Directed By: Dan Trachtenberg
Release Date: August 5, 2022
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Another Predator
It's hard to believe that it's only been four years since Shane Black's The Predator arrived and kneecapped the very franchise it was trying to reinvigorate. Thanks to the pandemic, it feels instead that that film released a lifetime ago, and though my initial thoughts on it back in 2018 were that it wasn't completely terrible, revisiting the film again during the pandemic actually strengthened my dislike of it -- were I to review it now, you'd undoubtedly find a much more unforgiving take from me. That said, ironically, without its failure, we likely wouldn't have the latest film, Prey, Dan Trachtenberg's prequel that strips away all of the excess The Predator reveled in and takes the series back to formula in a way that reinforces the idea that, with this franchise, less will always be more.
Set in 1719, nearly 300 years before the events of the original Predator, Prey follows a young Comanche woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder) as she strives to prove herself as a hunter in a culture of strict gender roles where she's expected to be a healer. In the shadow of her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers), Naru sets out to break the mold by hunting and taking down a cougar, just as a Predator has arrived in the area on a hunt of its own. Inevitably, of course, the two wannabe hunters' paths cross, with both of their skills put to the test to see who comes out on top, predator or prey. (See what I did there?)
Just as in the original film and, I'd argue, Predator 2, which I've happily defended, Prey benefits from an incredibly streamlined story. Like the elite squad of burly soldiers led by Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) or the world-weary cop Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) trying to solve a case in the urban jungle of Los Angeles before her - well, technically, after her - Naru is a protagonist out of her depth against the Predator, both physically and in time; where the protagonists of the original films at least had the luxury of modern weaponry (even if having guns amounted to little benefit), Naru has little more than a bow and arrow, a hatchet, and a very loyal, scene-stealing dog named Sarii (Coco) to rely on, and ultimately the film stays on target in focusing on how Naru observes the strengths and weaknesses of others, including the Predator, and learns from them to improve upon herself. There's no love interest, no needless subplots about personal strife with others... The film lays out from the get-go who Naru is and who she wants to become and never strays from her arc, the Predator the ultimate catalyst to help her grow.
Midthunder, who I liked on all three seasons of Legion despite, admittedly, being overshadowed by powerhouses like Dan Stevens, Jean Smart, and Aubrey Plaza, has to practically carry this film entirely on her shoulders, an unenviable task that she pulls off so effortlessly. Though she has great rapport with first-time actor Dakota Beavers - whose Taabe is a stand-up guy and brother, wonderfully subverting certain gender tropes in a way I didn't expect - much of the film is Midthunder left on her own to utilize wordless physicality and expressions, something she excels at, and the film's active avoidance of feeling the need to have Naru perpetually talk to herself to relay her feelings to the audience serves to emphasize the film's aforementioned less is more policy, trusting the strength of Midthunder's performance and the audience to get it all without a line of dialogue having to be spoken.
Directed By: Adam Wingard
Release Date: March 31, 2021
Starring: King Kong, Godzilla, Millie Bobby Brown, Alexander Skarsgard
Five years have passed since the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters and the rise of the Titans, and in that time, the world has changed quite a bit. The corporation Apex Cybernetics, guided by CEO Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), has confirmed the existence of Hollow Earth, a vast ecosystem deep within the planet's core that was once the Titans' original home. After Godzilla unexpectedly decimates an Apex facility in Florida, breaking an extended period of relative peace in which he has remained unseen and left the world alone, Simmons approaches Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) to lead an expedition to Hollow Earth in the hopes of discovering a power source that can help save humanity.
To do so, however, they will need a Titan to lead them there, and so Lind turns to Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), a member of Monarch stationed on Skull Island, for help. Due to the storm that once surrounded the island having overtaken the landmass completely, Kong has been protected within a special dome constructed by Monarch, the colossal ape building a connection to Andrews' adoptive daughter and last remaining Skull Island resident Jia (Kaylee Hottle) while off the radar from Godzilla, whose natural instinct to battle another Alpha would inevitably lead him to seek out and fight Kong, the only other Alpha Titan in existence. Though reluctant, Andrews allows Kong to be used to find Hollow Earth, starting a countdown to an inevitable clash between the two Titans, though there may be something more sinister going on than she, Lind, or anyone else could imagine.
Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth film in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, following 2014's Godzilla, 2017's Kong: Skull Island, and 2019's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the big event that fans have been waiting for since it was announced back in 2015. This isn't the first time these two icons have shared the screen – 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla did it first – but director Adam Wingard's new monster mash certainly carries with it a whole heap of expectations than those of those from audiences sixty years ago now that both characters have decades of history under their belts and legions of fans across the world eager to see these characters clash in an era of staggering special effects.
To that end, from a purely visual standpoint, Godzilla vs. Kong does not disappoint. If all you're looking forward to is the idea of seeing the two titular Titans tango, the scenes in which they do are exhilarating and rewarding, and a show-stopping nighttime battle in the neon-lit city of Hong Kong alone is worth the price of admission. And for anyone worried, this isn't a slap fight where the end result is just a stalemate. When all is said and done, there is a pretty clear victor between the two, though fans of the "loser" likely still won't fret, as the film takes strides to do that character justice and ultimately close on a note where both icons get the respect they deserve as fighters.
Directed By: Ishirō Honda
Release Date: November 3, 1954
Starring: Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Godzilla
If you happened to have read my review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters back in 2019, you may recall that I discussed in length that I have never been a huge fan of Godzilla, not because I don't like the franchise, but rather due to the fact that I simply haven't experienced enough of it to confidently say that I have a firm grasp on the ins and out of its history in order to fully appreciate it. Of course, I know many of the basics, like a number of Godzilla's friends and foes from Mothra to Rodan, and the fact that Godzilla, at least in his initial debut, was a post-WWII metaphor for nuclear power, but ask me to rattle off a list of the series’ best films from a run that has spanned three dozen features across almost seven decades and I'd be at a complete and utter loss.
With the arrival of Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong this week, however, the fourth film in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse that kicked off with 2014's Godzilla, I decided there was no better time than now to go back to where it all began for both of the marquee monsters. At first, of course, I started with the original King Kong, a film that felt more like a trip down memory lane as I've seen it a number of times, and then followed up with Ishirō Honda's Godzilla – or Gojira, more appropriately, if you're so inclined – which was, at least compared to Kong, a fresh experience for me, as, like most of the franchise's films that I have seen parts of, I'd never seen it in full from beginning to end.
To be clear, I did not watch the American edit of the film, which was edited and released two years after the original's debut as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (not to be confused with the 2019 film) and famously starred Raymond Burr via newly-shot footage that was inserted into the pre-existing version of the film. I've seen moments from that cut of the film in the past, but I could honestly tell you nothing more about it, and as such it will have no bearing on this review of Honda's film, which – and I will wholeheartedly admit – took me by surprise in the best of ways.
Godzilla begins nearly a decade after the conclusion of World War II, with several sea-faring vessels being mysteriously destroyed off the coast of the fictional Japanese locale Oda Island, dozens of people losing their lives in the process, only for a major disaster to strike the island and destroy an entire village soon after. While many try to chalk it up to various things – mines, a volcano, a tsunami – the true cause behind the events is quickly revealed to be Godzilla, a 165-foot-tall radioactive dinosaur that has emerged from its underwater sanctuary, dislodged into the world above due to hydrogen bomb testing. As the creature continues to wreak havoc and unconventional means of destroying it fail, an even more alarming issue is raised: What greater horror than Godzilla must be unleashed upon the world if the monster’s reign of terror is to be brought to an end?
Directed By: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Release Date: April 7, 1933
Starring: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Kong
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm here tonight to tell you a very strange story... a story so strange that no one will believe it. But, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we, my partners and I, have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible death. And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a God in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization, merely a captive, on show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!"
Nearly 90 years have passed since Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) introduced an enraptured audience to the mighty King Kong, yet the passage of time has done little to diminish the ape's pop culture status. Though the titular beast lost his life by the end of his 1933 debut, his legacy has continued to live on over the last century in the form of a direct sequel, a number of remakes and reimaginings, theme park rides, video games, comic books, and so much more. He'll even be returning later this month – March of 2021, if you're reading this in the future! – in Adam Wingard's Godzilla vs. Kong.
All this is to say that Kong has an everlasting appeal, both the character and film inspiring generations of creative minds and influencing countless creations that followed in their wake (see: Godzilla). The impact of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's King Kong is so grand that it almost feels redundant to even try and review the film at this point, as it's been dissected and analyzed the world over for decades. However, with the impending release of Wingard's big monster mash-up on the horizon, I found myself eager to toss my hat into the ring of conversation anyway, to break down why, in my perspective, the film as a whole remains such a vital piece of cinema history despite how – for better or worse – age has affected some of its individual parts.
Before I get started, though, as usual, a quick refresher on the plot: Filmmaker Carl Denham (Armstrong), seeking to shoot an incredible new project, has the crew of the S.S. Venture – spearheaded by Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) and his first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) – take him and his newly-discovered lead actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to a mysterious island, tempted there by a strange map given to him and the allure of a mysterious being known only as Kong. Upon reaching the island and encountering its natives, however, Ann is kidnapped and given up as an offering to the very real, very dangerous Kong, who takes Ann with him into the heart of the island, with Denham, Driscoll, and others setting out after them in an attempt to rescue Ann.
Directed By: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega
Growing up in the ‘90s, the original Star Wars trilogy was one of my favorite things. Like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones, they were some of the films I watched again and again the most throughout my first decade, and I still remember the palpable excitement of the summer of 1999 when The Phantom Menace arrived. And while enough has been said about the prequel trilogy’s highs and lows, my view on the prequels has always been in opposition to the outright vitriol spewed their way over the years.
They’re imperfect, sure, particularly in terms of the writing and some very poor decisions (like the existence Jar-Jar Binks), but there’s a lot to love about them, from the music, the action, the incredible world-building, and the overarching tragedy at its center about Anakin Skywalker’s descent to the Dark Side. The prequels, as flawed as they are, feel like they carry purpose, charging ahead with forward momentum in a way that really makes the original six-film saga of the original and prequel trilogies satisfying and complete, with 1983’s Return of the Jedi – my favorite Star Wars film, period – serving as the perfect cap to it all, completing the redemption of Anakin Skywalker and setting up Luke as the future of the Jedi.
Like so many people, I was excited when The Force Awakens arrived in 2015, and though it caught its fair share of criticism, I thought it laid a great foundation for new films to leap forward and away from the past that also respected what had come before. This was the chance for a new saga to begin, and that was exciting only four years ago. Then The Last Jedi happened, a film that’s neither great or terrible, in my opinion, but one that felt like it squandered all sorts of opportunities its predecessor set up while quite literally “killing the past” in the process. In particular, I didn’t appreciate how the character of Luke Skywalker was handled, the original trilogy’s beacon of hope reduced to a caustic hermit who ultimately accomplished nothing in rebuilding the Jedi and was killed off.
All this is to say that, going into The Rise of Skywalker, my expectations were pretty low. While I enjoyed the Rogue One and Solo standalone films to different degrees, the actual sequel trilogy never felt like it had a purpose after The Last Jedi, that it was building up to something big in its third and final outing in the way that Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith had. And it’s that issue, that notion that this film had to find a way to wrap up its own trilogy in a satisfying way, that makes it all the more problematic that it’s been marketed instead as the end of the nine-film saga as a whole, because the original saga ended in an immensely satisfying way already in 1983.
Directed By: Andy Muschietti
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgard
27 years have gone by since The Losers conquered their fears and defeated It in the sewers underneath Derry, Maine. Their adult lives have taken them away from Derry, their memories - good and bad - of their hometown having faded the further away they've gotten. Bill (James McAvoy) has become a well-known novelist. Beverly (Jessica Chastain) has established a career in fashion design. Richie (Bill Hader) has shaped his wicked sense of humor into a successful stand-up career.
Almost all the Losers have moved on except Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), who has remained vigilant about It's inevitable return and the promise he and his friends made long ago to return to Derry and put an end to the evil once and for all. And after the death and disappearance of a young man (Xavier Dolan) following a brutal beating delivered by a homophobic gang, Mike has no choice but to call his friends and reunite them when the truth is inescapable: It is back.
It feels like just yesterday that the first It arrived to wide acclaim, and yet two years have flown by since its release. The dust has settled on the initial wow factor of the film, which floated right into the pop culture stratosphere, and, fortunately, Chapter One still holds up. As I covered in my review of the film back in 2017, It isn't completely perfect, but it did so much right - with a clear passion at its core from everyone involved - that it's easy to forgive its faults in the face of all its great strengths.
In comparison, It: Chapter Two is mostly more of the same. All of my complaints about the first film pretty much return here, whether it's the occasional use of weak CGI - particularly notable in undermining a pivotal moment near the end of the film for being comically distracting - or the absolute short-changing of characters like Mike and Ben (Jay Ryan). Mike, for instance, often felt like a non-entity in the first film, and despite playing a pivotal role here in bringing everyone back together, he still feels like a sidelined player with little characterization beyond being responsible for dropping exposition.
Directed By: David Leitch
Release Date: August 2, 2019
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba
I have a strange fascination with the Fast and Furious franchise. Though the franchise has been a mainstay on the big screen ever since 2001, popping a new film out every couple of years, I'd never been interested in them. It wasn't until the release of 2015's Furious 7 that I finally gave the series a chance, mainly out of curiosity as to how the film – and the franchise – was going to work around the death of Paul Walker during production.
I dutifully binged the previous six films in the series, finding that the ones I enjoyed most – 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift – were also generally regarded as the worst entries in the series. Regardless, though I didn't come to love the franchise overall, I was taken by their eccentric charm. This series has only gotten bigger and stranger over the years; what started out as a film about a cop investigating a gang of street-racing criminals has since blossomed into a globe-trotting adventure series where its characters have essentially become physics-defying superheroes called upon to save the world from cyberterrorists. On the surface, it's absolutely insane, and yet this series remains held together by the simple fact it's oddly amiable and thoroughly unapologetic about what it is.
It's become a billion-dollar franchise, and it's clear that Universal has no plans to let this series go anytime soon, especially with ninth and tenth entries in the mainline series in the works. With the release of Hobbs & Shaw, a spin-off built on the foundation of the chemistry between Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham on display in 2017's The Fate of the Furious, Universal is dipping its toe into the type of expansive storytelling that has given the Marvel Cinematic Universe such success. (And the very public bad blood between Johnson and his former cast members like Vin Diesel and Tyrese Gibson most certainly has something to do with this film's existence as well in order to keep the ever-popular Johnson in the franchise yet away from the rest of the now-fractured "Fast family.")
The new spin-off sees Johnson's Luke Hobbs and Statham's Deckard Shaw coming together to find Shaw's sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), who has gone on the run after injecting herself with a dangerous virus to keep it out of the hands of Brixton Lore (Idris Elba, wasted in yet another blockbuster franchise). Brixton, a former ally of Shaw's who has been brought back from the dead by a shadowy organization named Eteon and enhanced with a whole host of cybernetics, will do whatever it takes to retrieve the virus and unleash it upon the world, and it's up to Hobbs and Shaw to put aside their differences and come together to stop him.
Directed By: Lars Klevberg
Release Date: June 21, 2019
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Mark Hamill
Seeing the toll an unwanted move has taken on her son Andy (Gabriel Bateman), Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza) gets him a special surprise for his impending birthday: Buddi, the Kaslan Corporation's advanced learning doll. Armed with an AI that can interact with all of Kaslan's devices, from self-driving cars to your home's thermometers, Buddi dolls imprint on their owner and become their best, most loyal pal, the seemingly perfect companion for a young boy whose closest friend is his cell phone.
Unfortunately for Andy, a situation involving a disgruntled employee at one of Kaslan's production facilities has left this specific Buddi – who names himself Chucky, of course – without its inhibitors on, something that allows for the AI to learn and behave in ways it shouldn't. Watching his best bud Andy get hurt by the family cat or get yelled at by Karen's boyfriend Shane (David Lewis) or seeing how much of a blast Andy and friends the boy does eventually make have watching gory horror movies, for instance, all shape Chucky's view of the world and his relationship with Andy, who he wants to make happy whatever the cost, and it doesn't take long before he's solving Andy's problems with murder.
Stripping away the serial killer possession aspect that has defined Chucky for over thirty years gives this big reboot of the Child's Play franchise a chance to branch out on its own. With a screenplay by Tyler Burton Smith and directed by Lars Klevberg, this new spin on Chucky is freed from the baggage of the past, which may alienate loyalists – something I'll touch on in a little bit – though ends up surprisingly refreshing as a result. The case could be made that the world didn't need a new Chucky, but Child's Play overcomes that, giving us a film that's better than it has any right to be.
There's a self-awareness that courses through the film's veins about what it is, a movie about a killer doll, and how part of the fun of these types of movies is often laughing about how grown adults manage to get killed by a two-foot-tall hunk of plastic. The original Child's Play played its concept mostly straight, which worked at the time because it felt like a relatively new spin in the slasher genre, and while the sequels that followed ranged in quality, a simple fact remained: Once the toy is out of the box, it's hard to make it scary again. The original films became less about the horror of a kid's doll hiding in plain sight between murders and more about Chucky's personality, and understandably so, as original actor Brad Dourif is a massive reason why Chucky became – and has remained – such an icon.
Directed By: F. Gary Gray
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson
After witnessing a pair of mysterious, black suit-wearing men wipe the memories of her parents following their encounter with an alien creature when she was a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) has made it her life's goal to track down the organization the two agents worked for. Armed with the confirmation that we're not alone in the universe, her relentless quest to prove the agency's existence finally pays off two decades later when she discovers the location of their New York City headquarters, run by Agent O (Emma Thompson), who decides to recruit the young woman to the Men in Black on a probationary basis based on her tenacity.
Molly – rebranded as Agent M – is immediately shipped off to the London branch of the agency, which is overseen by High T (Liam Neeson), where she quickly wrangles her way into tagging along with the branch's rockstar agent, Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), on an assignment to protect an alien from a larger, dangerous entity known as the Hive, a collective that can assimilate and assume the identities of whoever it gets its hands on. When things inevitably fall apart, Agents M and H find themselves on a globe-trotting adventure as they work to uncover the mystery around two dangerous alien twins, a devastatingly powerful superweapon they're in pursuit of, and the possibility of a mole behind everything within the very agency they work for.
Let me start off by saying that I love the original Men in Black. I really, really do. It's a fantastic sci-fi story peppered with comedy, but presented in a grimy, gross package that benefits from playing the whole thing straight. It's a film that's aged extremely well. In contrast, Men in Black II spun all that around, often feeling like a straight comedy peppered with sci-fi elements, a decision that actively works against it even if the chemistry between its two leads, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, remains its true saving grace. Then there's Men in Black 3, which arrived in 2012, a decade after the second film, and had no right being as good as it was; imperfect, sure, but thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly affecting in its final act, and a pretty solid sendoff for Smith and Jones which managed to balance the sci-fi and comedy better than II even if it didn't fully live up to the original film.
So here we are seven years on, the arrival of Men in Black: International marking the series' return to the big screen without its original leads, the film instead banking on the chemistry that Hemsworth and Thompson had in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok to make up for Smith and Jones sitting this one out. If you were expecting a straight up sequel to the original films, though, lower your expectations a bit. A painting of Agents J and K depicting the finale of the first film serves as a nod to their existence, the worm guys and Frank the pug appear – despite what the marketing would have you believe – collectively for about thirty seconds, and Agent O, the only human character to resurface from the trilogy, features in only three scenes.
Directed By: Simon Kinberg
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Jennifer Lawrence
And so an era comes to a close, with Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix marking the end of the X-Men films as we've come to know them over the last twenty years now that the characters have come back home to Marvel Studios via Disney's acquisition of Fox. Since the release of Bryan Singer's original X-Men all the way back in 2000, the landscape of comic book movies has grown and evolved, the series itself continually trying to keep up with it. It's impossible to deny that the era of quality we live in now in terms of Marvel films – namely the Marvel Cinematic Universe – owes a lot of its existence to the success of that first film and its 2003 sequel, both of which played huge roles in proving the viability of comic book movies in a post-Batman & Robin era.
Despite its strong start, I don't think any film series has been such a rollercoaster ride in terms of quality as this has been over the last two decades. It gave birth to incredibly well-regarded films, like the Deadpool duology, X-Men: First Class, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Logan, the latter three of which are some of my favorite comic book movies period. And yet it also gave us middle of the road entries like The Wolverine and a few that are considered some of the worst comic book movies ever: X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse.
It's unfortunate, then, that Dark Phoenix sends this franchise out on a middling note rather than a high one. It never quite reaches the atrocious lows of, say, X-Men Origins, but it never even comes close to the level of greatness of the franchise's best. In many ways, it feels like a relic, a film pushed out in order to keep the series relevant that instead feels a decade too late, especially when entries like Days of Future Past and Logan felt like better, more poignant conclusions to this franchise than Dark Phoenix could hope to be.
Before I go further, a recap: Nearly a decade after the events of X-Men: Apocalypse, the world has come to tentatively accept the X-Men as heroes and mutantkind as deserving of a place in the world. When the famous Endeavour space shuttle launches in 1992, the X-Men are called in to help when something goes wrong, as the shuttle is damaged by a mysterious energy force. Though they manage to save the shuttle's crew, much to society's appreciation, it's nearly at the cost of the life of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who absorbs all of the energy, an act that boosts all of her mutant powers and reveals secrets that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) had attempted to suppress within her mind when she was a child.
Directed By: Michael Dougherty
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Starring: Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and a Bunch of Humans
It's been about a week now since I've seen Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third entry in Legendary’s slowly-unfolding cinematic franchise known as the MonsterVerse, which began with 2014's Godzilla and continued with 2017's Kong: Skull Island. I've been thinking about the film over the course of the week, having been unable to write about it on release weekend, only to find myself in a rare situation wherein I’ve found myself struggling with what to say.
I'll admit, I've never been a huge Godzilla fan. I've seen a handful of the dozens of movies that have come out of Japan since 1954 as part of the big guy's legacy, and know enough about some of his fellow kaiju, like Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and Mechagodzilla, that I'm not completely in the dark, but rather than an emotional attachment to Godzilla as a franchise, I have more of a mere appreciation for it by virtue of the character being a part of pop culture. It doesn't help that the first time Hollywood tried to tackle the character in 1998 with Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, the result was terrible, something I saw in theaters and – despite being part of the target audience as a nine-year-old boy – hated, and put enough of a sour taste in my mouth to avoid when they tried it again in 2014.
King of the Monsters is set five years after the first film, which saw Godzilla well and truly enter the public stage. Since that time, other monsters, which have come to be called Titans, have been discovered, monitored by the Monarch organization. Some, like King Kong, are active; others, like the winged Rodan, are simply in a long slumber. The world, however, is divided on their existence, with many wanting the Titans exterminated and others believing that humanity can co-exist peacefully with them – or, at least, tentatively friendly ones like Godzilla – because it's their planet and we just happen to live on it.
But as with all debates, there are radicals, in this case a team of eco-terrorists lead by Jonah (Charles Dance), who kidnap Monarch member Emma (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) as part of a plan to awaken all the sleeping Titans, set them loose on the Earth to battle one another, and cull humanity as punishment for its own neglect of the planet. One such Titan is Ghidorah, the worst of the worst, who is awakened and immediately sets out on a path of devastation and death, and soon the fate of the world is put on Godzilla's shoulders as the two Titans go head to head to see who truly is the King of the Monsters.
Directed By: Chad Stahelski
Release Date: May 17, 2019
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne
Every action has consequences, and in John Wick: Chapter 3, Keanu Reeves' titular assassin is on the run thanks to his decision in 2017's Chapter 2 to murder the scumbag Santino D'Antonio on Continental grounds. Having broken that cardinal rule – no "conducting business" at The Continental Hotel – that film ended with John excommunicado from the world he'd been sucked back into, with a one-hour window in which to flee before a worldwide, multimillion dollar bounty on his head became active.
Chapter 3 picks up right where Chapter 2 left off, with Wick's tiny window of a head start drawing to a close, and when it finally does, the film hits the gas and never really lets up. From the neon-filled streets of New York City to the potential sanctuary of Casablanca, Morocco to the vast emptiness of the Sahara Desert, Chapter 3 takes John across the globe and back as he fends off countless assassins eager to claim the bounty as he searches for The Elder, the highest-ranking member of the High Table, who he hopes will listen to his story and allow him to undo his excommunication.
To think that this all started as a story about a man getting vengeance against those who killed his dog is insane, because Chapter 3 really blows up the scope of Wick's world to heights no one could've imagined these films would go to back in 2014. In retrospect, the original film feels downright modest in its ambitions, and one of the strengths of this ever-growing series has been its ability to continually flesh out its world with unique characters and wrinkles in the mythology without overstepping its bounds and grinding its forward momentum to a halt for the sake of one big information dump.
The world that John Wick resides in is a truly fascinating one, and yet the films never have to hold the audience's hand to explain things, opting instead to have faith that we can figure it out so things can keep rolling along. Take, for instance, the Director (Anjelica Huston), a new face introduced here in Chapter 3, who John turns to for help early in the film. It's clear that the two have a wild history, particularly when it comes to John’s own origins, but the sequel never bogs itself down in trying to expand on it and ultimately overreach with its exposition, allowing us instead to piece together vocal inflections or throwaway comments between the two to sort out their relationship. It's that kind of stripped down storytelling that really benefits the world-building – and even the overall pacing of the narrative – of this franchise.
Directed By: David Sandberg
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer
What a time we live in. Mere weeks after Marvel Studios introduced the world at large to Captain Marvel, Warner Bros. is unleashing Shazam! As you may know, the character of Shazam was originally named Captain Marvel when he made his comic book debut eighty years ago. When DC Comics decided to revive the character in the '70s after a long absence, he was rebranded as Shazam due to the trademarks in place surrounding Marvel Comics' own Captain Marvel, and has held that title ever since. That both the recent MCU film and this film have arrived so soon together is fascinating considering their history with one another, and it's a sign of just how far comic book movies have come that – despite their fundamental differences – both films turned out highly entertaining.
Even better, Shazam! – as the seventh film in the DC Extended Universe that began with 2013's Man of Steel – proves that Warner Bros. and DC are continuing to move in the right direction with their troubled franchise. I've covered the topic enough before, most recently in my review of this film's predecessor, Aquaman, earlier this year, and while I won't dive back into the subject all over again, I have to make clear right off the bat that Shazam! is a real win for a franchise that's been staggeringly hit or miss to date.
As usual, before we go further, let's tee up the film itself: In Philadelphia, a young orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has spent years bouncing from foster home to foster home, constantly in search of a mother he was separated from as a child to the point of refusing to get close to any of his new families, adamant that he and his mother will be reunited and life will go back to normal. After a failed attempt to find her, Billy is relocated to the home of Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans), a lovable duo who welcome him with open arms into their family, which also consists of five other foster kids, among them the disabled, superhero-obsessed Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).
After defending Freddy from bullies at school, Billy winds up finding himself in the presence of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), an ancient wizard who gifts all his power to Billy, allowing Billy to become a costumed superhero (Zachary Levi) at will simply by saying his name. As Billy embraces his new abilities, the wicked Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes calling, fueled with vengeance over having been denied the same power by Shazam when he himself was a boy, forcing Billy to sort out whether he can let go of the past he so desperately clings to as destiny lays out his future.
Directed By: Jordan Peele
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright, Evan Alex
The year is 1986. It's young Adelaide's birthday, and she's spending it at the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. When her mother goes to the bathroom and with her father distracted playing a carnival game, she wanders off on her own, eventually finding herself in a house of mirrors, where she comes face to face with a young girl that looks exactly like her. Though the particulars of what happened during their encounter aren’t immediately revealed, the event is traumatic enough for Adelaide to seemingly retreat into herself, unable to speak or socialize with others.
Years later, an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright), and son, Jason (Evan Alex), staying in their family vacation home. Still haunted by meeting her mysterious doppelganger as a child and tormented by the very idea of being back in Santa Cruz, she finally shares her experience with Gabe, confiding that she has worried her whole life that the other her is out there somewhere, biding time until she coming for her.
As it turns out, she's right, as her doppelganger, along with doppelgangers of the entire family, turns up outside her home, setting off a night of terror that will force Adelaide to confront her past and that fateful night in ways that will change more than she could’ve ever expected.
That is, without spoiling too much, the basic setup for what goes down in Jordan Peele's Us, his highly-anticipated follow-up to 2017's Get Out, a film which took the world by storm and demonstrated that Peele could very well be a force to be reckoned with in the world of horror filmmaking. With Us, Peele cements that fact, delivering a stellar sophomore outing that's an absolute blast to watch, strong for how sure-handed and confident the director and his entire team, particularly the incredibly game cast he populates the film with, are in telling this story.
Directed By: Mike Mitchell
Release Date: February 8, 2019
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz
Let me get this out of the way: 2014's The LEGO Movie had no right being as good as it was. What could've easily been – and seemed to be – nothing more than a hollow, two-hour advertisement for everyone's favorite building blocks turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining film, one with wit for days and an abundance of heart tucked away underneath its colorful veneer. Though it was followed in 2017 by two spin-offs, The LEGO Batman Movie (which I loved) and The LEGO Ninjago Movie (which I skipped), it's taken five years for the film to get a proper follow-up in The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part.
Picking up where the first film left off, the citizens of Bricksburg witness the arrival of Duplo aliens that set to work destroying the city before the film skips ahead five years. Time hasn’t been kind to Bricksburg, which has been reduced to a wasteland rebranded as Apocalypseburg, where characters like Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) and Batman (Will Arnett) have adapted and fit in to a post-apocalyptic lifestyle where violence and pessimistic brooding has become part of the day-to-day culture. As for Emmet (Chris Pratt), however, everything is still awesome, the upbeat hero carrying around the belief that things can only get better if everyone – ahem – works together, though he's haunted by premonitions of a mysterious, world-ending event called Our-Mom-Ageddon.
In time, a visitor arrives in Apocalypseburg named General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), sent on behalf of Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) of the far-flung Systar System, who intends to marry Batman, with Mayhem kidnapping him, Lucy, Benny (Charlie Day), Unikitty (Alison Brie), and MetalBeard (Nick Offerman). As the group is taken to the Queen, Emmet – left behind and rudderless for not feeling tough enough to stop anything from happening – sets off in pursuit of his friends, teaming up with the space-faring adventurer Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chris Pratt) along the way, only to discover new truths about himself and what Our-Mom-Ageddon truly is.
Of course, the real world introduced at the end of the first film ties heavily into the events of this sequel, with the relationship between Finn (Jadon Sand) and his younger sister Bianca (Brooklynn Prince) forming the backbone of the conflict the LEGO characters experience. The sequel has a lot to say about the brother/sister dynamic, both in how age and gender differences create a dividing line between the two, and explores themes of growing up, which is something that makes the film resonate even if it treads some familiar ground already explored by the first film.
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