Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Now I'm going to apologize in advance for the fact that this review has a fair amount of spoilers in it, but there's just no way to talk about what the filmmakers did right and wrong in this particular movie without going into plot points.

In many ways, the 2014 remake of Godzilla is a well made movie. It's visually engaging. They picked a great cast. For the most part, the special effects look incredible. Unfortunately, there's quite a few problems lying beneath the surface of this well polished movie, but the greatest problem has to be the plot. "Who even cares about the plot?" you ask. "Aren't people just paying to see a giant lizard wreck a bunch of cities?" If that's your philosophy on monster movies, I'm not going to shoot you down.

However, the problem is that there's hardly any Godzilla in this Godzilla movie.

I don't mean this in the sense that when Godzilla isn't on screen, the rest of the movie is building up suspense for his next imminent attack. I mean that he isn't even the main focus of the movie. He's just a tertiary character. The main focus of the movie, the thing that everybody is trying to figure out how to kill, the thing that threatens the lives of humans everywhere, is a pair of giant insectoid creatures classified as Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects, or MUTOs for short.

The MUTOS are only here to do two things: eat radiation, and mate. Naturally, they wreck a path of destruction as they try to do both. It's the MUTOs that the characters are primarily focused on stopping. So then where is Godzilla? Most of the movie he just spends kind of chilling out in the ocean, like an actor waiting in the wings for his cue.

In fact, for much of the movie it's easy to forget you're actually supposed to be watching a Godzilla movie. Much of the dialogue in the movie seems to go like this:

SOLDIER: The MUTOs are destroying everything! What do we do?

GENERAL: Here's a plan to kill them.

SOLDIER: What about that Godzilla thing chilling out in the ocean?

GENERAL: Um... This plan ought to kill him too... Maybe.

This might have actually been a fairly decent monster movie if they had just left Godzilla out of it, but he's in there, in a somewhat awkward manner. Inexplicably, one of the scientists, played by Ken Watanabe, suddenly becomes this film's version of Charlie Day's character from Pacific Rim. You know, the one with the kaiju tattoos who's just a bit too excited about the monsters threatening to extinguish mankind. For no real reason, Watanabe's character concludes that Godzilla is a good guy, and that instead of trying to kill him, everybody should just let him be and he'll kill the MUTOs, because he's their apex predator.

And of course, this is exactly what Godzilla sets out to do once the MUTOs make landfall. I realize that in most Godzilla movies, he iss the hero, saving mankind from other monsters, but in the original movie he was the villain, senselessly causing destruction across Tokyo. If I'm going to see a movie called Godzilla and only Godzilla, not Godzilla vs. MUTO, I expect all of the focus to be on a giant lizard trashing cities. Unfortunately, this film decided to jump the gun and build up the mythology of Godzilla as King of All Monsters, without any proper setup of what Godzilla is, and why he's defending humanity. It's like they made Godzilla 2, without making Godzilla 1, figuring you didn't care enough to see it anyway. Defending humanity is the best way to describe what he does on screen. He doesn't attack the MUTOs like he's their predator. He attacks them like it's the sole thing he was put on earth to do. Again, not much of a reason is given as to why this is.

The other problem with having Godzilla just show up out of nowhere and fight the other monsters is that it kind of makes the rest of the action irrelevant. The climax of the movie involves a team of soldiers trying to get a nuclear warhead out of San Francisco, but once it's clear that Godzilla, not the bomb, is going to kill the MUTOs, the scenes with the soldiers feel like they're part of another movie. I almost felt like somebody was flipping channels between an action movie and an HD remaster of an old Japanese monster movie.

Also, Godzilla's look in this version is a bit disappointing. I know it's sacrilege to say this, but personally I preferred the look from the 1998 version. That version had the visual elements of the original Godzilla, but looked more convincing as a monstrous lizard wrecking a city. The 2014 version remains very faithful to the look of the original Godzilla, but to a fault. All the millions of dollars spent on highly advanced CGI results in a creature that looks, and moves, like a guy in a giant rubber suit.

As for the human characters in the film, they all felt very generic. The film starts out strong, building the characters by setting up their roles in the story through a disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant. (The filmmakers were at least tasteful enough to not suggest it was supposed to be Fukushima.) Unfortunately, once the MUTOs show up and start causing havoc, all character development comes to a grinding halt.

The thing is, you need to have strong character development among the human characters to get you to care about the story. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of long, drawn out monster battles and scenes of destruction, and those can be a bit boring after a while if there's nothing to anchor the viewer into the lives of the people caught in the path of destruction. For example, Pacific Rim built up its characters enough that you not only cared about the humans in giant robot suits fighting monsters, but also cared about the people on the streets below. In Cloverfield, all the relationships that are established in the opening party scenes are carried through the movie as a group of friends and family try to get each other out of New York as its being ripped apart.

In this version of Godzilla, because the characters aren't developed well, you don't really care about the humans in the path of destruction. Considering that in the finale, a father, a mother and their son all find themselves in separate parts of the city, all under attack, I couldn't find myself caring much if anything happened to any of them. They felt less like characters and more like extras with extended amounts of dialogue.

That's a shame because, as I said before, the cast in this film is amazing. There's Ken Watanabe, Bryan Crantson, Kick-Ass's Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and even Juliette Binoche. Even though they all put in great performances, they all feel under-used as actors.

The 2014 version of Godzilla had the potential to be a great interpretation of the story. From the outset, it looked like the producers intended to make a serious and seemingly plausible take on the monster movie concept. It had all of the elements it needed to do it. The cast was there. The cinematography, sound and music were all right. Aside from the CGI rubber-suit Godzilla, the effects were good too. In spite of this, Godzilla managed to feel like a late night B-movie somehow given the trappings of a major blockbuster. By all means see it, but wait until its available for home viewing.

Or, if you must see it in cinemas, catch a showing where Mystery Science Theater 3000-like heckling is encouraged. There's enough moments of B-movie stupidity going on that it can only add positively to the viewing experience.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2

Director Marc Webb certainly had an uphill battle when he took on the role of directing the first Amazing Spider-Man movie. The decision had been made to reboot the franchise after the disaster that was Spider-Man 3, but in order to clearly establish to audiences that this was a completely new version of the character, it meant retelling his origin story. It had only been a decade since Sam Rami's first Spider-Man movie had been released, so retelling the origin story meant partially remaking a movie that was only ten years old.

Nonetheless, Webb proved himself up to the task, not only opting for a more serious and "realistic" interpretation of the hero, but also putting a new spin on Spider-Man's origins. In Amazing Spider-Man, he hinted that Peter Parker's transformation into a superhero might have been tied to work that his father, Dr. Richard Parker, did on genetics. There were some scenes filmed that made more overt references to Peter's father's work being tied to his super powers, but these were cut before release, possibly due to fan outcry against this new interpretation.

For Amazing Spider-Man 2, Webb chose not to shy away from his twist on the tale, and instead makes it the backbone of the film's story. In this film, Norman Osborn is dying from a hereditary genetic disease, one he had hoped to cure though the research Peter Parker's dad was doing. Norman's son, Harry, learns he also has the disease. However, when his father dies, and Harry inherits the company he discovered that the board of Oscorp destroyed all of Dr. Parker's files have all been destroyed as a show of good faith to the shareholders, after Dr. Connors attempted to use it to turn everybody into lizard monsters in the previous movie. Harry slowly takes on a more villainous persona as he tries to uncover the research, ultimately taking on the persona of the Green Goblin.

Unlike the first Amazing Spider-Man, which only had a slightly different version of Spider-Man's origin from the original, the Goblin story arc feels completely different from the version in Sam Rami's trilogy. While Willem Dafoe was fantastic as Norman Osborn in those movies, lets be honest, James Franco's performance as Harry Osborn was kind of weak, and only became weaker as his character was supposed to become more villainous. ASM 2's version of Harry Osborn, played by Dane DeHaan, is much more convincing, both as Peter Parker's best friend, and as Spider-Man's nemesis.

As you've probably guessed from the trailers, Green Goblin isn't even the film's main villain. That honor goes to Jamie Foxx, as Electro. As much as I like it when movies try to stick to characters' comic book appearances for movies, Electro's getup was one of the campier ones, and his new look for the movie is a welcome change. Foxx does a great job with the role, taking the character from a confused, socially awkward person to somebody who revels in terrorizing the Web Crawler.

Yes, there are certainly campy aspects to Foxx's portrayal of the villain. In fact, the whole film has a slightly campier feel than the previous one, although nowhere near as over-the-top as Rami's trilogy. However, it's well balanced out with the more serious and dramatic parts of the film. I guess Marc Webb realized you can only go so far with the gritty and serious take on comic books before it looks equally as absurd as a campy interpretation, especially when you have characters that include giant lizard-men and a villain made of electricity.

Even though ASM 2 has both Goblin and Electro as villains, with a minor appearance from Paul Giamatti as Rhino, this film isn't the bloated mess that Spider-Man 3 was, trying to awkwardly mould a story with Venom, Goblin and Sandman. Instead ASM 2 follows an arc similar to The Dark Knight, having one character emerge as a villain early in the story, and another character come into the villain role as the story goes on. However, it also teases at the appearance of many, many more villains for sequels, such as Black Cat, Doctor Octopus, Vulture and Alistair Smythe. (Why would you name a villain "Alistair?" Clearly, thats a wholesome and virtuous name, right?) Hopefully these new villains get paced out well, or used in small does, otherwise ASM 3 might become just as big a mess of a movie as Spider-Man 3 was.

The best part of Amazing Spider-Man 2 was, just like in the last film, the onscreen chemistry between actors Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, who play Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. The way they banter back and forth feels like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. In this go around, Gwen and Peter have a bit of a falling out as Peter is filled with guilt over going back on a promise he made to Gwen's dead father that he'd stay away from her. However, they work so well together as a team that you can't help but cheer for them to get back together.

Overall, the film is pretty top notch. It's not quite on par with the level of quality we've come to expect from comic book movies, thanks to the Avengers franchise, but the film does find the right balance of lightness and seriousness, as well as campiness and grittiness. The only part I can really single out as needing improvement is the music. To put it politely, there are some questionable music choices in the film. For example, some of the songs selected to play over montage scenes don't quite fit the tone of what's happening on screen, and the first song to play over the end credits sequence is, I kid you not, an R&B slow jam.

However the worst offender is probably Electro's theme music. It starts out clever. When Electro is still his human persona, Max Dillon, he's always accompanied by a chorus of whispering voices. It keys you in to the fact that the character isn't quite stable as a person, even before he undergoes his super-powered transformation. Once he does become Electro, and decides that Spider-Man is his enemy, the voices move from whispers to overt screaming. Suddenly, it sounds less like an internal monologue and more like a rejected song from the Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark musical.

In the end, Amazing Spider-Man 2 felt like a satisfying take on the character that managed to feel faithful to it's comic book roots, while being completely different from the version in the Sam Rami trilogy, which also remained pretty faithful to its comic book roots. I'm a bit nervous about these rumors that Sony plans to expand the franchise into spin-off movies, creating an Avengers-style cinematic universe. For now, as long as they stick with Marc Webb at the helm and Andrew Garfield as Spidey, I'll at least be looking forward to Amazing Spider-Man 3.