Godzilla vs. Kong


Battle of the behemoths.

(2021) Sci-Fi Action (Warner Brothers) Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Elza Gonzales, Julian Dennison, Lance Reddick, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, Kaylee Hottle, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Ronny Chieng, John Pirruccello, Chris Chalk, Conlan Casal, Brad McMurray, Benjamin Rigby, Nick Turello, Daniel Nelson, Priscilla Doueihy. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

In 2021, after everything we’ve been through, after everything we’ve suffered, I think that what we need the most now more than platitudes and pep talks is just a good old-fashioned slugfest between two giant iconic monsters. Who’s with me? A whole lot of you, as it turns out.

Podcaster Bernie Hayes (Henry) is investigating Apex Cybernetics and their shifty CEO Walter Simmons (Bichir), thinking that there’s some vast world-threatening conspiracy going on; when you’re right, you’re right. Plucky Madison Russell (Brown), whose mom was a scientist turned eco-terrorist who died as a result of a battle of Titans (as did her baby brother) and whose Dad (Chandler) is a scientist working for the Monarch Project, a shadowy organization involved with both Godzilla and Kong, thinks Bernie is on the right track and decides to seek him out, aided by her nerdy friend Josh (Denison).

Skull Island was destroyed in a storm, but Kong was rescued by Monarch and put into a dome that is much like the Island, minus the deadly giant creatures. Kong is being studied by biologist Dr. Ilene Andrews (Hall) whose adopted daughter Jia (Hottle) – the last survivor of the tribe that lived on Skull Island and deaf – can communicate with the giant ape via sign language.

Simmons has hired geologist Nathan Lind (Skarsgård) to lead an expedition to the Hollow Earth, the inner part of our planet that his brother had died trying to reach. However, Nathan will be equipped with a modern flying vehicle that can handle the pressure of the gravitational forces. Simmons believes Kong can guide him through to the center, so Dr. Andrews and Jia will be going with them, as will be his daughter Maya (Gonzalez) who has ulterior motives. However, they are interrupted by an inexplicable attack on Apex’s Pensacola facility, but why would Godzilla, who up to now has been a protector of mankind, suddenly turn against them? And how will he react to the presence of Kong, a King in his own right? I think the title of the film gives that one away.

And indeed, if you are looking eagerly for that titular battle, you will not be disappointed. Wingard and company pull off the larger than life spectacle amidst the neon skyscrapers of Hong Kong, in the primitive landscape of Hollow Earth and in the cool futuristic corridors of Apex, whose name should be a hint as to what they are up to – and it’s no spoiler to inform you that they are indeed, up to something.

Reading the plot summation will probably make your head explode if you think about it too much, but then again, if you take this too seriously you’ve probably spent too much of the pandemic reading about politics. It’s daffy and lightweight and essentially an excuse for Kong or Godzilla (or both) to battle lizards, monkeys, insects, robots, dragons, aliens, dinosaurs, or whatever else the evil geniuses at Legendary can come up with. It’s all in good fun.

Henry actually proves to be the most memorable performer here, which is surprising since he’s more or less comic relief – think the Woody Harrelson role in 2012. The heroic characters- Hall, Skarsgård, Brown – do adequate jobs, but the movie really isn’t about them. And it really isn’t about the comic relief, either, when you get right down to it. No, it’s about giant things beating up on other giant things while people scream and run and buildings collapse. Just good clean fun, in other words.

The pandemic has been kind of a petri dish for important, thought-provoking movies because those sorts, let’s face it, don’t suffer much from being seen at home, whereas the big dumb mindless eye candy movies like this one benefit more from having theaters. Now that we’re starting to see theaters reopening all around the globe, the time is right for the movies that the studios have been holding onto until the right time. Well, the time is now and we shall soon be seeing a parade of big, dumb, mindless eye candy films that we’ve been missing other than in reruns on our streaming services. And I’m glad they’re back. I didn’t know how much I missed them until now. And yes, critics have been embracing this movie with uncharacteristic glee which should be taken with a grain of salt; most critics would have excoriated this film had it come out in 2019, and certainly come 2022 they will be back to eviscerating films like this while praising the grim, thought-provoking movies that in the midst of a pandemic seem to be almost anti-climactic. So enjoy the Bizarro-world reversal while it lasts, kiddies. And try to see this movie in a theater if you can; these kinds of movies really are better-served in that environment. But, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated and you have HBO Max and you have a reasonably good home entertainment system, you should be all set in that regard as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Eye candy as far as the eye can see.
REASONS TO AVOID: Character development? Pshaw!
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of creature violence and destruction, some brief profanity and a few terrifying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film earned $122 million over its opening weekend, the largest opening of a film since the pandemic began.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until April 30)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Godzilla: King of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Believer

Skyfire


Jason Isaacs is getting warmer.

(2019) Action (Screen MediaJason Isaacs, Liang Shi, Hannah Quinlivan, Ryan Wu, Leslie Ma, Shaun Dou, Lingchen Ji, Xuegi Wang, Bee Rogers, Alice Rietveld, An Bai, Tongjiang Hou, Yiqing Li, Lawrence de Stefano, Yugi Chen, Jianmin Cui, Gigi Velicitat, Makena Taylor. Directed by Simon West

 

It must suck to be a volcanologist in the movies. Nobody ever believes you that the volcano is about to erupt, it’s all just “ooh” and “aah” at the beautiful smoking cone, but then comes the blast, the screaming, and the dying.

The daughter of two volcanologist’s, Meng Li as a child (Rogers) was on Tianhuo island when the volcano erupted. When her father (Shi) was unable to save her mother (Rietveld) from the pyroclastic cloud that broiled her alive, the two became estranged. Now an adult, Meng (Quinlivan) works on the same island as a scientific advisor to Jack Harris (Isaacs), who has built a theme park resort around the volcano. With a high-tech monorail and a luxurious elevator that descends into the caldera, it’s certain to be the in spot for wealthy type A sorts the world over. To keep the guests safe, Meng has installed a fancy new high tech imaging system to monitor the volcano. She’s concerned over some of the initial readings Even more concerned is her dad, who takes one look at the data and hightails it out to the island to get his stubborn, angry daughter to flee the island before (heavy pause here) it’s too late!!!

Does anyone reading this not believe it’s already too late? If so, you need to watch more movies, my friend. The mountain blows it’s top in a spectacular shower of CGI lava and CGI pumice raining down from the crater. Because the director is long-time action veteran Simon West, we get some well-staged set pieces, like a daring transfer of passengers from one speeding monorail car to another.Because the film is Chinese, we also get some incomprehensible holes in logic and lapses in science. For example, a pair of young lovers (Dou and An) go for a swim in a beautiful tropical grotto as the mountain erupts. Suddenly, their idyllic swim – during which he proposes to her – is interrupted by lava flowing into the pool. They frantically swim for their lives, foregoing the need to breathe. Of course, they shouldn’t have needed to swim at all – the lava flowing into the pool should have parbroiled them. Don’t believe me? Drop a handful of red-hot coals into a small saucepan of room temperature water and see what happens. And that’s not even molten rock.

The movie suffers from severely underwritten characters, so it is hard to end up caring about which ones survive and which ones meet a horrific end. Still, most disaster movies aren’t exactly character studies, to be fair. However, one would like the special effects to be spectacular, and at times, they are. But they are dreadfully uneven; some of the green screen stuff looks like it was rushed and not given a whole lot of effort. The underwater sequence is cheesy enough to make Esther Williams blush.

Basically, what we have here is Jurassic World meets Dante’s Peak – which oddly enough, is a pretty accurate description of the first half of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – and if you ask me, that’s not necessarily a bad combination to have. The movie has enough entertainment value that most audiences are likely to forgive the bad science, bland characters and disaster film cliché-loaded plot. Some will look at this and snicker at the Chinese attempts to make a comparable big-budget disaster film. They certainly aren’t producing elite-level films in that regard, but if you look at their dramas and some of their genre films, they aren’t that far off. Give the Chinese film industry another decade or two and they are going to make movies that will put Hollywood to shame. And that’s not a bad thing either.

REASONS TO SEE: Reasonably entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: The special effects are uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There are perilous situations, some involving children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers used more than 20 tons of artificial volcanic ash for the picture.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Grizzly II: Revenge

Jurassic World


Here comes the cavalry.

Here comes the cavalry.

(2015) Science Fiction  (Universal) Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Irrfan Khan, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee, Katie McGrath, Andy Buckley, Eric Edelstein, Courtney James Clark, Colby Boothman-Shepard, Jimmy Fallon, James DuMont, Matthew Burke, Anna Talakkotur. Directed by Colin Trevorrow

It is not unusual to be fascinated by dinosaurs. We all look at the great lizards who ruled the world before men walked upright in awe and wonder. Now there is nothing left but the fossilized remains of their bones. We know precious little about them, mostly extrapolating from the few tantalizing clues we’ve discovered over the years. How would it capture the imagination if we could examine a real, living dinosaur – and how insanely dangerous would that be?

John Hammond had a dream. He’d discovered away to clone dinosaurs using blood found in mosquitoes trapped in amber over several million years. He wanted to display them in a biological preserve on Isla Nublar off the cost of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, his plans to open Jurassic Park (as he hoped to call the theme park) met with disaster and death.

However, that was 22 years ago. His dream became reality eventually – in Jurassic World, a high-tech theme park complete with Starbucks and a resort hotel. Hammond is no longer with us, but his successor – Simon Masrani (Khan) – has given the world a major tourist attraction that draws millions every year.

However, like every human endeavor, the shine wears off pretty quickly and people grow jaded, their attention captured by other things. In order to stay competitive, Masrani knows he has to present new attractions to keep the crowds coming. But dinosaurs don’t exactly grow on trees; there are only so many of them to go around. He knows what the public wants – bigger, louder, more teeth. So he sets his chief mad scientist Dr. Henry Wu (Wong) to genetically engineer one, one with the traits of a variety of different dinosaurs – only bigger, louder and with more teeth.

Park director Claire (Howard) has no problem with that. She’s already got Verizon interesting in sponsoring the new exhibit. However, one of her top trainers isn’t so excited. Owen (Pratt), who has a history with Claire (they dated for about five minutes years ago) and a military background, has managed to make some inroads with the Velociraptors who at least have a kind of mutual respect thing going with him and will occasional listen to his commands.  A genetically engineered dinosaur? Messing with nature can only end up in disaster.

And so it does. The new dinosaur – dubbed Indominus Rex or “fierce/untamed king” – using previously undiscovered abilities has escaped from her enclosure and she’s got a mean on. She doesn’t kill for food; she kills for sport. That’s bad news for the other dinosaurs, but worse news for the tourists who aren’t aware that they’re going to become snacks for the new predator. And to make matters worse, Claire’s two nephews – brilliant Gray (Simpkins) and hormonal Zach (Robinson) – have ditched the sitter she sent to keep an eye on them and are about to have an up close and personal encounter with Indominus. She gets Owen to go out and fetch her wayward nephews but once he does, where does he take them when there is literally no safe place on the entire island?

Jurassic World broke box office records opening weekend, proving that there is still life in a franchise that Universal had abandoned some fourteen years previously. Director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) who also co-wrote this beast made a conscious effort to disconnect his movie from the other films in the franchise in subtle ways – only Wong, who appeared in the very first film, returns from the previous installments in the series. Fans may miss Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler and Allen Grant. However, there are plenty of connections still there, some subtle, some not so much.

First thing that fans are going to want to know is that there are dinosaurs and plenty of them. With CGI technology so much more advanced than they were in 1993 when the first film opened, the dinosaurs are much more detailed and realistically rendered here. There are almost no practical effects regarding the thunder lizards here, which is good and bad. You don’t get a sense of their physical presence as much, although Trevorrow utilized motion capture in order to make them move more realistically.

The park itself is modeled after modern theme parks, complete with Margaritaville restaurants, merchandising and a shopping/dining/entertainment zone in addition to the various attractions. Visitors kayak in a stream with Stegosauruses, roam a paddock in a gyrosphere with Apatosauruses, ride a monorail past the Tyrannosaurus Rex and watch a Mosasaurus leap out of a lagoon to pull a shark into the water before the stands are lowered to watch the leviathan devour its lunch through gigantic glass walls. There is an undercurrent of consumerism throughout that is meant to be a criticism of modern society, which while certainly inarguable is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m pretty sure most of us have noticed all the corporate sponsorship around us all these days.

Pratt, who shot to superstardom with Guardians in the Galaxy last summer looks to own this summer as well. I can’t recall an actor who has had two back-to-back movies do this kind of box office, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why audiences are connecting with Pratt. For one thing, he is an extremely likable sort with a quirky sense of humor that people first became familiar with in Parks and Recreation. He is also a genuinely nice guy who has connected with fans on a personal level, and that comes through onscreen.

Howard has one of her higher profile roles yet and Ron’s daughter acquits herself nicely. She is playing a kind of ice queen sort early on who has no idea how to interact with her nephews, so she fobs them off on an overworked and harried assistant (McGrath). Eventually she develops an ability to show the feelings she’s submerged over the years and as the movie progresses she becomes more identifiable – most of us know what it’s like to invest too much of ourselves into our jobs.

The supporting cast is pretty impressive, with D’Onofrio playing an InGen executive looking to militarize dinosaurs (which seems to be a potential theme for the inevitable sequel) and Johnson providing some comic relief as a nerdy technician with a crush on another nerdy technician (Lapkus). He also has one of the film’s nicer moments when it is revealed he’s wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt that he got on E-Bay. The movie also visits the original Park at one point in the movie which is both touching and a bit creepy as well. Greer has a brief but memorable turn as the mother of the nephews and Claire’s sister.

The movie never recaptures the wonder that the first Jurassic Park elicited from audiences, but quite frankly that genii has already left the bottle, so expecting to be wowed in the same way just isn’t realistic. This is an entirely different movie made in an entirely different era so those grousing that the movie isn’t as good or the same as the first one are banging their heads against the wrong wall.

That isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Like the first movie in which genius kids rescue the entire park, the kids – who put adults in danger by failing to listen to adult instructions – become insufferable because they are apparently more competent than people who have trained all their lives to do what they do. Like Alex the hacker who puts the whole park back online after the computer reboot in the original, the boys manage to elude dinosaurs that have wiped out entire squadrons of security guards better armed than they.

Short of that subplot ringing untrue, the movie has all the enjoyable elements needed for a good summer movie. While it doesn’t measure up to the first (and never intended to), it certainly stands on its own as a fun ride constructed well, although without innovation. While I can agree with those who grouse that the plot is too similar to the first Jurassic Park and follows in the formula that all four of the movies have been constructed with, I have to admit that when something works there’s no point in abandoning it. While I would love to see a JP 5 that eliminates the kids from the equation, it is unlikely that will ever happen. Kids after all make up a goodly chunk of the core audience for this film, so it would be economic suicide to ignore that chunk. This is nonetheless good, solid summer fun and anyone who says otherwise has a dino-sized stick up their rump.

REASONS TO GO: More dinosaurs is always a good thing. The park looks like a place I’d want to visit. Pratt has become a pre-eminent action hero.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the wonder that the first film created. Suffers from genius kid syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of dino-violence, peril and people being eaten.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bryce Dallas Howard’s outfit is all white in tribute to the costume worn by the late Sir Richard Attenborough as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. Both of the characters were directors of the park in their respective films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lost World: Jurassic Park
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Carnage

You Only Live Twice


You Only Live Twice

Did someone call for a sociopathic megalomaniac?

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Donald Pleasance, Karin Dor, Akiko Wakabayashi, Tetsuro Tanba, Mie Hama, Teru Shimada, Charles Gray, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Lewis Gilbert

In the Bond pantheon, this movie usually doesn’t stand out among the movies considered Bond classics; Goldfinger, Dr. No and Live and Let Die, and to be sure, all of these are classic James Bond. However, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for this movie. It was the first one I saw in a movie theater – in a drive-in to be exact, where it was bloody hard to make out what was going on onscreen in the first scenes but my dad liked to smoke so we went to the drive-in where he could puff away to his hearts content.

I will be the first to admit that the plot is a bit on the ludicrous side, with SPECTRE intercepting American and Russian spacecraft with an automated unhinging missile that brings them to a rather impressive volcano lair in Japan (one which remains in many ways the quintessential villain’s lair and one which was spoofed nicely by Austin Powers). This of course brings the superpowers to the brink of mutual war and annihilation, which suited the Chinese just fine (they were funding much of the shenanigans) and more importantly, played perfectly into the megalomaniacal plans of none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Pleasance), the previously faceless Number One of the SPECTRE organization.

The British, having detected the rogue craft coming down in the area around Japan (something which the American and Russian radar were unable to do because they were just, like, tracking) send their best man, James Bond (Connery) in to investigate and he runs into Osato (Shimada), a wealthy industrialist and his deadly assistant Helga (Dor), both secret operatives of SPECTRE. Bond is saved by Aki (Wakabayashi), the beautiful agent of the Japanese Secret Service, headed up by Tiger Tanaka (Tanba), with whom Bond becomes fast friends. With the help of Little Nellie, a gyrocopter, they investigate a remote island in the Sea of Japan. There they find a nearly impregnable lair built into a dormant volcano. Can Bond, the marvelous Japanese agent Kissy Suzuki (Hama) and an army of Japanese ninjas stop Blofeld from plunging the world into nuclear war?

While Auric Goldfinger remains the greatest Bond villain to date, it is Blofeld who is Bond’s nemesis, the Moriarty to Bond’s Sherlock Holmes. Pleasance gives the previously faceless villain not only a face, but a personality to match; urbane like Dr. No and vicious like Goldfinger. Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies is based on Pleasance’s take on the part, from the Nehru jacket to the somewhat noticeable scar to the quietly menacing speaking tone. All Dr. Evil is missing is the eurotrash accent.

I also found the Japanese locations beautiful and the insights to the Japanese culture interesting. Previously, the only Japan American audiences had seen in the movies was the one Godzilla trampled over. I have had a fascination for Japan ever since seeing this movie.

The volcano lair of Blofeld is one of the most spectacular ever built. The monorail you see scooting around the perimeter actually worked and the helipad arm that extends out was also a working helipad. Of course, the rocket launches were done with miniatures but this was one of the most expensive sets ever built at the time. It still holds up, looking sleek and menacing and exactly the kind of thing you’d see from a would-be world dictator.

The Bond girls for this movie, Hama and Wakabayashi, were cast mostly for their looks and their willingness to be filmed in a bikini, something that the Japanese were only beginning to embrace at the time. Unfortunately, the two actresses spoke little English and their performances are unconvincing.

That said, even given the implausible nature of the plot and that already by this point the Bond movies were relying more on familiar repetitive plot points rather than stretching the limits (and over-relying on gadgets) of the creativity of the writers, this still remains a film that resonates with me. Interestingly enough, the next Bond movie to be made would be On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which had perhaps the best script of all the Bond movies but Connery had left the series after You Only Live Twice, tired of the media attention and anxious not to be typecast as Bond any longer. I’ve always thought had Connery made that movie, it might have turned out to be the best in the series, even better than Goldfinger. But, that’s another review for another day.

WHY RENT THIS: An underrated Bond movie, with exotic locales and a great deal of insight into the Japanese culture. The volcano set is one of the most magnificent of the series, with a working monorail and helipad.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kitsch and implausibility factors were beginning to become noticeable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of sexuality and as usual with Bond films, plenty of violence and smoking. Still, it’s no worse than anything on network television these days so don’t feel that you need to restrict the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: You Only Live Twice was the last James Bond novel published during Ian Fleming’s lifetime (there were posthumous publications). There were also two Blofelds in the cast; Pleasance who played him here, and Charles Gray who played Henderson here and Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Ultimate DVD Edition has a nice featurette on Maurice Binder, the main title designer for the Bond films up through the Timothy Dalton era. Although the Blu-Ray edition hasn’t been released yet, the Bond films released so far in the format have included the Ultimate Edition features along with a beautifully restored print, so look forward to that.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Date Night