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Filmmakers somehow found a way to totally muck up the greatest Godzilla premise ever with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a movie that is all things great and terrible at the same time.

The movie has some terrific monster battles, and the special effects are mind-bogglingly good. Godzilla squares off against legendary foes including the multiheaded Monster Zero and Rodan, while getting some much-needed assistance from the great Mothra. All of these monsters, including the title character, are wonders to behold. As for the online bitching about the movie’s appearance being dark and murky, the darkness was actually fitting, made things scarier and didn’t diminish the effects.

But … and this is a big but … I cannot endorse this movie. The human stuff in between and during the fighting is DREADFUL. Homo sapiens get too much screen time. The writing and staging is so bad that the film gets derailed every time it goes to military types in a war room.

The plot has the world in a state of disarray after the 2014 attacks on San Francisco and Las Vegas depicted in Godzilla. OK, that’s kind of cool. How do we dust ourselves off and find a way to co-exist with the likes of Godzilla and big-monster-moth things after the decimation of the Bay Area? Apparently, according to writer-director Michael Dougherty (Krampus), we deliver inane dialogue very slowly, and inexplicably play with a sonar gadget that calls out to the monsters in a manner that either chills them out or fires them up.

That gadget is created by Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who lost a child in the San Francisco attack and is attempting to talk to the monsters with her daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) while husband/dad, Mark (Kyle Chandler), is off taking pictures on safari. There’s a moment when Mark seems to be sort of getting off while listening on headphones to the sounds of wolves tearing into the flesh of a dead deer. It’s a strange moment; I think he has some issues.

The gadget thing sends out a call that basically kicks off the monster apocalypse, and the action goes from full-on, nicely staged monster battles featuring beautiful close-ups and battered landscapes—to a bunch of lost actors sitting around in a situation room observing and commenting.

Bradley Whitford basically gets the role Jake Johnson had in Jurassic World—he’s the nerdy guy cracking wise from afar while monsters eat people, and military folks scratch their heads. While Johnson had great line deliveries and some funny moments, Whitford looks like the victim of a director who said, “Hey, Bradley, say some funny shit about monsters!” and Whitford had nothing.

Millie Bobby Brown is OK, but there’s not much she can do with material so bad. She has the movie’s dopiest moment: When fleeing Monster Zero as it is destroying Fenway Park, Godzilla comes up behind her; she turns and offers a calm, satisfied smile. There’s no paralyzing fear, and no screaming in terror at being between two massive charging monsters. Instead, there’s a calm, movie-star smile, because Godzilla might be her friend or some shit like that. Give me a break.

Brown has already completed her shots for Godzilla vs. Kong, due out next year, so she’s not escaping this franchise. Dougherty, who messed up this movie, has a resume with some OK low-grade horror films (Krampus, Trick ’r Treat). The next film’s director, Adam Wingard, is also a director of horror films (You’re Next, the awful Blair Witch reboot). Dougherty, who co-wrote this messy movie, helped write the next film as well. These are not good signs.

Perhaps Warner Bros./Legendary should stop putting large blockbusters into the hands of relatively new and mediocre horror-film directors. They got it right with Gareth Edwards on Godzilla (2014). They blew it with Dougherty, and I fear for the future.

Seriously … how is it possible to produce suckage with a great-looking movie featuring Godzilla, Rodan and Monster Zero in it? How does that happen? My summer is ruined, and it isn’t even summer yet.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

As he did with The Conjuring, writer-director James Wan uses a supposed real-life poltergeist as the basis for The Conjuring 2: The sequel draws upon the infamous Enfield Poltergeist, which allegedly occurred in England in the late 1970s.

Wan has tapped into something interesting with this franchise. Two films in, it’s showing decent durability and originality.

It’s also pretty scary.

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson return as the Warrens, real-life paranormal investigators known to have visited many legendary haunted spaces, including Amityville and Enfield. Wan, of course, blows up their involvement in each of these cases to offer a platform for fictional circumstances and scares. While not quite as good as The Conjuring, this sequel does its predecessor proud.

Amityville actually gets a little bit of attention in the film’s pre-opening-credits sequence, a creepy one that has Farmiga’s Warren possessing the body of killer Ronald DeFeo Jr. during a séance vision of him murdering his family. Farmiga is seen walking around with an invisible shotgun shooting people, and DeFeo is seen with the actual weapon in mirrors. Many have tried to make the Amityville Horror scary at the movies, but this is the first to actually accomplish the feat.

The film then crosses over to its main focus: an impoverished family in Enfield, England. Peggy (Frances O’Connor) is raising her children while broke—and their flat just happens to become haunted. Not only does it get haunted; daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes possessed by an old man who supposedly died in a living-room chair years before. He’s now causing problems because it’s his house, and he likes scaring kids.

One of the main reasons The Conjuring 2 works is the performance of Wolfe, who employs a flawless English accent to go with appropriately eerie facial expressions. She has a swing-set scene with Farmiga that makes the skin crawl. She’s great in every moment she spends on screen.

Knowing full well that his movie needed something beyond a little girl croaking like an old man, Wan includes a monstrous ghost that emerges from a toy in the house, and some sort of nun demon that has an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Manson.

These two spooky entities provided a couple of jump scares that got this particular veteran of many jump-scare attempts a few inches out of his seat. I’ll say this for Wan: He’s the current King of the Jump Scare. He has impressive, impeccable timing at what has become a bit of a lost art among horror-film directors.

Farmiga and Wilson are decent once again as the Warrens, although the film keeps them on the backburner for much of the first half. O’Connor (the mother in Steven Spielberg’s A.I: Artificial Intelligence) is solid as the cranky mom.

Wan will not be pigeonholed as a horror director; he made 2015’s Furious 7 and is slated to enter the DC universe with Aquaman in 2018. When he gets everything working together, including an excellent soundtrack and camerawork, he’s an effective horror maestro. He’s made some stinkers (I still say the original Saw was crap, and Insidious: Chapter 2 was terrible), but he’s pretty consistent within the horror genre, especially with his ghost stories. Due to his busy schedule, a directorial return for the inevitable The Conjuring 3 seems unlikely for Wan.

I attended a packed screening for this movie, and it was met with a lot of screams and laughs—as well as a round of applause when it was over. My feelings weren’t nearly as enthusiastic, but I did enjoy it. It’s a good-enough summer-scare machine that will put a couple of jolts into you.

The Conjuring 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The thought of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall starring together in a movie is, in a word, awesome.

So what did director David Dobkin do with this exciting scenario? He gave us The Judge, a cliché-ridden mess.

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a typical movie lawyer who gets bad guys off the hook while pissing, literally and figuratively, on lawyers trying to put bad guys in jail. Just before he gets another criminal off the hook in Chicago, a call comes in from home: His mom died while tending to her flowers. Therefore, Hank is off to the funeral in his hometown, where his dad, Joseph (Duvall), is the town judge—and a major-league prick.

Of course, Hank’s hometown is the absolute opposite of Chicago: It’s a rural, country paradise that Hank despises, although we, the viewers, can see it’s a pretty darned nice place, especially if you like fishing trips, bike rides and hot bartenders who are willing to sleep with you.

Hank hates his dad—boy, does he hate him. Joseph hates his son, too. The reasons for their mutual hatred are slowly revealed, and not one of those reasons comes as a surprise.

After the funeral, Hank is ready to bolt and go deal with his developing divorce when he gets a call: It turns out dad’s Cadillac, and consequently his dad, are being investigated in a possible intentional vehicular homicide.

You know what this means? Court drama! A long court drama. By god, at 141 freaking minutes, is it ever so horribly long.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the evil lawyer Hank must face while defending his dad. We know he is evil, because he has a steel, collapsible cup out of which he drinks water—a cup he snaps open and shut with a vengeance. Other clichéd characters include the autistic brother who likes to film things, and the “Coulda Been Somebody!” brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who lost a chance to be a baseball star when Hank got them into a car accident while they were teens.

The highlight of this movie would be the scene in which a sick Joseph shits himself in a futile attempt to make it to the toilet in time. Hank comes to his rescue, and we are treated to a scene in which we not only see Robert Duvall covered in shit, but the gruesome aftermath of Hank cleaning him off in the shower. Dobkin adds a little humor to the crap-shower scene, with Hank’s daughter outside the door doing a knock-knock joke. It’s funny, because the kid doesn’t know that behind the door is her dad and granddad, standing in a shower, covered with shit. Those are some major hijinks right there.

So … this is a courtroom drama involving Billy Bob Thornton and his stupid cup; a disease-of-the-week movie involving rampant shitting; a romance involving Hank getting it on with an ex (Vera Farmiga); a fish-out-of-water dramedy; a mystery about who done run somebody over; and a little bit Rain Man, due to the autistic-brother angle. 

It’s really unbelievable that so much talent threw down for The Judge. Downey was on Howard Stern recently, and he claimed that Duvall was a bit of a holdout, and didn’t really want to make the movie. I’m guessing the opportunity to crap himself onscreen and then get a nice shower from Iron Man must’ve sold him on the gig.

The Judge is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I got a couple of good jolts out of The Conjuring, the latest from director James Wan.

I have deeply divided feelings about Wan. I sort of hate him for starting the whole Saw thing, and I sort of like him for twisted films like Insidious, Death Sentence and, to some extent, this one. No doubt: Wan is capable of constructing some good scare scenarios, and this haunted-house tale has its share.

This is one of those films that claim to be “based on a true story.” Whatever. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Warren, well-known paranormal investigators who try to help out a family that has just moved into a Rhode Island house. They are like ghostbusters, but without proton packs and one-liners.

The family, shortly after moving in, finds their dog dead, birds smashing their heads into the house, and a ghost playing hide-and-seek. The dead dog would’ve been my cue to say “Screw this!” and head for the nearest Motel 6, but these dopes stick around to deal with ghosts, demons and whatnot. Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), the mom, is getting mysterious bruises all over her body and experiencing strange dreams in which ghosts puke blood into her face. Roger (Ron Livingston), the dad, keeps finding dead animals and spooky parts of the house he didn’t know about. And no matter how many of his kids say that something just pulled at their feet during the night or wrestled with them on the floor, HE KEEPS THE FAMILY IN THE FREAKING HOUSE.

I forgive stupid horror-movie families if the film manages to scare me good at least twice. The Conjuring got to me at least five times, which is a damned good score for a routine haunted-house film. Actually, this is a haunted house film with demon possession and exorcism thrown in for good measure. As Wan showed with Dead Silence and Saw, he likes evil puppets and dolls as well. One particularly malevolent doll contributes to the mayhem, making this film a veritable stew of horror genres.

The Conjuring starts with the cheap sound and sight gags that plague most haunted-house movies. I thought for sure we were getting another low-budget flick in which there are a lot of moving sheets, closing doors and sudden sounds, as in the stupid Paranormal Activity movies. Wan, the evil bastard that he is, knows that many movie-viewers are jaded and will let their guards down. Then some pretty freaky visual stuff starts happening, and The Conjuring is off and running. This film is not afraid to show you who is making all those noises and screwing with those doors.

Wilson and Farmiga are good as the Warrens, the folks who allegedly investigated this ’70s haunting, along with the Amityville Horror. (The characters comment on needing to check out some problems on Long Island at one point.)

Both Wilson and Farmiga are doing good things in the horror genre these days, with Wilson starring in Insidious, and Farmiga making the rounds as Mrs. Bates in the Bates Motel TV series. Heck, Farmiga’s sister is kicking ass in the genre as well, starring in the first and third seasons of American Horror Story.

It’s good to see Taylor get a meaty role. It’s been a long while since she’s really factored in a movie, which is a shame, given her talents. Looking back at her resume, I am reminded that she appeared in The Haunting back in 1999. The Conjuring puts that pathetic remake to shame, and Taylor proves she can scream her ass off during a demonic possession and exorcism.

Wan and company deserve props for doing a lot of the effects the natural way. Wan has figured out that the more “real” something looks, the scarier it is. Actors and actresses in freaky makeup with the lighting just so can often out-creep CGI megabytes. There are a few instances in this movie in which gray and green makeup is the scare tactic of choice. It probably cost the makeup guys less than $50, and it scared me just fine.

Wan is in the midst of a busy movie year. After this, we shall get his Insidious: Chapter 2 in time for Halloween, and he just got the gig to direct one of cinema’s scariest creatures of them all: He’ll be helming Fast and Furious 7 starring the repugnant, naturally frightening Vin Diesel.

I’m scared already.

The Conjuring is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews