Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Official Black Owl Review of Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla.”

Before we get rolling here, I need to talk a bit about my history with the character of Godzilla; if you don’t believe Godzilla is in fact a character, just click that little ‘x’ in the upper corner and go away, because you don’t need this review.  Godzilla is iconic and indeed a character in his eponymous series of films.  Some of those films, both Japanese and American, have spanned the spectrum from greatness to garbage.

I first discovered Godzilla watching either late night or Sunday afternoon creature features on network television. (Sorry youngsters, back when I was a kid we had three networks, PBS, and radio.  No web video, no interwebz, and not even videotape.)  This was primarily the sixties and seventies film version that was more than a little tongue in cheek, but treated Godzilla with a certain respect and reverence.  The characters treated Godzilla not as a monster, but as a protective force as if he was a manifestation of the Japanese spirit itself.  I didn’t understand.

Then, in the late 70s we got the Godzilla cartoon.  I watched it religiously (along with ‘Battle of the Planets’) and despite Godzuky, added it to my repertoire of appreciating giant monsters.  C’mon, I still sing the theme song, as horrible as the whole thing was. 

Then, in the mid 80s I was Saved.  I want to thank my old and dear friend Will Schwartz who was far more familiar with Japanese pop culture than I was.  When “Godzilla 1985” came out he was sad they had to put Raymond Burr into it.  I mentioned that the 1954 Godzilla had the former Perry Mason as well.  And then he showed me the truth.

Will had a bootleg of the original 1954 “Gojira” from Japan.  No Raymond Burr, just a masterpiece of mid-twentieth century cinema.  I certainly didn’t know that the scenes featuring Burr were edited in to make the movie “palatable” for an American audience, and was not a melodramatic farce about a ridiculous monster.  I learned though that “Gojira” was a solemn examination of mankind’s effects on the world around us, and how nature fights back.  The 1954 “Gojira” was then a parable for nuclear largess (mind you, actually intercut with documentary footage of Hiroshima) and now still stands as an allegory for mankind’s false assumption that we run nature.  Later Will showed me the unedited Japanese version of “Godzilla 1984” (released a year earlier in Japan) and though I will always have a nostalgia for the 60s-70s films, they reflected camp like the 70s’s Bond films as they strayed from “Doctor No” and “From Russian With Love.” 
“Godzilla 1984” started what is known as the “Heisei” series.  For the first time there was a continuity to the series, and the serious feel of 1954 was back.  Indeed, 1984 was set as a direct sequel to 1954 erasing the folly of the rest.  Heisei carries through seven films into 1995 truly creating a mythology and reverence around Godzilla, as if he were a Shinto God of nature indifference to the suffering of man because he—and Japan—would prevail.  In ’95 we get “Godzilla Vs. Destroyah” and ostensibly an end to Godzilla in Japan as Toho sold the rights to Sony Tristar to begin an American series.

Along came Matthew Broderick and Roland Emmerich.  The less said the better.

Toho reclaimed the character with the “Millennium” series but each of these were single stories, adherent only to 1954, but mostly worth a look.  They do get goofier as they go, and it seemed my beloved Gojira was lost again.

And now we have Gareth Edwards. 

I saw his low budget movie “Monsters” and was actually pretty impressed.  He made the phenomenon of giant monsters real to the world he created, and showed how some humans would adapt and others try to force the issue, and I will look you in the eye right now and tell you, I believe “Monsters” with its half-million dollar budget is at least 20 times the movie the $190 million “Pacific Rim” was.  It earned Edwards the right to again try to bring Godzilla to American screens.  It got me in a theater the first week the movie was out. 

And damn am I glad I was.  The short form, spoiler-fee version here is that the 2014 American “Godzilla” is a really good film, and honors its source material better than many of the Japanese films.  It isn’t perfect but it does some truly great things and I think it proves Gareth Edwards is remarkably talented.  I can’t wait to see more from him.  Not perfect, but truly TRULY Godzilla and the King of the Monsters.

From here on out, spoilers will flutter about like Mothra after the Luminous Fairies have sung Mosura no uta. 

I won’t go into story specifics but I will talk about the things that really impressed me with this film.  First and foremost, it is the utter adoration, worship, and respect Edwards gives Godzilla.  Like the Millennium films this movie hints that it is in fact a sequel to the 1954 “Gojira” and that awakened by our use of nuclear power, Godzilla has roamed the seas.  The reason is natural balance.  Godzilla exists as the alpha predator left over from a world ruled by radioactive monsters.  When they absorbed the deadliest of said radiation, the kaiju were forced into the bowels of the Earth to feed from the core’s radiation.  Life as we know it could then evolve and think we were the top of the food chain.  When we re-introduce nuclear power and radiation in such intense forms, nature responds, putting the apex predator in place for the inevitable return to the surface of kaiju who will feed on that radiation.  Godzilla is not a monster, he is a force of nature, an instrument of the universe keeping the planet from being overrun by creatures that would again strip and destroy the surface environment.  He is the coyote to the rabbit, the owl to the mouse.  As Blue Oyster Cult would say, man’s folly has allowed creatures that should be contained to potentially flourish; the control system is Godzilla.  This indifferent reptilian deity inexorably marching toward his foe does not care if a few human die; they are just another small part of the ecosystem, they will replenish their numbers.  The system must be saved.  This Godzilla is the manifestation of natural balance, and in that something of a nature deity.  There’s the reverence inherent to the original character, and it is here in spades. 

Secondly, I love the fact this movie never stops the story so we can then cut away to cutscenes of disaster porn.  The battles between Godzilla and the Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are rendered beautifully and epic, but they are never separate from the human perception thereof.  We see it only through those characters who are there and who must survive as nature burns and roils around them.  The last few summers have made me pretty weary of cities getting destroyed (looking at YOU Man of Steel!), yet I never felt fatigue here because the human element was not lost.

I hear complaints about the humans being flat.  Eh, to a degree, but it is not that the humans are flat as characters, it is that they are ineffectual.  The human characters do virtually nothing to affect the outcome of the monsters’ brawling.   That is not an accident of bad writing, it’s the point of the film.  When nature, as a tsunami, climate change, a tornado, or a 400 foot tall kaiju unleashes its energy we are spectators, and our resistance is futile.   The allegory of what we have unleashed and our inability to re-cork that bottle are in full force here, and for me to great effect.  Ford Brody is a cliché because he is every man, he is the best of us; he is completely useless and humbled before nature.

The fourth thing I truly love about this film is the fact this CGI Godzilla is motion capture.  That gives this model weight and flow the iguana-like ‘Zilla from ’98 never had.  It is stunning on film and manages to completely show us Godzilla in a realistic fashion while somehow conveying the natural motion of a man in a suit without making us watch a man stomp through model buildings.  Nicely done.

So, what keeps this film from being the best thing I have seen in decades?  Well, it is the humans.  Not the portrayal per se, but the contrivance that our everyman happens to be at every major event, he happens to find his wife and son at the most dramatic moments, and the three of them happen to live all the way through.  It’s the same gripe I had about the end of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” when Tom Cruise makes it to his wife’s house, and the older son made it too.  It’s the Spielberg ending, when the passing of any member of this family (aside from the gone too soon Bryan Cranston) would have better delivered on the message.  It’s not a deal breaker for me, and I did enjoy and do recommend the film, but more personal consequence would have sat better with me. 

I mention Spielberg, and his influence on Edwards is apparent.  Aside form the double wammy nod of the lead character’s name, we get some famous scenes replayed here: The helicopter in the jungle from “Jurassic Park;” the boat from “Jaws” heading out into the bay; the quarantine zone from “Close Encounters” used to cover up what’s REALLY going on, right down to Bryan Cranston pulling a Richard Dreyfuss and removing his mask to prove the government is lying.  Those moments play well though, to better effect than the same homages paid by JJ Abrams in “Super 8,” a movie I did enjoy. 

“Godzilla” is a victory for the character of Godzilla though, who gets his props here.  It is also a victory for Edwards.  Going from no-budget to huge budget did not stagger him the way it did Neill Blomkamp who followed the amazing “District 9” with the amazingly dull “Elysium.”  I don’t know that “Godzilla” is a better movie than “Monsters” but it certainly is not a sophomore slump, and I am really looking forward to what else Edwards will bring to us.

Once you’ve delivered a God, where do you go from there?

And now, for your viewing pleasure, Shyporn tells us everything you need to know about Godzilla and his friends. (Safe for work)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Official Black Owl Review of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier

F* yeah.

I’m a little late to the party on this one as I have officially realized how much I hate going to the movie theater.  Really, people seem to believe the theater exists to allow them to pay to replicate their living room with a group of strangers.  I ma usually part of the small minority of movie goers who are actually there to experience the film, and find that difficult when your three year old is kicking the back of my seat and asking “is it over?” every ten minutes starting ten minutes in.

But I digress.  I went to see “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and waited for it to get to the cheap theater so other people only ruined my $3 experience rather then my $12 experience.  I am happy to say that Cap2 is a good enough film to allow me to (mostly) ignore that three-year-old as it unfolded.  Spoiler free, I can tell you that Cap2 is a mix of superhero, action, message, and espionage thriller that evokes “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Marathon Man” as much as it does the first Cap movie or “Avengers.”  Everyone gives a solid performance, there are some great new (if you don’t read the comics) characters, and unlike “Man of Steel,” Cap isn’t seen as inspirational because the script has other characters say he’s inspirational; it is because the character acts in an inspirational way and is again brought perfectly to life by Chris Evans.  Additionally, though there is enough action to keep the movie trucking along smartly and keep the kids enthralled (unless they are three and it is obviously past their bed time) this is the most mature story I have seen in any superhero film. Cap2 asks some legitimate questions about the price of freedom, makes commentary on the effects of war on those who fight it, and examines (like a certain red ‘S’ wearing hero movie should have) whether or not there is a place for strong moral values in our modern world.  I really would like to see someone take Zack Snyder, Chris Nolan, and David Goyer and tie them down “A Clockwork Orange” style to watch this film repeatedly until they understand certain heroes are meant to inspire and provide hope, and not just be Batman in a red cape.

Spoilers begin…NOW:

I am not going to run down the whole story, as I wouldn’t do it justice, so I’ll give you the Good, the OK, and the Bad.

The Good: Steve Rogers is first and foremost in this film a Soldier.  He leads as a Soldier, he has friends who are Soldiers, he gives and takes orders, and fights to defend the same principles he fought to defend in WWII.  Indeed, one of my favorite elements of this film are moments when Steve and new friend Sam Wilson (later to be Falcon) compare their experiences and realize that despite 70 years and a continent’s difference, war is still Hell and leaves a mark on anyone who fights in one.  This of course plays out in the larger examination of what has happened to Bucky Barnes and how he has become The Winter Soldier.  We also see it in a startlingly good performance from Scarlett Johannson who has to confront some past sins as she considers the public outing of things she has done in the name of her country, then and now, and whether her secrecy should be sacrificed for the greater good.  The fact there is not one single moment of damsel in distress for her character is a plus, and the banter between Natasha and Steve Rogers is quite a bit of fun.

We also get a heartbreaking moment where Steve is visiting Peggy from the first film.  She had gone on in his absence to found SHIELD (wonder why “someone really wanted to letter to spell out ‘Shield’”?  Now we know who it was) but now is old, and a harsh reminder to Steve of all he has lost in his service.  Again, the price of Freedom on the individual Soldier plays dramatically and to great emotional effect.

Samuel Jackson gives us the Nick Fury we expect and love, and in particular we get a nice nod when he’s standing over his own gravestone and the biblical quote is from Ezekiel 25:17.  For a 65 year old man, Sam J. is still one hell of an action star.

Speaking of star power, let’s hear it for Robert Redford.  His quiet but firm Alexander Pierce feels like a direct tie to those 70s espionage films I cited before, and I love a bad guy with an interesting motive.  He was well cast and delivers.
Note also: Jenny Agutter.  And Chin Han who has become the go to Asian man in suit in comic-based material.

As does Anthony Mackey as Sam Wilson.  The easy camaraderie that Soldiers fall into is well portrayed in his interaction with Chris Evans, and as the action escalates Sam Wilson’s transformation into Falcon is done nicely and a welcome addition to the Marvel movie universe.  So it Sharon Carter, though I hope she gets to do more in the future.

The OK: Understanding how well integrated the Marvel film universe was, some references felt a little strained.  It was nice to hear the name “Steven Strange” mentioned, but the appearance of Gary Shandling’s senator from Iron Man 2 seemed wedged in; I would like to have seen the quiet “Hail Hydra” uttered by someone with a little more relevance to me as a viewer.  

Changed my life.
I was also slightly disappointed when they revealed it wasn’t Jenny Agutter’s Councilwoman Hawley who was kicking so much ass, but Natasha in disguise.  Since her introduction in ‘Avengers’ I have been waiting for Jenny to shine and I thought I was getting that only to have it cruelly ripped away.  If you have not had a deep-seated crush on Jenny Agutter since you were eight and first saw “Logan’s Run” this may not be as big a problem for you.

I felt they telegraphed the identity of The Winter Soldier a little much, but it is possible I was just picking up clues because I knew the original story. 

The after credits scene seems to indicate there will be mutant characters who are not actually mutants in this universe but rather created with Asgaardian/Hydra tech.  Marvel and Fox need to come off their high horses and collaborate for the good of both series of film.

The Bad: OK, the bad isn’t really from this movie, but this movie shows just how much WB is wrong in their belief that you have to gritty up Superman to make him relevant.  Steve isn’t gritty here, he is the stalwart in the midst of gritty and his very presence makes the people around him want to be better people.  When the Hydra plot initiates and Cap with a single speech separates the wheat from the chaff in SHIELD HQ, I found myself wishing THESE screenwriters had written the third act of “Man of Steel.”   These people understood the inherent strength in an Old Fashioned hero and managed to tell a grown up story that neither compromised the character nor abandoned any progress they had made with plot or character development just so they could disaster-porn-up the end of the film.  This is the truest portrayal of a comic character on screen since Christopher Reeve wore the S*.  I only wish the Nolans and Snyders of the world understood that.

So, in short, Cap 2 is a solid, entertaining, and intelligent film with a real heart.  Well worth your time, and certainly one of the strongest offerings from the Marvel studios.

*On another note, Zack Snyder—whom I admit I used to defend as a film maker—commented that he was surprised that so many people defaulted to Christopher Reeve as the definitive Superman rather than the comic book.  He obviously has no understanding that Reeve brought the comic book to life perfectly and THAT is why he was so universally accepted, not vice-versa.  The only hope I have for the continued Man of Steel universe is in fact Ben Affleck.  He’s the only one working on the project that knows a damn thing about comic books.