Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Grade: 69/B

At a point where the vast majority of Marvel Comics films have become homogenous (and the one that isn’t is terrible), X-Men: Days of Future Past feels like a breath of fresh air. Many of its contemporaries have become extended trailers with the appearance of comic book crossover storytelling. Days of Future Past is a rare film that actually plays with its characters history in a comic book fashion, for better and worse.

Utilizing one of the comic’s best-loved storylines, the film begins in a dystopian future in which robots called Sentinels hunt mutants. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) plans to use the powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send his consciousness back to 1973 to prevent the shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Sentinel-inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), thereby convincing the humans of the need to use the Sentinels. But the process could kill a man without the power to self-heal, so Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back instead to reach the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and his friend-turned-nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender playing the young version of Ian McKellen) to change history and save their friends, mutantkind and the world.

It’s a lot of plot, but director Bryan Singer, returning after an absence post-X2 that sent the series into a brief spiral, handles the material confidently. After a creaky handful of exposition-heavy scenes, the film kicks off a fleetly-moving section of Jackman, still wildly charismatic as Wolverine, rounding up a group of not-always-willing mutants, from Fassbender’s cold Magneto to McAvoy’s boozy, self-pitying version of Professor X and Nicholas Hoult as his loyal right-hand man Hank “Beast” McCoy. Jackman’s relationship with McAvoy is particularly strong, as we see a reversal of the mentor/frustrated loner dynamic that served as the center of Singer’s first X-Men film.

Singer also conceives some dynamic set-pieces (again, a boon when put alongside its cookie-cutter competition), starting with an opening of the surviving X-Men running from the Sentinels in the future through the aid of Blink, a mutant with the ability to create portals to teleport. There’s also a terrific failed assassination that grows more complicated when one character’s true motives are revealed, and a scene in which Xavier and Wolverine have to break into the Pentagon to bust out an imprisoned Magneto. That sequence is aided by the appearance of the super-fast mutant Quicksilver, played with punkish glee by Evan Peters, and the best use of slow-motion in quite some time.

Singer can’t totally avoid the pitfalls that even his best film, X2, fell into. One of the greatest strengths of the X-Men comics is the number of rich characters the writers have to draw on, but there’s only so much time to devote to them even in a 2-hour-plus film, so a number of mutants inevitably wind up being little more than cool special effects (though that might be preferable for Halle Berry’s eternally blank take on Storm). Singer also remains an occasionally indelicate writer and director, from his tendency to lay the “we were young/different people” dynamic for Xavier and Magneto pretty thick to his continually exasperating choice to have Mystique transform into herself in moments of subterfuge, especially when it’d put her in danger, for the benefit of those who either forget Mystique can transform or else need Katniss Everdeen’s face to show up in at least 55% of the movie.

Days of Future Past has its own share of problems. Everything looks far too sterile, blurry whenever the action gets too fast, and difficult to make out in the night scenes. The film’s use of its 70s period, meanwhile, is broad and desperate when it turns to comedy (lava lamps! Water beds!) and on-the-nose when mixing fiction with historical figures. True, the film’s influences (James Cameron and the original Star Trek series, both heavily referenced) and source material were rarely subtle, but by the time both JFK’s assassination and the missing 20 minutes on Nixon’s White House tapes figure into the story (and Nixon himself becomes a supporting character), it does feel like the film is straining for relevance.

Yet for all of the film’s missteps, Singer juggles the different time periods with a deft hand. He never loses touch of the film’s emotional core: Fassbender’s Magneto, a defender of his people turned tyrant; McAvoy’s fallen hero Xavier, embodying the post-60s loss of hope; Lawrence’s Mystique, another idealist turned jaded killer; and Jackman’s Wolverine, the rogue and tortured hero redeemed by the work of his friends, and ready to do the same for them. The film’s belief that nothing is set is particularly heartening when put alongside the grim determinism in the latest Spider-Man. Redemption is possible (though not a given), and dependent on the choices of the characters rather than the mechanisms of the plot. In a time where superhero sequels are more a fact of life than something to look forward to, X-Men makes the prospect of a follow-up seem promising again.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Grade: 80/B+

Godzilla is a film in which not only do the human characters not matter much, but that it’s essential that they don’t matter much. That’s partly the lineage of the long-running Toho series that’s seen 28 Japanese films, two Americanized versions of Japanese films and one other lousy American remake, most of which feature human characters who are there primarily to keep the plot moving towards the giant monster destruction. But in a film that’s primarily about man’s interference with and insignificance in nature, it feels more purposeful than problematic.

Still, here’s the overview of the human plot: EOD Technician Lt. Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is called to Japan, where his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), is arrested for trespassing. Fifteen years earlier, the two lost their mother and wife in a disaster at the nuclear power plant where she and Joe worked. Joe believes that the incident wasn’t the result of an earthquake, as reported, and that the Japanese and American governments are hiding something. They soon find out about a number of prehistoric creatures that feed off of nuclear energy, including Godzilla, a giant lizard that’s as awesome as it is terrifying, and that may not be the destructive force he appears to be.

Godzilla is directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters), who shows an innate understanding of how to build suspense. Plenty of people have cited the influence of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Jurassic Park, as Edwards wisely chooses not to show the monsters for the first hour in order to build up the mystery around them. Even when we do first see the monster, we only see bits of him at a time: he’s too overwhelming, too incredible for the eye to take in completely. There’s also signs of a pair of Spielberg’s alien films: War of the Worlds, as in a scene involving a train on fire and a pair of military men who hide as the other monsters, the buglike MUTOs, seek them out; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which similarly showed strange objects and occurrences without immediately explaining their cause and featured a government hiding something for the good of the people…until that became a problem in and of itself.

But Edwards wisely uses these as jumping off points, reimagining and restaging these scenes to tell a new story of man’s futile attempts to control nature. The film doesn’t show these men as monsters: David Strathairn’s military commander isn’t a cardboard villain, but a decent man trying to do whatever he can to prevent massive fatalities, while Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa (a name taken from a key figure from the original 1954 film) is quick to let Taylor-Johnson’s character in on what’s going on when it becomes clear that they can’t hide it anymore. Their struggles are tangible, more so than those of nearly any other Godzilla movie: Ford’s need to protect and reunite with his family (Elizabeth Olsen), Serizawa’s fear that another nuclear strike would not only result in another Hiroshima, but fail to stop the beasts; Cranston’s need to find the truth, no matter the cost. The film also stands out in making their lives matter: while the destruction on display is incredible, Edwards makes great pains to show the desire to save lives above all else; it’s not just wanton destruction.

The characters are admittedly stock figures, and it’s true that the film might be greater if a more expressive actor than Taylor-Johnson were in the lead role, or if clearer parallels were drawn between his fatherhood and the disappointment of Cranston’s, or if the great actresses in the cast (Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche) were given a bit more to do. But man has always been a sidebar in the Godzilla series. They need only be good enough, and as played by the likes of Cranston, Watanabe, Binoche and company, they are.

Ultimately, their incapability to deal with the monster in any significant way is the point. From their first appearance, the monsters see the humans as a nuisance at best, and in some cases not at all. It’s telling that in the extraordinary final battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs, humanity can mostly only watch or get out of the way as greater forces battle over the fate of the world. Even the parallel set-piece of Taylor-Johnson and the rest of the military trying to diffuse a nuclear weapon is at best a side journey. When those men dive into a destroyed, ash-ridden cloud that was once a city, Alexandre Desplat’s driving score is replaced by Ligeti’s “Requiem,” which was notably used in the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which space travel goes beyond the astronaut’s control and into the hands of more powerful beings. The message is clear: any human effort here will be secondary. We’ve taken our control of nature as far as it will go. Now we can only hope that the greater forces are on our side.
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The Immigrant

Grade: 96/A

In the opening of The Immigrant, the extraordinary new film by James Gray, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda are among the huddled masses on Ellis Island. “We’re almost there,” Ewa says, her face full of hope, but “almost there” isn’t “there,” and Ewa soon finds herself caught in an unsympathetic system and pushed to the point of desperation and beyond. Yet The Immigrant is not a miserablist dirge, but rather a melodrama in the classic sense, closer to Wyler, Sirk or Rossellini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bermgan in the 1950s than to Inarritu or von Trier. It’s a film that depends on the utter conviction of all the players, a straightforward emotionalist approach that will alienate those unable to leave irony at the door. It’s their loss.

Ewa and Magda are stopped on Ellis Island, with Magda detained for tuberculosis and Ewa facing deportation for an incident on the boat. To her fortune, she speaks English very well, and she happens upon Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who offers to take her in if she’ll earn her keep. Bruno runs a burlesque troupe that he pimps out to customers. Most of his girls look upon him as a guardian, a savior; Ewa, as his newest addition, loathes him. Yet Bruno loves the woman he exploits, and their relationship is complicated by the arrival of Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), a charming magician with a difficult relationship with his kin.

From the first scene, Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji build an atmosphere of melancholy, of hope drowned by the fog of reality. There’s an inviting soft focus to the proceedings that’s counteracted by the emphasis on greys and faded blacks. Ewa and Magda have arrived to a land that’s promised them much, but the land of opportunity proves less welcoming than they’d hoped; after Magda is taken from Ewa in a gorgeous reverse dolly, Ewa’s taken to processing, where her questions about what she can do for Magda are dismissed with a curt, “We’re not dealing with your sister right now, ma’am. Understood?” Within a few minutes, Ewa is threatened with deportation for being a “woman of low morals,” to which the same man gives a disingenuous “I’m sorry.” The message is clear: it’s a land of limited opportunity for newcomers, especially for women.

These early moments set Ewa up as a figure of desperation, but to Cotillard’s credit (as well as the credit of Gray and co-screenwriter Ric Menello), the film never devolves into an orgy of suffering. Ewa is desperate, and out of her element, but the film does not make her powerless. Instead, Cotillard mixes in a healthy dose of pragmatism, a sense that she’ll do whatever she has to do to survive and save her sister; discomfort around others, as in a scene in a bathhouse where she’s the only woman who hasn’t disrobed (in a moment of intelligent, non-sexual nudity) or other moments where she tries to fade in the background away from others; and a sense of shame in what she’s doing that bleeds over into both religious guilt and unearned superiority over a number of other women who, like her, are just doing what they need to do to survive.

We’re firmly in Ewa’s corner, and yet the film constantly redefines how we’re supposed to view her relationship with Bruno. As played by Phoenix, the single most interesting actor working today, Bruno is a kindly scoundrel, a man whose charity and professed love for the women he protects doesn’t keep him from using them. Yet when Ewa first rejects his (non-sexual) touch, he reacts not with fury, but with pained outrage, with indignation that someone he’s taken in could be ungrateful. For all of the things he’s capable of, his desire to help seems genuine.

Bruno is desperate in his own way: desperate for Ewa to love him. There’s something in her determination, in her desire for happiness for herself and her sister on her own terms that’s deeply attractive, even as that would push her away from him. We learn more about him: his loss of a past love after she learned about his illegitimate vocation; his need for control over his life, and his temper whenever his control (over his girls, or over an audience) is undermined.

The Immigrant is a rare film that makes two diametrically opposed people’s actions understandable at any given point, and that shifts our sympathies depending on the given scene. Ewa can be either prideful to a fault or filled with shame and fear over her work as a prostitute. Bruno can be a manipulative creep or a guardian, a man who’s furious when he sees his girls humiliated. We see the best and the worst of them when Ewa goes to church and Bruno follows. Framed as a religious figure, Ewa is deeply penitent for what she’s done while showing no warmth for the only man who’s helped her. Bruno, meanwhile, has pushed his obsession and possessiveness of Ewa to the brink by following her to church, even listening in on her confession, but the look of remorse on his face when he hears her speak of him is unmistakable.

That religious element begins as a minor factor and grows more pronounced as the film develops. Ewa’s faith grows from simple and hopeful to complex and filled with self-loathing. Bruno’s own Jewish identity separates him from her Catholic faith, but his need for atonement is just as great as her guilt, and what begins as a downplayed fact (“I speak Yiddish”) becomes a greater element as we learn that he, too, is an outsider in America, despite being the first generation of his family born there.

Gray films this with classical touch: the exploitation and prostitution is clear without being explicit. The passage of time is signified with the wilting of a rose. A spectacular dissolve brings Bruno into frame just as a bond is forged between Ewa and Emil. His use of shadows and light recalls Kazan and Coppola (the latter especially in his use of amber gas lights). The emphasis on faces in close-up is essential. In the first scene that brings all three principals together, Renner’s Emil has brought Ewa on stage for a magic trick, a simple mind-reading moment, showing nothing but the best intentions. Dressed as Lady Liberty, Ewa, asked what she wants, replies in close-up: “I want to be happy.” She is our Maria Falconetti, our Joan of Arc, but soon, after the crowd turns on her, calling her a whore, a close-up on Bruno is just as telling as to the nature of their relationship: he’s just as hurt as she is.

Emil is a fascinating figure in his own right here, more outwardly charming than Bruno, someone who seems to be leaning in and listening to Ewa’s every word. At first glance, he’s the most understanding person in the film, someone who recognizes Ewa humanity and Bruno’s love for her while still seeing why she might resent him and how he’s using her. When he rebukes Bruno, it’s hard not to be with him. Still, none of these characters are quite as they first appear, and as first hinted in a story Bruno tells Ewa, Emil is no saint either.

The Immigrant is one of the most moving and telling films about America that I’ve ever seen. It takes a small story of love and exploitation and turns it into a tale of a nation’s capability for cruelty and kindness. It makes the American Dream look just as nebulous as it is, and still strangely within reach. It makes a seemingly powerless woman one of the most dignified and empowered female characters in recent memory, and an initially reprehensible man a tragic, pitiable, and strangely loveable figure. We learn the depths of Bruno’s self-loathing and his capacity for goodness. Ewa says at one point, halfway through the film: “I am not nothing,” a thesis for the film that’s repeated, and altered, right up to the final scene. By that time, and by the the film’s breathtaking closing shot, The Immigrant reveals itself to be a film of almost unending humanity. However flawed these characters are, and however polarized their respective futures may be, their lives mattered.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I'm interned at Indiewire recently, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

GodzillaMania #15: Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla/Tokyo S.O.S./Final Wars

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla: 64/B

It’s a little surprising, given how financially underwhelming Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was, that director Masaaki Tezuka was asked back to helm another entry. Yet Toho gave Tezuka another chance with Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla in 2002, with much more fruitful results. True, part of the film’s success likely had to do with the presence of fan favorite MechaGodzilla as anything else, but that shouldn’t diminish the minor pleasures the film yields.

In yet another series retcon, the film shows a new Godzilla after the defeat of the first in 1954. After all military efforts prove unsuccessful, a group of scientists come up with a new idea to build MechaGodzilla, using the skeleton of the first Godzilla as a frame. A number of pilots are recruited to help operate the machine, including Lt. Akane Yashiro. But Akane, who was unable to kill Godzilla years earlier, is held in resentment by one of the pilots, who blames her failure to act for the death of his brother. Meanwhile, the presence of Godzilla seems to trigger certain memories in the Godzilla skeleton, which leads the MechaGodzilla suit to start acting on its own accord.

Tezuka is an awkward director of actors, and the film shares Megaguirus’s slowly paced human scenes, particularly whenever the film takes time on Akane’s friendship with the daughter of one of the scientists. But there’s a freshness to putting a female protagonist in a Top Gun-type setting, particularly whenever Akane is forced to prove herself. It still shouldn’t be confused with the best pulp films, but Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla is more invested in Akane’s shift from frightened woman to savior of Japan than most Godzilla films are in their human stories.

Here’s the real boon, though: at 88 minutes long, the film is the shortest in the series since 1975’s Terror of MechaGodzilla, which is as it should be, given how few of the films are strong with human drama. This instead gives Tezuka the excuse to expend just enough energy on that part while focusing more attention on making the reest of the film come alive. He’s a stylish director, one with an excellent sense of pacing outside of the dialogue scenes and a knack for playing with deliberately melodramatic devices (snap-zoom meets dramatic music!) to keep the energy up. As an added bonus, he shows in one of the early scenes how to borrow from a modern blockbuster like Jurassic Park without outright ripping it off (*cough* Emmerich *cough*), turning military members into more active (but equally helpless) victims to the King of the Monsters in a smart restaging of the T-Rex jeep attack.

Godzilla: Tokyo SOS: 42/C

Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla was successful enough to merit a direct sequel, again directed by Tezuka. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. isn’t a terrible film by any means, but there’s very little to say about it because the film doesn’t do anythigng with Godzilla, MechaGodzilla or Mothra that wasn’t done before, and better, in earlier films. Too much of the film shows stock characters responding to situations way too similar to those in previous Toho films, be they old (Mothra potentially declaring war on humanity for a past wrong, a la Mothra) or new (the lingering soul of the old Godzilla in MechaGodzilla, from the previous film). Add this to shoddier production (a poor recording of Mothra’s song and some of the worst lighting of the series), and you’ve got a pretty underwhelming entry.

Godzilla: Final Wars: 63/B-

When Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. underperformed in theaters, Toho chose to end the third (and, up to this point, most recent) Godzilla series with a Destroy All Monsters-style blowout. The studio grabbed damn near every monster that ever appeared in the series, from fan favorites Ghidorah and Rodan to the little-loved Ebirah (the giant lobster) and Hedorah (the smog monster) and gave them to Ryuhei Kitamura, the director behind the insane zombie/martial arts/comedy mashup Versus. The final product probably wasn’t what anyone had in mind, but it sure was memorable.

In 2004, the Earth Defense Force, made up of both humans and mutants with special powers, trapped Godzilla in the ice. Forty years later, they discover an ancient space monster, and are informed by Mothra’s tiny guardians, the Shobijin, that it is the cyborg Gigan, and that a battle between good and evil will soon take place. Soon, all of the kaiju from Godzilla lore start attacking all over the globe, only to be taken away by aliens (the Xiliens) who claim to be friendly and persuade the earth to disband the UN in order to form the Space Nations.

Clearly none of these people have ever seen a Godzilla film before, or otherwise are fuzzy on whatever alien/human relations have been in this universe, because the Xiliens are, of course, planning to take over the world. They soon take over all of the mutants except one, the heroic Ozaki, and start to disperse the kaiju all over the world to start their attacks again. Ozaki and his human friends soon come up with a last-ditch effort to save the day: unfreeze Godzilla and set him loose on the rest of the kaiju.

Some messiah-ish material involving Ozaki aside, Godzilla: Final Wars is mostly an excuse to revisit all of the monsters of the series and throw them into a familiar but sturdy earth vs. aliens narrative. The film is one long tribute to everything Godzilla, including in-jokes and references that range from subtle (the use of the Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla theme in the background of one scene) to overt (Minilla’s general uselessness). The big highlight: the appearance of the despised 1998 Godzilla, referred to as “Zilla,” only for it to be promptly destroyed by the true Godzilla in less than a minute. It’s the poetic justice that fans had craved for so long.

Yet Godzilla: Final Wars split fans, with many hating the film outright for its absurdity. Their complaints aren’t completely without merit: Kitamura doesn’t really know the meaning of the word restraint, and some of his instincts aren’t great. The destruction of New York by Rodan is preceded by painful comic relief between a white cop and a stereotypical black pimp, which is typical for Kitamura’s sense of humor, and the soundtrack is consistently awful (Sum 41, anyone?). Kitamura’s excessive style, meanwhile, can be wearying. It’s all good fun to see the camera race around like a madman, the human characters get into ridiculous fistfights (including one on motorcycles), and the frame fill with enough explosions to make Michael Bay feel inadequate, but it starts to wear after 125 minutes. Hell, most Godzilla films feel a bit overgenerous if they extend past the 90 minute mark, and by the time the film reaches its climax, it’s hard not to grow impatient with the fistfights and laser battles and just want to see Godzilla and Ghidorah duke it out.

Yet as overlong and silly as it is, the film mostly won me over. Fan service or not, it’s a blast to see Godzilla take on both the best (Anguirus, Ghidorah) and the worst (Kumonga the spider, King Caesar) of his rogues gallery, often all at once. The CGI is frequently poor, but the film is using it to do such giddy things (Anguirus being used as a damn volleyball!) that it’s hard to complain too much. And while Kitamura’s style does get exhausting, it’s a thrill to see a director trying something truly new and exciting with the series, even if it’s totally nuts. We don’t need another Godzilla film like Final Wars anytime soon, but as a temporary sendoff, it’s a blast.

And that’s the end of GodzillaMania, just in time for the new film. Thanks for reading. Here’s my ranking of the series.

1. Godzilla (95/A)
2. Mothra vs. Godzilla (82/A-)
3. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (70/B)
4.Terror of MechaGodzilla (70/B)
5. Invasion of Astro-Monster (69/B)
6. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (68/B)
7. Destroy All Monsters (68/B)
8. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla (67/B)
9. The Return of Godzilla (66/B)
10. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (65/B)
11. Godzilla vs. Biollante (65/B)
12. King Kong vs. Godzilla (65/B)
13. Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II (64/B)
14. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (64/B)
15. Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (64/B)
16. Godzilla: Final Wars (63/B-)
17. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (56/B-)
18. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (56/B-)
19. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (43/C)
20. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (42/C)
21. Godzilla vs. Mothra (42/C)
22. Godzilla vs. Gigan (41/C)
23. Godzilla Raids Again (40/C)
24. Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (39/C)
25. Son of Godzilla (37/C)
26. Godzilla 2000 (31/C-)
27. Godzilla vs. Megalon (19/D+)
28. Godzilla 1985 (16/D)
29. Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (13/D)
30. Godzilla 1998 (5/D-)
31. All Monsters Attack (0/F)

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I'm interned at Indiewire recently, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

GodzillaMania #14: Godzilla 2000/Megaguirus/Giant Monster All-Out Attack

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Godzilla 2000: 31/C-

In a sign of good faith, Toho temporarily retired the King of the Monsters in 1995 in order to make way for TriStar’s upcoming American remake. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was a disaster, however, so it didn’t take long for Toho to start their series up again. 1999’s Godzilla 2000 saw another series retcon, with the film using the original as a jumping-off point and otherwise ignoring the previous films. There was reason for promise: the film had the stink to make it look better, and director Takao Okawara had directed three films in the series, including the strong Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. Yet Godzilla 2000 is largely a bore, a film that doesn’t really find an identity beyond “not as bad as the American one.”

In 2000, the Godzilla Prediction Network studies the monster to try to predict where he’ll turn up and minimize the damage. They’re not the only ones watching: a UFO, found in the Japan Trench after being buried for 60 million years, rises and uses genetic information from Godzilla to regenerate the aliens’ bodies (apparently this is a power Godzilla has now) and start an invasion of earth. The aliens soon transform into the kaiju Orga and attack the city, but Godzilla arrives to do battle with the creature.

There are a few intriguing elements in Godzilla 2000, but they’re mostly handled poorly. The Godzilla Prediction Network could be a great opportunity to show how fascination with Godzilla could lead people to learn more about it, but it strains credibility by making one of the central figures the precocious daughter of the guy who started it. The idea of a monster feeding off of Godzilla’s genetics to create a new monster is interesting, but Orga doesn’t appear until the final 20 minutes and there’s nothing interesting about the new aliens. The film shoehorns in bad comic relief with people being caught in the middle of Godzilla’s destructive path and emerging unscathed (ha?) or a man getting hit in the head lightly with a stick over and over again (yuk yuk). The poor handling of good ideas and painful comedy come together with the generic alien invaders storyline for one of the most slackly paced movies in the Godzilla series (that’s saying a lot).

Even the monster material here is lame: Godzilla’s introduction is poorly lit and feels nondescript, and his fights with Orga, the UFO and the military aren’t particularly memorable. Godzilla also has a hideous new design that’s way too busy, particularly on his spine. What really undoes the film’s money scenes, however, is the terrible use of early CGI and the sound effects that give the impression of being recorded in someone’s basement. There are some Godzilla fans who claim that the American reedit of the film is actually stronger, cutting out unnecessary material, redoing the sound design and taking on a more mocking tone. I couldn’t get ahold of the film in time, but it’s hard to imagine they could make a film this dull much better.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: 43/C

Still, Godzilla 2000 was a success, and it got the series rolling again. The next entry, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, saw a new director, Masaaki Tezuka, taking the film into a newer, pulpier direction. Tezuka’s take certainly jives better with the monster-battle focus that the third Godzilla series (or Millennium Series) took than Godzilla 2000, which made occasional awkward stabs at relevance by wondering if Godzilla was literally against technology (seriously). But Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is still unsatisfying even if it is a step in the right direction.

Again retconning all of the Godzilla films other than the original, Megaguirus takes place in an alternate universe with advanced technology, where clean plasma energy has replaced nuclear technology but hasn’t stopped Godzilla from attacking. A Godzilla-battling group called the G-Graspers has created an experimental black hole-creating weapon that accidentally brings a prehistoric dragonfly, the Meganula, into Japan. The creature deposits an egg (really a mass of eggs in one) that splits up and starts growing when exposed to water, causing a giant swarm to wreak havoc. A handful end up draining energy from Godzilla, eventually creating a queen of the Meganula, the Megaguirus.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus gets off to a roaring start by zooming through a brief history of Godzilla’s attacks from 1954 onward. This culminates in a battle between Godzilla and the G-Graspers that goes about as well as you’d expect for a bunch of men and women fighting a giant monster (even when they’re equipped with bazookas). Throughout the rest of the film, Tezuka deals with some of the same problems as Godzilla 2000 (namely that hideous Godzilla suit and some dodgy CGI), but he makes up for it with endless enthusiasm and energetic pacing, and his set-pieces in the first half of the film are still pretty entertaining, especially a scene where the swarm of Meganula attack Godzilla and feed off of him like a parasite.

Unfortunately, Tezuka doesn’t really know how to make the human parts move as well, which makes the film come to a screeching half whenever it has to come to an awkwardly staged human interaction. True, that’s a feature of many Godzilla films, but the gulf is more pronounced here, with most scenes feeling like they could end at least thirty seconds before they do. And while the early monster scenes help make up for it, Megaguirus herself isn’t a very interesting foe, mostly just feeling like another Mothra retread a la Battra from 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. As soon as the parasitic elements become less of a factor, it’s just another flying enemy we’re waiting to see blown away.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack: 70/B

Tezuka would become the de facto director for the Millennium Series, shooting three of the six films, but Toho decided to go in a different direction with the third film, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Shūsuke Kaneko made a name for himself in the 90s rebooting the Godzilla knock-off Gamera. Kaneko was praised for taking the campy series into a darker, more vibrant direction, so it was only natural to bring him aboard for the King of the Monsters. The result was not only the best Godzilla film in ages, but one of the best in the series, period.

The film retcons the series again. The Japan Self-Defense Forces have prepared for the return of Godzilla after his attack on Tokyo in 1954, and are led by Admiral Tachibana, who lost his family in that attack. But Godzilla isn’t the only monster on the loose. Baragon, the four-legged giant dinosaur from Frankenstein Conquers the World, attacks a biker gang, while Mothra appeared at lake Kaneda and Ghidorah has been found frozen in the ground. Tachibana’s daughter, reporter Yuri, learns from mysterious scientist Isayama that Mothra, Baragon and Ghidorah are the Guardian Monsters, and that they must be awakened in order to protect Japan from Godzilla.

Kaneko immediately signals that he’s playing with Godzilla’s history in the opening scene, in which two members of the JSDF speak of an attack in New York in 1998 that wasn’t the real Godzilla (“suck it, Emmerich” isn’t one of the lines, but it might as well be). The film does away with that dud, but it also takes away any sign of Godzilla as a hero or even an antihero, returning him to the destructive force that he was in the original film. He’s given a newer, crueler design to fit this interpretation (complete with empty, sheet-white eyes), and his attacks on the other monsters is nastier, from his stomping on Baragon’s face (Godzilla curb-stomp?) to biting one of Ghidorah’s heads to the point of drawing blood. Even his breath seems more destructive, to the point where he eventually disintegrates all of his monster foes.

The film plays with the histories of the other monsters as well. While Mothra was usually seen as a guardian of the earth already, Baragon was a destructive dinosaur in the style of Godzilla, while Ghidorah was the ultimate villain in the original Showa series. Yet the repurposing of the two as heroes doesn’t feel odd: Baragon is an obscure enough creature for the transition to a less malevolent dinosaur to work, while Ghidorah was patterned after Japanese dragons (with a bit of the Hydra thrown in), which are often seen as deities in legend rather than monsters. Together, the three act as a sort of ancient protective force from a monster created by man’s errors.

Not all story elements work – the human elements move better than they did in the past, but the relationship between the father and daughter is never as compelling as it ought be, and a thread involving Godzilla as the embodiments of lost souls from World War II feels needless. But there’s a real sense of peril in the film that, while not on the level of the original, certainly hits the highs of Godzilla vs. Destroyah or The Return of Godzilla. And Kaneko manages to include some comic relief that’s funny without dispelling the tension of the rest of the film, including a scene where a bunch of tourists try to take a quick picture of Baragon approaching, only to see they’ve made a huge mistake as Godzilla’s head peeks over the hill right above them,  in a throwback to his first appearance in the original film.

As for the rest of the film, Kaneko directs with greater flair than most of his immediate predecessors, showing a better understanding of how to draw tension out of low angles or deliberate teases of the monsters (Godzilla is first scene in the shadows of submarine wreckage). He shows a real grasp for atmospheric lighting in Ghidorah’s discovery, and, most importantly, he constantly tries to undermine expectations within a scene, whether he’s making Godzilla crueler (a woman in a hospital who seems to escape certain death, all for naught) or weaker (an nasty injury that causes Godzilla’s atomic breath to backfire). GMKG is a series highlight, a film that makes Godzilla brutal without taking away the fun.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

GodzillaMania #13: Godzilla 1998

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Godzilla 1998: 5/D-

1998’s American version of Godzilla is one of the only films in the series (official or otherwise) I had a chance to see in theaters – with the exception of Godzilla 2000, this was the last Godzilla film to be released in American theaters. Being a seven-year-old Godzilla superfan, I was even more excited for this than I was for the next year’s upcoming Star Wars prequel (I learned the meaning of disappointment at a very young age). My father was kind enough to take me to the midnight screening, or at least a late-night premiere, where we were given special promotional materials that, being an idiot, I’d lose within a day.

 As a kid hopped up on sugar and years of waiting to see Godzilla on the big screen, I liked the film even though it didn’t feature most of the things I loved about the series. It wasn’t until revisiting the movie on VHS that it occurred to me just how little it resembled the movies I loved. But had the film gone in a radically different direction from the source material in a new or exciting way, it’d be easy to forgive. But Roland Emmerich (who admitted he didn’t like the old Godzilla films) turns in a lazy, dull, bloated disaster movie-meets-Spielberg rip-off, a rightfully derided film that made a lot of money but still managed to disappoint just about everyone who saw it.

Matthew Broderick stars as Dr. Niko “Nick” Tatapoulos, a biologist hired by the military to track a giant lizard created by nuclear testing. They track the creature to New York City, where it makes a habit of appearing, destroying things, and then disappearing. After taking a skin sample following an abortive military chase, Nick theorizes that the creature, dubbed “Godzilla” by the media, is pregnant and looking to lay a nest in New York. When ex-girlfriend Audrey (Maria Pitillo) steals confidential tapes from Tatapoulos, he’s fired and the military abandons their search. But someone else has been listening: French Secret Service Agent Philippe Roche (Jean Reno), who believes Nick and is trying to cover up for French nuclear testing in Polynesia.

That last bit is one of the less noted aspects of Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s terrible screenplay, but one of the most telling. Gone is the thoughtful meditation on U.S. nuclear testing and the fallout it caused in Japan. Instead, the film pawns the responsibility off on the French so they can ignore any real consideration of nuclear concerns and turn the film into a jingoistic explosion-fest. It’s a hateful change that’s made more laughable by a bit of unintentional irony: for all of Devlin and Emmerich’s thoughtless rah-rah bullshit, the U.S. military in Godzilla is portrayed as borderline inept. Sure, the Japanese military forces in Godzilla were rarely able to do much damage to the King of the Monsters, but they didn’t lose track of a giant goddamn lizard in a populated area or find themselves unable to even hit the thing.

That ties into the wanton destruction and end-of-the-world scenarios that have been Emmerich’s M.O. since Independence Day. Godzilla’s set-pieces are devoid of the horror of the original film or the entertaining goofiness of the sequels. Instead, Emmerich’s more-is-more aesthetic is at its worst here, with every action scene feeling like the same bit of shouting, shrieking and shooting bombast distinguished only by which NYC landmark is going to be blown up this time.

The destruction in Godzilla’s first New York scene no doubt leaves hundreds, if not thousands, dead. Yet the most that Harry Shearer’s newsman notes is that the Disney and Sony stores are being looted – the dead are either faceless or unacknowledged. The rest of the movie sees the city evacuated, at least, but that potentially mitigating factor feels insignificant when taken alongside the film’s endless 142 minutes of monotonous action and noise, complete with two equally stakes-free climaxes where it’s clear that the only people who die will be the one’s who didn’t have names in the first place.

Like Independence Day before it, Godzilla’s cast is made up of stock characters, but Emmerich’s earlier film at least had Jeff Goldblum and a charismatic Will Smith to enliven things. Broderick can be charming in the right role, but his protagonist is mostly a dull repeat of Goldblum’s Independence Day role, mostly present to spout exposition about what idiotic place the film is taking us next. He’s given a rousing speech at the end that differs from the rest of his nerd-sputter, but it mostly plays as a boring version of Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day.

Reno sleepwalks his way through his ostensibly badass role, and Pitillo doesn’t get much to do except play a drippy love interest. Their romance is one of the most anemic in blockbuster history: first scene together is made up of banal chit-chat (never mind that there’s a giant lizard in the city) and exposition. Their second scene is meant to be a big emotional moment after she’s stolen something from him, but since we don’t know their relationship, we don’t care. Their third scene? The climax.

The supporting players, meanwhile, are stuck in one of two modes: obnoxious stereotype or fatally underwritten minor player. Shearer’s asshole news anchor never turns into anything more than lame comic relief, the kind of absurdly dickish guy prone to saying things like “I don’t give a rat’s ass about a war in some country whose name I can’t even pronounce.” Hank Azaria, meanwhile plays Victor “Animal” Palotti, Pitillo’s cameraman sidekick who’s so stereotypically working-class New York that he might as well be called “Brooklyn.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Dunn is tasked with playing a generic army officer, while Vicki Lewis, the skillful comic actress who was a highlight on NewsRadio, plays a scientist whose role is to essentially be a second scientist in the room. In Lewis’s biggest scene, she flirts with Broderick after noting that he’s not really the right man for the job. When one considers how much more dynamic a story between two scientists rushing might be in this context than the dull romance between Broderick and Pitillo (and the irritating subplot involving Pitillo’s aspiring reporter being sexually harassed by Shearer), Lewis’s character’s superfluity becomes especially galling.

The most irritating characters in the film, however, are the unctuous Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and his assistant Gene (Lorry Goldman). In a petty rebuke to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s thumbs down-reviews of Stargate and Independence Day, Ebert is turned into a candy-chomping (haha, he’s fat), callous official, while Siskel becomes his wimpy assistant. Mayor Ebert feels he’s evacuated the city for nothing, and he’s interested in exploiting the Godzilla’s eventual death for his own political gain. It’s one thing to take issue with your critics; it’s another thing altogether to turn them into glib caricatures in a mean-spirited way of getting back at them for not liking your movies. It felt nasty at the time, and it only feels more hateful now that both of the great critics are gone.

So the film is hateful, loud, monotonous, overlong and stuffed with irritating or boring characters, but is there anything really wrong with it? How about a new point of comical stupidity in nearly every scene? There’s no way to really get through all of it without listing it off, so here goes:

-Godzilla is able to hide easily in New York City. This is A. a giant lizard, B. in the biggest city in the U.S., and C. surrounded by millions of dollars of military technology.

-Jean Reno encounters a man who survived a Godzilla attack on a Japanese fishing boat. When the man doesn’t respond to any questions in Japanese, Reno waves a lighter in front of the man’s face, asking in English what he saw, receiving the answer, “Gojira.” Apparently waving a lighter in front of a man’s face translates English to Japanese.

-Later, we see the military footage of this encounter…edited exactly the same as the scene earlier in the film. Nice of the U.S. government to spend money on Hollywood cameras and editing systems rather than relying on security footage.

-The military response to Broderick stating, frequently, that the job they’ve hired him for isn’t in his field essentially boils down to, “Yeah, well, whatever.”

-There’s a moment early in the film in which Broderick walks into Godzilla’s footprint and is unable to see exactly what he’s supposed to study. This is supposed to be awe-inspiring rather than deeply idiotic.

-The helicopters chasing Godzilla can’t hit a giant lizard and instead seem to take aim for every building in the city. Also, when being chased by Godzilla and picked off, none of the pilots seem to remember that they are in flying machines that can go up.

-Broderick keeps a shrine of sorts to Pitillo’s character, a collage of pictures of their time together (their relationship ended years ago). This is seen by Pitillo as sweet rather than creepy.

-Emmerich has a terrible sense of humor, with running jokes including Frenchman Reno’s displeasure with donuts (“No croissant?”) and American coffee (speaking as a lover of strong coffee, he has a point on that one); no one being able to pronounce Broderick’s last name; and Broderick being amazed by the efforts to lure Godzilla with food (“That’s a lot of fish!”). Number of times any of these things are funny: 0.

-When Godzilla is finally killed, the film tries to have a brief moment of sympathy for a creature that’s mostly been a personality-free monster, only to segue directly to cheering over its death. The tonal whiplash here is as astounding as it is meaningless.

-An actual line of dialogue that I couldn’t help but quote: “You know that bad feeling I get sometimes when something really bad is going to happen?” WRITING!

What makes Godzilla an insult beyond its stupidity, however, is its total lack of individuality. Whereas Independence Day somewhat leavened the derivativeness, queasy end-of-the-world entertainment and stupidity (see: aliens stopped with computer virus) with its charismatic stars and often transcendent stupidity (Pullman’s big speech, Brent Spiner being possessed by an alien), Godzilla is a long, drawn out bore that mostly distinguishes itself by ripping off Jaws and Jurassic Park. With the former, it blows up taut suspense scenes (the shark breaking the dock or dragging the Orca) to louder, dumber scenes (Godzilla dragging two boats and blowing up the dock as a man runs from it). With the latter, it mostly just restages the T-Rex scenes for Godzilla and the raptor scenes with the baby Godzillas with no imagination and a monster that looks like a shittier version of the T-Rex.

Without Spielberg’s deftness, empathy, eye for great images (Godzilla mostly settles for dull greys) or strong sense of story and character, it turns out to be a lot of empty noise and destruction. Without the meditative, fatalistic tone of the original Godzilla, it’s a film that’s not about anything except its own bigness. Without the sense of fun or the brevity of the earlier Godzilla films, it leaves the viewer feeling beaten up and dispirited rather than elated. The most memorable part of the movie is the awful soundtrack, highlighted by a dull cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” by the Wallflowers and Puff Daddy’s ghastly “Kashmir”-sampling “Come With Me.” The whole affair remains one of the most dated and embarrassing blockbusters of the 90s, a film that ends on a set-up for a sequel that no one wanted. For Godzilla fans, it’s the film we all like to pretend never happened, and that we hope never happens again.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I recently interned at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.