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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Do you remember there was a Godzilla movie released in 2014? Neither did I, but maybe that’s because we saw it at the drive-in. Apparently Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a sequel to the 2014 film, and apparently in 2014 Godzilla stomped through San Francisco at some point. Well, during the mayhem, Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler’s movie son died, and it really put a strain on their marriage. So they split up, and now their movie daughter Millie Bobby Brown lives with Vera in a Chinese rainforest, researching classic movie monster Mothra. Things go sideways, though, when ecoterrorist Charles Dance kills everyone else at the research lab and takes Vera and Millie hostage along with Vera’s monster-controlling sound machine, in order to wake up lots of other monsters and let them run wild.

Obviously, the plot is really dumb. And the characters have some of the dumbest dialogue of the year. Mostly espository nonsense in between assorted lame quips (and very occasionally a good quip from O’Shea Jackson Jr., probably ad-libbed). Just terrible writing. So much terrible, terrible writing. But who cares, really? Godzilla should be about the monsters, and the monsters come to play.

Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah feature prominently, with King Kong and a bunch of other monsters making cameos (I don’t know who the other ones are but I bet someone does!). Monsters fight in Antarctica, monsters fight in Mexico, monsters fight in Boston, and I think they fought in one or two other places as well, but who can keep track? The important thing is, when the monsters fight, the movie works. And they fight enough that all the stupid writing can just be ignored, because you know another fight will come before too long.

Maybe next time they can fill the inter-fight lulls with halfway decent writing, plotting and character development. But if I have to choose between good human-vs-human scenes and good monster-vs-monster ones, I’m picking monster fights every time. After all, the monster fights are why I went to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters in the first place!

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Rim of the World

During an alien invasion, a group of summer campers stumbles across the master key to Earth’s defences. It’s up to them to travel 70 miles to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and deliver the key to the scientists there. So, after borrowing some bikes from the Stranger Things crew, they mount up and roll out.

The wise-cracking kids try to keep the mood light but these aliens are no joke – they have come prepared with thousands of fighter planes, monstrous foot soldiers, and relentless alien dogs. But the kids hold their own and still find time to reference dozens of other movies, most of which you can find on Netflix.

Rim of the World draws inspiration from (/blatantly rips off) nearly as many films as its script references. There’s very little here that hasn’t been seen before, but it’s stitched together pretty well by director McG, who I assumed had been abducted by aliens about 15 years ago. Maybe he escaped? That would actually explain why so many of Rim of the World’s references are from the 90s. Because story-wise, it doesn’t make any sense for these 13 year olds to reference Independence Day or Gladiator when, if you do the math, even their parents may not have been old enough to see either of those movies in a theatre!

That’s really the problem with this movie. It’s not actually FOR anyone. As an adult, I’m not interested in watching 13 year olds make adult references while saving the world (though I will admit that one Star Wars reference made me giggle), but I’d also be the worst uncle in the world if I let my nephews, even as teens, watch a movie full of terrifying space creatures and VERY grown-up language. But I bet they’d want to watch it.

And maybe that’s the answer – this is Netflix’s answer to the midnight movies I watched at sleepovers as a teen. Only thanks to our modern technology, there’s now no need to stay up late to watch. But you probably should stay up late, because if you do then this movie will be at least 20% more fun (call it the “sleepover effect”) and Rim of the World can use every bit of that help.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

In John Wick’s world, assassins follow the rules, or they pay the price. John Wick broke a lot of rules in Chapters 1 and 2, and now he’s on the run, banned from the assassins’ hotel/safehouse, with a $14 million bounty on his head. With no clear escape route, Wick travels deep into the New York City underworld, doing whatever he can to survive. Meanwhile, the underworld’s hidden rulers are after Wick and anyone who helps him, hellbent on keeping them all in line.

It’s probably unavoidable that the story is getting more convoluted as more chapters are added to John Wick’s story. What started as a simple revenge tale about a man and his dog is now a globe-spanning power struggle between the mysterious High Table and those who’ve fallen out of its favour. Fortunately, the ins and outs of the conflict can safely be ignored if, like me, you came to see John Wick do what he does best.

The fight sequences in John Wick 3 range from a little repetitive to spectacularly innovative, and sometimes a mix of both. But for me, I got my money’s worth early on in the film when Wick takes on a gang of bounty hunters in a weapon shop and lets knives fly as if they were bullets. It’s brutal, intense, and hilarious all at once. And while it’s the clear standout, there are other great moments to be found as Wick fights his way through whoever is dumb enough to stand in his way, with some help from Wick’s friends and his friends’ dogs.

John Wick 3 is a solid addition to this franchise, one that seems to be gaining momentum with each successive chapter. This franchise is powered by effort and willpower, and as long as Keanu Reeves continues to bring both to his role, John Wick’s adventures will be worth watching, regardless of how muddled the plot may get.

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is three hours of payoff for anyone who liked the MCU’s 21 other films to date. If you loved them, all the better – Endgame will fill your geeky little heart with joy. And if you couldn’t stand them? Then stay far, far away from this one as it is everything you hated about the other films times 3,000.

Without getting into details, and in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I think it’s safe to say that after Thanos turned half the universe into dust at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the survivors are set on undoing Thanos’ finger snap. Other than that, I’m going to let you go in blind like I did, because it’s always best that way, isn’t it?

Despite being somewhat disappointed by Infinity War’s ending because it felt inevitable that it would be undone, I was still excited going into Endgame and I was not let down. For superhero fans, Endgame is three hours of greatness. So many story arcs are wrapped up in this film and each feels like a fitting conclusion to everything we’ve seen so far. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have been here before (also directing Infinity War, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain America: Civil War) and it shows, as they expertly manage the on-screen action. I’d say this is their best work.

We can debate that, and we can also debate whether or not Endgame is the best of the MCU movies (it’s definitely in the running). But I am confident in saying that Endgame is hands-down the most remarkable entry in the MCU and the most stunning superhero achievement so far. Endgame is a three hour film that is over in a snap, it’s a perfect capper to the last ten years of Marvel films, and it contains some of the greatest moments in the entire series, especially for the MCU’s big three, Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

I loved Endgame. It is far better than it needed to be, far better than I expected it to be, and an absolute must-see for every superhero fan.

A Kandahar Away

Kandahar, Saskatchewan.  Population: 15.  A world away from Kandahar, Afghanistan both in size (the original Kandahar had 557,000 residents in 2015) and circumstance (as the larger Kandahar is under constant threat from the Taliban).  

Kandahar_Away_1But a name is a powerful thing, and Kandahar, Saskatchewan (named in honour of the 1880 battle of Kandahar, Afghanistan) is about the only link to his home that Abdul Bari Jamal can find.  Jamal came to Canada in 1991 with his wife and five children, refugees all, fleeing their conflicted homeland as the Taliban were taking control.  On an impulse, and without telling any of his family, Jamal bought eight plots of land in Kandahar, Saskatchewan, for himself, his wife, and his kids.  Ten years after that impulse purchase, Jamal takes his family on a trip to Canada’s Kandahar to let them in on the secret.

Their trip is chronicled by director Aisha Jamal, who not coincidentally is one of Jamal’s five children.  The whole family, including their parents, are urbanites to their core, so coming face to face with a dwindling prairie town approaching “ghost town” status is a huge adjustment.  But a far more problematic matter soon arises when Mr. Jamal comes up with the idea to use their land to memorialize the 158 Canadians who lost their lives in Afghanistan.  Judging from Mrs. Jamal’s shoulder-shrugging reaction, this is not the first such idea that Mr. Jamal has come up with, but his children are greatly shaken by the idea that their father wants to commemorate a force that invaded his homeland rather than the thousands and thousands of Afghans who’ve been killed in the conflict. 

It is fascinating to get an inside look at these discussions and disagreements between  a family that is clearly close-knit.  They have a lot of commonalities to larger issues in our society.  In particular, they give great insight into the refugee experience and the differences in attitude between an Afghan-Canadian and his Canadian children.  The elder Jamal seems afraid to voice any concern or raise any controversy over Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, while his children have no such qualms.  There’s something significant there about the importance and value of freedom of expression, as well as Canadian identity. 

Director Jamal handles these discussions brilliantly, letting both sides exist and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions while the family drama, which would be sufficiently entertaining on its own, plays on.  It is a delicate balance to strike but Jamal successfully melds both aspects together to create a memorable and effective exploration of a very sensitive subject.

Shazam!

In Shazam, 14 year old Billy Batson is given magical powers by an old wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Suddenly, by saying “SHAZAM!”, he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) with super strength, super speed, and a whole lot of other powers. Billy is given these powers so that he can prevent the seven deadly sins from destroying the world. Naturally, teenager Billy has slightly different priorities, such as using his new powers and appearance to earn money, make killer YouTube videos, and buy beer.

SHAZAM_feb22_0125.dngAlso on Billy’s to-do list: picking a great superhero name. Billy and his best friend try out a lot of options for Billy’s superhero throughout the film, like Captain Sparklefingers, Power Boy, the Red Cyclone, Mister Philadelphia, Maximum Voltage, and on and on. None stick. Captain Marvel is noticeably absent from the list, and the name problem is a nice nod to the real world legal issues that Shazam has faced since the 1940s, as the character has been enjoined, traded, discarded, renamed and reimagined numerous times since. As a bonus, Billy even says “Holy Moly” a couple of times in the film, which was comic Billy’s go-to but which no one else has said since about 1962.

Billy’s behaviour is schlocky and charming and works wonderfully for a superhero who has also been called The Big Red Cheese. But interspersed with the corny stuff is a really terrifying villain (Mark Strong), who has a glowing rock for an eye, calls upon demons to decapitate, dismember and destroy a whole boardroom of corporate suits, and watches with a smirk as a rival turns to ash. These tonal shifts are not just uneven, they are jarring, and more than that, the dark aspects of this film make me hesitant to recommend this film to my brother even though my seven year old nephew insists on being notified whenever the Shazam trailer comes on TV.

Still, DC has delivered its second good film since trying (and then aborting) its shared universe project (Wonder Woman is still the best by far and will be hard to beat). The problem for DC is that having now said that each movie is its own entity and there’s no bigger narrative, meaning there is no need for regular movie goers to seek them all out. So when a good one comes along, people will go see it, but when the next one’s mediocre, the masses can skip it without worrying that they’ll miss something. In my view, a big part of Marvel’s success is that each chapter might add something important, so I’d better see it even if I’m superheroed out that month. DC has now walked away from that which only increases the pressure for their movies to measure up, and that’s a questionable choice when DC has more misses than hits to this point.

 

Bumblebee

Let’s get this out there first: Jay would never have a favourite Transformer, because they are all beneath her and far too nerdy. But if, IF, she liked Transformers then Bumblebee would definitely be her favourite, because he’s a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Jay has owned three Beetles, blue, white and red, and she would have owned more if only Volkswagen hadn’t stopped production. So last time we got her a car we picked a yellow Mustang which probably would have been a yellow Beetle instead if Volkswagen was better at business.

Just like Jay had to start fresh with a Mustang, Bumblebee is a fresh start for the Transformers franchise after a good start turned into a string of horrible sequels. We are taken back to the 1980s as the Autobots flee their home planet of Cybertron, which has been taken over by the evil Decepticons. Bumblebee is one of the fleeing Autobots and he ends up on Earth with instructions to scout out the place and wait for his friends to arrive. But of course, the Decepticons track him down first and the little yellow Transformer needs the help of his new human friends to save the world.

I was expecting Bumblebee to be as terrible as the last Transformers movies, or possibly worse. It’s not. It’s smaller, more focused, and succeeds in getting the franchise back to its roots by telling a story about humans working together with good robots to stop bad robots. I feel certain that in doing so, Bumblebee also sets an unbreakable record for most 80s references crammed into a single film, by including ALL OF THEM except Hands Across America which Jordan Peele must have reserved in advance for Us.

Despite its efforts, Bumblebee is still not actually a good movie, and I’m sure Jay hated every last minute (except possibly the parts where the Beetle was driving along the California coast). But it’s a fun diversion, it’s by far the best Transformers movie since the first one, and maybe there’s hope for the future of this franchise as long as Michael Bay can keep away from the director’s chair.