A short review of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019)

It’s true what they say about “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019) — its script is almost completely brainless.  It’s got about as much depth as the old “G.I. Joe” cartoon (1983-1986) that played after school when we were kids.

But I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t enjoy this.  And I’m sure you know why — the big-budget, big-MONSTER special effects.  They were spectacular — and sometimes they approached being unexpectedly beautiful.  (It’s hard to explain here, but our eyes are treated to more than skyscraper-tall brawls between “titans.”  We get a light show too — thanks to some confusing, thinly scripted, but nonetheless dazzling energy-based monster powers.  It was really damned good.)

Add to this a generally excellent cast, and you might be able to forgive the screenplay for insulting your intelligence.  I know that most people would name Ken Watanabe as the actor who truly classes up the joint.  And there’s plenty of truth to that, but I myself would name Charles Dance as the movie’s biggest standout.  The man’s craft is goddam Shakespearean, and I think he’s equal of the likes of Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen.  And I’d like to think that his throwaway line, “Long live the King,” was at least partly a fan-service reference to what I’m guessing is his best known role — Tywin Lannister on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (2011-2019).

Based on my own enjoyment, I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 — with the caveat that I’m a kid at heart when it comes to giant monsters.  If you’re the same way, then “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” might just become a guilty pleasure that you return to more than once.

 

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JUST SAY CHERNOBYL.

Friend: “Ok just finished ‘Chernobyl’ on HBO. Not sure what all the hype was about, to be honest.”

Me:        “You’re the kind of guy who insists there is no graphite on the ground.”

I know these jokes are getting worse. I really ought to Dyatlov it back a little bit.

 

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A short review of “Child’s Play” (2019)

“Child’s Play” (2019) actually surprised me by being a little more ambitious and well rounded than the typical reboot of an 80’s slasher franchise.  Screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith tries to present audiences with a fresh, updated horror film with funny, engaging, likable characters.  And he mostly succeeds — it helps that the cast is roundly quite good in their roles.  (The voice of Chucky is none other than Mark Hamill.)  There is some discomfiting dark humor here, too, that makes for some great, guilty fun.

But this “Child’s Play” is doomed to suffer in comparison to the 1988 original.  The very first “Child’s Play” was a particularly scary film, even if its sequels were much less so; I remember people screaming in the theater when I saw it with my high school friends.  This new movie doesn’t come close to matching it in that manner.

Smith’s update abandons the admittedly campy premise of the original, in which a serial killer employs voodoo to transfer his soul into an interactive doll.  Smith gives us something that is more plausible — a malfunctioning A.I. that turns homicidal partly because its programming leads it to.  His take is interesting … Chucky is even a little sympathetic at first — he’s a childlike, vaguely cute robot, and his mischievous young owner is at least partly responsible for his early, less frightening transgressions.

This all works on a certain level.  It’s smarter than its 80’s source material.  It might have been gold if it had been fleshed out by a science fiction screenwriting master like Charlie Brooker, of “Black Mirror” fame.  Or, better yet, why not the writers for HBO’s brilliant “Westworld,” which proceeds from essentially the same basic story concept?

Alas, we can’t have our cake and eat it too, at least in this case.  The new Chucky is a more intelligent story concept but a less menacing bogeyman.  He just can’t hold a candle to the voodoo-infused, sociopathic demon-doll voiced by the legendary Brad Dourif so long ago.  The new “Child’s Play” isn’t quite scary enough for our expectations, and that’s a serious criticism for a horror movie.

All things considered, I’d rate this a 7 out of 10.

 

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A review of HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019) is … flawless, as far as I can tell.  I can’t name a single criticism I have of its writing, directing or performances.  It is among the best miniseries I’ve ever seen, and I don’t hesitate to rate it a 10 out of 10.

I can’t comment with any credibility about its historical accuracy, of course.  I know that the character of Ulana Khomyuk (wonderfully played by Emily Watson) was a composite meant to represent a number of scientists responding to the world-changing 1986 nuclear disaster; HBO notes this in its closing notes of the last episode.  But, to an average viewer like myself, the show certainly felt accurate — not once did I pause to remember that I was watching a TV show, and not getting a real-life glimpse into the closing days of the Soviet Union.  There is an immersive authenticity to “Chernobyl” that underscores every second of the horrors it depicts.

The entire five-episode program is an exercise in balance.  Screenwriter Craig Mazin deftly portrays terrifying events (including the effects of radiation exposure on average people nearby) without sensationalizing them.

The show does a masterful job of explaining the necessary technical information without overwhelming the viewer.  I typically have some trouble following material like this, and I understood most of it.  (The relationship between Jared Harris’ character and Stellan Skarsgard’s character helps quite a bit.  The former is a leading nuclear scientist who explains things in layman’s terms for the latter, who is a high-ranking Soviet official supervising the disaster response.)

And the script is ultimately quite moving, without once approaching the threshold of melodrama.  The character interaction and dialogue is a lot more restrained than you might expect for this subject matter.  But I was surprised at the sense of sympathy for the Russian people that this engendered for me, and at the dismay I felt for the visceral  technological horrors they faced.  (The show admirably highlights how average Russians were very much like Americans in 1986, albeit under an oppressive government.  It was ironic how some characters ominously referred to “The West,” with the same apprehension as people here in the 1980’s referred to “the Russians.”)

It’s a nuanced script too.  By the times the miniseries concludes, the viewer comes to understand that the putative “bad guys” are scapegoats who are not fully and solely responsible for the disaster.  (And the character arc for Skarsgard’s bureaucrat is a compelling redemption.)  More troubling, though, is that some of the “good guys” we are rooting for are also not completely inculpable.

For me, though, Chernobyl succeeded mostly because of Harris and Skarsgard.  They were both phenomenally good — perfect, in fact.  They are accomplished actors who have the subtlety and restraint to play men from a stoical culture who must nonetheless have human reactions to tragedy.

I obviously recommend this.

 

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A very short review of the premiere of HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

I’m arriving at the opinion that Jared Harris is one of the finest actors working today.  His performance in last year’s “The Terror” was nothing short of beautiful.  So I tuned in the other night to the first episode of HBO’s “Chernobyl” miniseries, in which he is the protagonist.

I wasn’t disappointed.  “Chernobyl” is gripping.  I’m no expert about the 1986 nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union, but this certainly comes across like a meticulous historical adaptation.  But what’s surprising is how its smart, relatively spare script moves so quickly and so adeptly incorporates the human horror of the event.  (After a brief prologue with Harris’ voiceover, the story begins almost immediately with the accident occurring.)  The plot points that follow are by necessity mostly technical.  But the pitch-perfect writing here makes the story quite easy to follow.

It’s gut-wrenching stuff — made even more frightening by the Soviet administrators who cared little about whether the power plant’s workers died an agonizing death.  It’s the kind of story that would be frightening even if it were pure fiction.  But the program’s authenticity and attention to detail are constantly present to remind you that it is not.

There’s some impressive camera work, too — especially the final shot, which will feel like a punch in the stomach.

I’d rate this a 9 out of 10, and I highly recommend it.

 

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