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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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.
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We've trawled through the happenings and the hits, the flops and the fuss to bring you the last 12 months in quiz form.
So, as we ring in 2010, here's your chance to test the old grey matter with 30 posers about the closing year.
Best of luck...
1. Name Kate Hudson's former baseball beau.
a. Alex Rodriguez
b. Derek Jeter
c. Manny Ramirez
2. Who won the 2009 Oscar for Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role?
a. Sean Penn
b. Brad Pitt
c. Mickey Rourke
3. And who won Oscar gold in the Actress in a Supporting Role category?
a. Amy Adams
b. Penelope Cruz
c. Viola Davis
4. Name the actress who won damages from U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail after the publication called her "the most irritating actress".
a. Kate Winslet
b. Dame Judi Dench
c. Kate Hudson
5. Name the Russian who gave birth to Mel Gibson's baby in October.
a. Petra Nemcova
b. Oksana Grigorieva
c. Anna Kournikova
6. How many kids does Mel Gibson now have?
7. Which actress fasted for 12 days to highlight the plight of refugees in Darfur?
a. Angelina Jolie
b. Charlize Theron
c. Mia Farrow
8. Which great Brit recovered from a late 2008 coma to start work on his 74th film role this past summer?
a. Christopher Lee
b. Lord Attenborough
c. Sir Ian McKellen
9. Which top TV actress said, "I was named after my great-grandmother. If you look it up it's Greek, but my grandmother was apparently named after an Irish Catholic saint, who had an indiscretion with the Greek god Zeus and was kicked out."
a. Vivica A. Fox
b. Penelope Cruz
c. Calista Flockhart
10. Which movie star quit acting to become a batty rapper?
a. Hugh Grant
b. Joaquin Phoenix
c. Mark Wahlberg
11. Which Irish actor became a dad for the second time this year?
a. Colin Farrell
b. Colin Firth
c. Daniel Day-Lewis
12. She played TV chef Julia Child and Fantastic Mr. Fox's wife in two 2009 films. Name the Oscar winner.
a. Nicole Kidman
b. Julia Roberts
c. Meryl Streep
13. The castmembers of which famous TV sitcom reunited for an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm?
14. Which sexy star inhabited Jennifer's Body?
a. Megan Fox
b. Eva Mendes
c. Kate Beckinsale
15. Which Charlie's Angels star died on the same day as Michael Jackson?
a. Cheryl Ladd
b. Jaclyn Smith
c. Farrah Fawcett
16. Which 2009 movie did George Clooney not appear in?
a. Fantastic Mr. Fox
b. The Men Who Stare At Goats
c. The Blind Side
17. Which funnyman had heart surgery in 2009 to replace a heart valve?
a. Robin Williams
b. Pierce Brosnan
c. Alec Baldwin
18. Which box office smash hit featured balloons, an old man and a boy scout?
c. Monsters Vs. Aliens
19. Jaime Pressly, Claire Danes, Marla Sokoloff and Anna Faris all had what in common in 2009?
a. They got married this year
b. They had a baby this year
c. They spent time in rehab
20. Which actress was unceremoniously ditched from the Twilight franchise?
a. Ashley Greene
b. Dakota Fanning
c. Rachelle Lefevre
21. And which filmmaker's daughter will replace her in Eclipse next year?
a. Bryce Dallas Howard
b. Jessica Capshaw
c. Eva Amurri
22. Which Beatle does Aaron Johnson portray in Sam Taylor-Wood's directorial debut Nowhere Boy?
a. Paul McCartney
b. Ringo Starr
c. John Lennon
23. Which British actress was left "mortified" when Esquire magazine named her the year's Sexiest Woman?
a. Kate Winslet
b. Katie Price
c. Kate Beckinsale
24. Name the director of Inglourious Basterds.
a. Steven Spielberg
b. Ron Howard
c. Quentin Tarantino
25. Which British actor played the roles of Scotty in Star Trek and an adventurous mammal in Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs?
a. Hugh Laurie
b. Simon Pegg
c. Colin Firth
26. And which original Star Trek castmember was 'beamed up' for the summer sci-fi epic?
a. Leonard Nimoy
b. William Shatner
c. George Takei
27. Name the apt title of tragic movie star Patrick Swayze's memoirs.
a. The Time of My Life
b. No More Dirty Dancing
c. Next of Kin
28. Who will co-host the Oscars in March?
a. Brad Pitt and George Clooney
b. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman
c. Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin
29. Which former heavyweight boxing champion played himself in hit comedy The Hangover?
a. Muhammad Ali
b. Mike Tyson
c. Lennox Lewis
30. And, here's a real toughie to finish on... Name Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick's surrogate, who carried and gave birth to the couple's twins.
a. Kim Cattrall
b. Katherine Ross
c. Michelle Ross