Godzilla (2014)

GodzillaReleased: May 16, 2014. Directed by: Gareth Edwards. Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston. Runtime: 123 min.

Gareth Edwards brings his latest film to life with ambition and a great scope. Edwards previously dabbled in the monster genre with his refreshing low-budget film called Monsters, which was impressive in its effectiveness. This time, Edwards gets a gargantuan budget of $160 million for Godzilla, which only seems right for the King of the monsters. Godzilla thrives in its cinematography, visuals and score. It’s a visually stunning film, but it’s disappointing that there’s only twenty seconds of daylight monster clashes. At least there isn’t as much rain as in Pacific Rim, but it’s a bit disappointing that the monster clashes are basically all at night. It must be less expensive to render the creature effects in a darker setting. 

The plot is that Godzilla has to stop these malevolent creatures who threaten humanity. They gain their strength by absorbing radiation as a food source, and there’s no short amount of that in 2014. The strange creature design makes them look like hybrids of a praying mantis and a pterodactyl covered in some sort-of metal coating. Well, that might be the worst explanation of what they look like, but trust me – they look weird. A team of anthropologists and scientists were experimenting on the radiation beasts to learn about their species. Ken Watanabe is only okay but that’s basically because his character, the boss behind the research in Japan, is so boring. David Strathairn has a role as a military general who orders bombs to be brought into this whole situation. Their interference is how the film suggests that humans only make matters worse. Just let the giant lizard handle it. Why not, right? 

Godzilla is the star of the show, even if his screen time is basically the same amount as Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. But when he’s on-screen, the film is an absolute blast. And when fire-breathing is brought into the mix, it’s truly exciting. Director Gareth Edwards is able to orchestrate fine intensity throughout the film. He does it like a master with the film’s phenomenal score. Edwards has Godzilla swim beneath boats, teasing characters like Bruce the Shark of Jaws might. (Edwards is smart to take tension building inspiration from Spielberg’s films.) Since Godzilla has mildly limited screen time, Edwards spaces out four nifty action set pieces with intelligence – the HALO jump is awe-inspiring, made even better being set to the Monolith scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey – teasing us with little tastes of what’s to come before a memorable finale. 

His direction is the film’s saving grace. Godzilla’s most disappointing aspect is that it is phenomenal in so many areas but just awful in so many others. When action isn’t happening, or when Godzilla isn’t on-screen, this is so boring – save a great opening half an hour, because they are emotionally charged and gripping. During those thirty minutes, Bryan Cranston compels as Joe, the film’s strongest character. He delivers the film’s only strong performance. Joe becomes obsessed with a project after a loss (his drive as a character, as well as sacrifice and love) which leads his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to assume that he’s bat sh-t crazy. The strong character development for one person is strange, because this way you’re allowed to expect other characters to be solid as well, but nope – the others are quite poor.

Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody is mediocre. She’s okay for what she is, either a crying or smiling character. She’s only elevated by Olsen’s appealing tenderness as an actress. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford is a different story. After the death of his mother, he picks the basic human reaction of the latter of the fight or flight concept, while his father goes deep into the former. Ford, a military Lieutenant whose expertise is bombs, initially gets separated from his wife when he is called to Japan to pay his dad’s bail after he is arrested for trespassing on an evacuated radiation site, which is the location of his old home. Ford’s motivations are his family – and that’s the only reason you’ll want him to get home safely and see his lovely movie family again. He’s one of those average guy characters plunged into a greater situation, but he’s so freaking boring. Taylor-Johnson isn’t able to make this character remotely interesting. Where’s his charisma from Kick-Ass? He doesn’t bring any of that to the table, and he’s like a different actor with little charisma. The only strong aspect of his performance is his chemistry with Olsen. 

The boring characters might stem from the film’s grave tone and Gareth Evans’ inability to make his film consistently fun. I haven’t felt this dead inside since August: Osage County. This is like the monster movie equivalent of Man of Steel because it will either be perceived as fun or boring, and if anyone makes a joke, it feels foreign. You will beg for the so-called comic relief character that is usually a point on the modern summer blockbuster checklist. Couldn’t have they broken tone by having a well-known comedian roaring back at Godzilla? That would be welcome as one of his long roars feels empty. Maybe Godzilla could have broken the fourth wall and said something witty. Like this for example: “If I’m monster royalty, I need a stronger Hollywood film for me to headline next time.” 

Score: 58/100

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick-Ass 2Released: August 16, 2013. Directed by: Jeff Wadlow. Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Runtime: 103 min.

“Kick-Ass 2” takes place three years after the first. Mindy McCready (Chloë Grace Moretz) is now 15 years old, and she’s hung up her Hit-Girl costume. Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has also hung up his Kick-Ass costume, but he is bored without midnighting as Kick-Ass. Mindy begins to help train him and get him in back in shape for crime fighting. Eventually, Mindy can’t take part in the training anymore because she has to honour her promise (of not fighting crime) to Marcus (Morris Chestnut). Kick-Ass finds a team called Justice Forever because he knows he can’t fight crime by himself. Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) wants Kick-Ass to pay for what he did to his father. He is reborn as The Mother F!*#@r and plans to become the world’s first super villain. His act of revenge will begin to affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

This isn’t in the same league as the original. “Kick-Ass 2” is a super good sequel, while its predecessor achieves cult classic status. The movie is immensely enjoyable and I’ll probably re-watch it many times, but I thought I’d get that off my chest. I have a few minor complaints about it.

Replacing core cast/crew members never isn’t beneficial. It’s not as if Kick-Ass or Hit-Girl are recast, but two supporting actors get replaced. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice. Todd, Dave’s buddy, is recast, because Evan Peters had scheduling conflicts; and the ideal chemistry between the friend group (with Johnson, Clark Duke and Peters) is absent. The replacement that is the most noticeable is Mindy’s guardian, Marcus. Omari Hardwick portrayed him in the first, and now it’s Morris Chestnut. Chestnut is the better-known actor, but I already like the guy – so it would have been nice to see Hardwick reprise the role. If Hardwick was replaced by Idris Elba or Djimon Hounsou, I wouldn’t complain.

Matthew Vaughn’s (credited as producer) absence as director and co-writer hurts the film. Jeff Wadlow directs and adapts this from Mark Millar’s comic book. He isn’t bad, but to paraphrase Hit-Girl about she and Kick-Ass, “Vaughn is in the NFL and Wadlow is in Pee-Wee.” Without Vaughn’s directorial vision, much of the visual style (and charm) of the first is absent. (A true testament to the fact that the right director and cinematographer, Ben Davis gets replaced, will go a long way.) That warehouse scene in “Kick-Ass” where Hit-Girl goes on a solo rescue mission might be enough to give an epileptic a major seizure, but boy is it beautifully done.

The isn’t a train wreck without Vaughn’s direction by any means, but his direction would have helped. The film lacks the same satirical edge of the first. It’s very much a satire, and an amusing one, but it doesn’t have the same awesome edge. (Who else thought the Union J band that Mindy watches a video of was a parody of boy bands? I was surprised to find out that they’re real.) This movie still is enjoyable.

The action is tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top gleeful fun. That’s what we expect. I’m surprised by the movie’s restraint at one point, since the film generally practices excessiveness. A potentially disturbing rape scene is turned into a comedic scene, and I think it’s handled well. The movie has a few brief streaks of meanness and cruelty. However, it’s a minor complaint, because they aren’t arbitary; it advances the story in some way, and it’s easier to excuse.

Now, for the characters. Johnson has a charm about him that gets Kick-Ass the ladies. He loses Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) early on, because of something that’s easy to explain. He must have been planning on breaking up with her soon because he doesn’t chase after her, the break-up doesn’t bother him, and then the movie forgets about her immediately. Kick-Ass finds a superhero group called Justice Forever. His new love interest is the sexy superhero called Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), and I think N.B. is a name better suited for a super villain, not a hero. Kick-Ass is trying desperately to find a group, and I can’t decide if he’s smart or stupid. He’s smart because he knows he’ll get his ass kicked alone; but he must be stupid to trust people so easily after all that went down with making the mistake of trusting Red Mist/Chris D’Amico.

Justice Forever is led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (a scene-stealing Jim Carrey). He rivals Dwayne Johnson’s Paul Doyle of “Pain and Gain” as 2013’s most likable born-again Christian. Carrey is hilarious in a supporting yet critical role, as he feels like a main symbol of justice. A bit of irony: Colonel is always telling people to watch their language, yet he lets a superhero named Night Bitch be on his team. Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison) is one of the best additions to Justice Forever. A main theme of the movie is that, since the film is set in the real world, the real world brings real consequences, which brings about a theme of good doesn’t always conquer evil. Keep in mind, though: Bringing about thought-provoking themes isn’t a main focus.

Mindy’s arc is traditional. Her everyday persona is a bit more prevalent than her badass midnighting hero. But it’s great when Hit-Girl shows up. She puts all other powerless superheroes (in this universe) to shame. Moretz picks great roles, tackling them with a confidence, but her hard work is evident. Back to Mindy’s arc. It’s a traditional arc where she tries to enjoy high school and the things that come with it. She has a run-in with mean girls (led by Claudia Lee), and the spectacular and hysterical way Mindy handles them makes it an ordinary arc, with an extraordinary pay-off. Even if it’s played for gross-out laughs.

The film’s villains are grand. Christopher Mintz-Plasse has what it takes to tackle this role, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s pretty crazy in 2011’s “Fright Night.” He’s crazy and funny here, too. I like how he goes against type because in his film debut six years ago in “Superbad” he was on the receiving end of a liquour store robbery, but now he’s the one briefly robbing a convenience store. One thing I’ve never understood about the character: I know he could have put two and two together, by how is he 100% certain his father was shot by a bazooka? He was unconscious in the other room, there were no witnesses, and the body couldn’t really be found easily if it’s blown to smithereens.

Despite my complaints, the movie’s a blast. I might not have laughed as much as the audience I saw it with (they were laughing at everything at some points), but I did laugh quite a lot. It’s a memorable action comedy that has some gleefully fun action scenes, a quickly-paced plot and badass powerless superheroes. This is my favourite superhero movie of the year. If you liked the first, odds are, you’ll like this one. And this is even more true: If you hated the first, you’ll despise this one. To me, it’s a super good sequel.

Score77/100

Kick-Ass (2010)

Kick-AssReleased: April 16, 2010. Directed by: Matthew Vaughn. Starring: Aaron Johnson, Nicolas Cage, Chloë Grace Moretz. Runtime: 117 min.

The superhero niche genre is a prominent one in Hollywood these days. Whether it follows a big name hero like Batman or Superman, or if it’s a critical disaster like something akin to “Green Lantern,” they usually make awesome money. It’s always refreshing to see a superhero movie made with a low budget.

The story follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who wonders one day, why has no one ever decided to become a super hero? He’s an unnoticed student and comic book fan who buys a suit and becomes a super hero, even though he is powerless, has no preliminary training or any true reason to do so.

“Kick-Ass” makes me happy for the future of R-rated super hero movies. This has a satirical edge and meta way about it. I love all the homages to super hero movies and the general universe comic books create. I think people who read comic books can respect it a bit more, but this is such an entertaining piece of cinema. The action sequences are tons of fun, and the comedy is just as impressive. The characters are colourful and this is probably my favourite movie based on a comic book. It gives audiences an interesting look into the world of super heroes without any powers. It does raise the question: Why hasn’t anyone put on the cape before and fought crime?

Probably because they’d get their asses kicked. And when they begin to be threatened by the mafia, things don’t get better – they get worse, obviously. That is thanks to Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who are planning a revenge plot on mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), after D’Amico framed Big Daddy, former police officer, and put him in jail for a very long time. (Hit Girl is going along with it because those are the values she was taught. This might disturb some audience members.)

The action is deriously entertaining. Director Matthew Vaughn balances the satirical humour with dark violence, that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Quentin Tarantino picture. One particular scene is hard on the eyes – but so well-done, and it’s a testament to the movie’s visual style and charm. This is a memorable experience, with a great cast.

Nicolas Cage was practically born to play the role of Big Daddy, a darker version of Batman. Some might question a little girl playing the role of a vulgar killing machine, but she (Moretz as Hit Girl) gets some of the biggest laughs and is included in some of the coolest sequences. Moretz has a great career ahead of her. Lyndsey Fonseca is there to up the sexiness of the movie. The film’s finale is astounding and the entertainment rarely dies down throughout. Blood and gore hardly looked so nice in a super hero flick. Vaughn expertly balances the action and the comedy, and I can’t decide which is better.

You care about the characters. The universe created here is magnificent. Aaron Tayl0r-Johnson fits the character of Dave well because, initially, he’s a huge geek. We get to see his process of becoming a character that can really kick ass without the help of spider bites or fancy gadgets. With no power comes no responsibility.

Action, crime, comedy, great characterization, blood, superheroes. This movie’s got it all.

Score95/100

Savages (2012)

SavagesSavages

Release Date: July 6, 2012

Director: Oliver Stone

Stars: Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively

Runtime: 131 min

Oliver Stone is a rather masterful filmmaker, bringing us greats like Platoon, Natural Born Killers and writing the screenplay for the apparently incredible Scarface. With Savages, Stone returns to violent form, but he could have added some stellar storytelling to the style and look of the feature.

Entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) a peaceful and charitable marijuana producer, and friend Jon (Taylor Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL, run a lucrative, home grown industry – raising some of the best marijuana ever developed. They also share a one-of-a-kind love with Ophelia (Blake Lively). Life is idyllic in their Southern California town… until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in and demands that the trio partners with them. When the merciless head of the BC, Elena (Salma Hayek) and her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) underestimate the unbreakable bond of the three friends, Ben and Jon – with the reluctant assistance of a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta) – wage a war against the cartel. And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and manoeuvres in a high stakes, savage battle of wills.

The writers are able to throw a fresh spin at the kidnap rescue mission genre. This is the first time, at least that comes to mind, where a girl gets kidnapped and she is a shared girl friend. Sure, the traditional search-and-rescue mission is when an individual would ask for help; while they do need assistance from buddies, they are certainly the primary rescuers, with Jon being the violent one. A few more original spins include: 1) the analysis of greed and; 2) a test of a certain characters’ behaviour.

I don’t recall greed being explored thoroughly during the feature, but it comes to mind looking back. I mean, one has to be so greedy that they’d kidnap someone and try to tap into your drug sales. That’s just ruthless and rather inconsiderate. Ha-ha, listen to me, like they’d care that they’re being inconsiderate…

Throughout the feature, Ben’s peaceful mindset is put the test. I won’t say what actually happens, but he definitely has to things he wouldn’t want to do to save his girl.

That’s really all that’s fresh about the feature. This is really a film that is all style, and not a lot of substance (excluding the drugs). There’s black and white scenes, cool clothes, and beautiful Californian scenery. It really is too bad that there’s not an engaging story to complement the beauty of the film.

On more than one occasion, I felt my attention wandering and my head bobbing. I had to try hard to keep focused. Also, in one scene, I literally had to slap myself to stay awake. This was mostly during the dialogue exchanges, but when there are action scenes, they’re immensely violent and usually exciting. This is also quite the sexy crime thriller. Blake Lively is great, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is great, Benicio Del Toro is pretty fantastic when one can understand him, Taylor Kitsch is just okay, and Salma Hayek has never been so ruthless, but she has also never been so annoying. The real good thing about this is Oliver Stone returning to violent features.

In a nutshell: Oliver Stone directs extremely well, but Savages is all style, and doesn’t focus enough on substance or solid storytelling. For me, this is one of the most disappointing films of 2012.

50/100