FilmSpace: Godzilla: King of the Monsters; Ma; Thunder Road

Calum Cooper

Film critic Calum Cooper reviews the week’s new releases, including the lacklustre sequel to Godzilla, a Blumhouse horror film starring Octavia Spencer, and an evocative feature debut.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters – ★★☆☆☆

I’ve seen some more esteemed reviewers brand Godzilla: King of the Monsters as terrible, or even monstrous garbage. Personally, I don’t think it’s interesting enough to be given such brands. That’s not to say there won’t be some entertainment value in here for the right audience member. But, if I’m being brutally honest, I actually dozed off during the film’s climax. Needless to say, it didn’t work for me.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the long-awaited sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, and a part of the MonsterVerse, because everyone and their mothers has to have a cinematic universe now. In the first film, the Russell family of Mark, Emma, and daughter Madison (Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown of Stranger Things respectively) were affected by a devastating loss, a loss which tore them apart. Emma, a paleobiologist studying giant creatures called Titans, and Madison are abducted by an eco-terrorist called Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), who plans to use the creatures to restore natural order or something like that. Mark is thus recruited by the monster hunting group Monarch to find his family and assist Godzilla in defeating the rising monsters.

The idea of Godzilla is a silly one, but there’s definitely grounds for fun with it. Giant monsters punching each other is an entertaining concept, even in adulthood, and there are some impressive things done with that. The size and scale of these creatures are depicted well, with human level camera shots showing off the gigantic nature of these beings. Decent tension and moments of enjoyment can be gleaned from this.

Unfortunately the film reveals its hand way too early, and even the cards the hand holds aren’t all that impressive. The result is a cluttered film, especially if you’re outside of the Godzilla fandom like myself. If you’re not familiar with the Godzilla franchise and all of its components then you’re going to be completely lost concerning which monster worships who and what their roles are, as, with the exception of the three headed dragon, they seem to come and go throughout the film as they please.

The film isn’t as aggressively bad as some people are claiming. But it is boring, and that’s arguably worse.

Some reviewers have primarily criticised the film’s story. Although it is a bland story I don’t think anyone is going into a Godzilla film looking for intricate drama. They just want to watch monsters kill each other. I sympathise with that viewing mentality, which is why I find the film’s insistence on repetition particularly frustrating. There’s a lot of fights throughout the film, as there’s four monsters to juggle. But each fight feels too similar to the previous one. Dark lighting, lots of shaky cam, loud screeching, and bursts of CGI. The location changes, sure, but I still felt like I was watching the same fights over and over from the way they were framed and filmed. Any that don’t feel derivative of what came before are barely possible to make out because of the way it’s crafted. I became so disengaged that I eventually lost interest in the action altogether.

But let’s say you do for some reason go in for the narrative. It isn’t great either. Godzilla was originally created as an allegory for the effects of the hydrogen bomb and the consequences of such destructive weapons. Powerful themes seeing as it was created in the fallout of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film does attempt to look at environmental themes initially, but eventually abandons them in favour of its repetitive, dull looking spectacle, meaning its talented cast gets virtually nothing to do. Millie Bobby Brown was featured front and centre in the advertising, but she’s barely in the movie. Meanwhile, the likes of Chandler, Farmiga, Ken Wanntanbe and even Sally Hawkins spend most of their time running, screaming, or gaping in awe at Godzilla squishing things. What’s the point of getting such a great cast just to do nothing with them? And since the script is littered with dreadful, painfully forced comedy, and redundant action, there’s little to entice general audiences outside of finding the featured monsters cool looking.

I really don’t think there’s much on offer with this film. Diehard Godzilla fans many have fun, but casual fans and outsiders will struggle I reckon. The film isn’t as aggressively bad as some people are claiming. But it is boring, and that’s arguably worse. With so many genuinely good blockbusters (Avengers, Detective Pikachu, John Wick, and Aladdin) as well as one of the year’s best films (Booksmart) currently available, believe me when I say that there’s plenty of other options in the cinema right now.

Ma – ★★☆☆☆

Ma is an amusing idea for a horror film that will have no problem finding an audience who will lavish in its bizarre nature. Yet it’s also a film that hinders itself with a less than stellar script and an inconsistent tone that’s lost between generating empathy and 80s horror camp. Even if it were at least fixated, the exploration of its themes are too hollow to leave much of an impression.

Our main character is Maggie (Diana Silvers of Booksmart). She and her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) have had to move back to Erica’s old town, where many of her old classmates still live. A big change, but Maggie quickly makes new friends in school. One day they try to convince someone to buy them some alcohol. A middle-aged woman, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), agrees to do so, and eventually lets the teens use her basement as a means to party in private, insisting they affectionately call her Ma. However, Maggie feels like there is something off about Ma, and wouldn’t you know, there is.

I can see why this film would appeal so much to Octavia Spencer. She’s worked with the director, Tate Taylor, before, on The Help and Get on Up (the former of which she won an Oscar for). More importantly, it’s a very different role from the ones her career has been typically defined by. It gives her more of a chance to flex the muscles of abrasiveness and insanity that I think every actor enjoys flexing once in a while. Spencer embraces this part of the role, keeping much of the film watchable via her portrayal of conniving craziness. She is great, but then again, it’s Octavia Spencer. When is she not great?

Unfortunately, the film is not great overall. It forsakes the potential of its chaotic set-up in favour of high school drama, past and present, and a shallow anti-bullying message that doesn’t feel nearly as layered as it ought to have been. The characters simply aren’t dimensional enough to give its messages any real punch. Maggie and her mum are introduced, and then immediately thrown into their respective crowds without any time dedicated for the audience to get to know them. When Maggie finally does start talking about herself, she’s not even on screen initially.

It forsakes the potential of its chaotic set-up in favour of high school drama, past and present, and a shallow anti-bullying message that doesn’t feel nearly as layered as it ought to have been.

Each character feels tailor-made to suit a certain role. Granted that was a lot of the charm with campy slashers of old, but outside from the actors doing the best with what they’ve got, they eventually all meld into one group rather than individuals. Sue Ann appropriately has the most character. We get flashbacks to her horrendous school days where she was picked on mercilessly. They juxtapose with her present day party throwing and plotting, as it opens her to popularity and positive attention she never had.

But in order for the messages and central horror to work, there has to be a deepness to the grudge Sue Ann holds against the townsfolk and the children she’s letting party. There isn’t. It feels very cookie-cutter. The bullies are overly cruel to the point where it can’t be taken seriously, even as present-day adults. The choice to juggle that with teen drama, such as Maggie’s new found relationship with Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), takes away from the horror factor, providing us with a surprisingly dull first hour.

When it does at last turn its attention to the horror its marketing promises, it feels too little too late. The film lays groundwork by lazily cutting to what Sue Ann is doing in between organising house parties (namely Facebook stalking), meaning the suspense disappears as we know precisely what she’s up to. It’s trying to warn us of foreboding danger when just the idea that a stranger would randomly invite youngsters into their life should be ominous enough. Obvious music choices and repetitive camerawork often accompany these moments and those that follow them, leaving little room for ingenuity in regards to its horror craft. The fear factor mostly comes from how torturous the film can get towards the end. It does make you squirm in fairness, but the atmosphere the film aims to build is scattershot at best.

What it comes down to is the film being unable to find a balance between sympathy and dread. I can commend it for its ambition, but its focus is in all the wrong places, and the strength of the actors aren’t enough to save the film from being drab, underwritten, and tonally confused. It’ll likely find an audience given the content it possesses, which is great, but there’s a goldmine of better revenge horrors to choose from, campy or not.

Thunder Road – ★★★☆☆

At his mother’s funeral at the start of the film, Officer Jim Arnaud (Jim Cummings, who also writes and directs), tries and fails to play the Bruce Springstein song, Thunder Road, a song that details a young couple’s last chance to “make it real”. The same can be said for James, whose life is in turmoil.

His wife has divorced him and is attempting to obtain sole custody of their daughter Crystal, who he fears he is alienating. Things only get worse when he discovers that Crystal is starting to exert behaviour problems in class. On top of that, his job as a police officer is getting more and more demanding, as crimes go up and get more violent. All the while, Jim struggles to suppress the strong emotions that arise from being caught in the middle of all of this.

At its core, the film concerns the unpredictable and, more importantly, unfair nature of life itself. The chips that Jim has been dealt are a mean stack, and Cummings excels at capturing the overwhelming pressure Jim seems to be under constantly from the weight of them. He comes across as a man who could explode at any minute. But when you see the context of his life, you completely sympathise. You just want to give the man a hug he seems that stressed out.

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Yet it isn’t just Cummings’ hard hitting performance. Observant, subdued writing and empathetic direction, also by Cummings, adds to the power of the film. It can be funny at times, often darkly so, but we’re mostly watching a character slowly start to lose his grip on his own life, as everything begins to collapse around him. Long shots, both at a distant and for a length of time, add to the feeling of isolation that Jim is only feeling more and more. Each of his outbursts feel like rage he has been bottling up for years and smaller moments and titbits of dialogue reveal the real hurt he is going through, even if he doesn’t express it.

What it essentially boils down to is a film that reassures its audience that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help. Life can pull us in so many directions – from jobs to relationships (both platonic and romantic) to personal or familial problems – that it sometimes feels impossible to navigate the storm it whips up. So to have a film remind its audience that it’s okay to take some time to look after yourself is both refreshing and sincerely comforting. It makes the movie all the more impactful, especially as it uses the overwhelming weight Jim is under to showcase how important self-care is.

Thunder Road is an ambitious and thoughtful feature debut from Cummings with plenty of smart things to share. That’s not to say it’s flawless. It doesn’t always balance its dark comedy and intense melancholy, and it ends in a way that’s a bit too neat for such a story. But when it gets that balance just right, it packs one hell of a gut punch.

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