Vera Farmiga

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019, Michael Dougherty)

I wonder if, much like that one immortal monkey divining Borges’s dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, one could assemble a list of all the action beats in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which are mostly from Aliens and Jurassic Park 1 and 2, and arrange them to figure out the story to this film. Once the film hits the second act, I think it’d be more—I’m forgetting the stuff with Vera Farmiga, which is more out of a Mission: Impossible or James Bond. I’m sure Borges’s immortal monkey could do it, but I guess there is something more to director Dougherty and Zach Shields’s script than just stringing together the action scenes, fitting in the right amount of product placement for the studio (turns out it’s a lot and then a lot times twelve), and making sure there enough possible toys. See, you don’t just get Godzilla merchandise from this one, there’s also the other monsters, plus the stupid giant-sized stealth bomber-thing the good guys fly around in because Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a desperately joyless adaptation of a crappy eighties Godzilla cartoon.

Complete with annoying teen Millie Bobby Brown running around. Brown’s not just a mechanical engineer and accomplice to premeditated omnicide, she also knows how to run a ballpark sound board, which is maybe her most impressive trait.

She’s daughter of mad scientist Vera Farmiga (hashtag feminism), who has betrayed Monarch—the good guys with the giant flying fortress who tell the governments of the world to eat it while they study giant monsters, called Titans because someone wanted a trademark and this Godzilla movie tries as much as it can to forget Japan exists so you know they’re not calling them kaiju—and teamed up with eco-terrorist Charles Dance to release all the giant monsters who will once again rule the Earth.

But Brown’s also daughter of Kyle Chandler, who left Farmiga and Brown because their other kid died in the first Godzilla—unseen and stepped on, confirming it did kill a bunch of civilians but whatever. Chandler lives a simple life with a nineties movies alpha male cottage on a lake where he studies wolves nearby. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with Farmiga raising Brown in isolation at the giant monster facilities around the world.

As bad as you think Dougherty and Shields can get with the script, they somehow manage to go even lower. And not just when they’re reusing quotable lines from Alien and The Abyss. It’s all the time. They’ve got nothing good going on here. Nothing.

Obviously things don’t go well with Farmiga’s plan to give the world over to the monsters because it turns out they used frog DNA in the… sadly, no. Nothing quite so good. They really do just hinge it all on Farmiga’s ability to deliver a mad scientist speech and she fails at it utterly. She’s terrible, Brown’s terrible, Chandler’s pretty bad (his part is written as a Die Hard part for Bruce Willis, which would be amusing if Chandler were acting it that way, but he’s not), Ken Watanabe is downright hacky, Sally Hawkins somehow manages not to know how embarrassed she should look during her thankless scenes but someone doesn’t, which just makes it more embarrassing. Not to mention the stunt cameos.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, more than anything else, reminds of the first American attempt at a Godzilla, not because of plotting, but because of the film’s inability to tell an honest scene as well as the stunt casting. Zhang Ziyi gets… one hell of a thankless part, but she’s better than Hawkins for sure. Zhang’s as good as it gets in Monsters. Same goes for—shockingly because the part is so atrociously written—Bradley Whitford. He’s got the scientist slash medical doctor slash airplane pilot slash submarine pilot maybe part. It’s a really poorly written part, but Whitford manages not to be too bad. It’s the function of his part to make the film worse—kind of like how, in addition to being terrible, Thomas Middleditch literally has this recurring thing about making O’Shea Jackson Jr. seem either stupid or dickish. Jackson’s playing one of the soldiers, Middleditch is some useless company man (Monsters basically thinks Paul Reiser is the good guy in Aliens), Jackson’s Black, Middleditch’s White, Jackson’s likable, Middleditch’s a dipshit… it’s bad. And weird. Because Middleditch is apparently going to go on to become Chandler’s offscreen bro. They act like they’ve had a big bonding thing throughout, even though they never have any real scenes together because the script’s terrible and no one has any real scenes.

Unless you count the Joe Morton going and looking for someone scene. Joe Morton and David Straithairn somehow get through this one unscathed. And CCH Pounder. It’s very nice to see her in something… especially since she’s in the first scene so you could just turn it off after she’s done.

Also bad is Aisha Hinds. Not sure how much of it’s her fault but whatever her agent convinced her was going to happen because of this part… the agent was incorrect.

Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible music from Bear McCreary. There’s not even a lot of it. It’s sparse. But ungodly awful when it comes in. The movie ought to give some kind of warning so you can steel yourself.

Umm, what else. The editing’s not good, but Dougherty’s direction is awful so it’s not like there’s much the editors—all three of them—could do. Lawrence Sher’s photography is similarly not noteworthy. Monsters’s “mise-en-scène” is broke—Dougherty doesn’t know how to direct a single scene in the movie, giant monster or not—so what’s Sher going to do to fix it. What’s anyone going to do.

There are a handful of other things—okay, maybe a dozen but then like five things (plus the dozen)—I’d really like to enumerate but I can’t. If I list these silly, silly things, it might encourage someone to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters because it would seem like you couldn’t not have some kind of fun with the goofy things on the list. I don’t even want to tease them.

So instead I’ll just mention Doughterty’s “Brodie Bruce” type obsession with kaiju banging—Mothra and Godzilla are (apparently unrequited) soulmates but there’s a good chance Monsters is implying Ghidorah bangs Rodan. It comes up in a lousy attempt at a joke but then at the end the plot perturbs in just the right way for it to seem like a thing, even if it’s just the movie being cheap or expedient or whatever.

Once upon a time, Charles Dance wore a t-shirt with “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” on it, referring to his casting in a film. King of the Monsters—the entire production, the entire cast, the entire crew, everyone, everything, every frame—is wearing a “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” t-shirt.

It’s an astonishingly silly movie and it’s mortifying the filmmakers weren’t able to at least make a fun, astonishingly silly movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Dougherty; screenplay by Dougherty and Zach Shields, based on a story by Max Borenstein, Dougherty, and Shields; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay, and Richard Pearson; music by Bear McCreary; production designer, Scott Chambliss; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; produced by Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell), Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell), Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Charles Dance (Alan Jonah), Ziyi Zhang (Dr. Ilene Chen), Thomas Middleditch (Sam Coleman), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), Aisha Hinds (Colonel Diane Foster), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Chief Warrant Officer Barnes), Anthony Ramos (Staff Sergeant Martinez), Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (First Lieutenant Griffin), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz), CCH Pounder (Senator Williams), and Joe Morton (Dr. Houston Brooks).


Source Code (2011, Duncan Jones)

Source Code is very much MacGuffin as movie. Numerous plot details exist solely to justify (and qualify) certain creative decisions; the film takes a bunch of familiar and somewhat familiar—depending on the viewer’s preferences—sci-fi tropes, devices, and gimmicks, streamlines them, then combines them in those spared-down states. For example, a time traveller in the future “jumping” into the past to learn from it; someone jumping into the past while aided by someone in the present giving direction. The time traveller not having as much information… I mean, okay, basically Source Code functions like it’s “Quantum Leap,” just with different technology and rules.

The film avoids going too deep on those rules and—especially—the technology because director Jones only wants to keep the viewer engaged and engaged enough to forgive the various logic problems. And until the overwrought ending, Source Code does an excellent job of keeping one engaged. Jones is working against a lot of constraints—the ninety minute runtime, the budget, Ben Ripley’s script; most of the film’s cheaper creative decisions come from that script. Like lead Jake Gyllenhaal being a decorated but soulful soldier with a really macho name. The soldier bit doesn’t actually play into the movie besides lip service—including unironic uses of both “War on Terror” and “Thank You For Your Service”—which maybe is required in a movie about a terrorist attack on Chicago not involving giant robots or flying men post-9/11.

Or it’s just the script. It’s entirely possible Ripley’s script’s bad elements are just Ripley’s writing. There’s plenty of evidence of his other bad writing, why not give it all to him.

Jones does a fantastic job taking the mundane and making it incredible. It helps for the action, it helps with the comedy, it helps with the pseudo-hard sci-fi elements.

The film starts with a series of wonderful shots of Chicago, drilling down on to a single commuter train—even if Source Code isn’t your bag, if you’ve ever ridden the Metra in Chicago, you should see it. On this train is Jake Gyllenhaal. He wakes up sitting across from Michelle Monaghan and has no memory of how he got there. In fact, it’s impossible for him to be there—he’s an Army helicopter pilot and he was just on mission in Afghanistan. Monaghan’s calling him a different name, his face is different in the mirror, it’s a very strange situation. But it only lasts eight minutes because then the train explodes.

Gyllenhaal wakes up in a flight suit, strapped to some kind of machine, in a spherical cockpit thing with Vera Farmiga (in a military uniform) on a video monitor talking at him. Gyllenhaal can’t remember how he got there, which kicks off Farmiga trying to get him back in sync. It takes Source Code most of the first act to establish the rules of Gyllenhaal and the time travel, but there are some big secrets the film’s keeping for later reveals. Source Code always has something else to reveal, though usually only because Ripley can’t figure out a way to be honest with the viewer (or Gyllenhaal).

Gyllenhaal’s worried about his fellow soldiers, worried about his dad, but a very rude Farmiga doesn’t care—he’s got to get back in time to figure out where the bomb is located on the train, who placed the bomb. They’re trying to prevent the second attack, so back in time Gyllenhaal goes again for another try. Subsequent tries has Gyllenhaal making some progress with the investigation and getting to know Monaghan. Now, while Monaghan’s part is sort of romantic comedy lead, it’s still stunning how fast Gyllenhaal falls for her. She’s polite to one person and he’s hooked.

But then Gyllenhaal gets the idea to investigate himself during his time in the past, which causes some conflict with Farmiga, who has to bring in her boss, Jeffrey Wright. Jeffrey Wright is a standard slime ball civilian military scientist. He’s the Samuel Beckett of Source Code but it would never occur to him to try the machine himself. Why bother when you’ve got soldiers. A little Wright goes a long way; the point where he starts getting more screen time is when it’s clear the present day stuff is never going to be very good. And not just because Ripley didn’t even come up with a reason for Farmiga to be assigned to the unit. She’s in the Air Force, not the practical application of quantum mechanics and string theory department. It wouldn’t matter if the film gave the impression there’s an answer, but it’s pretty clear there isn’t one. Not a reasonable one anyway.

Source Code stays away from answers, what with its spaghetti on the wall approach to quantum mechanics and whatnot. It does not want to engage with its audience. Engagement means consideration. And since it’s all about a MacGuffin and a poorly developed MacGuffin… consideration’s out.

Gyllenhaal’s great in the lead, able to do the sci-fi, the drama, the action. Source Code, the script, doesn’t ask for much from him, but Gyllenhaal and Jones manage to turn it into a decent role. Monaghan’s really likable and she’s solid, even if her part manages to be an eighth of a real one; she does make an impression, which is something given she’s one of fifty possible suspects Gyllenhaal has to investigate in just ninety minutes.

Excellent editing from Paul Hirsch helps a lot with Gyllenhaal’s Groundhog Days. Pretty good music from Chris Bacon. Perfectly serviceable photography from Don Burgess; I mean, it mixes well with the CG action sequences.

Farmiga’s fine. She’s got even less of a character than Monaghan but probably ought to have the most important part. Shame about that script.

Not allowing any subplots but encouraging the expectation of them is another of its problems; it hurts Farmiga.

There’s also a lengthy racial profiling scene where Gyllenhaal targets a Brown person for being Brown—which Monaghan calls him on—but the movie just goes ahead with it because threat of terrorism; sci-fi apparently allows for some meta-bigotry, which doesn’t seem out of place given the film’s jingoistic posturing.

Also the title is bad. It refers to the “Quantum Leap” machine Wright makes and Wright’s nowhere near good enough not to make “Source Code” sound stupid whenever he uses it as a proper noun.

Source Code’s a solid rollercoaster ride; who knows what they’d have been able to do with another twenty minutes, some good rewrites, and another ten million or so in the budget.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Duncan Jones; written by Ben Ripley; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Chris Bacon; production designer, Barry Chusid; costume designer, Renée April; produced by Mark Gordon, Philippe Rousselet, and Jordan Wynn; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Colter Stevens), Michelle Monaghan (Christina Warren), Vera Farmiga (Colleen Goodwin), Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Rutledge), Michael Arden (Derek Frost), Cas Anvar (Hazmi), and Russell Peters (Max Denoff).


Orphan (2009, Jaume Collet-Serra)

Orphan‘s a peculiar failure. The script isn’t particularly good; it’s layered with foreshadowing upon foreshadowing and some very predictable turns. But it has these occasionally strong dialogue scenes between Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard. It runs out of them after a while, but they leave a positive memory.

Then there’s director Collet-Serra. He really likes crane shots in what should be enclosed spaces and he likes to use handheld when he should have a track. Orphan feels like an inexperienced director who got the opportunity to do a lot of things just because he could. Collet-Serra can’t do the two simple things Orphan needs him to do.

First, it needs him to tie a children’s story–Aryana Engineer and Jimmy Bennett get an adopted sister–to an adult’s story–Farmiga and Sarsgaard are new adoptive parents. Both of these stories (more Farmiga and Sarsgaard because of their fine acting, Farmiga in particular) have some strong moments. Scared kids is a classic, cheap movie standard and Collet-Serra can’t pull it off. It’s sort of embarrassing, because he doesn’t even seem to get it.

Second, he needs to give the family’s house a personality. He can’t. Some of it is lousy production design courtesy Tom Meyer, some of it is Collet-Serra’s incompetence.

As the film’s bad seed, Isabelle Fuhrman is mediocre. She can’t hold her accent and she’s never believable in hindsight after the big reveal.

Orphan‘s a boring thriller with bad direction and an excellent Farmiga performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; screenplay by David Johnson, based on a story by Alex Mace; director of photography, Jeff Cutter; edited by Timothy Alverson; music by John Ottman; production designer, Tom Meyer; produced by Joel Silver, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Susan Downey and Leonardo DiCaprio; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Vera Farmiga (Kate), Peter Sarsgaard (John), Isabelle Fuhrman (Esther), CCH Pounder (Sister Abigail), Jimmy Bennett (Daniel), Margo Martindale (Dr. Browning), Karel Roden (Dr. Varava), Rosemary Dunsmore (Grandma Barbara) and Aryana Engineer (Max).


The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)

It’s hilarious, of course, Scorsese finally won an Oscar for the film least like his work. The Departed is the really serious movie Mel Gibson and Richard Donner never got around to making in the late 1990s… but Scorsese–I don’t know if Scorsese adds something to the mix or if he just knew how to package the product. I imagine he finally won because The Departed showed he was firmly committed, finally, to being commercial. But there’s something subversive in Departed‘s commercial sensibilities. Scorsese and his technical crew (cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker) loose on a Hollywood picture (the connections to, say, The Devil’s Own are more plentiful than not). Schoonmaker’s editing in the film is her most innovative work because it’s new–the way the story’s being told is new… from Ballhaus’s lighting, Schoomaker’s editing, and Scorsese’s digital happy (but it’s shot on film) shots. The IMDb trivia section talks about CG composites for the film and maybe they’re an indicator… Yes, The Departed is another Scorsese mob movie (but one without storytelling sprawl), but it’s a CG-friendly, Irish Scorsese mob movie.

My friend told me, after he saw the film, it was a comedy. I never quite understood him, until maybe ten minutes in. The Departed takes all the great humor from Goodfellas (and all the stuff from Casino but makes it work) and expands on it. You’re supposed to leave, if not laughing, at least amused. It’s a Martin Scorsese blockbuster, meant to engage you and worry you (Scorsese creates a palpable, pulsating sense of dread) and excite you and then spit you out. Scorsese does such a perfect job with the technical aspects and the legitimacy of the film’s story (not having a Nicholas Pileggi non-fiction to fall back on), it doesn’t matter the film’s got a certain apathy to itself.

The apathy comes through clearest in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio. While Matt Damon gets to run wild–sort of Good Will Hunting gone bad–and have as much fun as everyone else (the film’s filled with wild, wonderful performances), DiCaprio’s the serious one here. His character spends the entire film miserable and the viewer spends the entire film waiting for him to get even a moment of relief. It’s a solid performance from DiCaprio, but pales compared to his supporting cast. DiCaprio’s story, the one the film doesn’t tell, is the traditional Scorsese story (though, still a little more commercial than usual). But somehow the mix of humor and dread make it all disappear–The Departed is about what happens and Scorsese understands (though I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film with that intent of his before–not even Cape Fear–though I’ve missed the other DiCaprio collaborations) how to use the advance from the viewer to the film’s advantage.

Given how odd a Scorsese movie it is, I’ve ignored Jack Nicholson this long. It’s not going to be particularly exciting, unfortunately… For about thirty years, Nicholson has had a standard crazy performance… in The Departed, he finally manages to turn it in to a character. Maybe all it needed all along was a Scorsese mob movie (Nicholson’s character, Irish heritage aside, resembles a smarter Scorsese Joe Pesci character). Seeing Nicholson finally get those roles to pay off is great.

The rest of the actors–Ray Winstone, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin–are all great. Vera Farmiga is quite good too, though most of her role is spent reacting to the male leads… she’s practically tacked on to the film for a female presence. It’s no surprise her role is the one without the looseness (she and DiCaprio’s scenes together, though contrived, provide a nice, non-plot-driven break… if only because, after a bunch of red herrings, the scenes don’t really affect the film’s events).

The Departed is easily Scorsese’s worst great film… the lack of artistic ambition is stunning, but Scorsese gets it too and he works with it, makes it not matter.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by William Monahan, based on a screenplay by Mak Siu-Fai and Felix Chong; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Brad Pitt, Brad Grey and Graham King; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Billy Costigan), Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan), Jack Nicholson (Frank Costello), Mark Wahlberg (Dignam), Martin Sheen (Queenan), Ray Winstone (Mr. French), Vera Farmiga (Madolyn), Alec Baldwin (Ellerby) and Anthony Anderson (Brown).


Joshua (2007, George Ratliff)

Joshua is a particularly disquieting experience. I’m trying to think of a comparable experience and the closest I’m coming to is Antarctic Journal, I think. That film may or may not have had a similar counting up toward some unknown resolution (Joshua does it with the newborn sister’s age in days). The premise of the film, first-born goes evil when a new sibling arrives, isn’t particularly inventive. Even the script’s plotting is fairly standard. The film pulls itself around at the end, but more through the excellent production elements than any scripted factor. Joshua is a 1970s New York–these films are the great marginal Hollywood New York films, a genre long gone–starring Sam Rockwell.

Rockwell’s performance makes the film. Not to discredit the terrifying kid (Jacob Kogan in this film could put Trojan out of business) or Vera Farmiga as the slipping mother or Celia Weston as the nut-job fundamentalist mother-in-law who can’t stand her Jewish daughter-in-law. But Rockwell. So much of this film is Rockwell the husband, the father, struggling to maintain. Ratliff’s wasted making thrillers. Sitting here, thinking about the film and how well Ratliff shot it, had it edited, had it scored, how well Rockwell worked in the field Ratliff provided… It’s a thing of wonder. Watching Sam Rockwell run down the streets of New York, with Ratliff’s composition and Nico Muhly’s music–it gave me pause. I hadn’t realized I needed to see moments like those on film and now I have and I can’t believe I went without.

The other nice thing about Joshua is the script’s willingness to let the viewer horrify him or herself. It’s an old trick–James Whale and The Old Dark House in 1932; it works just as well seventy-six years later. There’s also an incredibly nice save at the end–did I already mention it?–but I can’t spoil it.

Like I said, Kogan’s really good. He really seemed to understand what his performance needed to do, which is rare with kid in a thriller, especially a bad seed. Weston gets to go nuts because her character’s awful. This film’s the first I’ve seen Farmiga in and it’s a thriller, so it’s probably not a good measuring device, but she does very well in a lot of it. One of Joshua‘s major problems is it’s too thought-out. A little too intelligent in the writing of the characters and their problems. It’s incredibly boring too, but in that good way. So, at one point or another, everyone eventually gets cheated by the genre.

But it’s so well-made, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, as I write this post, my fantasy film for 2010–is that year going to be Odyssey Two or The Year We Make Contact… I guess I have a bit to decide–anyway… I want Ratliff and Rockwell to adapt Ordinary People. That fervent desire has nothing to do with Joshua, I suppose, but it’d be amazing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Ratliff; written by David Gilbert and Ratliff; director of photography, Benoît Debie; edited by Jacob Craycroft; music by Nico Muhly; production designer, Roshelle Berliner; produced by Johnathan Dorfman; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Brad Cairn), Vera Farmiga (Abby Cairn), Celia Weston (Hazel Cairn), Dallas Roberts (Ned Davidoff), Michael McKean (Chester Jerkins), Alex Draper (Stewart Slocum), Nancy Giles (Betsy Polsheck), Linda Larkin (Ms. Danforth), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Pediatrician) and Jacob Kogan (Joshua Cairn).


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