film

Review: Godzilla King of The Monsters (2019)

Written by Zach Shields, Max Borenstein, and Michael Dougherty, and directed by Dougherty, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is the sequel to the 2014 American reboot of the Godzilla property and the third movie in Legendary’s Monsterverse (Which includes Kong: Skull Island). Fast forward five years after the events of the first film, in which San Francisco was obliterated by Godzilla’s fight with the MUTOs, and we have the MONARCH organization keeping tabs on all potential “Titans” both known, and unknown. Returning are the MONARCH agents Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), but the focus this time around is on the Russell family. Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) a leading MONARCH scientist, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) her separated and disillusioned husband, and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) their daughter.

Now, to be completely clear, I am one hundred percent biased in this review. The Toho Godzilla movie series is a beloved thing in my household, even though there are a few misses in it’s sixty-five year history (I’m looking at you “Son of Godzilla”). From the 1954 original down through the goofy “Showa” series, and my personal favorite era; the Heisei films released in the mid 80’s through the mid 90’s, the big G has been many things to many people. Destroyer, savior, hero, or villain, Godzilla has always been entertaining, and never one to be trifled with. The practical effects and sci-fi B-movie goodness of these movies have always held a special place in my movie loving heart. Which is why this newest entry in the longest running film series had me excited for it’s potential Monster mash-up goodness. Though to be fair, I was wary coming into this film, the previous film in this latest American reboot of the property was more frustrating than anything else. There were some good things in Godzilla (2014) for sure, but I honestly couldn’t stand the lead character portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He was so wooden and seemingly unaffected by everything happening around him, he had no sense of wonder, or terror, fear, joy etc, he felt muted and blank. Which was in stark contrast to Bryan Cranston’s character who was animated and motivated, propelled by heart and determination. Clearly, they had killed off the wrong character in my opinion. Those character choices combined with the head scratching decision to cut away from almost all of the Monster action left me in a daze walking out of the theater in 2014- everyone around me was proclaiming how great this new Godzilla movie was, but I felt none of their joy. Was I just getting too old for these things? Had I fallen out of touch with what made a good monster movie? What happened?

Which brings me back to “King of the Monsters”. This movie is an extreme departure from it’s predecessor, and it is a very welcome departure indeed. This is wholeheartedly a true Godzilla movie in every sense. Is it perfect? No, no it definitely is not- but did I have a great time watching it? Yes, I loved this film and it’s the only legitimately great American Godzilla movie in my opinion. This is clearly a movie made by people that love and respect the source material. Okay, so what makes it a great monster movie? Let’s break it down:

The Redesign of Godzilla

“King of the Monsters” came with a few changes to Godzilla, and they were all a move in the right direction. Not only was Godzilla slimmer for the sequel, but his spines that run along his back and tail were reverted back to the traditional shape that defined his look since the original. His spines now sport grooves that illuminate like the veins of a leaf before he bellows out his iconic blue beam of irradiated fire. However, most importantly, he sounded much closer to what he’s consistently sounded like for decades.

The Sound Design

Godzilla’s iconic roar may not have been as direct a translation to his Toho past as say “Shin Godzilla” was, but the filmmakers here clearly tried to infuse the roar that he had in the 2014 version with a more classic sounding undertone. In fact all of the main Toho monsters making appearances here sounded exactly like, if not very close to, their traditional sounds. Rodan’s titanic squawks were familiar, but Mothra’s chirps were pitch perfect and instantly recognizable. King Ghidorah’s gravity beams may not have had their static-y tones exactly, but everything else about his design and depiction was so good that it was easy to miss and forgive. The best aspect of the sound design and scoring of the film, in my opinion though, were the themes of each monster. Mothra’s theme was reassuring and gratifying, but the cream of the crop was Godzilla’s theme. Granted, it was the composer’s spin on his theme, but I was amazed we got that to be honest and it took place during the best rallying point in the movie- all was forgiven for that scene alone.

The Monsters and their Personalities

These giant beings have certain personalities attached to their grandeur, and the fact that each depiction of the four main Kaiju, err.. I mean Titans, was consistent with Toho’s canon was a dream come true. Godzilla’s dominance, King Ghidorah’s (or Monster Zero if you prefer, both titles are in the film) intense ferocity, Rodan’s eternal frenemy status with Godzilla, and Mothra’s divine benevolence all felt familiar and true to their usual character. All four Monsters were designed and showcased in grand fashion, and I’d be willing to bet that the latest renditions of these characters will be fondly remembered and beloved for some time.

The MONARCH organization Redesign and human cast in general

In the five years since the devastation of San Francisco, MONARCH must have been given a blank check from the government because they now have a multitude of worldwide bases and installations. They even have a giant airship that’s a combination between the imagery of the infamous US stealth bomber and the functionality of the “Super X” aircraft used in “Godzilla: 1985”. As for the human cast, they’re leagues above the last film. Dr. Serizawa has more to do in this film, notably I adored the fact that this film mirrors his actions in the original 1954 film, which both include the oxygen destroyer. Vera Farmiga’s wide-eyed desperation is serviceable and Kyle Chandler’s reserved hammy deliberations were appreciated- though I would have had him notch it up a peg or two. Admittedly Millie Bobby Brown’s character didn’t have anything particularly important to do other than be the emotional motivator for her parents and the rational actor in several scenes, but it wasn’t offputting either- just a bit underwhelming. My favorite human character (besides Serizawa) was Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Rick Stanton. Whitford’s dialogue was extremely hammy and it could most definitely be classified as overacting, but I loved every second of it. Some of you may deem it cringe-worthy, but in a giant monster movie- it works! I also thoroughly enjoyed Charles Dance’s no nonsense militarized villain of the film, he raised the threat level of every scene he was in- which is impressive given that he’s in a Godzilla movie.

So, if I had any drawbacks in the film, they would pale in comparison to the good things I have to say about it. For example, Rodan’s entrance in the movie is an exhilarating edge-of-your-seat sequence. His wings cause city destroying blasts of wind, he screams across the sky with his lava tipped wings grazing the ocean and destroys a multitude of military aircraft. Later in the film however, his power levels seem to be lowered, and he doesn’t feel as much of a threat as when he erupted out of a volcano. To be honest though, there’s not a lot of negative things I have to say about the movie. This film won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay, but if you enjoy big, loud, and fun summer blockbusters- then I’d be willing to bet you’ll have some fun with this one. I, for one, am amazed that this sort of film had a budget this size and was fairly true to the source material. Great job!

Final Score: 1 King to rule them all!

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film

Old School Review: “Tampopo” (1985)

Written and directed by Jûzô Itami, “Tampopo” is a Japanese comedy structured similarly to many Ronin Samurai films and American Westerns in particular. The film opens with an opulently dressed couple sitting down in a theater and directly addressing the camera in a scene that cleverly functioned as a warning to audience members eating too loudly, in fact the Gangster in white (Kôji Yakusho) threatened another patron that opened a bag of chips, good stuff. After which the film transfixes its attention to the small ramen shop owner, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto).

A pair of blue collar truck drivers stop during a heavy rainstorm on their route, hungry for noodles in broth. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) enter the small noodle shop filled to the brim with locals. One of the drunkards at the noodle bar Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka) keeps pestering the small woman behind the counter, offering her romance and trips to Paris, but his belligerence and disrespect eventually get to Goro and he offers Pisuken a fight. Unfortunately for Goro, Pisuken’s fellow drunkards get involved. The morning after Goro awakens to find himself bruised and battered in Tampopo’s kitchen. From there they discuss her ramen technique; she’s got potential, but she’s not that great either. Goro shows her a few techniques for housing him after the fight, but when he goes to leave she begs him to let her be his disciple, to learn the ways of a true ramen master and turn her little shop into a new favorite in town.

The rest of the film lies in Goro and Gun helping Tampopo learn by watching other ramen masters in the area, running training trials, and by eventually bumping into or seeking out other noodle guru’s with their own recipes and techniques that they’re willing to share. One of the most fascinating aspects of this film however are the multitude of short diversions that the film takes away from the main plot. All of these side vignettes are directly related to food and the different relationships the Japanese have with their food. The camera will often float away from the main plot to suddenly follow a random passerby and explore their relationship to food. We see a group of middle-aged executives all order the same thing from a restaurant menu- while their intern orders very specific and expensive food and wine to the chagrin of his red-faced elders. In this same high-end restaurant we a group of Japanese women studying Western etiquette, the lesson being on how to properly eat spaghetti- the tutor’s main suggestion is that silence while eating this dish is of high importance in western settings. However a gentleman of Caucasian complexion a few tables over begins loudly slurping his own spaghetti which leads to the entire class imitating the man and ignoring their superior. There’s also a fun game of cat and mouse in another vignette of a shopowner being terrorized by a little old lady sneaking about his shop squeezing and pinching all of his edible wares. There are more of these little independent stories littered throughout the film, and each has it’s own peculiar flavor.

This little film caught me by surprise. It has heart, humor, wit, AND charm! “Tampopo” is a small peek into the Japanese culture’s relationship with food and how it relates to appetite, independence, sexuality, love, and adversity. Beyond that the film is a laugh factory- I didn’t expect to find myself in the throes of chortling convulsions and snickering howls. In the end Tampopo’s ramen shop is transformed into a bustling display of skill and comfort, all thanks to the help of her ramen warriors. I highly recommend this film, you can find it on the newly operational Criterion Channel, a streaming service filled to the brim with foreign films, classic American films, and all flavors of art-house cinema.

Final Score: 5 Ramen warriors and 1 Tampopo!

film

Review: Isle of Dogs

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion animated film set in Megasaki City, a fictional Japanese city in the not so distant future, where a virus known as ‘Dog Flu‘ has devastated the pet populace and threatens to transfer to humans soon. In the face of this threat Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares an emergency order, exile all dogs to trash island. He begins with the public exile of his young nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) dog/bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber). Six months later the decrepit isle is populated by every dog from Megasaki City and we focus on five particular pooches looking for food amongst the scraps, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban). After a quick scrap over the available morsels with another gang of roving dogs they spot an incoming small plane that’s about to crash land. After they drag Atari from the wreckage and dub him, the little pilot, they figure out that he’s looking for his lost dog, Spots.

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This little film was a joy to watch. I already have a proclivity towards stop-motion animation, so the film had already piqued my interest- but I really did enjoy the story of “Isle of Dogs” as well. At the heart of the film the story is about friendship and doing the right thing, but there were darker shades of conspiracy and a more realized threat for all of the four-legged companions than I was expecting. I won’t get into spoiler territory, but the film was more clever than I had expected and that was a nice surprise. The stellar voice cast cannot be ignored either as each dog had a major name behind their voice and their stylized performances, written for each celebrity, fit their larger than life personas which only added depth to their characterization. There’s also the visual treat of the film as a whole, the blocking and movement was tight and tactile while maintaining Anderson’s well worn Symmetry (with a capital S!) in all frames. This film might fall more on the niche side of his works than say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” but it won me over and I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection once the physical copy is released.

 

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Now, to discuss the elephant in the room; the fact that Wes Anderson made a creative choice to have all human characters speak in their native tongues and deciding against subtitles. There are also translations through interpreters at events or machines that perform the same function. The untranslated Japanese speakers didn’t bother me in this film’s context, it felt more like a quirky choice that was an example of the difficulties with translation as a whole as used in the dogs versus humans, but yes this was clearly made for an English speaking audience. Personally, I’m of the mind that ‘cultural appropriation’ and those who like to throw the term about wildly, aren’t nearly as bad or mean-spirited as people might immediately assume. Obviously context matters here, ‘blackface‘ for example was not okay and we all understand that. However, today’s outrage culture seems poised to sniff out any little tidbit of possible offense and use it to lambaste those who might simply be fascinated by other cultures and their traditions. Just so long as the Japanese voice actors’ speech wasn’t derogatory or insensitive to the culture, which after doing some mild research- it seems to be a fairly innocent tactic, the filmmaker seemed invested in playing with a motif of Japanese culture while also attempting to do so respectfully.

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I just don’t understand the effort that goes into being that upset consistently. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds about this here as this is just a review for “Isle of Dogs”, but its relevant to the film. Injustice is important to seek and stamp out in society if possible, but if you’re so narrowly focused that you’re actively protesting a Wes Anderson film- well, there are more productive ways you could be helping society as it relates to injustice. As an example, I don’t get that incensed when I see a white person wearing dreads, however, I am upset by government agencies destroying the environment and further ruining the last patches of land and water left to our Native American peoples. Anyway, that’s the end of my miniature lecture.

Final Score: 5 guide dogs and 1 determined boy

*Below are two articles that further discuss the translations, and lack thereof in “Isle of Dogs”, and I encourage you to give them a read if you’re invested in the topic.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-isle-of-dogs-gets-right-about-japan

https://slate.com/culture/2018/04/what-its-like-to-watchisle-of-dogsas-a-japanese-speaker.html