Category Archives: REViEW

Modern Horror Classics: The Babadook & It Follows

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by Steve Habrat

Over the past few years, the horror genre has slowly been clawing its way out of the grave and unleashing a small-but-scrappy string of winners that packed something the genre was seriously lacking—genuine scares. In between disposable Saw sequels, rancid torture porn, painful found footage rip-offs, and countless remakes that can only be labeled as unnecessary, horror fans were rewarded for their patience with above-average genre keepers like Insidious, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and The Conjuring, which kept hopes high that there would soon be a film that managed to generate the true, pulse-pounding fear of such classics as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, and Night of the Living Dead. In the span of just three short months, horror fans have gotten their wish with back-to-back efforts from two fresh cinematic voices. I am referring to Australian director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. Emerging from the shadows of the indie film community, Kent’s prickly demonic bedtime story has earned nearly unanimous praise from critics and has been promoted by a true master of terror, Exorcist director William Friedkin. And Mitchell’s teen nightmare has gained momentum over the past weeks through positive word-of-mouth for its shocking ability to create an almost overwhelming sense of paranoia and dread.

First, let us take a look at The Babadook, which tells the tale of Amelia (played by Essie Davis), a grieving widow who has her hands full with her disobedient young son, Sam (played by Noah Wiseman). One evening, Sam comes to Amelia with a mysterious pop-up book called ‘The Babadook,’ eager to hear the tale of a monster that knocks three times and then refuses to leave. Amelia reluctantly reads the eerie bedtime story to her erratic seed, but soon after shutting the book, a horrifying force begins tormenting the duo and manifesting as a ghastly entity hell-bent on driving Amelia and Sam out of their minds.

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Buzzing with the spirit of such silent black-and-white classics as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this demonic thriller is a surprisingly thoughtful dissection of grief and the toll it can take on one’s psyche. Kent certainly doesn’t go to great lengths to mask the film’s shadowy depth, but it’s difficult to fault her for this because it forces you to get emotionally invested in the film. Those accustomed to horror films that simply make you jump by blasting the music or coaxing a character to leap out of the dark for a fake-out scare may find The Babadook’s slow-burn approach to be tedious, but I assure you that as Kent gains momentum, she delivers scares that cut like one of the Babadook’s jutting claws. This leads me to the monster, which the viewer only glimpses in brief flashes as it scampers in and out of the light, hiding its DIY tailoring and elevating ghoul’s lingering impact to the stuff of legend. When the lights are out, I guarantee you’ll shiver as you think back upon its spiderlike form and it’s raspy growls that ring out from all corners of Amelia’s home.

Performance wise, The Babadook features Oscar worthy turns from it’s small but very capable cast. Davis is a whirlwind of agony and grief as Amelia, the brokenhearted widow who clings to memories of her dead husband. Early on, it’s not hard to empathize with this exasperated mother, who is constantly trying to wrap her fragile mind around Sam’s horrible behavior. The young Wiseman excels at getting underneath the skin of both the audience and Amelia in ways that not many child actors can. At times, he can be even more uncompromising and terrifying than the film’s big, bad monster. Don’t be fooled by the initial character sketches that Kent slips the audience, as their personalities smoothly shift for a divisive finish that will leave some holding their breath and others rolling their eyes.

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After you’ve gasped at Kent’s expressionistic night terror, compose yourself for Mitchell’s It Follows, which tells the story of teenage Jay (Maika Monroe), who finds herself smitten with a mysterious older boy. After a bizarre sexual encounter that leaves the beautiful blonde quivering half naked in the front yard of her suburban Detroit home, Jay realizes that this boy has passed on a mysterious force that will follow and attack until it is passed on to another partner. With the help of her colorful friends, Jay has to face down the force—which can manifest as anyone—before its too late.

Where The Babadook slithered out from horror’s lavish, black-and-white beginnings, It Follows draws its inspiration from the slasher films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. You’d swear that the film is a long lost John Carpenter effort that sat overlooked on the shelf for nearly thirty years. As Mitchell’s camera hoovers around the decaying streets of Detroit, Michigan (another recent horror film that makes great use of the rundown Motor City is Only Lovers Left Alive), you’re left paralyzed from constant paranoia as the shape shifting monster can come lumbering towards our gang of protagonists at any given moment. When you’re not chewing down your fingernails and developing an ulcer from the expert tension wrung from each frame, you’ll be marveling at Mitchell’s retro visual and audio style, from the hazy, early ‘80s fashion that the gang sports, to the rusted cars (one kid rolls around in a Cutlass), classic public-access horror films the seem like they should be introduced by Vampira or Zacherle, and winking Halloween synths that compose the soundtrack. These broad strokes and well-placed touches manage to set It Follows apart from the mainstream horror bunch and mold it into a true work of fine art. Yet they also give the film a timeless feel, which compliments the film’s enduring subject matter (the fears that promiscuity can bring). There is no doubt in my mind that many exiting the theater will be furiously attempting to peel back the film’s onion-like layers.

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As if you needed any more reasons to fall all over It Follows, Mitchell’s film is populated with a cast of kids who have some major chemistry. Each and every one injects a quirky spin that sets them apart from the countless other boring teens that shriek and sob as the monster closes in. Furthermore, none of them seem written in simply to up the body count and increase the film’s amount of splatter. Much like The Babadook, It Follows isn’t overly concerned with blood and guts. There are a few gross-out moments, and Mitchell doesn’t shy away from graphic nudity, but this sick puppy ends up being a beast at sending your anxiety through the roof. The only flaw I can find is the film’s wobbly climax, which finds our gang attempting to lure the force to one of the freakiest rec centers I’ve ever seen. Here it seems that Mitchell shifts into cheese territory, and in the process, he leaves bits and pieces of the action unexplained. Still, he redeems himself with a final shot that will leave many peering over their shoulders on the way home.

With both The Babadook and It Follows, horror sees two films that look back to the classics of past decades. Both Kent and Mitchell pay their respects, as they should since they have drawn their inspirations from the films that continues to haunt our dreams. Yet both directors pull off the impossible—they create unique offerings that are suspended in time. They are both fresh, exciting, buzz-worthy, and, most-importantly, sincere visions that will have us checking under the bed and peering out the blinds just before settling in for a night’s sleep. What makes these two masterpieces even more special is the way they will continue to win over generations of horror fans to come. I feel confident enough to say that I think these films will climb the ranks and sit proudly next to such classics that gave birth to them. So, to Kent and Mitchell, I say bravo. I will cherish these works for years to come. Grade: A

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

It’s been five long years since megastar Tom Cruise shouldered the weight of a massive summer blockbuster, leaving many filmgoers to wonder if the controversial action hero still had his box office mojo. In between 2010’s forgettable Knight and Day and last spring’s Oblivion, Cruise starred in two holiday blockbusters (2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and 2012’s Jack Reacher), and turned up in a bit part in 2012’s Rock of Ages, a messy summer musical that didn’t give Cruise top billing even though he stole the movie away from the teeny-bopper stars headliners and seasoned veterans. While off-screen antics and tabloid rumors have certainly soured Cruise’s reputation, the actor’s newest film answers the question of whether or not Cruise could still hold his own in a season that now belongs to Marvel superheroes and computerized Transformers. Behold Edge of Tomorrow, a nimble and clever sci-fi blockbuster that finds Cruise once again punching and shooting his way through an army of rampaging aliens. Based upon the graphic novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow passes up the brooding tone that many summer blockbusters have been opting for over the years, and instead works with a bubbly, old-fashioned formula of comedy and thrills that leaves you stumbling out to the parking lot with an invigorating rush and proudly declaring to your buddies or your date that you’d gladly take that ride all over again.

Edge of Tomorrow begins by explaining that mankind is locked in a brutal war with aliens called Mimics, which arrived on Earth in a fiery asteroid several years earlier. With nearly all of Europe conquered by the Mimics, the United Defense Forces issues an exoskeleton called “Jackets” to each and every solider, which gives the humans a fighting chance against the savage enemy. Hope is also found in Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), a fierce warrior who led the humans to victory at the battle of Verdun. Confidence is kept high by UDF spokesman Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), who has been talking up Operation Downfall, a massive campaign that will launch thousands of soldiers into Europe to topple the Mimic menace. Much to his surprise, Cage is summoned by General Bringham (played by Brendan Gleeson), who informs Cage that he will be jumping into the fight and storming into Europe. Terrified, Cage attempts to resist the order, which leads to him being arrested by Military Police and forced to the front lines. Unable to work one of the “Jackets” and squeamish at the sight of blood, Cage stumbles his way into battle behind Master Sergeant Farell (played by Bill Paxton) and a slew of colorful soldiers. The UDF is stunned to learn that the Mimics were aware of the invasion and are waiting for the soldiers as they approach. In the thick of the battle, Cage manages to kill a Mimic, but just as he is about to die, he gets covered in alien blood, which gives him the ability to keep reliving the battle over and over again.

In the hands of director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow delivers plenty of epic but not overly showy action sequences that are sure to dazzle sci-fi diehards. The scenes of “Jacket”-clad soldiers storming onto a bombed-out European beaches present themselves like a futuristic WWII, with drop ships decorated with sneering faces and pin-up girls spinning out of the sky in blazing balls of fire, and soldiers struggling to get their bearings as they stumble through sheets of sand and soot. It’s a gritty and unique combo that gives the opening stretch of Edge of Tomorrow a pulpy sting. While Liman knows how to throw you into the intensities of war, he certainly never allows the CGI mayhem to eclipse the film’s impressive characters or its welcome sense of humor. There are more than a few moments that are downright hilarious, from Cage sweating and panting as he attempts to hang with battle-tested soldiers that hoot and holler their way into the alien lines, to some amusing death scenes that barrel straight out of left field. Most of the humor emerges in the scenes between the “Full Metal Bitch” (Rita) and Cage, as she attempts to whip the fidgety Major into fighting shape. What’s even more impressive is the way that Liman lingers on the human interactions, allowing raw emotion to overpower some of the film’s best action sequences. You’re given plenty of time to care for these characters, and what’s even more exciting is that you take them with you past the end credits.

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While Cruise’s personal life may have left many groaning, no one can deny that the man hasn’t continuously churned out memorable performances over the past few years. Edge of Tomorrow is no different, as Cruise gets kicks around with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He seems right at home in the skin of Cage, and it’s a nice switch-up when we learn that his character can’t even stand the sight of a paper cut. He’s undoubtedly spirited, and he continues to hone the comedic chops he’s been fiddling with since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Cruise also finds plenty of chemistry with the beautiful Blunt, who brings her icy disposition to Rita, Cage’s fierce ally who understands just what is happening with Cage. Naturally, the two form a romance fit for a popcorn movie, but it’s welcome as it melts Rita’s frosty exterior to reveal a haunted interior. Another surprise is Bill Paxton, who has kept a low profile over the past several years. He emerges with a thick southern accent and a fast tongue, strutting his way through the role of Farell with such smug confidence that you’ll keep wondering just where the heck this guy has been all these years. And then there is Gleeson, who stands firm as General Bringham, a stone-faced general who refuses to allow Cage to weasel his way out of combat.

While Edge or Tomorrow brims with excitement, the film does wander off a bit into conventional territory. The epic climax—while fun—grows increasingly formulaic and predictable as it unfolds before our eyes, and the whole exoskeleton thing looses a bit of its cool factor as it trails in the wake of Neill Blomkamp’s blazing Elysium. Some of the background characters, specifically the ragtag unit that Cage is assigned to, are eccentric but also a bit cliché. As far as the aliens go, Liman and his team think up a parasitic enemy that is difficult to comprehend as it burrows deep into the sand and then attacks with a sudden fury that shakes you out of your seat. Liman never lets them stand still for very long in the frame, allowing the audience blood-curdling glimpses that make the aliens all the more terrifying. Overall, while the climax fizzles out, Edge of Tomorrow exceeds all expectations with surefire direction, an entertaining script, a playful sense of humor, gritty action, and sincere performances that keep the project grounded even as nasty extraterrestrials threaten to wipe out humanity. Yet what Edge of Tomorrow ultimately proves is that Cruise is still dependable as an all-American action hero. He’s still got it, folks, and it sure is nice to see him back in the thick of the summer movie season.

Grade: B

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.

What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?

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By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.

As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.

Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.

Grade: A-

Them! (1954)

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by Steve Habrat

The same year that Toho Co.’s Godzilla stomped all over Japanese cinemas, American drive-ins were attacked by the giant irradiated ants of Them! Released in the summer of 1954, Them! sounds like an absolutely absurd sci-fi chiller that would have been right at home on the pages of an EC Comic book . Who would be scared by a bunch of giant ants mutated by invisible clouds of drifting atomic radiation? It turns out that many drive-in audience members were shaken up by Them!, and many critics and genre aficionados have taken notice of the affection audiences have for this creature feature. Regarded as the first “giant bug” movie, Them! is another product of the Atomic Age—a well-spoken B-movie that shivers and shakes at atomic bombs, mushroom clouds, and drifting radiation that was quietly wrecking havoc on nature. Directed by Gordon Douglas, Them! takes its subject very seriously, and the film slowly gains intensity through a disciplined pace, chilling set pieces that never fail to impress, rock-solid performances from a hugely talented cast, and a slew of beasts that are sure to scare the pants off of first time viewers.

Them! begins in the New Mexico desert, with two police officers, Ben (played by James Whitmore) and Ed (played by Chris Drake), stumbling upon a little girl wandering around in a state of shock. As Ben and Ed try to find the little girl’s home, they discover a wrecked trailer and a destroyed general store. While exploring the general store, Ed is suddenly attacked and killed by a towering unknown assailant. Ed’s death proves even more suspicious after the coroner discovers large amounts of formic acid in his system. With more disappearances being reported and a strange animal print found in the sand, the FBI dispatches agent Robert Graham (played by James Arness), renowned scientist Dr. Harold Medford (played by Edmund Gwenn), and his lovely daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (played by Joan Weldon), to investigate. While the trio explores the windy plains of the desert, they begin hearing eerie high-pitched calls from an unknown location. Their investigation really takes a turn when they come face-to-face with a giant ant that proceeds to attack Pat. The military soon tracks down the ants’ nest and launches an attack to wipe out whatever is inside, but Harold discovers evidence that suggests two queen ants have escaped the attack. Desperate to keep the giant ants a secret and away from heavily populated areas, the military races to track down and destroy what is left of the ants. However, the military’s worst fears are slowly confirmed as reports of ant sightings start popping up around San Francisco.

Like all great creature features, Them! isn’t in any particular hurry to show off its mutated monsters. It starts off slow, allowing the unsettling isolation of the New Mexico desert to set in before Douglas starts exploring the mysterious ruins of a trailer and a general store. As winds howl and the police scratch their scalps in confusion, that high-pitched screeching noise kicks in and pushes the suspense to the brink. About a half-hour in, Douglas sends his team in to get to the bottom of what occurred out in the desert, and it is here that he allows us our first glimpse of one those mutated ants. Of course this first glimpse is only a tease, the beast slowly and silently working it’s way over a hill before emitting its grim song and charging at its lunch. It’s a fantastic sequence that offers a jolt of terror that takes the viewer by storm. While our first glimpse of the ants reveals a severely dated monster, the way that Douglas reveals the creature and the ominous build-up that preceded the encounter maximizes the monster’s impact. If you were left unimpressed by this first encounter, wait until our protagonists find the nest, which offers another startling look at these mutated monstrosities. As helicopters circle above, an ant emerges from a massive hole still gnawing on one victim’s rib cage. After sucking the meat clean, the bones drop into a heaping pile of skulls, tattered clothing, and more. As the ant wanders away from the festering pile of death, Pat gravely observes that they have found all the individuals that have been reported missing over the past weeks. Now THAT is creepy.

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After the attack on the nest and the discovery of the escaped queens, Them! reverts back to being a character-driven picture. Douglas allows the terror to trickle in as reports are made of demolished trains, ravaged freighters, and creepy reports of ant-shaped UFOs swooping in and attacking small planes. Along the way, Douglas elevates some of the tension by executing some wonderful moments of comedy, specifically from Gwenn’s Dr. Harold Medford, who can’t seem to figure out how to properly use a helicopter radio. And there is also the drunk-tank sequence, where a belligerent drunk named Jensen bargains that he will share information about the ants if he is made “a sergeant in charge of the booze.” Of course, Douglas is offering us a breather before his final burst of horror and action. The climax gets rolling as authorities issue martial law throughout the streets of San Francisco, warning citizens to take shelter in the comfort of their homes. With the ants nestled deep under the city, and reports of two small boys having suddenly disappeared, the pressure is on to send troops down into the shadows of the city’s storm drains. It is at this show-stopping climax that Douglas really lets his ants do some damage. As flamethrowers roar, machine-guns snarl, and ants screech, Them! lets loose a searing fury of violence that concludes with a warning that mankind has entered a terrifying new world—an unknown world that may crawl with horrors we never could have predicted.

Further adding to the strength of Them! are the spirited performances, specifically from Whitmore, Arness, Gwenn, and Weldon. Arness is a man of authority as Graham, an FBI agent swiftly trying to track down the ants before they invade the streets of San Francisco. Whitmore gets to play action hero as Ben, a flame-thrower packing, machine-gun toting cop who mows the ants down with teeth gritted. Gwenn steals nearly every scene he is in as the bumbling-but-wise Dr. Harold Medford, the levelheaded scientist who fumbles and sighs at helicopter radios and crooked goggles. Weldon finds a pleasant middle ground as Pat, Harold’s brilliant daughter who proves to be a strong-voiced ally in the race to stop the ants. She is naturally thrust into several scenes that require her to be the damsel-in-distress, but when the chips are down, she bravely treks through those threatening storm drains right along with the male protagonists. Overall, a far throw from some of the other chintzy sci-fi guilty pleasures of the era, Them! remains an ingenious and wildly frightening look at man’s radioactive entrance into the Atomic Age. It creeps and crawls with fidgeting paranoia and crackling action, and it’s guided by assured direction and straight-faced performances. Them! fully deserves its place as a Cold War classic.

Grade: A+

Cloverfield (2008)

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by Steve Habrat

In the wake of director Roland Emmerich’s reviled 1998 Godzilla remake, the giant monster movie kept a very low profile for many years. The holiday season of 2005 saw the release of director Peter Jackson’s divisive King Kong remake—a three-hour epic that either thrilled fans of classic monster movies or sent them into a deep slumber. It would be another three years before anyone even remotely thought about another giant monster movie. That all changed in early 2008 with Cloverfield, a ferociously intense “found footage” thriller that preyed upon our post-9/11 paranoia. Directed by Matt Reeves and produced by J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield re-ignited a bit of interest in creature features—specifically Toho Co.’s “Kaiju” films from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and dared to give the subgenre a bit of its bite back. While certainly not perfect, Reeves and Abrams are able to orchestrate quite a bit of urban destruction on a tiny budget of only $25 million. The special effects are absolutely fantastic, and when briefly glimpsed in the glow of gun and cannon fire, the giant extraterrestrial wrecking havoc in the Big Apple will undoubtedly nab a shiver or two. However, the downfall of Cloverfield are the unlikeable characters we are forced to brave this warzone with, and a painfully slow opening sequence made all the more unbearable through some shaky attempts by the actors to seem natural.

Cloverfield begins with a surprise going-away party for Rob (played by Michael Stahl-David), who is preparing to move to Japan to start a new job. The party—which has been organized by Rob’s brother, Jason (played by Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (played by Jessica Lucas), and Rob’s best friend, Hud (played by T.J. Miller), who is tasked with filming testimonials from party guests—gets off to a pleasant start, but things take a turn when Rob’s friend Beth (played by Odette Yustman), who he recently slept with, brings another date to the party. The drama between Rob and Beth is interrupted when a large tremor shakes New York City and plunges the city into a blackout. The party guests dash to the roof, where they witness a large explosion that sends debris raining down upon their heads. The party spills out onto the streets, where the terrified citizens quickly learn that an unidentified creature is terrorizing the city. The military quickly begins trying to evacuate the confused citizens, but Rob refuses to leave without Beth, who is trapped in her apartment building in Time Warner Center. Desperate to reach the one he loves, Rob, Hud, Lily, and Hud’s crush, Marlena (played by Lizzy Caplan), attempt a rescue mission, but their journey grows even more dangerous as they encounter parasitic creatures shed by the massive monster, and they learn of the military’s shocking plot to destroy the creature.

Despite a brief runtime of only eighty-five minutes, Cloverfield gets off to a relatively slow start. Reeves, Abrams, and screenwriter Drew Goddard force the audience to spend the first twenty minutes of the film with a handful of characters that we never truly grow to like. They are one-dimensional and, frankly, kind of annoying as they bob around their hip soirée and force themselves to act natural. Lucky for us, just when we’ve about had our fill of their high school squabbling, the filmmakers shake the earth, blow up some buildings, and kick the action into high gear. It begins with shaky shots of New York citizens congregating in the street as buildings collapse in the distance and the Statue of Liberty’s head goes crashing down the street. From there, Reeves and Abrams lay waste to familiar sights all around the Big Apple, each one more terrifying than the next. Woven between the scenes of destruction are evocative little moments that call to mind the horrors of September 11th, 2001—a catastrophic event that was still fresh in the mind of many audience members and documented in a similar manner. We get scenes of characters diving into small little shops as rolling clouds of dust creep by the storefront windows, dusty and dazed citizens emerge from twisted piles of wreckage, and people dash away from collapsing skyscrapers, all of which are captured on a tiny little handheld camera.

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While the destruction retains a disquieting tone, Reeves and Abrams don’t entirely forget they are making a monster movie. With the “found footage” technique, the filmmakers are able to mask the tight budget, and more importantly, conceal the creature flailing around between the crumbling buildings. For a good portion of the film, the monster is only briefly glimpsed in blurred shots as our protagonists sprint between advancing military men. These moments are wildly intimidating, as deafening gunfire rages from one side and the snapping jaws of the towering beast snarling on the other. Credit should go to the sound department, who crank the noise up so loud that you would swear you left your seat and joined the combat on screen. The creature action gets even creepier when our protagonists flee the war-torn streets and retreat to the abandoned subways underneath the city. It’s here that Reeves and Abrams allow us an up-close glimpse of the parasitic beasts that the main monster has shedding. Through a night-vision filter, the spider-like critters spring around the darkness and chomp at our blind heroes until they are a bloody mess. It’s probably the scariest moment of the entire film, and it sets up a gruesome plot twist that smartly lacks much exposition. Reeves and Abram understand the power behind the less you know and the more you see, but they botch it in the end by providing audiences a clear glimpse of the monster that wipes away any fear you had previously. It’s a grave mistake that leaves Cloverfield falling flat on its face.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Cloverfield is the acting, which is painfully forced and amateurish. Stahl-David is flat-out horrid as Rob, a big baby who is constantly complaining or whining about trying to find Beth. Miller’s oafish cameraman Hud makes clumsy swipes at dimwitted humor and consistently acts like a brain-dead idiot. It’s downright impossible to believe that Rob would consider him a best friend. Yustman’s Beth just whimpers and clings to Rob, while Lucas’s Lily essentially begs Rob to reconsider his hysteric rescue mission. The only actress who really registers is Caplan, who frowns her way through Marlena, a snobby hipster who rolls her eyes as Hud tries desperately to flirt with her. Together, none of them really have any chemistry, and all you can do is roll your eyes as they try to sell the audience tired drunken dramatics. Overall, the characters may get on your last nerve and the finale may spoil a monster that was better left in the shadows, but Cloverfield turns out to be a surprisingly tolerable “found footage” thriller with more than a few flashes of creature-feature brilliance. Much like the classic monster movies that acted as the inspiration, it reflects upon current paranoia, and it does it while respectfully tipping its hat.

Grade: B

Godzilla (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Co. released director Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, an apocalyptic reflection about the dawning of the Atomic Age and the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla certainly didn’t shy away from delivering extended sequences of earth-shaking destruction, but the devastation was measured against absorbing human drama that made the film all the more eternal. In the wake of its release, Godzilla sparked “Kaiju” (Japanese for “giant monster”) fever around the world, leaving audiences with a hankering for more monster mayhem. In 1998, after multiple sequels that grew increasingly campy in quality, director Roland Emmerich decided to revive the king of monsters for American audiences, but the results proved disastrous and sent Godzilla sulking into the deepest depths of the Pacific for sixteen long years. After years of rumors and speculation about a new Godzilla movie in the works, we finally have director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, an old-fashioned blockbuster in the vein of early science-fiction creature features. Taking its sweet time to work up to the monster smashing and bashing, Godzilla 2014 goes the route of Honda’s ’54 original and injects both emotional weight and jittery nuclear paranoia right into the film’s heart. It’s an admiral attempt from a director whose only other directing credit is a low-budget indie movie from 2010 called Monsters. Despite some flailing human drama and more than a few avoidable clichés, Godzilla 2014 is an exhilarating rush that brings the legendary beast back to the silver screen with must-see style.

Godzilla 2014 begins in 1999 in Janjira, Japan, with nuclear physicist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston) discovering strange seismic readings surrounding the nuclear power plant he works for. Despite Joe’s warnings to his superiors, work continues as usual at the plant, but when a tremor causes an explosion, the plant crumbles into ruin and sparks a mass exodus from the area. In all the chaos, Joe’s wife, Sandra (played by Juliette Binoche), is exposed to a deadly dose of radiation and is killed. In present day, Joe remains in Japan, convinced that the government is hiding something about that terrible day. Meanwhile, Joe’s estranged son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), diffuses bombs for the US Navy and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Elle (played by Elizabeth Olsen), and their young son. Upon returning home from a tour of duty, Ford is called to Japan to bail Joe out of jail for trespassing in the quarantine zone. Joe presents Ford with startling new information that suggests that the government has indeed been covering something up. The two travel back to Janjira to do a bit more snooping and collect some of Joe’s old data, but local authorities discover them and take them into custody. Joe and Ford are brought to the ruined nuclear plant, which is housing an egg-like sack that is emitting the same seismic readings Joe picked up on in 1999. After the egg hatches and produces a giant winged creature, the Brody’s team up with two scientists, Dr. Serizawa (played by Ken Wantanabe) and Dr. Graham (played by Sally Hawkins), and the military to track the monster down and kill it. As the military rushes to stop the creature before it can claim more lives, another similar beast is discovered in the Nevada desert. With military strikes proving useless against the creatures, only one hope remains to restore order—Godzilla.

For fans of old-fashion summer blockbusters and classic drive-in monster movies, Edwards’ Godzilla is a gift from the cinematic gods. The opening hour puts most of its emphasis on character development and exposition, teasing us from the opening credits with tiny little glimpses of the title beast. Of course, that isn’t to say that the opening hour of Godzilla is completely monster free. As the film’s promotional campaign has stomped on, it’s become increasingly clear that Godzilla isn’t the only beast turning cities to pebbles. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein pit Godzilla against not one, but two eight-legged terrors nicknamed MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. The MUTOs are truly something to behold, and it is best not to reveal all of their secrets here, but just know that these critters are capable of some major carnage. To up the horror level, Edwards cleverly masks the MUTOs before really allowing us a good glimpse of them in broad daylight. The first time we see a MUTO, its concealed in flashing emergency lights as it fights its way out of a containment cage. From there, they are largely left in the dark, with helicopter spotlights and fiery wreckage illuminating their intimidating frame. It’s extreme effective and it keeps us strung along, always wanting just a little bit more of them. Keeping his monsters concealed also allows Edwards room to really deliver a grand finale that is the very definition of incredible.

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While the first hour of Godzilla is a bit slower than most mainstream audience members may be used to, Edwards understands why we plunked down our hard earned money for a seat in the theater. The film’s special effects are worth the price of admission alone, as there are some truly epic set pieces that will blow you into the lobby of the theater. The first encounter between one of the MUTOs and Godzilla is something that will give you a sharp chill of excitement, especially as Godzilla belts out a might roar that shakes your every organ. The rest of the encounter plays out mostly on television screens, but it still looks might impressive even at a distance. Some of the other awe-inducing set pieces include Godzilla’s watery arrival that leaves the streets of Honolulu flooded, a devastated Las Vegas that was briefly glimpsed in the trailer, a fiery train track encounter between a group of soldiers and one hungry MUTO, and a terrifying showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge that leaves soldiers gaping in horror at jets tumbling out of the overcast skies. Considering that this is Edwards’ first foray into multi-million dollar blockbuster territory, he handles it like a professional and he uses the moments as wicked teases for a final act that stomps the puny human dramatics. I won’t reveal much about the final royal rumble, but know that it is everything a monster movie aficionado could possibly hope for. It’s a cinematic achievement that truly makes you feel like you’re in the action, darting between the feet of warring gods who are determined to rip each other to ribbons.

As early reviews of Godzilla have poured in, much has been made about the scripts one-dimensional characters and the phoned-in performances from some respectable names. Leading the pack is Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, who really isn’t given much screen time. He gets a small window to show off that explosive temper his fans have come to know and love, but he also gives Godzilla some misty-eyed heartbreak that leaves you wishing there was more of him. Taylor-Johnson is second in command as Ford, a formulaic action hero who manages to make it out of every single life-threatening moment with a bit of mud on his face, a slight limp, and a bloody nick on his forehead. Together, Cranston and Taylor-Johnson make an appealing on-screen duo, but their partnership is short lived. Olsen is passable as Elle, Ford’s pretty wife who is simply asked to hug her son close, worry about Ford, push a hospital stretcher around, and run in fright from an advancing Godzilla. Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa mostly stands around in amazement of the death and destruction around him, but he is entertaining as he ominously explains Godzilla’s backstory and suggests that the monsters should duke it out. Sally Hawkins is wasted in the background role of Dr. Graham, a character who mostly dashes around after Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. Rounding out the main cast is David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz, the cookie-cutter military man in charge of nuking the rampaging abominations into ash.

The biggest question surrounding Edwards’ Godzilla is whether or not American audiences are ready to embrace these towering monsters again. Last year’s Pacific Rim—which was director Guillermo del Toro’s giddy comic book tribute to Toho’s line of legendary kaiju—suggested that they might not be, as it opened to low numbers despite critical acclaim. While Godzilla’s marketing campaign has sparked mysterious intrigue, it stands as a reinvention that remains fiercely loyal to the shadowy agony and radioactive paranoia of the original. Does this Godzilla come with the same complexity and depth as Honda’s original? Well, it re-establishes the big guy’s atomic roots, and it dares to echo recent tragedies such as nuclear meltdowns, earthquakes, and tsunamis. There’s no doubt that this Godzilla is thought provoking, even when it transitions into drive-in mayhem in the second act. As far as Toho’s most loyal fans go, some may be disappointed by the lack of screen time Godzilla receives, but I truly think it works, especially when we look back at Atomic Age classics that concealed their monsters until it was absolutely necessary to show them off. In addition, monster fans will also get a big kick out of the subtle tributes to other Toho Kaiju. (Check out the name of Wantanabe’s character!) Overall, while the character drama may not be especially noteworthy, Godzilla 2014 stands proudly as an extraordinarily grand piece of monster movie making. It is guaranteed to wow audience members of all ages, and send off those with a soft spot for classic monster movies with a nostalgic adrenaline rush.

Grade: B+

Mini-Review: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

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by Steve Habrat

In the radioactive fallout from Toho Co.’s 1954 smash Godzilla, the famed Kaiju production company slowly began adding several other massive monstrosities to their popular creature feature line. Starting with 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, Toho added the spiked Anguirus, a giant Pterandon called Rodan, the colorful insect called Mothra, legendary Skull Island ape King Kong, and the three-headed space dragon referred to as King Ghidorah aka Monster Zero. After botching their first two face-off flicks—55’s Godzilla Raids Again and 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla—Toho returned to form with 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a smart and satisfying smack down that more than made up for the cheap slugfests that came before it. Later that same year, Toho topped themselves with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, a whacked-out B-movie that is probably Toho’s strangest Kaiju film since 1961’s Mothra. Directed by Kaiju kingpin Ishiro Honda, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster features extraterrestrials, handfuls of eccentric assassins, shoot-outs, and FOUR monster engaging in an epic brawl that is sure to tickle diehard fans of Toho’s monster movies. It also introduces us to the rampaging Ghidorah, a dragon from the stars that gives Godzilla a run for his money.

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster begins with an aerial assassination attempt made on Princess Selina Salno of Selgina (played by Akiko Wakabayashi) by her uncle (played by Shin Otomo). Seconds before her private jet is blown to bits, the princess sees strange lights in the sky that coax her to jump out of the plane. Meanwhile, a group of scientists led by Professor Murai (played by Hiroshi Koizumi) witness a meteor crash land at the base of a nearby mountain. The group sets out to begin studying the glowing meteor, which also appears to be highly magnetized. Several days after the assassination attempt on the princess, local authorities are stunned to see the princess on television claiming to be a martian from Mars. The princess begins claiming that Rodan and Godzilla will both awaken and launch devastating attacks on nearby cities. The general public scoffs at the predictions, but they are horrified when Rodan and Godzilla both reappear and begin wrecking havoc. Fearing that another assassination attempt may be made on the princess, police detective Naoko Shino (played by Yosuke Natsuki) sets out to find the princess and get her to safety. Things go from bad to worse when Professor Murai witnesses the glowing meteor sudden split open and unleash Ghidorah, a three-headed beast that begins terrorizing nearby cities. Left with no other way to combat the seemingly unstoppable Ghidorah, government officials are forced to turn to the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), tiny fairies that are capable of summoning Mothra from Infant Island. With Mothra on their side, the government encourages the Shobijin to convince Mothra to enlist the help of Godzilla and Rodan to stop the three-headed dragon.

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Judging from the lengthy plot overview, it isn’t difficult to realize that there is quite a bit going on within Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. There are an abundance of characters, sub-plots, and epic set pieces that suggest Toho spared no expense with this project. Yet Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa manage to keep a firm grip on the story, and more importantly, unite these four warring beasts in a surprisingly satisfying manner. With four towering monsters stomping their way through an measly hour and thirty minute B-movie, it’s natural to worry that there may be one too many beasts lumbering their way through the stunning miniature cities. However, after watching the four iconic monsters converge for their epic confrontation, you couldn’t imagine this fight playing out any other way. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is the sequence in which Mothra attempts to convince Rodan and Godzilla to join forces with her to banish the space dragon. It’s a humorous little stretch that finds the monsters calling one another names and lecturing each other on their duties to defend earth from this cosmic invader.

Ducking, dodging, and prophesizing their way through the debris are a number of characters that stand out in the flurry of destruction. Wakabayashi’s possessed princess gives dazed warnings about the threats from underneath our feet and high above our heads. Natsuki’s Shino is our valiant hero who protects the princess from Malness, a pulpy assassin who is always sporting a pair of menacing sunglasses. And then we have The Peanuts, who charm their way through their pint-sized roles as the Shobijin. While the acting, writing, and directing are all top notch, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster’s downfall ends up being its lack of anything substantial to say. Where Toho’s previous Kaiju films reflected deeply upon a world gripped in atomic paranoia, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster shamelessly turns its attention towards light-hearted comic book spectacle. Overall, while it really should have been an overstuffed catastrophe, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster turns out to be a monster movie just crazy enough to work. It may not have much to say, but this all-star monster mash makes it essential viewing for anyone who loves drive-in B-movies or the Godzilla series.

Grade: B-

Neighbors (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Seth Rogen made his directorial debut with the uproariously hilarious This Is the End, a star-studded apocalyptic comedy that revealed Rogen and fellow director Evan Goldberg’s affection for horror movies. In addition to writing and directing, Rogen also starred alongside fellow funnymen like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel, all who brought their comedy A-game to the demonic shenanigans. This Is the End turned out to be one of the funniest and smartest comedies of recent memory—a film that left you wondering if the comedians involved could ever top some of the profanity-laced nuggets that were bursting forth from their sneering lips. Less than a year later, Rogen has shifted gears from fire-and-brimstone horror-comedies to frat-boy college romps with Neighbors, a routinely raunchy effort from the one of the reigning kings of comedy. Directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Nicholas Stoller and produced by Rogen and Goldberg, Neighbors finds Rogen and his cast mates—Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and Rose Byrne—firing crusty condoms, dildos, stale beer, marijuana smoke, and alcohol-laced breast milk at the audience with demented precision. While there are more than a few good belly laughs to be had in Neighbors, some of the shock jokes lack the punch that Rogen and the filmmakers are hoping and praying that they have, leaving the audience feeling slightly underwhelmed and disappointed as they exit the theater.

Neighbors introduces us to Mac (played by Seth Rogen) and Kelly (played by Rose Byrne) Radner, a fun-loving married couple who are slowly trying to adjust to adulthood. In between marijuana breaks and pleading invites from their friends to come out to the bar, Mac and Kelly are also trying to raise their newborn daughter, Stella, in a quiet and stable environment. One day, Mac and Kelly learn that their new neighbors are members of Delta Psi Beta, a rowdy fraternity led by president Teddy (played by Zac Effron) and vice-president Pete (played by Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly politely welcome the fraternity to the neighborhood, and they make the simple request that that the boys keep the noise to a minimum. Teddy and Pete agree to the request, asking in return that the Radners don’t break up their parties by calling the police. The relationship between the Radners and the Delta Psi brothers gets off to a fine start, but after Teddy ignores the Radner’s request to quiet down one evening, Mac is forced to call the police to break up the party. Shocked that the Radners broke their promise, Teddy and the rest of the Delta Psi brothers declare war on the quiet couple next door. Refusing to be terrorized by the frat, Mac, Kelly, and their two friends, Jimmy (played by Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (played by Carla Gallo), begin plotting various ways to get the frat disbanded.

Before the obnoxious frat boys lug their snagged couches, neon beer signs, and marijuana leaf posters into the vacant house next door, Mac and Kelly are a couple reluctant to leave their hard-partying days behind. At work, Mac is coaxed by Jimmy to take a weed breaks behind their office building, and Kelly withers and shakes at an invite from Paula to come to the bar and go crazy. When Kelly and Mac finally agree to make the trip to the bar, they gather up a sleepy Stella, a myriad of baby essentials, and frantically try to rush out the door to get their drink on. Unfortunately, fatigue sets in and they collapse before they can even make it to the car. Mac and Kelly’s urges to jump back into the party scene are tempted even more when Teddy leads his fist-pumping frat brothers into their party mecca, where they quickly get to work planning an epic blow-out that will make them Delta Psi legends. It’s here that Mac and Kelly see their opening, even if that opening does come with a request to keep the noise down. One of the funniest moments of Neighbors comes when Mac and Kelly are invited over to join the insanity. With a baby monitor clipped to their pajama pants, Mac shovels mushrooms into his mouth while Kelly drunkenly swaps stories with a handful of sorority sisters about how she met Mac at college. In typical Rogen fashion, there is a lot of heart in these drunken bonds, as Teddy and Mac debate over who is the best Batman is (Keaton vs. Bale) and Kelly giggles as her stoned husband urinates with his new friend in a fountain.

Neighbors #2

Of course you already know that the relationship between the brothers of Delta Psi and the Radners heads south rather quickly. While there was plenty of raunchy material found in the quieter opening moments, this squabble gives way to sporadically jaw-dropping behavior. The beef begins small with slight little jabs from both ends, but Mac and Kelly take things to a new level when they flood the frat’s basement, giving the boy’s the idea to make homemade sex toys in an effort to rise money to pump the dirty water from their grimy basement. From there, it’s not holds barred, culminating in a breast-pumping debacle that ranks as the film’s most outrageous moment. From here, Rogen, Stoller, and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien can’t really devise a way to top themselves. There’s the hope that Seth Rogen’s hairy back, a dildo fistfight, an attempt at hot boxing an entire house, and a gruesome leg injury followed by urination can all push the envelope, but none of it really seems to get the laughs that everyone involved was hoping for. This isn’t to say that Neighbors looses it’s heart, wit, or entertainment value, but considering what audiences have been exposed to in the past, this all seems a little insipid.

While some of the gross-out gags may fizzle right before our eyes, the performances remain incredibly spirited throughout the runtime. Rogen is his usual gruff self as the scruffy Mac, a husky stoner who desperately wants to look cool in front of the toned fraternity brothers. The Austrian Byrne lets her wild side roar as Kelly, a ferocious momma bear who is incredibly skilled in turning Teddy and his gang against each other. She’s especially hilarious when she puts on her “cool” act in front of the gawking eyes of the Delta Psi gang. The most shocking turn among the cast is Zac Efron, who plays to his pretty boy image as Teddy, a sculpted bro who never misses a chance to shed his shirt and strut around like a Greek god. James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, continues to show off his comedic talents as Pete, the frat’s smirking vice president who layers on golf shirts during a black light party. As far as the supporting roles go, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is wasted in the small role of Scoonie, Barinholtz comes on a little too strong as Jimmy, and Gallo is a hot mess as the boozy Paula. Also, keep an eye out for the scene-stealing Lisa Kudrow as Carol Gladstone, the college dean who has a fascination for newspaper headlines. Overall, Neighbors may not be quite as wild and wooly as many were hoping it would be, but it still manages to be a clever and sweet little comedy about growing up and embracing adulthood. It’s also bound to leave many hard-partying audience members plotting a Robert DeNiro party this summer.

Grade: B

Rodan (1956)

Rodan 1956 #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Studios sparked a giant monster craze with their brooding epic Godzilla. While there was plenty of emphasis on stomping and smashing, Godzilla also took time to focus on a likable group of a characters, and dared to reflect upon a nation still coming to terms with the devastation of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the Kaiju craze in full effect, Toho quickly got busy working on a follow-up to Godzilla. Replacing original director Ishiro Honda with Motoyoshi Oda, Toho’s Godzilla Raids Again was a step backwards for the radioactive beast, as a good majority of the film was interested in cheap cardboard destruction and monster-on-monster brawls that resembled an unintentionally hilarious slapping match. Godzilla Raids Again was a success for Toho, but reaction from audiences and critics was far from positive, sending Godzilla off on an extended hiatus. Despite Godzilla showing signs of fatigue, Toho was still busy cooking up another beast of the Atomic Age. In 1956, audiences were introduced to Rodan, the first color effort from Toho Studios. At an hour and fifteen minutes, the short-but-sweet Rodan is an aerial thrill ride that still shudders over thoughts of the bomb, but also taps into the UFO paranoia sweeping across the globe.

Rodan picks up in a small mining community of Kitamatsu, where two miners, Yoshi and Goro, have recently gone missing after a freak flood. When a rescue party led by Shigeru Kwamura (played by Kenji Sahara) begins searching the mineshafts, they discover Yoshi, barely clinging to life after apparently being slashed by an extremely sharp object. With no signs of Goro anywhere inside the mine, the local authorities believe he may have had something to do with Yoshi’s injuries. Believing Goro is on the run, authorities are placed around entrances and exits of the mine, but it doesn’t take long for several more men to turn up with the same injuries as Yoshi. One evening, Shigeru visits Kiyo (played by Yumi Shirakawa), Goro’s grief-stricken sister, in an attempt to console her about the accusations aimed at her brother. During the meeting, Shigeru and Kiyo are suddenly and viciously attacked by a giant larva-like creature called a Meganulon. Local authorities arrive just in time to scare the creature off, and they pursue it back to the mines where it is revealed that there are countless more of the creatures. While the locals scramble to kill off the Meganulon, another threat quickly reveals itself in the form of Rodan, an enormous winged pteranodon that can fly at breakneck speeds and is capable of massive amounts of destruction.

Of the three major Kaiju films released by Toho between 1954 and 1956, Rodan is the effort with the least amount of character development. It doesn’t boast the rich love triangle that we clung to in Godzilla, and it doesn’t feature the complex buddy formula that kept Godzilla Raids Again from being a total disaster. While you’d think the light approach to the characters would set Rodan up for failure, director Ishiro Honda makes sure to keep the adrenaline flowing. It’s a non-stop rush of excitement that refuses to let up. The aerial battle between JASDF and Rodan are all appropriately high-octane, even if there are a few instances where the dated special effects take you out of the action. Where Rodan really shines is in the final stretch of the film, where the winged behemoth hovers over Fukuoka and levels buildings with each flap of its wings. The detailed miniature work in this sequence is undeniably remarkable as buildings crumble into dust, cars roll through the streets, and debris tumbles down into a waiting river. While this sequence features quite a bit to admire, Honda is also capable of infusing these sequences of destruction with a goosebump-inducing shiver that works its way up and down your spine. It may lack the darkened, air raid-like attacks in the original Godzilla, but the whistling fallout wind kicked up by the monster’s wings is evocative enough to make your arm hair stand on end.

Rodan 1956 #2

There is no denying that the epic levels of destruction keep the film’s entertainment level high, but the main attraction of any Toho Kaiju film are the monstrous abominations that kick up the mayhem. After the addition of the somewhat dull Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again, Toho redeems themselves with not one, but two Rodans and an army of shrieking and slithering Meganulon. Predating the enormous caterpillar that wormed its way through Mothra, the Meganulon are bug-eyed monstrosities that emit ear-piercing calls and attack with a flesh-tearing savagery that really makes up for their cartoonish appearance. While the Meganulon’s are a fun little appetizer, the main course are the Rodans that glide mightily through the skies. With their leathery wings, pointed beaks, and sleek horns that protrude from their heads, the Rodans are a spooky addition to Toho’s famous line of monsters. What makes them even creepier are what they are meant to reflect. Much like Godzilla was created as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, Rodan was created in response to the UFO paranoia of the 1950s. From a distance, the Rodans resemble an unidentified flying object darting through the clouds, as skittish jet pilots frantically try to make sense of what they are seeing. In the middle of the film, a montage of scenes featuring terrified Japanese citizens staring towards the sky and pointing in awe are smartly tuned in to the reports of saucer-like objects descending from the heavens and quietly revealing themselves. When Rodan lands in the middle of a city and begins a reign of terror, the famed Kaiju seems to take the baton from Godzilla and subtly mirrors the fear of the H-bomb.

While Rodan finds Toho getting their Kaiju line back on the right track, the film isn’t without a few flaws. Some of the scenes of Rodan gliding over the heads of curious civilians are simply stock footage filler of jets leaving contrails in the bright blue sky. With all the time and money clearly put into the film, you’d think that Honda would have refused the distracting stock footage contrails for something a bit more inventive and eye-catching. Another complaint would have to be the final minutes of the film, which are essentially a montage of explosions and rockets being fired into a volcano. It becomes increasingly clear that this fiery sequence is Honda’s way of filling out the runtime of the film. However, the explosions fail to turn our empathy for the suffering Rodans to ash, and it does send you away feeling sorry for the poor creatures despite the amount of death and destruction they brought in their wake. Overall, the colorful Rodan may not be quite as somber as the original Godzilla, but the pop art action and the thoughtfulness put into the script makes this one of the more terrifying monster movies to emerge from the mushroom cloud. A minor Kaiju classic!

Grade: B

Rodan is available on DVD.