Godzilla vs. Kong

Godzilla fights King Kong

It’s Godzilla vs. Kong but in all honesty it could almost be any Godzilla movie. There’s just something so interchangeable about them all. Grasping for a differentiator you might seize on “cult indie director” as a search filter – but that could be this one (director: Adam Wingard) or 2014’s Godzilla (director: Gareth Edwards). Or how about “the one with Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown”? Well that could be either this one or 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (they played the same characters). Or how about “the one with Michael Dougherty’s name on the writing credits?”. That could also be this one or Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, since they are franchise siblings. But if you swap out Michael Dougherty with another writer, Terry Rossio, then we’re down to either this one or the 1998 Godzilla. Yes, that one.

In fact you could probably, on a wet afternoon, daisy-chain all the non-Japanese Godzillas together in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon style, going back to Marv Newland’s 1969 short Bambi Meets Godzilla (it’s 1m 38s long, very amusing and you can see it here on YouTube). What you get in almost every case is a lot of people dying while a monster does its stuff. Two monsters here, obviously, though Kong is the monster hero in Godzilla vs. Kong, a noble simian being returned to his original land, Hollow Earth – which necessitates a journey to the centre of the Earth by a team of scientist, who are hoping that they’ll also lure Godzilla back down there in pursuit of Kong, so they can then put the cork back in the bottle and skedaddle.

The scientists are played by Alexander Skarsgård as Nathan Lind and Rebecca Hall as Ilene Andrews, and are joined in some sort of observer role by too-hot-to-be-noble Eliza González as Maya Simmons, the tight-jumpered daughter of tech industry titan Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir), plus Hall’s mute surrogate daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who, in spite of having no dialogue beyond American Sign Language, is the only character in the whole thing worth watching.

Kaylee Hottle as Jia
Kaylee Hottle as Jia

This group inhabits one circle of operations. In the other are a Spielbergian trio of kids-against-the-man, conspiracy-theory podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), earnest truth-seeker Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and her obligatorily doughy and geeky friendzone-only pal Josh (Julian Dennison). The third circle is a lucha libre throwdown between King Kong and Godzilla. To put the relative chances of these creatures in context, the former struggles to escape from chains the scientists have put him in while he’s in transit, the latter is able to scythe through a battleship like it was butter. Having seen that, the judges should have just raised Godzilla’s right arm, paw, whatever and declared the fight conclusively won. But no.

Wingard is a good director and there is a good film in here, somewhere, centred on the search for the truth by group two (Bernie, Madison and Josh), since the whole territory of conspiracy theories and their followers, loss of trust in science etc, is fertile right now. Instead the focus is more on group one (the lab coats), who stand around pulling one “I am awed” face after another. The big hope that Hall and Gonzalez will go womano a womano over Skarsgard comes to nought. Two ladies fighting over a himbo, wouldn’t that be a thing?

It’s all shot dark, for big cinemas, as is the current style, which allows for a bit more latitude with the effects, which genuinely are awesome. The moment where the scientists’ “spaceship” journeying towards Hollow Earth has to do the equivalent of the Star Wars leap into hyperspace – some gravity-reversal rationale is offered – is properly spectacular.

But as for the fights between Godzilla and Kong. As said, I can’t see any real contest, and enjoyed them as much as I did the fights in Mega-Shark v Giant Octopus, which at least are meant to be stupid. Which is to say they are on a par with the fights in Pacific Rim – big, loud, confusing and dull. Thousands of people die; no one cares. At one point Mecha-Godzilla gets involved. Thousands more people die; no one cares.

2016’s Japanese Shin Godzilla remains the best of the modern Godzillas, since it had worked out how to sandwich a bit of Aaron Sorkin walkie-talky political business between its monster scraps. Here, by contrast we have Hall pulling a moue, Skarsgård going boss-eyed and Gonzalez crossing her legs attitudinally, very high up. Nice legs, bad attitude.

Watch it to see Chandler and Bichir, only recently underused in the George Clooney film The Midnight Sky, being underused again, though Bichir does at least get to pull a few Bond villain poses. Chandler’s job is to run around looking for his missing daughter, Madison, trying to inject a bit of human scale into this film, as he also failed to do in 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

It’s not his fault. He’s outbellowed by Godzilla. Everyone is, including Kong.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

I Care a Lot

Peter Dinlage and Rosamund Pike

You used to see plenty of films like I Care a Lot in 1990s. In the slipstream of Quentin Tarantino’s first burst of success there was a glut of movies with a “who’s zooming who” plot playing out in an “only in the movies” universe of smart talk, skull-cracking violence, hot women, cool men, gunplay and cars. Joe Carnahan – one of the best of the bunch of writer/directors working the territory – summed it up well in the title of his 1998 debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. There was a real sense of writers and directors having a lot of fun. Sometimes more than the audience.

I Care a Lot’s writer/director J Blakeson is clearly enjoying himself with a bait and switch plot that seems at first knockings to be a satire centred on Marla Grayson, a money-grabbing lawyer (Rosamund Pike) working a legal guardian scam – possibly an analogue for a wider critique of the corrupt financial system? Then, as Grayson strongarms her latest victim – sparky, rich retiree Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) – into a care home against her will and proceeds to strip her assets, Blakeson shift us towards what looks like a wrongful-imprisonment thriller, with Peterson/Wiest the focus.

And then he switches again. There’s more to this hale and hearty senior boomer than weekly aqua-aerobics classes, it seems. To the rescue, enter Peter Dinklage as a cross between a Bond villain and a white knight, extravagantly over-enunciating as all the best bad guys do.

At this point any workaday scam artist keen to clean up quick and then move on to the next mark would probably back off, but we’ve left the real world and are now breathing pure genre, though Blakeson’s screenplay gives Grayson a few speeches attempting to pull her character back down to earth. Instead of backing off, the lawyer’s naked pride impels her onward, the rest of the movie being essentially a godalmighty tussle between Grayson and Dinklage’s Roman Lunyov to see who’s top dog, with Jennifer as their trophy.

Blakeson pulled off similar plot gymnastics with his feature debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, with two reveals that made a kidnap thriller into something tasty enough to have spawned two foreign-language remakes (no doubt helped by the fact that the film can be made for nothing, requiring only three actors and a single set).

Chris Messina
An overdressed Chris Messina

In the sort of devious-female role familiar from Gone Girl, Pike is particularly well cast as the avaricious take-no-prisoners savagely, bobbed lawyer, and in 1990s style she’s a lipstick lesbian to boot, with her inamorata (and useful sounding board) Fran played by Eliza Gonzaléz, who has little to do except stand around and look hot (mission accomplished).

The film’s best scenes are all two handers – Pike trading threats with Chris Messina as the stubbly sexist and over-dressed lawyer sent in by Dinklage’s Lunyov to spring Peterson; Pike against Wiest, the old dear hissing malevolently; Pike against Dinklage, badassery indexes going off the scale.

So, an aggressive black-comedy thriller farce of the old school, brilliantly written and played and moving fast because it knows that there’s stiff competition in the archive, and because contemplative musing isn’t what this sort of film is offering.

More of Wiest would have been a real plus, especially since this is a film all about women having agency – which you couldn’t often say about 1990s examples of the genre – but she never overplays her hand as the charming senior with a spitfire alter ego. Same goes for Dinklage, who after years of Game of Thrones knavery could phone in these big characters full of flowery eloquence but doesn’t.

And if it takes its foot off the pedal a touch as it enters its last 20 minutes or so, that’s OK too, the entertainment has been had. This film is a lot of fun.

© Steve Morrissey 2021