MOVIE BUFF-ET: Set-up, human drama almost conquers ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

Warner Bros.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” isn’t the home-run, giant-monster movie that I hoped it to be. To maintain the metaphor, it’s more like long fly ball that lifts you out of your seat, but ultimately dies at the warning track for a sacrifice fly.

The film directed and co-written by Michel Dougherty and his screenwriting partner Zach Shields scores a run, but it’s certainly not all it could have been.

The trouble with packing a movie about titanic monsters battling to raise and save the Earth with actors like Vera Farmiga, Kyle Chandler, Millie Bobby Brown, Bradley Whitford, Sara Hawkins, Charles Dance, Kent Wantanabe, and others is that you have to give them something somewhat significant to do in the film, but unfortunately every second they are on the screen takes time away from the movie’s true stars — Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan.

If those names don’t get you jazzed just by mentioning them, then this film — the third in the franchise — probably isn’t for you.

The quartet are the most popular monsters created by Toho Co. of Japan starting with the gigantic, lizard-like Godzilla in 1954. Rodan, a pterodactyl on steroids, followed in 1956. Mothra, yes, a gigantic moth, appeared on the scene in 1961, and King Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, became the villain of all of Toho’s creation in 1964.

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    (PG-13) 2 hr. 12 min.
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For over 50 years, the four creatures have battled with and against each other in more than a score of low-budget, cartoonish films featuring men in the monster suits, all to the delight of kids of all ages around the world.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is the third big-budget Hollywood film that has attempted to capture the magic of those mostly simplistic films that featured Godzilla and his mates wrestling all over Tokyo, and in many ways, it is most successful.

“Godzilla” (1998) was a financial bomb and creatively off-target for fans. “Godzilla” (2014) was the first film in the current franchise — followed by “Kong Skull Island” (2017) — and a stomp in the right direction, but Godzilla fighting generic kaiju just isn’t the same as slugging it out with another fan-favorite like Ghidorah.

With “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” the franchise takes a couple of steps to the side with the overlong sci-fi, eco-disaster setup and human drama, but then a large step forward with the titanic battle between the monsters, which really is a spectacular use of CGI.

The first 30 to 45 minutes of setup about the monster-tracking agency Monarch and the struggles of Dr. Mark and Emma Russel (Chandler and Farmiga) and their teen daughter Madison (Brown) after having their lives uprooted by Godzilla’s first appearance in the 2017 film was just boring.

It was like suffering through a bad opening act to a concert or a lackluster undercard to championship fight. I literally almost fell asleep during my 4 p.m. showing. Admittedly, there is one interesting twist in the setup, but it fails to come anything. The twist did pep me up for the main event.

As a long-time, old-school, giant-monster fan, I absolutely loved the the titanic monster battles in this movie. It truly was a clash of titans on as grand a scale as I’ve ever experienced.

Any time the monsters were on screen I was thrilled, but when the focus shifted to the humans, the movie would lose me again. Frankly, Farmiga is too good of an actress to be appearing in a movie like this one. Hopefully, she got a big check that will allow her to take a more interesting role.

Chandler is a likable, but in this film, he’s on autopilot barking out exposition and orders like he’s once again playing the coach on “Friday Night Lights.” Brown is fine as the precocious kid with all the answers, a requisite trope in films like this one, but still nothing special.

The human performance I enjoyed the most came from Whitford, whom Dougherty often cuts to to deliver some inane line in reaction to what the monsters or other villains are doing.

The scenes play a bit like Lloyd Bridges’ role in “Airplane” where in a series of jokes he laments giving up one more audacious addictive substance after another. However, I don’t think this was an homage, and I don’t think Whitford’s lines are intended to be jokes.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” isn’t what I’d call a good movie, but it is a very fun one when the monsters are on the screen, so fun that it was worth sitting through the rest.

The next film in the series “Godzilla vs. Kong” has already completed shooting and is due in theaters March 13, 2020. Hopefully, director Adam Wingard will amp up action between the two kings and deliver a movie that works on all levels.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 12 min.
Grade: B for the monsters, but Grade: D for the human drama/setup.

Classic Corner – Saving Private Ryan

Paramount Pictures

If you’ve had enough sci-fi, horror, and super heroes already this summer, then possibly the realistic fiction presented by director Steven Spielberg and his lauded cinematographer Janusz Kaminski might be more to your taste as the Malco Razorback Cinema hosts two showings of the 1998 war film “Saving Private Ryan.” It plays at 3 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Screenwriter Robert Rodat and Spielberg didn’t get their history exactly right with the film that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won five, including Spielberg’s second for Best Director, but that wasn’t necessarily their intention.

They did want to represent a realistic and compelling representation of the horrors of even a “just” war like World War II, while also exploring the moral question is how much one specific life is worth.

According to reports, some World War II and Viet Nam veterans who saw the film, Spielberg, Rodat and Kaminski, who also won an Oscar for the film, did capture the look and feel of combat as closely as they had ever experienced on film.

The 15-minute invasion of Omaha Beach scene is as harrowing, uncomfortable, and relentless piece of film making as I’ve experienced in a war movie or perhaps in any other. It’s brutal and unsettling. Reportedly it was not uncommon for viewers — including veterans — to leave theaters during the sequence.

The guts of the story features an Army Ranger unit, led by John Miller (Tom Hanks), tasked to carry out a mission to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) and escort him out of harm’s way after the deaths of his three brothers in combat. The script is based on the story of the Niland brothers, four American soldiers, two of which lost their lives in WW II. At one point, it was believed that three of the brothers had sacrificed their lives in combat.

The crux of the film is whether it is worth risking the lives of an entire Ranger unit to save one soldier.

The central plot of the movie is one that could have fit squarely into the 1940s when WW II was glorified on film as a means of rallying and fortifying the home front. Likewise it could in the 1960s and 1970s, when the United States involvement in the Viet Nam war was roundly questioned and criticized.

While the film was generally appreciated if not lauded by the majority of audiences, it had its detractors. Some felt other than the gore, the film glorified war, while others felt the movie went too far for it to be entertaining. Some couldn’t get past the movie’s historical inaccuracies.

For me, the movie’s feel is incredibly effective, even if the basic story comes off a bit too trite and somewhat undermines the realism the creators seemed to be going for in the opening scenes.

Outside of the gore and violence, the movie does lock into the sort of jingoistic filmmaking popular in the 1940s and 1950s. However, the extreme gore and violence doesn’t allow the viewer to enjoy the movie like the adventure-dramas of that age.

Maybe that was Spielberg’s intent?