Movie Review: Godzilla (2014) (IMAX 3D)

May 18, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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We generally tend to think blockbuster monster flicks aren’t going to be very good, and yet we always seem to expect a lot out of them. Well, the latest Hollywood rendition of the legendary Japanese lizard, Godzilla, was one of the my most anticipated movies of 2014, and I’m glad to report that it’s freaking awesome. It shits all over the 1998 Roland Emerich version (which was not as bad as historically remembered anyway) and is superior to last year’s Pacific Rim.  While it’s far from perfect, it more than lives up to the hype and demonstrates that monster movies can be good after all.

I haven’t seen any of the Japanese versions of Godzilla, but from what I understand, this version pays homage to the origins of the creature, born from the Japan’s collective consciousness in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Cleverly, story writer David Callaham and screenwriter Max Borenstein take that and fuses it with the more recent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to create a narrative that touches on both the past and the present.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers (and trust me, there is a plot, and there are surprises for those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese franchise), but essentially the story focuses on the family of Kick-Ass (an unrecognisable, insanely buffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US soldier in the mould of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker (in that he diffuses bombs) and his wife (played by the non-anorexic Olsen sister, Elizabeth) and their young son. Kick-Ass grew up in Japan, where his parents Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche worked as supervisors of a nuclear power plant until an “accident” turned their lives upside down, and Cranston is still trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it 15 years on. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (who was so brilliant in Blue Jasmine) play a couple of scientists who have been researching Godzilla for decades.

British director Gareth Evans was a natural choice for Godzilla. He was a the helm of the successful 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters, which I personally thought was a little overrated but did an excellent job of bringing forth the human elements of the story along with excellent special effects (not surprising as he started out his career in visual effects). Monsters was made on a shoestring US$500,000, whereas for Godzilla Edwards had US$160 million to play around with. Usually indie directors struggle when transitioning to big-budget blockbusters, but to Edwards’ credit he ensured that Godzilla had a compelling, emotional human story to tell, without forgetting that it is still ultimately a monster flick where everyone wants to see a lot of carnage and devastation.

Speaking of Godzilla’s “human” story, kudos must go to Heisenberg, or Tim Whatley, or whatever you want to call him. He stole every scene he’s in and was the epicenter of the film’s emotional core. The characters weren’t exactly well-written, but I cared about them and the story when he was on screen, and it was his absence later on that caused the me to stop caring about the humans (in particular Taylor-Johnson and Olsen’s relationship). It’s not that they were bad — to the contrary, actually — but they paled in comparison to Cranston’s now-mythical acting prowess and presence.

Fortunately, me losing interest in the human story coincided with Godzilla’s “in all his glory” appearance on the IMAX screen, which rendered everything else secondary. If you want to see Godzilla do what he does best, and that’s smashing shit up, then I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The sheer scale of the action was jaw dropping enough, but Edwards also infused the scenes with intelligence and creativity. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find and just enjoy the ride. (I’d pass on the 3D though — once again a complete waste of time and money)

How do the monster scenes compare to Pacific Rim? Favourably, in my opinion. Pacific Rim was more about live-action anime-style eye candy designed to provide a lot of euphoric “cool” and “yeah” moments, whereas Godzilla was more “grounded in reality”, so to speak. In contrast to the energetic vibrancy of Pacific Rim’s bright colour schemes, Godzilla is almost entirely grey and misty, but it matches the sombre and mysterious tone well.

What sets Godzilla apart from Pacific Rim and most other big Hollywood monster movies, however, is that Godzilla himself is a character rather than just an ugly prop wreaking havoc for no discernible cause. There is a purpose for Godzilla’s existence and a reason behind his actions, and I anticipate that a lot of people will be surprised by how the big fella is portrayed.

I don’t agree with some of the criticisms levelled at the film, which include that Godzilla is too fat. He’s not fat. He’s just big-boned. I also believe, contrary to some claims, that Godzilla received sufficient screen time. I actually think Edwards arranged it perfectly, giving us enough glimpses early on to whet our appetites, building up the suspense throughout the second act, and finally giving Godzilla to us unencumbered — free from blurriness, rapid cuts and obstructions — in the climax. It’s not how much time he has on screen anyway; it’s what you do with him when he’s there, and Godzilla had ample opportunity to demonstrate why the film was named after him.

Having said that, I do have some other criticisms of my own. First, while the overall pace of the film is good, there were times when the momentum sagged because Edwards was trying too hard to establish the characters. It was more or less the same problem I had with Monsters, but to a lesser extent. Secondly, apart from Kick-Ass and Heisenberg, no other human character actually does anything in the entire film. Olsen, for instance, was just the anxious wife who spends all her time doing little other than being really worried about her husband. Watanabe and Hawkins just sat around and observed, pretty much, and by the end I had forgotten that they were even in the film at all. The problem is not as egregious as it sounds because if I had a choice between resolving these characters’ stories and watching Godzilla doing Godzilla things, I’d always choose the latter. And my guess is that Edwards, upon realising that the film should not be much longer than 2 hours (it’s 123 minutes), went in the same direction.

Despite its flaws, Godzilla is frighteningly close to everything I could have hoped for. An intelligent premise that pays homage to the original and contemporary events, an all-star cast powered by the almighty Bryan Cranston, passable characters and dialogue, and most of all, riveting, eye-popping monster action with impeccable special effects. It’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.

4 stars out of 5

Breaking Bad finale: perfect end to a perfect show

October 1, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV

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(Warning: it would be a dick move for me not to mention that there are potential MINOR SPOILERS ahead)

Last night I watched the series finale of Breaking Bad, episode 62, the aptly titled “Felina” — an anagram for finale and representing the three chemical elements Fe (Iron = “blood”), Li (Lithium = “meth”) and Na (Sodium = “tears”). See? Even the title is genius.

While Felina is probably not the best episode of the series (that title could go to “Ozymandius” or one of the other season 5 episodes), it is the best ending of any TV series I have ever seen — no hyperbole. It was a perfect conclusion to a show that’s as perfect as any that has ever been on television. Just about every loose end was tied up with the right amount of neatness and open-endedness. It flowed nicely, in pace and in tone, with the rest of the series, without trying too hard to be drastic or different so it could “go out with a bang”. There was nothing outrageous or jarring about it at all. A show like Lost overstayed its welcome and trapped itself with too many unanswerable loose ends, whereas every little thing that happened in Breaking Bad was planned well in advance and with an explanation or resolution in mind. The difference is startling. It’s a weighty affirmation of what can happen when a TV series has a finite life and brilliant writers who know precisely where they want the show to go and how things will turn out.

Having been through some horrible series finales in recent years (Lost, Gossip Girl, Dexter), my expectations for Felina were kept in check. I avoided all commentary and predictions and didn’t think much about it myself, wanting to go in with a clean slate and the mentality of just going along with the ride. The only things I expected to happen were that Jesse would live and Walt would die, though I wasn’t really sure about either.

The introductory scene with Walt in the snow-covered car set the pace for the rest of the episode. With so many loose ends to tie up, I had expected it to burst out of the gate and sprint all the way to the finish, but instead show creator Vince Gilligan let his audience know that the show was going to finish on its own terms. I had expected the show to start winding things up with about six episodes to go because it felt like there was so much that still had to happen, but it remained steadfast in its conviction and continued to progress at its finely tuned, intentional speed, picking up at times but cooling down at others while maintaining the tension all the way through. Then I thought it had to start winding up with five episodes left, then four, then three, then two. When we hit the final episode I decided there was going to be no way all the loose ends would be tied up and resigned myself to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

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But somehow, like magic, the loose ends were dealt with, one by one: his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (in a brilliant, clever scene), Lydia (that chamomile-plus-soy-milk-drinking bitch), Skyler (plus, in a way, Hank) and Flynn (the epic scene with Skyler was the whole crux of the episode, or even the entire show, IMO), the crazy Nazis (including Todd, hands down the creepiest character in the whole show), and finally, Jesse. The only question outstanding was whether Huell was still waiting in that motel room!

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The amazing thing about Felina was that there was really nothing hugely surprising, and yet you couldn’t say that anything in it was expected. All the flash forwards from earlier episodes — the ones that sparked a cascade of speculation online — were catered for, and none of the resolutions felt forced or contrived. There were of course some implausible things in the episode (and these will no doubt be discussed at length online), and some people might think the ending was too neat for a show like this, but it was the satisfying conclusion that the audience — and Walter White — deserved.

Vince Gilligan said the idea of the show was to turn Mr Chips in Scarface — and he essentially achieved that several episodes out from the finale. The last couple of episodes were really about Heisenberg’s redemption — despite all the horrible things he had done, he had to be the antihero we rooted for until the end. There was no turning back for Walter White, but he wasn’t simply going to limp off into the sunset with a whimper (like Dexter). He’s the one who knocks, and we better damn remember it.

I intend to watch it again soon, but right now there is nothing I would change about how Breaking Bad finished up.

If the first six episodes of season five were good enough to win it the Best Series Emmy (I was surprised this was the first time the show won it), then it should be a foregone conclusion that the last six episodes would win next year’s award too, as well acting gongs for Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and either Aaron Paul or Dean Norris. That said, it could be difficult given that the show would have lost a lot of momentum by this time next year. (I didn’t like it at the time, but I think it turned out to be a good idea to split the final season in two because, let’s face it, it was really like two separate seasons.)

How will Breaking Bad be remembered? As the greatest TV show ever? That’s what a lot of people are saying, which is astounding considering it just ended and these kinds of superlatives usually start in retrospect years down the track. Season five received 99/100 on Metacritic, the highest rating ever, and it makes you wonder which douchebag it was that prevented it from getting full marks. Has there ever been a show that is so cinematic, so beautifully shot, so dramatically epic, so wonderfully written, so amazingly performed and so perfectly ended? I can’t think of another.

I believe Breaking Bad is a show where all the stars aligned at the right time and everything just fell into place. AMC was brave enough (ans smart enough) to pick up a show about a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker. Bryan Cranston fell into the role of a lifetime. Aaron Paul, who was supposed to be killed off in the first couple of episodes, became arguably the second most important character on the show and established himself as one of the best young actors of this generation. The supporting roles were cast perfectly — especially Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman), Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) and Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut). And from every interview I’ve seen or read, the cast and crew all loved each other and the chemistry (no pun intended) onscreen was undeniable.

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It’s a strange comparison to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. My favourite comedy of all-time, Seinfeld, is another one of those shows where things kind of just fell into place. Even when things go wrong they are somehow right. The cast always refer to season three’s “Parking Garage” episode when they realised they had something special going on. The premise was that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer couldn’t find their car in a parking garage and spend the entire episode looking for it. The episode concludes when they finally locate it, but when Kramer tries to start the car it stalls, ending things on a perfect note and providing possibly the biggest laugh of the entire episode. The thing is, the car stalling was never part of the script — it actually happened. (Oh, and let’s not forget, Cranston’s previous role of a lifetime was as dentist and infamous re-gifter Tim “schtickle of fluoride” Whatley on Seinfeld).

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

This kind of good fortune can be found in Felina too. I was watching the post-episode chat show Talking Bad, and guests talked about the brilliance of a tiny reflection of Anna Gunn’s face (she has her back to the camera) in her epic scene with Bryan Cranston. When I watched it I thought it was intentional too, but as it turned out Vince Gilligan (who directed the final episode) had no idea until his editor pointed it out to him. Similarly, the scene when Walt took off his watch and placed it on top of the payphone has been dissected by fans, most of whom point out that the watch was a gift from Jesse and it represented Walt finally letting him go. But as Vince Gilligan explained in Talking Bad, that scene was added purely for continuity purposes because Walt was not wearing the watch in the flash forward scene from earlier in the season. The show is so good that even the unintentional things are being interpreted as intentional brilliance.

Now that the show is finally over a lot of cable subscriptions will be cancelled, TVs will be thrown out and illegal internet downloads will drop dramatically. TV without Breaking Bad is frightening because it’s likely everything we watch for a while will seem bland and lacking in awesomeness by comparison. Nonetheless, we should be grateful that we were able to experience something so close to perfection at all. Thank you Vince Gilligan. Thank you Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and the rest of the cast. Thank you Breaking Bad. Life (in front of the TV, anyway) will go on, but it won’t be the same without you.

PS: I’ll finish up with Grantland’s wicked in memoriam tribute to the show. It contains spoilers from the final episode — you’ve been warned.

Movie Review: Argo (2012)

October 23, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film, proves two things. One, he is still a mediocre actor. And two, he is developing into one heck of a director.

Following on from one of my favourite films from 2010, The Town, Affleck returns to the director’s chair for Argo, a film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis where 52 Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran were held hostage by Islamist students and militants.

The movie itself centers on a fascinating but lesser-known aspect of a side story to the crisis in which US involvement was not declassified until 1997. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with finding a way to bring back six Americans who escaped the embassy at the start of the crisis and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). At a time where the six Americans would likely be tortured and killed if discovered, Mendez concocted a plan that would have been unbelievable had it not been true: producing a fake sci-fi movie.

The timing was perfect, given Star Wars had taken off and Hollywood producers were scrambling to make rip-offs. But of course, if it were so easy to get them out the film would not be two hours long.

Argo doesn’t have much of that stuff you see in action films these days, but it’s still incredibly tense and exciting all the way through. The background and context to the crisis is swiftly and effectively dealt with at the beginning, and the initial scenes of the civil unrest expertly generate a genuine sense of terror and panic that lingers on for the rest of the film.

It could have been very easy for this film to become dull and stagnant, but Affleck sustains the tension through a series of well-crafted incidents and conversations, ensuring viewers never lost track of what was at stake and the imminent danger the Americans were in at all times. Needless to say, things were probably never that tense in real life, but that’s why this is a movie.

Credit has to go to Affleck for his brilliantly authentic recreation of 1979 Tehran, which as the end credits showed paid painstaking attention to detail. Everything from the architecture, the clothing and the hairstyles brought me back to those times, and I wasn’t even born then!

The performances from the all-star cast were solid. The ever-present Bryan Cranston (sorry, Heisenberg) was subtle as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s supervisor, and yet electrifying when he needed to be. Breaking Bad has already proven Cranston to be one of the greatest TV actors of all-time, and I hear maybe Argo has given him some Oscar buzz. John Goodman, who plays Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, who plays  director Lester Siegel, provide some of the more lighthearted moments and are both excellent.

As for the six US diplomats, the only actors I recognised were Tate Donovan (best known for being engaged to Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock) and Clea DuVall (whom I will always associate with The Faculty), but all of them were very good.

As it turned out, the weakest link was probably Affleck himself as Mendez. Apart from the lack of a physical resemblance (everyone else was pretty spot on), Affleck played Mendez with his usual “blank” face and unlayered line delivery. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and perhaps the muted performance was intentional, but to be honest I never really felt as much for his character as I probably should have.

Overall, Argo is unquestionably compelling cinema and solidifies Affleck’s reputation as a director who knows how to craft impeccable dramas filled with thrills and style. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

4 stars out of 5

Breaking Bad: Too Good

November 30, 2011 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Shows

The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late.  You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?

I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever.  Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!).  And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad – an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.

Bryan Cranston in season one

I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth.  It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break).  It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm.  It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it.  Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass.  And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.

Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago).  And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.

I love this poster of the 'breaking bad' Walter

The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out.  The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting.  The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion.  The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.

But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them.   Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).

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Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman.  I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.

This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted.  And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?  Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons.  Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four.  It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.

And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13).  I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended.  Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)?  What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman?  Will Skyler become an official part of the family business?  And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show.  It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher.  I think it’ll be a winner.

Movie Review: Contagion (2011)

October 31, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I’m still washing my hands at least 20 times a day after watching Contagion last week.

This medical thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh plays out like a horror movie because of how possible it might just become reality some day.  The film begins on day two of a new, highly infectious and deadly disease outbreak and follows several key characters from different walks of life as they fight for survival — of their own lives and that of the human race.

Soderbergh is known for his amazing ensemble casts, and Contagion is no different.  No single actor or actress dominates, but there is enough screen time in this 106 minute film to fit in significant roles for the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes (remember him from Winter’s Bone), amongst others, including my new favourite actor, Bryan Cranston (I’ve recently become addicted to the sickeningly great Breaking Bad – and it took me almost a full season to realise that he’s Tim Whatley from Seinfeld!).  Ensemble casts are ordinarily troublesome but every actor in this film played their part perfectly and without trying to steal the show, resulting in an awesome experience where you are constantly watching an A-lister without feeling overwhelmed by the fact.

There have been several ‘outbreak’  films in the past (Outbreak being one of them), but Contagion surely has to be one of the better ones, and certainly one more the most realistic.  It looks at how different people deal with the news of the infections, how the government tries to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, how it seeks to contain it, and how certain people may try to profit out of it — on an international scale.

Soderbergh controls the film at a deliberate pace — fast enough to not get bored but considerate enough to allow the audience to appreciate the magnitude of the events.  Contagion tackles numerous themes and gives viewers plenty to think about if, god forbid, this film became reality — loss of social order, public vs personal interests, wealthy countries vs poor countries, and the systems governments have in place to deal with and control sudden mass deaths and mass hysteria.  It’s actually all quite fascinating.  And yet, despite these potentially heavy themes, the film is rarely bogged down and manages to keep the focus on the characters.

As an ensemble cast film, Contagion obviously struggles to provide the deeper emotional impact some top-notch single protagonist films can, but I think overall it was done well enough to provide an entertaining and thought-provoking viewing experience.

4 stars out of 5

 
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