Tag Archives: King Kong

“CLOVERFIELD” Review (✫✫✫)

Turn the camera on.

Why is it when we think of monster movies, we remember the larger-than-life creatures more easily than we do the main characters? For instance, we don’t remember Ann Darrow as easily as we remember King Kong. We don’t remember Hideto Ogata over Godzilla. It’s simpler to remember Frankenstein’s monster rather than Dr. Frankenstein himself. And it’s easy to see why too: the monsters are more interesting than their human co-stars are. We all know someone like Ann, Hideto, or Victor because they’re all human beings, just like us. King Kong, Godzilla, and Frankenstein’s monster have never existed and can never exist. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate us so much: because they play on fantasy rather than reality.

Let Cloverfield, then, be the monster movie to flip the genre on its head. Not only do we not know the name of the monster that is tearing apart New York City, but our focus is poured almost entirely into the human survivors. It’s just as well too. Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that blends entertainment with art, method with innovation, fantasy with reality.

So yes, if you happened to miss the highly talked-about teaser trailer before the movie’s release, Cloverfield is another monster movie. There’s a big baddie, there’s a city, and chaos and destruction ensues. That’s how far the similarities extend. The difference in its approach this time around lies is its execution. While King Kong and Godzilla are framed and staged on a massive scale as monsters clobber each other and throw each other into buildings and landmarks, Cloverfield instead focuses on a smaller scale as found footage off of a New York City regular’s camcorder. This New Yorker is named Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and he is accompanied by his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) and his lover Beth (Odette Annable), of whom he has a complicated past with. Great time to have relationship problems, isn’t it? In the middle of a destroyed New York City while a monster is obliterating everything in sight.

Here is a movie that succeeds more as an experiment than it does as a film. Cloverfield is a movie that takes genre conventions and throws them out the back window, taking any direction it wishes as it propels its humans through the chaos of a quickly collapsing New York City. The risks it takes both pays off for itself and then doesn’t. Most of the time, the movie’s intentions shine clear and have a strong payoff for its audience. At other times, it’s shaky and unstable, much like this movie’s handheld shooting method.

I’ll start with the positives. First of all, it’s different. That much is a compliment you don’t hear too much nowadays in corporate Hollywood, which pushes out sequels and remakes like the happy meals at McDonalds. Yes, Cloverfield’s overall premise has been used and reused, but it’s originality comes from its forced perspective towards these human characters. Here’s a question for you: out of all of the horror movies you’ve seen, how many characters have you been able to relate to on a personal level? No, I’m not talking about relating to them in the sense that they’re running away from giant monsters or psychotic axe murderers. Sure, we like to root for Ellen Riply in Alien or Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but take them out of their own movies for a second. How many of them can you relate to as people rather than as movie characters?

Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that understands its characters before it understands its visual effects. This is in credit to both screenwriter Drew Godard and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, who both understand that for this story to work, we need to relate to the characters as regular people rather than as survivors. Them taking the time to change their focus and build on exposition works. After a very brief introduction, we understand who these characters are, their motivations, and their relationships to each other. When they die, it’s genuinely heartbreaking. It means something when they’re killed, as opposed to being just another number for the monster’s kill count. Because of our investment into Rob, Beth, Hud and others, we’re scared for them and with them as they’re running through a violently torn apart New York City, desperately searching for the people they love most. By making that the focus, Cloverfield works not just as a horror or monster movie, but also as a tragedy. Such deepness is rare for disaster pictures nowadays, but Cloverfield pulls it off well, unlike most of today’s big-budget blockbusters.

Of course, with this “found-footage” method of shooting, it also raises some problems for this production. For one thing, there is not a single steady shot in the movie. The camera is always shaking back and forth, which didn’t bother me as much, but I know it will cause motion sickness for some unfortunate viewers. Another problem is that with this shaky-cam method of shooting, some of the action flow is incoherent, or sometimes, lost altogether in a tense disaster scene. Most of the time, Bonvillain handles the camera well enough to capture important moments, like to focus on the tail of the monster or on a character when they are wounded. Sometimes though, Bonvillain’s method of shooting exceeds his talent on the camera. For instance, what do you see during a chase scene? A lot of the camera rocking back and forth between the motion of a character’s legs as they’re trying to get away.

The sad part is that Bonvillain is almost powerless to do anything about this. Making this a steady shot would do nothing to convince us that this was really happening, considering the camera is being supposably held by a movie character that A) Doesn’t know how to shoot, and B) Is in the middle of a literal disaster. But then again, the shakiness doesn’t do any favors for our eyesight either. You’re screwed either way.

I’ve repeatedly went back and forth on this movie, bobbling the pros and cons around in my head, trying to decide on which element beats out the others. There’s good cases to both sides. We identify with our heroes as people rather than as movie characters, and that humanity makes their crusade all the more important to us. The sense of mystery, eeriness, and hopelessness plays out perfectly like an H.P. Lovecraft novel. The scares and the thrills are all there. That much the movie has going for it. On the opposite end, though, we have a shaky camera that makes people want to vomit, a few genre cliches that the movie can’t escape from, and a pathetic, lackluster ending that just suddenly cuts off and leaves an empty, unfulfilled feeling for its desperately hungry audience. I have no problem whether a character lives or dies for the sake of drama, but when you’re stuck not knowing, that’s just dangling a hook in front of your audience that they’re never going to reach.

I’m giving the movie a thumbs up for one reason: it tried. It experimented. It did something different, and it partially worked out for itself. That’s a thumbs up not for the movie itself, but for the movie-making business.

Years ago, aspiring filmmakers dreamed of big visions in their heads. They experimented, they failed more times than they succeeded, but they took steps towards creating their visions, and their reward was seeing their beautiful, breathtaking ideas playing on the big screen. Filmmakers these days lack that creation or that aspiration, and they prefer piggybacking off of other people’s creations just for the big buck. The creators behind Cloverfield need to be honored not necessarily for their movie, but for their aspiration to create. They sought to make something all their own, and whether you like it or not, that’s exactly what they did.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“GODZILLA” (2014) Review (✫✫1/2)

Should have been called “Mutos” if you ask me. 

There are two questions that always come into my head every time I watch a reboot: Is it different from the original, and is it necessary? The answer to both is usually no, it isn’t. Why would it be? Most studios just cash in on the name of their franchise and re-brand it, rather than coming up with an original take of their story, breathing life and energy into a franchise that has since been left stale. Perfect example: did anyone find Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla to be even remotely tolerable?

With this new version of Godzilla, I can say that it at least succeeded as a reboot in that it is different from the original. Whether that is a good different is something I’m still struggling with. I feel like I’m one of the helpless human beings running away from all the giant monster ruckus going on in the middle of Japan: I’m in the middle of a disarray of loud noise and violence, and while I’m fascinated by what is going on, I’m ultimately distraught because these giant monsters are destroying the things that I love.

Directed by Gareth Edwards, the writer/director behind 2010’s Monsters, Godzilla stars Aaron Taylor Johnson as Ford, a lieutenant who just came back from his service in the Navy. His wife and child (portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) are more than eager to have their family whole again, and couldn’t be happier to see him when he finally comes home.

Only one problem: Ford’s father, Joe (Bryan Cranston) just got arrested in Japan for intrusion on private property. You see, about fifteen years ago, poor Joe was dutifully working as an engineer for a power plant in Japan. After scanning some strange readings off of the richter scale, he witnesses the death of his wife as the power plant quickly collapses before him.

Everyone around Joe believes that what he witnessed was a massive earthquake, including his son Ford. Joe doesn’t believe that it was an accident, and thinks there’s something much more sinister afoot than what everyone thinks. As Joe and his son continue to investigate the evidence he’s collected, they begin to become more aware of a giant conspiracy that the Japanese governments are working to hide, and soon, they come into contact with the biggest and most dangerous secret of all: a giant monster, the king of all beasts nicknamed “Godzilla”.

Looking back at this film, I am reminded by not how much I enjoyed this movie, but how much Peter Jackson’s King Kong got right as a remake. When reboots are done right, they are like King Kong: they are smart, clever, well-structured stories that are exciting, involving, and pay delicate homages to the source material. When they go wrong, they are like Emmerich’s Godzilla: explosions of CGI and visual effects garbage that go in every direction except for to the point.

With this new Godzilla, it takes steps to be a unique monster-sized reboot, but whether it reached the top of the staircase is another thing to be decided. I liked a lot of things about this movie. Edwards does a good job balancing the destruction with the human interest. Godzilla himself is a sight to see. The fights between him and these Cloverfield-like monsters called “Mutos” are a thing of classic Godzilla fandom. And Bryan Cranston was a clear emotional standout in the movie, giving a invested performance that was more than what the movie deserved.

One my biggest gripes with the movie is this: Godzilla isn’t in it. Or at least, not as much as I would like him to be. When you watch monster movies like King Kong or Jurassic Park, you get an overwhelming sensation of the scope and size of the creature’s presence, of the ground shaking when they take a step, or their shadows lurking over you as they quietly stalk their prey. I’m frustrated not by Godzilla’s physical appearance, but rather how infrequently he appears during the movie. The Godzilla movie has a total run time of 123 minutes, and where is he during the most of it? Swimming around in an ocean, spikes popping out, chasing monsters smaller than him that he could have easily killed 30 minutes ago.

Granted, I know what Edwards was trying to accomplish here. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Cranston compared the film to Steven Spielberg’s 1970 classic film Jaws, in that it doesn’t immediately show the monster, but its tension and presence could always be felt in it.

There, however, is one big reason why that doesn’t work with this movie. The shark in Jaws is a 300-foot shark lurking and sneaking through it’s quiet habitat in the waters. Godzilla is a 9,000 ton monster stomping his way through cities. I don’t think subtlety is supposed to be part of its nature.

As far as it’s lead goes, Taylor-Johnson is stock, a plain and uninteresting cutout of a soldier whose character is so one-note that he might as well be a cowbell instrument. For Pete’s sake, if you’re going to go to use the Hollywood hero archetype, can you at least get someone who is good at it? I could easily see someone like Tom Cruise or Jude Law in Taylor-Johnson’s role and succeed just as much at doing it. In fact, I almost prefer it. His emotions aren’t subtle, he doesn’t do a good job at expression, and at times he recites lines so casually that we could possibly be fooled into thinking that he was reading off of a cue card.

I went back and forth on whether or not I liked this movie, juggling around the things in my head that I did and didn’t like in the film. Ultimately though, if I’m having this hard of a time understanding what the movie was supposed to be, then usually so did the film itself. Godzilla is a decent reboot, restarting the franchise with a modern twist that I know many film aficionados will appreciate, but it should have been more. More as in better acting. More as in better handling, and more as in more of the freaking monster, period. Either way, the movie didn’t leave its mark on me, and when I talk to fans of the franchise since it’s debut, they too indicate that they prefer the original over the reboot. Hey, at least Godzilla had more screen time.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES” Review (✫✫✫)

Hey, apes are people too. 

Be honest: how many of you were expecting this one to be good? I know I certainly didn’t. After seeing how poorly the earlier Planet of the Apes movies were faring (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton), here I was expecting another downtrodden experience that was trying to milk whatever it could left from the utters of its franchise. Why wouldn’t I expect that? The same thing has been done with the Jaws series alongside every conceivable Friday the 13th movie ever made. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting a good movie when I heard that this movie was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It honestly felt more like it was falling to me.

Here, however, is the rare occasion where a prequel/reboot actually contributes to the franchise rather than taking away from it. Taking place years before the events of the very first Planet of the Apes film, Rise tells the story of Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who is developing a potential cure for alzheimer’s deep within his lab. After testing it on multiple chimpanzees and noticing an effect in increased intelligence, one of them goes berserk, attacks her caretakers, then is killed in self-defense. The scientists are ordered to terminate the project and kill any ape left within the vicinity.

It is during his routine inspection where he discovers a small baby chimp deep within the cell of the female ape that was killed earlier. Knowing that the baby would die if he remained there, Will took the little baby home and raised him as his own.

As the years progress, we notice that the baby chimp shares the same characteristics as his mother did when she was in the labs. Both of them displayed feats of great intelligence and memorization. Both developed abilities to read, write and comprehend speech. Both learned the skill of being able to do sign language. Most impressive was their ability to convey, understand and express emotions, almost like they’re human themselves. As the small chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) grows out of his adolescence and into adult apehood, he begins to notice a darker side of humanity and plots a way to set himself and his fellow apes free from mankind’s grasp.

Here is a film that, by every definition, should not have been good. It had everything working against it. It’s the prequel to a film series that hasn’t had a good film since 1968. It’s the seventh film in a franchise that has long since lost its influence. And it’s centered around a main character who isn’t even human, an ape who, for more than half of the film, can’t even talk.

Believe me, I went into this film fully expecting to hate it. Turns out that it’s quite the opposite. Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates exactly what a hollywood blockbuster is supposed to be, a smart, involving and intelligently made film that is equal parts exciting as it is relevant. Director Rupert Wyatt, who made the 2008 film The Escapist prior to Rise, is careful and delicate with the pacing of his film. Starting off on a very dramatic and touching note, we go through what can mostly be seen as a science-fiction drama about the relationship between the guy who plays Harry Osborn and his little ape-friend, until all hell breaks loose and the beginning of the human-ape war spawns itself.

I exaggerate a little bit, but you get my point. There isn’t a lot of action in the movie, or at least, not as much as you’d expect it to be Instead, there are a lot of small, intimate moments where Caesar and Will’s beings clash into each other, either bonding in very genuine, heartfelt moments or rubbing off of each other as starkly as their conflicting races are. This is a dialogue-driven movie, with Will and Caesar each questioning the decisions they make and how they should should both respond as the result of it.

A lot of things don’t really blow up in the movie, to be honest. But when it does, ohhhh boy, is it exciting. My favorite scene in the movie had to be when Caesar and his primate army broke out of a preservation facility in new york and pierced their way right through the heart of the city, almost like it’s the American revolution and it’s George Washington leading the charge.

At the absolute heart of this film, however, is Caesar, portrayed here by actor Andy Serkis. If you don’t recognize the name, you don’t deserve to call yourself a cinephile. Serkis is most known for a slew of CGI performances, ranging from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Great as he was as Gollum, I’m tempted to say that this is his best performance yet. When you watch the film, notice the differences at how he carries himself as an ape and as a slightly-more evolved ape. In early scenes, he’s just walking around like a regular animal, with his elongated arms carrying himself as he “oohs” and “ahhs” while rubbing the back of his head. As the movie continues on, Caesar’s evolvement is apparent, and you notice his regular instinctual appearance has been replaced with a tall, stark, and grim figure, bleakfully looking on at a society that he has lost all faith in. Gollum was a character he concieved entirely from his own inspiration, while King Kong was one he concieved from studying the natural behavior of apes. He does both here with Caesar, and successfully portrays a character who is not just an ape, but a super ape, one who is evolving to something much more dangerous at an alarming and vengeful pace.

The only complaint I will issue with this movie is its ending, which is so melodramatic and sappy that it could have been used for an “Animal Planet” commercial. Why did they have to do this? Who says a movie needs to end on an optimistic note? Why do we need to have a happy ending? Who says we can’t end on a bleak, grim note, foreshadowing on a downtrodden spiral of war, doom and apocalypse? We all know that this can only end one way anyway. The franchise isn’t called “Planet of the Humans”, after all.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements