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Thursday
May152014

Godzilla

It’s always interesting to see how a director will fare when transitioning from a miniscule independent film to a big budget studio blockbuster. One hopes that the director will bring his or her independent background into the blockbuster and focus on characters and story rather than effects and explosions. Following his terrific low budget 2010 film, “Monsters,” director Gareth Edwards attempts to do just that with the American reboot, “Godzilla,” but it’s a give and take. The focus is indeed the characters and story, but those things are, unfortunately, not very interesting. In a way, it’s like last summer’s “Pacific Rim.” It’s slim on characterization, but it gets by on its fun and impressive action scenes. It’s not the epic movie one might expect from the outstanding trailers, but as a summer tent-pole release, “Godzilla” is entertaining enough.

The movie begins in in the late 90s and follows Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist and engineer at a Japanese nuclear plant. One day, some seismic activity rattles the foundation of the plant, which ends up killing Joe’s wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Flash forward 15 years and Joe has become obsessed with the event, swearing that the tremors they felt were not natural, but rather from some type of creature that has been lying dormant for many years. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now all grown up and in the Navy, thinks he’s crazy, but, as is typical with these types of movies, it turns out he’s not and the next thing they know, a creature, dubbed a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object), unearths and starts wreaking havoc on the country’s citizens.

Don’t be fooled by the above synopsis and the misleading trailers. While “Godzilla” clearly hopes to ride the popularity of Cranston at the height of his career after a successful stint on “Breaking Bad,” early movie events turn the focus on Ford and Aaron Taylor-Johnson simply isn’t able to carry it to its conclusion. While Cranston’s character is a bit of a cliché in regards to monster movie archetypes, being the seemingly crazy one who is the only one who actually knows the truth, his motivations are nevertheless noble. It’s the love for his wife that drives him to do what he does, which could have worked as the heart and meaning behind the film. Unfortunately, his character becomes nothing more than a catalyst to thrust Johnson to the forefront.

Though it might come as a surprise for those expecting a bombastic monster movie, “Godzilla” chooses to focus on its human characters. Much like “Monsters,” Edwards tries to create a human story out of its creature feature origins, but unlike “Monsters,” the characters, story and themes simply aren’t established well enough to be very interesting. Take, for instance, Ford’s family in San Francisco, a young boy and a wife named Elle, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen brings her natural beauty and talent to the proceedings, but her role is minimal and underdeveloped. The connection the two have is thin, so when Ford is in danger, nothing is felt. He could be eaten whole or ripped in half and the tragedy would be lost on the majority of viewers who have rightfully invested nothing into what’s going on.

What it all boils down to is that Edwards, with a bigger budget and expanded scope, simply doesn’t seem comfortable and is unable to find a rhythm, instead relying on overdramatic character introductions, cheesy motivational speeches and on-the-nose foreshadowing to move his story along (“It’s not the end of the world,” one characters says moments before the potential end-of-the-world event begins). Luckily for the viewers he would lose otherwise, he doesn’t waste much time getting to the action. Sure, it’s so quick that when Joe’s wife inevitably bites the dust, it doesn’t really resonate, but it remains exciting and Godzilla’s introduction is enough to put a big, stupid smile on anyone’s face. It even manages to throw in a few references to both Godzilla movies past and other popular monster movies, including an opening reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, “Alien.”

If you’re looking for something with more depth than your typical monster movie, “Godzilla” won’t do much for you, but if that’s the case, why are you watching “Godzilla” anyway? Despite some narrative stumbles and a central character that is impossible to care about, the movie delivers exactly what fans want: monster battles and rampant destruction. It’s a good jumping off point for future installments as well. Past movies, including Roland Emmerich’s 1998 reboot, were a bit silly, but this new film sets a darker foundation, one that could lead to rich drama in more confident hands. As it stands, however, “Godzilla” is unlikely to garner too high of praise, but it’s an entertaining summer movie nonetheless.

Godzilla receives 3/5

Friday
Aug162013

Kick-Ass 2

While far from perfect, and certainly not as good as some fanboys claimed it to be, 2010’s “Kick-Ass” was a welcome addition to a cinematic landscape that was just beginning its superhero boom, arguably brought on by the success of “Iron Man” two years prior. The film took the superhero tropes we had come to know and mocked them, spoofing the genre while simultaneously creating a self-parody; a “Scream” for superheroes. Although inconsistent in that parody, it was nevertheless charming and funny enough to make the movie an easily watchable affair. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for “Kick-Ass 2.” The parody is thin, if not non-existent, the humor falls flat and the drama is inflated to an unmerciful degree. If you’re a big fan of the first movie, prepare to be disappointed here.

Taking place sometime after the events of the first movie, superheroes have become all the rage. The streets are littered with self-proclaimed heroes who, in reality, don’t do much of anything, much less stop evildoers. Once again feeling the need to take action, Dave Lizewski, also known as Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johson) returns to the streets. It’s there he meets Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison) who introduces him to a new league of superheroes forming an Avengers-esque team. There’s Insect Man (Robert Emms), Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), their leader, Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), and even Dave’s old friend, Marty, now known as Battle Guy (Clark Duke). Their formation couldn’t come at a better time because a league of supervillains is also forming. They’re led by Kick-Ass’s nemesis, Chris D’Amico, who now calls himself The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Even worse, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) has vowed to her new guardian that she would stop putting herself in danger and is unable to help Kick-Ass and his team.

The thing about the superhero genre, especially after all these consecutive years of watching our movie theaters get overrun by them, is that they practically parody themselves at this point. Look at this summer’s “Iron Man 3” as an example, particularly in the way (spoiler alert!) that it handled one of its main antagonists, The Mandarin, as portrayed by Ben Kingsley. It took this mysterious figure, one that threatened death and destruction and was feared around the world and deconstructed him into a joke, and a quite effective one at that (though I’m sure some comic fans will disagree). Like any good parody, it took our expectation of who and what a superhero villain should be and turned it on its head. For “Kick-Ass 2” to remain relevant, it needed to do something vastly different.

And it does, though the decided emphasis is misguided at best and downright disastrous at worst. Surprisingly, this sequel takes a drastic turn from the general goofiness of the original film and ratchets up the drama. While not necessarily a bad thing in theory, the drama was the first film’s primary downfall. Upon my initial viewing, I thought it was because it simply didn’t gel well with the over-the-top antics of the scenes those brief dramatic moments were wedged in between, but if this movie is any indication, it’s simply because it’s just not done well, no doubt enhanced by director Jeff Wadlow’s inexperience with such matters (and whose only other feature length efforts are “Cry_Wolf” and “Never Back Down,” hardly an impressive pedigree).

Whereas the drama in “Kick-Ass” merely bogged down a bit of the fun, the drama hear bogs down the entire movie. If it’s not the embarrassing “Mean Girls”-esque subplot where Hit Girl is trying to fit in at school as a normal teenager, it’s heavy handed dialogue and ridiculous slow motion shots (including the obligatory “phone dropping to the floor after receiving bad news” shot). However, none of it is done in jest, rarely acknowledging its self-aware undercurrents that were so prevalent in its predecessor. The only person who seems to understand the absurdity of the movie he’s in is Mintz-Plasse as The Motherfucker, who, despite an overall darker character turn, transitions well from the previous movie, bringing what little fun he can to a movie that is anything but.

It would be unfair to place blame on the other actors, though. Carrey, in particular, is fantastic as Colonel Stars and Stripes while the rest of the cast similarly does what is called for. The problem lies in the screenplay, which slaps them in far-too-dark, overly emotional nonsense. While some clever moments remain intact, the bulk of the film fails to elicit the excitement, fun or humor of what came before. The action is serviceable, but nowhere near as stylish, the laughs are few and far between and the story lacks polish—loose ends are left unresolved and recognizable characters from the last installment show up briefly for a line or two before disappearing, never to be heard from or mentioned again. “Kick-Ass 2” had the potential to be bigger and better, to take the solid foundation of “Kick-Ass” and make it something special, but it fails on nearly all fronts.

Kick-Ass 2 receives 1.5/5

Friday
Nov162012

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina is the worst type of movie, the kind that assumes you’ll side with the central protagonist even when that person has done nothing to deserve it. I can’t say I’ve read the novel by Tolstoy the film is based on, or even that I’ve seen the other numerous adaptations of it, but if this movie sticks as closely to the source material as some are saying it does, I’d say I’m not missing much. The film’s problems don’t come from a technical or performance based perspective; its failures all come from the story.

Keira Knightley plays the titular Anna Karenina, a socialite in the 1800’s who is married to Karenin, played by Jude Law, an aristocrat who has devoted his life to Mother Russia. He loves Anna dearly, but she has become unhappy. After a chance meeting with Count Vronsky, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, an officer in the Russian military, she sparks an immoral relationship. To have an affair as a married woman is disagreeable in a society that teaches marital stability and proper manners, so she finds herself an outcast. Now aware of the challenges she has to face, she struggles with her feelings, her husband and her status as a 19th century floozy.

The first thing that will strike many viewers of Anna Karenina is its lush production design and inventive visuals. The film is treated like a play, where scene transitions consist not of hard cuts like most other movies, but of the sets literally disappearing and being set up in front of you. Many of the backgrounds are clearly artificial—long hallways are little more than a poorly hidden optical illusion—and the steps the characters walk up and down are usually the ones leading to a stage. Occasionally, it even toys with the musical score, similar to how Mel Brooks did in Blazing Saddles (though in a decidedly more artsy way), taking what would otherwise be non-diegetic and placing it directly onscreen with performers walking by the camera with instrument in hand. Its stylistic techniques are occasionally distracting (watching supposedly high class women walk in the cobweb infested stage rafters in their period gowns is quite jarring), but most work in a way that will surprise many, including a beautiful one-take dance scene between Anna and Vronsky where surrounding participants are frozen in time. These moments will either dazzle you or isolate you, depending on your level of cynicism.

If you’re in the former category and managed to be captivated by the film’s visuals, you’ll most likely be put off by an unlikable central character and a story that attempts to skew viewer feelings in the wrong direction. Anna’s husband, Karenin, at least as presented in this movie, is not a bad person. In fact, he’s entirely selfless, having already devoted his life to his country, and he loves Anna with all his heart. When he initially questions Anna about her infidelity, it’s not because he suspects something and it’s not due to jealousy (jealousy is demeaning to him and insulting to her, after all), but rather because those around her have begun talking about her adulterous ways. He doesn’t rush to judgment and even asks forgiveness should he be incorrect in his questioning. Later, when he finally gets confirmation that Anna has indeed been with another man, he doesn’t strike her or even raise his voice. He calmly sits down and asks what he did to deserve this, as if her actions are somehow his fault.

Defenders of the film will argue that the story is about unconstrained passion, a love that can’t be helped, but there’s no grey area regarding Anna’s promiscuity. She is being unfaithful, yet we’re supposed to side with her, the side that neglects the consequences of her actions on those around her. She doesn’t care that she’ll most likely never see her son again. She doesn’t care that she’s emotionally devastating her husband (even as he tries to protect her from a society that will hate her and her cheating ways). She doesn’t care about anything but herself, or at least not as much.

The conundrum a critic faces here is that Anna Karenina is a technically well-made movie, complete with fantastic costumes, wonderful set design and terrific performances. Its unique approach to storytelling is fascinating and works more often than not, but all of these aspects are placed in a story with a character that is damn near impossible to care about. Those technical aspects are certainly worth noting and make up nearly all of this review’s accompanying score, but when it comes down to it, film is about meaning. It’s about telling a gripping story that we can invest ourselves in. On that basis, Anna Karenina is a miserable failure.

Anna Karenina receives 2/5