Monthly Archives: March 2021

Fight of the Century

Who’ll win in this epic movie-monster mash?

Godzilla vs. Kong
Starring Rebecca Hall, Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and Brian Tyree Hill
Directed by Adam Wingard
How to watch: In theaters and on HBO Max March 31, 2021

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make any noise?

If King Kong uproots a massive tree on Skull Island, shears off its branches with one brisk whisk of his humongous paw, then turns it into a giant javelin and hurls it skyward, does the little deaf girl watching him know Bobby Vinton is singing “Over the Mountain Across the Sea” on the soundtrack?

And does she know that’s where Kong is about go—where this movie’s going to take him, and her, and us?

Probably not! Those existential questions don’t get answered in this colossal monster mash, which marks only the second time the awesome alpha ape, once billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, has brawled with Japan’s prehistoric aqua-lizard with atomic heat-beam breath. They first met in 1962, in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and they’ve been nursing a major grudge ever since.

Both are pop-culture all-stars. Godzilla’s been featured in more than 30 films since his debut in 1952, and has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Kong was a box-office smash when he hit the screen for the first time back in 1933, in the heart of the Great Depression, saving his movie studio from bankruptcy and spawning decades of sequels, spinoffs, imitations, parodies, cartoons, comics, songs and a theme park ride.

Except for that one movie appearance together nearly a half century ago, the two jumbo superstars have always “worked” separately—until now. Which makes this movie such a big deal: It’s like a supersized Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa going at it again, an all-star wrestling smackdown in an arena as big as the whole eastern hemisphere, Raging Bull scaled up to the size of skyscrapers. For any fans wondering how the two peak predators of the movie-monster world would fare in a face-off after all these years, well, now you can find out.

Just don’t get in the way, because chances are you’ll get smushed.

To really get juiced about what’s going on here, you can check out the previous films in Warner Brothers’ “MonsterVerse” franchise, which set about rebooting the classic franchises and building a new, interconnected cinematic world for the two beastie boys with Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019). In the MonsterVerse, Kong and Godzilla represent two of the remaining celebrities atop the food chain of a prehistoric group of creatures and beasts known as the Titans, which sometimes still make their presence known in the “human” world.

That’s why, in Godzilla vs. Kong, people take pics with their smartphones as Godzilla plows through Tokyo Bay, and we see a sign for a Titan Shelter underneath the city, for when things get a little rumbly and crumbly overhead. Titan sightings—duck and cover, but snap a selfie first. It might be while before another monster makes another appearance.

MonsterVerse movie vets Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobbie Brown are back, as scientist Mark Russell and his daughter Madison. They join franchise newbies Alexander Skarsgård—as a a pseudo-science geologist who believes Kong can lead to a primal source of great power, hidden inside the “hollow Earth,” that will help stave off the rampaging Godzilla—and Rebecca Hall, a linguist who oversees Kong on his Skull Island containment facility, who doesn’t think removing him is such a good idea.

Kaylee Hottle as Jia, who forms a special bond with Kong.

Brian Tyree Henry is aboard as a conspiracy-theory podcaster trying to crack the case of why Godzilla has suddenly returned after a three-year absence—to attack Pensacola, Florida, of all places. And young Kaylee Hottle makes her debut as the only indigenous survivor of a tragedy on Skull Island, the hearing and speech-impaired orphan girl Jia, who forms a bond with Kong.

But the people in the movie are on the sidelines for a trio of totally rock-‘em-sock-‘em battle royales, which set new benchmarks for epic, monster-movie mash-ups. Battleships get sliced in half and tossed about in the sea like toys in a kiddie pool; entire cityscapes crumble as if they were sandcastles; Kong and Godzilla wallop and wail on each other like they’re in the world’s most brutal bar fight. It’s too bad this film comes at a stage when so many people still aren’t quite ready to go back to theaters, because it begs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, preferably even IMAX.

Although special effects make them “look” better than ever (in full daylight much of the time), the terrific FX also subtly depict that Kong and Godzilla aren’t the spry, young monster pups they were when they started out, all those years ago. Kong seems weary, worn down and battle-scarred by several centuries of fending off all kinds of foes. Godzilla, covered in spikes and scales, looks and acts older and crankier and more temper-tantrum-y than ever. Spending eons under water doesn’t doesn’t seem to improve your social skills.   

Director Adam Wingard, whose previous films include the horror-thrillers V/H/S and You’re Next, knows how to keep a few tricks and surprises up his sleeve—like an otherworldly detour into a fantastical underworld realm with some “new” monsters, and a reappearance of one of Godzilla’s former, most formidable adversaries. The film also suggests that, for all their quantum beefs with each other, Godzilla and Kong’s anger-management issues are made even worse when corporate greed gets involved.

So who’ll win this clash of the Titans? Who’ll roar in victory? Who’ll tuck tail or tap out in defeat? Each side has its supporters. Millie Bobbie Brown is rooting for Godzilla; she thinks he’s being set up. Hall’s character knows her mighty monkey is too proud to ever concede defeat.

“Kong bows to no one,” she predicts.

Both gargantuan combatants came to represent many things over the decades, from rampaging, unknowable monsters to sympathetic, tragic anti-heroes, even protectors of humanity. “Creatures, like people, can change,” says Chandler’s character. Indeed they can. But can we? In this breezy, brawl-y, rugged mega-monster mash, both Godzilla and Kong are showing their age as well as their rage—and proving that, for pure escapism, we’re all still suckers for seeing two giant palookas beat the beastly snot out of each other.   

Into The Sunset

Anthony Hopkins gives an Oscar-worthy performance as an everyday man losing his memory

The Father
Starring Anthony Hopkins & Olivia Colman
Directed by Florian Zeller
In theaters March 12, 2021

An elderly man gets a visit from his adult daughter in his London flat and is unsettled when she tells him she’s moving to Paris to be her new boyfriend.

Or maybe the man is actually in his daughter’s home, living with her and her husband—and she never said anything about going anywhere.

And who are all those strangers that keep coming and going?

Are you confused?

Well, so is Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), who’s suffering from dementia in this awards-caliber adaptation of an acclaimed French play, La Pére, that made the leap to Broadway in 2012.

Florian Zeller, who wrote the original stage production, now makes his feature-film debut directing this movie, a wrenchingly honest, artfully disorientating drama ingeniously depicting a lifetime of memories slipping away.

The Father starts out straightforward enough, but quickly lets us know something isn’t quite right. “There’s something funny going on,” says Anthony (whose character has the same name as the actor).

He means “funny,” as in odd, not humorous. Because there’s nothing humorous to Anthony about his puzzlement. And the movie shrewdly mirrors his increasingly confused state by muddling ours—changing little details of the flat, or apartment, where almost everything takes place, repeating and looping bits of scenes, even having different actors play key characters. The Father is like watching Anthony’s mounting uncertainties from the inside out, making us unsure of what’s real, what and who we’re seeing and where we are, feeling his intensifying frustration as he grasps to gather up the shards of his fractured memories.  

Does Anthony’s daughter, Anne (The Crown’s Olivia Colman), really cook chicken for dinner every night, or is it just one meal that Anthony is remembering, over and over? Is someone—everyone—really trying to steal his wristwatch? Maybe it’s Anne’s confrontational husband (Rufus Sewell, from TV’s The Man in the High Castle and Masterpiece’s Victoria), or perhaps it’s that other guy (Mark Gattis), and the woman (Olivia Williams), who sometimes show up. And why does Anthony keep insisting that his new caregiver (Imogene Poots) bears such a strong resemblance to his other daughter, Anne’s sister?

Hopkins’ Academy Awardy for his iconic role as the charming cannibal Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is only a bit of gold dressing atop his monumental acting career, which spans decades of stage, screen and television. He’s played President Richard Nixon, painter Pablo Picasso, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, the Norse god Odin and Pope Benedict XVI in the movies, and starred in theatrical productions as Shakespeare’s King Lear, Macbeth and Mark Antony. He was nominated for an Emmy for his TV role on Westworld as the mastermind of a futuristic sci-fi dystopian adult-amusement park.

If early buzz is any indication, he should certainly be getting ready for another Oscar nomination, and quite possibly a second trophy, for The Father. His performance is the powerful, poignant, unforgettably heart-wrenching stuff of which year-end awards are forged—and it will be especially spot-on and stirring for anyone who had, or has, a loved one with dementia. Colman, who also already has an Oscar (for The Favourite), likewise turns in an impressively nuanced performance as she navigates Anne’s emotional spectrum—of weariness, exasperation and loss—while dealing with her father and trying to calm, cajole and care for him.

The Father isn’t a relaxing watch, but Hopkins makes an indelible impression as this everyday man grappling in the fading twilight with an invisible foe that’s taking pieces of him away—his lifetime of recollection, his selfhood and his identity—bit by agonizing bit. It’s the ravages of senility by way of Shakespeare.

“Who am I, exactly?” Anthony asks at one point as he cowers in a corner of his room. “I fear as if I am losing all my leaves—the branches…the wind and rain… I don’t know what’s happening anymore.” He looks at his arm, suddenly somewhat reassured. “But I do know my watch is on my wrist, for the journey.”

Hopkins’ journey through this magisterial performance is intensely, profoundly personal, yet vast and relatable to almost everyone—like watching the waning light of day splay out into a glorious sunset before slipping completely into darkness, or seeing nature change its seasons as the blooming greenery of summer inevitably gives way to empty trees, falling leaves and the cold, pale gloom of winter.

The leaves may be falling away onto the cold, dark ground for Anthony. But Hopkins’ unforgettable portrait of a man losing his memory will remain long lodged in your’s, and it points the way to another, brighter season—when Hollywood hands out its shiny honors this coming spring—for one of our most formidable actors.

Black Gold

Eddie Murphy strikes in rich in the uproariously entertaining sequel to his 1988 hit comedy

Coming 2 America
Starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall & Shari Headley
Directed by Craig Brewer
On Amazon Prime Friday, March 5, 2021

He’s back!

In this long-awaited “sequel” to his 1988 box-office smash, Eddie Murphy makes a slick, comfortable return to a fan-favorite role—and slides back into a familiar-feeling comedy that revs up loads of new laughs with an all-star supporting cast of old friends and fresh faces.   

In the original Coming to America, Murphy starred as a young pampered African prince who comes to America to find a wife.

Now, 30 years later, his Prince Akeem is a benevolent ruler, a loving husband and a father of three lovely young daughters. But his kingdom of Zamnda is under threat from the adjoining kingdom of Nextdooria and its menacing mercenary leader, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who chides Akeem for not being manly enough to have a son to inherit, or defend, his throne.

But wait a minute: Akeem is surprised when his dying father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), tells him he does indeed have a son, living back in Queens, New York—where, come to think of it, Akeem does vaguely remembers a wild night, some 30 years ago, when he was on his transcontinental wife-finding trek. So he heads back to America to seek out his royal heir.

Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy

That’s the set-up for the plot, and the comedy of Coming 2 America, which sweeps wide to include a bunch of actors that fans will be delighted to see from the original film. Arsenio Hall returns as Semmi, Akeem’s aide and confident. Sheri Headley (from TV’s Guiding Light, The Bold and the Beautiful and All My Children) reprises her role as Akeem’s wife, Lisa, now Zamunda’s royal highness. There’s John Amos as Cleo McDowell, now running the Zamunda McDowell’s, the knockoff McDonald’s, where Maurice (comedian Louie Anderson) continues to work.

But the newcomers are particularly impressive, like Snipes. Much better known as an action star, he earns some serious comedy bona fides—and a lot of laughs—as the strutting General Izzi. (Tutoring a group of children guerrilla-warriors-in-training, he reads them a story, then dismisses them to “Play with your grenades—but don’t mess with the sarin…it’s dangerous!”) Murphy, you’ll recall, got his start on Saturday Night Live, and the comedy chops he honed there helped him carve out his own path to movie stardom in the 1980s. So it’s not surprising that he’d invite a couple of more contemporary SNL improv heavyweights for significant new-character roles here—Leslie Jones as Mary, the sassy mother of Akeem’s long-lost son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and Tracy Morgan as Reem, Mary’s mouthy, street-wise brother. There’s also another SNL player in a one-scene cameo, but it’s uncredited, so I’ll let you discover that one for yourself.

Leslie Jones and Jermaine Fowler

There are some other surprises too: The movie is packed with people doing and saying funny things—thanks to the zingy, zesty, sometimes zany screenplay by Kenya Barris (who also writes for TV’s Black-ish and Grown-ish, and wrote the movie Girls Trip), and director Craig Brewer, whose chemistry with Murphy on the critically acclaimed Dolemite is My Name (2019) was surely a factor in his selection for this job. Look, there’s Morgan Freeman, narrating a funeral! And late-night’s Trevor Noah, as a newscaster on Zamunda’s all-news network, ZNN. And is that really Gladys Night, En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa, singing slightly revised, Zamundian versions of their biggest hits (like “Midnight Train to Zamunda”)? Yes it is!

Initially planned for theatrical release by Paramount, Coming 2 America is yet another movie casualty of COVID-19. Rather than see it unspool to likely meager pandemic audiences, the studio sold it to Amazon’s streaming service, where it will doubtlessly find a much bigger viewership. But if ever there ever was a movie that would have played “big” in movie houses, man, this one coulda-woulda raised the roof. Watching it, I lost count of the moments, the one-liners and the sight gags that surely would have sent audiences into comedy convulsions, at a time with everyone is so ready for something so outright, so broadly funny. Sigh.  

And Murphy, once again, gets to do something he hasn’t done in a while, and clearly loves—slip into prosthetics and play multiple characters. In addition to making a most-welcome reappearance as the cheesy, jheri-curled R&B singer Randy Watson, he as well as Hall reprise their “dual” roles as Clarence and Morris, the elderly, bantering, comedically bickering Queens barbers in the My-T-Sharp snip shop (along with Sweets, again played by Clint Morris). Murphy also plays Saul, the shop’s ever-present Jewish customer. The movie’s two scenes there are overflowing, joke-filled goldmines, and Murphy looks like he’s having a ball.

Meeka (KiKi Layne) spars with her father (Eddie Murphy)

The My-T-Sharp isn’t just a stopover for a few ba-da-bing gags; it’s the hub of everything happening in Queens, a portal of Black culture. It’s where Akeem and Semmi go to find out all they need to know in Coming 2 America, as in the original film. There’s a thru-line in the movie between hair-care there and hair-care in Zamunda, when the new young prince, Lavelle, starts to fall in love with the palace groomer Mirambe (Nomzamo Mbatha) assigned to tend his “royal locks.” (In one of their conversations, Lavelle and Mirambe discuss the merits of American movies, specifically the Barbershop franchise, a sequence of films beginning in the early 2000 and set in Chicago with an all-Black cast including Ice Cube, Keith David, Kenan Thompson, Keke Palmer, Nicki Minaj, Regina Hall and Anthony Anderson.) Mirambe tells Lavelle her dream is to one day have her own barbershop—except “women are not allowed to own their own businesses in Zamunda.”  

Can Lavelle change Zamunda’s status quo, and help its young women break its glass ceiling? Does he look better with a rat-tail braid, or without? Can he pass the princely test for bravery, using a pair of royal tweezers to snip off the whiskers of a wild African lion? Will he fall for Mirambe, or for an arranged marriage with General Izzy’s daughter, the sexy siren Bopito (Teyana Taylor, a dancer/choreographer and former Def Jam recording artist)?  

For all its considerable wit and its wiles, the movie also has a sharp, smart satirical edge—about how the times have changed, the anchor of tradition always has to contend with the tide of progress, and how even the most different of “blended” families can bring out the best in each other. Akeem’s daughters (Kiki Layne, Bella Murphy and Akiley Love) are charming, their training as young warriors proves quite resourceful—and the eldest daughter, Meeka, represents a whole generation of young women everywhere whose ambition, intelligence, drive and skill set are the match for any man…especially one who dares call her “nasty.”

And Murphy, well, he’s the magisterial mac daddy of this big house party of comedy—the prince who becomes the king. He’s comfortable enough on his throne to sit back on the sidelines, many times, and let the lion roar, giving his all-star guests plenty of room to roam and strut their stuff. And he knows he doesn’t have to create the comedy, it’s always there; he just has to get it, and maintain it. It just needs a little shaping and some styling—like the hair in the My-T-Sharp barbershop, or like the jokes that fly nonstop through the air there. Comedy is like a good hairstyle, and Murphy has always known where to go to find it, and how to wear it.

And he knows he’s struck gold, again—Black gold, with an almost exclusively all-Black cast, in an uproariously entertaining sequel that resonates with rich Black humor, celebrating its proud Black heritage with a legacy of retro-keen laughter that reminds us of its leading man’s cool confidence and his nearly infallable, career-wide instincts for comedy.

“I’ll always do right for Zamunda,” Akeem tells his wife. “I shall always do what is right for my family.” And Eddie Murphy will always do right, all right, when it comes to finding the funny.