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Entries in Blockbuster (2)

Wednesday
May292019

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Stars: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Thomas Middleditch, Anthony Ramos, CCH Pounder, Joe Morton and David Straithairn.
Writers: Michael Dougherty and Zach Shields.
Director: Michael Dougherty.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

In 2014, director Gareth Edwards endeavoured to take schlockbuster icon Godzilla down the same credibility path that Marvel guided their goofy comic-book properties; the resulting film was beautiful and earnest and a bit dull. Five years later, new-kid-on-the-studio-tentpole-block Michael Dougherty punches up the action (and the decibels) while dumbing down the dialogue in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. If the look of the big lizard and his fellow fantasy titans owes much to Edwards’ eye, the script harkens back to Roland Emmerich’s ear, it being attached to the writer/director of Sony's much-maligned 1998 incarnation.

The sequel picks up four years after the destruction of San Francisco by Godzilla’s wrath. The government agency Monarch is getting drilled by the U.S. Senate for not having found and offered up the head of the big lizard for the damage it had done. What the Senate committee members don’t know is that the Monarch team are not only tracking Godzilla, but have several other ‘titans’ in lockdown at key sites around the world. Scientist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) lords over one such site, in China; she lost her son in the 2014 San Fran attacks, her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) to booze in the wake of their tragedy, and clings to strong-willed teen daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).

Emma is overseer of an audio-pulse generator called The Orca, which streams a frequency that controls her titan, the larval stage behemoth that will ultimately take flight as Mothra. Just as it begins to stir, a mercenary outfit led by the ruthless Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) storms her outpost, stealing Orca, Mothra, Emma and Maddy. With a surly Mark now back on board, the Monarch team – stern lead scientist Dr Serizawa (Ken Watanabe); offsider Dr. Chen (Ziyi Zhang); wisecracker Dr Stanton (Bradley Whitford); and, nerdy bureaucrat Coleman (Thomas Middleditch) – need to retrieve The Orca and save mankind from Emma, who has gone full-Thanos with a plan to wipe the planet of the virus that is mankind and restore the human/titan balance.

The whip-smart mind behind cult items Trick ’r Treat (2007) and Krampus (2015), Dougherty works hard to give all these cast members something to do and say. He has them address each other in a combination of mostly single-line observations or exclamations that largely serve to move the plot from one kaiju-related predicament to the next. There is no character depth or dimension – so cornball is some of the dialogue it recalls the Irwin Allen disaster epics of the 1970s – but it does ensure the real stars of the film are not offscreen for too long.

Most dominant amongst the mythological beasties is the three-headed King Ghidorah, a dragon-like lightning-breather who has it in for our leading man-monster from the get-go; barely freed from his icy tomb, Ghidorah battles it out with Godzilla in one of the loudest and most visually stunning/confusing action sequences in recent memory. We are soon introduced to Rodan, a pterodactyl/hawk crossover-creature who lays waste to a Mexican town when it emerges from its dormant volcano tomb, and the ethereal shimmering wingspan and deadly spikes of the aforementioned Mothra. Each has their own moment in the spotlight, with their human co-stars largely reduced to looking upwards and dodging debris; perhaps best served is Stranger Things’ breakout star Brown (pictured, above), who earns her ‘real world emoting’ badge when given the screen time to do so.

Of course, it’s all about the beast that is Godzilla in any Godzilla movie, and Dougherty and his effects team have conjured a titan who balances a screen persona that is equal part ‘rampant destroyer of cities’, ‘noble ally of the righteous’ and ‘scaly, snarling action hero’. If you’re paying for a ticket to a Godzilla movie, what needs to work most of all is your anti-hero’s rock ‘em/sock ‘em presence, and King of the Monsters gets that right. If Edwards’ big lizard was a bit too precious with the property, and Emmerich’s a bit too flippant, Dougherty respects both the B-movie beats of the big guy’s film history as well as the environmental subtext that Godzilla has always represented.

      

Tuesday
Mar052019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Stars: Brie Larsen, Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lee Pace, Gemma Chan, Mckenna Grace, Djimon Hounsou, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening.
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet.
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Despite a slightly-too-convoluted origin narrative that will mean more to the comic-book devotee than the audience member for whom a single yearly dose of MCU is sufficient, Captain Marvel overcomes some wobbly first half pacing to deliver all that is really required of the modern heroic-crusader blockbuster. That is, a protagonist, unsure of their true identity, is set on a course of self-discovery during which they reconcile with their past, learn the good truth about their destiny and max out the potential of their superpower while saving a city/planet/galaxy. What separates the best from the worst in the MCU is that which is mined beyond of the studio's rigid template and, as the first female lead character in the franchise, writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck identify plenty of fresh thematic angles to explore. 

Coming from a background of gritty, uplifting character pieces (Half Nelson, 2006; Sugar, 2008; Mississippi Grind, 2015), the pair's deployment by Marvel Studios was to serviceably craft a solid, ‘real’ hero in Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. In Oscar-winner Brie Larson, they achieve that, even if at times her stoicism feels a bit stodgy. While everyone around her is getting the great one-liners and soaking up the spare-no-expense extravagance of their time-shifting/interplanetary setting, Larson hunkers down to provide the film’s emotional as well as heroic core; it’s a task that plays somewhat thankless at times. That said, when called upon to don the superheroine duds, smash villains and integrate with the green screen techies and stunt unit, she comes alive.

The opening act barrels through the world building with a "Hey, pay attention!” urgency that threatens to leave distracted patrons lost.  We meet our heroine (‘Vers’, as she’s known to her special-op combat team) as she stirs from a restless sleep; her head is full of fragmented images, all that is left of what seems like several past lives. On her home planet of Hala, she is one of the Kree, a race beholden to the ‘Supreme Intelligence’ and fighting the shape-shifting Skrull hordes (phew). When her unit, led by the never-not-evil Jude Law, is ambushed, she is flung across time and space, landing in a Blockbuster video store in downtown LA in the mid 1990s.

With young S.H.I.E.L.D. grunt Nick Fury (a digitally smoothed-over Samuel L Jackson) quickly settling into her sidekick role, Vers starts to piece together her own timeline while fighting off Skrull leader Talos (an unrecognisable and terrific Ben Mendelsohn) and his henchmen. A mid-section trip to Louisiana to rekindle a friendship with ex-pilot buddy Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) is a bit talky and the forward momentum sags. But as Danvers’ journey towards an understanding of her past and the inevitable emergence of the titular heroine progresses, the third act builds convincingly towards the stirring effects spectacle finale associated with the franchise.

The pre-release web-posturing of some sectors of the community looks even more churlish and pathetic upon the film’s release. While Larson’s portrayal is one of chiselled moral and physical sturdiness (as have been those of the men in the MCU since Day 1), Boden and Fleck do not hammer home a politicised perspective. Instead, they provide contemporary commentary with some crackling social satire (“Tell the Supreme Intelligence that this time of wars and lies will soon be over”) and draw upon the femme-skewed cast to refreshingly explore character and drama in a manner respectful and honest to the gender. Captain Marvel is not the blunt-force challenge to the accepted norms that Ryan Coogler's Black Panther came to represent, but it's a potent statement of intent. The challenge will be incorporating her into the male-centric Avengers films, where laddish oafs with waning appeal like Tony Stark and Peter Quill still occupy centre stage.

The 90s setting provides for some sweet nostalgia, including a soundtrack of skilfully appropriated tunes (No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl, the pick of them) and pop culture riffs sure to further transition away from the now-distant 80s as The Retro Decade of Choice. In the standard MCU 'Ageing Icon' role previously filled by the likes of Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Ben Kingsley, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Nick Nolte is the stunning Annette Bening, ideally cast as 'Supreme Intelligence' (even if some of her dialogue seems reluctant to leave her mouth at times).

Fittingly, the passing of Marvel creator Stan Lee was acknowledged with a sweet, simple message in the film’s opening frames, which was greeted with instantaneous applause by the audience.