Godzilla (2014)


Oh no, there goes San Francisco, go go Godzilla!

Oh no, there goes San Francisco, go go Godzilla!

(2014) Action (Warner Brothers) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Carson Bolde, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, CJ Adams, Patrick Sabongui, Jared Keeso, Luc Roderique, Eric Keenleyside, Garry Chalk, Ken Yamamura, Hiro Kanagawa, Jill Teed. Directed by Gareth Edwards

Sixty years ago, Toho Studios in Japan debuted a monster movie unlike any other. As the only country ever to have a nuclear bomb used in war against them, Japan had a unique relationship to the Atomic age. That movie, Gojira which was retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters with some scenes featuring Raymond Burr added in to appeal to American audiences, was not just a monster movie but also a parable about the nuclear age. The wild popularity of the film would spawn 27 sequels (in which Godzilla became a protector of children and a symbol for Japanese cultural weirdness), a godawful American remake and now this.

Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) enter a cavern accidentally entered into by a mining company in the Philippines back in the 90s. They discover a gigantic skeleton with two parasitical cocoons inside. One of the parasites has evidently hatched.

Meanwhile in Japan, American nuclear scientist Joe Brody (Cranston) is concerned about some unusual seismic readings. He sends his wife Sandra (Binoche) to check on the structure to make sure that the reactor they are both working at is intact. Then, all hell breaks loose and a portion of the suburbs of Tokyo are leveled and irradiated.

Cut to present day. Joe and Sandra’s son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) has just returned from Afghanistan/Iraq to his nurse wife Elle (Olsen) and son Sam (Bolde) to their San Francisco home and he looks to get past his bomb disposal career and back into mainstream civilian life when he gets news that will take him back to Japan where he and his father will discover that what happened that fateful day was not what the world has been told…that something has emerged from the bowels of time and threatens all of humanity. Something that is headed for the United States…and there’s more than one…

Since the trailer debuted online, fandom has been foaming at the mouth for this to come out and for the most part, the movie doesn’t disappoint. I doubt you’ll see a more high-energy spectacle all summer long than this. Monsters rampage, buildings fall, people scream and get trampled and crushed by falling masonry. Edwards was going for a certain degree of realism, at least as realistic as you can get when dealing with 350 foot tall reptiles and their insectoid foes.

For the most part that realism is achieved. We get the sense of what it would be like to be in a situation where gigantic creatures were wreaking havoc in an urban environment. The digital wizards at WETA come through again, creating a new vision of Godzilla that is far more terrifying than the stunt man in the rubber suit stomping on a model of Tokyo. This Godzilla moves majestically, even gracefully but with terrifying resolve. His foes are Giger-esque nightmares that will resonate with those who had Starship Troopers-inspired freak-outs in their youth.

What Godzilla lacks is a human touch. Taylor-Johnson, who has done high-profile roles in Kick-Ass and to better effect in Nowhere Boy plays Ford the military man with all the warmth and personality of a wood chipper. His action hero persona is generic, indistinguishable from other performances in similar roles but unlike classic action heroes, there’s no hint of humor or anything human. It’s as if neither the actor nor the director wanted to upstage the imaginary beast.

Other than Cranston, whose obsessive scientist is played with clenched teeth and wild eyes, few of the main characters seem to modulate much beyond infernal calm. Watanabe comes off as a cut-rate Mr. Miyagi, dispensing nuggets of Zen-like wisdom while contributing precious little to the film. I also have to say that Dr. Serizawa’s assertions that Godzilla exists “to restore the balance of nature” is a bit ludicrous at best and makes for awkward movie moments.

Still, this is directed magnificently. Godzilla doesn’t make an appearance until nearly halfway through the film and even then he is scarcely glimpsed until the final third of the movie. Once things get going however, the action is relentless and on an epic scale. It’s hard to use the word “breathtaking” in an era in which visual effects seem to re-set the bar with every blockbuster but it sure comes to mind here. Edwards, who has since been given one of the upcoming standalone Star Wars films to direct (as well as the inevitable Godzilla sequels) is undoubtedly going to be one of the big names in Hollywood for years to come.

So while this isn’t the perfect summer movie, it scores in all the right places to make this the movie to beat this summer. Da Queen, who is not a big monster movie fan in general, loved this movie and if that’s any sort of measuring stick, you will too.

REASONS TO GO: Excellent creature and action effects. Has everything you’d want in a summer action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks any notable characters other than the monsters. “Balance of nature” subplot goes off the rails a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of destruction and mayhem, creature violence and some scary sequences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dr. Serizawa was named after one of the lead characters in the original Godzilla in 1954.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Double

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Edge of Darkness


Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson doesn't react too well to getting a speeding ticket from Officer Goldberg.

(2010) Suspense Thriller (Warner Brothers) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Bojana Novakovic, Frank Grillo, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare, David Aaron Baker, Damian Young, Caterina Scorsone. Directed by Martin Campbell

The somewhat bizarre story of Mel Gibson of late has been public knowledge almost to the point of overkill. I’m not going to comment one way or another oh the things he’s done or said – that is for others to do. I will say I have always admired him as an actor.

It’s been eight years since Gibson last assayed a leading role in a film. In this one, he plays Boston Police Detective Craven, who doesn’t have a whole lot in this life, but he does have a daughter, Emma (Novakovic) who is his whole existence. She works for a big corporation called Northmoor that is one of those companies that nobody seems to know what they do, only that they have big government contracts. Emma seems a bit unwell, with frequent nosebleeds and overall fatigue.

However, her condition gets a whole lot worse when a masked figure shouts “Craven” as the two of them are walking out of his house, then lets loose with a shotgun blast that kills her right in front of his eyes. With her death his life is completely shattered in an instant.

It is assumed that the shooter had meant to target the police detective instead of the girl, but it becomes evident that there is more going on than meets the eye and the detective in Craven knows something smells rotten. He decides to ask a few questions, shake a few trees, see what falls out. He starts with her boyfriend (Roberts) who seems terrified but points Craven in the direction of Northmoor. The detective talks with the unctuous corporate president Jack Bennett (Huston) and while that sets his cop instincts into overdrive, he’s still flailing around in the dark. That is, until he gets a visit from Jedburgh (Winstone), a mysterious sort who is one of those clandestine guys who knows more than anybody else.

Soon Craven is knee deep on eco-terrorists, government hitmen, corrupt politicians and attempts on his life. There is no subtlety going on here; he is a man with nothing to lose because he’s already lost everything. There is indeed no more dangerous a man than that.

This is a more than competent thriller. Director Martin Campbell has done Bond movies (the very respectable Casino Royale) as well as high-profile franchise pics (the upcoming Green Lantern) and has shown that he knows what he’s doing. He handles action scenes deftly, and spends enough time on character development without slowing the pacing down for it. That’s a pretty difficult balance to achieve, and Campbell makes it look effortless.

His star has a whole lot of baggage and I don’t just mean onscreen. Gibson’s popularity isn’t what it once was when he was the World’s Sexiest Man, whose smile made him a “right here, right now” choice for many a woman. His anti-Semitic and misogynistic tirades have landed him on tabloid news shows and brought him unwanted publicity. His career has suffered as a result – this high-profile film was far from a hit.

That’s a shame because it isn’t half-bad. It’s based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. While this one has been transplanted to American shores, it retains much of the suspense of the original. Helping out is a stellar support cast. Winstone is one of the best in the business, and he sinks his teeth into this role. His scenes with Gibson are some of the film’s best moments.

Huston plays the smooth Bennett like a cobra, mesmerizing us before he strikes to inject a lethal dose of venom. Huston excels at these sorts of roles and he could have easily phoned this one in, but he doesn’t. He makes Bennett more than the standard corporate cliché, and that helps elevate the movie somewhat.

Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of clichés here and the movie gets bogged down in its own plot intricacies from time to time. Be that as it may, this is a good thriller that has enough entertainment value that if you can look beyond Gibson’s off-screen troubles, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson is still very much a star, although a tarnished one. A very respectable cast; scenes between Winstone and Gibson are top-notch.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The concept has been done to death and the movie doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table. While there are a few good scares, mostly it’s just gruesome.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, some of it gruesome. There’s also plenty of good Irish Catholic Boston cop-style foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Martin Campbell also directed the mini-series on which this is based.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the British mini-series giving viewers a good frame of reference.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $81.1M on a $80M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Obsessed

Goldfinger


Goldfinger

Shirley Eaton is just golden.

(United Artists) Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Frobe, Harold Sakata, Cec Linder, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewellyn, Shirley Eaton. Directed by Guy Hamilton

There are many who consider this to be the ultimate James Bond movie and quite frankly, I’d have to agree with them. All of the elements come together and make this the standard against which not only all other Bond movies are measured, but all other spy movies as well.

James Bond (Connery) is in Miami having a little R&R when he receives a call from his boss M (Lee) to assist the CIA in observing Auric Goldfinger (Frobe) who happens to be staying at the Fontainebleau as is Bond. Felix Leiter (Linder), the CIA liaison, gives Bond the low-down; Goldfinger comes to the pool area every day to cheat at canasta, having a young beautiful blonde by the name of Jill Masterson (Eaton) report what his opponent’s cards are via shortwave radio to his hearing aid. Bond, being Bond, decides to mess with Goldfinger. He seduces Masterson, causing Goldfinger to lose. However, Goldfinger doesn’t take kindly to losing and sends a flunky named Oddjob (Sakata) to knock out Bond and repay Masterson for her betrayal by painting her gold, suffocating her skin.

As it turns out, MI6 has a big interest in Goldfinger owing to his smuggling of gold in and out of the UK. They’re wondering how he’s doing it and put Bond on the job. He follows the portly villain to Switzerland, where he has a run-in with Tilly, Jill’s sister. Oddjob murders her as well, making the score Oddjob 2, Masterson girls 0. He also captures Bond, which gives Goldfinger the opportunity to set up an industrial laser aimed for the Bond family jewels. It also gives Goldfinger to deliver the all-time classic villain line when Bond asks “You expect me to talk?” (For the record, the response is “No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die”).

Bond, thinking quickly on his feet (or on his back as it were), implies that he knows a lot more than he actually does. This forces Goldfinger to send Bond back to his Kentucky horse ranch under the watchful eye of his personal pilot Pussy Galore (Blackman), the dirtiest character name in the history of movies. There, he uncovers Goldfinger’s real ambition; to set off a nuclear device at Fort Knox, irradiating the largest gold supply in the world and making his own supply ultimately far more valuable. Can Bond stop the nefarious plot and overcome the seemingly indestructible Oddjob?

This was the Bond that essentially became the template for all the Bond movies to follow. It set the bar and quite high as well. For better or worse, all other Bond movies are measured against this one, just as all Bond villain are measured against Goldfinger, all Bond flunkies are compared to Oddjob and all Bond girls are compared to Pussy Galore.

The ultimate Bond car is the Aston-Martin DB5 that makes an appearance here. With its changing license plate, rocket launchers, oil slick dispensers and ejection seat, it was the ultimate spy vehicle. The car became so popular that two working models were built (complete with ejection seat) and toured the world in support of the film.

Like most Bond films of the era, the attitude towards women is pretty dated. While Pussy is a strong, independent woman, she is no match for Bond’s machismo; in fact, all it takes is a single kiss for her to see the error of her ways, a kiss that is forced upon her, I might add. In our more enlightened times, we might call that sexual assault.

It is the action that makes Goldfinger what it is, and that action is breathtaking. The assault on Fort Knox is one of the most awe-inspiring action sequences in the history of the movies. While some of the special effects look a little clunky, it still stands up 45 years after the fact.

I’m not saying this is the perfect movie, mind you. It is pretty darn close, however. It’s a reflection of its times, and that certainly needs to be taken into account, but it is timeless in all the important aspects of the movie. If you haven’t seen Goldfinger yet, your film education is incomplete without it.                    

WHY RENT THIS: By far, the best of the Bond movies. Frobe is one of the best baddies of all time and Connery was never better than he was here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Well, maybe you just don’t like movies made in the 20th century. Your loss.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surprising amount of violence, much smoking (remember, that was common for the era) but still pretty tame by modern standards.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the hoodlums gathered at Goldfinger’s ranch is played by an uncredited Garry Marshall, future director of Pretty Woman and Valentine’s Day, among others.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The new Blu-Ray contains a digitally enhanced print and there are a number of contemporaneous features about the making of the film. There are also some screen tests of some other actors who tested for the Goldfinger part, as well as a featurette on the phenomenon of the movie and one on the Aston Martin DB5, possibly the most popular movie car of all time.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: You Only Live Twice

Babylon A.D.


Babylon A.D.

Despite the indicator on her cap, Vin Diesel still has trouble spotting Melanie Thierry.

(20th Century Fox) Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Gerard Depardieu, Charlotte Rampling, Mark Strong, Melanie Thierry, Lambert Wilson, Jerome Le Banner. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

In a world where survival is achieved only by the most ruthless and compassion is as extinct as dinosaurs, is it possible that someone could learn the meaning of sacrifice for the greater good?

Toorop (Diesel) is a mercenary/assassin living in a squalid flat in the remains of a former Soviet Bloc city that has fallen into disrepair and decay. Guns are sold on street corners like pretzels and dinner is whatever game you can kill or steal. Toorop has lived by his principles, his wits and his ability to come out ahead whenever violence is necessary.

His flat is invaded by a bunch of goons who interrupt Toorop’s dinner to take him outside to a high-tech armored limo wherein resides Gorsky (Depardieu), a powerful ruthless Russian crimelord who Toorop owes a debt to. Gorsky tells Toorop if he can smuggle a girl to America – New York to be specific – in six days, his debt will be wiped out and Toorop, who is wanted for terrorism in the good ol’ U.S. of A. can get a new passport, the key to a new life.

The girl turns out to be Aurora (Thierry), a curiously naïve young woman living in a convent run by the Noelites, a somewhat recent addition to the religious scene. She will be accompanied by Sister Rebeka, a rather serene nun who can kick booty when the occasion calls for it. The two of them will have to make it to a train that will take them to Siberia, where they can cross the Bering Sea in a commandeered submarine. It becomes reasonably obvious that someone doesn’t want Aurora to get to where she’s going, but Toorop and Aurora herself manage to avoid bombs, traps and cage fighters in order to get across the ocean with the aid of Toorop’s friend Finn (Strong).

Crossing the automated drone-patrolled frontier of Alaska and Canada into the States proves to be a difficult, although not insurmountable problem. Once the trio makes it to New York, they discover their problems are really starting.

Kassovitz, the director of such excellent films as Metisse and The Crimson Rivers, has publically disowned the movie, complaining loudly about studio interference from the beginning and quite frankly, it’s clear that this is the work of many hands. There are nonsensical action sequences that do nothing to advance the plot, and whole chunks of exposition missing that might make the actions of the lead characters a bit clearer.

Kassovitz has a wonderful dystopian vision here; the Eastern European sequences (mainly filmed in the Czech Republic) are dreary and muddy, speaking of a society in major decay where the infrastructure has all but fallen apart. By contrasts, New York is glittering and gaudy, the very model of a futuristic city. Toorop moves through both of them with the same panther-like grace, his very muscles radiating the tension of an animal that can rip your face off at any moment without any provocation.

However, all those beautiful images are submarined (no pun intended) by a plot that is at equal turns ludicrous and muddy, hard to follow and hard to believe when you can figure it out. The appearances of Rampling as a kind of homicidal Pope and Wilson as a scientist on life support who essentially has all the answers to all the questions about who Aurora is and why she’s so damned important. Worth dying for? Apparently yes….twice.

Although critics are fond of taking shots at Vin Diesel, he is far from the reason this movie doesn’t work. His Toorop is the closest thing he’s played to his signature character of Riddick yet; he’s a little less sociopathic than Riddick but still clearly a survivor that will trample over anything getting in the way of his survival. Not particularly new territory for Diesel but he knows it well and covers it adequately.

Yeoh is also a gamer, and she is given even less to work with than Diesel, but still manages to make her character memorable and believable. Yeoh has been one of my favorite actresses for the past decade and I’ll walk many miles over broken glass to see one of her movies…well, almost. Still, I will go out of my way to check out any movie that’s she’s in, even this one.

There are some good solid concepts in here somewhere and there might have been a decent movie made if the studio had left it alone, and if the writers had made the last third a little better. Kassovitz is a very talented director who deserved better material than this which, unfortunately he had a hand in. Still, something tells me he’ll think twice before working for a big Hollywood studio again and that’s a shame; he’s got some really great movies in him that might benefit from those kinds of budgets.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the visuals are spectacular. Yeoh and Diesel give it the old college try but really don’t have enough to sink their teeth into.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a real mess. It feels like too many hands were stirring this soup; it’s the poster child for studio interference and overly ambitious directors clashing with the final film being the ultimate loser.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and foul language, as well as some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The round Sigil Tattoo on Toorop’s neck is meant to be a protective ward and is known as The Gate of the Necronomicon, symbolizing Man, The Creator and The Watchers.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are full versions of the commercials playing in the background, as well as an animated “prequel” that explains some of Aurora’s backstory.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 13 Tzameti