GODZILLA (**)

Godzilla

Ask yourself this question: Why do we go to see Kaiju movies? Is it to dwell on the human drama and suffering that people go through in the wake of the cataclysmic destruction? Or is it to experience forces of nature embodied in brobdingnagian beasts colliding in the oppositional purity of good versus evil? It is a question that I wish I could ask Gareth Edwards. Because regardless of which answer one adheres to, his efforts in GODZILLA fail to satisfy either desire as it tries confusingly to satisfy both.

This is not to say that both answers are not mutually exclusive. Though I prefer the kind of monster movies that fueled my childhood excitement of seeing beings that were cinematically larger than life, I would have been equally thrilled in witnessing a grave parable on man’s destructive folly (such as the original GODZILLA in 1954) or the humbling and indifferent power of nature (in the spirit of Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA). Such a somber tone was what I was expecting when the first Godzilla footage was leaked with Oppenheimer’s words. Subsequent trailers featuring Lygeti’s “Lux Aeterna” only reinforced my expectations.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW

The film initially plays out that way with interlaced clips of atomic tests from the past. It introduces a nuclear disaster at the turn of the 21st century, which breaks the lives of the Brodys, an American family in Japan. Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are the father and mother; scientists who are hit directly by catastrophe, claiming the life of the latter and driving the former’s guilt-ridden obsession to find out what caused the tragedy in the present day. As long kept secrets come to the fore, their now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) continues his father’s fight.

These initial scenes of human drama are done splendidly, perhaps better than they have any right to be, with Bryan Cranston serving as the emotional anchor of our investment. His loss and dogged pursuit carries us through the long plot points building suspense for the film’s otherworldly sights. But once it gets there, the movie doesn’t work out as intended.

The creature that caused Joe’s misfortune, as well as most of the devastation later in the film, is revealed not to be GODZILLA, but that of a competing winged beast (M.U.T.O.) which feeds on atomic radiation. It is at this point where scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) presents Godzilla to us as a stabilising force. A good guy that flies in the face of everything it was advertised to be. I then thought that the movie would take a more awe-inspiring adventurous spirit as Godzilla sequels had done in the past. No worries, I thought.

But as the movie played on, it was hard to place in which direction Gareth Edwards wanted to go. The film’s structure dictates a battle between opposing entities on a godly scale, but its interest in them is fleeting. Glorious shots of Godzilla and its adversaries are held but momentarily, often cutting far away to side conflicts or scenes of distressed survivors amid ruin, just as I wanted more. These shifting contrasts frustrated me. Did it want to leave me in wonder, or to ponder an apocalyptic aftermath?

The film does have some breathtaking sights to behold. A MUTO’s assault at a Honolulu airport is held in a stunning panoramic shot. Godzilla’s forays through the bay of San Francisco is terrifically conceived. And I absolutely loved the sight of a massive electrical charge searing from its tail through its spine all the way to its firestorm breath. But these sequences are few and far between many puzzling decisions.

He films TV screens displaying overlooking sequences instead of displaying them directly. He decides to muffle the effect of sound through POV shots within containment suits or gas masks. He at times decides to use a handheld perspective that though not as nauseating as Michael Bay’s shaky cam gimmicks, is still distracting. He lacks a sense of confident climactic pacing, the kind that was evident in Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. Although few directors have del Toro’s immense directorial gifts, the comparison is unavoidable (I couldn’t ignore it).

Even Godzilla’s new design bugs me. In terms of size, detail and physicality, it is very impressive. But let’s face it, he looks fat, ineffectively conveying power and fear. His M.U.T.O. foes are ungainly, appearing anything but organic. Once again compared to del Toro’s inspired and naturalistic designs in PACIFIC RIM, they come across as somewhat wanting.

The film’s story is unremarkable, completely predictable as it triggers memories of other familiar blockbusters, including the last Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla in 1998. But it is written in the most thoughtful and intelligent way possible. There is no one winking at any coincidence or reference. No catch phrases or clichéd deliveries. What is strange though is how the film’s earth-shaking disasters feel largely disconnected from the larger world which the film inhabits. The Philippines, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco are all invoked, but they feel distant and muted. The stakes are apparent, but they don’t feel as all-encompassing as they should be.

It is also a pity that aside from Bryan Cranston’s character, there is no other role that is given the same depth and importance (not that there is much to begin with). Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe all do very well with their serviceable roles. Mr. Watanabe’s requirements saddened me the most, as he served to spout lines and express looks of stunned realisation in scene after scene. The film is littered with these faces of agape disbelief that it becomes annoying. Hardly any character transitions completely into decisive action.

It is hard to justify why such immense talent was needed for these roles in a film that doesn’t have the structure or nerve to go down the poignant road it is clearly more interested in. Its title character is supposed to be the heart of this film, but it has no vigour in pursuing its spectacle or symbolism.

Roger Ebert liked to tell the story of William Randolph Hearst telling Richard Harding Davis (in Davis’s coverage of the Johnstown flood), “Forget flood. Interview God.” It’s too bad that Gareth Edwards just keeps on covering the flood, forgetting about his GODZILLA.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Rousing PACIFIC RIM Is a Joyous Homage to Pacific Inspirations

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Any Filipino who grew up as a kid in the early 80s will tell you about their love for giant robots. As a country that was once invaded by Japan, it can seem strange that Philippine culture would wholeheartedly embrace an invasion of mammoth-sized mechas during the time of Marcos. Mekanda Robo, Mazinger Z, Daimos, Gaiking, Grendizer, Macross. These animated wonders filled our large imaginations long before their American counterparts came along in the Gobots, Transformers, Robotech and Voltron. I suspect that many of my compatriots know the Japanese lyrics to Voltes V by heart as much as we do our national anthem.

Read the rest of this film review at Movie Mezzanine!

SPIDER-MAN 2 (****)

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” How many times have we superhero fans heard this line, let alone understand its implications? Do we really take to heart how much sacrifice such heroism involves, or comprehend what would be at stake?

Superhero films tend to glorify ability over altruism. That is after all the main reason why we flock to the genre, to see amazing sights never seen before. But one film is special in how it focuses on the gravity of selflessness in spite of such might. And it does so not by showcasing its hero’s greatness, but his ordinariness. It’s Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

The film chronicles the continuing burdens amassed by Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as he struggles with the responsibilities of his alter-ego. He has problems with income, is behind on his studies, and has to deal with the secrecy and guilt of the deaths he feels accountable for within his close-knit circle. Worst of all, he has to stay away from Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) the love of his life, for the sake of her safety. And all of this just on his birthday.

This accumulation of personal crises then brings his body’s betrayal, as he experiences frequent disruptions in his superhuman abilities. He begins to doubt himself and his cause, which is when the film introduces its Last Temptation of Christ moment of abandoning righteousness.

But after watching what Peter Parker puts himself through, who wouldn’t want to give up the cross of being a hero? He isn’t faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive. He doesn’t have the machiavellian strategy of Bruce Wayne or the know-how of Tony Stark. He has his whole life ahead of him, so why should he risk martyring himself for others?

Surprisingly, he gets his answer from his future nemesis. When Peter Parker meets Dr. Otto Octavius, he is put to task for being perceived to be brilliant but lazy. He is inspired not only by his elder’s steely resolve, but also his warm sensitivity. This is no one-note mad scientist with lofty goals of domination. Both men share the noblest of intentions.

This good-heartedness only makes Otto’s fall even more compelling, as we watch him lose his lifelong dreams in ways that make Parker’s dilemma seem enviable. Dr. Octavius’s tentacled instruments which were once under his mental control enslave him, leaving him with nothing but the mocking nickname of Doc Ock. And through Alfred Molina, he becomes one of the best and yet most underrated of movie monsters, a tragic figure helpless against forces beyond his control. His Doctor Octopus is the best “super villain” not played by Heath Ledger.

The film espouses these two polar forces, who share the common curse of having lost their dreams that both have sacrificed so much for. The protagonist has merely handled such bad luck better than the antagonist. Their battles feel titanic, not because of their super powers, but because we have become fully aware of their hardships behind their causes. Neither one really gains an edge, nor gives an inch.

With their conflict set in New York City, it is impossible to ignore how the film’s setting and battleground evokes memories of September 11, which was merely a few years prior to the release of the film. Many may have forgotten, but heroism was not a word taken lightly in the period’s aftermath. If The Dark Knight touched on the very grim fears of a post-9/11 zeitgeist, Spider-Man 2 somehow glanced upon its hopes and wishes.

One can see this in Peter Parker’s epic rescue of a runaway train filled with passengers. Rarely has a comic book character’s heroic deed felt this thrilling, powerful, and touching before or since. It highlights what makes Spider-Man so special. When most superheroes fill the big screen as demigods, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker always arrives as an everyman. Call it messianic. Call it empathic. But when the train’s passengers lift him into safety, with one remarking how Spidey is, “Just a kid. No older than my son,” it’s a moment that ennobles everyone involved. Perhaps even us. It’s a credit to how effortless Maguire embodies both naiveté and quiet strength.

Its contemporaries would do well to understand that not every superhero film needs to thrill us with a great champion or premise. Spider-Man 2 is indeed amazing. A “Holy Trinity” member amongst superhero films. Not because of what its hero can do, but because it reminds us in a marvelously entertaining way how very special heroism and sacrifice really is.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (*½)

Some films cannot escape comparisons, especially when they are reboots made so soon after the originals. So when Sony Pictures decided to film its do-over less than a decade after Spider-Man and its classic sequel Spider-Man 2, many comic book fans such as myself were perplexed. We could understand a need for sequels, but why mess with the success of a franchise that launched the golden age of superhero films? The Amazing Spider-Man won’t answer that question any time soon.

Its failings come right off the bat, setting up a supposed intrigue with Peter Parker’s past which is never fully exploited. We briefly meet Peter’s parents, Robert and Mary Parker, played by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz. You’d think that with such terrific actors you’d get meatier context, but the first moment we see them is also the last. There is no heft that plays out of their short appearances. They feel more like gimmicks than true characters.

Besides, Spidey’s fans know that the crux of Peter’s family life lies with his beloved Aunt May and Uncle Ben. And yet despite being played by greats Sally Field and Martin Sheen, their scenes and relationships are sorely lacking compared to their predecessors. They being Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson, who embodied their roles completely in our minds to an almost mythical degree.

Then there is Peter’s love interest, this time in Gwen Stacy whose tragic importance to him is well known in comic book circles. But even this promising avenue is botched with meet cutes and contrived romantic situations, which is mind-boggling for such a canonical character. Emma Stone is a cinematic gift, and her misuse here is depressing. There is no comparison worth making to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

There’s also the villain, played by Rhys Ifans, who is given no theatrical room for machiavellian menace the way his predecessors Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina were. And even if he was granted such leeway, those two are a tough act to follow anyway. Nonetheless, his CGI alger-ego the Lizard is effective as can be. But I would have much rather preferred seeing Irrfan Kahn, clearly with more gravitas, as the main baddie.

And lastly, there’s Peter Parker himself, portrayed by Andrew Garfield, taking on a role in that Tobey Maguire made his own, much in the same way Christopher Reeve made Superman his. Maguire’s Spider-Man may have lacked the smart-aleck-ness of the comic books, but he possessed an effortless transformation of naiveté into quiet strength and dignity that once seemed impossible to achieve in our jaded times. Garfield’s Spider-Man attempts to take on a vulnerable wisecracking edge, and succeeds all too well, turning our beloved web-head into Woody Allen. I believed him as an insecure teenager, but not as a centered youth capable of heroism. For me, this was a great miscalculation.

I could go on about how each perfunctory scene set up another one. Or how utterly dreadful the film’s soundtrack was, seemingly telegraphing each emotion, masking the film’s feeble storytelling. But it isn’t worth it. And that’s precisely what’s wrong with this movie. It’s unnecessary in almost every way.

If the film has any saving grace, it is in its action sequences, which among Spider-Man films are probably the richest in detail and the most convincing in terms of physical movement (at least from what I could tell). But everything else has been told better and felt truer elsewhere. I couldn’t help but shake my head through its entirety. The Amazing Spider-Man is a well-made agony.

BRAVE (****)

I always wanted a girl.

Before I had my darling Cate, I vividly remember a father wading through a swimming pool with his daughter riding piggy back with her arms wrapped around his neck. She screamed in delight, “Daddeee!”

I had always seen other fathers wrapped around their little girls’ fingers. My dad included. I didn’t mind. I thought it would have been the greatest deal in the world, having that kind of bond. And I still do. But I was also aware of how especially daunting it is to raise a woman in this world. Many of us don’t like to admit it, but men are acutely aware of how harsh the world is towards women. That’s probably why fathers become doubly compelled to be overly protective of our “precious and fragile” little girls. I’m proud to say that I’ve been guarding against this impulse as much as I can. So far all she longs for are super powers and rocket ships.

These thoughts echoed within me while watching Brenda Chapman’s Brave which I fell in love with just a few hours ago. It’s of a young woman’s coming of age story, but though Disney has had similar female protagonists in the past, whether of noble deeds (e.g. Mulan, Pocahontas) or royal blood (e.g. countless princesses), none are quite as headstrong or independent as Princess Merida (played with unceasing charm by Kelly Macdonald). She doesn’t belt out a tune in her moments of joy and isn’t supplied a young man to fall head over heels with. Her prowess rivals that of any white knight or fair prince. Even her hair is in defiance of stereotypes. No shampoo commercial straightened locks, just a fabulous firestorm of a coif. She isn’t even presented with a villain to defeat. but a choice whether to determine her fate. It may sound corny, but ask any woman whether that choice is taken lightly.

Yes, she is supplied with a somewhat overbearing mother in Queen Linora (Emma Thompson), but even this trope doesn’t follow the usual lines. Many animated parents merely exist to be proven wrong by their children, but in a virtuoso scene, Brave shows both sides in a heartfelt conversation between mother and daughter that never truly takes place; a sequence that highlights empathy and the hesitance to bridge the gap. And how about the refreshing King Fergus (the irresistible Billy Connolly) as Merida’s dad? When was the last time you saw an animated king not care about how his royal daughter should behave or be treated?

There were many other aspects that I adored about the film. Some more than others. Merida’s three baby brothers never speak, but their antics supply some terrific comic relief, especially with the use of shadow puppetry. I liked the Miyazaki-esque elements and influences. The witch (Julie Waters) who provides Merida’s turning point seems inspired by the old sage Oh-Baba of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The will-o’-the-wisps feel like they might come from the same family of the Kodomas in Princess Mononoke. Even sub-themes such as man’s relationship to nature and myth, as well as the lack of a true antagonist ring a bell. Like all Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the only true villain in Brave is the lack of understanding.

The film also pulsates with unbridled love for all things Scotland. The caricatures and digs at accents are there. But just like Scottish humor, it is done in fondness and without malice. And never have the Scottish highlands been more mythical in film, as the movie evokes vast misty forest-filled mountainsides with both dread and dreamy romance.

But what strikes me most is its strong voice for womanhood. Feminism is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days, connoting politics or agendas. But the term isn’t devoid of emotion or care. The film resonates especially in a time when women’s rights have come to the forefront of global consciousness and where fantastical film heroines haven’t been this prominent in ages. Dejah Thoris, Elizabeth Shaw, and Katniss Everdeen are Merida’s kindred spirits. Who would have thought that archery would become the weapon of choice for girl power?

Brenda Chapman directed The Prince of Egypt, a tremendously underrated animated spectacle that deftly handled its grand tale and emotions. She displays that same skill and purpose in Brave but with greater focus and conviction. Though she is listed as one of the film’s co-directors, watching the movie only reinforces the notion that it is her baby. It was inspired by her relationship with her daughter, and achieves more irony knowing that Pixar let her go from its production before its completion. A lady filmmaker getting only part of the credit for her story of female independence? One can only wonder.

No matter. Brave is a princess story that readily sheds all the fat from such folk or fairy tales, told with great skill and even greater spirit. And with Merida as its heroine, it gives us the embodiment of a strong-willed and free spirited lass, free to make her own fate. We can only wish the same for all our daughters.

The Avengers (**)

There are two kinds of superhero film fans. The first are those who have outgrown the familiarities of the genre and eager to see something new, be it a wonder and awe not seen or felt before, or an idea/theme that is ripe for the taking. The second are those who are content with supremely safe entertainment, with imagery reinforcing what they already know, wishing to see their special comic book lore acknowledged.

Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” falls squarely for those in the second category, pleased with itself and proud of it. Marvel fans who have wanted to see these heroes in the flesh will get their fill, but for those of us hoping for something more, such spirit is definitely weak.

We all saw it coming, beginning with “Iron Man,” which gamely reinvigorated Marvel’s line of heroes. With its post-credits teasing, it began a multi-threaded plot involving “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and their sidekicks. Comic strip founding fathers resurrected for a whole new generation of kids to sell toys to.

But in the process of their assembly, there were only so many working parts they could reuse. They had Robert Downey Jr’s invaluable charm as Tony Stark, really the most valuable human presence of the film, whose intense eyes and irresistible snark draws us in every time we get a look inside his armor. But gone is the youthful energy infused by John Favreau’s direction. And the chemistry sparked by Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in much too short supply.

Gone too is the serious aura of Edward Norton, which wasn’t needed for this Jekyll-esque incarnation of Dr. Banner. Now played by the great Mark Ruffalo, he exists mainly to provide science-speak with Stark. His CGI alter-id in the Hulk, upstages him with the movie’s best moments, punctuating its third act with immensely satisfying comic geek-out sequences and the biggest LOLs. Too bad it all comes way too late.

The Chris-es, Evans (Captain America) and Hemsworth (Thor), are two gifted young actors in a film that does them no favors. The former is a noble bore, while the latter is pretty much a big dumb blonde with a drinking problem (thankfully on hold here). They both deserve better roles and opportunities as none of their gifts, aside from their physical ones, are worth a damn here.

Two extras brought along for the ride do what they can. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow is smart, fearsome, and insidious. But I wish she could have been cast as another character. You know, one that actually has super powers other than her skin-tight costume. She’s more than what I expected, but undeniably mostly a tease. And Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye shows once more that he’s the American version of Daniel Craig, capable of holding a masculine gravitas regardless of silly second billing. He’s another talent much too valuable for the part.

Even Samuel L. Jackson is under-utilized as he gets out of everyone’s way. His out-of-sight machinations only emphasizes his absence. And Tom Hiddleston, the Super-baddie Loki, is about as intimidating as Thor is interesting. What is it about Marvel’s film-adapted demigods that make them so… boring (save for Idris Elba’s Heimdall).

What the film does do very well is its climax, with Manhattan laid under siege by otherworldly invaders and beasts. It’s here where we finally see this titanic team fulfill visions of hero-loving boys and girls around the world. It isn’t as creative as that of Hellboy’s inter-dimensional account of hell, or the monumentally epic finale of “Dark City” (the gold standard of what a superhuman conflict would look like), but it does the job competently and skillfully.

But really, what took it so long? Its first act is one long predictable slog of trope after trope. Its second is a mixed bag of visual goodies waiting to burst forth (like the rise of the Hellcarrier) and confusing motives clashing against each other. “X-Men: First Class” handled multiple themes and characters with grace and heft that it feels like King Lear compared to this mishmash.

And the third act, though entertaining, is entirely on autopilot. Not once do we feel anything at stake. Not once do we feel the overwhelming odds. The one-liners and sight-gags are fantastic, but I don’t want to remember my superhero movies solely for the jokes. The many colossal monsters which they face fail to raise the kind of awesome thrill of a single gigantic serpent in “How To Train Your Dragon.”

Gone are the times when superhero films dared to take a risk, especially with directors of great imagination. It gives production companies mixed results. With the financial successes of Guillermo Del Toro (the “Hellboy” movies), we have the box office letdown of Ang Lee (“Hulk”), despite both being remarkably creative narratively and visually. Disney is in charge now. And unless Pixar is at the helm (Hey! There’s an idea!), they’ll be pitching safe profit over craftsmanship more often than not.

So there you have it. If you’re a longtime comic book fan who is happy to be reassured with the familiar, or a child who has never heard or seen of these heroes, you’re in for a treat. But if your imagination is waiting to stirred, “The Avengers” is an all too familiar disappointment.

Do I really need to tell you to stay after the credits?