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Entries in bryan cranston (5)

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
Oct122012

Argo

Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.

The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.

Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.

The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.

If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.

Argo receives 3.5/5

Friday
Aug032012

Total Recall

The Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Total Recall, from 1990 didn’t have high aspirations. It was a campy movie full of hilarious one-liners, explosive, gory action and oddly intriguing sexuality, like the now infamous mutant woman with three breasts and a midget hooker. It was off-the-wall fun and it knew it, fully embracing its silliness from beginning to end. This week’s high octane remake, also titled Total Recall, follows a similar narrative path as the original, but somehow manages to be its exact opposite. Camp is replaced with seriousness, gore is replaced with PG-13 scuffles and the three breasted woman is…well, she’s still there (even if they do cut away before you’re allowed a good look).

By the end of the 21st century, chemical warfare brought on by a third World War has made our planet practically uninhabitable. Earth has been divided into two superpowers, the Resistance and the oppressive Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), which are in a battle for supremacy in a world gone awry. Most citizens are lowly factory workers who spend their days building police robots for the Chancellor in his efforts to stop the Resistance. One of those citizens is Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell). He’s married to the beautiful Lori (Kate Beckinsale), but he nevertheless needs some excitement. One day, he decides to go to Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories into the heads of their customers, essentially allowing them to live out any type of fantasy they wish. While there, something goes wrong and the police force busts in. Next thing he knows, Quaid’s wife is trying to kill him and he’s on the run from the very machines he helped build. The strange thing is now he’s now being told he’s actually a secret agent; he just doesn’t remember it.

Those familiar with the 1990 original will both be in for a treat and a disappointment when watching this update. With plenty of sly references to the original, including a redheaded woman passing through a security gate (“Two weeks” she says when asked how long her trip will be), there is no shortage of little Easter eggs to be found. But sometimes those finds aren’t for the betterment of the film itself. Many of the lines (or at least variations of them) from the original are spoken here as well, but their tone is significantly different. While lines like “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” were played as humorous before, they’re played depressingly straight here. All the fun has been sucked out in favor of telling a darker story, but one that lacks substance.

That’s not to say the original had much substance to it, but it then again it never claimed it did. Both are so packed full of action that they hardly have time to tell a particularly engaging story. The difference, however, is that the original was knowingly silly, so it was easy to forgive. This Total Recall, on the other hand, tries to make you care. It wants the conclusion to be something you cheer for, but most cheers will be coming simply from the fact that it’s over rather than because the story has grabbed hold of you. With its over-stylized action scenes and constant forward motion, the characters hardly get breathers and their relationships are never built like they need to be. It’s not necessarily that I didn’t care about what happened to them that bugged me, but that the movie wanted me to, but provided no justification as to why I should.

Much like the original, the big question at the end is whether or not what we saw actually happened or if it’s just a byproduct of the Rekall implant. The question isn’t necessarily a hard one to answer in either movie when you consider certain things (that I’ll leave for you to figure out), but at least the answer had some slight ambiguity in the original. In the remake, it’s more or less cut and dry, despite trying to force that ambiguity in right at the end. The larger question outside the context of the films is: does it even matter? The answer in regards to this remake is a resounding no. This weekend, when you’re thinking about heading to the theater to see it, don’t and watch the original instead.

Total Recall receives 2/5

Friday
Sep162011

Drive

Now, here’s a movie that gets things right. Drive blends tones, genres, feelings and perceptions to the point where you’re waiting for it to go wrong, but it never does. It takes things that, in a lesser movie, wouldn’t work and shifts and shapes them perfectly to fit its narrative flow. Drive is an incredibly well rounded movie that only falters in minor areas.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character known simply as Driver, a movie stunt driver and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. He lives alone in a small apartment complex where he meets Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. She’s the girl-next-door, literally, and she begins to break through his tough outer shell while he bonds with her son. However, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has just been released from jail and is coming back home. Unfortunately, he owes protection money and his inability to pay threatens his wife and son. Because he has grown close to the two, Driver takes on another job to earn the money and protect them, but things go horribly wrong.

Drive is the best kind of movie: one that takes you by surprise. It sits you down and keeps you calm before smacking you over the head with a sudden and shocking narrative turn—not many movies can do that these days in a cinematic world of remakes and sequels. This sudden shift is carefully set-up, giving us only glimpses into a man that is quiet and reserved. Aside from his illegal side job, he’s a normal, though seemingly lonely, young man. In these early moments, his character reminds most of George Clooney in last year’s The American. He’s calm and collected, but he is somewhat emotionless, confined to the four walls of his room (or car) and, though only subtly suggested, longing for companionship.

In a movie that begins as a slow, thoughtful drama, its shift into a dark, gruesomely violent and sometimes hard to watch revenge picture is abrupt, though certainly recognized (and intended) by the director who effectively uses sound effects at an increased volume to create the jarring effect. At this moment, the entire feeling of the movie changes, eventually running itself into even blacker territory and, in one particular scene, recalling a masked killer film, but it somehow gels together. Sometimes, there’s no explanation as to how this happens; it just does.

Of course, Driver isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s the point. He’s a flawed individual, an anti-hero that strikes women and is perhaps a bit too quick to anger, but the wonderful screenplay and terrific performance from Ryan Gosling keep him grounded. While you certainly won’t approve of some of his actions, you still hope for redemption because Gosling keeps a glimmer of hope alive in him. As one of the most versatile and underrated actors working today (just look at the contrast between this role and his last in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Gosling does wonders and he’s only strengthened by strong supporting actors that include Bryan Cranston and the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, who is perfectly cast (as she always is). She has a real world type of attractiveness, not like the glossed up Hollywood ladies we've become accustomed to, and she brilliantly communicates how her character is feeling with the slightest of expressions.

The lone casting flaw comes in the form of Ron Perlman, who usually comes through when given good material, but he overdoes it here. His over-the-top approach to his character comes with profane language that isn’t offensive because it’s profane, but because it’s excessive and distracting. Similarly out of place are a few unnecessarily long sustained close-ups and the awkward synthpop soundtrack that comes off as somewhat laughable given the dark subject matter (despite the attempted 80’s vibe). All in all, however, Drive is a terrific movie. It’s not always fun (actually, it never is), but it’s gripping, nerve-wracking and well made. If you have a weak stomach, it may not be for you, but for everybody else, it’s a must see.

Drive receives 4.5/5

Friday
Sep092011

Contagion

Disease is a universal fear. Everybody knows what it’s like to be sick and no matter how hard one might try, sickness can’t always be avoided. The thought of a deadly pandemic is scarier than any boogeyman one can think up and it’s here that the latest Steven Soderbergh film, Contagion, finds its inspiration. It takes the fear many have felt in recent years thanks to viruses like SARS and the bird flu and uses it in a mostly effective way, depicting a strain of infection that spreads like wildfire throughout the world and kills millions of people. If you aren’t a germaphobe now, you will be after watching this movie.

Contagion is a film that is guaranteed to freak you out mainly because events like this could actually happen, and have. Consider, if you will, the Black Death, which is alone responsible for upwards of 100 million deaths, and it’s only one example of pandemics throughout history. A new virus, unstudied and untested, can have a devastating effect and, though this is a work of fiction, a voice in the back of your head will be sure to remind you that we are at all times only a few steps away from a similar reality. That’s the strength of the film. It sets out to scare and it succeeds.

However, as with any scary movie, there must be strong central characters to care about. Otherwise, the looming threat means little. Unfortunately, Contagion has none. There’s Mitch (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson have just died from the virus, Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), the head of the CDC who is trying to control the panic that seems to be spreading faster than the virus, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), the person who is determined to find a cure, even if it means testing on herself, Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), an Internet blogger trying to uncover a government conspiracy that may or may not be real, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), a member of the World Health Organization who is about to find herself in a precarious situation, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), who is also doing her part to help, and more. There’s even a cameo by Sanjay Gupta.

I don’t mean to suggest these actors aren’t doing their part; the acting is all around fantastic. I only wish to point out how crammed this movie is. Despite good performances, too little time is spent with any random character to create a connection between them and the viewer. Think of it like a news report detailing a shooting (an unfortunate event that occurred just the other day). It’s sad, but it’s a general sadness. What we feel is a different feeling than what we would have felt had we personally known someone harmed in the event. That’s what happens here and we fail to care about any one person. The film jumps back and forth between characters far too much, to the point where some are left missing for large chunks of the picture. Dr. Orantes, for example, is kidnapped relatively early on and forced to help the last of a dying village in Hong Kong. By the time it got back to her after spending extensive time elsewhere, I had forgotten she was even in that predicament.

It’s a poor juggling act—the majority of characters should have been written out of the script in favor of a select few—but Soderbergh does what he can and, as one would expect, Contagion is well shot, if a bit safe. Soderbergh doesn’t break any rules here the way he does in his more experimental low budget films like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience and instead cranks out a conventional thriller, but his usual verve for filmmaking is nevertheless apparent. Most of the film’s problems stem from too much ambition—its attempt to pack so much into such a short amount of time was unwise—but it’s hard to fault ambition. At least Contagion has some, which is a quality lacking in most movies these days.

Contagion receives 3/5