'A Kite Dancing in a Hurricane': How I Came to Cherish 'Spectre' In A World That Apparently Doesn't

by Brett Parker

One of the most peculiar yet enriching aspects of cinema is the philosophical ways a particular film’s ideology can tap into primal spiritual truisms nested deep within our own soul.  For some movies go beyond the standard opening weekend criticisms and represent specific moods and codes that take on a surprising human dimension far beyond the confines of a movie’s pop product tailoring.  Not to say that each film that fits such a profile is chalked up as Great Art, but even disposable Hollywood fluff can put forth ideals that can strike one with the same power as a short story by Ernest Hemingway.  It’s thoughts like these that flood my heart as I realize I got quite a bit out of James Bond’s last outing, Spectre, amidst a world that apparently didn’t.  I’ve read criticisms pegging the dark 007 tale as redundant, sluggish, preposterous, and vapid--and I don’t even think most of these musings are fully wrongheaded--but I feel Sam Mendes and a crew of master technicians have crafted a work that acknowledges the shadowy depths of the globe we inhabit and the stark, subtle instincts we need in order to properly deal with such darkness.

I’ll spare you the minute details of my life and those around me, but I can say with confidence that as a man in the throes of his thirties living in such a bewildering American landscape in 2016, I’ve observed despair and solemnity up-close-and-personal.  Don’t think for one second that my life is an ongoing series of Charles Dickens hardships, but negative energy fueled by the unstable and fearful times we inhabit appear to be spilling over into everyone’s psyches lately.  I’ve dealt with stresses and then had to sit back and watch almost everyone around me deal with difficulties that easily dwarf mine by comparison.  For a hard lesson this planet dishes out with brute force at times is how life isn’t the sugary-sweet cinematic dreamscape in which everything is going to work out bright and sunny in the end.  This globe is filled with sinister forces that use hopelessness, duplicity, and hostility as strong weapons.  Such darkness can exploit the unpleasantness lurking beneath one’s environment to create a cocktail of chaos and calamity that can prove merciless to people’s inner-state.  It’s the kind of darkness that can knock the most optimistic of free-thinkers down to an existential Hades with a swiftness as scary as its coldness.  When black waves of tragedy threaten to engulf you and it feels like the Devil himself has the game rigged, how on Earth do you keep on playing?

Such feelings helped me to strongly identify the most striking thing about Spectre: how shrewdly Sam Mendes has allowed the ominous and hellish overtones of such a dark world to infect the traditionally glamourous cinescape of the James Bond formula.  The traditional fixings of a Bond picture are right there on the screen--Bond Girls, secret gadgets, foreign locales, grotesque death traps, etc.--yet they all feel trapped in a bleak, unforgiving nightmare.  The cryptic quote that opens the movie--”The dead are alive”--and the image of Bond disguised as a Skeleton at The Day of the Dead Festival in Mexico City alert the viewer that the secret agent is plunging into a deathly realm where spirits of the underworld have taken a stronghold on all things decent.  The brooding cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Interstellar) almost serves as an antithesis to the typical Bond movie look, draining the screen of the lush colors and exotic vitality we’ve come to expect from the tradition.  As if the Grim Reaper himself is draining the Bond universe of blood and mojo, Hoytema’s morbid shadows and hellfire-tinged hues bring a 007 movie the closest one’s been to looking like an all-out horror movie.

Spectre follows Bond’s quest to uncover a secretive and expansive villainous enterprise that has its hand (or tentacle) in every shady deed on a global scale, especially the danger and foes he’s faced in past adventures.  The closer Bond gets to unraveling the mysteries of this shadowy organization, the more his immediate world is thrown into desperate chaos.  His MI6 home base is faced with extinction, he’s pushed onto the world stage without a government calvary to back him up when needed, he witnesses a secret meeting with devastating dealings and a brutal murder, he’s forced to show trust towards a shady adversary from his past, he’s subjected to a literally mind-blowing form of torture, and he comes to discover that a crucial chapter from his rocky childhood may have inadvertently led to manifesting most of the evil in this world.  One tip-off to the film’s suffocating tragic overtones is the melancholy bitterness inherent in the Bond Girls on display this time out.  Monica Bellucci (in full-knockout mode) represents the sultry Bond Girl who is a surefire magnet for death and danger, only she goes out of her way to make you feel the defeat and nihilism that would infect such a person.  Lea Seydoux represents the more headstrong beauty who can assist Bond in tricky action situations, but a complicated tragedy in her world and Bond’s connection to it forces her to defy being a mindless bedmate and reveals the peculiar pain inherent in such a woman in Bond’s deadly orbit.

The Daniel Craig James Bond pictures as a whole appear to have the fantastical mission of depicting what 007 adventures would look like within the confines of the real world.  Casino Royale showed how the Bond formula could be birthed into a realistic setting, Quantum of Solace acknowledged the unforgiving evil that would have to walk alongside a man in Bond’s profession, and Skyfall gloriously depicted the adventurous grandeur that would emerge if you reconciled the ideas of a fantastical Bond adventure with a gritty, realistic one.  Since these earlier Bond films brought a neo-realistic sleekness to Ian Fleming’s original view of the James Bond myth, Spectre gives the same treatment to the ultimate villainy in the Bond legend and paints a more specific idea of how a realistic secret agent could be thrusted into an over-the-top spy thrill ride.  The unsettling mystery, grotesque hostility, extravagant architectures, and deranged baddies that have been crucial elements in a long history of Bond villains gets placed under the microscope of dramatic realism, and we realize how the sinister hunger of evil minds can spawn high-octane violence on a grand scale.

The film’s big revelation involves the ying-yang effect of having a villainous entity that holds as much global reach and psychological trauma as Bond himself.  So even though Christoph Waltz’s turn as legendary archenemy Blofeld was pegged as Walz’s heel business as usual, you can almost miss the subtle brilliance of his portrayal, which plays up on Daniel Craig’s icy restraint in devilish ways.  If Craig filters Bond’s charm and charisma through a smoldering shield of subdued intensity, then Waltz follows suit by serving as an evil twin to Bond’s style, delivering his steely glare right back to him.  Even the deeply-absurd backstory that connects both hero and foe brings a remarkable closure to a dilemma posed in Casino Royale: how using trauma’s to fuel ones internal fires can cause wild flames that could have the whole world burn.  This is why at a crucial moment when Bond declines a killshot and exclaims “I have better things to do” brings a surprising human catharsis for a character who historically deals in shallow victories.

While Daniel Craig is widely regarded as on of the best James Bonds ever, there were those who sensed a certain weariness within him on this particular outing.  This feeling was most likely fueled by a widespread blogosphere tidbit where Craig noted in an interview that “I’d rather slash my wrists” than play Bond again.  Not only do I feel such thoughts take away from the lovely fact that Craig now wears the role like a familiar glove with the same nonchalant confidence Sean Connery possessed, but even if a certain disgruntled gruffness is apparent in the role, it doesn’t at all betray how Bond would conduct himself in a real-world-gone-Hades.  If you pay close attention to Craig’s nuances throughout the movie and the deadly business at hand, you’ll realize Bond’s demeanor holds hidden wisdom on dealing with scary challenges.  For if all hell is breaking lose around you, it’s best to keep your elemental values as close to the chest as possible and use them to push you forward by any means necessary.  There won’t always be time in life for cutesy chit-chat and sexy rendezvous, for it’s best in dire situations to cut out all nonsense and hype-up everything in your soul to vanquish darkness.  Manliness is more than wearing flashy suits and crashing sports cars, it’s putting aside petty emotions and seeing terrifying tasks through no matter how soul-crushing the journey.  You can strip a man of toys and money, but the morals and spirit that pushes him through is what truly makes him a man.  While I’ve always been enthusiastic about Craig’s Bond arc from the start, his universe becoming a brooding horror show this time out has illuminated his lionhearted qualities with a quiet effectiveness that you could almost blink-and-miss, for real men don’t always have time for show-and-tell.

I’ve heard the points of those who’ve taken the time to intelligently report the flaws in Spectre and I admit I don’t outright disagree with all of them.  The film is certainly not as exciting as Skyfall and I even wonder if it would’ve benefitted more from the kind of creepier vibes on full display in Quantum of Solace.  In a way, perhaps a movie that tries to be both a painstaking-portrait of supreme villains and an adventurous James Bond picture is contradictive and self-defeating in itself, for the absurdities within the Bond formula would hinder the seriousness of a film trying to explore brutal evil while the grim realities of global shadiness puts quite a damper on the fun we’ve come to expect from even the most serious of 007 thrill rides ( a tightrope difficulty that was also very apparent in Quantum of Solace as well).  

I’ve ingested all these observations and find I do not care, for I received a personal satisfaction from the film that may feel too hyperbolic and peculiar for most ordinary tastes.  Perhaps I had too many plain M&M’s the night I saw the film, allowing my inner-12-year-old to take too strong a hold on my rational adult mind.  Perhaps I was jonesing too hard for a thrilling cinematic experience after an underwhelming summer movie season that left me starving for a tentpole flick that actually delivers the goods.  But as I sat down in front of a beloved IMAX screen on a lonely autumn night, I was weighed down by stresses and hardships that had me begging for escapism and our modern day James Bond treated me to an exciting reminder that one must Keep Calm and Carry On like a Badass.  We can all drive off into a sunset of our choosing with rewards at our side as long as we don’t allow the evil forces of this world to knock us off our paths.  Spectre was good, old-fashioned fantasy wish-fulfillment to me, and that, my friends, is what movies are truly all about.  So one should not cry for the lukewarm reception towards Spectre, for the rich cinematic history of the James Bond universe will always provide a relevant place in history for the movie’s legacy and its relationship to the grander myth at large will always be noted upon as long as people still talk about James Bond.  However, any time from here on out when Spectre randomly shows up on whatever screen I happen to be watching, I’ll smile in recognition of how a movie everyone pegged as disposable provided me with True Grit ideas on how to overcome adversity with the calmness of one of Her Majesty's Secret Service.  


Will Smith Regains His 'Focus'

by Brett Parker

My friends and I have recently been lamenting the fact that the younger Will Smith is truly gone and can never fully come back, for such are the sands of time.  It’s too bad, because these dreary and sensitive times could really use a dose of the rakish exuberance he came to perfect on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  One of the major keys to that show’s success was the boyish mischief Smith concocted to drive the show’s plot engine, an ideal which came basked in his offbeat sartorial moves and resourceful confidence.   It’s not hard at all to see why The Fresh Prince himself went on to become such a major box office draw, for an improbably smooth jokester dodging fireballs and blowing up aliens speaks oceans about movie star likability.  Yet once marriage, fatherhood, the Wild, Wild West fiasco, and two Oscar nominations came into play for Big Willie Style, he seemed to allow a distilled stoicism to infect his work.  He would find his later day comfort zone being the voice of deadpan reason in solemn or hostile landscapes.  Like Liam Neeson, Smith preferred putting up a stone cold front in unforgiving movie scenarios, being too calculating and weary to find much time to be funny or charming.  While hidden brains and canny stoicism are never things to frown down upon, I can’t be the only modern day moviegoer who drifted towards memories of Smith shoving breadsticks up his nose or blaring R&B jams for all of California to hear.

What makes Focus such an exceptional work is the way it blends the playfulness and charm of Smith’s younger years with the headstrong grit of his later career.  In a caper where he’s been hired to put his touches on the Danny Ocean archetype, Smith’s history elevates a classical con man role into a lively slickster-gone-Jedi, bringing richness to a movie we never expected to find.  He’s surely energized by the presence of super-hottie Margot Robbie, an emerging star who’s also out to downplay part of her persona to prove that she can generate assured fun across any cinematic scenario.  Their mega-wattage mixture damn near cons you into thinking that Focus is at a considerable distance from being outright generic.

The film centers on Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), a veteran con artist who spends his days observing high-end landscapes and keeping a close eye on all the criminal angles.  Nicky is a major player in a network of thieves and grifters who’ve created an elaborate system of scams, lifts, and gambits to separate careless suckers from their hard-earned cash.  In a world where crime doesn’t pay but the working man is a sucker, Nicky and his cohorts operate like small business owners: mid-level opportunists who make a play for safe volume to keep their bank accounts beating in such an unforgiving capitalist world.  Nicky crafts himself as a cool-headed point man whose sense of worldly fashion and endless experience appears unmatched.

Nicky seems content to move about his world quietly until the day a newbie player named Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) attempts to roll him in an unsuccessful hotel robbery akin’ to the hilarious one from In Bruges.  Although Nicky is unimpressed with her faulty execution, he is jazzed by her relentless enthusiasm to become a master player just like Nicky.  With a blonde beauty that hits on all cylinders and an edgy sunshine that’s the most lively thing for miles, Nicky senses that taking on Jess as an apprentice could make life more fun.  Pretty soon, he’s showing her the ways of the con, from street pickpocketing to magnificently ballsy gambling feats.  But he correctly senses that he’s falling hopelessly in love with her, and his past taught him that emotions will get you killed in a con game.  Nicky finds a wicked way to push her away, but then realizes that stealing her heart may just be the greatest swindle of all.  But when two thieves have misdirection embedded in their cores, trying to be honest with one another proves to be way more complicated then they ever could’ve expected, especially when both are caught up trying to pull a risky job over on a racing tycoon (Rodrigo Santoro) in Buenos Aires.

Focus is the next directorial effort from duo Glen Ficarra & John Requa after Crazy, Stupid, Love, and both those films prove that the pair are out to bring feelings of freshness to treasured Hollywood genres and blast an old-school sense of glamourous high style into the proceedings.  Focus is certainly one of the best-looking crime capers in many a moon, for Director of Photography Xavier Grobet, Production Designer Beth Mickle, Art Director Kelly Curley, and Costume Designer Dayna Pink all bring their A-Game together to craft a candy-coated cinematic world that’s like a Technicolor teenage fever dream.  But this neon-colored world isn’t just a hollow shell, for we sense how Nicky and Jess’s surroundings are painted in their gaga emotions to completely bury the chaos and pain lurking beneath such a criminal universe.  For if their risky world truly is a game of focus, then these characters decide to focus on details of their environment that highlight the high style slickness and wealthy graces of their earned rewards.  

Like her character, Margot Robbie is out to prove that she’s more than just a pretty face but has the charisma and cleverness to pull off being a alluring pro.  In her first major leading lady role, she comes across like a young Michelle Pfeiffer-in-training, but we see in her what Nicky sees in Jess: a fireball of promise who feels like a breath-of-fresh-air in a deeply cynical world.  But this is Smith’s show all the way, and the film’s jolt comes in the surprising ways the character of a legendary criminal plays up on the entire history of Smith’s persona.  In many ways, Smith the movie star is also a seasoned smoothie hip to all the angles in a deceptive and shrewd operation and could handle any chaotic situation tossed his way with expert ease.  We’re thankful for the ways the character brings out the edgy dapperness and roguish humor that was such a welcome staple in Smith’s younger years and his seasoned wisdom is also given an exciting outlet this time thanks to the ways the rules of being an expert con man has bundles in common with the rules of being a Hollywood leading man.  We may even get a rare glimpse into Smith’s psychology with the subplot of how Nicky got the nickname “Mellow” from his father.  Nicky explains that the nickname is meant to represent an emotional softness inherently lurking beneath his cool exterior.  Perhaps this highlights a softness that frightens most leading men who are out to prove their true grit.  Is this a softness that Smith feels has infected his movie star persona?  Is he guilty that such a softness may have held him back from transcendent work on par with, say, Daniel Day-Lewis?  Does such a fear of softness explain why so much of his Fresh Prince persona feels buried nowadays?

Focus isn’t so much a watered-down Ocean’s Eleven as it is Notting Hill for men, a movie fantasy that highlights how complicated dating can be for a highly-accomplished thespian.  While the Julia Roberts hit concluded that leading women want a witless nice guy to roll with all the punches, the Will Smith vehicle suggests that leading men want a colorful gal who’ll match us in terms intelligence and playfulness.  Whether or not you share that romantic worldview, there’s no denying that Will Smith on the search for his big-screen feminine equal is such a fascinating cinematic ride since finding ANY mammal who can match Will Smith seems rarer than finding Yeti on spring break.  A movie star who can simultaneously make us belly laugh, dress to the nines, charm the ladies, and frighten the bad guys is starting to tragically feel like a symbol of lost graces akin to The Samurai.  It’s bewildering how the Cary Grant section of the Hollywood Playbook is both considered holy scripture and grossly underutilized.


The Top 10 Movies of 2014

by Brett Parker

The beauty of art is that it always finds shrewd and sublime ways to flourish even if you try your mightiest to suppress it.  Take for example the current state of the film industry: the general sing-along is how Hollywood has gotten too bloated on high-concept blockbusters, causing the “smaller picture” to die a slow, horrible death.  You know the smaller picture: a modestly-priced work of simple cinematic pleasures that relies more on elemental fundamentals than CGI effects and major international movie stars.  In an age where studios are desperately trying to protect their millions amidst the ashes of the Great Recession, billion-dollar franchises have been shoving smaller pictures as far down as it can on the Hollywood priority list.  Just ponder all the remakes, sequels, and comic book properties you’ve witnessed at the box office lately and you realize that a studio movie about people sitting around and talking feels awfully scarce these days.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice that I had a wonderful time at the movies this past year.  From summer popcorn tentpoles to gritty indie gems, flicks seemed ridiculously on-point, dishing out the kind of killer goods that make me love the art of cinema in the first place.  Upon closer inspection, I discovered a giddy theory for my moviegoing joy: the primal pleasures of the smaller picture were being smuggled into theaters in the guise of  flashier products.  Like the old masters of the classical Hollywood system, filmmakers are getting shrewder at hiding emotional treasures within the framework of a ticket grabber.  Over the past year, we saw a rowdy comedy masquerading as a juggernaut superhero franchise, a black comedy about marriage hiding in a whodunit thriller, an Audrey Hepburn romance packaged as a hot-button indie flick, a horror movie in the guise of Oscar-bait, a sociological study of African-American anxieties planted inside a Hollywood tell-all, and in the grandest example of all, a Nickelodeon boy’s tale elevated to artistic profundity by a brilliant acting conceit.  A true movie lover couldn’t help but feel  wonderfully complicit in an elaborate con job in which the take is unfiltered cinematic euphoria.  And it is that very euphoria that leads me to dish out my Top 10 Movies of 2014 with great enthusiasm:
1) Interstellar
Christopher Nolan has pushed his grandiose theatricality to new heights with an enormous outer space epic overflowing with theoretical ideas that prove to be just as exciting as the breathtaking special effects on display.  Matthew McConaughey delivers a masterful showcase of Hollywood leading man craftsmanship as a NASA pilot who steers a crew of scientists into another interstellar dimension on a journey that’s as magnificently time-bending as it is rabidly awe-inspiring.  You have to give Nolan serious props for plunging into the recesses of your head and your heart simultaneously.  By literally bridging the gap between The Right Stuff and Star Trek, Nolan has put breathtaking wonder back into the space opera.

2) Gone Girl
David Fincher delivers one of his very best dazzlers yet by hiding both a pitch-black comedy and surreal horror movie about marriage deep within a potboiler mystery.  Fincher begins by conjuring up smoldering suspense over whether-or-not suburbanite Nick Dunne (a perfectly-cast Ben Affleck) had anything to do with the disappearance of his wife, Amy (a transcendent Rosamund Pike), before springing twists that elevate the material towards one of the most brilliantly savage critiques of marriage ever put on film.  As Gillian Flynn’s unforgiving screenplay (based on her best-selling novel) takes an axe to modern day media culture and romantic expectations, Fincher deals a masterful blow to American delusions with ripple effects that’ll be felt by future couples everywhere.  

3) Foxcatcher
Critics are so busy (rightfully) praising Foxcatcher as a great prestigious drama of the highest thespian order that I wonder if they notice it’s spiritually a horror film as deeply unsettling as The Exorcist.  By exploring the real life tragedy of millionaire John du Pont’s Foxcatcher wrestling team, director Bennet Miller delivers one of the most penetrating explorations of the American caste system by showing troubled players from both the upper and lower class trying to meld with one another.  The superb acting speaks oceans about the contemporary male crisis, from Steve Carrell twisting his repressed dork act into a Hannibal Lecter version of old money to Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo’s wonderfully acute portrayals of simple men who need sports to communicate.  Thanks to Miller finding the perfect vehicle for his solemn gifts, Foxcatcher expertly discovers petrifying terrors within the contradictions of American wealth.  

4) Guardians of the Galaxy
One of the best-kept secrets about the mega-successful Marvel movies is how they say just as much about the current state of the planet as any recent documentary.  That’s why a seemingly-simple tale of warriors in space ended up capturing the culture’s attention with such grandeur, for the tale of a cocky bro, a self-reliant feminist, a bloodthirsty foreigner, an ill-tempered laborer, and a vapid lunk teaming up to conquer overwhelming terror became the ultimate dish of pop identification and wish-fulfillment fantasy in 2014.  Through a strangely irresistible melding of Ghostbusters and Star Wars vibes, director James Gunn shows great command with pop images (a zero gravity escape from a prison and a romantic musical moment under the stars proved breathtaking) without diminishing any of his screwy sensibilities.  With an infectious 80’s soundtrack, Chris Pratt getting his Han Solo on, and Vin Diesel picking up the most bizarre voiceover paycheck in Hollywood history, Guardians of the Galaxy wonderfully captures the present era’s meshing of goofiness and idealism.

5) Only Lovers Left Alive
Playing on his ideal of hip cats yearning for the past, indie film legend Jim Jarmusch delivered an endlessly fascinating vampire tale by completely rearranging the priorities of the ancient creatures towards more rock-centric tastes.  Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton pour every last drop of their coolness factors into the roles of Adam and Eve, two ancient vampires who find the modern era’s thick-headed negligence towards vintage arts and culture a source of alarming depression.  The mind-blowing way Jarmusch throws tired vampire cliches into the trash while exploring their myth to make grand statements about finding true beauty in art is astounding.  This is easily one of the best vampire movies ever made, boosted by Jarmush’s beautiful attempt to make the greatest hipster movie ever made.

6) Obvious Child
In a post-Seinfeld era, a comedian weaving the pain of real life into a stand-up act isn’t exactly a new idea, but the way director Gillian Robespierre uses such a device to put femininity on the table proves to be moving and lyrical in unexpected ways.  Of course the film’s allure would be nothing without the star-making grace of the irresistible Jenny Slate.  As Donna, a struggling comedienne dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, Slate is beautifully revelatory in the way she makes silliness a sensible act of self-reliance.  Yet in the film’s more dramatic moments, her vulnerability makes you ache for her the way you did with Audrey, tipping you off that Obvious Child just might be a clever update of Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a grittier New York City landscape.  Melding the hilarious and the heartbreaking with great humility, everything that Slate pours into Donna truly proves to be a cinematic gift.

7) Begin Again
After the breakout success of Once, writer-director John Carney dealt with the pressure of going mainstream by making a great movie about just how damn complicated it is to actually go mainstream.  Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley (in her 2014 performance that is actually way more worthy of her current Oscar nomination) bring great bohemian vibes to two musical outcasts trying to regain solid footing in the music industry by illuminating scrappy methods and artistic ideals to overcome big corporations trying to screw them over.  While being painfully honest about the realities of the music industry and commercial entertainment, Begin Again still manages to be as lovely and exuberant as Once while treating us to infectious and tender songs guaranteed to be mainstays on your iPod.

8) Selma
The most impressive directorial job from this past year comes from Ava DuVernay, who blew the doors off of everything we’ve come to expect from movies about black struggles and delivered a transcendent drama for the ages.  Considered the first major motion picture to focus on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, DuVernay and the phenomenal David Oyelowo in the lead role answer the task with stunning power and conviction.  While the trailer promised a more familiar kind of movie, the way in which this model biopic puts countless cliches to rest is astonishing.  Dr. King’s complexities, flaws, joy, intelligence, and hardships are captured with an exciting dramatic precision and philosophical dialogue that gives his story the grandeur it deserves and then some.  How fitting that a man who stood for constructive truths and smart idealism has garnered a movie that pushes for the same things in today’s cinema.

9) Nightcrawler
As if a cooky Tim Burton weirdo and a troubled Martin Scorsese outcast were put into a blender, Jake Gyllenhaal delivered one of the very best performances last year with the focused glee of a satanic boy scout.  As a late-night loon who videotapes nasty accidents and bloody crimes to sell to news stations, Gyllenhaal and director Dan Gilory hauntingly explore alarming ways in which the American success blueprint allows for creepers to thrive and how we’re all pretty screwed once the psychos figure out middle-management speak.  While attacking the dark side of our media culture isn’t exactly a groundbreaking concept, Nightcrawler gets its killer vibes from the realization that once the contradictions of the Great Recession meets the desperation of all-American weirdos, then this country is about to get a hell of a lot more bizarre.  

10) Top Five
By writing, directing, and starring in a thinly-veiled account of his own celebrity lifestyle, Chris Rock has crafted one of the most detailed and hilarious depictions of black stardom ever put on film.  With Top Five, Rock finally has a perfect outlet to explore the pressures and peculiarities of being a black celebrity through a media that isn’t always prepared to think of black people as full-blooded souls.  The beautiful part about the experience is that Rock uses this tale to whip up all the things he loves about the movies, from slapstick hilarity (Cedric The Entertainer brings down the house in the most outrageous sex scene of the year) to old school romanticism (the lovely Rosario Dawson is one of the smartest romantic interests in years) to Hollywood dirt (Jerry Seinfeld makes it rain at a strip club with gusto) and to people just walking and talking in New York City (a wonderful shout-out to Nora Ephron, according to Rock).  By giving audiences a peak behind the showbiz curtain that’s just as painfully honest and wildly hilarious as Rock’s stand-up routine, Top Five proves to be a better tale of showbiz strangeness and leading-man pressures than Birdman.  

-Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance
-The Grand Budapest Hotel
-Inherent Vice
-Jersey Boys
-X-Men: Days of Future Past


'John Wick': A Hitman to Remember

by Brett Parker
While I’ve certainly gotten plenty of popcorn enjoyment out of recent action hits, part of me can’t help but wonder if some of them have given a serious beating to classical action formalism.  While the quick-cutting grittiness of the Jason Bourne pictures were an exciting jolt, it annoys me how lesser directors have watered-down that style into generic complacency that lacks visual coherence.  And while I was thrilled as most people to see Liam Neeson awaken his inner-skull-basher in Taken, it’s troubling how the film’s perverse formula inspired producers to favor macho sensationalism over intricate screenwriting.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so bowled over by John Wick, a stylish piece of bang-bang that brings smart precision to every aspect of its formula, making it a gorgeous pleasure.  The first time directing and producing team of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are clearly trying to get their John Woo on, but young bucks trying to honor John Woo is miles more compelling than a Hollywood hack pushing Liam Neeson back into a bad Taken rehash.  And this film further confirms for me something I’ve been convinced of for a long time: Keanu Reeves is a real treasure in Hollywood action films.

As the film opens, we witness a sad man named John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as he sulks about an empty house in a miserable trance.  Flashbacks reveal that his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), passed away days earlier from cancer.  Knowing that she was facing the end of her life, she arranged for John to receive a surprise present after her demise: a puppy named Daisy that is meant to help him cope with her loss.  As John tries to warm up to the new dog in the house, he is soon the victim of a home invasion at the hands of violent punks.  John was spotted driving around the neighborhood in a vintage 1969 Mustang, and the young thugs beat him senseless before taking his car keys.  Before he is knocked unconscious, the thieves make him witness the viscious killing of Daisy, an act that sets off a deep-rooted and terrifying bloodlust within.  

It turns out the leader of the thieves is no random punk, but Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the son of Russian crime lord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), who just happens to be John’s former employer.  Once Viggo learns of his son’s violent act, he informs him that he not only violated a retirement truce between the two, but set off a nightmarish killing machine who has nothing to lose.  John was once the most notorious hitman in the business, a black angel of death who had a scary talent for killing any target with superhuman precision.  “I once saw him kill three men in a bar with a pencil,” Viggo recalls.  That means it’s only a matter of time before Iosef ends up with bullets in his head, for John is now set off on a violent rampage where the bodies of Viggo’s men pile up endlessly and a tornado of chaos is heading straight for the Russian crime family’s doorstep.  

If the frantic, herky-jerky camera style that passes for action scenes these days has gotten on your nerves, then the ballet-style execution of John Wick’s fight scenes is bound to impress you.  The camera placements and movements of the actors evoke the formal excitement of a Fred Astaire dance number and these coordinated bursts of violence can’t help but dazzle.  Instead of choosing between bare-knuckle brawling or gunplay, the filmmakers have shrewdly found a way to blend both ideals into a fierce fighting style.  Reeves moves about the frame dishing out a visceral and intimate hail of bullets, working a pistol the way Astaire used to work a top hat and cane.  While the spoiled film snob inside wishes these fights pushed themselves to be way more elaborate and transcendent, you delight in knowing these scenes lay waste to most half-assed battles stuffing up the genre.

Keanu Reeves is one of those Hollywood stars who gets riddled with jokes about his acting abilities, mainly for the way his stoicism tends to be misused in the occasional drama.  Yet in a less confused world, moviegoers would be drooling over the fact that his zen focus makes him quite the modern day Clint Eastwood whenever he shows up in an action vehicle (hence why The Wachowskis channeling his warrior coolness into a philosophical Christ figure felt like a stroke of cinematic genius).  His lived-in physique and thoughtful calmness proves fantastic in fleshing out Wick’s existential weariness and lethal focus.  Plus after the ultimate effort of dishing out the physical goods in The Matrix movies, Reeves tears through the action scenes here like an accomplished olympian who can vanquish the younger competition around him at will.  In the past few years, it’s been observed how Reeves has had difficulty getting certain passion projects off the ground, all while generic flicks have welcomed him with open arms.  So perhaps the whole “hitman-getting-back-in-the-game” angle is meant to show how true Hollywood players can’t escape the whole box office game.  This is strongly felt through The Continental, the film’s dreamlike Manhattan hotel that serves as a neutral ground for assassins.  From the Casablanca vibe drowning the atmosphere to the too-cool-for-school interplay among the inner-industry operators, this fabulous location convinces us that Reeves is immersed in the Hollywood universe to his very core.

While Nyqvist could simply show up and look intimidating as a villain, the role of Tarasov  gives him hopelessly cynical philosophies to dish out and the deliciously casual way he does so is a nice counterpoint to Wick’s laser beam focus.  Plus I give Nyqvist props for bringing dignity to the fact that Russians are once again being rolled out as the foreign villains of the season.  U.S. and Russian relations are getting testy again these days, giving Hollywood the rapid cue to make Soviet souls an evil empire our American heroes can battle endlessly with.  In a bizarre way, I don’t think it’s entirely far-fetched to read the film as a cockeyed meditation on U.S. & Russia’s rocky relationship.  For our rugged U.S. boy and his Russian counterpart try to respect each other’s boundaries, but end up trying to blow each other to smithereens anyways because, as Viggo observes, there’s too much adversarial hostility in their blood to be ignored.  That may sound crazy, but I’m convinced that U.S. and Russian leaders have secretly fantasized about having a bloody brawl in the rain just like the one depicted in the climax.

While speaking about John Wick’s myth, Viggo says “he’s not the boogyman.  He’s the one you send to kill the f-----g boogyman!”  In a way, that could be the perfect metaphor for what moviegoers are crying out for in their action products.  We get impatient with vapid trends and empty hulks, causing us to yearn for an expert to walk in and clean up all the nonsense.  John Wick proves that Keanu Reeves is a hell of an expert to get the job done.  Just ponder the fact that his character is out to avenge a dog and you can’t help but buy it wholesale.  Sure, the plot point syncs up perfectly with America’s fetishistic obsession with pets these days, but thanks to a fierce monologue delivered halfway through the film, Reeves convinces us that fighting for dogs is as worthy as fighting for your country.  


A 'Hercules' Who Can't Even Lift Audiences

by Brett Parker

In an age where intelligent discussions about TV producing more sophisticated content than movies these days are becoming some kind of norm, Brett Ratner's Hercules doesn't do the movies at large any favors.  The popularity of Game of Thrones has the mainstream getting used to nitty-gritty old-world dealings drenched in ultraviolent bloodshed, delightfully gratuitous sex, and a sharp medieval wit that could (literally) slice heads.  By inevitable comparison, the classical numbskull cheesiness of the new Hercules is left looking incredibly dull and embarrassing.  The new film makes zero attempt to dish out any kind of modern day edge or brains, making contemporary audiences genuinely confused as to why the producers didn't think no-holds-barred barbarianism was the way to go with this one.  If you have to feel sorry for anyone, then do so for Dwayne Johnson, who is damagingly hindered by a cornball script and inept directing as his boyhood dream of embodying a mythical hero goes unfortunately ill-served.

The film introduces us to the Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) of ancient myth: the half-human, half-god son of Zeus who endured 12 mythic labors which included defeating a gigantic boar and going head-to-head with a seemingly indestructible lion.  Yet we are quickly told that Hercules' myth is simply a yarn carefully curated by the man himself, with great assistance from the storytelling theatrics of his nephew, Iolaus (Reece Ritchie).  The truth is that Hercules is an embittered warrior who lost his family in a mysterious act of violence.  He is now a lost soul reduced to offering his fighting skills and loyal band-of-warriors up to whoever is willing to pay large chunks of gold.  The hulking sword-for-hire comes into a lucrative deal when he is told that a kingdom in Thrace needs help warding off a fearsome army trying to overthrow the land.  The kingdom is ruled by Lord Cotys (John Hurt), a wealthy king who instructs Hercules to teach his people how to fight like an army to defend their own turf.  Yet as Hercules goes through the motions of his heroic myth, he realizes that not all is what it seems and that he may be fighting for the wrong side.  This causes our hero to ponder the depths of his damaged soul to see if he can gather enough fire within his will to find something truly worth fighting for outside of mythic lore.  

Director Brett Ratner tends to fall into that camp somewhere next to Michael Bay representing everything that makes most smart people groan about Hollywood filmmaking.  You'd have to be an unimaginative teenager not to grasp his heavy reliance of old-school Hollywood complacency which bare scarce inklings of sophistication.  For my money, his one virtue is sometimes capturing the great humor that arises when shrewd movie stars meet preposterous genre situations, which explains Chris Tucker & Jackie Chan milking the Rush Hour franchise for gold and the affection moviegoers recall for Nicolas Cage's epic temper-tantrums in The Family Man.  To me, the most original thing he ever dished out to the movies is the masterstroke of having Pierce Brosnan's master thief and Woody Harrelson's determined FBI agent becoming peculiar buddies in the fluff-minded After the Sunset.  Yet this time, Ratner shows his incompetence with a callow script and dated-looking action scenes that are completely oblivious to every advancement made in the swords-and-sandals epics since Spartacus.  While genre purists may be delighted by the dusty formalities on display, they'll quickly be bored once they realize there's no intelligent bits to latch onto.  And while an argument can be made that this film was engineered simply for 12-year-old boys, such an audience will seriously wonder where the gleeful style and ferocious energy of 300 is at.

Dwayne Johnson has stated in several interviews that he was born to play Hercules, and considering what an intense and humorous muscle man image he's crafted throughout his Hollywood career, it wasn't hard to agree with him.  That's why it's a rather bruising disappointment that Johnson doesn't have the hyperbolic grandeur the role cries out for.  In practice, his performance is somewhere between an advanced-thespian Sylvester Stallone and a puffed-up Keanu Reeves.  Perhaps a more bad-ass script and hard-R tone would've brought out a hero worth rooting for, but Johnson comes across rather bland in such a fangless vehicle.  Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger in his old man-mountain days, but he could play to the camera like nobody's business and his voice could match Bogart's in terms of incongruent pizazz.  Arnold's mission in life was to energize cheese towards some kind of bizarre holiness while Johnson makes the mistake of trying to retain some kind of dignity.  The only moment of any real excitement comes towards the end, where a shirtless and raging Johnson, looking like a caveman Rambo, freaks out and starts smashing things while all his muscles get ample camera time.  It's the only moment that appropriately grasps why such movies exist in the first place: to glamorize the strongman ideal as they conquer their surroundings through brutal force of will.
It's too bad the final product is so dim-witted, for sprinkles of a shrewd subtext aren't too hard to suspect.  The script by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos suggests how Lord Cotys' dealings could represent the American Goverment in all it's ego and duplicity, but the tinsletown-loving Ratner surely tilted the material into representing the Hollywood studio system, with Hercules himself as the stand-in for every muscle-bound action star.  It's not entirely difficult to see the plights of mainstream filmmaking peaking out as success-obsessed Cotys wants to play up Hercules' triumphs and myth to sway his people towards a military-minded mentality, although the peasants sway our hero into finding what is real within his heart to fight for more honest virtues.  Yet in the end, all these allusions turn out pretty hollow because Ratner's heart really isn't into it and you'd have to be a fool not to see how Ratner is more on the side of the studios than the independent-minded people.  

More than one bulked-up movie star on occasion, Johnson included, has noted how the Steve Reeves incarnation of the Hercules myth inspired them to pump the iron and become Hollywood warriors in their own right.  So the highest compliment that can be paid to the latest Hercules is that it may inspire 12-year-olds everywhere to hit the gym with the hopes of becoming one of the future Expendables someday.  For the rest of us, you'll be seriously jonesing for a Ridley Scott epic just to see this kind of material done right.  As the credits began to roll, I never had more of a craving to watch Gladiator in all my life.  In an era obsessed with Game of Thrones, and true grit in general, it's shocking that Hollywood didn't feel a calculated need to give us a brooding, bloodthirsty, almost nightmarish Hercules that could truly illuminate harrowed heroism most disillusioned stiffs can relate to these days.  Yet as it is, this Hercules is vapid, forgettable, and will be mighty hard to distinguish from all the other low-level B-flicks from this genre. 


'Maleficent': Shedding Light on a Dark Woman

by Brett Parker
You really gotta hand it to Disney: they’ve always been monumentally shrewd about making truckloads of money and they’ve figured out a brilliant new way to do so with Maleficent.  The big idea is to not only reconstruct a classically animated Disney gem in painstaking CGI hyperrealism, but to put an ironical modernist twist on the beloved tale.  So not only does it transform Sleeping Beauty into a living, breathing entity, but it recasts its gothic villainess as a sympathetic feminist heroine.  Could you imagine if Disney pulled this trick with its entire animated catalog?  What if The Little Mermaid’s Ursula was just a neglected diva who didn’t fit in with the rigid beauty standards of her world?  What if The Lion King’s Scar was just a self-reliant lion driven to alienation by his family’s self-absorption?  Maleficent may be too much frosting and not enough cake, but you have to admit that thinking up such a recipe in the first place is pretty ingenious.

Sleeping Beauty is one of those engrained children’s classics that just about everyone knows by heart: the young Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) falls under a spell cast upon her by the evil sorceress Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) that sends her into a deadly deep sleep in which she can only be awaken by true love.  Maleficent re-imagines this story from the villainess’s point-of-view and discovers an astonishing amount of sympathy for her we may not have sensed before.  We first meet Maleficent as a proud and head-strong fairy living in The Moors, a mythical land which borders on a human kingdom.  She begins a fragile courtship with Prince Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a royal from the human world she falls hard for, but the feelings aren’t fully reciprocated.  Being with a non-human threatens his reign on the throne, and he is soon ordered by his kingdom to murder Maleficent as a sign of loyalty.  Instead, he drugs her one night and cuts off her fairy wings to make it look like he carried out the murderous deed without actually doing so.  

Mutilated and heartbroken, Maleficent casts herself off into the darker realms of her world and plots revenge.  On the day his royal baby is born, Stefan encounters Maleficent again when she appears in his court to place that fateful curse on his newborn that will send her into a deep sleep on her sixteenth birthday.  Fearing for his daughter’s life, Stefan hides her deep in the woods where she is raised by three bumbling fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple).  Maleficent watches the princess grow up from afar and starts to grow a considerable affection for her.  When the child turns fifteen, the dark fairy even comes out of the shadows to form a surprisingly caring relationship with her.  Regretting her supernatural scorn, Maleficent tries to reverse the curse but finds that her own spells may be more powerful than her emotions.

Maleficent marks the directorial debut of Robert Stromberg, the Academy Award winning Production Designer on Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, so it must be said that the grand extent to which he meticulously recreates the original film’s fairy tale landscape as we remember it is quite dazzling.  While such productions are usually doomed to resemble live actors standing in front of shabby animation, the environment here has a sort of tangible texture to it which makes it feel more like an exquisite painting than a Saturday morning cartoon.  It’s just too bad that the overall tone is more on the side of children’s entertainment instead of hyper neo-realism.  For all its lush colors and sweeping visuals, Maleficent never really brings any depth past being a really beautiful coloring book.  Snow White and the Huntsman may have been far from perfect, but at least its atmosphere held a lived-in grittiness that brought about a peculiar kind of conviction these types of movies cry out for.  

It’s a testament to Angelina Jolie’s image that she could play a demonic-looking, horn-endowed queen of darkness effortlessly.  Jolie’s edgy demeanor and goddess glamour has become such a mega-wattage life force in Hollywood life that she’s usually at her most convincing in hyperbolic movie atmospheres (just ponder the surprising gravitas she brought to her bad-ass babe in the outrageous Wanted).  As the ultimate case study in scary-sexy and feminine authority, Jolie and Maleficent make the perfect marriage between star image and mythic grandeur.  No other actress in the role would dare have the same earth-scorching authority and superhuman magnetism.  As for the other mortals onscreen sheepishly sharing frames with Jolie, Elle Fanning was born to play purely innocent beauties while Sharlto Copley doesn’t have the regal sensuality to compliment the sinister madness he brings to Prince Stefan.  

Maleficent may ultimately just be cinematic candy--sweet and tasty, yet empty and not quite fulfilling--but the unearthed feminist musings the filmmakers bring to the forefront are certainly nothing to sneeze at.  In our post-modern, over-analytical times, the ideologies of classical Disney movies have been called out on occasion for their sexual and sociological implications, mainly in the ways white-bred beauty is celebrated and any kind of ambiguousness is ultimately cast as evil.  So it certainly took audacity and smarts to right all the feminine wrongs that inherently had to set Maleficent off.  For any smart woman knows that being burned by romance sets off reactionary scorn, the beauty standards that are often touted around could make any woman rage with vengeance, and absolutely no evil queen truly wanted to be an evil queen by choice.  It’s a sympathetic cleverness that certainly gives this shiny CGI display verve, and we’re rather thankful that Jolie is the one delivering it to us.  Like John Wayne playing cowboys and Robert DeNiro playing gangsters, we could go on watching Jolie play fairy tale baddies until the end of time.


A Bright 'Future' for X-Men Movies

by Brett Parker
The X-Men universe is so vast with colorful personalities and wildly imaginative storylines that the film incarnations of this world have wheeled out decidedly varying tones.  Some of the (better) installments adhere to the solemnity of that world’s existential traumas while others were more willing to extract the pop grandeur from these superheroes’ comic book absurdity.  X-Men: Days of Future Past finds a satisfying balancing act between these two inherent yet contradictive aspects of the mythology: it’s dug firmly into comic book flights of fancy, yet its sense of ideological dread looms over every moment of this film.  The mutants on display may pummel each other with superpowers and bounce around like cartoon gods, but their plights and conflicts are undoubtedly of the highest dramatic order.  

The film opens in a dystopian future where giant robots known as Sentinels hold a terrifying sway over the world in which they capture and kill both mutants and humans who have the potential to develop mutant genes.  Most of the X-Men we’ve come to know have been slaughtered by these Sentinels and only a small band of mutants are left standing in the world.  In China, lone survivor Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is able to meet up with fellow mutants Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), and  Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) in hiding.  Kitty reveals how she has the power to send a mutant’s present subconscious back in time to their older body with their knowledge of the future intact.  Realizing that the Sentinel nightmare came about after shape-shifting assassin Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered the inventor of the Sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), Professor X concludes that someone must travel back in time and prevent Mystique from every carrying out that murder.  Realizing his indestructible nature makes him the only one who can withstand the force of time-travel, Wolverine volunteers to be the one who goes back.

As he wakes up in the 1973 version of his body, Wolverine realizes he has no time to waste and must track down both the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender).  This proves to be endlessly complicated, for Professor X is a disillusioned soul whose telepathic powers seem to be fading as the result of an anti-paralysis drug.  Meanwhile, Magneto has been captured by the U.S. Government after being blamed for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Even in spite of the fact that the two men couldn’t hate each other more at this point in their lives, Wolverine tries effortlessly to unite the two of them to help him prevent a grim future, all while trying to track Mystique as she carries out vengeful missions of mutant freedom across the globe.  

This is the first X-Men movie Bryan Singer has helmed since 2003’s X2: X-Men United, and not only has his confidence sharpened by observing other X-Men movies not getting things quite right, but making Superman Returns and Valkyrie in the meantime surely taught him more about blending spectacle and drama.  This is perhaps the X-Men movie with the most effective imagery, doing its comic book roots proud without sacrificing its dignity.  My favorite scene involves the super-speedy mutant Quicksilver (a livewire Evan Peters) who damn near slows time down as he races to save his fellow mutants from being shot at by security guards (time is so slow to Quicksilver that he has time to listen to “Time in a Bottle” on his headphones during his attack, bringing floating beauty to a scene of violent urgency).  Thanks to loopholes in telepathy and time-travel, there’s a wonderful scene where both the young and old Professor X’s get to confront each other face-to-face, not only fulfilling a great fanboy fantasy but bringing verve to a classical sci-fi device.  The film’s most hard-hitting scene shows images of Sentinels ferociously tearing apart mutants edited over Magneto’s climactic speech about why mutants are not to be messed with.  The skillful editing by John Ottman exquisitely counterbalances the sinister nature of Magneto’s words by showing the fearsome desperation they were born out of.

The X-Men movies have dished out such a wide variety of characters that X-Men: Days of Future Past appears to have picked the most appealing ones and used them effectively.  At this point in the game, Hugh Jackman could dish out Wolverine’s awesomeness in his sleep, although the 70’s time period here greatly compliments the young Clint Eastwood myth within the character that’s been great fun to spot before.  Jennifer Lawrence brings a down-to-earth American girl vibe to mystique, helping to make the character more sympathetic than ever before.  James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are fantastic in the ways they call upon old-school British-flavored thespian class to flesh out their characters.  Their wonderful dedication and conviction is based around their duck-to-water understanding  that superheroes speaking hyperbole in capes and masks is a modern day update on Shakespeare's kings and warriors.  Fassbender especially has a monologue on an airplane filled with such raging command that his Old Vic grandeur literally shakes the plane.  The fact that the duo convinces you Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton would’ve fit in perfectly with this world gives the film an extra kick of excitement.  

What’s so enduring about the entire X-Men mythology is how the relentless prejudices the mutants face could be a stand-in for any oppressed minority throughout history.  Ian McKellen was drawn to the material for its allusions to gay rights while the Jewish Bryan Singer certainly is attuned to the Holocaust allegories present (after all, he did make Apt Pupil and Valkyrie).  While the future imagery of Sentinels exterminating undesirables certainly evokes Nazism, the mechanical and pitiless methodology of their attacks uncomfortably suggests drone warfare.  The chilling revelation here hints that all forms of violent regulation eventually lurches towards the same nightmarish outcome.  What’s complex about the film’s resolution is how both the virtuous mutants and the villainous ones need both of their ying-yang ideologies meshed together in order to combat a hellish society.  Ponder how the ending couldn’t have been brought about without both sincere empathy and wicked duplicity.  

By melding the X-Men’s past with their future, Bryan Singer and his confederates have finally been able to make an X-Men movie that takes all the bits you’ve loved from every installment (even the weaker ones) and combine them into a satisfying whole.  It’s a delicate balance that I think can be improved upon towards more powerhouse installments (and judging by the epic after-credits sequence, we’re in for yet another monumental adventure with our favorite mutants).  If future X-Men movies keep building on its powerful elements with cinematic wonder, then we can finally start to visualize sequels that match the scope and awe of the beloved comics.  


Old-School 'Godzilla' Meets New-School Relevance

 by Brett Parker

You really do let out a gleeful squeal the first time you see him.  The camera pans up over a skyscraper-sized reptilian body obscured by thunderous shadows while an unholy chorus wails over the soundtrack.  Once we reach the top of this scary sight, lightning strikes and we’re able to make out that the creature is Godzilla himself, and man oh man, is he ready to get down to business.  We’re certainly not talking about the confused-looking iguana from Roland Emmerich’s botched 1998 version, but the bad-ass, guy-in-a-rubber-suit mystique of Japanese fever dreams.  That demonic grin and ear-shattering roar we’ve come to maniacally cherish are both fully intact and you smile knowing that old-school monster ferociousness is ready to be served.

The success of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is based on the realization that we’ve really missed the “classical” big guy kicking the crap out of scaly foes while turning the world into his own sandbox of destruction.  It’s just too bad those pesky humans keep getting in the way of the camera.  The time-honored tradition of melodramatic humans being subjected to Godzilla’s wrath while themes of man-abusing-nature get tossed around are fully honored, all while being basked in the current trend of making everything gritty and gloomy.  While there isn’t too much here my inner-intellectual can really complain about, my inner-10-year-old really wishes the humans could just sit down so he could enjoy all the monster ass-kicking in peace.  Yet a popcorn thrill ride that satisfies both the college professor and kindergartner inside you is pretty much the definition of solid Hollywood filmmaking these days, so I should probably just calm down.  

The film opens as all Godzilla movies do, with mortified scientists scrambling around trying to warn everybody about alarming nuclear activity that appears to be harboring something gigantic and abnormal.  A nuclear expert named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is obsessed with searching a quarantined plant in Japan for answers to a mysterious incident that killed his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche).  His naval officer son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), tries to convince him to let it go, but Joe is convinced that something fishy is still going on within the site.  His suspicions turn out to be right, for scientists are harboring a giant monster in hibernation out of the public eye.  Before Joe can tell the world, haywire ensues and a colossal winged monster emerges from the site and goes off in search of what is believed to be another MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) out in the world.

Government officials ponder how they can possibly contain and defeat two gargantuan mutant creatures intent on pure destruction.  They quickly realize that their only hope may be yet another oversized animal-beast that’s been kept hidden in secret for many years.  He’s been hiding out in the ocean for decades and has frantically been kept under-wraps by big government until the emergence of these new creatures cause him to leap into action.  They call him “Godzilla” and he sets out to directly confront the other two monsters wreaking havoc across the globe.  The humans scatter about and scheme desperately to protect themselves, for they know that when all these giant beasts clash with each other, they’ll lay a smack-down on the planet that has never been seen before in history.  

While the creatures in Godzilla are evoked with the latest in state-of-the-art CGI, their movements and behavior directly copy the hokey brawling so prominent at the dawn of this film series, and that turns out to be a popcorn blessing.  Edwards wonderfully marries the camera and effects to create alluring imagery (my favorite being a barely-conscious Ford being lured away from a nuclear blast by helicopter), but there’s no denying how the creatures are mimicking the cheesy monster movie mayhem of cinematic yesteryear.  While their movements are more agile, and Seamus McGarvey’s dark and grayish cinematography helps mask the silliness, these mutant wrestling matches deliver the jolly goods you’ve always treasured within these movies.  Godzilla’s climactic “finishing move” had me cheering out loud in the theater.

But it can’t just all be reptilian rumbles, for a Godzilla movie isn’t truly a Godzilla movie without worrisome humans around to remind us that this is all a cautionary warning about nature.  It’s a sad testament to man’s constant disrespect towards nature that a Godzilla picture has proven to be such an enduring formula, for this movie covers every ritualistic beat of the tradition--frantic scientists, booming musical score, epic metropolitan destruction---and feels as relevant today as it did in the 50’s.  Online conspiracy theorists are quick to remind us how government duplicity, incompetence, and arrogance is causing deep repercussions for our planet’s well-being and these modern day anxieties fit in perfectly with these creature-feature formalities.  Perhaps my  slight annoyance with panicky humans getting in the way of monster brutality provides the shrewdest critique of our modern world yet, for we all whine and moan about our right to live when eventually we’ll have to just get the hell out of nature’s way and let it play out the exact way it wants to.  

The actors on display prove dedicated to the stern, traumatized moods the tone demands of them, although you do find yourself wishing more silliness would creep into the membrane.  Most impressive of all is Bryan Cranston who damn near wrings out all the thespian anguish he can to deliver the most epically concerned of all concerned scientists.  The gifted Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives us a brooding and focused action figure, making you sort of yearn for the days when a quick-witted charmer was standard-issue in these kinds of proceedings.  Part of me thinks having Channing Tatum here in his 21 Jump Street glory would not only be a blast but speak bundles about how modern-day males would handle a global catastrophe.  It’s always nice to see Sally Hawkins and Elizabeth Olsen, but their roles are so beneath their skill sets that I wonder if they were secretly offended by the script.  Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe seems to enjoy his simple scientist role, probably because it’s a celebrated tradition in his country the way American actors play lawyers.  Call me crazy, but I always thought Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime would’ve been the ideal human to place in a Godzilla movie.  The most over-the-top human of all sharing the screen with the most over-the-top creature of all would’ve been such a bewildering hunk of Hollywood cheese that I’m genuinely surprised a 90’s studio head never concocted it.

With Godzilla and his debut film Monsters, it’s apparent that Edwards wants to explore a realistic spacial relationship between humans and giant creatures, and it’s a testament to his ideals that this is probably the closest to a “realistic” Godzilla flick we’ve ever gotten (maybe this is strongly felt cause it makes the grand implausibility of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version eat serious dust).  Yet somehow I still prefer Pacific Rim, the cheerful giant monster epic which built its world around an infectious Star Wars-like mythology and still ended up saying tons about nature and nationalism anyways.  The irony here is that for all the film’s dreary warnings about the crippling forces of nature, it dishes out a happy Hollywood ending filled with as much triumphant idealism as Top Gun.  As Godzilla takes his victorious final march out to sea, the film’s final message appears to be that no matter what happens, nature will come down on our side and everything is gonna turn out alright in the end.  It’s a smirking ending filled with cockeyed assuredness, the very thing the entire movie spent warning us about.