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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TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
An hour and change into Pompeii, there's a volcano. You'd think there might have been a volcano throughout — you'd think that the folks inhabiting the ill-fated Italian village would have been dealing with the infamous volcano for the full 110 minutes. After all, volcano movies have worked before. Volcano, for instance. And the other one. But for some reason, Pompeii feels the need to stuff its first three quarters with coliseum battles, Ancient Rome politics, unlikely friendships, and a love story. But we don’t care. We can't care. None of it warrants our care. Where the hell is the volcano, already?
To answer that: it's off to the side — rumbling. Smoking. Occasionally spiking the neighboring community with geological fissures or architectural misgivings. Pretty much executing every trick picked up in Ominous Foreshadowing 101, but never joining the story. Not until Paul W.S. Anderson shouts, "Last call," hitting us with a final 20-odd minutes of unmitigated disaster (in a good way). If you've managed to maintain a waking pulse throughout the lecture in sawdust that is Pompeii's story, then you might actually have a good time with the closing sequence. It has everything you’d expect — everything you had been expecting! — and delivers it with gusto. Torpedoes of smoke running hordes of idiot villagers out of their homes and toward whatever safety the notion of forward has to offer. Long undeveloped characters rising to the occasion to rescue hapless princesses who thought it might be a good idea to set their vacation homes at the foot of a lava-spewing mountain. The whole ordeal is actually a lot of laughs. But it amounts to a dessert just barely worth the tasteless dinner we had to force down to get there.
TriStar Pictures via Everett Collection
To get through the bulk of Pompeii, we recommend focusing all your attentions away from the effectively bland slave/gladiator/hero Kit Harington — sorry, Jon Snow (he's actually called a bastard at one point) — and onto his partner in crime: a scowling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje — sorry, Mr. Eko (he and Snow actually trade valedictions by saying "I'll see you at another time, brother" at one point) — who warms up to his fellow prize fighter during their shared time in the klink, and delivers his moronic material with a sprinkle of flair. Keeping the working man down is Kiefer Sutherland — sorry, Jack Bauer — as an ostentatious Roman senator, doling out vainglory in Basil Fawlty-sized portions. When he's not spitting scowls at peasants, ol' JB is undermining the efforts of an earnest local governor Jared Harris — sorry, Lane Pryce (he actually calls someone a mad man at one point) — and his wife Carrie-Anne Moss — sorry, Katherine O'Connell from Vegas (joking! Trinity) — and finagling the douchiest marriage proposal ever toward their daughter Emily Browning — sorry, but I have no idea what she's from.
But questionable television references and some enjoyably daft performances by Eko and Jack can't really make up for the heft of mindless dullness that Pompeii passes off as its narrative... until the big showstopper.
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In truth, the last sequence is a gem. It's fun, inviting, and energizing, and might even call into question the possibility that Pompeii is all about how futile life, love, friendship, politics, and pride are when even the most egregiously complicated of plots can be taken out in the end by a sudden volcanic eruption. But you have to wade through that egregious complication to get there, and you shouldn't expect to have too much of a good time doing so.
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There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
There were very few concretely good movies this year (I’m pretty sure The Situation has written more books than there are worthwhile flicks from 2010). Whenever one like Inception or Black Swan or Toy Story 3 came out and totally blew our minds, we were so thankful because it meant we didn't have to keep sucking the marrow out of mediocre movies in hope of getting one drop of enjoyable cinema. Finally there was somewhere we could turn for definitive and dependable entertainment! However, the supreme goodness of movies like Inception and Toy Story 3 cast a shadow over the majority of this year's releases and the coming of the new year and award season means some unlucky films will be forgotten. Here are the top ten movies we're most likely to forget ever existed once the clock strikes 12 on New Year's Eve and we're making out with a doorman.
A leap year happens only once every four years and a movie about a leap year hardly ever happens, so it’s no wonder this “romantic comedy” starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode isn’t in the forefront of your mind. Also, it was released way back on January 8th, so it’s had a lot of time to collect dust on the shelf with Peabody, whose eyes are vacant of your love. AND ALSO, Leap Year was about a woman who comes across as utterly unlikable based on how she perpetuates the belief that women can’t be the ones to propose marriage over the course of her quest to prove otherwise. In other words, a movie that seeks to redefine marital traditions, but ends up reinforcing them in the end? In 2010, the year where people are proposing to their spouses via viral videos? Unbelievable.
The Killer Inside Me
Not to be confused with the good movie, I Know Who Killed Me! TKIM starred Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba and was about the old wives tale of a Texas deputy sheriff who sleeps with a prostitute and her allure turns someone into a serial killer. If that plot alone doesn’t make it a nondescript movie, perhaps knowing that critics were careful enough to note the poor musical score will solidify things. At least things ended well for Affleck, who managed to follow this pointless flick with one of the most hated and deception-based movies of the year!
The Wolfman was one of, if not the only movie this year that dealt with werewolves. That alone should mean we’d be most likely to remember when Benicio Del Toro played a man who was bitten by a werewolf when he went back to his hometown in search of his brother’s killer. But because Benicio looks like a werewolf when he’s walking to the dry cleaners, this films place in this year’s cinema roundup seems totally hazy. Not even the presence of Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins made this movie stand out, which again is quite telling since it was the only movie this year about the guys on our flannel sheets!
Cop Out had Bruce Willis playing a police officer who was planning to pay for his daughter’s wedding by selling a very expensive and collectible baseball card, but when it is suddenly stolen he enlists the help of his cop friend and “memorabilia-obsessed gangster,” played by Tracy Morgan, to help him retrieve it. Despite featuring a widely favored and totally under-cast Morgan, the method of getting us to care about a baseball card by making it worth the price of an innocent girl's dream wedding was cheap and transparent and therefore deemed unworthy of our neurons by our neurons.
Ah yes, Legion: the movie that was supposed to encourage us to consider how fragile the human race is, despite appearing in theaters during a period in history when we're so resourceful that we're downloading apps on our iPhones to tell us which restaurants have bathrooms that aren’t reserved just for patrons. In Legion, God loses faith in humanity and sends a bunch of angels to kick-start the Apocalypse. Humanity is saved only by Paul Bettany (which isn’t entirely unbelievable in real life either), when random strangers are trapped in a diner with him and he restores their good-nature.
Greenberg was a Noah Baumbach film starring Ben Stiller, who played a New Yorker that moved to Los Angeles to do the most annoying thing to watch someone do onscreen: GET THEIR SHIT TOGETHER. While house sitting for his brother, Greenberg starts to feel something for his brother’s assistant, which while sweet does not make his existence (no matter how fictionalized) on the planet any harder to resent.
Ryan Reynolds played Jeff Daniels’ imaginary superhero friend and Emma Stone played some weird teenage girl that was friends with Daniels somewhere in Long Island. I swear I’m not leaving anything out. Except Lisa Kudrow.
In Repo Men, Jude Law and Forest Whitaker played members of “The Union” that repossess the highly efficient mechanical organs from the unwell people who’ve failed to make the necessary payments on them. After Law’s (or former soldier Remy) heart fails on the job, he receives one of “The Union’s” organs but is naturally unable to pay for it. He then finds himself fighting his ex-partner, who has been assigned to reclaim the device inside him, to keep the organ (and his life). Why “The Union” was smart enough to have people to repossess the organs from those who couldn’t make the payments but dumb enough to loan the organs out to people that couldn’t pay for them was beyond all of us.
This was the movie that resulted in Joan Jett and Cherie Currie briefly emerging from their igloos of gold records to defend Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as legitimate actresses. It made you buy a guitar that you're currently trying to figure out who to give to for Christmas.
You either loved or hated MacGruber, but chances are you forgot it was made the second Joseph Gordon-Levitt explained what a "kick" was in Inception. It was based on the series of SNL sketches that were also headed by Will Forte (which were actually quite hilarious) and was excellent in that it juxtaposed serious actors like Val Kilmer and Ryan Phillippe opposite noted comedians and SNL alumni. The worst and saddest thing about this movie was that it came in a year where we were basically so starving for good movies that when something revolutionary came along (like Inception), this flick was instantaneously pushed to the side way before it should have been.