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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Not every show can go out on a good note. Sure, some shows like Breaking Bad come up with a conclusion that feels right and true to most fans. But usually, when a show has been on the air for a while, finding a tidy way to wrap things up can be a chore.
Even if it's been planned out since the beginning, as was the case with the series finale of How I Met Your Mother, it's hard to make people who have invested time in the characters feel like they've said goodbye in a satisfying way. While the fury swells over the HIMYM's controversial ending, it's helpful to distract ourselves with other epic finale fails Ted and his stupid blue French horn are up against.
It's like the start of a joke… Tony Soprano walks into a diner.
That's how David Chase sets up the finale of his landmark HBO series. The Mafia boss made famous by the late James Gandolfini rifles through a jukebox at his table and picks out Journey's "Don’t Stop Believing." His wife Carmela (Edie Falco) joins him, soon followed by his son A.J. (Robert Iler). The diner is full. A guy in a hat sits at a nearby booth and may have eyed Tony when he was alone. Another guy in a Members Only jacket enters right before A.J. and seems kind of twitchy. Another pair of guys lingers near the counter. Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is late because she can't parallel park. The jacket guy walks past the Soprano's table and goes into the bathroom. Meadow, finally out of the car, walks towards the door of the diner. She reaches out to open it, the bell rings above the door and… nothing. Cut to a black screen.
Millions of Americans reached for their remote, sure that their TV sets had just completely screwed them over and were poised to call their cable company... when suddenly the credits started to roll. The shock that the series ended with a cut to black set fans howling and looking for answers. Did we go black because a bullet just went through Tony's head? Did the bell mean something? Were the potential threats in the diner just a part of Tony's normal paranoia? What the heck does any of it mean? Chase has steadfastly refused to provide much in the way of explanation, leaving a large section of the fan base furious over the ambiguity.
The show about nothing decided to make the end about something. That's a problem. With Larry David back to write the final episode of the show that he created with his friend Jerry Seinfeld, the group is about to have some good fortune. The show-within-a-show created by Jerry and George (Jason Alexander) finds new life and the duo, along with Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Kramer (Michael Richards), are jetting off to Paris to celebrate in a private jet courtesy of NBC. But, some mechanical issues ground them and while they wait, they stand around making jokey comments about a car-jacking that they're witnessing. Next thing you know, we're in a court room with every ancillary character in the history of the show, each with his or her own story of how horrible Jerry and his friends are. The foursome is led to a single jail cell after being convicted under a Good Samaritan law and, essentially, starts having a conversation the same as they would at Monk's or Jerry's apartment.
As the credits role, Jerry, dressed in prison orange, performs a stand-up routine for the other inmates. The finale was bloated, lazy, and worst of all, not funny… with jokes falling flat left and right. Apparently most of the humor was supposed to come from the audience seeing the Soup Nazi or Newman one last time. For a show that had delivered consistent laughs throughout its entire run, not remaining true to the style of humor that had made it a cultural phenomenon was the ultimate sin.
The critically acclaimed '80s medical drama had a very loyal fan base that kept it on the air. It's hard to remember but the Boston-based show was the career launching pad for a number of actors, Denzel Washington and Mark Harmon chief amongst them, and was a major influence on later hospital series like ER and Grey's Anatomy. In the finale, a bearded Howie Mandel leaves after finishing his residency and David Morse's soulful Dr. Morrison collects his young son to depart as well. As the show's moral center Dr. Westphal (Ed Flanders) returns to his office, his autistic son (Chad Allen) stares out the window at the falling snow.
Cut to: Westphal now dressed as a construction worker entering an apartment where his son is on the floor staring at a snow globe. What's inside the globe? A replica of St. Eligius Hospital, or St. Elsewhere, as it's more commonly called. So, the whole show was just something that played out in the mind of an autistic boy? Is that it? Really? The whole "it was all fake" ending worked exactly once with the brilliant final reveal on Newhart, but that's it.
The closet serial killer played by Michael C. Hall is getting out of the game. With his girlfriend Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) and son Harrison (Evan and Luke Kruntchev) in tow, he's going to skip out to Argentina and lead a more peaceful life... then a criminal shoots Dex's sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter). Even though she seems fine, she suddenly lapses into a coma after a massive stroke. Dexter kind of matter-of-factly kills Saxon while he's in police custody, sends Hannah and Harrison off to Buenos Aires, and then takes Deb off life support. He steals her body and dumps it into the sea, before faking his own death. Except when we see Hannah and Harrison way down south, Dexter isn't with them and Hannah is reading a news story about his presumed watery demise.
We hear Dexter in a voice-over explaining how hard it is to be him. So, where is he? Well, why don't we let every fan of the Showtime hit take over from here: "A lumberjack?! He's a f**king lumberjack?! What do you mean he's a f**king lumberjack?!" Before that final scream-inducing reveal — seriously, how many TV sets were broken when remotes went sailing into them immediately after the shot of bearded Dexter? — the episode was pretty lifeless, moving from point A to B to C in a paint-by-numbers kind of way.
Just like with Seinfeld, the ending to Roseanne Barr's long-running sitcom felt like a cheat. Really it was a case where the show probably should've ended a couple of seasons before it actually did. The final season was an unmitigated disaster as the Connors won the lottery and the entire premise of the show changed, becoming a distorted rumination on the meaning of life. In the final episode, we see the cast of the show gathered around the kitchen table eating, laughing, and joking. Then a voice-over from Rosanne tells us that what we've been watching was a figment of her imagination. She's changed things from real life as she's written, including having Dan survive the heart attack that actually killed him two years prior. Worse, she calls into question what parts of the show going back before the heart attack were real (what do you mean David is really Becky's boyfriend?). Considering that the show became a ratings juggernaut with its funny portrayal of the real issues that face lower-middle class Americans, being told that it was just the main character's alternate reality was a slap in the face. And, while it's fine for a finale to be packed with emotion — plenty of fans cried at the end of M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show — the final shot of Roseanne sitting alone on her couch was unnecessarily depressing.
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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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
First thing's first: Magic Mike delivers on the eye candy. Club Xquisite the wildest male strip club in Tampa sports an ensemble of muscled men ready to flash their ridiculous moves in even more ridiculous dance numbers (this crew has never seen a pair of assless pants they didn't like). Bringing a few dollar bills to the movie is recommended — Magic Mike is shot up close and personal enough that flailing them about will come naturally.
But between the codpieces air humping and penis pumps Magic Mike tells a surprisingly relatable funny and poignant parable centered on a character all too familiar to anyone with an ounce of ambition. Mike (Channing Tatum) leads a triple life: By day he's a roof tiler; by night an exotic dancer; and in his dreams he's a furniture craftsman and entrepreneur. When Mike first crosses paths with Adam (Alex Pettyfer) his worries about the future are dispelled slipping right into mentor mode to show the 19-year-old the wonders of sex drugs and rock and roll. Adam's broke and without direction — the perfect state of being for a stripper-in-the-making. Mike's sales pitch is irresistible and when Adam unwillingly takes the stage for the first time he feels the rush of a dozen woman screaming groping and stuffing singles down his jock strap. There's no question: A stripper's life is a journey worth embarking on.
In his typical fashion director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic Erin Brockovich) defies conventions sticking with Mike's ups and downs rather than transforming Magic Mike into a Goodfellas-esque "newbie in over his head" story. Between playing protector to the mesmerized Adam and attempting to strike up an actual relationship with Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn) Mike finds himself for the first time looking inward. Does a job define a man? He's convinced it doesn't but as Adam loses himself to the profession becoming the Xquisite's cutthroat owner Dallas' (the wonderfully slimy Matthew McConaughey) right-hand man and parlaying the gig into more dangerous ventures Mike realizes breakdancing in thongs may be more poisonous to his dreams than he ever realized.
Exploitation Magic Mike is not. The film's dance sequences are sexy and sleek but only to clue the audience into the job's allure. Backstage is equally important; Soderbergh does an amazing job constructing the boy's club atmosphere that keeps Mike and Adam coming back. Lively characters like Ken (Matt Bomer) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) say little but speak volumes in the background of every scene. They're palling around and when they finally do reach out to Adam to profess their friendship it makes perfect sense. For a guy without a family the dancers are a perfect replacement.
While the cast is stellar Tatum continues his streak of star-making performances in the role of Mike. Obviously the man can dance — and he blows any memories of Step Up into oblivion. Beyond that he's perfectly in tune with Soderbergh's naturalistic style cool on his feet with the comedy and devastatingly subtle in the drama. His rapport with Horn who is equally striking in her casual approach is sweet and real a constant reminder that even a guy who lap dances in a fireman costume for a living has feelings too. Soderbergh enhances each of his performers with spot on photography: His Tampa is gritty and yellow-tinged the interior of the club a safe haven from the blase nature of reality. Magic Mike carries a full package.
Magic Mike hits all the right notes of comedy and drama that's completely unexpected in the summer blockbuster surroundings. Come for the stripping stay for the high-caliber filmmaking. Magic Mike is one of the year's best.