Godzilla: King of the Monsters review

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Director: Michael Dougherty
Cast : Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Strathairn
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 12 mins
Opens : 30 May 2019
Rating : PG13

            The king of all monsters is back, and he’s brought friends and enemies with him in this sequel to 2014’s Godzilla.

It has been five years since Godzilla triumphed over the MUTOs in San Francisco. The organisation Monarch has discovered that there are several more ancient megafauna known collectively as ‘Titans’ lying dormant around the world. Dr Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a paleobiologist working for Monarch, has developed a device called the Orca that can communicate with the Titans. She has separated from her animal behaviourist husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), formerly also a Monarch employee, and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) lives with her.

Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), a defected British Army Colonel who is obsessed with restoring balance to the world, sets off a chain of events that awakens the Titans. These include the benevolent Mothra and the hostile King Ghidorah and Rodan. A team of Monarch scientists led by Dr Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) must figure out the best way to put an end to the global rampage caused by the ancient monsters.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a movie that gives the people what they want: lots of monsters that fight each other a lot. The film has a rather tricky task of balancing the absurd spectacle and inherent silliness of the kaiju movie genre with a certain gravity to the colossal destruction. Director Michael Dougherty is mostly up to the task, delivering a movie that is reverent of the illustrious history of kaiju films but one that’s also unafraid to have ludicrous amounts of fun.

Part of the beauty of this movie is that it very much knows what it is, and all the actors are aware of this too. It is hard to care too much about the human characters, but the movie knows that the human characters are secondary to the Titans. As a result, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the dialogue is very cheesy, and that everyone talks exactly how you’d expect characters in a disaster movie to talk. Godzilla: King of the Monsters often stays on just the right side of stupid, and like Kong: Skull Island before it, is very much a B-movie with an A-movie budget.

The visual effects, supervised by Guillaume Rocheron, are plentiful and astounding, with a huge number of creatures and environments to be created in CGI. Many scenes are awe-inspiring, but this reviewer found a quiet sequence in which a submarine comes across an ancient sunken city to be the biggest ‘wow’ moment in the film. The dogfight sequence which pits the Pterodactyl-like Rodan against a squadron of fighter jets is thrilling, satisfying and is the kind of thing that could’ve only been assembled by someone with an abiding affection for this genre.

While the monsters are created digitally, Dougherty took the right approach in hiring special effects houses known for animatronic and prosthetic effects to design them. Amalgamated Dynamics provided the design for Rodan, while Legacy Effects designed Mothra and King Ghidorah. Both studios were founded by former collaborators of Stan Winston, and there are times when the Titans feel like they could be animatronic or performer-in-suit creatures like those seen in Jurassic Park and Aliens. This is also helped by the motion capture performers TJ Storm, who reprises the role of Godzilla from the 2014 film, and Jason Liles, Alan Maxson and Richard Dorton, who play King Ghidorah’s three heads.

Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown, who play the film’s central family, are taking things seriously enough. While the characters’ back-story and their link to the events of the 2014 film is established effectively, there is not much that’s truly compelling about these characters. Like the rest of the human characters, they are mostly there to react to all the monster mayhem, but Brown especially continues to show what a natural and talented actor she is.

This film gives Ken Watanabe’s Dr Seriwaza more to do besides making grave proclamations, though he still does plenty of that. We get two characters who squarely serve as comic relief and little else, played by Thomas Middleditch and Bradley Whitford. Whitford’s character Rick Stanton is nakedly based on the brilliant but constantly drunk and chaos-prone Rick Sanchez from the Rick and Morty cartoon. This is where the movie is dangerously close to crossing into 90s disaster movie-levels of silliness, but Dougherty doesn’t let the humour get too self-indulgent.

Charles Dance can always be called upon to deliver gravitas with a sinister tinge, which is just what he does here. He’s there to ominously intone lines like “we’ve opened Pandora’s box, and there’s no closing it now,” with just the slightest whiff of irony.

The idea behind Zhang Ziyi’s character is more interesting than the character is in execution is: she’s a third-generation Monarch scientist whose speciality is mythology. The film’s constant references to the legends of old and how mythological beasts were depictions of the Titans is a rich vein that could be further explored in future MonsterVerse movies.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters can sometimes feel like overkill, but then again, a movie about a giant monster battle royale should feel like overkill. The film’s playfulness is exemplified in its choice of end credits song: a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” by Serj Tankian and Dethklok, as arranged by the film’s composer Bear McCreary. This is exactly the right approach for a Godzilla movie, and indicates that the film is intent on delivering B-movie delights on a grand scale. It achieves this.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum review

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane, Jason Mantzoukas
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2 h 23 mins
Opens : 16 May 2019
Rating : M18

            There’s a Latin adage that goes “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” – it translates to “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In the third instalment of the John Wick action thriller series, our titular hero finds himself waging all-out war against dangerously powerful forces.

At the end of John Wick: Chapter 2, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) killed Italian mafia boss Santino D’Antonio at the Continental Hotel in New York. Doing this on the hotel grounds was a major breach of the rules, and John was rendered excommunicado. A $14 million bounty is put on his head, and with everyone after him, John has nowhere to turn but to shadowy figures from his past, including the Director (Anjelica Huston), and his former friend Sofia (Halle Berry), now based in Morocco.

John’s relationship with the Continental’s manager Winston (Ian McShane) is tested as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), a member of the council of crime lords called The High Table, takes Winston to task for giving John a head-start instead of killing him on the spot. Among the many skilled assassins in pursuit of John is Zero (Mark Dacascos), a skilled and vicious swordsman accompanied by his team of Shinobi. John Wick is in the greatest danger he’s ever been, with every lifeline seemingly cut.

The John Wick films have gained the acceptance and respect of action movie aficionados not just for their intricately-choreographed and beautifully-filmed fight sequences, but because of the series’ inner mythology. The secretive, sprawling world of assassins and its arcane customs and rituals provided a backdrop for all the violent gun battles and knife fights to unfold against. Director Chad Stahelski is a veteran stunt performer and choreographer/second unit director, giving him the expertise needed to best present the action onscreen.

For better and for worse, John Wick: Chapter 3 is more of the same. There are a multitude of exceedingly brutal fights punctuated with visceral moments of graphic violence. Some sequences, including one in which John is on horseback and another in which he’s on a motorcycle, are very inventive. However, it can’t help but feel a little repetitive. People are after John, John kills them and narrowly escapes, rinse and repeat. That’s roughly been the same across all three movies, and while the film’s various locations serve to switch things up a bit, there’s more of a sense that the action sequences are strung together by bits of plot than before.

This is the largest-scale John Wick movie yet: Chapter 2 partially took place in Rome, and a section of this one is set in Morocco. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of bloat that comes with the scale. The screenplay is credited to Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, while Kolstad was the sole credited writer on the first two movies. While the movie delves deeper into the underlying mythos of the series, parts of it are more convoluted than compelling. With its operatic archness, John Wick: Chapter 3 often teeters on the edge of silliness more than its predecessors did, but said archness also sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill action flick.

John Wick has become a new signature role for Keanu Reeves, and it’s easy to see why. The grief-stricken badass is a character type we’ve seen in many action thrillers before, but Reeves’ singular intensity and dedication to performing as much of the stunt work and gunplay himself have contributed to a character who is more memorable than most of his forebears. The movies have given us pieces of John’s back-story, more of which is revealed in this instalment, but the thing that matters most of about him is that he’s awfully good at killing people and does this a lot.

Anjelica Huston is a commanding presence as a character from John’s distant past, while Halle Berry is all gritted teeth as Sofia, who reluctantly helps John in his quest. To preserve the mystique of its characters, the John Wick movies can only provide viewers with shreds of information about them. Depending on the actor, some characters in these movies are more engaging than others, but Huston and Berry are given relatively little to work with.

Mark Dacascos is himself a highly-skilled martial artist who is backed up by Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman of The Raid fame. While he more than holds his own in the fights, there is little more to the Zero character than “wields katana”.

Dillon’s character is more of an administrator than much else, never directly partaking in the action.

Laurence Fishburne has even more fun this time around as the underground crime lord the Bowery King than in the previous movie, and he’s got comedic actor Jason Mantzoukas as his right-hand man here. Both Ian McShane and Lance Reddick are holdovers from the first John Wick and are a comforting presence. It is when John’s personal allegiances are tested that the film is at its liveliest.

The John Wick movies are crafted by filmmakers who prioritise action and care about staging and capturing hard-hitting, mesmerising sequences. John Wick: Chapter 3 delivers on that, but the world-building that once added texture to the movies now seems to begin to bog it down. It’s an entertaining ride and is unlikely to severely disappoint fans of the earlier films, but John Wick: Chapter 3 shows signs of a franchise starting to get tired, with the sequel hook being more worrying than promising.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu review

POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Genre : Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 9 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The hugely popular Pokémon multimedia franchise gets its first live-action movie in the form of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, based on the 2016 spin-off video game.

The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who has abandoned his childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer to work in an insurance firm. After the disappearance of his father, a police detective in Ryme City, Tim meets the Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who once belonged to his father. Together with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an intern at a news network, Tim and Detective Pikachu attempt to solve the mystery of Harry’s disappearance.

They uncover a conspiracy that seems to implicate the wealthy Clifford family – Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is the benevolent visionary who built Ryme City, while his son Roger (Chris Geere) has wrested control of Clifford Enterprises from his father. Also figuring into the mystery is a serum that turns normally-friendly Pokémon into savage monsters. Tim, Detective Pikachu, Lucy and her Psyduck must prevent the enactment of a dastardly scheme that endangers the human and Pokémon residents of Ryme City alike.

There’s a fair amount of risk in making a movie like Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – video game movies haven’t exactly had the best track record, and Pokémon is such a sprawling, beloved franchise that a poorly-received live-action movie would be a significant misstep. The momentum behind this movie getting made owes mostly to the Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game, which held the world in its thrall.

It’s a clever move to make a live-action movie based on one of the more obscure entries in the Pokémon oeuvre as opposed to making a movie about the characters featured in the Pokémon anime series. There’s a bit more room to experiment, and while Detective Pikachu does have an experimental feel to it, it also can’t help but feel like a corporate product. Director Rob Letterman, whose background is in animation, and who also directed Goosebumps, handles the integration of live-action and animated characters well.

The film’s plot is straightforward, its underlying mystery not exactly involving, and it often feels derivative of many movies that came before it. However, it’s also a movie that’s clearly made by people who care about and love the Pokémon franchise. The movie brims with texture and seems designed for audiences to point excitedly at the screen as they recognise various types of Pokémon. The film’s design is its strong suit: Ryme City feels like a hybrid of London and Tokyo, with a dash of Blade Runner neon-noir to its aesthetic. Some of the Pokémon redesigns work better than others. While plenty are still cute, Mewtwo suffers from what seems like a lack of texture, thus feeling more like a video game character than the other Pokémon who populate the film.

There’s a delightful incongruity in hearing Ryan Reynolds’ voice emanate from an exceedingly cuddly Pikachu. The character animation on the titular character is marvellous, incorporating some motion capture performed by Reynolds. While the Detective Pikachu of the video game had a gruff voice, Ryan Reynolds sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a mix of optimism and mischief that the character animation in combination with Reynolds’ voice work captures. There’s also the great device of giving Detective Pikachu an extreme fondness for coffee, as kind of a replacement for the cigarettes which detectives in noir movies would chain-smoke.

There is not very much to the human characters, but Justice Smith gives this his best shot. The character has left behind the dreams of his youth and has accepted a dreary existence, with the sudden entry of Detective Pikachu into his life reigniting his imagination. The Tim character is a cipher for viewers who grew up with Pokémon but may have moved on from the games, toys and cartoons as they’ve entered adulthood.

Kathryn Newton’s Lucy character is every bit the intrepid reporter archetype, combined with the giddy energy of a girlish anime protagonist. Her character is more heightened than Tim, and Newton and Smith don’t have great chemistry, but thankfully the film does not focus on a romantic subplot.

Ken Watanabe turns in a respectable supporting turn as Ryme City Police Lieutenant Hideo Yoshida, Harry’s boss, but the show is stolen by Bill Nighy. Nighy is a distinguished actor who has been in a fair number of silly movies but hearing him utter words like “Pokémon” and “Mewtwo” with a straight face is a thing of sheer joy.

Grading on the curve of video game movies, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is an achievement. It does sometimes feel like a corporate, impersonal product, made to further expand an already-big brand, but there’s also an earnestness to it and a level of craftsmanship behind it that keep it a safe distance from being wholly soulless. There’s a cheery nostalgia that underpins this and a welcome familiarity to the elements that hark back to 80s movies. It’s not the most ground-breaking example of what it could’ve been, but there’s still plenty to like about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong