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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: Godzilla

Godzilla (2014): Written by Max Borenstein and directed by Gareth Edwards.  Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston.  Running Time: 123 minutes.  Based on… I really have to say it???

Rating: 2.5/4

            After some deliberation, I find that my reaction to the latest addition to the Godzilla canon bears a striking resemblance to my reaction to last year’s Man of Steel, also a divisive reboot of a long-standing cultural icon.  Both are revivals of franchises that I have never been particularly drawn to, nor have I had much exposure to them.  Both are films that I sincerely hoped would nudge me towards being a fan, and give me a feeling for what keeps bringing so many people back to them.  And while both films certainly have their moments of power and awe, I walked away from each one feeling slightly underwhelmed by the overall experience (although I definitely think Godzilla is by far the superior of the two, in terms of overall quality). 

            We get an opening montage more or less establishing for us that the governments of the world have known of Godzilla’s existence for some time, and founded an international organization that has been monitoring him ever since the events of the first Godzilla film in 1954.  Furthermore, this organization, or more specifically, its lone on-screen representative Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (followed around by a sinful waste of Sally Hawkins) is aware of other creatures apparently from the same era as Godzilla.  One of them is discovered to have hatched in a cave in the Philippines, and soon afterwards, it turns up in a coastal Japanese town most definitely not called Fukushima, where it destroys the nuclear facility and effectively sets itself up in a cocoon there to feed off the remaining nuclear energy in the core (the explanation we eventually get is that these creatures are from a more radioactive era of earth’s history, and therefore feed off nuclear reactions). 

            Obviously, this is covered up by the world governments, much to the fury of nuclear scientist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston), who survived the attack but lost his wife in the process, shown in the one genuinely great scene in the entire film featuring real, human emotion.  After the attack, we cut to 15 years later.  Brody’s son is now a munitions specialist for the US military, while Joe has made a hobby out of obsessively studying phenomena like what he witnessed at the plant, trying to prove that it was not, as the Japanese government claimed, an earthquake.  More out of exasperation that anything else, the son agrees to accompany him on one last trip to the quarantined facility to try and find out the truth.  There, they discover that it was, in fact, a monster that destroyed the facility all those years ago, and that the quarantine was merely put in place so that Ishiro and his colleagues could study it. 

            Shortly after they arrive, the creature, referred to by Ishiro as a MUTO, awakens, leaves the cocoon, and begins to leave a trail of destruction and death in its wake as it heads across the Pacific to San Francisco, where they realize it will meet up with another MUTO that recently awoke in the Nevada desert.  Assuring the military that they have no possible way of killing these creatures, Ishiro claims that there only hope is to lead Godzilla, accompanied by an entire naval fleet, to San Francisco as well, so that he can so battle with the great monsters from another age. 

            It’s a lot of exposition and build-up for a very basic monster-movie premise, but the serious amount of time needed to explain and show all this is not the reason that the film fell flat for me on more than a few occasions.  The movie makes a big deal of out very slowly building up the atmosphere of human terror of the awesome, supernatural might on display, waiting to fully show Godzilla and the MUTOs in action until the very end, and as far as the technical side goes, it handles itself very well.  The movie looks great, there’s none of the shaky-cam nonsense that ruined so much of Man of Steel (one big reason why it’s a superior reboot, all else aside), and every time we get to see Godzilla, the effects really are jaw-dropping.  The final battle taking place, for once, in a city not starting “New” and ending with “-ork,” is of a much different sort than the quick pace of last year’s Pacific Rim, with the monsters slower and more ponderous, but it’s still engaging and a ton of fun to watch. 

            No, the real issues start to pop up whenever the monsters are not screen, which, sadly, is most of the movie- the humans are not well written, and with the exception of the always-dependable Cranston and Watanabe, they are not well-acted or well-directed.  Taylor-Johnson could not come across blander if he had rice cakes stapled to his forehead, which is a major problem, because his relationship to his Dad and his efforts to get to San Francisco before the monsters do (his also-boring family is conveniently located right in the middle of the city) is clearly meant to be the emotional center of the film.  And….yeah, there’s no way around it, everything involving him and his family just does not do it for me.  I am yet to hear from anyone who thought that that aspect of the film worked.  Which is a shame, because if the film had focused more on the dad or Dr. Ishiro and on their issues, we might have a genuinely great film on our hands.  Hell, I would have loved to see a movie devoted solely to Dr. Ishiro, who seems to have a really fascinating backstory that never gets let out of the box. 

            Ultimately, the real question to answer is this; the flaws with how the human characters are handled aside, is it worth the wait once we finally get to a good, old-fashioned monster smackdown with a $160 million facelift?  I think it was for me.  The opening, centered around old man Brody, works great, and I loved the scope of the third act.  For myself, and for a lot of other people apparently, that was enough.  For others, it wasn’t.  To decide whether or not it works for you, you’ll just have to see for yourself. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Beauty and the Beast

La Belle et la BĂȘte (2014): Written by Christophe Gans and Sandra Vo-Ahn, directed by Christophe Gans.  Starring: Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel, Andre Dussollier.  Running Time: 112 minutes.  Based on the original fairytale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. 

Rating: 1/4 Stars

            I will not conceal or skirt around my disappointment- I expected more from a live-action re-imagining of a classic French tale starring Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux.  It’s not bad in the sense that it does anything wrong, and at times the visual design approaches genuine beauty.  But any goodwill I have towards the film’s engrossing costumes or sets is undercut by the fact that, underneath all the admittedly pretty eye candy, there’s just nothing there.  At all. 

            The story we all know and love is narrated to us by a woman (who IS NOT Belle, let me make that clear) reading the tale out of a storybook for two young children (not Belle’s, obviously).  Belle (Lea Seydoux) was the youngest of the 6 children of a wealthy merchant, who, after some bad luck with his ships, loses everything and is forced to move a house in the country (most definitely not the house where the children are currently being read this story- nope, most definitely not).  The possibility of financial redemption briefly draws him and his oldest son back to the city, only to very promptly learn that their hopes were premature.  I say promptly, because it happens in the next scene, but clearly large swaths of time have passed, for ‘twas summer when they left and now everything is under snow.  This angers the son, for very obvious and legitimate reasons, who leaves, and apparently rips off a gang leader (his scar proves that he is Evil), whom the father then inadvertently crosses, causing him to flee into the woods, where he happens across the realm of the Beast, played in full-body-and-face makeup by Vincent Cassel. 

            ….…Good Lord, just writing that made me realize how utterly nonsensical the entire setup in the first act ends up being.  Yeesh. 

            Food and drink are waiting for the father, provided by the Beast’s minions.  Quick side note, instead of charming, funny, and musical household items, in this version the minions are what you would get if a Jawa mated with a Dachshund (yes, I’m sure there is a DeviantART page for that- no, for the love of God, do not post a link).  Along with food, he finds chests full of everything on the list of desired goodies for his remarkably memorable and fleshed-out not-Belle children.  The only thing missing?  A single rose, the only gift Belle (who, I repeat, is not the one narrating the story) wanted for herself.  As he sets out to leave, he attempts to pick one, but is then caught by the Beast, and told that if he does not return within a single day after delivering the gifts to his children, they will all be killed.

            This, of course, is what drives Belle (STOP it, she’s NOT the narrator, guys!) to offer herself to the Beast as a prisoner in order to save her father, leading to the emotional center of the entire story- Belle’s long-term imprisonment, her struggles to come to terms with her new life, and her developing relationship with the Beast as she tries to find out the secret behind his curse (spoiler alert; the secret is that it’s a terrible waste of a twist). 

            And sadly, even then the movie does not start to get more interesting.  And it was at this point that I recognized the film’s biggest issue, and a rather frightening one at that- you could swap out Seydoux and Cassel for pretty much anyone else, and it would not make one bit of difference in terms of the emotional impact of the story or characters.  Why this is, I do not know, but I would ere on the side of blaming the direction, or perhaps a bad contract with the studio.  We all know Seydoux can be a force of nature, but here, she doesn’t even appear to be trying.  She simply walks on-screen and announces, “Hi.  I am innocence embodied, y’all.  ‘N stuff.”  Cassel seems to be trying to pull the old dark-and-mysterious routine, but I can’t tell if he does it well, because the suit he’s stuffed into allows literally no facial wiggle-room with which to convey emotion.  That was perhaps an inevitable advantage Disney had when turning the story into an animated film- the physical limitations of makeup preventing the Beast to show emotion and growth simply do not exist in the animated world. 

            The script may also be to blame- every single story point is hit with a dead, perfunctory note, like the screenwriter was just checking off each point on his list of “Every Plot Point That Must Be In A Beast Movie.”  No character is given a line or moment that didn’t come across as trite exposition, and the sad result is that what should be a sweeping, magical, fairy-tale epic feels instead like an empty shell inside which something died several weeks ago. 

            My disappointment in this movie’s shortcomings is made all the more potent by the fact that the sets and visual design are perfect for the kind of mystical feel they obviously want the movie to have.  The colors jump and blend and contrast with each other wonderfully- pure white snow, blood-red and sky-blue and emerald-green dresses, mounds of roses, sunlight literally bathing the screen in gold- there’s one magnificent image of Belle falling into a frozen lake that set off every “prettyprettypretty” bell in my head.  The design of the castle and its interior is great- too bad we see next-to-nothing of it.  The Jawa-hound-mutants have an admittedly interesting design, and the narrator-who-is-not-Belle says they became her best friends during her captivity, but we really only have her word for it, because aside from a single scene that establishes that the entire pack basically stalks her everywhere, they are almost nowhere to be seen the entire time. 

            This is a pretty movie, a very, very pretty movie, but it’s superficial sheen only serves to make me more aware that, in all the areas that matter, this movie fails to deliver anything I could say was worth remembering afterwards.  If you like elaborate, old-school French get-up, have at it, but there are many other, better movies that can satisfy your most fashionable needs. 

-Noah Franc 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

6 Reasons to Read Avatar: The Lost Adventures

            Thus far, I have been fully enjoying the Avatar comics continuing Aang and co.’s post-comet escapades just as much as I enjoyed the show (still my favorite show of all time, and sure to be the subject of a number of posts here before I either lose interest in this site, or transform it into something else).  I love seeing and appreciating how the new medium has allowed them to dive into certain aspects of the world a bit more than they were able to before.  Special mention goes to The Promise, which uses the thorny issue of the leftover Fire Nation colonies to reflect on some very, very similar conflicts in our world today, and about how such incredibly sensitive issues can be dealt with peacefully and bloodlessly.  Anyone who dismisses this franchise as “just more kid’s stuff” has clearly never bothered to watch even a single episode of the series or read a single chapter of the comics. 

            A great many of my friends have been reading along as well, and we are all eagerly anticipating the next chapter of the third series, The Rift, set to be released in July later this year.  However, while the main comic series have generated a lot of buzz, I have heard very little discussion concerning a side comic they’ve released as well, titled The Lost Adventures.  This series is not a set story like the other stuff they’ve come out with so far.  Rather, it’s a collection of 28 short tales taking place in between the episodes of the original show, many of them taking up no more than a few pages.  One imagines that a lot of the shorts there were ideas they never had the time or the space to bring into an actual episode of the series, and that they were initially shelved until putting them into comic form became an option. 

            Because it doesn’t tell a definitive story meant to be permanent part of franchise canon, I can understand why people may have overlooked this particular installment in the comic series, especially since most of the tales center around brief, silly little gags.  However, hidden amongst the whimsy of most of the Lost Adventures are some incredibly beautiful, sad, or poignant moments that make the book just as worth your time as the main comics.  And to convince you, dear readers, to do so, I present to you my Top 6 Reasons to Read The Lost Adventures.  Enjoy! 

6. The return of Jin

            A minor, more personal reason to start off the list.  Anyone else remember the brief scene in Tales of Ba Sing Se where Zuko goes on a date with Jin, a regular Earth Kingdom girl?  I sure do.  It’s such a brief scene, and is easily overshadowed by the gut punch of Iroh’s song later on, but I find myself endlessly fascinated by it whenever I revisit that particular episode.  It’s a brief (and obviously futile) attempt by Zuko to approach some sense of normalcy in his life, and on top of that, it’s really the only time we see him interact one-on-one with a female character who lacks fierce bending or fighting prowess, and the obvious uncomfortableness and awkwardness that comes from that dichotomy has a lot of resonance for anyone who ever feels constrained when trying to deal with a “normal” situation they simply have no experience with.  So, for me, it was nice to see a small token of closure, after a fashion, for their brief moments together. 

5. Seeing the world and characters rendered in an impressive variety of art styles

            Even with the changes in animation studios during Korra, the look of the shows has changed very, very little since the show’s inception, so I especially liked seeing such a wide variety of artists with their own styles take a stab at depicting these characters, sometimes looking exactly like the show, and sometimes looking like something that dropped out of an alternate dimension.   In addition to Mike and Brian themselves, a total of 26 different writers and artists contributed their talents to the making of this particular series, and it’s a lot of fun noting the differences in style and picking out your favorite ones. 

4. Sokka tries to become a Fire Nation soldier…..and it is hilarious

            Out of all the bits in this comic, with the possible exception of my #1 pick on the list, this is the part I sincerely wish had become its own episode in the series.  While journeying through the Fire Nation in Book Three, Sokka gets a crazy idea (again) to join the Fire Nation army to get a sense for their organization and tactics.  And that right there should be enough for you to know what you’re getting from this story.  It is funny in all the right ways, plus it features the return of my beloved fake-beard-and-stache. 

3. We finally (briefly) get a face-off between Toph and Bumi

            Admit it, every one of you reading this always wondered what would happen if Toph and Bumi squared off against each other.  I know it, and you all know it too.  And believe it or not, it is within the pages of The Lost Adventures that we finally get an idea of what the two of them going at it might look like, and how freaking dangerous it would be for all concerned.  No, it doesn’t go on as long as I might have wished, but still, fanboy service delivered is fanboy service delivered. 

2. This look exchanged between Aang and Sokka (Combustion Man Story)

            The entire story in which this moment takes place is itself one of the better ones of the book- Aang and Sokka decide to hop onto a Fire Nation train for a brief joy ride during one of their traveling breaks.  Sadly, they soon find out they aren’t alone, as Combustion Man appears, again out of nowhere, in another effort to kill Aang. 

            This would be on the list anyway purely as a result of Combustion Man being in this one, since his handful of scenes were among my favorites in all of Book Three (what can I say, I love me some surly, silent villains).  The best part of the whole story, though, is the above look that Aang Sokka share for a brief moment after the magnitude of the danger to themselves and the innocent people with them becomes painfully clear- not only is Combustion Man clearly willing to kill anyone and everyone on the train if it means getting the Avatar, he has also wrought so much damage to the train that the brakes no longer work, and they then see that the train is heading for a massive gorge. 

            I think what makes this image so effective is how perfectly it captures every possible emotion they are feeling at that precise instant.  Worry for both themselves and the poor people caught in the middle of their fight.  Frustration and sadness that even the pleasure of a simple joyride, as long as the war lasts, is and will continue to be denied them.  Exhaustion at once again having to fight a battle neither of them asked for or even wanted.  And finally, most importantly, a steely determination to do the right thing and stop both Combustion Man and the train, even though the easier path would be for them to just cut and run.  It brilliantly sums up all of their experience and growth over the course of the story up to that point.  It’s just a great piece of artwork. 

1. The “Relics” Story

           Easily the darkest and most serious chapter in the book, rivaling anything seen in the show.  Aang comes across a trader in a small town selling what he realizes are genuine airbender artifacts.  After being told where he found them, he tracks down the location and sees promising signs that he may have discovered a genuine airbender hideout, where some of his people may still be alive. 

            To his painful dismay, however, he finds out it was just another trick of Zhou’s.  He used the trader and the artifacts he’d assembled at the hideout to draw the attention of the Avatar, knowing he could never resist the opportunity to find out if any of his people survived.  The really tragic part, though, is when Zhou reveals that this tactic was actually used a LOT in the early years of the war, and hints that a very large number of airbenders who initially escaped the assault on the temples were thus captured, and likely killed. 

            Aang uses his cleverness to escape, obviously, and he safely makes his way back to Katara and Sokka, but even then, the chapter ends on a somber and sad note, with Aang wondering how many of his people feel prey to such a gruesome trick.  It’s another example of the show’s writers refusing to shy away from many of the darker, more complex, and more difficult themes raised by the story, and it is, in my opinion, the biggest reason why anyone who considers themselves a fan of the show needs to check out The Lost Adventures


            And that is my list!  Next up will hopefully be a film review, followed by my personal ranking of all the Avengers movies that have been released thus far, because why not jump on that particular bandwagon?  Until next time, dear readers. 

-Noah Franc