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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 7, 2019 - Volume 47 Issue 23
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Visually pugnacious Godzilla a joyfully absurd monster throwdown
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
Now playing


Five years after Godzilla defeated the MUTOs in San Francisco and reduced a sizable portion of the city to rubble, crypto-zoological agency Monarch is on the verge of being put under United States military control. But before that can happen, scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her teenage daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) have been kidnapped by the unscrupulous Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) and his band of mercenaries. Their goal is to awaken the god-like monsters, dubbed Titans, Monarch has been studying around the globe from their slumber, believing that the destruction and carnage these creatures leave in their wake will help the Earth heal from centuries of misuse on the part of the human race. But their list includes the mysterious Monster Zero, also known as Ghidorah, a three-headed behemoth who may not be of this world, and instead of restoring the natural balance this vicious beast's goal might just be the complete eradication of all of humanity.

Monarch scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) enlists Dr. Russell's estranged ex-husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) to assist him in the search for the kidnapped mother and daughter. He understands her work better than anyone, so the feeling of Dr. Serizawa and his trusted fellow scientist Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) is that he is their best option to stop Alan from awakening these Titans. But his resolute hatred of Godzilla, potentially the only creature capable of destroying Ghidorah, could prove to be a catastrophic roadblock for the Monarch team, Mark blaming the kingly creature for the death of his son in San Francisco five years prior.

I thoroughly enjoyed director Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It made me smile. That does not mean I think it is as memorably great as Gareth Edwards' 2014 hit Godzilla which birthed this so-called 'Monsterverse' for Warner Bros, or that it is as giddily enjoyable as Jordan Vogt-Roberts' 2017 adventure Kong: Skull Island proved to be. It also cannot hold a candle to Ishirô Honda's 1954 Japanese classic that started this giant monster craze 65 years ago, that magnificent motion picture standing the test of time something fierce.

But Dougherty, the mind behind inventive low budget horror gems Krampus and Trick 'r Treat, has an obvious affinity for the Toho Studios creatures, and not just the titular star. Along with Ghidorah both the usually benevolent Mothra and the fiery Rodan are also utilized here, the director showcasing all four in action with consummate skill. Rodan's entrance is particularly fantastic, the pterodactyl-like monster birthed from inside a Mexican volcano which subsequently proceeds to lay waste to an entire village with blistering fury before finding itself in conflict with both Godzilla and Ghidorah out in the middle of the ocean. It's a stunning sequence, one that is delivered in true late 1980s, early 1990s Toho Godzilla sequel splendor, the unabashed silliness of their clash juxtaposed with devastating respect for the might and muscle of the creatures that's suitably incredible.

At the same time, also much like many of those Japanese epics from the tail end of the 20th century, the human component of this story grows increasingly asinine as events progress. Co-writing the script with Krampus collaborator Zach Shields and working from a story the pair dreamt up with Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island scribe Max Borenstein, Dougherty's screenplay is unquestionably stupid. Alan's plan never makes much sense, and his indifference when he realizes that Ghidorah isn't part of the natural order but instead an alien invader intent on domination is demonstrably absurd. As for Dr. Emma Russell, her motivational flip-flops are impossible to keep track of let alone understand, making it difficult to care whether or not she is going to be reconciled with Mark let alone invest emotionally when she's inevitably forced into a fight for her own survival.

It's also a tad strange just how quickly Monarch has developed as a scientific defense force in the span of five years. The organization has essentially become the Monsterverse's version of Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D., complete with secret underwater headquarters where they're able to monitor Godzilla's movements and a huge flying fortress that allows them to zip around the planet in no time flat. Granted, there's a similar agency in the latter Toho Godzilla films, so the fact Monarch morphs into the Earth Defense Force (given that name in Godzilla: Final Wars) or the Global Defense Force (as called in Godzilla: Unleashed) isn't a big surprise. It's just the speed in which they suddenly have all of this technology and equipment available to them that's hard to buy, especially considering there's a major plot point regarding the U.S. government wanting to put them under the control of the Pentagon, meaning they're not a military organization.

Still, there are sequences of such staggering beauty, not the least of which is a journey to Godzilla's underwater layer where Dr. Serizawa gets a heartfelt close encounter or the birth of Mothra from her cocoon beneath a Central American waterfall, and I really loved how much Dougherty appreciated the size and scale of the various monsters. I found the climactic showdown in Boston to be well worth the wait, and while I'd rather we stop staging these clashes shrouded in darkness and sheathed in rain, that doesn't mean I could take my eyes off the screen for a single second of the Ghidorah-Godzilla smackdown.

It's likely I was as close to being in-the-bag for this sequel as anything I'll see and review this summer and I feel I need to admit that. I adore Dougherty's previous films. As already stated, I love the most recent Godzilla and had a heck of a good time watching Kong: Skull Island. Most importantly, I'm as devoted to the Japanese Godzilla pictures as anyone, and while I'd never say I've liked all of them, even the ones I don't particularly care for I'd watch again at the drop of the hat if the opportunity to do so were to arise. Heck, composer Bear McCreary (Backcountry) even manages to work in Yûji Koseki's 'Mothra's Song' and Akira Ifukube's iconic original Godzilla theme into his magnificent score, and it's quite possible I might have shed a silent tear the first time the latter's thunderous refrains splashed upon the soundtrack.

None of which means that I think Godzilla: King of the Monsters is perfect or that everyone will enjoy it near as much as I did. It does have flaws, and its missteps are egregiously obvious. But I was able to look past most of those as I let the joy of seeing Mothra and Rodan soar through the sky in mortal combat and the euphoria of Ghidorah and Godzilla locked in a lethal embrace sweep over me in continuous waves. I had a blast watching Dougherty's take on these legendary creatures, and it goes without saying I'll be heading to the theatre again to see this sequel for a second time relatively soon.


Pleasantly quirky Pets 2 a surprisingly affectionate delight
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2
Now playing


Just as Terrier Max (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and his new best friend the gregarious mutt Duke (Eric Stonestreet) have gotten into an easy everyday rhythm, their sweetly caring owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) goes and gets married. Worse, she has a kid, Liam (Henry Lynch). But where Max initially is hesitant to warm to the child, in no time at all he's as protective of the little guy as both his parents are. In fact, a case could be made that he's overprotective, going above and beyond to keep him away from anything even slightly dangerous, even if said danger only exists in the little dog's overactive imagination.

Fast-talking rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) has embraced being pint-sized Molly's (Kiely Renaud) pet. The bunny has forgotten his former human-hating ways and instead grown to love being embraced by his owner every morning. In fact, he's so caught up in her imaginary games he starts to believe he's the powerful superhero 'Captain Snowball' after Molly starts dressing him up in a pair of sparkly blue pajamas. When energetic Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) shows up on his windowsill barking for help in order to save a timid white tiger cub from a malevolent circus ringmaster, Snowball bounces into action, never imagining that by doing so he'd inadvertently put the well-being of every creature living inside their New York apartment building in danger.

I loathed 2016's The Secret Life of Pets. Not only did I feel it didn't live up to the promise of its title and its central idea (what pets do at home when their owners are away), I also found it repugnant on a number of fundamental levels. It is a movie that makes me increasingly furious the more I'm forced to think about it, it's entire second half a cacophony of insipidly frenetic violence and nonsensical idiocy that's not just tiresome, it also comes perilously close to being irritatingly offensive.

Suffice it to say, my hopes in regards to The Secret Life of Pets 2 weren't especially high. So, imagine my surprise when I came out of the theatre after the sequel with a smile on my face and a skip to my step? To call this a massive improvement over the first film is something far beyond an understatement. While not without its hiccups, and while still feeling more than a little inconsequential as far as the greater scheme of things is concerned, it still gets so much right and is filled with some many numerous little pleasures it's hard to hold those missteps against it. This second chapter in Max's story is refreshingly amiable, and even though the climax devolves into trite silliness that's still kind of okay, the overall beguiling cheerfulness of it all was just too infectious for me to resist.

What's interesting is how returning director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me), co-director Jonathan del Val and screenwriter Brian Lynch (Minions) manage to balance three competing storylines with such easygoing nonchalance. Not only do they have Max and Duke in the country and Snowball and Daisy trying to save that tiger, but they've also got a subplot involving Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) having to learn how to impersonate a cat from the vainly self-possessed furball Chloe (Lake Bell) in order to rescue a squeaky chew toy from an apartment filled to the brim with vicious kitties. The filmmakers bounce back and forth between this trio of stories with precision, never lingering on any one of them longer than necessary so that none overstay their welcome. It's bubbly and light, and even more importantly it tends to deliver on the promise of the title in ways its predecessor rarely did, making this sequel goofily agreeable in the process.

The Max and Duke story works best. Harrison Ford, delivering his first-ever vocal performance in an animated motion picture, is a gruff, growly hoot as a wizened old farm dog named Rooster. His reactions to Max's smothering of Liam is wonderful, while his offhand wisecracks as he tries to school the terrier in ways to put aside his fear and learn to embrace the life-lessons the world unexpectedly throws one's way are nothing short of priceless. The whole section is undeniably the film's high point, and while other segments have their charms this is the one I'm going to be remembering long after the others have faded from my memory.

Not that the stuff with Gidget and Chloe isn't pretty solid, Slate and Bell showcasing such winning chemistry I almost want them to share the screen in a live-action comedy so I can see them do this as humans and not as animated family pets. As for the section with Snowball and Daisy, I was fearful it was going to be unbearable and was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise. There's a quirky inventiveness to this subplot that works a lot of the time, and while this part of the film is easily the weakest of the three, I still found it to be just pleasant enough that my overall good mood watching things play out was never in danger of being threatened.

While the climax does finally bring all of the characters and storylines together into one, it is also the one portion of the sequel that doesn't work that well. This elongated chase sequence, while having a handful of visual delights, is too obvious and tired to be as strong as the first two-thirds of the motion picture thankfully prove to be. Much like the studio's other endeavors, ranging from the first Despicable Me to last year's holiday hit, The Grinch, this one gets far too hectic and rambunctious for its own good, the filmmakers appearing to believe that chaos and carnage are the keys to a successful ending while seemingly eschewing the simple, quietly emotionally-driven peculiarities that helped make the remainder of this story so shrewdly effective.

Luckily this doesn't do lasting damage to The Secret Life of Pets 2. The sequel improves upon the first film in every conceivable way in my opinion, unleashing a trio of beguiling little stories that kids of all ages are almost certain to find enjoyable. As for the adults, there's lots to like about this bit of animated fluff as well, making the journey to the theatre to see it a far more pleasurable experience than I admit I thought it was going to be.


Unfocused Dark Phoenix a frustrating final bow for the X-Men
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DARK PHOENIX
Now playing


Frustrating. That's what Dark Phoenix, the twelfth film in the X-Men series and a direct sequel to 2016's X-Men: Apocalypse, turns out to be. Not mediocre like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Not terrible like X-Men: The Last Stand. No. The word for this film, reportedly the finale of the current iteration of the franchise (unless the long-delayed The New Mutants ever gets a release) now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios can absorb these characters into the MCU, is frustrating.

Why? It's frustrating because there are so many incredible elements at play, so many outstanding set pieces, so much potential for drama, that when it fails to deliver on just about any of them in a satisfying way one almost cannot help but walk out of the theatre at a loss for words as to what the heck happened. Writer/director Simon Kinberg, stepping behind the camera for the first time after being a longtime producer and screenwriter for the franchise, delivers a number of incredible moments. He also can't maintain focus, never constructing a consistently compelling narrative that's near as emotionally involving as it by all accounts should be. It's a messy, discombobulated spectacle that forgets about its main character far too often and frequently turns its attention towards the supporting players for reasons that are tired and unfortunate, this saga of a young woman at war with her own psyche spending more time with the various men in her life than it does with her.

In the ten years since the X-Men saved the Earth from Apocalypse, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has done a terrific job transforming his ragtag group of misfit mutants into international heroes the world turns to in times of crisis. Such a moment is an emergency flight into outer space when a U.S. space shuttle is damaged by a mysterious solar anomaly. Even though she has reservations, team leader Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) assembles X-Men Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp) and Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for a rescue mission. While initially things go smoothly, the entire team is put in jeopardy when this strange ethereal cosmic irregularity appears to change course as it targets the damaged space shuttle and subsequently the X-Men's rescue craft. But Jean, attempting to sacrifice herself to save the others, absorbs this bizarre interstellar force, her strong psychic mutation miraculously keeping her from harm.

If only that were the case. This strange force augments her mutation to a place of untold power, and Jean is having trouble controlling it. After a horrific tragedy, the young woman seeks out Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), now living in seclusion on a small island with fellow displaced mutants. But after the U.S. military blunders in trying to capture her, Jean is banished from this safe haven and sent back out into the world alone. With no one to turn to she unexpectedly finds help from an alien visitor (Jessica Chastain) who has been traveling through the solar system looking for someone just like her, Professor X, Erik and the remaining members of the X-Men hot on both of their trails for a variety of reasons, some of them far more thoughtlessly murderous than they are selflessly noble.

At first the emphasis is right where it should be. Jean Grey is the person who is in the most internal turmoil as her body and mind are slowly ripped to shreds from within. Adding to that is Chastain's malevolent alien, a being intent on forcing all aspects of the woman's humanity out of her. This is coupled with an unforgivable betrayal on Professor X's part and a refusal by Erik, even with the countless lives he's taken wearing the mantel and helmet of Magneto, to help ease her psychological turmoil. Jean's inner war is very real, and Turner pulls out all the stops as she attempts to make this struggle emotionally authentic, the 'Game of Thrones' actress having a number of moments that are breathlessly captivating as events progress towards their fiery conclusion.

Yet, every time things look as if they are going to get interesting, every instance when it appears this horrifying psychological struggle is going to achieve maximum impact, Kinberg inexplicably goes back to Professor X and Erik (and to a lesser extent Hank) at the most inopportune of times. The film for some reason decides it's more useful to emphasize how Jean's mental scuffles affect the men in her life more than it does her own. It places their well-being above hers, ultimately making Professor X and Erik the keys to her theoretical survival and ability to triumph over the intergalactic force that has latched itself onto her DNA. Jean becomes a supporting character in a movie that is technically all about her, and if this isn't an unfortunate turn of events I'm not sure what else would have been.

Kinberg does deliver serious spectacle that's unlike almost anything else the prior X-Men films have showcased up to this point, including X-Men: Days of Future Past. There's a confrontation outside of an unnamed foreign consulate on the streets of New York that's crazy good, while a mental battle of wills between Jean and Erik over a U.S. military helicopter in the center of the latter's mutant commune is nothing less than sensational. Best of all is a climactic fight onboard a speeding train that displays mutant powers in a fashion and a manner they've never been utilized before. Erik's abilities, the mutant in his full Magneto glory, are particularly spectacular, and there were several instances where I blurted out a hushed shriek or quiet squawk as this violent man unleashed metallic hell upon the alien intruders attempting to defeat both he and the rest of the X-Men.

I'm still left perplexingly unmoved by Dark Phoenix. The alien threat is vague and ill-defined, and as unnerving as Chastain might be in her almost reptilian seductiveness she's still never as scary or as menacing as I am sure she is supposed to be. Worst of all, because Jean isn't at the center of her own story, the film's climax ends up being something of a bizarrely unemotional irritation. It's moderately exasperating how things eventually play themselves out, and while I appreciate the risks Kinberg and his team are taking with the material, and while I was rooting for the film's success even when I could see it falling annoying off the rails, this climactic journey of the X-Men just didn't do it for me. As I said earlier, it's frustrating, and I can't think of anything more to say.






PNB presents an exceptional evening of 'Themes & Variations'
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On the Boards presents Justin Vivian Bond in two special
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'Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City' launches on Netflix June 7
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Hugo House and Western Bridge to stage Ginsberg-themed poetry festival in Volunteer Park on June 22
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Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma to read from The Safety of Edges at Elliott Bay June 15
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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Visually pugnacious Godzilla a joyfully absurd monster throwdown
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Pleasantly quirky Pets 2 a surprisingly affectionate delight
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Unfocused Dark Phoenix a frustrating final bow for the X-Men
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