Movie Review ~ Godzilla: King of the Monsters


The Facts
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Synopsis: The crypto-zoological agency Monarch faces off against a battery of god-sized monsters, including the mighty Godzilla, who collides with Mothra, Rodan, and his ultimate nemesis, the three-headed King Ghidorah.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Charles Dance, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aisha Hinds, Zhang Ziyi

Director: Michael Dougherty

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I guess I never knew quite how popular Godzilla was until I started doing my homework in prep for seeing his latest Hollywood endeavor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. While this film is only his third movie to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, it’s the 35th overall to feature the big green lizard/dragon/sea beast that smashes big cities with a mere flick of his craggy tail. That’s pretty impressive for a mega-monster originally conceived in 1954 as a cautionary tale on nuclear technology. As the world changed, so did Godzilla’s alliances, though his popularity waxed and waned over the ensuing decades, getting revived very few years to keep him in the public consciousness.

After a disastrous attempt at bringing him to life for American audiences via a 1998 soggy blockbuster, in 2014 director Gareth Edwards found a formula that worked with the impressive, popcorn-chomping, good-time fun of Godzilla. Always hungry for the next big franchise, Warner Brothers was already in the works on a sequel to their hit film when they decided that 2017’s Kong: Skull Island would be a tie-in experience that was slightly retro-fitted to expand upon their “monster-verse”. With two titans now in their corner and plenty of foes from the subsequent canon of sequels (official and cheapie otherwise), the studio went all in with Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The resulting product is one that doubles down on the monster mayhem but misses the mark on the human element that its predecessor made time for.

Five years have passed since Godzilla went head to head with two massive creatures that left much of San Francisco destroyed. Returning to the depths of the ocean, Godzilla hasn’t been seen since, nor have any more ghastly beasties risen from the ground to wreak havoc. Still, crypto-zoological organization Monarch has been continuing their covert work on the titan project that began years earlier. The discovery of Skull Island helped them pinpoint other locations around the globe where sleeping beasts may lie and outposts have been set-up in these areas to study these creatures and protect the outside world from disturbing their slumber.

Paleobiologist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobbie Brown, Stranger Things) live on one of the Monarch outposts and as the film opens they are present for the birth of Mothra, a giant caterpillar creature that Emma has developed a way to communicate with. No sooner has contact been established when an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, playing his umpteenth villain) bursts in, abducts mother and daughter, and makes off with the device that not only can communicate with the titans but can also rouse them from their rest and send them on a rampage.

As the titans are let loose, including Rodan and the alpha-est alpha of them all, the three dragon-headed beast King Ghidorah, it calls forth Godzilla from the fathoms and he doesn’t seem too happy about cutting his watery rest short. Audiences should be pleased, however, that Godzilla gets far more screen time in the sequel and actually gets to be the bona-fide star of his own film. He definitely gets more screen time than some of the top-billed stars, many of whom seem to have signed up only to stand with their mouth agape on the bridge of a ship/aircraft carrier/submarine and occasionally throw out bits of trivia (I’m looking at you Zhang Ziyi, The Grandmaster). At least lead player Kyle Chandler (The Spectacular Now) is a marked improvement over the teeth-gnashing overacting of Bryan Cranston in the first film…but the scenery is still chewed to the bone by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) who manages to not only play the same irksome character in each movie but wear the same athleisure wardrobe as well. The only two notable actors reprising their roles are Ken Watanabe (Pokémon Detective Pikachu) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) as Monarch scientists and both seem to be squeezing each others hand for moral support for much of the picture.

Cutting his teeth successfully on smaller films like Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus, director Michael Dougherty graduates to the big time in a big way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is an overwhelming film and at times it feels like you’re getting swept away into a vortex along with everyone else in the movie. Surprisingly iffy special effects at times go hand in hand with stunningly rendered creature feature work – when Godzilla and King Ghidorah charge each other (seen in the previews but even more exciting in context) there a definite electric charge that ran through the audience.  Dougherty is best when the action is pulled back on a massive scale to see the creatures in their full glory — it’s only when we get up close and personal that you begin to see the seams…the man in the rubber suit as it were.

If only that pesky plot-stuff didn’t pop up to get in the way of all of the chaos from these colossuses, right? While the crux of the plot has the whiff of something audiences already explored in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, Dougherty penned the script along with returning screenwriter Max Borenstein and franchise newbie Zach Shields.  The film feels like a hodgepodge of ideas and necessary exposition to get us caught up to where we need to be before the next film, Godzilla vs. Kong, arrives in March 2020.   There’s a whole lot going on here and not a lot of time for anything to sink in. Major plot points are glossed over — don’t blink or you’ll miss that a character has a twin who appears in one scene while two major characters perish in separate parts of the movie and we barely notice because it’s so hard visually to see what happened.  As is the case with many sequels, there’s more mythology to explain and some of it (such as where Godzilla goes when he isn’t in battle mode) is quite interesting but we’re yanked away so fast it begins to feel like Daughtery is contractually obligated to get to the next big clash.

This is one of those pure entertainment films that doesn’t ask much of you outside of 2 ½ hours of your time and the price of a ticket. It’s escapist stuff that’s big, loud, silly, but ultimately a fun watch. If you’re spending time thinking about why the actors are doing what they’re doing then you’re missing the point of it all – just wait a few minutes and Godzilla will be back to show you why he’s king of the monsters. Bow down.

Movie Review ~ The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of martial-arts master Ip Man, the man who trained Bruce Lee.

Stars: Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, Hye-kyo Song, Chen Chang, Yuen Woo-ping, Shun Lau, Siu-Lung Leung

Director: Wong Kar Wai

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I have the distinct feeling I’ll wind up writing two reviews of The Grandmaster.  There’s the review you’re reading now of the US version that just opened, and then there the version originally released in China that’s 22 minutes longer with scenes in a different order and lacking the slightly troubling voice-over narration imposed upon it by the studio heads at The Weinstein Company.

Now that’s not to say that the 108 minute film available to audiences in this country isn’t worth seeing — because it would be recommended on the striking visuals alone.  Still, knowing that another cut of the film is out there waiting to be taken in always makes me curious to seeing what exactly of The Grandmaster was tinkered with as it crossed to our shores.

In brief, The Grandmaster is a look into a specific period of Ip Man, a legendary figure in martial arts history.  Though not exactly a biographical film, it does use the life of Ip Man to chart historical developments in China during from the late 30’s to the early 50’s.  In that time Ip Man asserts himself as a worthy master of the Southern kung fu arts, though he is briefly challenged by the Northern master who arrives as the recently named successor of the visiting Grandmaster.

Tony Leung (reunited with his 2046 and In the Mood for Love director Wong Kar Wai) takes on this famous figure with a muted performance that’s more reflective than action-oriented.  Though the script doesn’t allow Leung to go very deep for the first hour there’s a rewarding final act that fleshes him out to be more than just quiet reserve, knuckles and perfectly delivered kicks.

Though I’ve read that in the original Chinese version Zhang Ziyi had a more rounded lead role, her truncated screen time here is maximized for the most impact.  I found myself more interested in her role, as the well-trained daughter of the aged Grandmaster, than I did about the leading character the story revolved around.  Still remembered for her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha, Ziyi makes the character more than the icy porcelain veneer she gives off, which leads to a stunning (and gorgeously sad) transformation for the actress as the film winds down.

The fight scenes (choreographed with razor sharp precision by Yuen Woo-ping and captured elegantly by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd) feature some truly thrilling visuals…but an overuse of grainy slow-motion gets old fairly fast and one wishes for a fast-forward button to see these near-perfect scenes up to speed.  Accompanied by a heart-poundingly resonant score from Shigeru Umebayashi and Nathaniel Méchaly, these aren’t your run of the mill Matrix-y battles with gravity defying roundhouse kicks.  Though wires were clearly used, the movie is conceptualized and edited so well that it’s easy to lose yourself in these moments.  A late in the picture nighttime fight at a train station may be one of the best constructed scenes end-to-end in film this year because it tells an entire story in about five minutes.

There were times in the film when I questioned whether another fight sequence was necessary to advance the plot.  Even though he never sought out a battle, the movie makes it seem like everything in the life of Ip Man was settled with a kung fu battle…I was waiting for the scene where his newspaper was delivered late and he had to fight the paperboy to protect his honor.

A lot of ground is covered in the film and I can see why the voice-over narration was added and the non-linear storytelling was put in chronological order for a more mainstream audience.  The sacrifice in that, though, is that the film winds up feeling choppy.  There are large leaps in time and enough important moments in history are barely touched on before moving to the next fight sequence.  I think US audiences would have been willing to stick around a little longer to feel like they’ve had a bit more of an all-around look into the life of Ip Man and the various people he met along the way.

Ending before the later years (that involved opium use and possible mismanagement of funds) of Ip Man’s life, The Grandmaster is a carefully constructed film that’s half biography and half historical drama.  Between fight scenes and bittersweet musings on love and family, there are enough beautiful moments in the film to overcome any problems that have popped up in tampering with the original material.