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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The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
Top Story: Affleck & Lopez Playing the Media?
Hollywood couple Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez could be pulling the wool over the media's eyes. According to reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press, the celebrity duo was spotted Monday at the Liberty County Courthouse in a southeast Georgia town, and "looked totally together, smiling and happy," a deputy registrar at the courthouse told the Journal-Constitution, just weeks after canceling their impending nuptials in California. Although a Liberty County sheriff told AP Affleck stopped to ask about a gun permit, the reason the two were at the courthouse is still up for speculation. The couple recently purchased a home together on Georgia's Hampton Island.
Leno Welcomes Calif. Candidates
Ninety of the 135 candidates running for governor of California in the recall election made an appearance Monday on NBC's The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. "Welcome to California, now under the division of Ringling Bros., ladies and gentlemen," Leno said as he ushered in the eclectic group to his 300-seat NBC studio for the taping of the program, The Associated Press reports. During the taping, Leno gave each candidate 10 seconds to say what he or she would do to improve California--only they had to all answer at the same time. The talk show host also poked fun at candidate Kurt Rightmyer, who identifies himself as a "middleweight sumo wrestler," who said his platform was to cut out the fat from the budget so he can eat it. The show also featured actor Robert Downey Jr., who labeled the recall election as "a sick, pathetic circus"--then announced he was running. Leno gently let Downey know that could be a problem because of "two words: convicted felon."
Schwarzenegger Begins Campaign Commercials
More on the election: Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger began running separate television commercials Tuesday criticizing Gov. Gray Davis' current term as well as the problem of illegal immigrants obtaining drivers' licenses and the influence Indian tribes have over California politics, City News reports. The commercial criticizes the casinos for being allowed not to pay taxes and the heavy campaign contributions they offer. The Davis campaign issued a statement saying that every governor since 1959 has had at least one term with spending growth greater than Davis' and employment is rising, City News reports.
Beckhams Say Marriage Is Just Fine
Contrary to rumors that the fairy-tale marriage between soccer superstar David Beckham and former Spice Girl Victoria is on the rocks, a statement released by the couple Sunday affirmed their "marriage is not in crisis," AP reports. British tabloid News of the World speculated tensions were brewing between the two since Beckham moved to Spain to play for the Real Madrid soccer team and Victoria is reported to have been reluctant to relocate to Madrid full time. "Since we first met, our careers have always meant we have spent time apart. This is not a reflection on the strength of our marriage and we are very much enjoying our new life in Spain," the couple's statement said. "We are extremely happy together as a family. Our only difficulty has been finding a house in Madrid that meets our needs."
Hepburn's N.Y. Home Up for Sale
The New York City townhouse owned by the late Katharine Hepburn went up for sale Monday with a hefty $4.95 million prize tag attached, Reuters reports. Hepburn bought the four-story townhouse in the Turtle Bay Gardens section of Manhattan in 1937 after renting it for six years, Halstead Property, the broker handling the sale, told Reuters. The 96-year-old Hepburn died in June in her family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
TV Profanity on the Rise
A new study put out by the watchdog group the Parents Television Council says swearing on television has increased on all the major networks, AP reports. The council said it studied all primetime entertainment series from a two-week period in 1998, 2000 and 2002 and found a jump in profanity on "virtually every network" and in every time slot. They are asking the TV industry to "get serious about reducing the flood of vulgarity. ... Barring that, the [Federal Communications Commission] needs to get serious about enforcing broadcast decency laws," AP reports.
Role Call: ER Gets New Blood, Gibson Rides With Motorcycle Gang, John Waters' Shame
Actors Nicholas D'Agosto and Rossif Sutherland, Donald Sutherland's son, are joining the cast of NBC's ER, as recurring characters. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the show is trying to rejuvenate the ratings as it goes into its 10th season…Meanwhile, Mel Gibson, having completed his controversial religious film The Passion, is looking to star in a project about an infamous motorcycle gang. Variety reports Gibson is in negotiations to star in Under and Alone, an action drama based on the true story of ATF undercover agent Billy Queen, who infiltrated the notorious and violent Mongols Motorcycle Club…Eclectic director John Waters' new film A Dirty Shame was bought by Fine Line Features and begins shooting Sept. 24. According to the studio's press release, the film will star Tracey Ullman as a blue-collar convenience store owner who suffers a concussion and experiences carnal lust she cannot control. The comedy also stars Chris Isaak, Johnny Knoxville and Selma Blair.