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Godzilla, Rocketmen and Monster Moms in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Godzilla, Rocketmen and Monster Moms in TheatersPhoto still from "Ma," via IMDb.
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Flashes, explosions, loud noises — Godzilla may not deliver the goods, but Elton John seems to be able. Here’s a look at your kaiju and non-kaiju fare on screens this week.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Must we destroy everything that challenges us, or is humanity’s only salvation an intentional and aggressive thinning of our herd?

Or is there another way?

Nope, this is not the plot of the last two Avengers movies. Well, I mean, it is, but it’s also the basic underpinning of the monster movie that has always had societal anxieties on its mind.

Born in 1954 of a society reeling from nuclear annihilation, Godzilla was a parable of a world in need of a new god to save it from war and science. Sixty five years later, Godzilla: King of the Monsters recognizes that it’s not just the military and scientists who are destroying us. It’s all of us.

Columbus, Ohio’s own Michael Dougherty (Trick r’ Treat) takes the reins of the king of all kaiju franchises, grounding tensions in family drama and bombarding the audience with monsters, explosions, nuclear monsters, nuclear explosions, good-sized leaps of logic and so much nonsensical dialog.

Kyle Chandler is the handsome, damaged, underwhelming white guy at the center of things. Lucky, because the rest of the cast — primarily women and people of color — can’t quite figure out how to move forward without him to articulate the plan for them.

They talk about it a lot, though. Even when machines are in the midst of exploding, someone has the good sense to tell us, “Something’s wrong!”

When people aren’t droning on with exposition and explanation, we’re treated to plenty monster on monster action — exactly what Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla did so well. Unfortunately, for all the very cool Titans that director/co-writer Dougherty has to work with, he can’t create a thrilling fight sequence. There are lots of loud noises, plenty of toothy close ups and bright lights galore, but as for distinguishable monster bodies following a logical battle trajectory – nope.

In fact, repeated mentions of activity on “Skull Island” only remind you of the tonal and visual bullseye of Kong: Skull Island, a comparison that does not work in this Godzilla‘s favor.

Longtime kaiju aficionados should appreciate Dougherty’s clear respect for genre history — as well as Bear McCreary’s wonderfully retro score — but this new King is just treading water.

Grade: C-

Rocketman

by George Wolf

So, Elton John won’t be singing in the movie about Elton John?

Seems weird, until you see how well Rocketman incorporates decades of indelible music into one vastly entertaining portrait of the iconic rock star who stands second only to Elvis in career solo hits.

Driven by a wonderfully layered performance from Taron Egerton, who also handles his vocal duties just fine, the film eschews the standard biopic playbook for a splendid rock and roll fantasy.

Kudos to writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher for knowing we’ve seen this rise/drugs/fall arc before, and knowing how to pool their talents for an ambitious take.

Hall wrote Billy Elliot and Fletcher is fresh off co-directing Bohemian Rhapsody. Their vision draws from both to land somewhere between the enigmatic Dylan biopic I’m Not There and the effervescent ABBA glitter bomb Mamma Mia!

Narratively grounded in Elton’s first visit to rehab, Rocketman cherry-picks the hits for resplendent musical set pieces that accompany the blossoming of a shy English youngster named Reginald Kenneth Dwight into the flamboyant global superstar known as Elton Hercules John.

Wounded by an uninterested father (Steven Mackintosh) and an adversarial mother (Bryce Dallas Howard — never better) Reggie sought acceptance through his musical talent. A happenstance introduction to lyricist Bernie Taupin (a quietly effective Jamie Bell) brought unexpected success and then, the obligatory wretched excess.

Even without Fletcher’s involvement, comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody (now the most successful music biopic to date) were inevitable, but Rocketman leaves the stage as a vastly superior film.

While the close-to-the-safety-vest nature of Queen’s trajectory rendered every artistic license ripe for scrutiny, Rocketman‘s R-rated frankness and fantastical tapestries leave ample room for crowd-pleasing maneuvers.

Of course the kickers-clad schoolboy didn’t pound out “The Bitch is Back” on his living room piano, the aspiring songwriter didn’t sing “Sad Songs” at a 1960s audition, and the overnight sensation didn’t “Crocodile Rock” at his legendary 1970 stint at The Troubadour.

But in the world of Rocketman, anything is possible. And even with all the eccentric flights of fancy, the film holds true to an ultimately touching honesty about the life story its telling.

And, oh yeah, the songs are still pretty great, too (no matter who’s singing them).

Grade: A-

Ma

by Hope Madden

Oh my God, you guys. Did you know Tate Taylor directed the new Octavia Spencer horror flick, Ma?

You know, Tate Taylor. Girl on a Train. Get On Up. The effing Help – that Tate Taylor.

No wonder Octavia Spencer is in it, and God bless her for it because she commits to a role that, in other hands, could have been utterly, laughably predictable.

In fact, were it not for a breathtakingly better-than-this-material cast, Ma would have devolved quickly into every other “get back at the popular kids – oh, wait, maybe let’s vilify and re-victimize the unpopular instead” horror.

Spencer’s Sue Ann, or Ma, as the kids call her, is just an easy mark for teens wanting alcohol. Yes, she’ll buy it as long as you drink it at her house where she knows you’re safe.

Does she have nefarious motives?

She does.

For her part, the Oscar-winner (for Taylor’s The Help) convinces, drawing both sympathy and fear. She’s joined in small roles by another Oscar winner (an almost jarringly funny Allison Janney) and an Oscar nominee (Juliette Lewis) as well as Luke Evans and a set of talented young actors led by Booksmart’s Diana Silvers.

How on earth did this by-the-numbers outsider/don’t trust the lonely older lady horror flick draw this cast?!

I do not know, because Ma has nothing really new to say, so it relies in its entirety on this cast to entertain. But there are two reasons that this story and this particular cast are actually Ma’s problems.

One is something that still surprises me about horror. On the whole, horror appeals to outcasts. And yet, from Carrie White to the coven in The Craft to Sue Ann in Ma, horror films reestablish the status quo by putting outcasts in their place. Sure, they get that grand few moments of terrorizing the beautiful, popular kids, but things end badly in horror movies for the outcast.

Here’s what troubles me even more about Tate Taylor, and to a degree, Octavia Spencer films. (Note that Spencer executive produced the racially problematic and utterly mediocre Green Book.)

Ma is racially tone deaf. I have no idea why this wealthy Southern white man insists on telling stories exclusively about African Americans, but he truly should not. A story that vilifies the lonely middle aged woman, seeing her as a broken psychotic based on her generally pathetic nature, is misogynistic. When this villain is also the only African American woman in the film, that problem is heightened dramatically.

Don’t get me wrong — I am a fanatical horror fan, and when an Oscar-winner (and multiple nominee) chooses to star, let alone star as the villain (the most important character) in a horror film, I am all in.

But this was the wrong movie.

Grade: D+

Also opening in Columbus:

NGK (NR)

The Silence of Others (NR)

Read more from Hope and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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