The opening credits quickly drew me into a “this could totally have happened” moment, and I certainly give kudos to movies that can make jaded ol’ me suspend disbelief, even for a short while. The flashes of newsreels, confidential documents being edited and peeks of a strange ocean “creature” were entertaining even before the film began.
In 1946, Godzilla is awakened by a Russian military accident. In the mid-50’s the US and Russian militaries use nuclear weapons in attempts to kill Godzilla and use the cover of atomic tests to keep his existence unknown. Godzilla, however, survives every attempt.
Many years later, in 1999, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, played by Inception’s Ken Watanabe and his assistant Dr. Vivienne Graham, played by Blue Jasmine’s Sally Hawkins, are called to a mining site in the Philippines to inspect a fossil in an underground cage. A large “egg” is found near the fossil, already hatched and a trail is shown, leading to the surface and into the ocean, clearly marking that something has made its escape into the ocean. The other, still un-hatched egg is taking to Nevada and placed in a nuclear waste repository.
Days later, seismic activity is felt in Janjira, Japan where nuclear physicist, Joseph Brody, played by "Breaking Bad"’s Bryan Cranston and his wife, Sandra, played by Juliette Binoche head to the plant to investigate the activity. Joseph tells Sandra to assemble a team to perform a damage check at the power plant. The plant is soon breached by a massive explosion and radiation leak and Sandra dies in a heartbreaking sequence in the first few moments of the film. Joseph is left alone to fend for their son Ford in an area that is left in ruins and eventually abandoned and quarantined.
15 years later, Ford, played by a seriously buff and almost unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) is now an officer in the Navy, and is returning to San Francisco to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and his son, Sam after a tour of duty. He barely spends a night with his family before getting a call that his father, Joe, has been arrested for trespassing in the quarantine zone in Janjira. Ford travels back to Japan to bail out his father. Their relationship is obviously strained by years of his father’s “conspiracy theories” about what actually happened in Janjira the day his mother died. Reluctantly, Ford follows his father into the quarantine zone, in an effort to prove his theories wrong, and starts to realize that Joe might be right about a government cover up. In a quick flash sequence, while in the quarantine zone in the Brody house we see a “fish tank” that would have been home to a child’s pets, most likely moths, because labeled at the bottom left of the tank is the word ‘MOTHRA’ - a gentle tip of the hat to the classic Toho Monster, that I certainly enjoyed. In the distance, Ford and Joe notice the power plant with its lights on and before they have much time, they are caught and arrested by security and taken to the plant.
A strange chrysalis, similar to the one discovered in the Philippines years before, is being studied at the plant. A heart-stopping and terrifying pulsing sequence being emitted from the chrysalis makes you realize that something’s is about to go very wrong. The pounding explodes into the creature awakening and wreaking havoc on the plant. During the chaos, Joe is critically wounded and before he can share his data with Dr. Serizawa and Dr. Graham, he dies. The monster flies off into the distance leaving Ford to accompany the doctors to try and piece together what his father knew, to try and save the world from further destruction.
Serizawa and Graham reveal to Ford that they are part of a secret organization called “Monarch” and Serizawa quickly confesses they’ve known of the creatures for years, and explains to Ford that the monster that attacked the plant, a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), feeds on radiation. Serizawa also speaks of Godzilla's and their numerous failed attempts to kill the creature. Ford tells Serizawa that his father believed the M.U.T.O. was communicating with something else, and fears that something even worse than they imagined might be at happening.
Ford heads to Honolulu to try and get back to his family in San Francisco. In Hawaii, a U.S. Navy Special Forces team finds the wrecked remains of a Russian nuclear submarine in a dense forest. The winged M.U.T.O. is soon seen ripping apart the submarine to feed on its reactor. The military tries to take down the M.U.T.O but it emits an electromagnetic pulse which shuts down all electronics within miles. And this is what awakens Godzilla! Enter stomping beast stage left (finally) by way of massive tsunami! There is a brief showdown with the M.U.T.O before it flies away, with Godzilla in hot pursuit. Serizawa understands that the signal has not only awakened Godzilla but actually hatched another M.U.T.O. in Nevada, a much larger species, and female. With the M.U.T.Os planning to mate (in San Francisco), Serizawa soon realizes that Godzilla is the only thing that can stop the M.U.T.O.s from destroying the planet.
Godzilla is a treat and delivers fun sequences, explosions, destruction and edge-of-your-seat entertainment. I didn’t really feel much connection to the characters except for Joe and Sandra in the beginning of the movie, but that didn’t take away from what I thought was a pretty fun film with quite a few nods to the original Godzilla films. I definitely felt that the movie could have been 20 minutes shorter, but I often feel that movies are way too long nowadays. And of course, when Godzilla breathed the atomic flame, I almost cheered. Being a fan of monster movies all my life, this certainly delivers the type of mindless entertainment we often long for in the day to day. Pure disconnect from reality and an absolute blast! If you don’t overanalyze - I think this movie is more fun than audiences have given it credit for.
Godzilla (2014) is the 31st movie in the franchise. For those of you who have not seen the original and subsequent movies, here is a list for you to peruse when you have nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday:
Living in New York, it sometimes feels like new missing persons posters appear every day, posted in subway stations and on street corners. Young and old go missing, especially those with developmental disorders and mental problems. Everyone here remembers the ubiquitous fliers for Avonte Oquendo, the autistic teen who disappeared from his Queens high school and wasn’t found for months afterwards. We still don’t know how or why he died.
This real life tragedy gives an extra layer of resonance to Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, a masterful independent film released in New York Friday. Sam Fleischner’s movie concerns Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez), a high schooler with an autism spectrum disorder who wanders onto the subway one afternoon and gets lost. His sister Carla (Azul Zorrilla) feels guilty for neglecting to walk him home from school, while his mother (Andrea Suarez Paz) juggles a desperate search with other stresses, like her absent husband and the fear that involving police will expose her family’s immigration status. Ricky, meanwhile, gazes in slack jawed wonderment at the multitude of sounds, sights, feelings and people that make up Manhattan’s underground.
The cinematography by Adam Jandrup and Ethan Palmer is practically a star unto itself. The mesmerizing subway sequences wouldn’t be out of place in a Museum of Modern Art installation. They capture the Rockaways and the homes where Ricky’s family live and work well, too, but the movie truly comes alive in the subway. t’s extraordinarily perceptive about the details that make up a subway commuter’s world: rushing parallel trains, break-dancers, bums, maps and advertisements are all vividly presented in a way that approximates a rider’s P.O.V. The movie also does a nice job of showing us the world through Ricky’s eyes, focusing on the objects and textures that fascinate him.
The term “slice of life” fits Stand Clear of the Closing Doors better than any other movie I’ve seen.
The cast is so naturalistic, and the visuals so authentic that the film plays like a documentary. It helps that the movie was shot in part during Hurricane Sandy, which hit the family’s neighborhood in the Rockaways particularly hard. The film makes viewers consider the lives of immigrants without making overt statements or being didactic. These are real lives, and this is life in one of the world’s busiest cities in the twenty first century. Stand Clear is a movie good enough to make that as watchable as it is profound.
It’s a testament to Roman Polanski’s talent as a filmmaker that his latest film, Venus in Fur, escapes the stage-bound pitfalls of so many theatrical adaptations despite a set-up that’s as stagey as they come. The 81 (81!)-year-old auteur proves he can still make dynamic and involving cinema with this erotically charged character piece, which played the Tribeca Film Festival after opening in Polanski’s native Poland last year.
The film opens ominously as the camera tracks through rainy streets on its way to an old fashioned theater. There, a harried director (Mathieu Amalric) is telling an associate how disappointing the auditions for his play, Venus in Fur, have been. Dozens of actresses tried out for the lead role of Vanda but none were up to snuff. Then she enters: a beautiful, provocatively attired older woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who got lost on her way to the audition and is disappointed to have missed it. When Amalric decides to give her a shot, he’s surprised to find that she somehow got a hold of the complete script, knows it forward and back, and plays the character like she was born to. Her name? Vanda, of course.
I’d never seen David Ives’ 2010 play, which he adapted with Polanski, but based on this film it’s a magnificent scenario. It’s equal parts sociopolitical debate, offbeat love story, and erotically charged cat and mouse game. With Amalric and Seigner the only two human beings in the entire production, Venus in Fur is hugely dependent on their performances, and they don’t disappoint. Seigner, in particular, is a revelation. She’s stunningly beautiful, suggesting a cross between Michelle Pfeiffer and Prometheus’ Noomi Rapace, and her age adds extra intrigue. The camera loves her, and Amalric’s growing obsession with her is all too easy to understand. Amalric does a terrific job with perhaps the tougher of the two parts. He has to convey his character’s hidden psycho-sexual longings and take him on a journey from standoffish director to enraptured participant, and he does so magnificently.
Polanski clearly directed his leads ably; the sexual heat between them is palpable and electric. The script provides some real insight into kink, particularly dominant and submissive behavior, with empathy and eroticism. Polanski uses considerable visual flair to make this story even more gripping. The use of light on the stage is integral to the plot and adds much to the feel of the film, and deft use of sound effects to replace the actors’ invisible props is another nice touch.
The main quibble I had with Venus in Fur was the ending, which was ultimately too ambiguous and anti-climactic. A more forceful denouement would have made this a masterpiece. As is, it’s a mostly satisfying, very sexy actors’ showcase from a master filmmaker who clearly has the energy to add more to his cannon.
Many great elements are in place. The special effects, headed up by the Lord of the Rings team, are terrific. Cranston is joined by other fine actors like David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe. The movie takes its time setting up characters before getting to the monster: big G doesn’t even show up for at least thirty minutes. The action sequences, when they come, are realistic and well realized.
But in the end, Godzilla is both shallowly scripted and not nearly enough fun. Things kick off strikingly with a prologue in which Cranston’s Joe loses his wife (a haggard-looking Juliette Binoche) in a tragic meltdown at a nuclear power plant. Fifteen years later, Joe’s become obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the tragedy, while son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has entered the Navy and started a family of his own. The two are estranged until the Japanese consulate calls to inform Ford that his dad’s been arrested.
The two team up and return to the accident site, which soon leads to globe hopping intrigue involving giant irradiated monsters and massive destruction, while Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son wait anxiously at home in San Francisco. The problem is that Cranston makes a big impression—he imbues Joe with at least as much intensity as his "Breaking Bad" character—and then disappears from the film. His death not only deprives Godzilla of its best character, but stops an interesting story arc between father and son in its tracks. The focus then shifts mostly to Taylor-Johnson, whose paper thin character does him no favors. The hunky actor, so appealing in Kick Ass, is pretty much wasted. He and Olsen have good chemistry, but the film then keeps them apart; the desire to see them predictably reunited is the only emotional investment the story elicits. Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa exists primarily to explain the creatures and make obvious pronouncements like “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.” Yawn.
None of this would matter much if Godzilla delivered slam bang action set pieces. But it only half accomplishes that. There are some cool set-ups, like a rainy showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge and a suspense routine on a train track that Spielberg would have had fun with. Frequent POV shots manage to convey just how horrifying it would be to actually find yourself in these larger than life situations. There are even occasional flashes of humor, like Elvis crooning “The Devil In Disguise” while beasties storm through Las Vegas.
I chalk some of this up to something I’ll call the Dark Knight effect. Ever since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy won critical acclaim and worldwide box office, every franchise film wants to ape its darkness and realism. The Amazing Spider-Man tried to turn wisecracking, affable Spidey into a grim, tormented type and sapped out much of the fun. Man of Steel was a drab, heavy-handed Dark Knight wannabe that failed to approach the lighter Supes on his own merits. Add Godzilla (2014) to the list of misguided “serious” reboots. Say what you will about Roland Emmerich’s 1998 redux, but at least it went out of its way to be entertaining and fun. If this film spawns a sequel—and based on last weekend’s opening take, it will—the filmmakers would do wise to remember why we go to see these movies in the first place: to see big monsters wreck stuff and fight. As for the rest of the “human interest” shtick: a little bit goes a long way.