Godzilla (2014)

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Director: Gareth Edwards.

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Straithairn, Bryan Cranston.

Screenplay: Max Borenstein.

123 mins. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.

 

Back in 2010, relatively unknown director Gareth Edwards released Monsters, a technical masterpiece of hard work, mostly completed by Edwards himself. His handling of a difficult workload in post-production proved that he was capable of controlling a film shoot. Now, he has his hands on one of the most important releases of the year: the second attempt at an American Godzilla franchise. A daunting task to be certain, but not impossible.

Edwards’ film isn’t exactly the no-holds-barred masterpiece we have hoped for, but it isn’t 1998’s Godzilla either. This film comes in somewhere in between, with both pros and cons but still capable of triggering a follow-up. In fact, it already seems like Godzilla will be the first of a (so-far) trilogy, with two sequels on the way from Edwards himself. He seems like the kind of filmmaker to learn from his mistakes, so let’s hope for the best.

Anyway, back to this film. This incarnation of the mythos is centered around the Brody family and the effect that these kaiju, have had on their lives. The patriarch, Joe (Bryan Cranston, TV’s Breaking Bad, Argo), survives an initial event back in 1999 that takes the life of his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient, Cosmopolis). Flash-forward to present day Tokyo, where Joe has slowly slipped into madness by the many conspiracy theories he has pursued involving the destruction of his home. He quickly pulls his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass, Anna Karenina) into the mix chasing creatures nicknamed MUTOs. Who will come to the rescue? Cough. Cough.

Godzilla. Godzilla does.

Godzilla is a far different creature than the one introduced to American audiences in our previous flimsy attempt. This Godzilla is a heroic one. Now, Godzilla has been seen as a hero in many installments of Toho’s three series (Showa, Heisei, and Millenium).  He is a protector, and pretty damn awesome.

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Let’s talk performances here, because this is where the failings begin to manifest. We have some pretty big actors here: Taylor-Johnson, Cranston, Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, and David Straithairn. The problem? The only characters with any development are Joe Brody (who doesn’t have enough screentime to carry) and Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa. The rest of these are wasted on character the screenwriter (Max Borenstein) didn’t bother to actually develop. Bryan Cranston carries a powerhouse performance with limited time. This is a character that delivered the most important moments in the film.

Ken Watanabe also delivers a unique performance here. As Dr. Serizawa, we see a character reminiscent of many previous characters in older Godzilla films. The doc is designed to create ambience around a creature who we largely don’t see until at least an hour in.

Who’s the star of this film? It certainly isn’t Godzilla. The beast itself doesn’t take up much screen time. I didn’t mind this approach, reminiscent of older monster movies, like The Wolf Man or Jaws, if the main characters were developed enough to make up for it. They weren’t.

The cinematography  here is gorgeous. The editing of the shots, though, drew me out of the film. Every time the MUTOs or Godzilla show up, they cut away to the aftermath. Now, I find reservations with this, as this is one of the big things about Godzilla: Destruction!

The visual effects are also top notch here. Godzilla being modeled after komodo dragons and bears makes for a beautiful creature.  I’m almost certain we will see Godzilla on the shortlist for Best Visual Effects at next year’s Oscars. Quote it.

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After reviewing all the individual pieces here, I can say that this film was far from perfect, but it showed a lot of potential in creating a franchise, which I hope happens soon, as the ending was completely left open! Give us more, Gareth! More!

Have you seen Godzilla? What did you think? Was it enough Kaiju-on-Kaiju action or were you squirming in your seat? Comment below!

 

3/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Oculus (2013)

Oculus

Director: Mike Flanagan.

Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff.

Screenplay: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard.

103 mins. Rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language.

 

I was pretty excited to see Oculus recently. I truly enjoyed director Mike Flanagan’s previous work in Absentia (I saw the premiere at the Fargo Film Festival back in 2011), and I wanted to see where he take us next when he had a bigger budget and more room to play. Unfortunately, I spent most of Oculus arguing with myself over whether I was enjoying myself or not. Not ever a really good sign. It felt to me like a film that was trying to confuse its audience so they wouldn’t see all the ridiculous plot points for what they really were.

Oculus tells the story of Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, TV’s Doctor Who), who is trying to prove to her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), that the reason their parents went insane several years ago was because of a haunted mirror. Initially, thoughts went through my head about the previous horror film Mirrors, a decent effort from director Alexandre Aja. Sadly, this film falls flat even after a pretty fantastic opening setup.

The film plays out in two timelines simultaneous, one with Kaylie and Tim as children, the other years later as adults. Playing them against each other proves pretty interesting, except at the end when the timelines devolve into a confusing, jumbled and ultimately, disappointingly predictable finale.

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Oculus does a great job setting the events of the film into motion. We are given a solid premise and even rules to govern the journey we are going on as Kaylie describes exactly how she plans on proving the mirror’s intentions of evil and how she planned on destroying it. Soon after, however, the film departs from these rules and chooses to never reference them again.

I also had a problem with the mirror’s motivations. Okay, I get it, that sounds silly, but in any horror film, you have to get what the killer or monster’s motivations are or what the hell does it matter? Michael Myers was trying to kill all his relatives. Jason Voorhees was the closest thing to birth control for Crystal Lake, hacking and slashing his way through teens as vengeance for his dead mother. Freddy Krueger was also all about revenge, and Chucky the killer doll just wanted out of his plastic body. Oculus’ mirror, however, plays tricks on people. Some of them are meant to maim or kill, but other times, it plays out like a violent joke. One such scene, where the mirror leads Kaylie to believe that she has bitten into a light bulb gets us to see that it was only an apple. Why would a mirror do that? Wouldn’t the opposite be much more terrifying and gruesome?

This’ll sound funny as well, but I didn’t feel like the mirror was a well-built character. It didn’t have enough presence in the film. For all we know, it could’ve been a haunted oven or house or pretty much anything. It didn’t really use its reflection to terrorize. There was nothing to tell us the mirror was really behind anything. Its backstory kind of disappointed as well. If this becomes a franchise, I would like to see it explored much more.

The performances were fine, especially from Gillan and Annalise Basso (Bedtime Stories) who play adult and young Kaylie, respectively. Katee Sackhoff (TV’s Battlestar Galactica, Riddick) and Rory Cochrane (Argo, Parkland) do respectable work as Russell parents Marie and Alan.

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I’ve heard a lot of reports that Oculus may be looking at becoming a franchise, and if so, it has some digging to do before it reaches a status worthy of yearly trips to the movie theater.  I see potential, and there were a few great moments about this film, but all in all, I drove home from the movie not angry, but disappointed, and in the end, isn’t that worse?

Have you seen Oculus? What did you think? Comment below.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe