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

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Philomena (2013)

PhilomenaReleased: November 27, 2013. Directed by: Stephen Frears. Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark. Runtime: 98 min.

Today, teenage pregnancy is a commonplace. There’s even a TV show about young pregnant girls called “16 and Pregnant” that premiered back in 2009. It seems like a stupid premise to me, but it shows how accepting people are of it these days. Back in 1960s Ireland, around the time of the Magdalene sister homes, if a young girl was pregnant – a lot of parents would be so ashamed that they’d disown their children and force them to live in a convent. They wouldn’t have any other place to go, and they’d have to work their asses off to repay the nuns.

This is what happened to Philomena Lee, a 16-year-old who had a child, and when her son was about 3 years old, he was adopted. Ever since, Philomena (Judi Dench) has kept this a secret. On the son’s fiftieth birthday, Phil (now in her 60s) tells her daughter about Anthony – and with their luck, they find a political journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), who was recently let go from his job, to take on this human interest story.

After fifty years of Philomena not knowing where or how her son is doing, the pair set off to find Philomena’s son, following leads and information the convent might possess; which, unfortunately, isn’t much to go on. Martin has to use his journalistic skills to find where the son might be. One reason this film is so charming is because these characters are so different. Martin is a bit more realistic thinker who thinks questions like ‘Do you believe in God’ are difficult to answer. He’s more pessimistic than Philomena; but almost equally funny. Philomena is one of those people is genuinely interested in people say, and she finds humour in the simplest of things – even if she doesn’t realize that she’s being hilarious. That’s what helps make this a simple comedy in parts. It’s lightly entertaining but it’s an effective drama, too. It’s a different sort-of road trip film, but a refreshing one.

I’m glad that there is a surprising layer of great comedy, because without it the film would be boring. That’s a reason I was hesitant to see this, because the story sounds like it could be good, but it also sounded slow to me. Judi Dench’s great performance helps; she plays a character who only wants to know how her son’s life is going, and know if he’s ever thought of her. Like I said, she is very funny, as well. She is a character who carries around this secret and its shame hand in hand. I think Steve Coogan’s performance is great here, as well, because his comic delivery is just priceless. He is considerate of Philomena’s wishes, and doesn’t always feel like a journalist in it for the money. I think he’s an underrated actor. He impressed me here as an actor and as a co-screenwriter – I’m sure he had a big hand in the witty dialogue.

The friendship that is created is charming. The characters’ beliefs are challenged throughout from what they learn along the way. This is also an ideal film for schools that might want to express the Catholics’ beliefs back in the 1960s; it seems to me some nuns still hold those beliefs. Those would be the old-fashioned ones. I think this is a film that should be experienced because of its subject matter. It’s powerful and is emotionally gripping. It’s the idea of being taken away from one’s family that gets to me. I mean, if anyone tried to take me away from my mother, heads would freaking roll!

There’s a quote commonly used by critics “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” and oftentimes, those can only be applied to great films. Only so many directors and writers have that ability. Alexander Payne has a true knack for it, and even his co-writers on “The Descendants” Nat Faxon and Jim Rash do, too, as expressed in “The Way, Way Back.” This film’s director, Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) has a talent for it as well. I laughed a lot with this one, but for me, the “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry” line can only partly be applied.

There’s enough emotional content here to make many people cry – because this is such a powerful subject. I didn’t cry, because it takes a lot for me to cry at a film. This might sound cheesy, but even though I didn’t cry on the outside, my soul ached for Philomena in parts – because she is just such a likeable and often relateable character. I relate to her because she likes “Big Momma’s House.” She at least laughs at a preview on hotel Pay Per View (also giving an idea of what year it is, because there are more new releases then older releases, so this film is set in 2000 or 2001). I hope she got around to watching that movie.

Score80/100