REVIEW: “Godzilla” (2014)

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Last year brought us “Pacific Rim”, an unashamed homage to the old creature features of the 1950s. By all right it should have been terrible but “Pacific Rim” was a decent film. It was far from perfect but it was a fun and entertaining romp. This year we get “Godzilla”, another monster movie that didn’t have me a bit excited at first and that could have been really awful. But it’s actually not. In fact not only is this new incarnation of the well known reptile better than last year’s “Pacific Rim”, it’s one of the better recent blockbusters and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the theaters this year.

It doesn’t take long to notice several surprising differences in this film from what you might expect. The movie is built upon a very deliberate and methodical story. It certainly has its huge creature-feature action but we are never bombarded with it. The film is also set apart by its spectacular cast. “Godzilla” features a number of great performers that automatically enhance the experience. Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Straithairn make up the film’s great supporting ensemble.

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Cranston plays a nuclear physicist who was present during a 1999 disaster at a nuclear plant in Japan. Fifteen years pass and he is still dealing with the consequences of the disaster while also determined to expose what he believes is a cover up of the true cause behind the event. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays his son, a military man married to Olsen. Watanabe plays a scientist studying hidden findings at the disaster site along with his assistant Hawkins. Obviously towering monsters come into play as the story unfolds and revelations are made. The inevitable global threat takes center stage but not before an intense and very well conceived buildup takes place.

Almost every character is given their moments. At first I was wishing I had seen more of this person or that person, but each serve the plot very well. A couple of performers don’t get a lot of screen time but I’m okay with that mainly because they work really well within the story being told. Better yet, everyone is really good. Taylor-Johnson is probably the weakest of the talented cast but he is certainly adequate for what he is asked to do despite his moments of blandness. Cranston is fabulous and Watanabe is rock-solid as always. Hawkins is always good although she is reserved to an almost background character. Olsen continues to impress and Straithairn is a really nice fit as a Navy Admiral in charge of stopping this massive scaly threat.

But perhaps what I like the most is how the movie doesn’t cater to preconceived notions. As I mentioned, it very slowly develops its story but I found it to be incredibly intriguing and always tense. This may not impress those looking for a constant barrage of big creature effects, but I found it to be a wonderful approach which made those big creature moments all the more satisfying once they come. Director Gareth Edwards constructs his film well which hearkens back to the fun sci-fi monster movies of the 1950s. He uses their formulas of build up, buildup, slight reveal, buildup, big finale. I loved that.

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Now an argument could be made that the “big finale” is a bit too big. There is some merit to that. But even during those moments the story is moving in different directions which kept things interesting. Better yet, we had only seen passing glances of Godzilla up to that point so watching him duke it out in the finale was pretty exciting. It also helps that the movie looks great. There is a touch of the disaster genre here so we get several wide shots of massive destruction. They are always in context and they look fabulous. I also loved the look of Godzilla. Clearly there is CGI used, but yet he maintains an undeniable familiarity with the old classic Godzilla models. I got a real kick out of that. There is also a brilliant use of sound through the picture from big earth-shattering roars to perfect moments of ominous silence.

I think it’s safe to say that “Godzilla” is one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I had such a good time with the film and I was surprised at how well made and well written it is. The cast is committed and there’s no winking at the camera at any point. It literally had me glued to the screen for the entire running time and more than once I was smiling as it reminded me of those old monster movies that I still adore. Maybe there is a bit of nostalgia talking but I’m fine with that. I had a great time with “Godzilla” and I can’t wait to see it again!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Drive”

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The opening scene of “Drive” is a slick and stylistic introduction to what the rest of the film aims to be – a tense yet deliberate car driving action picture. The opening scene happens to be one of the film’s best and its one of the few scenes that could be called memorable. But that’s not saying “Drive” is a bad movie. It has several things going for it. But underneath the crafty and stylish surface lies a fairly simple and conventional action film. From its lead character to the story development, everything moves along at a pretty measured pace with a straightforward narrative. Yet in the end I never connected with it like many others have.

Ryan Gosling plays a movie stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for an assortment of shady characters. He’s only refered to as “the driver” or “the kid”. Gosling’s dialogue is sparse and he is required to reveal his character mainly through expressions and actions. We never get any background information on him and his character really isn’t fleshed out all that well. But in a way I liked that. I liked drawing my own conclusions based on his associations, occasional turns towards violence, and his compassion for Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor from his apartment building with whom he begins a relationship. Their relationship consists of several scenes of the two looking and grinning at each other along with the occasional afternoon drive. Irene is raising her young son while her husband is away in prison and the driver is instantly attached to them both.

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Mood lighting + a toothpick = The Goz

Their growing relationship hits a speed bump when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison. Standard genuinely wants to turn his life around but some old debts make that a little hard. The driver agrees to help Standard mainly due to his affection for Irene and her son. Albert Brooks is good as mob guy Bernie Rose who, along with his partner Nino (Ron Perlman), are tied into Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a garage owner who supplies the driver with getaway jobs. Brooks’ character is the prototypical mob “bad guy” but with his own idiosyncrasies. He provides some fantastic scenes but unfortunately he all but disappears through the middle of the film. That’s a shame because I would love to see him get a little more screen time.

As I mentioned, “Drive” and its story are pretty straightforward. There’s not much that broadsides you nor is there anything that calls for your extra attention. There’s nothing especially unique and there aren’t any big surprises with the exception of a couple of brutally violent scenes that can be quite jarring. Speaking of the violence, it’s implementation into the movie is actually quite strange. The more graphic scenes of violence tend to involve lower level characters but what should be the more important scenes seem to be depicted through shadows, quick cut-aways, or far off camera shots. I feel this was obviously a stylistic choice but I found it more puzzling than engaging.

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A look we see about 150 times in “Drive”

Speaking of style, “Drive” looks fantastic. Director Nicolas Winding Refn cleverly uses light and camera angles to give the picture its own unique look. The driving scenes from inside the car look great with Refn transitioning from one camera angle to another with an artistic flare. And yet with all he’s trying to do, he never loses control of his camera whether in a high-speed car chase or a conversation at the dinner table. I also loved his use of sound. Many times he cuts the music and just let’s the natural sound effects carry the scene. “Drive” is just an all-around technically impressive picture.

While it seems I’ve been a little hard on “Drive” and it’s almost run-of-the-mill action movie storyline, I was drawn to many things in the picture. The opening scene does an amazing job grabbing its audience and immediately getting them involved. And while the story may lack a real feel of originality, I see it more as an homage to not only several particular films but to a specific style of movies. I also found myself interested and invested throughout. I think the performances are uniformly strong. Gosling is given the most restrictions but he manages to do a nice job. Carey Mulligan is wonderful as always and Brooks, Cranston, and Isaac are particularly good. Like I said, there’s plenty to like about “Drive”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Argo”

And you thought movies were for entertainment only! “Argo” is the third feature film directed by Ben Affleck. It’s also his best work to date. “Argo” takes place during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and is loosely based on CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez’s bizarre but daring rescue attempt of six US diplomats. For the most part Affleck steers clear of politics instead choosing to focus more on the intensity of the events. This results in a well conceived and focused story that sizzles from the opening scene to the end credits.

The film opens up with what’s arguably the best 20 minutes in cinema so far this year. Affleck instantly sets the stakes high by showing the immediate causes of the unrest in Tehran through a brief but effective opening montage. In 1979 Iran was in chaos after the people had overthrown their unpopular Shah and replaced him with an Islamic Republic. Anti-American sentiment boiled over after the United States granted asylum to the deposed leader. Led by Islamic militants, a mass of people break into the US Embassy and begin taking hostages. Six diplomats manage to escape and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. The protesting and subsequent storming of the US Embassy is packed with tension and it’s brilliantly visualized through a mix of old news footage and clever camera work. And I’m not just speaking of the hostile crowd outside of the gates. We see diplomats inside, fully expecting a breach, frantically gathering sensitive documents to incinerate and shred. We see last-minute contacts being made which sends Washington scurrying. All of this is realized as truly riveting, edge-of-your-seat cinema.

As mentioned, six American diplomats manage to escape and hide in the home of Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Knowing the militants will soon realize that six Americans are unaccounted for, the State Department brings in Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) to come up with a plan to get them out. He convinces his superiors to allow him to enter Tehran, meet up with the hidden diplomats, and leave the country with them posing as a Canadian film crew scouting out a location for a sci-fi movie. Knowing how thorough the militants will investigate the ruse if suspicious, Mendez is sent to movie make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a semi-successful Hollywood film producer. Together they put all the pieces in place for their fake movie including a title (“Argo”), a script, a production company, and even a movie poster, all intended to give credibility to Mendez’s cover.

The film then follows the planning of the mission, the anxiety of the diplomats in hiding, and the ever-present uncertainty in Washington from those who don’t fully buy into Mendez’s plan. All of this is told by the able hands of Affleck who has certainly established himself as a skilled storyteller. His style fits perfectly with Chris Terrio’s sharp and layered screenplay. Terrio crafts a potent dramatization by adding just enough to the real events to give the narrative a real dramatic pop. A couple of fictional characters are thrown in and there are moments that are purely for dramatic effect. But that’s what cinema does and I can’t imagine this story playing out any better than it does here. It also has the sharp sting of relevance. I couldn’t help but think of the recent Benghazi embassy attack During the film’s opening sequence.

You also can’t help but be impressed by the movie’s impeccable attention to detail in creating a believable late 70s and early 80s atmosphere and vibe. The movie opens with the old late 70s Warner Bros. logo which perfectly set the table for me. Then there are the obvious things – the cars, the clothes, the hairstyles, the technology. But Affleck also employs several clever devices such as original news footage featuring the likes of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel. We see archived footage of President Jimmy Carter as well as authentic newscasts of the turmoil in Iran at the time. It blends in perfectly with the fictional additions to give a true credence to everything we see on-screen.

“Argo” is a rock-solid movie that does all of these things well, and I haven’t even gone into the fantastic performances. Some have said otherwise, but I found Affleck to be a compelling lead. Then you have the incredible supporting work of Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Titus Welliver, and Michael Parks. And of course Goodman and Arkin are a blast. The performances are just another strength and this gripping and well-made film. It grabs you and holds you right through to its nail-biting finale. And be sure to stay through the credits for some great images of the real people involved in this amazing rescue attempt. It’s just icing on the cake of one of the better films of 2012.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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“TOTAL RECALL” (2012) – 2 STARS

I don’t often consider the “is it necessary” question when approaching a movie remake. While too many remakes can become tiresome and many result in terrible movies, a good writer and director can provide a unique and fresh take on older material. That’s what I was hoping for from Len Wiseman’s remake of “Total Recall”, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 sci-fi action flick. Unfortunately, Wiseman’s film isn’t nearly as fun or engaging as the original. It takes away some of the more entertaining elements of the original and replaces them with a nice new glossy coat of paint.

The original “Total Recall” featured some great action and some genuinely funny moments. But it was also a relative to that great 80’s action genre so it had its share of cheese (which I love). This new version has some good action but it loses its punch thanks to its simple and lackluster story. Colin Farrell plays Quaid, an assembly line worker who has grown tired of his mundane life. About the only excitement he finds are in his reoccurring violent dreams. He decides to visit Rekall, a memory implant company who gives people exciting experiences by injecting them with artificial memories. Quaid chooses the secret agent implants but as the process begins Rekall is stormed by armed troops from the corrupt local Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston). Quaid shoots his way out revealing a skill he never knew he had. He rushes home and tells his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), but she tries to kill him. Confused and no longer sure who he is, Quaid goes on the run chased by an army led by his one-time wife.

Most of the movie consists of one big chase. Quaid jumps from rooftop to rooftop, dangles from ledges, and dodges bullets while every once in a while stopping to get a little information about who he really is. Now I love good action but I eventually began to lose interest due to the lack of any real substance. Quaid does run across Melina (Jessica Biel), a girl who appeared in his nightmares, and you would expect her to add a little more to the story. But for the most part, she’s fairly shallow and basically just joins Quaid in being chased. Her character in the original film had considerable more depth. Beckinsale’s Lori gives the action scenes most of their life. She’s tough, mean, and persistent and she’s a strong female antagonist.  But the writing let’s her down as well and even she is one-dimensional.

One thing that I did like about the story was the sci-fi world it created. A chemical holocaust has ravaged earth and there are only two superpowers remaining, The United Federation of Britain which is essentially Europe and “The Colony” which is Australia. The two are connected by a massive elevator transport than runs through the Earth’s core. There’s a political tension between the two and it’s fueled by a strong resistance movement which Cohaagen is desperate to squash regardless of the cost. The special effects and CGI deliver a visually sharp and creative world. The UFB is a fancy, upscale region while “The Colony” has a dirty, over populated, inner-city look to it. Both locations are distinctly different but futuristic in their own unique ways. There are also several technologies that should make sci-fi geeks drool including a cool  hand phone implant and a wild electronic rope gun. I loved the environment and the visuals are truly impressive.

There’s little else to say about the “Total Recall” remake. Farrell tries to keep things interesting but in the end all he’s asked to do is run, jump, and look confused. I mentioned that Beckinsale was fairly fun but no other character really stands out. Even the always good Bryan Cranston is your typical cookie-cutter villain and he’s nowhere near as devious and evil as Ronny Cox’s Cohaagen in the original film. There are a few other things that keep the movie from being a complete wash-out. The special effects are dazzling, there are some good futuristic action sequences, and there are several fun little salutes to the original movie. But in the end there’s just not enough here to make this a worthwhile remake or anything more than a mediocre movie. And that’s disappointing, especially from a sci-fi fan like me.

“JOHN CARTER” – 4 STARS

After seeing the mixed reviews for Disney’s $250 million “John Carter”, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s the kind of movie that you automatically expect to receive some unfavorable reviews. It’s a large-scaled science fiction epic and they simply don’t appeal to a certain group of people. I’m a pretty big sci-fi fan but even I had concerns going in to “John Carter”. Being someone completely unfamiliar with the source material, could the movie pull me into its enormous, sprawling world? Could Taylor Kitsch headline such a huge, ambitious project? Let me just say I was thoroughly drawn in right from the start of the film and Kitsch, while certainly not profound, does enough to get the job done.

“John Carter” is based on of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars”, the first book of the 11-volume “Barsoom” series. The movie starts with Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arriving in Richmond, Virginia after inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle, John Carter (Kitsch). Edgar hasn’t seen his uncle in years but he’s always cherished the wonderful stories he used to tell. Edgar is given a private journal that John Carter said was to only be read by his nephew. It’s through Edgar’s reading of the journal that we’re whisked away on the interplanetary journey that makes up the majority of the story.

In the journal John Carter writes of his time prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory after the Civil War. He’s taken into custody by a U.S. Calvary officer (Bryan Cranston) who wants to recruit him to join their fight against the Apache. Carter finds himself caught in the middle of a shootout between the Calvary and the Apache. He takes shelter in a cave where he finds not only gold but a mysterious medallion that ends up transporting him to what he later finds out to be Mars. He quickly finds that the planet is inhabited by a race of four-armed aliens called Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem DaFoe) takes a liking to him and is especially intrigued by Carter’s newfound gravity-manipulating leaping abilities. We also learn that two humanoid cities, Helium and Zodanga, are at war with each other. At the center of the conflict is the beautiful Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins). Her father and Helium leader (Ciaran Hinds) is pressured into giving his daughter in marriage to an evil Zodanga general (Dominic West) in hopes that it will bring peace between the two groups. Dejah wants no part of it and of course John Carter finds himself right in the middle of it.

The movie puts together a solid supporting cast of quality actors. In addition to DaFoe, Hinds, West, and Cranston we also get Mark Strong  as the leader of the god-like Holy Therns, a sinister group of shape-shifting eternals who have been manipulating historical events on several planets. Strong is good here and he adds yet another solid “bad guy” performance to his resume. Thomas Haden Church has a lot of fun playing an evil Thark who desperately wants to overthrow Tarkas and gain power over the Alien tribe. But the main focus is on Taylor Kitsch. The first thing you notice is that he has all the physical attributes needed to play John Carter. He’s quite believable and he certainly knows how to handle a sword. The one thing I noticed is that he didn’t have a very wide range of emotions. The character is intended to be cold and reserved. But there are scenes that call for more emotion and Kitsch doesn’t add much to them. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t have a lot of charisma. I did buy into the chemistry between him and the lovely Lynn Collins. While her character is given a few pretty cheesy lines, she’s still pretty good and she shares some really fun scenes with Kitsch.

While Kitsch may not necessarily stand out, the special effects certainly do. “John Carter’s” assortment of creatures look impressive and its alien technologies are a cool cross between futuristic and archaic. I was blown away by the detailed structure of the solar-powered air ships. I also really liked the CGI design of the Thark creatures. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, better known for his work at Pixar Animation, creates a planet that’s full of life yet that looks barren and on the verge of death. And while the landscapes do look fitting, they resemble an Arizona desert far more than what you would expect Mars, The Red Planet, to look like.

Stanton’s Mars is also a place of a strained but structured social order. There are a lot of politics at work between the two humanoid cities and we even get a bit of rather corny social commentary along the way. Mars also has its system of theology that ends up helping Carter and Dejah along the way but I would be lying if I said I understood exactly how. But together, the politics and theology of the planet do make it more than just a wasteland full of monsters and little green men. It makes it’s inhabitation feel more structured and complex and I actually bought into it (with a slight bit of suspension of disbelief).

“John Carter” is the first big blockbuster of 2011 and it’s already been viewed as a “flop”. It’s mediocre opening weekend at the box office did little to cover the film’s $250 million price tag. But I have to say that I had a lot of fun with the film. I enjoy good science fiction and I feel this qualifies. “John Carter” isn’t without its faults but it overcomes them by creating a huge new world that I had never experienced. I’ve never read Wright’s books but I think I could, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing “John Carter” become the full trilogy it was intended to be. I’m certainly not calling this the best movie of the year. But I’m also not calling it the terrible movie that some are. For me it was a creative and entertaining motion picture experience – the type of thing that makes the movies fun.