Thursday, June 19, 2014

LATER, LOUIE


So Louie aired its season finale this week. And based on this season as a whole, I don’t think I’ll be back next time around. I found it pretentious, preachy, overly moralistic, disjointed, self-indulgent . . . and perhaps most egregious of all, not funny

Somewhere along the way, Louie C.K. seemed to buy into all the glowing press about him and decided he was now an auteur with something IMPORTANT to say. What was once one of the funniest shows on TV, with a little seriousness and pathos sprinkled in every now and then (the Afghanistan episode, the Parker Posey episodes), and occasional lapses into self-satisfaction (an entire segmented devoted to him singing the Who’s “Who Are You” as he’s driving his two daughters upstate) has become a full-blown drama with half-assed attempts at humor once in a blue moon.

A 90-minute flashback episode about Louie’s childhood, complete with brutal bullying, theft, drug use, an adversarial relationship with his mostly absent father and a disintegrating relationship with his overworked and stressed-out mother, topped off by him in the present realizing that the way to deal with his daughter—whom he found smoking pot and who LIED to him about it, insisting that she hadn’t done anything even though he SAW her doing it—is to simply tell her that he loves her. I guess the message there is that any parent who doesn’t handle it that way is doing it wrong.

Episode after episode of him romancing an utterly uninteresting woman from Hungary who speaks no English. His completely disfunctional—even disturbing—relationship with the extremely unpleasant and downright unlikable character played by Pamela Adlon. (Did he or did he not actually try to sexually assault her in his apartment in a recent episode?) His younger daughter displaying very troubling behavior. The seemingly endless lecture he received from a date about how society treats overweight women. It was all just . . . not enjoyable to watch. Not for me, at least.       

It kind of reminds me of the situation with M*A*S*H. The first few seasons were often very funny. But as the show progressed, Alan Alda gained more and more creative control and decided that it was no longer to be a straight-out comedy. Now it had to make big, meaningful statements, it had to bring home just how horrible war really is, and it had to give the cast opportunities to show off their dramatic acting chops. Uh, okay, but as an audience member, that’s not what I signed up for. 

There is very little I remember about the last few seasons of M*A*S*H. I may have stopped watching by then. But I do remember that I watched the final episode with my dad the night it aired, and neither of us laughed once. And I remember that Alan Alda, who co-wrote and directed the episode, gave himself the juiciest of parts, with Hawkeye having a nervous breakdown brought on by witnessing a mother killing her own baby to prevent being discovered by enemy troops in the middle of the night. Hilarious stuff, huh?

I know this season of Louie has many supporters and defenders, people who genuinely enjoyed the direction it went in this season. But in my opinion, when it reaches a point when Maron is actually the funnier show, it’s probably time to give up on Louie.

If the comedy part happens to make a comeback next season, let me know.


© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

REVIEW: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST


The X-Men movie franchise continues to emerge from the creative tailspin it was in a few years ago, after the one-two punch of the loud, brain-dead mess that was 2006’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand and 2009’s soulless, pointless, utterly disposable X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Things started to look brighter when the director of the first two films, Bryan Singer, returned from his ill-fated excursion into the world of Superman to produce and co-write 2011’s highly enjoyable prequel/stealth reboot, X-Men: First Class. And then Hugh Jackman, the only member of the original cast to have appeared in every single one of these films, teamed up with director James Mangold to make last year’s excellent The Wolverine. Which now brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past, based on the seminal 1981 comic book story by John Byrne and Chris Claremont published in The Uncanny X-Men #’s 141-142. Singer is back in the director’s chair this time, and it is clear that he is one of the very few people in Hollywood who really has a handle on this material.

The plot, which was set up at the very end of The Wolverine, involves the surviving X-Men of the future fighting a hopeless war against the Sentinels, an army of highly advanced mutant-killing robots. With their numbers dwindling and time rapidly running out, the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), launch a desperate plan to send one of the team back in time to 1973 to change history. The mission: Prevent the shape-changing mutant known as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from carrying out an assassination that ultimately leads to the creation of the Sentinels and the extinction of mutantkind.



It is determined that only Wolverine can make the trip back in one piece, and he submits to an unusual procedure in which Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) projects his consciousness back 50 years to inhabit his younger body. (In the comic-book version, it was Kitty herself who made the journey.) Arriving in 1973, eleven years after the events of First Class, Wolverine must convince the young Xavier (James McAvoy), who is wallowing in self-pity and drug dependency, to help him find and stop Mystique. Even more complicated, they need the help of Xavier’s friend-turned-arch-enemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who is imprisoned beneath the Pentagon for his involvement in a certain presidential assassination that took place in Dallas. After their bitter split, which left Xavier in a wheelchair, can these two men possibly work together again? Can history really be changed? Can this movie series finally and fully emerge from the shadow cast upon it by X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine? For at least one of these questions, the answer is, “Ehhhhh, could be!”

Seriously, Days of Future Past is a blast. It’s the ultimate X-Men movie, bringing together nearly all of the elements from all of the previous films. The scenes set in the future bring back cast members from the first three movies, including the aforementioned Stewart and Page, Ian McKellen as the older Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake/Iceman, and Daniel Cudmore as Colossus. In addition to First Class returnees Lawrence, McAvoy, and Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult is back as Henry McCoy/the Beast. And of course, at the center of it all—but very much part of an ensemble this time instead of the dominant figure—is Jackman as  Wolverine. (Hugh Jackman, now a star in his own right, truly epitomizes the term “team player.”)



I wasn’t sure such a massive undertaking would work, but it does—quite well. Given the nature of the story, and the fact that the majority of it is set in 1973, not everyone has a big part (poor Anna Paquin, especially!). There’s not a lot of screen time devoted to the X-Men of the future, but despite their limited roles, Stewart, McKellen, and Page make an indelible mark on the film. (I’m now convinced Ellen Page is simply incapable of ever turning in a weak performance.) On the other hand, Halle Berry is pretty flat here—and it doesn’t help that she has an absolute minimum amount of dialogue. Her inclusion seems more a matter of “for old times’ sake” than anything else.

One of the things I loved most about First Class was the character building and the relationships, and I feared that would be lost here, with so many characters involved and so much going on. My fears were quickly dispelled. The chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender is wonderful, and I very much felt like I was revisiting the characters of First Class, ten years later. Fassbender in particular is an incredibly strong presence, rivaling even Jackman, and it’s a pleasure to watch him. 



Jennifer Lawrence, in a pivotal role, is able to convey so many different emotions and deep internal conflict, even buried under all that blue prosthetic makeup. As the Beast, Hoult does not get as much of a story arc here as he did last time, but he brings a quiet sadness and dignity to the role and successfully conveys a sense of tragedy. His scenes with Jackman are a highlight.

Beyond the series veterans, the absolute standouts here are Evan Peters as mutant Peter Maximoff and Peter Dinklage as Dr. Bolivar Trask. Maximoff, who has the gift of super speed (and is also known as Quicksilver in the comics) is recruited by Wolverine to help break Magneto out of the Pentagon. Trask is the mutant-fearing scientist who develops the Sentinels. 

Evan Peters, who has been so consistently impressive in the TV series American Horror Story, is simply fantastic. He’s funny, energetic, arrogant, and mischievous—absolutely on target. The entire section of the film involving his character is extremely well done, both in terms of performance and direction. The scene at the Pentagon had me smiling from ear to ear and laughing out loud. 



It will be interesting indeed to see how Aaron Taylor-Johnson portrays the same character in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. One thing’s for sure: He’ll have to show a lot more than the one-dimensional stoicism he displayed throughout the new Godzilla to match what Peters accomplishes here.      

I’ve never seen Peter Dinklage be anything less than excellent—he is one of the main reasons for the success of Game of Thrones—and he is very effective as Trask (complete with an early-70s porno mustache). 



I do wish the movie developed his character just a bit more and provided greater context for his motivations. It is notable—and admirable—that throughout the movie, no reference is ever made to the fact that Trask is a little person. It’s simply not an issue. But I can’t help but think that director Singer was subtly aiming for a sense of irony here, in that someone who, as a dwarf, would himself be considered “different” in our society is so determined to eradicate an entire race of people because they are outside the mainstream. Sort of along the same lines as Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, adopting some of the same tactics as his oppressors for the sake of his own “superior race.”

(Incidentally, who knew that legendary comic-book writers Chris Claremont, who wrote most of Marvel’s X-Men titles for 17 years, and Len Wein, who led the successful revival of the X-Men in 1975 and created Wolverine, were such fine thespians? I sure didn’t! Both appear as U.S. senators early in the film, both have lines of dialogue, and both deliver their lines quite convincingly. Nice work, gentlemen!) 

There are some wonderful surprises, clever in-jokes (“My mom used to know a guy who could do that”), call-backs to previous movies, and, despite all the heavy drama and apocalyptic stakes, a genuine sense of fun. (Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Warner Bros. would do well to take that last part into account as they move ahead with their super hero movies. But somehow, I doubt they will.) 

Diehard fans of the X-Men movies may find themselves perplexed, frustrated, or even appalled, as this film does play havoc with the continuity set up in the previous films. (To be fair, so did First Class, but this film goes much farther.) It seems there are no sacred cows here—Singer is even willing to mess with, and sacrifice, stuff from the films he directed. Casual fans and newcomers probably won’t mind all this, and some viewers may not even realize the extent of what has been done—I’m sure even I don’t. But there is a story reason for it all, and as far as I’m concerned, the end definitely justifies the means. I know I’m being cryptic here—to do otherwise would be to get deep into spoiler territory.

It is safe to say that Days of Future Past is one of the best X-Men movies ever made. I place it in the top three, alongside X-Men 2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. Stay to the very end, after the final credits, as a seed is planted for the next installment. With the series now firmly back on track, and the knowledge that the next film, tentatively titled X-Men: Apocalypse, will take the First Class cast into the 1980s, I am looking forward to spending more time with the movie mutants.

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

OH MY GODZILLA!


With the new Godzilla movie now in theaters (check out my review here), I thought this would be the perfect time to give Grumblings readers a rundown of the previous films in the franchise that I consider to be the cream of the crop. They range widely in terms of tone and overall approach, but in my opinion, out of the 30 Godzilla movies that have been produced since 1954, these “magnificent seven” provide the best, most satisfying, or most downright fun viewing experiences.  
  1. Godzilla aka Gojira (1954)


    Without a doubt, the original is the very best. There is no other film like it in the entire series. Filmed almost like a documentary, especially during the scenes depicting Godzilla’s relentless attacks on Japan, it is a stark, grim, dead-serious allegory about the horrors of nuclear warfare, produced by people who lived through those horrors and saw them up close. It is a tale of nature striking back at us for daring to tamper with forces beyond our control and full understanding.

    Takashi Shimura, a noted actor who frequently worked with director Akira Kurosawa, brings gravitas and dignity to the role of Dr. Yamane, a scientist who wants to study Godzilla instead of simply destroy him. Akihiko Hirata conveys anguish, regret, and, ultimately, brave determination as Dr. Serizawa, whose tortured genius provides the key to ending the threat of the monster. Momoki Kochi as Yamane’s daughter Emiko, and Akira Takarada as her secret lover Ogata (she’s actually engaged to the aloof workaholic Serizawa), are not as compelling, but the forbidden nature of their romance and the sacrifices they are willing to endure for the greater good make them worthwhile characters.    

    The big question, in terms of watching this movie: The Japanese version or the 1956 Americanized version with footage of Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin edited into the narrative?   


    Both versions have their strengths. I like how Burr treats the material with respect, and the way in which he is inserted into scenes to interact with the Japanese characters is quite clever and, for the most part, well executed. But the Japanese version is a bit more substantial, with the connections to World War II and Hiroshima and Nagasaki made much more explicit, and the sheer tragedy of Godzilla’s rampage shown in full (particularly when a mother and her young children are caught in the monster’s path and they await their fate).

    The last couple of home releases of the original Japanese version, through Classic Media and most recently the Criterion Collection, included the U.S. version, so you can watch both and decide which one you prefer. 

  2. Godzilla Vs. The Thing, aka Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)


    This is the third sequel to the first Godzilla movie, and it also a sequel to 1961’s Mothra, which makes it the first “crossover” film featuring the Toho monsters. The Godzilla suit in this movie is arguably the best one ever made. He’s never looked meaner, with cold, angry eyes and a flapping upper lip that makes him seem even more bestial. Godzilla is portrayed as a malevolent, unstoppable engine of destruction here, which is just how I like it. I particularly love how, in his battles with both Mothra and her offspring, he reacts and fights like a wild animal instead of an oversized professional wrestler. Unfortunately, the wrestling antics became more and more of a staple of the series as time went on.


    Despite the elements of fantasy (including Mothra’s miniature twin emissaries, played by Japanese singing duo the Peanuts, Emi and Yumi Ito), the movie mostly plays it straight and delivers a compelling and fun story about the need for human compassion and cooperation. The human characters are well developed and you don’t mind following their storylines when the monsters aren’t on screen. The special effects are very effective, clever, and innovative, especially for the time. Even the English dubbing, produced by Titra Studios, is top-notch. And composer Akira Ifukube’s score captures the mood of the whole thing perfectly. All in all, this is a great Godzilla film.  

  3. Monster Zero, aka Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)


    This is a follow-up to the previous year’s Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which introduced the space creature that has become Godzilla’s most popular foe. It was in Ghidorah that Godzilla began to shift away from being a malevolent force to become Earth’s protector, to exhibit signs of humanlike intelligence, and to provide moments of humor. That trend continues in Monster Zero. I am not, nor have I ever been, in favor of anthropomorphizing the monsters, or playing them for laughs, which this movie does in spades when Godzilla, triumphing over Ghidorah in a preliminary bout, does an infamous “victory dance.”

    And yet, I enjoy Monster Zero, primarily because I found the human characters so likable. First and foremost, there’s the character of Glenn, a United States astronaut played by American actor Nick Adams.


    Adams is absolutely wonderful here, bursting with energy and chewing up every single bit of the scenery in a thoroughly entertaining manner. He really gives it his all, at times doing a quasi-James Cagney impression as he delivers his lines (“You rats! You stinkin’ rats!”). His enthusiasm reportedly endeared him to the Japanese cast and crew, and he exhibited strong onscreen chemistry with romantic interest Miss Namikawa, played by the lovely and sexy Kumi Mizuno (whom Adams was rumored to have pursued off-screen, supposedly to no avail) and best friend Astronaut Fuji, played by Akira Takarada. I also liked Akira Kubo as the bespectacled nerdy scientist who is forced to become a man of action. While Monster Zero continued the distancing of Godzilla from his roots and moved the series more towards kiddie-oriented fare, I still find it to be a fun movie.

  4. Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991)


    Without a doubt, this is the loopiest, most nonsensically plotted Godzilla movie ever made. Time travelers from the future convince the people of 1991 to allow them to go back in time and make sure that Godzilla never mutates into the radioactive creature that has menaced the world over and over again—but after they succeed in doing so, everyone on Earth still remembers Godzilla and all of the destruction that he caused, even though, as a result of the time travelers’ actions, none of it ever happened. Plus there’s a silly new earthbound origin for Ghidorah (thanks to the secret master plan of the time travelers, he basically takes Godzilla’s place in history), some extremely dicey, downright laughable special effects, and some of the worst attempts at humor I’ve ever seen (the “Major Spielberg” bit has to be seen to be believed). So you may be wondering why I have this movie on my list.

    For starters: It features one of the best-looking Godzilla suits ever made, without a doubt. The fight scenes between Godzilla and Ghidorah are very well staged. And as dopey as the storyline is, I love the fact that Godzilla is first presented as a major threat to humanity, and then becomes our only hope when Ghidorah replaces him and turns out to be even worse. And then, after a restored Godzilla defeats Ghidorah, he turns around and attacks Japan in what I consider to be one of the best “rampage” sequences ever done in a giant-monster movie. The final battle, between Godzilla and a Ghidorah resurrected with 23rd-century technology, is a hoot.
     
  5. Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)


    Mechagodzilla, first introduced in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (released in the U.S. in 1977 as Godzilla vs. Cosmic Monster), gets a complete reboot and makeover in this well-done adventure. (I’m not sure why there’s a “II” in the title, since this has no connection to the previous Mechagodzilla, which was set in a different continuity.) The film also brings back Rodan, the giant flying creature that debuted in 1957’s Rodan and disappeared from movie screens after 1968’s Destroy All Monsters. And it reintroduces the concept of a baby Godzilla, but thankfully, it’s done much better here than in 1967’s Son of Godzilla, which was aimed solely at children and depicted the baby (then called Minya) as a cross between a tadpole, Uncle Fester, and Beetlejuice from The Howard Stern Show:



    "Who, me?"

    The human characters are likable. The Godzilla suit isn’t quite as fantastic as the one in King Ghidorah, but it’s good and it gets the job done. The film begins with Godzilla and Rodan at each other throats, but eventually both creatures come to see Mechagodzilla, built and controlled by Earth’s anti-Godzilla task force, as the greater threat to their survival. This movie was originally supposed to end with Godzilla’s death, and the final version stops just short of that, which gives the climax an intensity and a dramatic air that most of the other films don’t have.    

  6. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)


    Godzilla is the bad guy in this one-off movie that doesn’t tie in to any of the franchise’s previous continuities. It’s far more spiritual than any of its predecessors or the films that follow it. The events of the original 1954 film are more or less part of the history, but instead of being the living embodiment of mankind’s nuclear ambitions gone wild, Godzilla now represents the souls of all the Japanese soldiers who died during World War II—and the creature is intent on destroying Japan because their great sacrifice during that global conflict has been forgotten. But, as described in an ancient legend, other monsters emerge to defend Japan against Godzilla: Mothra and, surprisingly enough, King Ghidorah, who, up until this film, had always been portrayed as more of a menace than Godzilla ever was. (Also of note: In this film, Ghidorah is smaller than Godzilla—in all of his previous appearances, he was noticeably larger.)

    The Godzilla suit gets a refurbishing in this film, and it looks fantastic—his eyes are completely white, making him look like he’s possessed by an evil demon.



    And Godzilla has rarely been as malevolent and destructive as he is here. There’s a scene involving him and a hospital that is one of my all-time favorite Godzilla moments. The human characters didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I really joined the monster stuff—even though the changes made to Mothra and Ghidorah struck me as a bit odd. All in all, this is a very interesting and atypical Godzilla movie.

  7. King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1963)


    This is included for sentimental reasons. When I was a kid, it was my absolute favorite movie. It worked for me on every level. Not so much anymore. I’ve since seen the Japanese version, which is significantly different from the U.S. edition, and I can report that it is a better film than what we Americans got. For one thing, there are no cuts to totally bland, boring, and smug middle-aged white guys in a newsroom describing the events of the movie instead of just letting us watch them. And Akira Ifukube’s masterful musical score is presented in its entirety. But it doesn’t change the fact that the King Kong suit is horrendous and the characters—the humans and the monsters—are often played for laughs. This is the movie where the pro wrestling maneuvers started to creep in during the monster battles. I can excuse the fact that Kong is about 10 times bigger than he should be—how else could he stand up to Godzilla? But the idea that electricity makes him stronger comes out of nowhere and just seems arbitrary. He’s a big ape! Why would lightning give him added strength, not to mention the ability to send shocks through Godzilla’s body?

    And yet . . . the Godzilla suit is absolutely iconic, one of the most popular ever created.


    Godzilla himself is still portrayed as an unstoppable force of destruction. The special effects and miniatures are well done. It’s the first Godzilla movie in color. And I have to admit, the character of Mr. Tako, played by Ichiro Arishima, is genuinely funny and fun to watch. It’s not a great movie or a great Godzilla movie, but my 8-year-old self still has enough of a hold on me that I can’t help but feel affection for it.

    By the way—having seen the Japanese version, let me take this opportunity to dispel a myth that has persisted since the 1960s. The U.S. version and the Japanese version of King Kong Vs. Godzilla have the same ending: Kong and Godzilla fall into the ocean, Kong pops up and starts swimming home, and Godzilla is not seen again. Godzilla does not win in the Japanese version. Tell your friends, okay?


    © All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

EARLY REVIEW: GODZILLA


In some ways, I liken my experience of seeing the new Godzilla to that of seeing 1989’s Batman. I went in to both films very much wanting to love them. They were both heavily-hyped blockbusters featuring characters I had adored since childhood. They were both designed to wash away the stink of a previous incarnation—in the case of Batman, it was the campy 1960s Adam West TV series; with Godzilla, it was the horrid 1998 film starring Matthew Broderick and directed by Roland Emmerich, as well as the goofy, silly, kiddie-oriented Godzilla movies of the late 60s and early 70s. And both films had absolutely killer trailers that made me believe that I was going to be getting exactly what I wanted.

And yet, with both films, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment when the end credits began to roll. 

It’s not that Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, is a bad film. It didn’t anger me, or make me want to walk out halfway through, the way Roland Emmerich’s movie did. It’s just . . . not as good as I wanted it to be. Not as good as it should be. Not as good as it needs to be to fully overcome the negative reputation that the franchise has gained over the years as a result of its weaker installments.

On the positive side, the tone of the film is absolutely correct. It’s never anything less than dead serious, with no annoying winking or tongue-in-cheek nonsense. It doesn’t poke fun at itself or the genre as a whole. Appropriately, there is a sense of impending doom permeating throughout the narrative.

Much of this can be credited to Bryan Cranston, who brings his A-game, pulls out all the stops, and delivers an emotional and heartbreaking performance that grounds the film in reality and gives audiences a character they can relate to. 



Cranston plays nuclear physicist Joe Brody, who is desperately trying to uncover the truth behind a tragic incident at a Japanese nuclear power plant 15 years earlier, which took the life of his beloved wife Sandra, played by Juliette Binoche. Without a doubt, Cranston is the very best thing about the film. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of him in it. And the same thing can be said about the title character.

Which is another way that this Godzilla and the 1989 Batman are similar: In both films, the title character is pretty much relegated to the sidelines, basically a supporting player in his own movie, with the emphasis placed squarely on the main antagonist. In Batman, it was Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Here, it’s a pair of new monsters, both called MUTO (which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). I was surprised to find that these new beasts provide the bulk of the mayhem. Godzilla is teased throughout the film, until he finally steps into the spotlight, but he’s never really front-and-center. When the focus did shift to him at long last, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of, “Too little too late.”


A glimpse at one of the MUTO creatures

I was also disappointed by Cranston’s limited amount of screen time—given how prominent he is in the trailers, I thought his character Joe Brody was going to be one of the leads. But it’s a relatively small role, as the main protagonist turns out to be Brody’s son Ford, an explosives expert serving in the U.S. Army. 



Ford is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who starred in both Kick-Ass movies, played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, and will be seen next year as Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Based on having seen him in Kick-Ass, I would say that Taylor-Johnson is a capable actor, but he’s given very little chance to perform in Godzilla. His character is so woefully underdeveloped and stoic and lacking in any real substance, that you can’t bring yourself to really care about him or anything that happens to him.

The same can be said about the rest of the cast—they’re all rough sketches, not characters. This includes Ford’s wife Elle, a beautiful young nurse and mother played by Elizabeth Olsen (who, amusingly enough, will play Taylor-Johnson’s sister, the Scarlet Witch, in the aforementioned Avengers sequel), Admiral William Stenz, played by veteran actor David Strathairn, and, perhaps most egregiously, Dr. Serizawa, a Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe (and named after a key character in the original 1954 Japanese Godzilla film—he was instrumental in stopping the monster’s rampage). Unfortunately, throughout this film, Watanabe does little more than look worried and deliver cryptic, stilted dialogue. His Dr. Serizawa is an insult to the character he was named after.



It’s not just the characters that lack substance—I’m not really sure what this movie is supposed to be about. The original 1954 Godzilla was an allegory about the horrors of nuclear weapons, produced by people who had seen those horrors in real life, up close and personal. Godzilla the creature was portrayed as the personification of nature striking back at humanity for daring to tamper with such powerful and dangerous forces. In this new film, Serizawa has a good line: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.” But it comes off as lip service to a never-fully-explored theme, an attempt to shoehorn in some degree of meaning to all the noise and spectacle.

The first half hour (during which Bryan Cranston is most prominent) is excellent, leading us into a flabby and frustrating middle section. The best way to describe why it’s so frustrating is to compare it to epididymal hypertension—there’s dramatic build up to a major showdown, and then the film cuts away to something else, just when you least want it to. (Budget limitations, perhaps?) And this happens not once but twice

The final act is fairly decent, finally giving us what we’ve been waiting for, and it’s well executed. Godzilla is portrayed in a manner that is respectful and faithful to the better representations of the character: He is massive, imposing, oblivious of the humans scattering before him in terror—he’s essentially a living force of nature driven primarily by instinct. 




He does not run or hide like a frightened cat, as he did in the 1998 abomination. He does not engage in silly wrestling moves.



Nor does he do a victory dance. 



Edwards seems to have been most influenced by the way Godzilla was depicted in 1964’s Godzilla Vs. The Thing (one of my favorites) and in the more recent films produced by Japan’s Toho Co. Ltd., which presented the creature as neither evil nor benevolent, his true motivations remaining mostly unknown. This, in my opinion, is a very good thing—though I have to mention that in this regard, the film ends on a somewhat bizarre note that prompted snickers and giggles in the screening I attended.  
   
The special effects are masterfully done. I like the design of the new Godzilla, though it doesn’t rank as one of my favorites. The MUTO creatures are also well executed and interesting, echoing the monster from Cloverfield and Godzilla’s old sparring partner Rodan. They make for worthy adversaries for “Big G.”

I wanted to love the new Godzilla. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it either. But I feel it just doesn’t fully do the job that I think it needed to do. Yes, it’s better than the Matthew Broderick dud (damning with faint praise, I know), but on its own, I’m not so sure it’s going to convert many non-believers. 

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

REVIEW: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2


I’m actually glad I read so many negative advance reviews of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They lowered my expectations to the point where I went in prepared to see a disaster on the order of Batman and Robin or X-Men 3: The Last Stand . . . or Spider-Man 3. So I was surprised—very pleasantly so—to find myself actually enjoying Marc Webb’s sequel to his 2012 series reboot. My feeling is, if you liked the last one, you’ll probably like this one too.

The film picks up about a year after its immediate predecessor, with Peter Parker (once again played by the perfectly cast Andrew Garfield) having settled into a nice groove as the web-slinging crime fighter—he’s having a great time stopping bad guys, and is even making some money from it, as he occasionally sells photos of his exploits to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson (who is represented here by a couple of amusing e-mails—but when are we gonna see him already?). Peter is also graduating from high school, along with his beloved girlfriend Gwen Stacy (the exquisite Emma Stone, who is even better here than she was in the previous movie—and that’s saying something), with both headed for college. 


Gwen's future is looking bright.  

In the meantime, Gwen is continuing her internship at Oscorp, the scientific research company founded by Norman Osborn, who, if you recall from last time, is desperately seeking a cure for the disease that is killing him. We’re finally introduced to Norman here, and he’s played by Chris Cooper, who would not have been my first choice to take over the role from the more youthful and dynamic Willem Dafoe. But Norman has a fairly limited role in this film, not really enough to make much of an impression, though I am left wondering if Webb and his team have future plans for him. 

Norman’s son Harry (Dane DeHaan)—who was Peter’s close friend when they were children—returns to New York after years abroad to see his ailing father, and reconnects with Peter. But it turns out that Harry has the same affliction as his father, and he becomes convinced that the key to curing himself is Spider-Man’s blood. Aware that there’s some sort of connection between Peter and Spider-Man, Harry implores his friend to convince the wall-crawler to help him. Peter wants to help Harry, but he’s concerned about what his genetically re-engineered blood will do to his friend, considering what happened to Dr. Curt Connors in the previous film when he messed around with this kind of stuff (he became the Lizard, in case you missed it). 

Meanwhile, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a nebbishy maintenance man at Oscorp, meets Spider-Man when the web-slinger saves his life during a melee in the streets of Manhattan. In the aftermath, Dillon develops an unhealthy fixation on the superhero—and then survives an accident at Oscorp involving damaged electrical lines and electric eels being used in genetic experiments. Dillon is transformed into an energy being who feeds on the city’s power grid, and renames himself Electro. In this new form, he encounters Spider-Man again, but the wall-crawler fails to live up to his expectations and earns Electro’s wrath—which is a major problem, as Dillon is becoming more and more powerful and is beginning to see himself as godlike.

There are other plot threads, as well. A Russian thug played by a hilariously unhinged Paul Giamatti shows up a couple of times, and is set up for future appearances. The mystery of Peter Parker’s deceased parents (played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), established in the previous film, is further developed—and pretty much resolved—here. (Interestingly, no mention is made of Spider-Man’s ongoing search for the criminal who killed his uncle Ben.) And Peter is racked with guilt over the fact that he has broken his promise  to Gwen’s late father, NYPD Captain George Stacy (Denis Leary), that he would stay away from Gwen and not let her get caught up in his activities as Spider-Man. Captain Stacy haunts Peter throughout the film, casting disapproving glares at the young hero.

So there’s a LOT going on in this film, almost more than its running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours can handle. And there was clearly plenty of additional stuff that got cut out during the editing process—key moments that were shown in the trailers are missing in the final cut. And an entire subplot featuring Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson was removed entirely. (I absolutely agree with this decision, by the way—adding Mary Jane would have been one element too many. I can’t see any way that they could have introduced her into this movie without it feeling totally forced. In addition, I don’t think Woodley was a good choice for the role to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good actress, but I find that she lacks the charisma and sexiness to play MJ the way she ought to be portrayed. Alas, the ideal actress to play Mary Jane is . . . Emma Stone. Oh well!) 

But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is never boring. The pacing is solid, the storylines are compelling, and the character interactions are wonderful. All of which sets it apart—FAR apart—from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, which continues to be the absolute nadir of the Spider-Man movies.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have incredible chemistry (no surprise, given their real-life relationship status)—it reminds me of Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies. Their scenes together absolutely sparkle, and watching them play off one another is a real delight. 


Peter and Gwen get a rare opportunity for some quality time.

Actually, Garfield has a great rapport with pretty much everyone in this film—there is one scene in particular, between him and the magnificent Sally Field as Aunt May, that very nearly brought me to tears. 


Peter and Aunt May confront some painful family history.

And Garfield and DeHaan’s Harry really do seem like old friends reunited. DeHaan is fine in the role—it’s a strong, multi-layered performance, though I found his Harry to be a bit creepier than James Franco’s, which makes it all the more obvious that he’s not going to be on the side of the angels for very long.


Harry Osborn can't escape his family legacy. 


Foxx’s Electro is a cool visual and I love his voice once he transforms into an energy being. But his storyline and his motivations are somewhat weak. His shift into super-villaindom comes off as arbitrary—it’s simply not developed sufficiently. As other reviewers have noted, he spouts off one or two groan-inducing lines of dialogue—but nothing as bad as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ice-themed puns in Batman and Robin. And I think the film goes a bit overboard in terms of showing what a pathetic soul Max Dillion is before his accident.


Electro before...


... and after.

For me, the absolute worst element of the film was the character of Dr. Kafka, a scientist working at the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane, played by an actor named Marton Csokas. Never mind the fact that in the comics, Dr. Kafka is a woman. Csokas plays Kafka completely over the top, as if he thought he was appearing in the Adam West Batman TV series, and delivers one of the most ridiculous German accents I have ever heard, more comical than anything in Hogan’s Heroes

And as with the previous film, the musical score is totally unmemorable. Hans Zimmer replaces James Horner, and surprisingly, neither of these fine composers have come close to surpassing the work of Danny Elfman on the Raimi-directed Spidey movies—and this is coming from someone who doesn’t think that Elfman’s work was particularly spectacular. (Then again, the bar was set by John Williams with Superman: The Movie—it's doubtful anyone will ever be able to top that.) 

On the other end of the spectrum, I cannot say enough good things about Spider-Man’s new costume. I’m so glad that the filmmakers decided to ditch the one from the previous film and return to the classic look established by legendary artist Steve Ditko in the very first Spider-Man story, back in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15. 





Garfield’s new outfit is beautiful, easily rivaling the one Tobey Maguire wore—and in some areas, especially the eyes, it is actually a significant improvement. I did find it notable that no one in the film, not even Gwen, mentioned that Spidey is suddenly wearing new duds. (Maybe that was one of the bits that ended up on the cutting room floor?)

I was also pleased that Spider-Man’s trademark wit and mischievous nature were very much on display in this film—a stark contrast to Tobey Maguire’s Spidey, who was far more serious and hardly ever made wisecracks. And the movie goes out of its way to show Spider-Man making it a priority to save and protect civilians and first responders from the chaos and destruction caused by Electro’s rampage. Take that, Man of Steel!    

In addition, Spider-Man himself gets plenty of screen time—and he keeps his mask on for most of it! This is a huge step forward.  

Without getting too heavily into spoiler territory, I will say that the film is based in part on one of the most important Spider-Man stories ever published. In that sense, it’s a bit like X-Men 3: The Last Stand, which took many of its cues from the now-legendary comic-book storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” But unlike that cinematic misfire, which reached for the stars but never even got off the ground, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does its original source material proud, though not everyone will be pleased. I can say no more.

Longtime Spidey fans are sure to catch at least some of the numerous in-jokes (the number 121 figures prominently in one key scene) and subtle hints of future story plans. There’s even a shout-out to Star Trek—I guess Webb is a fan.      

I’ve seen some criticisms aimed at this film that I found to be fairly petty and downright ridiculous. Granted, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has its flaws, but they are totally outweighed by its virtues. I still wish Marvel had the film rights—I think they would do an even better job with the property. Their most recent release, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is one of the best superhero movies ever made, hands down. But Webb and his team have put together a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying film, and it’s nice to know that they will be back for at least one more Spider-Man movie. (Then again, I felt the same way about Sam Raimi and company after their Spider-Man 2, so maybe I shouldn’t be too optimistic. For now, at least, I’ll give Webb the benefit of the doubt.) I’m interested in seeing where they take things next, because at the end of this film, Spider-Man is left in a very, shall we say, intriguing place indeed.          

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.