Saturday, May 17, 2014


The most frustrating thing about the new "Godzilla" isn't that it's a disappointment because, really, it's not -- as long as you keep your expectations at bay. What's frustrating is how closely it touches upon greatness. The film is sophisticated, intelligent, brooding and extraordinarily crafted, almost as if Christopher Nolan directed a monster flick. It's leagues above and beyond better than the last time we got a film treatment of the god of monsters, that cartoonish garbage from 1998. Gareth Edwards, the British director behind the small budget creature feature "Monsters," has a keen eye, so the crux of the trouble comes from the screenplay by Max Borenstein which never strikes the right balance between Godzilla, human characters and two pesky things eating up a whole lot of screen time.

The premise is actually pretty sound and does a nice job of setting up the tension. A hair-pieced Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, a scientist working in Japan who goes nearly mad trying to track a massive radioactive cover-up after the loss of his wife (Juliette Binoche who gets sorely underused) in a lab accident. Cranston delivers what he can, giving cautionary warnings to fellow scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, who switch between looking very serious and very concerned. Cue Brody's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who journeys to help his father, leaving his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son back in San Francisco. These are our human characters with whom to sympathize, and it's a shame they're not better drawn and feel like they were plucked out of any other catastrophe movie. It's wasted talent, plain and simple, who are forced to spout off trite dialogue.

The slow, exposition-filled build-up to the big reveal (it takes about an hour before there's a full visual) is a very specific strategy that pays off. Edwards cleverly cuts away when you may not expect him to, and it ramps up the anticipation even more. It's moments like this, in the second act, that are the film's very best. With brilliant restraint, there are several scenes that go silent as we pan up the beast's tail or spiky back and just relish in a moment of pure awe. And, of course, the moment of finally revealing his face for the first time, and he unleashes that trademark belly, screeching roar -- I dare you not to get chills.

But then there are the spider-like M.U.T.O.s, short for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. These things hang around a whole lot, and while the final showdown is worth the wait, there is far too much emphasis placed on them. Let's cut to our human sympathizers a little more; give them something more substantial to say other than stuff you might hear in a "Transformers" movie. Amid this sea of complaints and probably nitpicking, though, the 2014 version of "Godzilla" we have been granted is solid and good.

There's a scene late in the film that is most striking and admirable in the way Godzilla, the god of monsters, the beast among men, the towering dinosaur-whale emerged from the ocean, is painted to mirror the human drama. It's beautiful. With just a little more nuance, this could've been on par with Peter Jackson's "King Kong."

Monday, May 12, 2014


When their new neighbor moves in, the head of a rowdy fraternity played by Zac Efron, Seth Rogen's character says he looks like someone a gay man created in a lab. That's probably the most spot-on way Efron's sexual appeal has ever been described. Saying the young actor is the least funny thing on the screen is definitely no knock on him, due to the fact alone of him being surrounded by such comedic talent. He (and his body) get the job done just fine and actually adds a layer of curious energy to Nicholas Stoller's uproarious and raunchy "Neighbors."

Efron's best moments are with fraternity cohort played by Dave Franco, whose scenes together take the homoerotic undertones of fraternities to hilarious new heights. Seth Rogen finds his comedic match in Rose Byrne, who busts loose with her natural Aussie accent and delivers perfect deadpan timing. The cast of comedians that flow in and out of frame is dizzying, especially Ike Barinholtz of "The Mindy Project" and the welcome return of Lisa Kudrow, who basically reprises her guidance counselor from "Easy A."

When the fraternity moves in next door, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) at first try to make nice with the guys, offering them weed but also trying to squeak in the phrase "keep it down." It doesn't work, and they're left being kept up until 4 a.m. tending to their adorable newborn who they can't get to sleep. When they make the mistake of calling the cops on the frat, Teddy (Efron) calls for an all-out war. The movie is loosely structured, freewheeling in its design and takes great creative liberties for a standard studio comedy. The rest of the script is us sitting back to watch as the attacks back and forth from family to frat ramp up in extravagance and absurdity. The party set pieces do every other college party movie proud and rave and flow with visual and aural excitement.

Among the gross-out sight gags, astonishing physical humor and plethora of jokes dedicated to one very specific body part, "Neighbors" packs in its biggest surprise in coming out as nonchalantly insightful about its characters. Efron, most notably, brings a dark soul to his fraternity leader, so that when the final takedown between him and Rogen happens, it becomes funnier because the stakes feel real. As Mac and Kelly see their lives turn a corner, the script rings true about what it means to earn responsibility, grow older and how aging doesn't always come exclusively with acting your age. The film is a big win for newcomer screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and even with "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Get Him to the Greek" and "The Five-Year Engagement" under his belt, this is probably Stoller's funniest film to date.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


I don't really understand critics' distaste toward "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." Not only is it a great superhero flick, it's even better than Marc Webb's first entry. No, I haven't seen last month's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," so just spare me there. But even on its own terms, not compared to other superhero movies out there, this second Spider-Man outing strikes a keen balance of light and frothy fun, genuine humor and high-flying action with ample amounts of romance, depth of emotion and real pathos. Take, for example, the film's first two sequences. The opening in-flight scene is harrowing and heartbreaking, while the opening re-introduction to Spidey swings briskly with grace. The control of tone is impeccable and more than makes up for any pratfalls in juggling plot lines.

Andrew Garfield cements himself further into the role of Peter Parker with great panache. Donning the suit, he slaps crooks across the face with charm and snappy one-liners. They're goofball and cheesy but also loyal to the source material. Spider-Man is a jokester. Here, even his ringtone is his own theme song. There's certainly not a lack of talent involved, with Emma Stone reprising her role as the glowing and independent Gwen Stacy. Not to mention the talented Sally Field as Aunt May who can carry a scene all her own.

It's graduation day while Spider-Man is busy dealing with an escaped convict (Paul Giamatti) trying to hijack precious Oscorp materials. Already wrestling this double-life, Peter is also haunted by the memory of Gwen's dad (Denis Leary) warning him to stay away from his daughter, in order to keep her safe. Must he let her go because he loves her too much to lose her? Meanwhile, the mysterious Oscorp has a new king, and it's Peter's old school friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). What starts off as a friendly reunion soon turns sinister once Harry's life is at stake.

The major threat is the seemingly harmless Oscorp employee with a strange Spider-Man fetish, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) -- that is, until he gets in a catastrophic accident rendering him into the frighteningly powerful and ready-for-revenge Electro. He's a daunting villain who's certainly more threatening and whose motives are more structured than the Lizard, who basically just wanted to turn the city's citizens into a bunch of self-healing green lizards for some reason. Foxx isn't given too much to do, but he works with what he can, while the more personable foe for Peter Parker is rightfully played by Dane DeHaan. They share an uneasy chemistry that is far superior to anything Tobey Maguire and James Franco churned out a decade ago.

For those complaining about the film getting weighed down by too many villain threads, it's safe to say it doesn't feel overstuffed. It's definitely no "Spider-Man 3." A third onscreen villain hardly gets any screen time. Sure, it's all universe-building, and while I was certainly aware of it here, it hasn't become too distracting. Yet. The movie is also visually gorgeous, from the choreography of Spidey's web-slinging through the city to the fine orchestration of the action set pieces. I didn't see it in 3-D because I made that mistake last time -- it darkens everything far too much.

The new "Amazing Spider-Man" franchise still comes back to the chemistry between real-life couple Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, whom Marc Webb directs so eloquently. Remember, folks, this is the guy who did "(500) Days of Summer" before signing on to a Marvel franchise. The scene of Peter crossing the street toward Gwen with that song playing, it's enchanting. There's a clear emphasis on interpersonal relationships, which is something to appreciate within a superhero flick. But, yes, there's a whole lot being set up here for the future films, most notably the villain-focused "Sinister Six" film. In that regard, I'm glad Webb decided to step down when he did because after this, it would be no surprise to see the Spider-Man world take a drastically steep nose dive.