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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Review: The Shape of Water

Written by Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro and directed by del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is a superbly dark fairy tale submerged in science fiction sensibilities with romantic shades throughout. I may have wrote my ‘Favorites of 2017‘ piece before seeing this movie, but trust me when I say that this would definitely have been included. This is del Toro’s most visually arresting film since Pan’s Labyrinth and will likely be a favorite among cinephiles for years to come. So, how did a story about a woman falling in love with an amphibious creature end up working so well?

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The film’s opening evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamlike imagery from The Mirror of a woman sleeping suspended above her bed, but here it is with Sally Hawkin’s Elisa dreaming undisturbed in an underwater version of her apartment. This was an excellent indicator going forward of the love that this film has with cinema itself. Guillermo del Toro himself describes the film as a love poem to cinema, and this is doubly evident throughout the film’s runtime. Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, even E.T. all feel sampled from in this story, but never in a way that feels like a tired pastiche or an endless homage to other movies. No, while this film is in love with other movies, it is definitively telling it’s own story.

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The quick and dirty premise of the film is that Elisa, a mute, and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work at a government research facility in the early 1960’s as part of the cleaning crew during the night. Soon after we’ve been introduced to the characters and the world that they live in, we’re introduced to the secondary lead in Doug Jones’ amphibious river god dragged from the Amazon for research purposes. One thing leads to another and the two voiceless leads soon fall for each other and plot an escape.

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The entire cast gives memorable and impressive performances throughout. Even the smaller characters like David Hewlett’s corporate underling working for Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland has a specific anxiety and tone about him that makes his character stand out. Speaking of Strickland, Michael Shannon gives us one of his best villains to date with this character. We’re introduced to Strickland while Elisa and Zelda are cleaning the men’s bathroom and from this scene we discover everything we need to know about how he functions within the story. He’s a determined, narrowly focused, and arrogant man with a penchant for cruelty.

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The heroes of the story, though, are all societal rejects. Elisa’s a mute woman, Zelda’s a black woman in the early 1960’s, Giles (Elisa’s neighbor and friend) is a gay artist, and a Russian spy who cares more for an innocent creature than his own national allegiances. The most impressive of the bunch however is Sally Hawkins as Elisa. She gives the performance of a lifetime in this film. She has to emote, communicate, and convey not only her character’s inner feelings, but also her intentions to other characters within her world. This film isn’t afraid of itself, or of any kind of expression. It is bold in its’ time spent with Hawkins’ Elisa, we get to know her on a very intimate level as we’re the quiet observers of her daily routines and who she values in her life.

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While the film does hold many dreamlike and fantastical sensibilities, it definitely earns it’s R rating. Del Toro expertly balances this shifting of tones between the romanticism of Hawkins and Jones and the volatile hatred within Strickland resulting in a clear and present danger for the heroes involved. The tension is perfectly held taught by these real possibilities of violence, and the editing is also cleverly stitched together for maximum momentum. The American and Russian officials involved are invested in the asset as they find that it can communicate without language while also having two sets of breathing apparatus for functioning in both water and air. They want to find any and all information that could lead them to winning the space race.

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The score goes a long way to infuse the feeling of the film with dreamy ethereal tones that wouldn’t be out of place in a romance set during the 1920’s in Paris. The production design is a fully realized world set in a fantasy version of 1962 America during the height of the Cold War, it enlargens and emphasizes the military might funding the facility. There are large winding pipes criss-crossing  nearly every set in the facility, while Elisa and Giles apartments look authentically lived in trading the banal whites and steel grays of the research facility for more earthy and warm colors. Not to mention that they live above an old theater with a gigantic marque outside lighting up the rainy streets below. The color palette as a whole is drenched in every possible shade of green. It almost feels as if Guillermo created new shades of the color just for this film-it’s quite the visual feast of colors.

The story is in love with art and cinema, that much is clear. I’m betting this will only ensnare more minds and eyes into a love of film and filmmaking. The film even ends with a poem. Romanticism is boundless within this picture, and I loved every minute I shared with it, go check this one out if you can find it- it’s one of the best films that 2017 had to offer!

“When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem, made of just a few truthful words, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: ‘Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.’ ”

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Final Score: Two lovers, One mute and One fish