(On Cable TV, February 2015) The American 1998 Godzilla film may be nearly two decades old, it’s still enough of a cautionary tale to lower expectations about the 2014 version. Fortunately, this latest iteration of the character doesn’t need lowered expectations: Ably helmed by director Gareth Edwards (making the jump to multi-million moviemaking right from the clever low-budget Monsters), Godzilla is an imperfect but satisfying take on the classic character, updated to the latest expectations but old-fashioned in its willingness to deliver the basics of a monster movie. One of the best demonstrations of this film’s understanding of the Godzilla mythos is its explicit willingness to treat Godzilla as a force of nature, an anti-hero to be used against bigger threats rather than a threat in itself. Relatively daring is the decision to keep Godzilla half-seen until late in the film, occasional glimpses of his bulk being enough to keep us satisfied until the climax. Coming in late in the monster-movie game, Godzilla can also afford to skip over the expected parts, showing us the resulting destruction as a highlight news reel rather than the main sequence itself. The way the mythology is explained is quite successful, instantly raising the credibility of the film with some entertaining confabulations. The Japanese origins of the character are treated with respect (who better than Ken Watanabe to be the voice of reason?), and there are a number of small mythos winks (from 1954 to Mothra) to keep even casual fans entertained. Where the film doesn’t do as well is with its human characters: While Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad as the protagonist (showing a far more respectable image than in the Kick-Ass films or Anna Karenina), he’s a bit underwritten, and that also goes for the other characters. The fast-moving nature of the film offers few opportunities for credible character involvement, and some of the plot tricks get far-fetched after a while. Still, let’s not be overly critical: This Godzilla is a pretty good treatment of the character, and it offers a steady succession of small thrills along the way. Not bad at all.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) I disliked several aspects of the original Kick-Ass, so in saying that this sequel isn’t as bad merely means that I’m not as repulsed by the results. Not that it’s all that better: the same hypocrisy that permeated the original is on full display here, as an attempt to somehow satirize superheroes conventions ends up doing exactly the same thing, except with extra puerile arrogance. Kick-Ass 2 seems inordinately pleased with its ability to swear as much at it likes, or to indulge is as much pointless violence. The film isn’t merely hobbled by its male gaze –it’s made actively unpleasant by its teenaged male gaze: When more mature viewers are already convinced that taking up a superhero identity is for idiots, the film’s inevitable attempt to show normalcy turning on the characters is far more annoying than satisfying. There are a few good things to say about the film’s younger actors (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Chloë Grace Moretz have all grown up a bit since the previous film, and it generally suits them) but Jeff Wadlow’s direction is far more ordinary than Matthew Vaughn’s work in the first film, and whatever shocking qualities the original had are here dispersed into a multiplicity of calculated subplots shot indifferently. So: not as unpleasant, but still not good. Hopefully there will never be a third film.
(Video On-demand, March 2013) Director Joe Wright has always shown tendencies toward stylistic show-boating, and the first half-hour of Anna Karenina is crammed with directorial flourishes as the film moves in-between interior sets and a larger theatrical stage. As a way to freshly present an oft-told story (Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted to the big screen at least 12 times until now), it’s not a bad choice –except that there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the device, and it seems to be half-abandoned as the film progresses. While viewers who like a bit of cinematic flourish may be pleased by the way Wright plays along with conventions, it does obscure the story and turns the film into something it’s not meant to be. It also obscures the good work done by the actors, including Keira Knightley in the titular role and Jude Law as her despairing husband. (Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s mustache steals the show for none-so-positive reasons.) The costumes are sumptuous and the visuals occasionally evoke a nicely idealized view of 19th century Russian aristocracy, but the self-conscious artificiality of the film’s presentation work at undercutting the impact of those. As a take on familiar material, this 2012 version of Anna Karenina isn’t ugly to look at… but it’s quite a bit abstract when it starts messing with the way movies are presented, and that may not necessarily work at a romantic drama’s advantage.