Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection
With only a week and change having passed since the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we no doubt feel the question living fresh in our minds: can we ever judge a remake without considering its predecessors? The conversation about the stark contrast in critical favor between Marc Webb's release and Sam Raimi's trilogy (the second installment of his franchise in particular) buzzed loudly, and we imagine the volume will keep in regards to Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. But it'll be a different sound altogether.
The original Godzilla, a Japanese film released in 1954, reinvented the identity of the monster movie, launched a 30-film legacy, and spoke legions about the political climate of its era. The most recent of these films — Roland Emmerich's 1998 American production — is universally bemoaned as a bigger disaster than anything to befall Tokyo at the hands of the giant reptile. With these two entries likely standing out as the most prominent in the minds of contemporary audiences, Edwards' Godzilla has some long shadows cast before it. And in approaching the new movie, one might not be able to avoid comparisons to either. It's fair — by taking on an existing property, a filmmaker knowingly takes on the connotations of that property. But the 2014 installment's great success is that it isn't much like any Godzilla movie we've seen before. In a great, great way.
This isn't 1954's Godzilla, a dire and occasionally dreary allegory that uses the supernatural to tell an important story about nuclear holocaust. A complete reversal, in fact, first and foremost Edwards' Godzilla is about its monsters. Any grand themes strewn throughout — the perseverence of nature, the follies of mankind, fatherhood, madness, faith — are all in service to the very simple mission to give us some cool, weighty, articulate sci-fi disaster. Elements of gravity are plotted all over the film's surface, with scientists, military men (kudos to Edwards for not going the typical "scientists = good/smart, military = bad/dumb" route in this film — everybody here is at least open to suggestion), doctors, police officers, and a compassionate bus driver all wrestling with options in the face of behemoth danger. The humanity is everpresent, but never especially intrusive. To reiterate, this isn't a film about any of these people, or what they do.
Warner Bros. Pictures via Everett Collection
The closest thing to a helping of thematic (or human) significance comes with Ken Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa, who spouts awe-stricken maxims about cryptozoology, the Earth, and the inevitable powerlessness of man. He might not be supplying anything more substantial than our central heroes (soft-hearted soldier Aaron Taylor-Johnson, dutiful medic and mom Elizabeth Olsen, right-all-along conspiracy theorist Bryan Cranston), but Watanabe's bonkers performance as the harried scientist is so bizarrely good that you might actually believe, for a scene or two, that it all does mean something.
Ultimately, the beauty of our latest taste of Godzilla lies not in the commitment to a message that made the original so important nor in the commitment to levity that made Emmerich's so pointless, but in its commitment to imagination. Edwards' creature design is dazzling, his deus ex machina are riveting, and the ultimate payoff to which he treats his audience is the sort of gangbusters crowd-pleaser that your average contemporary monster movie is too afraid to consider.
In fairness, this year's Godzilla might not be considered an adequate remake, not quite reciprocating the ideals, tone, or importance of the original. Sure, anyone looking for a 2014 answer to 1954's game-changing paragon will find sincere philosophy traded for pulsing adventure... but they'd have a hard time ignoring the emphatic charm of this new lens for the 60-year-old lizard, both a highly original composition and a tribute in its way to the very history of monster movies (a history that owes so much to the creature in question). So does Godzilla '14 successfully fill the shoes of Godzilla '54? No — it rips them apart and dons a totally new pair... though it still has a lot of nice things to say about the first kicks.
Oh, and the '98 Godzilla? Yeah, it's better than that.
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Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
S5:E5 After indulging in last week’s off-mark live episode, 30 Rock returns with Jack’s quest for a no-hitter, Tracy’s continual insanity, the dark(er) side of Jenna Maroney, and most importantly, a much needed debunking of Liz Lemon’s awkward sexual hang-ups.
The episode begins as Jack is midway through his no-hitter – he’s not made a single mistake since the day before when he coined the term “inoventually,” and if he makes it a full 24 hours he’ll have accomplished “Reaganing.” He welcomes Lemon into his office because fixing her problems successfully would be his crowning glory – she’s the Albert Pujols of having problems and afterall, “When you’re pitching the perfect game you don’t walk Albert Pujols.” Liz spills her big problem – she needs a ride to Newark airport so she can meet Carol. Jack says no problem, he’s got to drop by MSNBC to have a talk with Rachel Maddow about their matching haircuts. And they’re back in the game.
Jack and Liz hop in Jack’s limo, but it’s not long before they’re stuck in traffic and Liz is forced to confess her reasons her rush to see Carol. She’s planning on breaking it off – wait, doesn’t she know that Carol looks like Matt Damon. Clearly, she’s gone crazy. Jack is equally surprised, but immediately knows the issue: sex. It’s the only thing that Liz has never been comfortable talking about – yet she’ll talk about her vomit and toe-knuckle hairs. She gives in and confesses that she’s having “performance issues” with Carol, but the blame doesn’t fall on Lemon’s pilot boyfriend. I don’t know how to put this lightly, so I’ll just quote Lemon herself: “It’s like Fort Knox down there.”
In order to keep his Reaganing streak going by besting the ultimate challenge, he’s determined to get to the bottom of Liz’s issue. While I want to say this is way too much information, I have to admit I’ve always wondered what was with her irrational disgust for any mention of sex or intimacy. Dig away, Donaghy. Jack accuses Liz of being a prude, and that’s just the push she needs to dive into her past. She yells at him to stop, “Stop asking about the Roller Skates!”
Liz finally concedes and tells Jack why she hates sex so much. (This of course happens right after Jack does a creepy Reagan impression that I’m pretty sure could be a brand new source of sexual issues.) “Will you tell the Gipper your sexual story…Mommy?” We’re treated to a creepy 9 year old version of Liz (Tina Fey with Pete Rose haircut), skating through her childhood home as we learn about the fateful day that she learned to hate sex. The story’s not really that important, but it ends with little Liz in roller skates, with her underwear around her ankles (for completely nonsexual reasons), draped in a Tom Jones poster that had fallen on top of her. The story goes that her mother took all her posters away (you know, Han Solo, Kermit – the usual) after finding her squirming under the Tom Jones picture and thus “Sex makes the people go away.” Um. Okay, we’ll roll with it. (Get it? Because of the roller skates? Okay, moving on…)
Meanwhile Tracy has turned down a hosting gig at the MTV International Video Music Awards to film a commercial for the Boys and Girls Club with yet another director that he’s managed to piss off. The commercial shoot is blocking off the street (which is why Lemon and Jack are stuck in traffic) because it’s only supposed to need a few takes, but of course Tracy hasn’t learned his lines. The commercial goes through the entire one-shot sequence of kids performing tricks and athletic feats only for Tracy to screw it up at the end of each take – at one point he even ends up shirtless by the end of the shot. (Something tells me this plotline might be inspired by Tracy Morgan’s actual filming process.) Jack gets out of the limo to see what the problem is and since he’s on his Gipper kick, he decides he can fix Tracy so the commercial can wrap and he can get Liz to the airport. Inspired by Reagan’s love of jelly beans (and a conveniently placed jar full of them on set) Jack feeds Tracy jelly beans and does a Mr. Ed style dub of Tracy’s lines. And thus, he’s maintained his no-hitter…but there’s still the issue of Lemon.
While Jack’s solving everyone’s problems, Jenna is corrupting Kenneth. After she made Kenneth return an ice cream cake that she purchased with her “Free Ice Cream For Life Card” and the cashier gives him cash instead of credit, Jenna hatches a plan to continue to ice cream con long term. Kenneth’s family is hit hard by the economy (they’ve even had to sell of their childr- I mean pigs), so he’s happy to earn a little extra cash (and apparently too dumb to realize how dishonest they’re being). Eventually the ice cream store revokes Jenna’s card and the jig is up. Hungry for more cash, Kenneth insists they find another way. Of course they figure out a way to do one last big con (just like every crime movie, ever) and they enlist Kelsey Grammer who also possesses a Free Ice Cream For Life card. While it was nice to Frasier gracing the television waves once more, the whole ordeal was just annoying. Just how awful is Jenna? Jenna, Kelsey, and Kenneth do the last big job conning both Pete and the ice cream store and earning double the profit (800 bucks – where’s that Frasier money, Grammer?) but end up getting the clerk at the store fired. Kenneth feels awful and squashes any notions of further cons, Jenna understands. (She just hopes he dies in a car accident so she can have his “good heart.” Geez, Jenna, you’ve gone from egotistical and funny to creepy. Whoa.) Even so, she and Kelsey have got to beat him out of the con gang – sorry, The Best Friends Gang. Kenneth picked that name, didn’t he?
Finally, Jack and Lemon reach the airport and Jack’s convinced that he threw the perfect game because he still hasn’t managed to fix Lemon. When she gets to Newark she’s determined to set Carol free from her sexual issues, but Jack won’t let her. He tells her she’s “great” (yeah, it really happened! Aw, those two!) and that she and Carol deserve to be happy together. (No really, he said those things!) Finally it hits him: Tom Jones! The performance issue happened in Vegas, where Tom Jones plays shows every night, and their room was overlooking a Tom Jones marquis. Tom Jones is the trigger! She’s fixed, she goes running into the airport chanting “USA” as Jack looks on like a proud papa. Oh how I love their incredibly dysfunctional friendship and while I’m a little irked by her sexual back story, I’m glad we finally figured it out. Now she can go back to praising Meat Cat and cheesy blasters instead squirming at the word “climax.”