Thursday, May 22, 2014


It's common for Godzilla movies to overestimate our interest in their human characters. It's an honest miscalculation, after all cinema is about human concerns and heartbreak and we extend this to our monsters as well who are often anthropomorphized, but it is in this respect that Godzilla is different from all other kinds of movies. Even in the 1954 original, which heartbreakingly dealt with the Japanese psyche after WWII, the actual characters are mostly bland as to not steal focus and the appeal of much of the series is not in watching humans doing human things, or even in political allegory, but in watching Godzilla smash things and the beast has no human qualities except for those of a 5 year old smashing the giant Lego towers he just built.

Yet it's interesting that no film in the franchise has circumvented humanity completely, we're needed not just as filler but to give context to the destruction. In his new American reboot of the series, director Gareth Edwards has taken this series convention and run with it as an existential idea. He doesn't give us deep and nuanced characters, but highly sentimental ones to drive home the point that we, in a cosmic way, simply do not matter.

The human story, such as it is, is an inter-generational tale involving Joe (Bryan Cranston), an American living in Japan as a nuclear technician when a mysterious earthquake causes a meltdown that destroys the whole town and kills, among many other people, his wife. Joe doesn't believe it was a natural event and years later is still trying to find answers and looks to all the world like he's joined the tinfoil hat brigade. His now grown son Ford(Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is tired of him but reluctantly sets out to try and bring him back to reality.

In the background there's a lot of clever reconfiguration of the Godzilla mythos. We get Ken Wantanabe as a scientist who explains that Godzilla wasn't created by U.S. atomic tests but was simply awakened by them and later tests were really attempts to kill the beast. This doesn't shift responsibility for the monster away from America so much as reposition him as being an allegory not just for nuclear energy but for all attempts by mankind to tame nature.

The bursts of sentiment work wonderfully up to a point. It helps that Cranston is an actor of such electric intensity that I partly expect him to fight Godzilla. But the focus eventually shifts to Ford in a way that inadvertently also closes off his story and new goal the film gives him, simply isn't as strong and our investment wains somewhat to the detriment of the third act. But that's okay to a degree because none of this matters and for once the answer is deeper than "because it's a Godzilla movie." It doesn't matter if Joe is vindicated or reconnects with his son because these creatures are here to, in the words of the film, "send us back to the Stone Age." The humans are irrelevant but the film knows this and instead of just rushing past them, Edwards and screenwriter Max Brenstien pause to underline the futility and insignificance of humanity. After Godzilla and the other monsters show up and start smashing, NATO quickly drafts a plan to destroy them but we know that no matter what they do, they're essentially rearranging deckchairs. Humanity is basically impotent and all we can do is run and cower as these ancient titans do battle above us.

The fights themselves are beautifully done. They have everything we want out of large scale monster-smashing and there's a joyous element of this being a wrestling match but Edwards stages them with a canny mix of a Spielbergian wonder and Lovecraftian revulsion that gives everything in the film a unique flavor. He also manages to avoid many of the traps of large scale destruction by always sincerely emphasizing the humanity of the situation. The film isn't entirely successful, but it's rare to see a blockbuster with this clear an idea told with any kind of distinct voice, but Gareth Edwards is clearly onto something here. Finally after all these years, someone did something with the humans.

Grade: B+

Friday, May 16, 2014


I knew Amazing Spider-Man 2, the sequel to the 2012 reboot which I defend with increasing faintness, was in trouble in its opening moments, which features characters we have no connection to in a dreadfully dull action prologue (never before has fighting on a crashing airplane felt this serene). But I expected the film to recover. After all Spider-Man is one of our most durable characters, but I was shocked to see that not only did it not recover but it got steadily worse over its extremely generous run time.

Almost nothing in this film works: the humor is off, the effects have no sense of weight (CG Spider-Man is often animated like a Loony Toon), the charm between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is weaker, but the worst problem is the script, the latest and reportedly final collaboration between Robert Orci and Alex Kurzman, which stuffs a plethora of subplots without the benefit of any connective tissue. At least Sam Raimi's overstuffed Spider-Man 3 had an emotional throughline. Worse still, while it's clear from the amount of fan service on display that returning director Marc Webb and co. know who Spider-Man is on a superficial level but have no understanding of who he is. They don't get him, they don't even try to get him.

Spider-Man is one of the most important characters in comic-books. The first generation of Superheroes (Superman, Batman, et all) were initially conceived as simple power fantasies. They're strong, wise, have amazing powers and represent the people we wish we could be. But creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko subverted that with Spider-Man by being honest about the emotional realities of being an ordinary person with superpowers. In the comics, TV shows and movies, Peter Parker is always on a path of emotional growth, learning that his powers are often a curse and come with, say it with me now, great responsibility.

But none of that ethos is present in this film, nor is it replaced with anything. This Peter Parker doesn't don the suit, which admittedly looks great, and use his powers for the greater good at the expense of his personal life, he does it because being Spider-Man is great ego trip. Take his introductory scene where he stops in the middle of foiling a plutonium robbery to give a meek scientist (Jamie Foxx) an inspirational pep talk, before going off to not just stop the robbery but needlessly taunt the ringleader. Spider-Man has often quipped while defeating his enemies but seeing him pull down Paul Giamatti's pants whilst humming his own theme song instantly made me side with J. Jonah Jameson.

Watching these scenes I expected this cruelty to be part of an arc about how Peter had let his powers go to his head and needed to tone it down, but no, he acts this way throughout the entire film with no sense of awareness. In fact the film does precious little to give him an arc of any kind. The closest it gets is a weird subplot where he occasionally sees the ghost of Gwen's dead father (Denis Leary) judging him for continuing to date his daughter. This leads to endlessly repetitive scenes of Parker and Stacy not committing to their relationship because being Spider-Man might put her in danger. The idea kinda worked in the Raimi films because it was based in 1) Parker's insecurities and 2) the fact that Mary Jane had been in danger because Peter was Spider-Man. But we don't get that in this iteration, Gwen is never in danger and when she finally is, it's not really Peter's fault.

The previous film had something with the chemistry between Garfield and Stone but this film doesn't do anything with their relationship but remind us (Spoiler Alert) that Stacy is the biggest fridge in comic-book history. The practice of killing off female characters simply to advance the hero's story is a hideously outdated trope that's only being used here because the comics did it 40 years ago. Worse still, that moment has no meaning. Sure Peter feels bad about it for a while but he gets a pass because the film carefully plays it so that it's entirely Gwen's fault for being there over Peter's objections. (End of Spoilers) Nothing in the film is Spider-Man's fault, he has no flaws, makes no mistakes and learns no lessons (except for how batteries work). For what it's worth, Stone does better than Garfield with the material (who is too twitchy), and my general feeling is that the franchise doesn't deserve her.

The villains are also a problem. Both Foxx's Electro and Dane Dehaan's Harry Osborn seem to have graduated from the Joel Schumacher school of subtlety: their motives and intentions constantly shouted yet change on a whim based on whatever the plot requires at that moment. After their first encounter Electro develops a Rupert Pumpkin style obsession with how great Spider-Man is until he hates him because – contrivances! The superfan angle could have worked but it would have required empathy and consistency, as it is, he could have been cut completely without losing anything. Osborn, dying from a mysterious skin illness that could perhaps be cured by Spider-Man's blood, fairs almost as bad. It's completely unclear what he's supposed to be: is he a tragic figure, pure evil from the start, smart, dumb, entitled, humble, does he know Peter is Spider-Man or not? Poor Dehaan is caught in the middle trying to mug his way through it, and his eventual transformation into Green Goblin is so completely unearned that he could, in a very literal sense, have easily shown up as Doctor Octopus or The Vulture.

If these were the extent of the film's problems, it would already be in trouble, but it continues on and on, for 142 agonizing minutes, to include other subplots that range from the inane (Aunt May is a nurse but has to keep it secret for no reason), to the damaging (the secret behind Peter's parents undoes even more of what makes the character special), all of which are handled by a tone deaf Webb who at one point the film literally goes from Spider-Man's first fight with Electro to a music video of Peter searching for his aforementioned parents, creating one of those string filled photo collages we see in conspiracy thrillers, set to an inspirational faux folk song from Philip Philips.

It is the expressed hope of Sony Pictures that this film will start a mega franchise รก la Disney's Avengers. Indeed much of the plot seems designed to setting up not just a third of these things, but a spin-off staring Spider-Man's villains. But as mediocre and transparent as some of those Disney movies are, the Marvel suits at least know they need to deliver a semblance of a good time centered around a likable character. Instead Sony's corporate board seems to feel that if it puts a lot of shiny stuff in a box labeled Spider-Man, the unwashed masses will eat it up. One of the few chuckles I had during this film was recognizing that Sony's plan of creating wave after wave of shiny yet empty superhero movies mirrors OsCorp's evil plot almost exactly. For a second I thought maybe Marc Webb or someone had snuck a bit of meta commentary into the film but I discounted it, if that had been the case, the point would have been as loud and dumb as everything else.

Grade: D+