineers of this film went to work because this movie plays at eleven, for all Two hours and eleven minutes. There is so much, roaring, screaming and explosive impact from the screen that I would advise you to bring earplugs if you want to avoid tinnitus for a few hours after the film plays.

Monarch is the name of the secret agency tasked with dealing with these monsters, see there is a link to Godzilla even in the name of our science group. The scientists solve problems in seconds but the military component of the group leaves something to be desired. The tactical units don’t know how to secure an area that they are taking control of. The equipment is always damaged in some way as to require a fix that presents a distracting side complication to the fight. And finally, there does not seem to be a very clear chain of command. Basically, a terror group that wants the monsters to remake the planet, is battling with Monarch over control of technology and the monsters themselves. So in addition to the Three headed invasive species of Ghidorah, Monarch has to deal with Tywin Lannister. This plot thread will allow a continuation of the franchise and the restoration of some of the destroyed creatures in future episode. There are also a few seeds of the future Kong vs Godzilla battle that all the fans of these movies are waiting for. There were no crossover characters from “Kong Skull Island” in this film, but the location is referred to a couple of times and it is clear that Kong is one of the titans that will battle for apex status in the future.

So the human characters are not great, they just hold together enough plot to make the giant monster battles serve some purpose. Those big battles look pretty spectacular, but I’ve got to say, if it were not for human intervention, there would be little reason to think of Godzilla as the king. He gets whooped a couple of times in the movie and it is only “Science” that makes him able to challenge for the throne again. Look it’s big and LOUD, and a lot of fun, but it means little and you will not be permanently impacted one way or another. Go have some popcorn, put your favorite candy in the popcorn and then butter it. Wash it down with a large soda, because after all, you are being asked to swallow an awful lot by this movie.

Captive State

With a smattering of special effects and some old school style storytelling, “Captive State” manages to be a smart, compelling Science Fiction allegory that will make you remember the films of the 1970s without being old-fashioned. This film is more cerebral than is healthy for the box office, but if you are willing to think and fill in the story elements, you will come away impressed by the things that were accomplished here with solid acting, a cryptic script and an idea that has been around for a long time.

“captive State” barely touches on the manner in which our planet became an occupied state. That process is over by the time the credits have finished. This movie takes place well into the occupation and it uses some long standing ideas as the crux of the story. Aliens have come for our resources, but they need our cooperation to get them. Their solution has been to take over the political processes of the Earth and replace them with their own form of governing. They manage to convince the power elite that they will survive and everyone else is given pablum about how great everything is now that we are subjected to this domination. Although this is an alien invasion film, it is not really about the aliens. They appear in relatively few scenes and are largely a menacing off screen presence. It is the Vichy style police state that is the true enemy of humanity, and it is uncertain if an insurgency can be reignited after having been crushed once before.

There is an overwhelming sense of sadness about how compliant we humans have become. The folks who make up the deep “terror” cell of resistance, come from some of the obvious places but there are also a few surprises. Much of the story involves how they have to circumvent the surveillance that the whole population is subjected to. The police have become a tool for control and they have power that can only be described as dictatorial. John Goodman plays the head of the security police in a troublesome district. His methods are successful but he seems to be holding back on some potential problems as a way of protecting former family friends and securing a complete victory over the Chicago resistance cell at the same time. He has always been one of the best things in any movie he appears in and this is no exception. Although his name is the first lead on the promotional material, his story is secondary at times to that of Ashton Sanders as Gabriel Drummond, the younger brother of a famous resistance leader.

I mentioned that this was old fashioned story telling, well here is why I say that,,, very little is explained to us. We have to figure out what is going on as the story develops. Sometimes there are dead ends, and in other places there are moments that feel as if they are going to be important, but they are a red herring. Characters interact with one another and we don’t know their motivations or relationships, we only see their actions. That means we need to pay attention to those actions and my guess is a lot of people will not like that. There were a ton of crime films and science fiction films in the early 70s that did the same sort of thing. Nothing is spelled out in bold letters explaining what is happening or why it matters. Because the film is set in the decaying parts of Chicago after the invasion, it feel gritty like one of those movies as well. There are some action beats but most of the movie is suspense based with some mysteries deeply buried for us to wait to unravel.

This is a stand alone film that could easily be turned into a franchise but I doubt it will have the financial cache to get to that. Vera Farmiga, Kevin Dunn and Alan Ruck are seasoned veterans of movies who are small background players in this story. Kevin J. O’Conner,is another who is working in the background to make the scenario seem real. The movie though belongs to Sanders and Goodman and they have the ability to play it honestly. I thought the wrap up was sad as hell but also inspiring. I won’t say it is a total surprise but the way it plays out was not exactly what I chad come to expect. This is not really a popcorn movie despite the Sci Fi trappings. If you are interested in seeing how grown ups tell a story about the alien scenario, then this is the movie for you.

The Commuter

Liam Neeson and I have a standing date in the winter months. He shows up to kick some ass and I show up to watch him do it. For the last two years however he has stood me up. Unless I’m willing to give him credit for “A Monster Calls” where he did a vocal performance, he has made me go six months of winter without killing anyone on screen. That’s too long and I don’t like it. So of course I was happy to see that he had a January mind numb-er coming out this year.  He has make some exceptionally good action films but he has also made some that are there to simply divert us for a couple of hours, no complaint, and this is a genre picture with no aspirations except to entertain us.

This is the fourth film he has made with Jaume Collet-Serra as director, and like the other three, it is an action film with a unique premise. Neeson is a guy who has been doing a middle class job, in a mundane corporate life, for a decade now, and suddenly he is immersed in a conspiracy and is forced to call on some old skills. You see he is also a former cop. That at least explains why he is able to think the way he does and handle himself pretty well when the fan makes contact with the feces.

Collet-Serra is a competent action director. I really liked his shark movie from two years ago, it was stylish and beautifully shot. There is one fairly artistic touch to this film and it happens during the opening. Neeson’s character goes through a number of days, minute by minute, almost Groundhog Day like.  We see how similar each day of his life has been. There are minor variations of daily issues but the routine is the same. It is as if the life is mundane and you don’t really need to see everything that happens each day because it changes so little. The montage is the pre-title sequence and it does a nice job creating exposition without ever telling us a plot point. We know his life from the outset. This day however turns out a bit different. His work situation changes, his routine is disrupted and a stranger enters his life with a weird proposition. The next thing we know, he is jumping between train cars, engaging in deadly hand to hand combat and trying to outwit a antagonist who apparently knows everything except the one piece of information she wants Neeson’s character to find out.

There is no real surprise that the reason he is connected to the plot here is that he was a cop. Now just which one of the former co-workers is the bad guy? When you have name actors in parts that seem much to small for them, that is usually a tip-off that more is coming. In this film there are two possibilities, and the story keeps you guessing up to the climax, when it seems it could be either of the two, and then there is the turn and it is revealed. So we had some cat and mouse, some procedural and a couple of action sequences up to this point. Finally, there is a Spartacus moment and you will appreciate characters that maybe you didn’t think much of before. There are two Macguffins, a person and something they are carrying. In the end, neither is very interesting but we do get to see the psychological test that the antagonist has set up for us. Vera Farmiga has about the same number of scenes as her costar from the Conjuring films, Patrick Wilson, has. They never have any scenes together and it does seem odd that the casting went this way given their history together in movies. It’s not important, it’s just a quirk I noticed.

Long time character actor Johnathan Banks has a brief role and he was fine. Sam Neil is another name that is dangled as a suspect for us and you can certainly see why they went that way. Elizabeth McGovern is Neeson’s wife, with very little screen time and no character at all. This is an entertaining couple of hours that will leave no marks and doesn’t require additional viewings once everything has been revealed. I’m just glad there are still mid-level action films being produced for weekend consumption in the deadest part of the year.

The Conjuring 2

The original movie is now three years old and it remains one of my favorites in the horror genre. The spin-off story of “Annabelle” was not nearly as effective but it was not from the same director and it lacked the elements that “The Conjuring” had, mainly the Warrens , Ed and Lorraine, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. These two very sympathetic characters help make sense of the ghost story and allow the possession material to fit with the other scares in the last section of the first film. They are even more centrally involved in this new story and the result is a movie that is satisfying but not nearly as engaging as the predecessor.

These films both play the “Based on a True Story” game, and since the leads are supposed to represent actual historical figures, I guess it makes sense that they have to deal with some of the controversies they were involved with. Their involvement with the Amityville Horror case may be the crucial point at which you either accept or reject the legitimacy of their investigations. In this film, the opening makes reference to their involvement and there is a nicely creepy trance scene that recounts the horrors that precipitated the story that became so famous. When the Amityville case was later characterized as a hoax, it would seem to put a dent in the Warren’s credibility. That twist actually becomes an important plot point in this film, since the possibility of a hoax would keep the church out of the situation.

Very much as in the first film, we get a nicely paced introduction to a family that is struggling to make it through a divorce and tough economic times, this time in England. A mom and her four kids live in a dilapidated row house in Northern London, and strange things begin to happen. From the beginning of this story however, the possession angle is clear and there are lots of indicators that this is where the danger lies. The two young girls in the film, struggle to stay grounded but events really seem to push the idea that something supernatural is happening here. Unlike the earlier case, this event is being played out in public and there are a number of other “experts” involved in investigating and maybe helping the family. The Warrens are there as consultants but it does not take long for them to fully embrace the events and become part of the story themselves.

Horror films succeed on creativity, timing and a good sense of what creeps us out. This movie works those ideas well about 80% of the time. There are dark visions with horrific images that you know are going to give you a jump scare, but only if they are handled well. I think Director James Wan does a good job making the fright scenes he and his co-screenwriters put on paper. He is not always as successful with the drama outside of the scare scenes. Ed and Lorraine are good characters but sometimes they come off as a little too perfect. I did like the sequence where Ed helps the family calm down for a night with a little music, that was the most real moment that the two paranormal investigators have in the movie. The mumbo jumbo about having the name of the demon they seek to exorcise, comes out of nowhere as does the key to discovering the truth behind the events at the public housing house in Enfield Borough. The final sequence has a good taut climax without going over board on the effects.

By sticking to the principles of a good haunting story, and not getting carried away with CGI effects, the film sustains a sense of dread as well as personal empathy for the family involved. We are not put at too great a distance by the scope of the horror and we can understand the family’s desire to protect the kids as they are being attacked. The kids friends disappear from the film, and given the nature of the possession story, that makes sense. I did think that the loyalty of the family’s neighbors across the street was surprising, but maybe they could imagine that if something were not done to draw a line, they could easily have been in the same spot. I can’t see this making a year end “best of” list as the original did three years ago, but it is a worthy follow up and except for what seems like a slightly rushed resolution, a well made story.