Sean K. Cureton

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

The King of the Monsters Returns, a Potent Behemoth with Teeth

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on May 24, 2014 at 11:04 am

Theatrical Poster

Godzilla
Directed by Gareth Edwards
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla starts off with a montage sequence not too far removed or dissimilar from the one seen previously in Roland Emmerich’s attempt at the franchise in 1998. Through the compilation of stock footage of nuclear weapons testing, mushroom bombs, and pages of text lifted directly from Charles Darwin’s seminal work on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species, Edwards deftly grounds his film within the franchise’s established discourse on the ecological dangers of bio-nuclear warfare, and begins mounting the viewer’s tension as they await the big reveal of the film’s star. Ever since audiences first heard the titular character’s iconic roar during the opening credit sequence of Ishiro Honda’s original of 1954, Godzilla has become a monster movie icon, the go to staple for anyone with a taste for the kaiju cinematic tradition of Japan. Godzilla, who is indeed the King of the Monsters, as the film’s constant meta-fictional media coverage dubs him, is a beauty to behold when he is finally revealed about an hour into the film, gorgeously rendered with CGI and some of the best sound effects engineering of the past few years. And yet, for all of the dramatic build up and technical artistry that went into designing everyone’s favorite kaiju, Edwards’ film feels a little bland, boasting a cast of characters who appear intricate and nuanced at first, but fairly quickly fall away into the background once the film picks up speed, resulting in another big budget summer blockbuster that fails to offer anything new, falling into some of the worst cliches and stereotypes of the film’s pre-established genre.

The film begins in Janjira, Japan, where Joe and Sandra Brody, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, are working in a local Nuclear Testing Laboratory. Inevitably, the lab experiences an accident of such turmoil and violence that Cranston’s character is left a widower, with the emergency at the lab tragically taking the life of his beloved wife in a scene that, for all its overt melodrama, is deeply effecting and poignant. Cut to around twenty years into the future, and Joe’s son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is now a bomb specialist in the US military, and his father has become a conspiracy theorist obsessed with what really happened during the accident at his lab, lo those many years ago. While this initial portion of the film serves to establish its characters and plot trajectory in a way that is refreshingly vibrant, incredibly well paced, and effectively establishes the premise and conceit of the film’s more fantastic elements, it also fails to carry itself beyond the initial set up of the first hour, becoming background noise once Cranston’s character is killed off by one of the first creatures to erupt from the earth. After Cranston’s Joe Brody is killed off, his son is left as the central human protagonist, which would be alright, if it weren’t for the fact that Aaron Taylor-Johnson is one of the most wooden and bland actors currently working in Hollywood, especially when set side by side with the far superior performance offered from Cranston over the course of the first half of the film; persistently over the second half of the film’s two hour runtime, the viewer is left bored and disinterested with what is happening to Taylor-Johnson’s character, rendering his encounters with Godzilla and his ilk less potentially dangerous, as there is little reason to care all that much whether or not Ford will overcome the odds and emerge victorious by film’s end, the lone man standing amidst the debris of apocalyptic disaster and chaos.

That being said, the rest of the film is quiet brilliant, fantastically gorgeous in its grandiosity, and effectively frightening in its utilization of the kind of implied mass destruction that has become all to familiar and boring in other Hollywood blockbusters of the same sort. When compared to something like Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, or even Zack Snyder’s abysmal Superman entry from last year, one of the things that really shines in Gareth Edward’s new film is the minute and exacting attention to the death toll and scale of real world destruction that the film portrays to its audience, using televised news coverage of the events in the film’s fictive narrative in order to offer both instances of unexpected humor and levity, while simultaneously documenting just how catastrophic and horrible the fantasy destruction actually becomes. In any of the one too many Transformers films that have come out over the past eight years, destruction is utilized for pure spectacle, in effect deadening the viewer’s senses and comprehension of just what is supposedly unfolding within the events of each individual installment, resulting in a series of films that are empty and devoid of any value whatsoever, as cold and lifeless as the giant robots that are its staple. In contrast, and much like Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, Edwards’ Godzilla is sympathetic to both its monsters and its victims, never ceasing to shy away from the more terrible aspects of the film’s destructive action sequences, or to exploit the lives of its fictional characters, which alternatively results in sequences of cinematic destruction that are comprehensive and actually shocking. Where Michael Bay’s films are pornographic and detached in their construction, Edwards’ film is rooted in a sort of empathetic realism, which is a more than fitting tribute to Honda’s beloved original, and is sure to make any fan of the Godzilla franchise proud and contented with this new re-vamp of everyone’s favorite kaiju.

Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is decidedly better than Roland Emmerich’s reviled and silly attempt at the franchise in 1998, bringing back the sense of integrity and eco-political dialogue that was so integral to the 1954 original. Where Emmerich’s Godzilla was a harmless mess, Edwards’ Godzilla is a potent behemoth with teeth, offering both affecting melodrama and character development, as well as fully realized computer generated action sequences that are a verifiable wonder to behold, and reward the viewer in a way that is satisfying and well earned. Edwards’ new film might be the first must see film of the summer season, warts and all, well deserving of the IMAX experience in which such a film prototypically demands to be seen, leaving the viewer quaking in their seats with each deafening roar from the film’s namesake and star. While Pacific Rim, from last summer, might have been a little more fun in its send up of the campier aspects of the kaiju genre, Edwards’ film is a brave attempt at something a little grander and more dramatic, even if a lot of that drama doesn’t quiet hold up under the pressure of its supersized theatrics. Edwards’ Godzilla is not a perfect summer blockbuster, but it’s still pretty damn spectacular, and doesn’t lack or hold back when it comes to entertaining its built in audience, making it a fitting inheritor of its King of the Monsters.

Advertisements

Snootchie Bootchies, Kevin Smith

In My Favorite Movies on May 17, 2014 at 11:54 am

Theatrical Poster

Mallrats
Directed by Kevin Smith
Commercial Release: October 20, 1995

Initially conceived as a teen comedy a la Porky’s, and building upon the success of then indie darling Clerks, Kevin Smith’s sophomore feature is one of the most critically derided films of recent memory. After the run away success of his first feature film in 1994, Universal Pictures executive producer James Jacks approached Smith about doing another film in the same vein as his debut, in the hopes of producing a lucrative comedy from what was then the hot new voice in the American independent film circuit. Eagerly, Smith took the bait, hoping to use the money afforded him by the Hollywood studio to make a film like Clerks, only this time around his trademark characters would be granted the spacious environs of a mall to inhabit, as opposed to the small and confined corner store of his first film. As the production of Mallrats began to get under way, Smith was beset and beleaguered by demands and constrictions from Universal Studios that only served to hamper him from producing the film that he intended to make, including the insistent request for a casting call for the role of Jay, who had previously been played by the character’s namesake and chief source of inspiration Jason Mewes, as well as numerous concerns when it came to how long the film was taking to complete and how much money it was going to cost. When the film finally saw its release date on October 20, 1994, many of the same critics that had applauded Smith’s verve and charming naiveté only a year before were quick to deride Mallrats as a shallow film, raunchy to its core and stupid beyond belief.

When I first saw Mallrats in high school, I was struck by its charming immediacy, its ability to talk to me directly without overtly pandering for my approval, as some such teen comedies are wont to do. Admittedly, at the time I was the film’s core audience, my movie watching diet subsisting almost entirely of irreverent youth-centric comedies, my favorite director at the time being Judd Apatow, who I then naively took for a moviemaking God. Over the years, my interests have changed, and so has my taste in film, with my attention moving away from Kevin Smith’s penchant for sailor mouthed characters caught up in the adolescent fantasy fueled panels of comic books penned by Stan Lee, to films dedicated to the craft and history of filmmaking as an institution. While I may now cite someone such as Paul Thomas Anderson as a moviemaking God, and may on occasion speak deridingly of the types of comedies that I used to take as my bread and butter, Kevin Smith still remains a hero in my eyes, even if the years have developed a certain distance between myself and his more recent cinematic fare. Nevertheless, when I think back on the entire oeuvre of Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse catalogue, including his cult classic masterpiece Clerks, as well as his gender comedy and independent triumph Chasing Amy, his sophomore effort is still the film that I turn back to again and again whenever I think about Smith’s legacy as it has affected my own writing and thinking about the films that I profess to love; Mallrats may still be the red-headed step child in Smith’s eyes, but to me its more like the rough first draft of the seminal coming of age epic that continues to give shape and definition to how I watch, think, write, and talk about movies.

Starting from the opening title sequence, which is accompanied by grand scale comic book renderings of the film’s cast of characters as well as the decidedly teen-angst fueled anthem “Social” from the pop-punk band Squirtgun, Mallrats starts on a high, encapsulating the mindscape of adolescent angst and fantasy to a tee. For all intents and purposes, T.S. Quint (Jeremy London) and Brodie (Jason Lee) are superheroes on a small scale, bravely venturing into the contemporary structure of mass consumerism without buying a thing, discussing the virtues of mid-mall snacking, and bravely demanding their right to tremble in supplication before the great Stan Lee, thereby emblazoning and uplifting the penniless youth to the stature of rebellious demigods, Wolverine and Loki in turn. What’s more, Jason Lee’s portrayal of the film’s centrifugal anti-hero Brodie should, by all rights, be forever remembered as on a par with other such teen comedy icons as Sean Penn’s surfer bum Jeff Spicoli from the Cameron Crowe penned classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or Matthew McConaughey’s career making turn as David Wooderson in Richard Linklater’s seminal coming-of-age comedy Dazed and Confused. In more ways than one, Brodie should have been the comic teen hero of the 1990’s, encapsulating the youthful abandon, innocence, and hope of an era untouched by the horrors and paranoia shortly awaiting the world at the turn of the century. From his schlubby wardrobe to his general sense of dissatisfaction and disrespect for figures of conservative authority, Brodie is the centerpiece of Smith’s sophomore outing, stink palming the mind of any impressionable youth lucky enough to have found the film at the exact right moment in their lives, and leaving a lingering impression that can’t be scrubbed away no matter how many times you wash your hands.

On a slightly larger scale, Mallrats also stands as possibly the last film about innocence that Smith ever penned, both in terms of Smith’s then adolescent immaturity as well as his naïveté concerning the film industry as a whole at the time. After the critical and monetary failure of Mallrats, Smith’s creative output became decidedly more adult, tackling subjects and themes that have never been a strong suit for Smith as a writer. While Chasing Amy, the third and final feature film in what was at the time conceived as a planned trilogy that took place along one centralized time line and in the same fictive universe, was a brave step forward in terms of representing homosexual relationships within the typically conservative romantic comedy genre, the ending of the film falls apart when Smith’s own inexperience in such matters leads him to construct an ending for the film that feels cheap, misguided, and completely out of left field in terms of the actions taken by the characters involved. After Chasing Amy, Smith began tackling larger and larger subjects, most notably being the Catholic Church in his religious satire Dogma, which failed to offer any solutions for the fairly nuanced criticisms and grievances that are brought forward in the film’s rhetoric, while simultaneously trying to maintain the irreverent charm of his first two features to smaller returns. Perhaps the spark of genius that gave birth to Clerks and Malllrats was too honest to replicate exactly, forcing Smith to either move on to grander canvases that he lacked the skill to paint, or to return to the well of initial inspiration that had already been drained by his first, and greatest, feature films.

Mallrats is a not a good movie. Its immaturity and lack of technical finesse betrays its director for being entirely out of his depth when it comes to directing a major studio production. But that’s not why I love it. I love Mallrats because of how hopeful its characters are, how sweet the romantic sub-plots are in their shot-by-cupid simplicity, and, most importantly, for Jason Lee’s remarkable and utterly unforgettable performance as Brodie, a character whose laissez-fare demeanor and quick witted retorts still define what it is to be cool and confident to me to this day. Kevin Smith might not be the world’s greatest director. In point of fact, he might be one of the very worst, but to me, he is an inspiration and the reason why I thought it was worthwhile to pursue writing about films, studying cinema in college, and deepening my appreciation and understanding of the art as a whole as a life long vocation and hobby. Mallrats is one of my favorite movies of all times, a fact of which I am not ashamed, but embrace to the fullest extent of my persisting passion and admiration for Smith’s View Askewniverse oeuvre.

Mallrats is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is the second film to be included as one of My Favorite Movies.

Business as Usual

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on May 10, 2014 at 11:19 am


Theatrical Poster

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Directed by Marc Webb
2 out of 4 stars

After the tepid reception to Marc Webb’s first Spider-Man movie in 2012, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stands as a film that at times exceeds its predecessor in terms of sheer blockbuster spectacle, its larger than life set pieces and spandex clad protagonists stealing the show for much of the film’s oversized run time of 142 minutes. At the same time, however, Webb’s innate talent for character development and subdued dramatic tension, as evidenced in his far superior cinematic debut (500) Days of Summer, feels misplaced within an otherwise formulaic superhero epic, throwing the whole fabric of an otherwise solid action film off balance. Where Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy was rooted in the romantic melodrama of Peter Parker, Webb’s reincarnation of the series is primarily focused on the daring feats of Spider-Man, a fact that seems to have eluded Webb in the production of this ambitious, but misguided, sequel. Whenever Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) are on screen together in their multiple, and mercifully brief, scenes together as a couple, the film comes to a grinding halt, suggesting an adopted depth of character and intimacy that is otherwise absent and unearned. Like the first film in this re-boot of the Spider-Man franchise, Webb appears to be out of his depth in his attempts to compromise the demands of a big budget franchise blockbuster with his own penchant for melancholic drama, and in the process has offered up another film for Sony Pictures that will be sure to leave fans in both movie going camps disappointed and vaguely confused.

Like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, Webb’s new film about everyone’s favorite web slinger suffers from the age-old problem of having one too many super villains in one movie. While Webb at first seems to be intent on focusing on Jamie Foxx’s Max Dillon/Electro antagonist, played off as a good-intentioned nobody turned misunderstood socio-path, the film rather quickly shifts its focus over to Dane Dehaan as Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, the soul inheritor of the insidious Oscorp company and former childhood friend of Peter Parker. While the origin story for Electro is well executed and immediately engrossing, we soon learn that Harry is afflicted with a genetic disease that can only be cured with the blood of Spider-Man, taken willingly or not, making Green Goblin the show runner yet again. While each of these characters is interesting in their own right, with performances from Foxx and Dehaan that far outshine any of the other characters in the film’s impressive cast, the plot quickly becomes overburdened by its own ambitions, effectively short shifting what could have been two fairly interesting movies into a single, lack-luster cash grab. While the film’s climax boasts some of the best special effects and action sequences in the franchise to date, there’s ultimately no reason to care about any of the characters involved, leaving little incentive to see the next film in the series, Sinister Six teaser notwithstanding.

All of this leaves the film in a rather precarious position as to where to take the franchise next, whether to stay the course set by Sony Pictures and pave the way for a Sinister Six movie set to rival the Marvel Studios powerhouse that is The Avengers franchise, or to hand the reins back over to a capable auteur, surrendering the potential monetary gains of the franchise in favor of individualistic aestheticism. If Webb means to keep the director’s chair going forward, will he be allowed more artistic and creative freedom with the series’ plot and characters, or will Sony Pictures maintain its tyrannical hold over the Spider-Man property, offering up more of the same, and running the franchise, along with Webb’s track record, into the ground? As the series stands, Webb will find himself even more hard pressed going forward to break out of Sony Pictures’ expectations for the direction of the films, as there is very little room left for deviation from the set course of super villain overload, promising yet another special effects extravaganza, with little to no narrative substance, in the next installment. In a similar situation, Sam Raimi came away from Spider-Man 3 feeling defeated by the studio’s demands, leading him to opt out of directing a fourth film for Sony Pictures. In direct contrast, Webb appears to be more willing to cow to the demands of a studio that has essentially taken him under their wing, offering him the opportunity to direct a major motion picture, an opportunity, moreover, that would be hard to turn down for any new director in the same position. If this is indeed the case, then The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s failure should not be attributed to Webb as the director, but rather to Sony Pictures as the producer, a studio that has become infamous for its tenacious hold on the few superhero properties that it owns, putting out films periodically if only to maintain the rights to said properties, and squandering the potential of said properties’ intrinsic values; the re-boot of the Spider-Man property thus falls into the territory of business as usual, a ready made cash cow for a major Hollywood studio eager to cash in on the latest craze among the main stream movie going audience.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is thus an even more disappointing installment than the first in this new series of Spidey operas, full of promise and blind ambition, un-tempered by any respect or consideration for the audience of eager fans of the character. As was the case the first time around, Webb revels in bringing Spider-Man to life, and watching Andrew Garfield don the red and blue tights is a marvel to behold, feeling truer to the loose lipped demigod of the original comic book serial of the 1960’s than Raimi’s angst-ridden Tobey Maguire. However, when it comes to setting aside the mask and becoming Peter Parker, Garfield struggles under Webb’s direction to bring the character from the comic book to the silver screen, awkwardly attempting to trade in Maguire’s superior down-trodden selflessness for a Parker who is, for lack of a better word, cool. In doing so, the character and the film to which he is attached loses its ability to connect to the very same audience that loved Spidey the first time around back in 2002, as much of the appeal of the Spider-Man franchise stems from Peter Parker as the relatable social outcast and nerd. Marc Webb is still a more than capable director, however, whose work on the Spider-Man franchise is an unfortunate set back, as any attempts for narrative and authorial control have been no doubt wrested away from him by a studio with no artistic integrity, insight, or faith in its chosen director; The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not a bad movie, but will never be held in as high a regard as Sam Raimi’s original trilogy, which set the bar for what a modern day superhero film should look like.