Thursday, May 29, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive Review: The Romantic Entanglement of Vampiric Hipsters

By Ben Macdonald

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleson, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Jeffery Wright
Release Date: April 25, 2014 (limited)

Only Lovers Left Alive begins with a series of rotating overhead shots cutting back and forth between its protagonists, Adam (Hiddleson) and Eve (Swinton). The characters are on opposite sides of the world (one lives in Detroit, the other in Tangier) but the shot links the two together. The significance of these shots is revealed near the end of the film, when Adam explains to Eve the phenomenon in physics known as entanglement. Entanglement, which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, means that if an entwined particle is separated, even to opposite ends of the universe, and you spin one of them, then the other one will also immediately start spinning. This also explains the characters’ names, as the biblical Eve was created from one of Adam’s ribs, suggesting a similar state of entanglement. Despite their distance at the film’s beginning, the two characters have been married for centuries and are said to be unable to live without each other. Eve eventually rejoins Adam in Detroit where their blood, sex and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle goes uninterrupted until Eve’s sister Ava shows up.
As is to be expected with a Jarmush picture, Only Lovers is not particularly story-driven and resists generic convention. Though it is a vampire movie, it’s less interested in the taste of blood and more interested in cultural taste. Several centuries spent on the Earth has served to refine the aesthetic sensibilities of the main characters. The characters, and by extension the director/writer, display their musical eclecticism throughout the film. Adam and Eve sway to the rockabilly of Charlie Feathers and dance together to Denise LaSalle’s 'Trapped By a Thing Called Love' and Adam is equally adept at producing experimental rock with one of his many vintage guitars as he is with a violin or lute. Shout outs to Iggy Pop and Jack White, both of whom have acted in other Jarmusch films, indicate that it’s the director’s taste that inform his characters. It is Jarmush’s own band that contributes much of the film’s original score, a moody mix of Eastern-sounding music and distorted guitar. It also bears mentioning that the cinematography, writing and performances all come together perfectly to create a hilarious, fun and impeccably cool movie.

Ultimately, Only Lovers is a film more about a pair of hipsters than of vampires. Their blood supply is accessed through doctors, seemingly less for moral reasons and more because feeding on innocent victims has become passé. Adam and Eve dress in vintage (even ancient) clothing, wear sunglasses at nighttime and indoors and listen to vinyl records. They dig the underappreciated artists instead of the bigger names: Keaton not Chaplin, Tesla not Edison, Marlowe not that “illiterate philistine” Shakespeare. Adam is so opposed to fame that he fears his reclusiveness will counter-productively lead to building a mystique making his music popular with the uncool humans he calls “zombies”.
Adam and Eve may be living in a time of iPhones and Youtube, but as undying hipsters they have an appreciation for the past. Adam chooses to live in a ramshackle house in Detroit, a city living in the shadow of its former glory, as opposed to the shiny, inauthentic Los Angeles which he refers to as “zombie-central”. Eve, on the other hand, has the magic touch. She can rapidly read her collection of classic literature (from Cervantes to David Foster Wallace) by passing her hand over each page and can tell the age of an object simply by touching it. Only Lovers Left Alive connects the past with the present, high art with pop art and enthusiasm with cynicism. No doubt the vast number of allusions in the film will mean different things to different viewers depending on their own cultural touchstones but it is important to note that the references never exist solely for their own sake. The details all coalesce as a bigger picture of the cycles of history, the depth and reach of culture, its preservation, its decay and its evolution.

Monday, May 26, 2014

S. Nerfherder Presents: The Top 10 Best Comic Book Movies of All Time

By Andrew Braid

Ever since the launch of the original X-Men in 2000, comic book movies have slowly but surely overtaken the pop culture landscape, breaking box office records and reshaping the whole industry as we know it. Now they're the safest bets Hollywood can make in a marketplace increasingly lacking in "safe bets". In conjunction with the opening of the latest instalment of the X-Men franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past (which is awesome, BTW), I figured now's as good a time as any to take my own stab at narrowing down the cream of the ever-growing crop. Seeing just how many new movies seem to be pulling out the "best superhero movie ever" quote in their advertising (Days of Future Past included), I think it's about time to sort out which movies truly deserve such hyperbolic proclamations.

Before we begin, some notes/disclaimers:
-This list is strictly limited to live-action, theatrically-released films based on either a comic book series or graphic novel (animated comic book movies warrant their own Top 10 in the future- there's plenty of good ones to go around)
-While there is no "one movie per series" rule, I have tried to make the list somewhat diverse anyway (as awesome as Batman is, the list would look kinda boring if he took up half the spots).
-This list (of course) only covers films that have come out so far, and I will be more than happy to update this post in the future for any upcoming comic book movies that prove worthy of a spot.
-And finally, this is all just my own personal opinion. Feel free to let me know what your favourites are if you like (there's so many other good movies that didn't get a spot here- makes me feel guilty)

Leading into the list, here is my list of Honourable Mentions:

Superman II [The Richard Donner Cut] (1981)
Batman (1989, Dir. Tim Burton)
Batman Returns (1992, Dir. Tim Burton)
Ghost World (2001, Dir. Terry Zwigoff)
X2: X-Men United (2003, Dir. Bryan Singer)
Sin City (2005, Dir. Rober Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
Batman Begins (2005, Dir. Christopher Nolan)
V for Vendetta (2006, Dir. James McTeague)
Superman Returns (2006, Dir. Bryan Singer)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, Dir. Guillermo Del Toro)
Watchmen (2009, Dir. Zack Snyder)
X-Men: First Class (2011, Dir. Matthew Vaughn)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Dir. Joe Johnston)
Iron Man 3 (2013, Dir. Shane Black)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, Dir. Bryan Singer) [Seriously, it's awesome, go see it]

And now, the Top 10 Best Comic Book Movies of All Time, starting with...

#10: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(2014, Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo)

If there's one character in their stable that Marvel has proven they understand more than any other, it's Captain America. After a rollicking retro origin story in Captain America: The First Avenger, Winter Soldier shows Steve Rogers' struggle to adapt to the modern world- a man displaced from time, a veteran displaced from war, uncertain of what his duty as a soldier even means anymore. However, just as Phil Coulson said once, it turns out people just might need a little old-fashioned. Winter Soldier does damn near everything right, smoothly transitioning from the first film's period adventure into a paranoia-laden action-thriller where no one can seem to be trusted and security is valued over freedom. The pacing is perfect, knowing exactly how to juggle all its characters so no one feels superfluous or under-utilized. The humour is spot-on, keeping things fun despite the heavier subject matter without overtaking the film. The Winter Soldier himself is cold and imposing, showing an utter relentlessness akin to a Terminator. The action scenes are terrific, carrying a real sense of hard-hitting impact whether its fistfights, shootouts, or chases (the two big faceoffs between Cap and Winter Soldier in particular burst with a flurry of tension and intensity). The twists and ramifications for the future of the Marvel Studios universe moving forward are huge, and yet they don't distract from the film's ability to stand on its own. It's the current gold standard for Marvel's solo movies to date, positioning Captain America as the optimistic, hopeful, example-setting hero of the big screen in a time where the world could really use one (it helps that he doesn't destroy half of Metropolis in the process).

#9: A History of Violence 
(2005, Directed by David Cronenberg)

Believe it or not, but this intense, powerful and surprisingly thoughtful thriller from David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Scanners, The Fly) was actually an adaptation of a graphic novel published by DC Comics (through their "mature readers" Vertigo imprint). Viggo Mortensen gives one of his best performances here as Tom Stall, a small town restaurant owner and family man who may or may not have had a violent past as a gangster in Philadelphia. Tom denies these accusations from a scarred gangster (played by a memorable and chilling Ed Harris) to his wife and children, but as tensions rise it becomes apparent that there may be more to Tom than he's telling anyone, and that violence may just be in his nature no matter how hard he denies it. The film builds to a thrilling climax and perhaps one of the most perfect final scenes I've ever seen. A lot of you may not have seen it, so I'll avoid saying much more, but out of Cronenberg's huge body of work one could easily argue for this being the best film he's ever made.

#8: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
(2010, Directed by Edgar Wright)

As we mourn the departure of Edgar Wright from Marvel's Ant Man, we can at least console ourselves by watching his first stab at making a comic book movie, the near-perfect film adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series. While some changes and concessions have to be made to condense the six-volume comics series into a 2-hour film, the spirit (and even much of the hilarious dialogue) of the comics is preserved, yet also injected with some fresh material of its own (my favourite being this bit, obviously). Michael Cera gives his best performance here, as his one-note "awkward nice guy" routine hides the jerkier aspects of Scott, making his rise to grow up and mature at the end all the more effective. He's surrounded by an amazing supporting cast, with Jason Schwartzman's "final boss" Gideon and Kieran Culkin as gay roommate Wallace in particular doing their best to steal the show. Filled with fantastic action scenes equally influenced by comic books, martial arts cinema and late 80s/early 90s gaming and paired with a killer soundtrack, this is a romantic comedy that's both riotously funny and surprisingly deep.

#7: Kick-Ass

(2010, Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

Whereas Scott Pilgrim vs. the World proves equal to its source material, Kick-Ass manages the amazing feat of surpassing it's source in nearly every way. Based on the first graphic novel in a trilogy by Mark Millar, Kick-Ass poses the question of what would happen if a geeky teenager in the real world decided to get himself a costume and become a superhero. The results spiral into a deliciously twisted blend of dark comedy, astute genre satire, kinetic and brutal action sequences, and even some surprisingly affecting drama. While the comics had most of these things too, it often pushed things too far and extreme (Hit-Girl snorting cocaine, anyone?), as if it was trying too hard to be shocking and provocative, and the series' gradually growing contempt for its protagonist causes many of the emotional beats to fall flat, particularly once the second book starts (why should I feel anything for this guy when I've just seen how much of a pathetic, unlikable asshole he is?). The film version works overtime to fix these issues, keeping the darkly funny and brutal tone of the book without seriously pushing it over the edge. More importantly though is how much more genuinely likable and endearing it makes its characters, whether it's Kick-Ass himself, the foul-mouthed fighter Hit-Girl, her ex-cop father Big Daddy (an offbeat, inspired and even bizarrely sweet Nicolas Cage performance), or the dorky and awkward would-be hero/villain Red Mist. Even the main villain, crime lord Frank D'Amico (still Mark Strong's best bad guy role to date), proves full of personality despite how dangerous and violent he is. Kick-Ass is a rare gem among comic book movies, a brilliantly entertaining action-comedy with a gleefully subversive bite. 

#6: The Avengers
(2012, Directed by Joss Whedon)

Do I really need to explain why The Avengers is on here? The fact it's from geek god Joss Whedon alone ought to justify its place on this list, not to mention the fact that it's a goddamn Avengers movie. Believe all the "holy crap they did it, they really did it, they actually pulled this off" reactions from comic book geeks across the globe: The Avengers is the real deal, a big-scale, supremely fun and ever-so satisfying work of nerd nirvana. The simplicity of its plot is more than made up for by its stellar cast, whip-smart and witty Whedon dialogue and shamelessly enjoyable action scenes, all building up to a huge climax that has practically become a standard-setter for popcorn blockbusters to come. It's really that simple: if you're a comic book fan, the odds of you not loving this movie are statistically insignificant.

#5: The Dark Knight Rises
(2012, Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Well, I guess here's where it really gets into the whole "personal opinion" territory. Whereas some felt that The Dark Knight Rises was a disappointment (at least relative to sky-high expectations because did you even see the movie it has to follow up?), I absolutely loved it. The story feels huge and carefully structured, and we watch in anticipation as Nolan's many pieces fall into place. Michael Caine proves once and for all why he's the best Alfred ever, as we see the character truly pushed past his breaking point for the first time (and it's utterly heartbreaking to watch). Bane is an intimidating and brutishly intelligent foe, and Tom Hardy's performance brings him to imposing life despite the challenge of acting with most of his face obscured (plus there's that famous Bane voice- admit it, you love it, don't you?). Anne Hathaway really turns out to be the film's real MVP as Selina Kyle, finally giving us a live-action Catwoman who feels truly in line with her comics counterpart: playful, manipulative and toeing the line between good and bad whenever it benefits her most. The IMAX-scale climax set in the snowy streets of Gotham is astounding, an all-out war on the streets for the city's future that results in a satisfying and definitive conclusion to the story that started in Batman Begins. Rises cements Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight saga among the greatest trilogies in cinema history, a truly epic finale to a series that changed the film landscape forever.

#4: The Rocketeer
(1991, Directed by Joe Johnston)

Yeah, now we're getting into super "personal opinion" territory. While The Rocketeer has been steadily developing a cult fanbase since its initial release back in the early 90s, it's still often overlooked by many. But holy hell does that deserve to change: The Rocketeer is a ridiculously charming, old-school styled comic book action movie, filled with heart, humour and unabashed fun. The 1930s period detail is fantastic, the cast is great (including a stunning Jennifer Connelly, a reliably cantankerous Alan Arkin and a delightfully villainous Timothy Dalton), and the effects work is top-notch in an era where practical effects were still the main go-to. It completely commits to the tone and feel of retro adventure serials (imagine Indiana Jones crossed with a superhero movie), instilled with just the right amount of patriotic cheese. This is the kind of movie where the hired gangsters turn against the villains they've been working with once they find out they're Nazis, saying (and I honestly quote):

"I may not make an honest buck, but I'm 100% American."

Maybe it's just me, but it's hard not to love a movie with dialogue like that.

#3: Spider-Man 2
(2004, Directed by Sam Raimi)

The best of the original Sam Raimi trilogy and still easily the best Spider-Man movie to date, Spider-Man 2 improves on the fondly-remembered original in every regard, and still stands as a textbook example for how to make a great sequel. Peter Parker's life is at its most crushing and conflicted here, making him feel all the more relatable while also letting Tobey Maguire give some of the best scenes of his career (the two standouts being his heartbreaking pay phone confessional and when he tells Aunt May the truth behind Uncle Ben's death). Alfred Molina's Doc Ock is the best villain of the series, equal parts sympathetic and slyly menacing. The effects work is a huge step up from the first film, whether its Spidey's web-swinging acrobatics or Doctor Octopus' mechanical arms with minds of their own. The action scenes step up their game in a big way, especially in the fantastic extended train setpiece. Best of all is Raimi's distinct sense of humour, where goofiness and the crushing unfairness of reality are firmly in sync at every turn (resulting in the Best. Montage. Ever.) If you've ever wondered why so many people hate on Spider-Man 3 (even though it's actually an alright movie overall), the answer's simple: it's because this was the movie it had to follow up.

#2: Superman
(1978, Directed by Richard Donner)

While it's certainly not the first comic book movie ever made, the original Superman really was the film that started it all, the film that set the template for how to make a big-budget comic book movie back when such a thing didn't exist. Even now the result of a massive gamble by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (at the time it was the most expensive film yet made) still holds up sublimely well, a soaring epic comic book yarn that delivers a truly definitive vision of the Superman mythos. It's like getting five movies in one (in a good way): across 2 1/2 hours you get a mythic comic book fantasy, a big-scale disaster movie, a hilarious screwball comedy, an emotional coming-of-age character drama and a winning romance backed by screen chemistry that ignites fireworks at every turn. The huge star-studded cast is sublime, led by Christopher Reeve's pitch-perfect performance as both bumbling Clark Kent and pure-hearted do-gooder Superman. And who can forget John Williams' iconic score, alternately majestic, sweeping and thrilling at every turn? No one can deny the Superman Theme is still far and away the best anthem for any costumed hero who's ever graced the screen. When people say the old phrase "movie magic", Superman is exactly the kind of film they're referring to- there aren't really any other superhero films out there that you could call downright enchanting.

#1: The Dark Knight
(2008, Directed by Christopher Nolan)

I know, I know, real original top pick, right? Then again, could it really be anything else? The Dark Knight was a game-changer, and for good reason: it proved that comic book movies could transcend their own genre without betraying their origins the process. It's a movie that, even though it's the middle chapter of a trilogy, works completely as a standalone story, a sprawling and complex crime saga that just happens to star Batman. Its themes are powerful, questioning the nature of justice and order and whether or not people are inherently good or trustworthy. The action scenes are incredible to this day, striking just the right balance between CG and practical effects that the film's vision of Gotham retains a sense of gritty realism. Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as The Joker speaks for itself, a fully embodied and personified agent of chaos both darkly funny and outright terrifying. It is still the high benchmark for its genre, an influential masterpiece of modern Hollywood cinema that changed the landscape forever.
Also, the Bat-Bale voice is still hilarious/awesome. Admit it, you're doing it yourself right now, aren't you?

Thanks for reading, everyone! Tune in for new posts in the near-future!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Godzilla (2014) Review: Epic Kaiju Destruction Through Human Eyes

By Andrew Braid

Believe it or not, but this isn't even the coolest poster for this movie.

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche
Release Date: May 16, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

Godzilla, the proclaimed "King of the Monsters", has been dormant for some time now. First introduced to audiences in the original 1954 Japanese film Gojira, the giant fire-breathing dino-lizard has rampaged and battled all manner of mighty foes in his 60-year history. But perhaps his greatest foe of all was Hollywood: despite dozens of films made in the character's native country Japan, the only American Godzilla feature was the disastrous 1998 film directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) and starring Matthew Broderick. Hacked into a lame Jurassic Park ripoff, Godzilla was positioned as a massive record-shattering blockbuster that ultimately fell short of everyone's huge expectations. No sequel ever happened, and Toho, the Japanese production company who created the character and distributed every film in the series, completely disowned the film. If not the King of the Monsters' only defeat, it's certainly the most humiliating one. 
It's been ten years since the last Toho Godzilla film (2004's Godzilla: Final Wars) and sixteen since the disastrous Emmerich film, but now the King has returned to the big screen in an effort to reclaim his crown. Excitement is high, but so is wariness and anxiety: the '98 film left a bad taste in many viewer's mouths, and the new film's director Gareth Edwards has no prior experience directing big-scale blockbusters (this is only his second film after the 2010 low-budget, independently-made sci-fi horror film Monsters). Now that America's second stab at the iconic character has finally hit movie screens, I can spread the word:
The King of the Monsters has returned. Long live the King.

The #4 Coolest Poster For This Movie

Our story begins in 1999, when an enormous skeleton is found by Doctor Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) containing two mysterious pods in the Philippines. One of the pods has hatched, and the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (aka MUTO) arrives at Tokyo's Janjira Nuclear Plant, causing a dangerous radiation leak that kills the wife of the plant's supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). The event is declared an earthquake by military officials, but Joe knows that a cover-up is afoot, and spends the next 15 years trying to uncover the truth. 
In the present day, Joe's son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) is a US Navy Lieutenant returning home to see his son Sam and wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), only to reluctantly cut it short when he has to go to Japan and bail out his father from prison. Initially dismissive of his father's theories, Ford follows him to the Janjira site... only to find no radiation there. Hidden in the area is a secret test site, where the second Muto creature is cocooned, seeping up strength from the radiation. Just as Ford and Joe are taken to the site Muto break out, bringing a rampage of destruction in its wake that no amount of firepower from Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) can hope to stop. But Doctor Serizawa knows a way, and it proves to be the only chance humanity has to stop Muto: to unleash a dormant alpha predator, a force of nature known only as... Godzilla. 

The #3 Coolest Poster For This Movie

If that plot description sounds somewhat different from what the trailers and marketing have been selling us (ie. a grim-toned disaster film with Godzilla as the force of nature antagonist), that's because it is. Instead the film is very much in the vein of a traditional Toho Godzilla movie: disaster strikes the world courtesy of a new monster threat, scared human characters are scared, and only Godzilla can save the day (whether he really cares all that much about the humans he's saving in the process is up to the writers).  How you feel about that may vary, but in my opinion it's for the best. Hollywood's been trying for ages to prove they can make their own Godzilla movie, and like it or not that's exactly what director Gareth Edwards and crew have delivered.
The film spends most of its first two thirds on building up the monsters, with Godzilla himself not appearing in full until about the halfway point. Some have already raised contention with this decision, and it's not hard to see why: many modern blockbusters have treated their audiences like they have no sense of patience, throwing whatever flashes of mindless action and spectacle they can in seeming desperation of trying not to bore viewers. While it's easy to believe that this has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, I choose to assert that it is a fallacy- if a film can deliver an intriguing or engaging story or give us reason to care about its characters, then they will be willing to allot the film at least some level of patience when it comes to delivering on the action and spectacle equation. And Godzilla does indeed deliver this, at least as well as it needs to. The buildup of mystery and intrigue surrounding the monsters' histories effectively lures you in, reminiscent of the careful, character-driven buildup of early Spielberg films like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We know they are something to not only fear but marvel at when they make their presence known. The character drama is simple but effective (particularly in a heart-wrenching early scene where Joe loses his wife), giving the action its anchor of emotional investment that keeps it from getting overblown or silly.

All of a sudden I'm not so scared of Jaws anymore...

In the end though, Godzilla is a film that is first and foremost driven by its action and visuals, and what we get here is pretty damn spectacular to say the least. Despite this being only his second feature film (and his first big-budget blockbuster), Gareth Edwards shows a supreme sense of confidence behind the camera, delivering a film of jaw-dropping scale grounded with often-striking intimacy. In the realm of giant monster movies it has a distinct visual sense all its own, finding just the right balance between grit and polish. I was flat-out floored by many of the film's artful, stunning shot compositions, whether its an explosive piece of ground-level destruction reflected in towering glass windows or the halo jump sequence that has already proven to be such an amazing centrepiece for the film's marketing. It all concludes in a climactic old-school Godzilla showdown (most of which thankfully hasn't already been shown off in all the trailers and advertising), and proves that it sure as hell wasn't bluffing- they really were holding onto the best cards all this time. Believe me when I say that this is exactly what hardcore Godzilla fans have been waiting for.

"You have no idea what's coming..."

The cast itself is great all-around, rich with skilled character actors that satisfactorily fill what are undeniably stock parts (the soldier protagonist, the wife in peril, the conspiracy theorist, the stern military leader, the scientists, etc.). Cranston in particular really sells his stock part for all its worth, and Watanabe lends quiet gravitas to the film's smartest man in the room. Many of the characters don't really make much of an impression, particularly Sally Hawkins' scientist partner to Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa: we know nothing about her other than she works with Serizawa and that she reacts to Godzilla a few times.
But when you get right down to it, the characters themselves aren't really all that important in this film, at least not in terms of being multidimensional or fully fleshed-out people (and even then, they're still better-drawn characters than you'd see in most disaster movies these years). Their real purpose is to act as human perspectives, eyes through which the audience sees the destruction and horror first-hand from the ground view. This lends Godzilla and the other monsters a sense of awe-inspiring scale in a way that hasn't really been done before by any of the older films in the series (though it certainly helps that this is also the biggest version of Godzilla to date, as seen in this chart here). This role of human perspective is particularly evident with Aaron-Taylor Johnson in the film's lead: he's likable and believable, and even has some emotional material to work with (particularly with Cranston in the first act) but doesn't really have that much of a character to play, essentially being the (kinda bland) straight-man protagonist. This sounds like a problem, but it honestly isn't: his role in the story is to be the audience's main source of human perspective. His job as a soldier and relationships with other characters effectively justifies his presence in all the various action beats of the film, supplying the human perspective that makes the action feel simultaneously believable, grand-scale and awe-inspiring. That we actually do care about the characters despite their existence more as cogs moving the story than as fully dimensional people is a credit to the script and actors, but perhaps even more so to Edwards' skilled, confident direction. Seeing Godzilla fight a bat-like monster is one thing, but seeing the destruction and overwhelming size of the monsters through human eyes on the ground makes it feel so much more visceral and impactful. Seeing Godzilla tower over all this way doesn't just make him feel scary again- it makes him feel mighty again.

The #2 Coolest Poster For This Movie

Godzilla is the first genuinely great blockbuster of the summer, an old-school monster movie brought to life with awe-inspiring visuals, filtered through the emotional core of a story about repeating and confronting the past. It pays true respect to the roots and history of its source material while making it feel fresh, thrilling and even imposing again. It consciously takes its time building up to much of its action spectacle, almost to the point where it might frustrate less patient viewers, but delivers a spectacular and wholly satisfying payoff with a climax that makes the whole movie worth it on its own. It's accessible to both newer viewers and series veterans alike, delivering the first real flesh-and-blood Godzilla film in some time. By the time the credits rolled I knew for sure that the King of the Monsters was here to stay, and man does it feel good to have him back.

And finally, hands-down, the #1 Coolest Poster For This Movie (and possibly the whole year).

Final Review Score: 9/10

+ Spectacular direction, with some truly awe-inspiring compositions of grand destruction and scale
+ A great human cast, with Cranston and Watanabe in particular standing out
+ Extensive focus on buildup, mystery and human drama (plus the focus on the ground-view human perspective of the destruction) gives the film an emotional investment
+ It all builds up to a big climax that delivers in spades on everything a Godzilla fan could want
+ Godzilla himself is every bit as awesome here as you could want him to be

- Not everyone in the high-caliber, talented cast gets much of anything interesting to do
- The long buildup to action may be a turnoff for some, and the excellent morsels of action we do get around the middle may get you impatiently awaiting more
- It's not exactly the somber disaster movie the marketing has been selling it as (whether that's a problem is up to you)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal Review

By Ben Macdonald

Directed by Gareth Evans
Starring : Iko Uwais, Arfin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo, Ryuhei Matsuda
Release Date: March 28, 2014 (limited); April 11, 2014 (wide)
In Indonesian with English Subtitles

In recent years, Asian martial-arts cinema has come to be largely associated with art house wuxia pictures like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero or most recently Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster . These are examples of Martial art films, with beautiful cinematography, period detail and refined stories where the action scenes closely resemble dance. The Raid 2 is not one of these films. It is ugly and unrepentantly violent. It is also completely great.
The importance of audience vocal feedback in the cinema usually applies to comedies and horror films, but The Raid 2 is a notable exception. In the screening I attended, the incredible bone-breaking action of the film was met with a steady stream of all kinds of sounds of astonishment from the young, primarily male audience; mostly exclamations of “ohhhhhh!” and sudden intakes of breathe, as well as laughter at the sheer absurd excess of some of the violence. After the star takes out an enemy with a long flurry of rapid punches, a guy near me raises his arms as if for a touchdown. The immense skill and virtuosity of the martial artists and their choreography leads to a rare kind of visceral filmmaking. Frighteningly desensitized to screen violence though I may be, my whole body would tense up during fight sequences.
Pencak Silat practitioner and star of the film, Iko Uwais, is a big part of why the fight scenes pack such a punch. Though he lacks the charisma of a Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat, he is certainly an extraordinary martial artist. And his acting is pretty good; he wisely doesn’t try to act all that much. He also manages to earn the sympathy of the audience so that whenever he gets hurt it’s surprisingly distressing in a way that the rest of the film’s ultraviolence is not.
Though the action is all similarly brutal, a range of different weapons (blades, guns, bottles, batons, hammers, cars, an aluminum baseball bat, baseballs, etc.) give variety to one of the best collections of fight scenes ever stuffed into one film. However, unlike its predecessor, The Raid 2 has lengthy stretches of story and dialogue between its action scenes. In direct contrast to the Aristotelian unity of time and place in the first one, the second film is epic in scope (and runtime: 150 minutes!). Whereas The Raid: Redemption was a minimalist Die Hard/Assault on Precinct 13-esque actioner, The Raid 2’s betrayal and revenge filled story of gang warfare and an undercover cop is much more like the crime thrillers of East-Asia, like those of Johnnie To. Such an ambitious departure is the smart move, but it necessarily entails sacrificing the simple perfection of the original. Differences aside, The Raid series remains a singularly brutal source of hard-core martial-art action. Viewer discretion is advised.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Noah Review

By Ben Macdonald

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Presented in 2D and IMAX

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. (Genesis 6:5-6)

Noah begins right away with a summary of some of the main events of The Book of Genesis that precede the story of the Flood. It’s the kind of exposition that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie. The pre-Flood world of the film is very much like that of a fantasy film. The stars shine in the sky during the day and the land is populated by giant rock monsters/fallen angels called Watchers. And as is standard in Biblical epics and fantasy alike, English accents abound. None other than Ray Winstone, Cockney gangster extraordinaire, plays the villain of the story, Tubal-Cain. Or is he the villain? Maybe the villain is God, or Noah, or mankind in general. The essential conflict at the heart of the film is about whether humanity is more like the carnivorous Tubal-Cain, and therefore should perish, or more like the virtuous vegetarian Noah, and should survive. Noah himself seems to be of the former opinion. In fact, his conviction that deep down humanity is irredeemably wicked and his fierce following of divine commandment leads him to become more and more monstrous as the film progresses. Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, may represent the very worst of humanity but his discontent with his lot in life and his strong instincts for self-preservation make him surprisingly relatable. And after all, he was, as he argues, made in God’s image. 
Despite the fact that this is essentially a CGI-filled summer fantasy blockbuster, it is surprisingly faithful to many of the themes of the Hebrew Bible, for instance those in the Book of Genesis which concern the origin of things and the existence of evil and suffering in a world created by a benevolent creator. It is director Darren Aronofsky’s focus on such classical themes and to the kind of dark psychological realism of the Bible that makes Noah so compelling.
The film manages to smartly integrate little details of the Noah story into its unique interpretation, such as Noah’s naked drunkenness. The burly Russell Crowe looks pretty good for a character who’s supposed to be 600 years old. His granddaddy Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins, actually does look like he could be 969 (plus he has magic powers). But due to the brevity of the Noah story in the Bible, Aronofsky has to do a lot of inventing. This includes a giant army and battle sequence as well as the aforementioned rock monsters. For its central final conflict, the film actually borrows heavily from the story of Abraham. And fortunately, for a narrative that seems predisposed towards deus ex machina, the conflict ends up surprisingly intimate and satisfying.
Despite His very active role in the events of the film, the God of the film (referred to throughout as “the Creator”) remains mostly at an agonizing distance. For instance, after the Flood, the tormented Noah looks up at the one small point in the sky that is not shrouded in dark clouds and pleads for guidance. There is no answer except for that light part of the sky clouding over.
In a certain sense, Aronofsky is a sort of Old Testament God in all of his films. He always inflicts great suffering upon his characters. Black Swan and, in particular, Requiem for a Dream, are good examples of why his films have often been labelled as ‘misery-porn’. The suffering is often infused in some way with religion. Pi features a character who is tormented by a numerical sequence stuck in his head which he is told by a group of Hassidic Jews is the key to God’s true name and the key to a new messianic era. The self-sacrificing protagonist of The Wrestler is a clear Christ figure, who endures barbed wire instead of a crown of thorns and receives his stigmata from thumb tacks and staple guns. His stripper girlfriend even quotes Isaiah to him: “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him; And by his wounds we were healed.” Aronofsky’s metaphysical and deeply religious The Fountain is a film concerned with mortality and deep emotional pain. Because of its ambition, CGI visuals and connection to Genesis, this is the film Noah is most often compared to.
Noah is visually spectacular at times and an improvement over the arguably, depending on your aesthetic sensibility, HD wallpaper look of The Fountain. Noah uses a number of highly modern stylistic techniques such as the rapid succession of still photographs. Some of the most striking images have figures silhouetted against the sky. One great sequence stylishly shows the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Later in the film, the silhouette of Cain killing his brother is rapidly interchanged with a variety of figures from recognizable time periods, linking all violence to that destructive part of humanity represented by Cain.
But perhaps the most compelling image of the film is of people sprawled out against a cliff surface as waves crash against them sending them smashing into the water and rocks below. The image is taken from Francis Danby’s 15-foot wide painting “The Deluge” (1840). This shot is followed by a shot of Noah’s family inside the Ark; they eat a meal as they listen to the screams outside.

Francis Danby's "The Deluge". Zoom in and you'll see many interesting details, such as Noah's Ark illuminated by moonlight in the background.

Aronofsky is a serious director, unrelentingly so. He’s also extraordinarily talented and ambitious. I think there’s something to what Wesley Morris wrote about how he “might be the greatest American director never to direct a great movie.” Every film he makes strives for serious greatness and profundity. And it’s because of this that his films are endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review: Popcorn Fun in a Tangled Web

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Marc Webb
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field
Release Date: May 2, 2014
Presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D

2012's reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was a generally entertaining film with some real sparks of promise within it, namely some palpable screen chemistry between its lead actors (no doubt helped by director Marc Webb, who previously helmed indie darling (500) Days of Summer, having a solid hand with character and dialogue scenes). Unfortunately it was held back by a series of stumbling blocks: a focus on a bland, at times outright clumsy retelling of the origin story we'd already seen before in 2002's original Spider-Man movie, a "mystery" plotline that doesn't really add up to much of anything, a version of Curt Connors/The Lizard that doesn't get to be as fleshed-out or interesting as it could have been (Rhys Ifans is good, but his character gradually gets dumbed down into generic mad scientist territory), competent but uninspired action scenes, occasionally iffy visual effects (for a movie that cost $230 million to make, you'd think they could afford better CG fire effects), and one of the most groan-inducing final lines of any big-budget movie I've seen in recent years.
Also, the costume kinda sucked.

Okay, after saying all that, it really sounds like I don't like the movie, doesn't it? Well I do... kind of.
Look, it's complicated... sort of.
The thing is, I recognize that The Amazing Spider-Man wasn't a very good movie. Hell, if you went so far as to say it was a weaksauce piece of crap, I wouldn't really have much to argue against you with. But it wasn't completely without merit, either. That promise of a fresh start, of better things to come was definitely there. And judging from the level of enthusiasm and charm from its cast and crew, combined with the endless barrage of marketing being plastered everywhere in sight for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it all seemed to be saying to the world: "those better things to come are here, honest!" Now that the sequel is here to kick off the summer movie season, it's time to see if Webb and company were right, or if the filmmakers were making promises they couldn't keep.
UGH... let's just move on, okay?

After a somewhat clunky (and kind of unnecessary) opening flashback/action scene involving Richard and Mary Parker, the film picks up proper with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) swinging high as his superhero alter-ego, becoming a symbol of hope for the citizens of New York. But his life outside of the costume is filled with hang-ups. He's just graduated from high school and has to work out what path his life will take. His relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is struggling as he is haunted by his promise to her dying father to keep her away and strained by her burgeoning prospects that would force her to move to England. Peter's childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) comes back into his life when he inherits control of Oscorp, only to find that he suffers from the same deadly disease his father died from, and Spider-Man's blood may be the only cure he has. All the while there's Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a lonely Oscorp electrical engineer who no one ever seems to notice. He becomes obsessed with Spider-Man after the wall-crawler saves his life, but a workplace accident turns him into the powerful supervillain Electro, who may prove to be Spider-Man's greatest threat yet...
Electro, doing his best pose for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Maybelline tie-in

If it seems like there's a lot going on in this movie, that's because there is: even at 140 minutes (the longest ever for a Spider-Man movie), there's a ton of plot being thrown into the film, with not enough connective tissue or time to make proper room for everything. It's much the same problem that Spider-Man 3 had years ago, with too many characters and plotlines to juggle all at once (not to mention all the setup for future sequels and spinoffs). Some of this turns out alright (Paul Giamatti's bookending scenes as the Rhino, for example), but there are many characters just thrown in the movie with not much of anything to do except let us know they exist, and might be important later in future movies, maybe. B.J. Novak appears for a minute tops as Alistair Smythe (aka Spider-Slayer), and Felicity Jones' Felicia (aka Black Cat) is crammed in with two rushed scenes, one of which has her just magically knowing stuff that move the plot along. Meanwhile subplots involving Peter seeing ghostly visions of Gwen's dead father and Aunt May working as a nurse are introduced only to be quickly forgotten about for most of the movie.
When the film focuses on quieter, more character-driven scenes it often proves funny and engaging, adequately establishing character even at its rushed pace. This is especially true of the romantic scenes between Peter and Gwen, with natural, easygoing chemistry between Garfield and Stone that shines brighter than ever before. Early moments between Peter and Harry are also good, despite the first film having written this one into a tight spot by not introducing the character right from the start. The Peter/Harry friendship has long been an important one in the comics, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 does the best it can to dig itself out of this hole left by the first movie's miscalculations. Garfield and DeHaan's scenes juuust pull off selling the "childhood friends who haven't seen each other in years" schtick, even though the film finds itself sprinting to turn Harry into the Green Goblin by the end of the movie.
The scenes between Peter and Gwen are bursting with chemistry and personality, even as other elements of the film struggle.

The soap-opera drama that often is Peter Parker's life is on full display here, which proves to be a double-edged sword for the movie. While it enhances the comic book tone and style of the film, it often feels akin to a Silver Age comic, and not in a particularly good way. Whether it's Electro's cheesy "let me introduce myself with my new villain name I just made up" monologue, the awkward pop-ups of ghost dad Denis Leary, or Harry Osborn's angry growls of "curse you, Spider-Man!", these moments offer silly, guilty-pleasure fun that feels more at home in a 90s comic book movie like Batman Forever than a superhero film from 2014. The real problem is how it tends to take away from the film when it does try to go for genuine drama- it's hard to feel for Aunt May breaking down to Peter when you just watched Electro deal with a stereotypical evil scientist (complete with over-the-top German accent).
"Dammit Jamie, I warned you about doing that Annie remake!"

 Early scenes with Harry Osborn and Max Dillon/Electro show real promise and personality, which makes it more disappointing when the two central villains have to fight each other for screentime. Despite a lot of setup and development early on, Electro is absent for long stretches of the film after his first major setpiece showdown with Spider-Man. Meanwhile Harry is forced to go to the dark side due to his plot contrivance- er, I mean illness, which still can't help but feel hurried when it's crammed in between Peter and Gwen's relationship complications and the (not really much of a) "mystery" plotline carried over from the first film (which these movies thankfully seem to be done with now... I hope). Even once the two baddies ally with each other the film can't seem to strike a good balance: Electro takes over the film again for much of its third act, only for Harry/Green Goblin to swoop in at the last minute and extend the climax even further.

Visually the film is a serious step up from the first Amazing Spider-Man, with Webb showing more confidence and prowess behind the camera. It helps that the director lobbied to have this movie shot on 35mm film, rather than the digital cameras used on the first one. Gone is the clean, drab and bland look of the first film; here to stay is something far more dynamic in look and style, with a real comic book "pop" to the colours and settings. Moments in the film portraying our hero's trademark "spider-sense" are very impressive, slowing down time as Peter is alerted to all the sources of potential danger around him. The web-swinging looks fantastic, with top-down and POV shots that make great use of 3D. Action scenes in general are much better this time around, aided by some great visual effects work. While some have found it a bit cartoony at times, it seems to fit the comic book vibe of the film, aptly displaying Spider-Man's superhuman acrobatics as he swings, leaps and bends around Electro's relentless attacks in the climax. The score is also much better this time, with Hans Zimmer and "The Magnificent Six" (ha ha, I see what you did there) delivering something much more varied, exciting and stirring to accompany the action. The new theme for Spider-Man here instills exactly the kind of triumphant, heroic vibe that such an iconic character deserves.
And of the many things this movie improves on, perhaps the biggest one is Spider-Man himself. With the awkward origin story stuff out of the way, Andrew Garfield can finally stop playing the hero-in-the-making and just start playing Spider-Man as we know him: confident, jokey, playful, and carefree on the outside with a good heart and strong sense of responsibility and self-doubt underneath. Donning the best Spider-Man costume ever put to live-action film, Garfield truly embodies the character, as if he jumped right out of the comics we've been reading for years now. It helps that the character's penchant for quips, a vital element to the character that the prior films never really captured, finally makes it over to this one in full-force. A montage early in the film of Spidey's various actions around New York best showcases Garfield's energy, charm and heart, whether it's standing up for a bullied kid or having to take out a mugger in a convenience store.
And can I just say again how awesome the costume looks now?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a movie that proves both very easy and considerably difficult for me to judge. Is it an improvement over the first Amazing Spider-Man? Unquestionably. Did I enjoy it as a popcorn summer blockbuster, and adaptation of the Spider-Man comics? Definitely. Is it actually a good movie per se? Well, parts of it are. Does it have some major problems, some of which unavoidably stem from missteps made in its predecessor? Absolutely. But was the good stuff in there enough to outweigh those problems? Well I doubt everyone will agree on this, but in my book? Sure, at least enough of the time to keep me interested for things to come from this new reboot series.

Final Score: 7 / 10

+ Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone's screen chemistry is even stronger than before, keeping the film swinging even when it trips up
+ The cast is generally great, and the dialogue scenes play better to director Marc Webb's strengths
+ The film really pops visually with a colourful comic book vibe and great visual effects
+ The action scenes are far better than the previous outing, with a lot more creativity and style
+ The film has a good sense of humour, and the series finally seem to have a handle on Spidey's jokiness from the comics
+ The score by Hans Zimmer is a big improvement over the more generic, forgettable music of the first ASM
+ The Spider-Man costume in this movie is perfect. Just putting that out there...

- Even at a long 140 minutes the film feels too crowded with plotlines and characters, with the middle section in particular struggling to juggle numerous story threads
- Jamie Foxx's Electro and Dane DeHaan's Harry Osborn fight for screentime as the film's villains, and as a result Electro gets lost in the shuffle
- A somewhat clunky opening sequence involving Peter's parents goes on too long and gets things started on the wrong foot
- The film's often broad, soap opera drama can feel like it's pulled from a Silver Age comic book (but not in a particularly good way)
- One tiny bit of cheese during the film's climax almost completely derails the film's most major emotional moment (you'll definitely know it when you see it)
- That shoehorned, contractually-obligated X-Men advertisement during the end credits (long story how it got there) played out even worse than I thought it might.