Friday, May 16, 2014

GODZILLA (2014)

No screens.  As you know, MONSTERS director Gareth Edwards was selected to helm this second shot at an American Godzilla.  And it sure shows.  People expecting wall-to-wall demolition and monsters trading facepunches are going to be a little let down.  As with his previous film, Edwards focuses on the human characters in the wake of monster mayhem and so Godzilla gets treated as kind of an afterthought in much of GODZILLA.  Like OCULUS, it's a good movie from a director I like, but-  Let's get into it.

Since this is a good movie, I'm not going to totally spoil the plot, but here's what to expect.  Pay close attention during the inventive opening credits.  We get all sorts of teases that are quickly blotted out (I caught the word Illuminati during an executive producer credit or something).  Then we're into the meat of the film, with an accident at a Japanese nuclear facility leading to several deaths.  One of the dead is married to an engineer who then spends his life trying to uncover what really happened.  His son, Ford, who now lives in San Francisco with his own son, is annoyed by this (and the constant arrests).  Maybe a third of GODZILLA is about this plotline.

Then come the monsters.  We meet the M.U.T.O., which is a Gyaos-like bat-type beast with little dangling T-Rex arms.  I'm not in love with the design, but it's okay, certainly not as bad as some Godzilla foes.  The M.U.T.O. begins its rampage across the lands of the world and, incredibly, coincidentally, Ford keeps crossing paths with it as he tries to return home to his family.  A little iffy on the believability index, but we are watching a Godzilla movie. 

Speaking of, Godzilla finally shows up.  For forever, we see only his spinal ridges as he's swimming underwater, just like a shark.  When he emerges, he looks a lot like a cross between old-fashioned Japanese Godzilla and the cringeworthy '98 American version.  But I like the look, especially how much girth and heft he has.  The battle scenes, as I said, are really abrupt, but they are exciting.  Things don't get as explodey as, say, THE AVENGERS, but there are some neat toppling building effects and flashes of intense monster MMA.

WHAT WORKED: The look of the film is interesting. It's pretty restrained with color, so we get kind of a grim or foreboding feel that really suits the material.  I loved the exteriors and establishing shots, especially the Honolulu Airport, which just looks gorgeous here.  Godzilla looks great and should be exhilarating to watch in the sequels, when he'll hopefully have more screen time.  

WHAT DIDN'T: This has an A-list cast (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe), but it sort of doesn't need one.  The acting is solid all the way through, but, for a film that's focused on human characters, the script really doesn't provide a lot of opportunities for human emotions and relationships to build.  I thought Elizabeth Olsen was pretty impressive (and pretty pretty) as the beleaguered Mrs. Ford, though.  A lot of my problems with GODZILLA are script problems, since it seems like it doesn't fully capitalize on things that are right there, like a theme of families broken by disasters.  That's explored a little bit, but not enough to keep me caring more about potential widows and orphans than about monsters bickering.  It also could've used more monster diversity.  We spend so much time building up to the Godzilla/M.U.T.O. battle (which is resolved very quickly).  Would have been nice to see an opening-act monster get decimated.

Worth your time, but don't let the hype raise your hopes to unreachable heights.

***

Friday, May 9, 2014

SUPERNATURAL (1933)


Opening with doleful quotes over stormy waters, SUPERNATURAL sure seems poised to kick ass.  The warnings recall DEMONS and I prepare myself to watch wood-smashing pimps and devil girls with absurd manicures.  But it's 1933 and the best we can reasonably expect is crazed melodrama and lots of early visual effects.


And it happens and it's good...for about the first 10 minutes.  Crazy person Ruth Rogen is bound for the electric chair because she choked a few people to death with her Beowulf-like grip.


Easy enough to comprehend, but now the plot starts getting a little busy.  The first big red flag is the appearance of our friend, the Comedy Drunk.  She's the landlady of the con man medium who sent Ruth away.  Through a series of scenes, we learn what a dirty rotten scoundrel this Paul Bavien really is.  Shades of NIGHTMARE ALLEY.


Thus far, the most likeable character is an alcoholic who lives in roach-ridden squalor.  So, okay, enter more non-repulsives, in the persons of rich heiress Roma Courtney and her love interest.  There's also a psychiatrist with all kinds of the off-the-wall theories about soul transference between bodies and such.   


The fake medium fakery is pretty transparently abutted against the doctor's crazy theories to make them seem less crazy.  These scenes are fairly well-done, given the time.  I liked a lot of the camerawork in the film in general.  


The acting, story, and pacing, not so much.  Carole Lombard has a good reputation from her work in romance and comedy, and she gives the whole possessed lady thing a good try.  She bounces a bit between leering and sneering, and then later lying sexily around in a dark fur.  This film's success hinges on her performance and her presentation, and neither are really bad, but they're also not good enough to carry the day.


Even though this is just over an hour in running time, it manages to feel first bloated and then rushed.  Pacing is a huge issue with SUPERNATURAL, much as it was in the same director's WHITE ZOMBIE.  I love charlatan psychics and female possession, so you'd think this would be right up my (nightmare) alley.  But it's creaky and then it shifts into annoying overdrive for the conclusion, satisfying nobody.  I didn't feel tormented while watching it, but I never felt engaged either.  


PS I am using stars/snowflakes now, ok. **1/2

Sunday, May 4, 2014

1920 (2008)

Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.  For example, just because you can add a lengthy and unskippable slideshow of a movie to the menu of the DVD of that movie, That Does Not Mean You Should!  I can't imagine how annoyed I'd be by this if I wanted to rewatch it and had to sit through five minutes of the stuff below before I got a chance to actually watch the movie.  Every single time.


Thankfully, 1920 gets a lot better once you slump past the menus.  It's a period piece set in (duh) 1920 and the film does a fine job at squeezing supernatural fun out of its spooky mansion setting.  


Said mansion is projected to be demolished in order to build a "grand hotel" for "passing British people".  But architects who get hired to plan the demolishing end up getting demolished themselves.  And that's where our story begins, with newly-married architect Arjun and wife Lisa.  Oh, and PS, Arjun rejected his gods to save Lisa from a burning car at the beginning of the movie.  That could be important later.


1920 is not going to give you anything you haven't seen before.  It's a fun and pretty conventional haunted house movie that becomes a conventional possession movie in the second half.  But, just like a hamburger made by a master chef is better than a hamburger made by a teenager in a paper hat, technical prowess elevates what would be standard fare here.  The film has excellent camerawork and set design and the performances are all pretty strong.


I enjoyed the more restrained and suggestive first half a bit more than the hissing demon possession of the second.  That's probably just personal preference, although the coolness of the blood Baphomet that kicks off the film's tonal shift cannot be denied.


The movie does give us a few small surprises.  I liked the inclusion of a Catholic priest in this Indian film.  Although maybe the filmmakers were just copy-and-pasting THE EXORCIST, it gives 1920 a little bit of color.  And it speaks to a pet peeve of mine, namely people who are convinced that whatever religion rules in their random land of birth is the One True Way.  It was also nice to see British/Indian tension woven into the subtext of the film.  One wouldn't expect political discourse from this kind of movie and it's nice to see it, even if it is pitched aside in favor of arch-backed devil women in the end.


So there you have it.  Narratively, nothing special, religious diversity and anti-imperialism aside.  But, technically, visually, this looks great and is clearly carefully staged.  If you like Argento for the colors or have an appreciation for the arty side of scare movies, you just might dig this.


RATING: 6

Saturday, May 3, 2014

THE GOLDEN BAT (1966)

Sometimes, you get dismayed by how much trash shows up in the trashier genres.  As you sit through endless slasher sequels and the coming of mumblegore, you wonder if you should maybe be watching David Lean or HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY instead of wasting your life.  But then you see something like THE GOLDEN BAT and you pump your fist and say proudly, "I should totally be wasting my life!"


One word review: incredible.  Many word review: it seems appropriate to watch this on a weekend when droves will hit malls to watch a surely-disappointing SPIDER MAN sequel.  THE GOLDEN BAT was made for perhaps a tenth of the SPIDEY catering budget and it shows in the shoddy effects and LOL-meriting costumes.  But this movie also shows its heart and melts our hearts with its unrelenting devotion to fun.


Earth's got a lotta problems.  For one thing, there's this planet called Icarus that is heading right for it/us!  But don't worry, the U.N. has commissioned a group to save us.  Remember, this is 1966 and it was still possible to depict the U.N. as planet-stopping saviors.  But not even the U.N. can stop both a planet and the evil alien Nazo, who shows up in a radical giant drill that looks a bit like a more convincing Evil Bong.


One imagines that Nazo bought the pimped-out space drill to compensate for his own physical inadequacies.  He kinda looks like an aardvark costume made by a blind person with a GWAR claw inexplicably attached to one arm.  


Stereotypes galore get shattered in THE GOLDEN BAT because the baddie looks non-menacing and unintimidating.  But, conversely, we get a hero who mixes a very villain-esque look (skull-face) with non-heroic elements (as in, his main weapon is a BATON—yes, the same thing majorettes use when they lead parades).


I dug the breadth of monsters on parade here.  Nazo's too lazy and goofy-looking to do his own dirty work, so he subcontracts to a whole gaggle of weirdos.  Best name award goes to Keloid, but for looks, I'd pick Jackal.  His absurdly-overgroomed beard and haircut contrast splendidly with his fuzzy spacesuit with tracksuit striping.


This is mostly a kid affair, so we don't get a lot in terms of GOLDEN girls, but sometimes the hottie alarm gets triggered.  


Okay, anyway, the plot is Nazo menacing the Earth and also this runaway planet menacing it, too.  The U.N. action team flies their flying car to the recently-resurfaced Atlantis.  There, they're attacked, but manage to awaken the Golden Bat, a baton-wielding hero who's promised to save Earth from peril.  


From there, we just get cup after cup of delicious insanity continuously poured down our throats.  If I had to pick one element of this film to love forever, it would be the laughing.  Jackal laughs like a choking infant and it's glorious.  Nazo doesn't have a mouth, so he has laugh using his whole teddy bear-ish body.  But Best Laugh honors go to the Golden Bat himself.  He frequently unleashes this blood-curdling witch cackle while shaking his shoulders and, by proxy, his baton.  It's glorious.  It looks like a skeleton in a luchadore outfit is conducting an orchestra.  


All the laughter in the film is easily shared by the audience when you see scenes like the fight on top of a moving airship, complete with lots of jumping and baton strikes and no one's clothes even rustling slightly in the breeze.


Plus the Golden Bat's mighty battle cry is "Receive the baton of justice!"  And there are approximately a jillion other pleasures to be unearthed here.  I'm honestly pretty shocked that this doesn't have more of a reputation.  It never slows down and just stays committed to lunacy throughout its reasonable running time.  For lovers of everything from BATMAN to GODZILLA, this is your next sure thing.


RATING: 7