Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla


GODZILLA:  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Watanabe, directed by Gareth Edwards (123 min.)

It's hard to believe a summer blockbuster could pull off what the new Godzilla pulls off.  Here is a large summer monster movie that is surprising from start to finish in so many ways, that is patient, that is slow burning, and an action tentpole picture that earns its thrills when they do come.  It is too easy to throw scene after scene of destruction on the screen and assault audiences with noise and fireballs, and director Gareth Edwards had the perfect vehicle for such a noisy barrage.  However, Edwards, along with screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, decided restraint was the proper way to approach this rebirth of the King of Monsters.  The result of their calm, calculated re-imagining is a breath of fresh air.

2014 is the sixtieth birthday of Godzilla, and his makeover comes with a new story and new life.  The film opens in the Phillipines in 1999 where a mining dig has uncovered strange fossils.  Something has escaped, crossed the island, and disappeared into the sea.  This all much to the chagrin of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe).  Meanwhile, in a small Japanese village surrounding a nuclear power plant, we meet Joe and Sandra Brody, married scientists played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.  Joe and Sandra live near the plant with their young son, Ford, and there seems to be some dangerous tremors causing a disturbance at the plant.  There is a horrible tragedy, and the film jumps forward to the present day.

The Japanese village has been shut off, quarantined, deemed uninhabitable due to the radiation from the disaster.  Ford has grown up to be a Naval Officer and is married to Elle (Elizabeth Olson).  Meanwhile, Joe Brody has never been able to move past the disaster in 1999 and swears government conspiracy.  Ford gets a call at his home in San Francisco informing him that Joe has been arrested sneaking back into the Japanese village to try and get some important disks from his old home.  Reluctantly, Ford flies to Japan to free his dad and is subsequently pulled headfirst into the plot, which unfolds at a deliberate pace.  Joe's cries for justice reach the ears of Dr. Serizawa, who believes Joe might have some important information about what actually destroyed the power plant in '99.  Turns out, as well all knew, Joe's conspiracies were correct.  The disaster wasn't an earthquake, but it wasn't Godzilla either.

I won't spoil any more plot points but I will say Godzilla is a surprising thriller in several areas.  The appearance of the King of Monsters is more than an hour into this two-hour film, but the anticipation has been earned.  There is mystery at the core of the picture, and it builds upon dread and impending doom so that when we first see Godzilla it is not just another CGI money shot, but a well-earned, awe-inspiring moment.  Edwards understands the effectiveness of patience and the power of making audiences wait to see what they've come to see.  He is borrowing straight from the Jaws playbook, and it works.  Even when Godzilla flashes his destructive brilliance in Frisco - in surprising ways - the battle scenes are not long and loud and they don't move a million miles per hour.  They are all encompassing, but brief, and this addition by subtraction makes the whole thing feel satisfying.  These scenes in the film's climax, where we really get the first extended looks at Godzilla, are the antithesis of the climactic moments in Man of Steel.

The performances here all feel like performances that don't belong in a Godzilla film, where hokey dialogue and bad acting became status quo.  Cranston delivers a dedicated, weighty performance as Joe, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's stiffness seems to work well with his Ford character.  Olsen and Watanabe serve their purpose to the picture, but Godzilla revolves around the work of father and son.  Godzilla is a solid summer blockbuster, but not really in any ways I expected.  The cinematography is elegant, the screenplay is smart, the direction sound, and the monster himself is given a fresh rebirth on his sixtieth birthday.

B+

  

Friday, May 9, 2014

Neighbors



NEIGHBORS: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, directed by Nicholas Stoller (96 min.) 

Neighbors is utterly preposterous, but it is still a raucous comedy and a lot of fun.  Not only is it raunchy and out of control, it is also an absurd satire on the transition from college life and non stop partying into the mundane world of adulthood, parenthood, and responsibility.  Most of us men are never quite ready for such a switch, and many women are right alongside us.  Such is the case with Mac and Kelly, new parents played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne.  Mac is slowly trying to shift into a businessman, and the shift is painful to his youthful drive.  Kelly is a stay-at-home mom who tries to hide her daily boredom.  Of course Mac and Kelly love each other, they have a nice home, and they adore their beautiful baby girl, Stella, but the switch is still a rough road.  So when a fraternity moves into the house next door, the parents find themselves torn between trying to remain relevant and young, and asking their new neighbors - in the coolest way possible - to keep it down a tad.

The president of the fraternity is Teddy, played by a sculpted and cocky Zac Efron.  Teddy has more aspirations for becoming a legend in his own fraternity than he is with attending class, and he has more muscles than brain cells, although that aspect isn't played up as much as it should have been.  He has a dream that involves the biggest baddest party at the end of the semester, but of course practice parties must get underway immediately.  Teddy's right-hand man is Pete, played by James Franco's younger brother Dave, and he seems to have gotten the lion's share of IQ points.

Mac and Kelly attempt to make friends with Teddy and his brothers on the outset, sharing weed with them as a peace offering. They end up staying all night and partying because, well, they have the baby monitor so its fine to leave your four-month old at home alone.  Bonds seem to have been forged and friends made, but pretty soon Teddy doesn't listen to their pleas to keep things down, the cops are called, and Mac and Teddy begin a war of pranks and underhanded schemes against one another that run the length of the film.  The sabotages escalate in some funny scenes, some not quite as funny, but all with a great deal of energy and conviction from the actors.

The attempts from Mac and Kelly get elaborate.  They try and sabotage the house by flooding the basement because college kids don't have money to fix things like that.  But the fraternity brothers raise money by making some plastic molds of certain body parts in a sequence that feels forced and isn't as funny as it might have been on paper.  Then they decide to try and turn Teddy and Pete against each other which works, but then it doesn't work or it doesn't really have much of an effect.  Mac and Kelly employ their two friends, the main one being Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz), to help take down the fraternity and, naturally, chaos ensues.  Jimmy does what any self-respecting idiot sidekick friend should do, and that is get the elephant's share of laughs.

Some things really work in Neighbors, other things are just a little too clumsy or they miss the mark in the humor department.  Efron is solid, and even a little sinister as Teddy.  And in a nice ironic twist, or perhaps just a sign of the times and the natural progression of age, it is funny to see Seth Rogen struggling to be the responsible adult in a film like this.  Rose Byrne has her moments too, although one scene involving her breast milk in the middle of the picture is one of those aforementioned moments that don't really induce laughs so much as unease.  That is the gist of Neighbors, which is laugh out loud hilarious when it is focused, but head scratching from time to time.  Fortunately, the hits manage to outweigh the misses in the end.

B
   

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, directed by Marc Webb (142 min.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers an identity crisis almost from the get go, undermining any good work the film manages to do with the character.  There are strong elements here, and there is some fantastic action, but there are also too many plates in the air and too much confusion for a superhero movie.  Spider-Man 3 suffered this disease but to a much greater extent.  This is no where near the disastrous mess that final Raimi/Maguire picture turned out to be.  There are things to enjoy here, and director Marc Webb captures the essence of Spidey with great humor and agility.  I only wish they would have simplified where they decided to complicate.

Andrew Garfield is back and even more comfortable in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man.  Garfield handles the whimsy and cheesy humor of the character to perfection in the early action scenes.  Parker is graduating high school along with his crush, Gwen Stacy, in a role reprised once again by Emma Stone.  A great deal of the film covers the relationship between Peter and Gwen, as they struggle to find a way to have a relationship.  Peter loves Gwen, and vice versa, but the words of Gwen's departed police-chief father (Denis Leary) linger in his mind.  Being with Gwen puts her in danger, and this becomes the main conflict in their affair.  And later on, when she is accepted to Oxford, things grow even more difficult between them.  There is a great deal of time spent on the relationship between Gwen and Peter, too much if you ask me.

While Peter struggles to find common ground with his lady, villains are forming all over New York City.  The central villain, and the most interesting, is Max Dillon, played by Jamie Foxx.  Max, after falling into a vat of electric eels in a typical super-villain genesis narrative, becomes Electro, glowing neon blue and feeding off electrical energy to gain power.  The film does a good job early of creating empathy for Max, who was a nobody doing grunt work for Oscorp.  But once Max/Electro turns on Spider-Man in a rather abrupt scene, he becomes nothing more than a special effects prop.  There is also Harry Osborne, the spoiled rich kid played by young Dicaprio clone Dane DeHaan.  His rise and fall takes about ten minutes it seems, as he becomes the new Green Goblin and is swiftly dispensed in the third act.  Oh yeah, and there is also Paul Giamatti, getting about three minutes of screen time as Rhino in a completely wasted role.  Too many plates in the air.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has moments of joy for the audience, mainly in the opening scenes where we ride along with Spidey shooting webs across the city.  But before long the entire focus of the film shoots off in more directions than a web.  We are here, then there, then we get long moments of exposition that don't truly explain anything.  There is a good 45-minute stretch in the middle of the picture where we don't see Spider-Man at all.  I am all for development and attention to character, but not dialogue simply for dialogue's sake.  Garfield and Stone have obvious chemistry, and Foxx is interesting for a spell as Electro, but the entire thing just ends up messy and confusing, and twenty minutes too long to care.

C