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.
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.
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think that Ben “Gigli” Affleck would become a respected Hollywood director who now has three great films under his directing belt? Yeah, I would have never guessed that either, especially after also seeing Reindeer Games and Daredevil. I thought he was doomed for the bargain bin but over the years, he slowly climbed onto the A-list by carefully choosing roles that would repair the damage done to his career by J. Lo and J. Gar. I was seriously impressed with his 2010 Boston heist thriller The Town and left wondering what Mr. Affleck would deliver to us next. Now we have his political/hostage thriller and Hollywood send up Argo, which is based on recently declassified events. Vacillating between chuckle-worthy jabs at Hollywood and their big budget copycat projects and knee-jerking suspense set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, Affleck smoothly explores jaw-dropping history (with tweaks here and there) while measuring out a pinch of nostalgia for cinema buffs (that retro Warner Bros. logo stamped on the beginning of the movie). Basically, Argo is one of the best films of the year, a real crowd pleaser brimming with starry-eyed jingoism and unmatchable performances that all deserve to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They sort of owe Affleck one, especially after overlooking The Town for a Best Picture nomination.
Argo begins on November 4th, 1979, with militants storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran after the U.S. provided shelter for the recently deposed Shah. All the employees inside the embassy are taken hostage but six lucky ones manage to escape to the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Played by Victor Garber). With the group’s safety in question, the U.S. State Department begins devising ways to pull the group out without getting them killed. The State Department calls in Tony Mendez (Played by Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist who has had experience in getting people out of nasty situations. One evening while watching Battle of the Planet of the Apes with his son, Mendez gets the idea to use the story that the group is actually a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called Argo. After finally convincing his cranky supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Played by Bryan Cranston), the two get in contact with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (Played by John Goodman) and sleazy film producer Lester Siegel (Played by Alan Arkin) to help them create a fake movie. As Mendez and his team race to make the Star Wars knockoff seem as authentic as possible, the militants begin to suspect that some of the employees escaped right before the embassy was stormed and they set out to track down every last escapee.
While Argo never does much to really shake the viewer out of the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before in thrillers past, Affleck still gets a free pass with the idea that these events really took place (you can’t deny real life heroics). He may manipulate here and there for effect and granted, it works for dramatics, but it is such a crazy slice of reality that you easily ignore the predictable beat. And while the thrills may be familiar, they feel like they are cranked up to eleven. Affleck’s previous films had plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments and hold-your-breath action and Argo is no different. You’ll tense up every time the film leaves U.S. soil and ventures into chaotic Tehran. Affleck never misses a moment to capture the agony and fear that those six Americans were feeling as they waited for a way out of their extremely dangerous situation. And just wait until the end escape; with Affleck and the shaky six as they march through an airport loaded with steely-eyed guards sniffing out Americans. These scenes are the work of someone who truly understands suspense and how to put the viewer through the ringer. Affleck breaks up this suspense with witty moments of hilarity as Arkin and Goodman deadpan about the Hollywood studio system. The comic moments are a much-needed break from the somber warnings of life and death (bodies hang from cranes in the streets of Tehran, a grim reminder that the stakes are high) and give the film a flamboyant quirk.
Further making Argo a must-see are the performances from the main players, all of which are Oscar worthy, in my humble opinion. Affleck has never been better as the weary CIA escape artist Mendez, who rarely sees his son and turns to a bottle of hard liquor when things aren’t going quite his way. Cranston is his usual rock hard self as he O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who can unleash fury like you wouldn’t believe when the chips are down. I’m still amazed that Cranston quietly flies under the A-list radar but he manages to do it. I just wonder when this guy is going to explode. Goodman is fantastic as make-up artist Chambers, who squints through oversized glasses and burns through lines like, “So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in!” It is a dream come true when he is paired up with Arkin as the smart aleck film producer Siegel. Arkin doesn’t stray from his usual cranky demeanor and it fits perfectly when he declares, “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” His best moment comes when he snarls, “Argo fuck yourself!” Kyle Chandler (King Kong, Super 8) also drops by and really sizzles as Hamilton Jordan, the Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter. He’s another one, along with Cranston, who is on the verge of really breaking out but just stays low-key.
Argo never ceases to amaze considering all the different styles that Affleck blends together throughout its two-hour runtime. The scenes where Mendez and his team sit inside earth toned government offices and suck on Pall Malls seem like they were ripped out of any political drama from the 1970’s. There is a warm affection for classic science fiction and forgotten B-movies from the mangy days of Hollywood, when trash was king. There is a chilling urgency and grainy realism to the scenes where the Iranian revolutionaries rock the gates to the U.S. embassy before storming over and breaking in. It’s all a bit too unsettling, especially with recently events in Benghazi filling the evening news. Yet nothing clashes in this liberally charged plea for peaceful approaches to violent conflicts. It is a virtually flawless film that leaves you stunned that this outlandish idea actually saved the lives of six Americans. Politics aside, Argo is certainly going to be an awards season darling when the race for Best Picture begins. It is astonishingly consistent (not one scene seems wasted or useless), staggeringly hopeful even in its darkest moments, and beautifully acted at every turn. I can’t wait to see what Affleck does next.
Total Recall (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Have you ever watched someone play a video game? It’s fun for about ten minutes and then it just becomes mind numbing, filling you with the urge to snatch the controller out of player one’s hands just so you can keep from nodding off. That is how I felt while watching Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, the CGI heavy remake of director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original of the same name. Wiseman’s Total Recall is the type of action film that I thought Hollywood had given up on. It is spectacularly stupid and composed of never-ending action scenes that all begin to run together after about twenty minutes. I kept expecting to see someone like Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Cluade Van Damme swoop in for a cameo and maybe throw a punch or two Colin Farrell’s way. It is clear that video game style action took top priority in Total Recall and it doesn’t appear that Wiseman has any shame over it. Yes, Total Recall is the worst movie of the summer and I hardly think that anything will top it (well, except maybe The Expendables 2 but even the first one had the sense to stop and wink at itself). The major victim here is the plotline, which is subjected to one explosion, punch, kick, bullet, and knife after another. By the time we reach the overblown climax, the storyline is in ruin with no hope of putting itself back together. It may be pretty rank on the big screen, but if Total Recall were converted into an XBOX 360 or PS3 game, I think this would run off with game of the year.
Total Recall begins by explaining that a good majority of Earth has been wiped out by chemical warfare. The planet has been divided into two superpowers: The United Federation of Britain and The Colony. “The Fall”, a gigantic gravity elevator that rockets through the Earth’s core, connects the two superpowers and allows the survivors to travel back and forth. Factory worker Douglas Quaid (Played by Colin Farrell) shacks up in The Colony with his lovely wife Lori (Played by Kate Beckinsale), the two living a relatively normal life. It turns out that Doug has been suffering from a recurring nightmare every single night, a nightmare that is causing him to loose sleep. Fed up with this strange dream, Doug seeks out Rekall, a swanky lounge in a sketchy part of town that implants artificial memories. Shortly after the procedure begins, a SWAT team storms Rekall, guns down all the employees, and attempts to arrest Doug. To his surprise, Doug is able to fight off the SWAT team and finds himself on the run from Lori, who now claims to be an undercover UFB agent who has been pretending to be his wife. Desperate to figure out why Lori and the police are after him, Doug begins trying to figure out if all of this is real or if it is Rekall. His desperate search connects him to a mysterious resistance fighter named Melina (Played by Jessica Biel), the resistance leader Matthias (Played by Billy Nighy), and the sinister UFB Chancellor Vilos Cohaagen (Played by Bryan Cranston).
Don’t be fooled by the lengthy plot description, as Total Recall is mostly compiled of one long chase scene with countless gunfights thrown in to switch things up. When the film isn’t providing computerized eye candy, it is giving us flesh and blood eye candy in its three main leads. Total Recall exists to look good and nothing more and that is precisely its crime against cinema. There is not rhyme or reason why this film even exists other than to act as an exercise for the special effects department. To make things worse, screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback throw characters into the action that are there simply to act as checkpoints within the story. Farrell’s Quaid bumps into them, they explain what the hell is going on, and then they get killed. Their death gets Quaid all frazzled, a fight scene erupts between robot police officers and Quaid, and Quaid escapes with a minor scratch on his face. This is the formula that Total Recall uses and it doesn’t break from it once. And while the action is all perfectly executed, coherent, and spiffy, that still doesn’t hide the fact that it is reckless, monotonous, and nonsensical. If half the action scenes were trimmed from the film, I swear that this thing would only be about twenty minutes long. I kid you not.
Then we have all the pretty faces that populate Total Recall. Farrell is the only one who shows up to do any real acting and it is a shame because this is a total waste of his time. The script asks him to look confused as he maneuvers through nonstop explosions and gunfire that practically shatters your eardrums. Anytime he tries to add something resembling depth to his character (believe me, he IS capable of it), Wiseman pulls the camera away and aims it at Beckinsale, who also happens to be his wife. Beckinsale is basically asked to walk fast towards Farrell, who scampers away and then fights a few police officers. She basically made millions to walk fast and look good doing it (seriously). Her character is a gigantic joke, a nuisance to instigate one destructive action sequence after another. Rounding out this smoking hot trio is Biel as Melina, a character that really serves no purpose other than to explain the plot to us. Half the time, I forgot she was even there because she adds nothing substantial to this mess of a movie. Hey, at least she looks good holding a machine gun and that has to count for something.
Then we have the supporting players, who all seem to have showed up for the paycheck and then mentally checked out. Cranston is familiar evil as Cohaagen, the real bad guy who is looking to expand his empire in the most brutal way possible. Cranston may be a badass on television’s Breaking Bad but I hardly see him holding his own in a fistfight with the muscular Farrell, who manhandles man and robot alike. He hams it up next to Nighy, who seems downright embarrassed to be seen in this shitstorm. He is probably extremely grateful that we hear about his character more than we actually see him. Harold & Kumar’s John Cho drops by to play the blonde haired Bob McClane, a rep for Rekall that doesn’t last ten minutes once the bullets tear through the place. Bokeem Woodbine is present to deliver cringe-inducing dialogue as Harry, Quaid’s best buddy who strictly warns him to stay far away from Rekall. If I were Woodbine, I would have fired my agent once I saw the finished product. And what would Total Recall be without that famous three-breasted prostitute who directs Doug to that mysterious Rekall place. Oh yes, she is here and played by the lovely Kaitlyn Leeb, who grins through her whole scene. You know things are bad when Leeb only delivers three lines but manages to steal any entire movie. She is the most interesting character here.
You’d think that there would be at least one scene in Total Recall that would have justified the ten bucks that I spent on it but I honestly can’t think of one aspect I enjoyed. I guess if I had to pick something, I’d say that the special effects were pretty impressive and I got a good laugh out of the three-breasted prostitute but that still doesn’t quite make up for it. Other than that, I fought through yawns and a mild headache as things went from pretty bad to extremely awful. I also felt bad for Farrell, who I’m sure has to be kicking himself right now for agreeing to do this. Take it from me, folks, if your friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, mom, dad, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, or whoever else you see movies with suggests seeing Total Recall, calmly say that you aren’t interested in it and suggest going to see The Amazing Spider-Man or The Dark Knight Rises again. You’ll thank me later. No one should have to endure the disaster that is Total Recall.