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.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
Follow @Michael Arbeiter
| Follow @Hollywood_com
Channing Tatum is a busy man.
We caught the actor on the set of White House Down in August of 2012, a down moment from his year in the spotlight. The actor was riding high from The Vow, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike, and only more in demand: he only had an eight week window to shoot director Roland Emmerich's Presidential home invasion action picture because he had two other movies gearing up to shoot and the stars aligned. Tatum's White House Down schedule demanded six-day weeks, 13 to 14 hour days, and an obstacle course of stuntwork. He couldn't be happier. To have figured out a way to do it.
"[White House Down] is exactly what I feel like movies should be," the actor says. "We're not curing brain cancer. We're having fun. We're blowing up the White House and doing a bunch of crazy stunts." Tatum cracks a grin recognizable from his performances, but it's 100% genuine. When he talks the madcap race to get White House Down in the can, he's giddy like a kid in the candy store.
"This movie's got a bunch of obvious bells and whistles," Tatum says. "I get to set the White House on fire. I think every American has thought about it once or twice. In the fun way, not the demented weird way." He describes White House Down like that the kind of movie where, despite having eight guys firing submachine guns at the hero, he'll survive. He'll get roughed up, sure, but he'll come back swinging. "It's supposed to be fun. You're supposed to feel like you're on a roller coaster."
The real draw for Tatum was working with Emmerich, who he praises as one of the most stylish directors he's ever met. That's important for Tatum: a good director needs to be aware of his presence, his look, his swagger, his attitude. "I believe movies are complete mirrors of the director," he says. "If someone doesn't know how to dress and decorate their house, some aspect of that will be missing. It doesn't matter if you have the best costume of set designer." Every emotion bleeds on to screen, and Tatum is keenly aware of this fact. Fashion matters. "It's the viewfinder of the director."
Tatum knows that staging a popcorn movie inside the White House could have implications into real world conversations. It's not Emmerich's goal to make a statement with the movie, but the actor says its something he and his director acknowledge. "It's not Hollywood's soapbox to say stuff that someone thinks we want to say," he says. "We're keeping things non-offensive. It falls way liberal or way conservative, it alienates people and their views. I think being aware of that is a responsibility."
The duo's real focus is delivering a kick-ass time at the movies. To do this, Tatum has thrown himself into the movie. In one scene, he and Jamie Foxx (who plays the President in the film) are hanging from an elevator shaft, that was built to allow the actors to physically dangle inside it. In another fight scene, Tatum picks up a toaster to wield as a makeshift flail. Fitting for an Emmerich — if the Independence Day director can't blow up the White House, he's going to rip it apart from the inside.
"I'm a sucker for this stuff," Tatum says. "I love it. The more they let me do, all do it all. I don't want to fly a helicopter because I don't know how to do that and I don't want to pop a wheelie on a motorcycle because I don't know how to do that, but all the rest of the stuff, I know how to do. And I can do it pretty aptly."
Tatum was drawn to White House Down because it injects action with a story he believes audiences will connect to. He thinks the state of genre movies is 'stark' and he's happy to mix it up. As he puts it, "Horror movies just have horror in them. Action movies just have action in them. If we could level it out, movies would get better." He hopes to use his newfound success to leverage these blended concepts. It won't be long before we see Tatum behind the camera. "[My business partner and I] want to direct and produce and more and more get our hands into it," he says. "I'll always be an actor-for-hire, but I want to move into the filmmaking side. Not just directing, but creating in general."
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
MORE:Roland Emmerich Takes Us on the Ultimate White House Field TripSee the First Footage from 'White House Down'Jimmy Kimmel Casts Channing Tatum in 'Movie: The Movie 2V'
From Our Partners:Eva Longoria Bikinis on Spring Break (Celebuzz)33 Child Stars: Where Are They Now? (Celebuzz)
One of the pitfalls of being a purportedly grownup film critic is that you are sometimes assigned the likes of Beverly Hills Chihuahua or Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. These films seem immune to criticism, as most people will dismiss all their problems with a flippant, “Well, it’s a kid’s movie.” But does a film’s target audience automatically absolve it of all faults? This dubious safety net overlooks the fact that when these movies make it to the video store, they are nestled under the “Family” section, not one labeled, “Kids.”
The best family films don’t rest on laurels, don’t cater exclusively to those still in OshKosh. Is it simply nostalgia that keeps us revisiting our favorite movies from our formative years? With the exception of the occasional return to the Space Jam universe, the answer is no. The great family films, the ones that stand the test of time, are the ones that strive for more than pre-school pandering. These classics, and some modern fare already flirting with classic status, are built upon solid fundamentals of filmmaking that represent a shared DNA. Here’s a look at those components and some of the phenomenal family fare composed of them.
Play To The Adults Too
It’s absurdly obvious to state that adults and children have wildly different conceptions of what is funny; that is unless Adam Sandler is involved. The main reason taking the kids to the movies on a Saturday afternoon is often such a chore is that the parents suffer through fart jokes and otherwise kid-centric humor with nothing to make themselves laugh. Great family films find a way to insert jokes that will fly gracefully over the heads of the tykes in the crowd and strike the funny bones of mom and dad. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs makes jokes about the cinematic proclivities of Roland Emmerich, Sky High references Tolstoy, and the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin lampoons everyone from Jack Nicholson to Peter Lorre. Heck, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie I watched repeatedly as a kid, is a film noir about an alcoholic private eye solving a murder incited by infidelity… with cartoon characters.
As in simply well-animated? Not in this instance. The best family films give us characters that linger in our consciousness for years, and not just because they're talking animals or the products of motion-capture. We need characters that are as empathetic as they are silly, as likable as they are loud. Buddy from Elf may strike us as goofy because he doesn’t understand things like escalators and revolving doors, but his naivety also translates to an unflappable optimism about the inherent goodness is all people. It’s genuine, it’s sweet, and it moves us. Pixar is able to create hopelessly adorable characters who don’t even speak. Wall-E’s big eyes and electronic mumbles enthrall the kiddies, but the joy he takes in simple, often ignored objects is warming for the kid-at-heart adults in the theater.
The element of adventure is vital to several genres, but crafting spectacle that will be appropriate for children while also thrilling adults is the daunting task faced by many family films. Pixar’s The Incredibles does precisely this, using superhero aesthetics that establish real stakes without copious amounts of blood. How to Train Your Dragon’s flight sequences are another great example, as is the silly, but odyssey-like journey of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. One need only look at Disney’s live-action family films of yesteryear to see how important the adventure component can be. Seeing the giant squid take on the Nautilus in their version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea made Jules Verne wonderfully accessible for kids, even if they had no idea they were subtly being educated in classic literature.
Why did so many of the early animated Disney films begin with the opening of a giant, ornate book? True, it could be credited to the fact that many were based on classic fairy tales, but also it’s because family films more than any other genre are about the importance of telling stories. The best family films understand the principle of storytelling as a form of cultural heritage. These are stories that communicate timeless themes that allow for the films themselves to stand the test of time. E.T. is not just about a boy and his alien, it’s about the anguish and loneliness of a child dealing with the divorce of his parents. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still dazzles children today, as well as adults, because it’s an underdog story that espouses the rewards of ethics. The Sandlot uses the great American pastime to illustrate the importance and impact of childhood friendships.
Strong stories are at the heart of these great family films, but they are films, requiring memorable visuals to function. The first thing most people think of when recalling The Wizard of Oz is either the melting of the wicked witch or the stark transition from black-and-white to color when Dorothy reaches Oz. Julie Andrews sang like an angel as Mary Poppins, but most recall her bottomless bag, vehicular umbrella, and ceiling tea parties. Even something as recent as The Nightmare Before Christmas is a testament to the importance of visuals in constructing quality family cinema. The slowly unfurling curled hill, the trees bearing symbols of the various holidays, and the creepy innards of Oogie Boogie encapsulate the immense creative genius of that movie.
From the warm reception that Diary of a Wimpy Kid has received, with many flocking to theaters this weekend to see a second sequel, it seems to be well on its way to being listed among these beloved titles. How many of the aforementioned vital elements can you see in Diary of a Wimpy Kid?
'The Hobbit': A Third Movie Officially in the Works
'Life of Pi' Trailer: Shipwrecks and Tigers and Whales. Oh My!
DreamWorks Buys 'Gumby', 'Casper', 'Dick Tracy', 'Lamb Chop', Everything Else You Love