Inside Out – review

Inside Out Poster Vertical

Looks good only in comparison to its disappinting predecessors

Inside Out is stunning. Unfortunately, what is stunning is not the film itself but the perceptual phenomenon surrounding it: Pixar Animation’s previous troika of Cars 2Brave, and Monsters University was so abysmally disappointing that, by comparison, the simple mediocrity of Inside Out has fooled critics and audiences into believing that they were seeing a brilliant return to form. I think James Walcott dubbed this the “Bob Dylan Phenomenon”: after years of disappointing work, any halfway decent album is hailed as “his best since Blood on the Tracks.” In the case of Inside Out, we might call the film Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3, but even that comparison would be praise too high; this is definitely second-tier Pixar, more on par with A Bug’s Life – another film that had an amusing premise but an unimaginative execution, gilded with gorgeous computer graphics.

In case, you haven’t heard, most of Inside Out takes place inside the head of Riley, a young girl undergoing a traumatic move to a new home. Well, not really traumatic – more like stressful – but that’s not going to stop the emotions living inside her head – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear – from turning Riley’s relatively prosaic predicament into the premise for a blockbuster movie, including an epic journey replete with insane action sequences.

In order to do this, the scenario contrives a set of rules for the way things work inside Riley’s head; then of course something goes wrong, and in order to set it right, Joy and Sadness set off to fix the problem. Along the way, lots of stuff happens because the script says so and because we need to fill 90 minutes somehow or other, and eventually we – or at least, Joy – learns a big lesson, which is that Sadness is also important to Riley’s mental well-being.

Strangely, Joy learns this less through a series of flashbacks to events that should have taught her the lesson years ago; the only reason any of this is a “surprise” to us is that, being flashbacks, the material was previously unseen by the audience. Why what the audience knows should matter to Joy’s understanding of Riley’s psyche is a mystery the film does not explore.

Nor does Inside Out explore why the emotions inside Riley’s head have emotions of their own (perhaps in some sort of infinite regression they themselves have emotions living inside their heads?). In any case, their personalities are not as vivid as one would expect from characters so clearly defined by a single trait. The lone exception here is Anger, thanks in large part to the vocal performance of Lewis Black (whose outrage in response to an oddball San Francisco variant on pizza provides the film’s biggest laugh).

All of this would be neither here nor there if the film had used its conceit to string together some amusing set pieces and comedy, but there is little actual joy in the film. The arbitrary nature of the difficulties faced ruins any genuine suspense (we’re in a mental landscape, yet for some reason physical constraints such as Gravity and Momentum must be observed). No doubt the filmmakers were afraid of turning Inside Out into a surreal head trip that might alienate parents taking their children to see it.

There are a few moments when the film briefly comes to life, including a very poignant one when Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend shuffles off into the existential void for good. Other than that, Inside Out is a sadly tedious effort, buoyed only by the craftsmanship employed by the computer-animators, working in 3D to create some beautiful imaginary landscapes that really deserve to have something more interesting happening in them.

How Inside Out managed to overcome its rather obvious shortcoming to become both a box office blockbuster and a critical darling is certainly a mystery. My guess is that we’re seeing a combination of willful wish fulfillment and cognitive dissonance. In the wake of its disappointing predecessors, to acknowledge the actual quality of Inside Out would be to acknowledge a recent track record indicating that Pixar’s Golden Era may be a thing of the past. Well, at least we have The Incredibles 2 looming on the horizon, so there’s still hope.

Lava Pixar short subjectIn theatres, Inside Out is preceded by the Pixar short subject Lava, which is about a lonely boy volcano hoping to meet a girl volcano. Essentially a music video, Lava‘s idea of wit is to substitute the word “lava” for “love” in the lyrics. The result is hokey and cornball, but the attempt to make the girl volcano attractive – even though she has no nose and only slits for eyes and mouth – is bizarre enough to be memorable if not truly pleasant.

Inside Out and Lava are currently in release nationwide.

Inside Out (June 19, 2015). Directed by Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen. Written by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Peter Docter, with additional dialogue by Amy Poehler & Bill Hader. Voices: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn DIas, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Frank Oz. Rated PG.

Godzilla & The Flaws of Tribal Film Criticism; or, Joe Brody is Godzilla

Godzilla 2014- Ken Watanabe-in-cave
One of the interesting aspects of last month’s theatrical release of GODZILLA (2014) was the critical reaction, which turned out to be both gratifying and frustrating. How did it manage to be both? Well, let me explain…
On the one hand, it was gratifying to see GODZILLA taken seriously by the mainstream press. Yes, many of these critics disliked the film; however, their criticisms were, by and large, based on dramatic shortcomings, not on the mere fact of its being a monster movie. For good or bad, they assessed what was on the screen, and did not mock the filmmakers’ efforts to craft a somber, more realistic version of a character often (if unfairly) associated with camp.
On the other hand, it was frustrating to see GODZILLA summarily dismissed by critics who specialize in cinefantastique. Yes, some of these viewers liked the film; however, their criticism was sometimes based less on actual flaws than on the fact of seeing an unfamiliar adult rendition of a familiar, childhood icon. They were less interested in what the film actually achieved than in faulting it for not conforming to their mental template of what a new-millennium Godzilla film should have been.
That’s right: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the famous radioactive reptile got a fairer shake from mainstream critics than from genre specialists. Many viewers with a Sense of Wonder seem to have checked that sensibility at the door, replacing it with symptoms of Early Onset Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (also known as: All You Kids Get Off Of My Lawn Syndrome).
Of course I’m over-generalizing here, and I don’t want to pretend I’ve done a statistical analysis of every critical comment, fair or foul, lobbed at GODZILLA. Nevertheless, I am interested in the sensibilities underlying these reactions, which I see as another example of the Tribalism that permeates modern film-going, in which the actual quality of the film is frequently less important than how well the film acts as a Tribal Identifier that helps “Us” define ourselves as different from “Them.”

GODZILLA FILM COMMENTARY – THEN AND NOW

1998's Godzilla In Name Only
1998's Godzilla In Name Only

Before delving into those murky depths, it might be instructive to look at the reactions to the previous Americanized adaptation of Japan’s most famous monster: Sony Pictures’ GODZILLA (1998), from Dean Devlin and Rolland Emmerich (the team who brought you INDEPENDENCE DAY). Back then, we were still at the dawn of the Internet era, and Hollywood, with its lock on old media, thought it could sell audiences anything by keeping a lid on it so that viewers would purchase tickets before realizing they had been hoodwinked.
In this case, Sony kept the Godzilla design under wraps, lied about it when it was leaked online, and avoided press screenings. Nevertheless, within minutes after the premiere at Madison Square Gardens, word was out on message boards and forums, informing fandom that their hopes and dreams had been betrayed.
Mainstream critics were in agreement about GODZILLA’s low quality, though for different reasons. For instance, Owen Gleiberman, who gave the film a mixed but mildly positive review in Entertainment Weekly, dismissed the the subject matter as a “$120 million epic of reconstituted Atomic Age trash,” suggesting that the very concept of Godzilla, as much as the handling, was at fault.
This is what Hollywood has come to, the Disgruntled Critics seemed to say: Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie about a giant monster destroying a city. Which rather overlooks the fact that to do a film like GODZILLA well, would require a substantially larger budget than that of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE.
With this kind of attitude, it is understandable that fans might have looked elsewhere for insightful critical commentary, from people who actually knew and understood the subject matter as something more than Saturday matinee kiddie fare. I like to think we provided a little bit of that in Cinefantasitque magazine (thanks to a review written by Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star), but there were other venues available, thanks to that new-fangled world wide web thingy, where you could find such site as Barry’s Temple of Godzilla and Monster Zero News (lamentably gone since web-master Aaron Smith passed away in 2006).
Sixteen years later, we are in a very different landscape. Critics at major print outlets no longer have a lock on the national conversation; insightful voices are everywhere on the Internet – on websites, on YouTube, and on social media such as Facebook. If you want to read a review of the new GODZILLA, written by a confirmed Godzilla Geek or at least a dedicated sci-fi fan, you have a multitude of choices.
Unfortunately, this advantage is somewhat mitigated by another shift in the cultural landscape: the rise of Film Tribalism. I date this phenomenon to the release of STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, a film that was obviously awful to everyone who saw it and yet earned billions of dollars anyway, because the faithful Lucasoids bought tickets again and again, to prove their fealty to their Tribal Leader, George Lucas.
Now, I know what you’re saying: This “Film Tribalism” thing is just another term for Fandom. But it’s not. Fans watch movies because those movies satisfy their love for and devotion to particular styles, genres, or artists. These movies may not be very good, but at least they deliver what is expected of them, whether it’s amazing special effects, exciting action, or beloved performances.
Film Tribalism does not demand such satisfaction. It’s all about proving one’s bona fides as a card carrying tribe member. In fact, there is a certain advantage to an unsatisfying film, because it helps weed out the fair-weather friends from the true believers. What better way is there to prove your Geek Cred than to dismiss someone who dislikes a film by insisting, condescendingly, “You just don’t get it”?
The flip side of Films Tribalism is that, whereas it absolves all flaws in a film that adheres to Tribal Orthodoxy, Tribalism reviles perceived iconoclasm and even minor doctrinal deviation. Being a “Good Film” is less important than being “Our Kind of Film,” the latter determination usually based on whether the filmmaker is considered “One of Us.” Thus, fair to middling works such as THE AVENGERS and PACIFIC RIM are embraced because directors Joss Whedon and Guillermo Del Toro, respectively, are deemed Fans Like Us (making Films For Us), whereas the superior STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is dismissed because director J.J. Abrams is regarded as an Outsider Who Does Not Adhere to the True Meaning of Star Trek.
All of which, brings us, in a roundabout way, to the new GODZILLA from Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures, which has provoked a critical response somewhat the opposite of that which greeted the 1998 film.

MAINSTREAM GODZILLA REVIEWS

The new Godzilla
The new Godzilla

After months of anticipation, including an effective advertising campaign, fans were eager to find out whether they would be burned again, as they had been by the 1998 GODZILLA fiasco. Would the early reviews confirm their hopes or reinforce their fears? Would mainstream critics give the film a chance or dismiss it as a second attempt at something not worth doing the first time?
The “Bottom Line” assessment from Todd McCarthy’s review in Hollywood Reporter succinctly states: “On a second try, Hollywood does the behemoth justice. Almost.” The review itself sums up the film’s strength’s and weaknesses: great production values, good pacing, serious tone, on the one hand; and ho-hum characters and performances, on the other. McCarthy praises director Edwards for not over-exposing Godzilla but does suggest that the film could have used just a bit more of its star on screen. If you want the basics, McCarthy tells you what you need to know, and really, none of the negative reviews have much more to say on the subject, other than to emphasize flaws already noted by McCarthy.
Likewise, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips is aware of GODZILLA’s shortcomings but manages to look past them, giving an even more positive assessment:

There are weaknesses, starting and ending with Taylor-Johnson, who’s dull in a crucial but dull role. I find the screenplay’s attempts to make us care about the humans rather touching, which isn’t the same as saying the characters’ crises are dramatically vital. But so much of “Godzilla” works on a sensory, atmospheric level, the workmanlike material can’t kill it.

Wow. Two mainstream critics, one for a trade publication and one for a consumer publication, think GODZILLA is a good movie, flawed but well-made and entertaining. Who would have believed it? These are not fan boy gushings but sober reviews by professionals. Considering how much ill will and disrespect fantasy and science fiction films have received over the years, this is rather impressive.
You would think we could all sit back, relax, and enjoy the radioactive glow of a good Godzilla movie. But not quite…
As a transition into the response from science fiction specialists, I next want to mention “Waiting for Godzilla,” by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic Monthly. Although writing for a mainstream publication, Orr claims (in a response in the comments section) to have loved the Toho Godzilla movies for forty years, and his article has been approvingly linked by Godzilla experts disappointed with the film, so presumably it expresses their opinions.
Essentially, Orr complains of Godzilla’s limited screen time, without giving the film credit for carefully building up to the the monster’s revelation or pacing the action to increase its impact (unlike Phillips, who noted that director Edward gave his creatures “room to breath and bide their time between clashes”).
In a follow-up article, Orr clarifies his first response, noting in the headline: “It’s not the Screen Time; It’s the Focus.” Here, Orr expresses sympathy for Edwards’ stated strategy of attempting a slow revelation of the monster, a la JAWS, ALIEN, or the original GODZILLA (1954), but faults the director for focusing too much attention on the MUTOS (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), which drive the plot – a criticism endorsed by my esteemed colleagues Steve Ryfle and Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog), who sarcastically called the film “The MUTO Movie” and “MUTO Love Song,” respectively.
Orr notes that JAWS is always about the shark, even before the audience sees the lethal creature, and the same goes for other films that sought to keep their monsters under wraps till late in the running time. This is true more or less, but when you think about it, even ALIEN isn’t about the Alien from start to finish. It’s initially a rescue operation, responding to what the crew of the Nostromo believes to be a distress call; and the early sequences are filled with sights of other creatures: the famous and mysterious Space Jockey; and the Face Hugger, which is not the alien per se but its progenitor. Which leads to my next question:
Haven’t Orr and others who share his outlook ever heard of an opening act? One that primes the audience for the headliner, who stays backstage as long as possible, building anticipation to the point where the audience erupts with joyful applause when he finally takes the stage? This is the strategy that Edwards uses, and it is not exactly new. In fact, Godzilla’s flying cousin gets similar treatment in RODAN (1956), which focused its first half on over-sized insects attacking miners, before eventually revealing the titular terror midway through.
Orr at least notes that the new GODZILLA is not so different structurally from the monster-battle sequels he enjoyed in the past, but he loves those films for their “campy grandeur,” suggesting that nostalgia has blurred his vision and that he is holding the new film to a different standard. He is not exactly a Grumpy Old Man complaining “they don’t make ’em like the used to,” but you do get the feeling that for him GODZILLA is failing to live up to some illusory yardstick that mis-measures the current film’s qualities while inflating the virtues of its antecedents.
I suppose this is all a matter of opinion, so I should cut Orr and his acolytes some slack, but Orr’s initial review displays a symptom plaguing other negative commentary: mis-statements of fact that make the film sound worse than it is. In this case, Orr claims:

Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot.

Apparently, Orr missed the sequence in which Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fries the MUTO’s egg sack, saving San Francisco from being overrun by monstrous insectoid off-spring. Not only that, the explosion distracts the female MUTO, who along with her mate has been double-teaming Godzilla. This distraction allows Godzilla, who has been on the ropes, to make a comeback, besting his male opponent with a well aimed tale-strike. And as if that were not enough…Ford gets the ticking nuclear bomb (a bungled strategy by the military to defeat the monsters) onto a boat headed out to sea, before it can detonate in downtown, where it would kill tens of thousands of people and irradiate countless more. I’d say Ford has more than a little impact on the mechanics of the plot.
My point here is not to diss Orr (who is actually quite complimentary to those who disagree with him in the comments section of his review). Rather, it is to express my surprise that genre experts, especially those with an appreciation for Godzilla, would point to his review as if it perfectly articulated flaws to which the rest of us were blinded by our overwhelming fan adoration.
As we will see, there is blindness involved, but it’s mostly on the other side of the aisle.
THE GENRE PRESS AND GODZILLA

Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Godzilla takes one for the team at the Golden Gate.

Okay, we’re finally getting closer to my point, such as it is. But first, a brief recap: A major Hollywood blockbuster, based on a beloved genre icon not usually taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics, marches into theatres to the tune of a $93-million opening weekend while simultaneously earning a 73% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics (72% from audiences). It seems, for once, that viewers and reviewers are in accord, and everyone is happy if not ecstatic.
Everyone except for the Godzilla Experts, that is. Their reactions are a bit peculiar – unless you recognize Tribal Film Criticism when you see it.
I’ll start with “Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office,” by Annalee Newitz at io9, which despite the implication of the title is actually a Tribal Shout-Out to Guillermo Del Toro’s disappointing and inferior film from last year. Newitz’s essential point is that PACIFIC RIM is “arguably a more original and complex movie than GODZILLA,” the latter of which “succeeded because it treated its audience like kids.”
Yes, you read that right. According to Newitz, GODZILLA’s success is really a symptom of its inferiority; in this case, “inferiority” roughly translates as “accessibility to a mainstream audience.” The alleged superiority of PACIFIC RIM lies precisely in the fact that many viewers didn’t like it or didn’t get it – which suggests that those who did get it are smarter and more perceptive, able to appreciate a film that is “more interesting” and “complicated.”
To be fair, Newitz’s analysis of the difference between the two films is accurate and even insightful, and she does use the word “mistake” to refer to some of PACIFIC RIM’s elements, but it is clear from her description that these mistakes are actually not bugs but features that appeal to a more sophisticated science-fiction-savvy audience
Yes, My Tribe is smarter than Your Tribe.1
Less overtly tribal, but still telling, is Evan Dickson’s “How Does Godzilla Stack Up Against Pacific Rim” at Bloody Disgusting. Having given GODZILLA a straight-down-the-middle review (2.5 out of 5 stars), Dickson returns to answer readers seeking a comparative evaluation of the two films. Evans notes a few ways in which GODZILLA is superior but winds up proclaiming “As it stands now, PACIFIC RIM beats it out for me as a movie” – without offering a tangible reason.
Ironically, the combined impact of the i09 and Bloody Disgusting articles is to convince me that GODZILLA is the superior film precisely because it does not provide fan-service at the expense of good filmmaking. Instead, it plays against expectations, synthesizing elements familiar to fans but using them as if for the first time – in other words, working them into the story so that they fit, instead of simply throwing them up on screen so that the Tribal Members can feel validated when they recognize their favorite tropes. That reluctance to offer nothing but dedicated fealty to Tribal Orthodoxy is what diminishes Godzilla in the eyes of True Believers.
PACIFIC RIM, on the other hand, gets a pass, precisely because it pays homage to the Tribe. Sure, the film has intriguing ideas, such as “The Drift,” but those ideas are drowned in a repetitive series of mindless monster battles, and ultimately Del Toro’s film hews closer to the Hollywood blockbuster formula, right down to giving the Idris Elba character a rather weak variation on President Whitmore’s rousing pre-battle speech from INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). But you won’t see that acknowledged by either Newitz or Dickson.
GODZILLA, on the other hand, lets Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) say all that needs to be said in three simple words: “Let them fight.” Let’s award a few points for a level of understatment that avoids hokey melodrama. And while we’re at it, for all of GODZILLA’s dramatic faults, let’s note that PACIFIC RIM is not exactly loaded with credible characters. The two scientists (rendered in hammy performances) are less characters than on-screen avatars for geeks in the audience, and the male lead in is even more forgettable than the one in GODZILLA; in fact, he embodies one of the worst cliches in the history of cinema: the reluctant hero who drags his heels while we wait for the inevitable plot device that will finally motivate him to fight, which is what we know he’s going to do eventually if we just wait long enough. It’s a colossal and stupid waste of screen time – the kind of nonsense that GODZILLA wisely avoids.

WHITE-WASHING GODZILLA

Real-life nuclear devastation - inspiration for the original Godzilla

In “Godzilla Whitewashed: A Special Report,” which posted at World Cinema Paradise a couple days after GODZILLA opened, Steve Ryfle takes the film to task for subverting the metaphor of the original GODZILLA, directed by Ishiro Honda, which presented its beast as a walking embodiment of the horrors of the nuclear age. Unlike the other negative reviewers I’ve mentioned, Ryfle has a point worth considering, and truth be told, I too would have preferred a new film hewing closer to the powerful and dramatic original, one that boldly confronted our legacy as the only country to use nuclear bombs in warfare (on a civilian population, no less).
However, Ryfle’s justifiable concern leads him to underestimate the extent to which the film does question the wisdom of America’s nuclear arsenal, which is portrayed as ineffective at best and counter-productive at worse (to put it mildly). The scenario tells us that nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s was a covert attempt to destroy Godzilla – an attempt that failed. When the MUTOS and Godzilla converge on San Francisco, the military, in the form of General Stenz (David Strathairn), concoct a plan to eliminate all three radiation-hungry beasts by luring them out to sea with an atomic warhead, which will then be detonated. Dr. Serizawa points out that this tactic failed repeatedly in the past, and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) storms out in frustration over the futility of the plan, leading to a key moment.
Serizawa then tries to spur Stenz’s conscience by displaying a watch that belonged to his father – a watch that stopped when his father died in the blast at Hiroshima, its hands frozen forever like a fateful reminder of that terrible day. Stenz understands the point but proceeds anyway, for lack of a better (or indead any other) military option. Even so, in a later scene, Serizawa begs him again not to go through with the use of a nuclear warhead.
Despite this, Ryfle conclueds that Serizawa and Stenz “share a hope that it never happens again, tacitly accepting the gospel of Hiroshima as necessary evil.” Having seen GODZILLA a second time, I can say with certainty that no such scene exists in the film, which in no way pushes that message that Ryfle attributes to it. In fact, the watch scene is a far more direct indictment of the Hiroshima bombing than anything in Honda’s GODZILLA, which was more focused on H-Bomb testing in the Pacific than on the A-Bomb attacks on Japanese soil.
Rather than necessary evil, GODZILLA portrays the use of nuclear weapons as unnecessary insanity – a point driven home when the military’s plan goes horrible wrong, with the male MUTO2 hijacking the warhead and giving it to his mate as an offering, which she then uses as a “food” source for her eggs. Clearly, nuclear power is adding fuel to the fire, making a horrible situation exponentially more catastrophic.
Though Ryfle insists that GODZILLA “is about nothing” and that the film does not meaningfully comment upon its scenes of destruction, I find the meaning perfectly clear: nuclear proliferation has come back to bite the U.S. on the ass; the weapons that exist allegedly to protect us actually attract more trouble than they repel, and by creating and using them we have set in motion events that we are powerless to stop – unless we get a little assistance, in the form of Godzilla, to reset the balance.
Underscoring this theme, our hero Ford Brody is not a conventional warrior; his specialty is defusing bombs. The human story of GODZILLA’S third act (as opposed to the over-sized monster battle) focuses on his attempts to stop the bomb from detonating or, failing that, to get it safely out to sea, where it can do no harm to the inhabitants of San Francisco. This is definitely a movie that advises us to start worrying and stop loving the bomb
On another level, it is significant that only the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla save San Francisco from nuclear annihilation.
Which brings us to…

JOE BRODY IS GODZILLA (SPOILERS)

Godzilla-Cranston-Taylor
Father and Son: Joe Brody (Bryan Cranstone) and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

One aspects of GODZILLA that seems to be universally disliked is the death of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is killed when the dormant MUTO hatches; ironically, Joe’s death confirms the conspiratorial ramblings that have alienated him from his son Ford but severs any possibility of father-son reconciliation. Or does it?
Cranston gives the best performance in the film, emerging as the most (some say only) memorable character. So why kill him off? Before advancing my argument, first let’s hear director Edwards on the subject:

[…] we tried versions in the screenplay where he survived. And in every one we did that with, there was nothing else that character could do without being silly. If he sticks with Ford, it becomes Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the tone of the movie becomes fun, but not the tone we were trying to do. And if he sticks with the military guys, he’s like a fifth wheel. His job was done in the story line there.
“We did try to make it work. […] But as a story beat, he becomes redundant once he’s handed over the baton to the rest of the cast.

Edwards explanation is good as far as it goes, but he leaves deeper questions unexplored: Exactly why does Joe Brody become redundant, and to whom is he passing the baton?
As you may have guessed, I have a theory, and it goes like this:
Joe Brody is Godzilla.
Okay, I do not mean to be taken seriously – or at least not literally. Previously, the Toho production GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE (1989) depicted a monster infused with a human spirit (through gene splicing). That is not what is happening here. Rather, Joe Brody has to disappear from the narrative because his role is being assumed by Godzilla; it is to the mysterious sea beast, rather than to the human characters, that he is passing the baton.
Unfortunately, the film does not do as much as it could to support this reading. I would like to have seen Joe perish by disappearing into the ocean shortly before Godzilla emerged from beneath the waves; perhaps a few familiar character tics – gestures, expressions – could have been imbued into Godzilla to drive the point home.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints:

  1. Joe makes his exit before Godzilla enters the picture. Except for brief news reel image of dorsal spines in the Pacific during a nuclear blast decades ago, Godzilla is off-screen until after Joe dies. Only then do we learn that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOS, which is not, I think a coincidence, because…
  2. The MUTOS are responsible not only for the death of Joe’s wife but also for the death of Godzilla’s ancestor. In the traditional action scenario, it is the hero’s duty to exact vengeance for this kind of thing. Godzilla takes out the MUTOs, doing what Joe would have done if he could.
  3. At one point, referring to his late wife, Joe tells his son that she is “still out there,” suggesting a continued spiritual presence even after her death. This hints that, even after his own death, Joe is “still out there,” though now embodied in Godzilla. Not literally in the sense of taking possession, with his intelligence intact, but metaphorically, his goals fused with those of the prehistoric apex predator.
  4. Ford and Godzilla share a strangely intriguing moment of eye-contact, suggesting some kind of bonding. Interestingly, Godzilla’s looming face disappears as it is engulfed in billowing clouds, almost as if the creature were de-materializing – a guardian angel evaporating into the ether.
  5. Godzilla very pointedly saves Ford’s life at the end – again, something Joe would have done if he could. This later point is particularly significant, because the film starts with a nuclear catastrophe that Joe fails to prevent, loosing his wife in the process; the conclusion neatly bookends the opening, with another nuclear disaster, this time averted without loss of life.

In effect, Godzilla takes on the mantle of protective parent after Joe’s demise. Earlier in the film, Vivienne Graham refers to Godzilla as “a god, for all intents and purposes,” which dove-tails nicely with a quote from Sigmund Freud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly to suit the occasion:

“A personal God[zilla] is nothing more than an exalted father-figure.”

In GODZILLA, the King of the Monsters assumes the father-figure role, but that role has greater resonance when you see him as the embodiment of Joe Brody’s need to protect his family, to succeed where he failed previously. Again, this is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
Generally, I think reviewers have not given the film enough credit for a solid structure that makes sense of elements like this, regardless of whether the dialogue and characterizations are as compelling as we might like. Joe Brody is a nuclear safety expert; his son attempts to diffuse a nuclear bomb at the end; individually, they fail, but united (at least insofar as Godzilla represents Joe), they succeed.
Sure, the getting-back-to-my-family story line is banal, but it serves a function as a microcosm of the larger problem: nuclear radiation has not only upset the balance of nature on a large scale, but also split the nuclear family; the reuniting of Ford’s family is a small scale symbol of the restoration of balance.
One last point (I can hear you sighing, “Finally!”). Ryfle objects to the conclusion of GODZILLA, which sees the purloined warhead detonating harmlessly out to sea, with no threat of sickness from what should be massive fall-out. This is clearly in line with America’s myopia about nuclear weapons, which we prefer to regard as high-yield explosives while we ignore the insidious effects of radiation poisoning, which continues to kill long after the smoke has cleared (a pointed made with disturbing poignancy in Honda’s film).
However, I am going to give the new film the benefit of the doubt, because it has laid the groundwork for an explanation. Earlier in the film, we learn that Dr. Serizawa and company have been nurturing the dormant MUTO because it has been absorbing the radiation from nuclear plant it destroyed; the surrounding area, which should be toxic, is actually clean.
Godzilla, like the MUTOs, feeds off radiation. After defeating his opponents, Godzilla collapses, exhausted and spent, apparently dead (in a nice touch, his fall to earth after a heroic victory mirrors Ford’s slipping into unconsciousness, the actions synchronized to once again emphasize the connection between Ford and Godzilla). The next morning, with people swarming the beach around the fallen titan, and Dr. Serizawa gazing in wonder upon what is for him the equivalent of the Holy Grail, Godzilla’s starts to breath again, rising in triumph to head back to the ocean.
I think this is why there is no danger of radiation poisoning: as the MUTO did with the radiation from the reactor, Godzilla has absorbed the fall-out from the warhead; this is what brought him back to life. As he returns to the depths from which he came, the implication is that a sort of symbiotic relationship exists between humanity and Godzilla. Just as plants live on the carbon dioxide that we exhale, purifying the atmosphere for us, Godzilla is taking our nuclear poison with him and leaving a purified world behind.
It’s not all that far removed from the ending of GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (a.k.a. GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER), whose writer-director, Yoshimitsu Banno, serves as executive producer here. The difference is that Edwards’ GODZILLA takes a potentially silly idea and presents it with a straight face, free of camp or irony. We may chuckle to ourselves after the curtain has dropped and the theatre lights go up, but while the film is actually unspooling we can enjoy the delicious experience of taking Godzilla seriously.
FOOTNOTES

  1. I would be a little less snarky here if some of Newitz’s points were not so specious. For instance, she praises PACIFIC RIM’s “bold decisions,” such as starting the film ten years after the first appearance of the kaiju. Actually, this not so much bold as safe: it gives the film an excuse to start with monster mayhem from the very first frame, to capture audience attention before boring them with the exposition and “drama” that follow. GODZILLA is bolder in strategy, daring to tease its audience along, resisting the urge to go full-on monster mayhem from beginning to end.
  2. By the way, Ryfle objects to acronym, referring to the “laughably named M.U.T.O” and expressing pity that “the fine actor David Strathairn had to utter those words without chuckling.” I just want to say that MUTO sounds quite like UFO (Unidentified Flying Object, pronounced “YOU-FO”), a term coined by the U.S. military and used for decades (in official documents such as Project Bluebook) without provoking laughter.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past – CFQ Spotlight 5:20

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From the Better Late Than Never Department: Cinefantastique’s Spotlight Podcast 5:20, focusing on X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, was supposed to post last Monday. Unfortunately, technical delays prevents it from being posted until today. Listen in as Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski discuss the latest installment of the Marvel mutant film franchise, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to enlist Dr. Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in an attempt to prevent an apocalyptic future with dire consequences for mutants and humans alike.


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X-Men: Days of Future Past review

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

The most astoundingly okay movie so far this year – which is apparently all it takes to earn high praise these days

If you want to thrill to the excitement of an astoundingly, supremely, stupendously okay movie, then run – don’t walk – to a theatre showing X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. This film truly has it all: profoundly okay plot; jaw-droppingly okay action sequences; eye-poppingly okay 3D; superbly okay special effects; and amazingly okay acting. It truly is the most finely tuned okay movie of the summer season so far, and it’s hard to imagine any other film surpassing its okay-ness. On the other hand, if you prefer something more than okay, you should stay home and read the film’s reviews instead; there, you will encounter a staggering validation of director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men universe, an almost universal paen to the best that fantasy cinema has to offer. It seems that, in this case, being okay was not merely enough; it was far more than enough, earning accolades normally reserved for something good, or even great.
Why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. It’s not as if the annual build-up to a season’s worth of summer blockbusters has been fraught with terrible disappointments. Sure, there was THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but also there was CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which was also okay. Even better was GODZILLA, which avoided the overblown bombast of most blockbuster fare. So why is X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST being fanatically embraced for being merely okay?
I suspect the answer can be summed up in two words: Brett Ratner. The X-Men tribe has never forgiven Ratner for directing X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), or more precisely, the tribe has never forgiven the film for having been directed by Ratner, who is perceived as an outsider, a hack, who hijacked the franchise and ruined it. By embracing X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the tribe is embracing the return of their tribal elder, Singer, whose helming of the first two X-MEN films (2000’s X-MEN and 2003’s X-2: X-MEN UNITED) – helped elevate the movie franchise somewhat above the standard we had come to expect from cinematic comic book adaptations. (Anybody remember TANK GIRL? No? How about STEEL?).
The problem with film as tribal identifier is that actual quality is often overlooked; flaws that would have been scorned in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND are blithely overlooked in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. So let’s examine just how okay the new film is, flaws and all.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Halle Berry as Storm
Great thing about alternate timeline stories is that you can kill of characters with impunity.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST gets off to an okay start with an okay action sequence, set in a murky future when the X-Men are hunted down by Sentinels (essentially robots). There are some mutants who will be familiar to fans of the comic book, but their presence means little to anyone else, except insofar as we get to glimpse a variety of different superpowers.  The most visually impressive of these is Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open portals in space through which she and her fellow warriors can leap.
I say “visually impressive,” because in terms of actual strategy, the power is rather useless. Rather than being transported to safety or some strategically appropriate place, leaping through a portal places someone only a few feet from where they were, and it becomes very quickly clear – to the audience, at least – that any blow struck, weapon thrown, or shot fired will simply follow the fleeing mutant through the portal and strike its target – which is what finally happens when these super-smart Sentinels finally figure out the obvious.
For a man who died recently, Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) looks remarkably like his old self.
For a man who died recently, Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) looks remarkably like his old self.

Sharp-eyed viewers with brain cells that can access memories back to 2006 will marvel at the novelty of seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen once again playing Charles Xaviar and Ian McKellen,  former friends turned rival mutant leaders – one peaceful, the other militant. What’s marvelous here is that Xaviar died in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. We knew he would return because, in a post-credits sequence, we heard his disembodied voice emanating from a comatose body in a hospital; however, it was a bit of a surprise to see the same old Xaviar back in the surprise post-credits sequence of THE WOLVERINE – a surprise that, we expected, would be explained in this film. But no, we just have to assume that when Xaviar beamed his mind into that body it took on all the physical characteristics of his old self, including both his mutant powers and his spinal cord injury. It’s a horrible continuity lapse, but that’s okay because it’s perceived as a bit of an f.u. to the events of Ratner’s film.
The next bit of okay-ness involves the plot of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. In order to prevent this terrible future from taking place, the surviving X-Men need to send someone into the past. That someone turns out to be Logan (a.k.a., Wolverine), ostensibly because the character’s healing powers will allow him to make the life-threatening journey, which would kill anyone else, but mostly because everyone knows that Hugh Jackman is the real star of this franchise, and no one wants to sit through another X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, without him. Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) will send Logan back in time – which is pretty impressive when you consider that this was not previously  Kitty Page’s mutant power. But that’s okay, because Bryan Singer directed this film.
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique
Jennifer Lawrence as would-be assassin Mystique

The rules of time travel are laid out well enough, but the logic conforms to standard screenplay myopia: in order to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an event that will spur the Sentinel project into reality – Wolverine travels back to a time just before the assassination. Not, you know, to a time decades before, when he might prevent Mystique from turning to the Dark Side in the first place, because that would derail the whole time-lock plot device of desperately trying to reach her just before she can pull the trigger.
There is one nicely okay quality to Wolverine’s time-jump: selected for his physical resiliency, he really isn’t the right man for the job, which consists of convincing the younger versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr) to put aside the enmity and join forces to prevent the catastrophic consequences that will result from the assassination. A man of action rather than words, Wolverine struggle to play diplomat provide a few nice moments before the character is sidelined – because even though the filmmakers knew they needed to put him in the story, the story isn’t really about him.
It’s also well and truly okay seeing Xavier walking around and feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in self pity over the way things ended between him and Lehnsherr and Mystique.* Xavier’s disillusioned condition echoes the opening of THE WOLVERINE (2013), except that sequence set Logan on a character arc that the rest of the film would follow; in this case, Xavier’s state is just a temporary distraction, a plot device to give him something to do and to explain why he might be initially too weak to face off with Lehnsherr when the inevitable betrayal comes.
Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know that, as the franchise’s icon villain, Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto) will inevitably betray Xavier’s new-found trust in him, right? What you didn’t know was how soon it would happen and how stupid it would make Xavier and Logan look. But let’s set that aside and ignore it, because the film certainly does. But that’s okay, because X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is directed by Bryan Singer
In a scene that gives new meaning to Bullet-Time, Quicksilver does the impossible - upstages Wolverine.
In a scene that gives new meaning to Bullet-Time, Quicksilver does the impossible - upstages Wolverine.

Before friends-turned-enemies Xavier and Lehnsherr can become friends again, Wolverine and company need to break Lehnsherr out of prison. This leads to one of the few, exceptional scenes in which X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST exceeds being okay: Quicksilver (Evan Peters) breaks Lehnsherr out of the bowels of the Pentagon in an amazingly photographed sequence that conveys super-speed by, ironically, slowing everything down. Giving new meaning to the phrase “bullet-time,” the scene plays from the fast-paced mutant’s point of view as he calmly weaves in between guards, dodging and deflecting bullets. In fact, the movements of everyone else are so slow that Quicksilver can barely be said to be dodging anything; it’s more like someone stepping off the sidewalk while noting a car headed in his direction from a block away. Why the sequence is almost as good as Hammy’s hilarious jump to hyper-drive in OVER THE HEDGE.
The only problem with this scene is that it establishes Quicksilver as a potentially invaluable asset to Logan and Xavier – he’s so fast he’s invisible to everyone else, including the dangerous Magneto – and yet they leave him behind because…well, just because they don’t want him around to solve the inevitable crisis we know is coming. If he can just flit around unseen and fix everything, where’s the drama? So script contrivance wins out. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past - Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto
To stamp out fear of mutants that leads to an apocalyptic future, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) attempts to assassinate the President on national TV. Um, how was this supposed to help?

The initial assassination attempt is thwarted, but that does not solve the problem, because Mystique is still out there, planning a second attempt. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST purports to dramatize the battle for her soul between Xavier and Lehnsherr, but since Lehnsherr’s solution to the problem is to kill Mystique, it’s a bit of a one-sided tug-of-war. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
So the film builds toward a second assassination attempt, this one involving both Trask and  President Nixon (Mark Camacho), which also involves Lehnsherr lifting a baseball stadium and plopping it down around the White House. He’s also taken over the Sentinel prototypes (which were made of non-metal so as not to be subject to his power) by using his magnetic power to insert metal rods into them. The scene suggests Magneto has some previously unacknowledged clairvoyant power, since he is able to perform this metallic surgery at a distance, without being able to see inside the complex technological network inside the Sentinels. Quibbling aside, Lehnsherr’s plan to avoid a horrible future in which human fear of mutants has led to virtual extinction, is to assassinate the president on national television. The logic eludes me (unless the fact that the president happens to be Nixon is supposed to curry favor). But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed the film.
Continuity with the previous films is a mess (a problem with the previous X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as well), but we’re not supposed to worry, because Logan’s trip back to 1973 will reboot the time line anyway (so that the new, younger cast can take over, a la 2009’s STAR TREK), erasing all of the events seen in the previous X-MEN films. You might think fans would be a bit ticked off about this, but apparently not – because it erases the reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, so fuck you Brett Ratner – and if that means erasing Singer’s X-MEN films and the far superior THE WOLVERINE, so be it. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; after all; besides, the alternate timeline gives you license to kill off major characters, whom you can then easily resurrect in the new version of the future. But that’s okay because Bryan Signer directed the film.
Anyway, you get the idea. Lots of stuff happens; some of it is fun; most of it is okay; but the tribe loves all of it, regardless. Any why not? It’s an okay movie. But nothing more than that. It’s better than the abysmal X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and the almost as bad X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. It falls short of X-MEN and X-2: X-MEN UNITED – and far short of THE WOLERVINE. Ironically, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is just about on par with the unjustly reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND – another flawed film with enough good stuff in it to be okay.
[rating=3]
A mild recommendation
FOOTNOTE

  • Xavier can walk because he’s taking a drug that inhibits his mutant powers. His mutant powers have nothing to do with his inability to walk – his powers are genetic; his paralysis the result of a bullet wound at the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – but that’s okay, because…well, you know.

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X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.  20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg; story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Mathew Vaugh, based on the Marvel Comics characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Kinklage, Evan Peters, Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen. 131 minutes. PG-13.
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I, Frankenstein: Spotlight Podcast 5:4.1

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So…. I, FRANKENSTEIN. What can you say? Is it a bad movie or a bad videogame? We report; you decide! Dan Persons and Steve Biodrowski analyze this patchwork of plot elements that is every bit as much a stitched-together abomination as the titular monster, played by Aaron Eckhart. Stuart Beattie (COLLATERAL) wrote and directed, from a graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, the man also responsible for the UNDERWORLD franchise, but UNDERWORLD-like box office success is eluding this effort.


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I, Frankenstein – review

I Frankenstein poster closeup

Like watching someone else play a bad videogame.

Have you heard about this new videogame called I, FRANKENSTEIN? If not, don’t blame yourself; the commercials and posters probably left you thinking that I, FRANKENSTEIN is a feature film. They even hired a few movie actors to make it seem more like a – well, like a movie, and adding to the confusion the demo version is currently playing in theatres, so you can check it out and decide whether it’s a game you’d like to play. Unfortunately, the answer is: No.
Now I know what you’re saying: How could a videogame with Frankenstein’s Monster caught up in a war between angels and demons not be super-exciting? I mean, at the very least, there must be some cool graphics and battle scenes, and stuff like that, right? Well, yeah, the computer graphics are great – almost like a movie – but the game itself is surprisingly dull, for reasons I’ll get into shortly.
First, here’s what you need to know about the game’s story: You play Frankenstein’s Monster, an immortal artificial man with superpowers. You get caught up in a war between Good and Evil over the fate of mankind. You don’t really care much about mankind, because mankind hates you because you’re ugly, but eventually this hot, blonde doctor chick puts a bandage on one of your wounds and so you fall in love and decide humanity’s okay after all and take up sides against Evil.
I should pause here and mention that Aaron Eckhart (who was really good in THE DARK KNIGHT) reads the lines for the Frankenstein Monster. His presence is supposed to make this feel more like a real movie than a videogame, but you can sort of tell he knows he’s just filling time in between the action game-play which is the real reason someone might buy a game like I, FRANKENSTEIN. I suppose if they made a real movie out of this game, with him in the role, he’d probably do a much better job.
Anyway, acting aside, I had a really problem with Frankenstein’s Monster as an avatar, because when you play a videogame, you want your in-game character to be the most kick-ass warrior around like Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER, or Alice in RESIDENT EVIL, or even John Grimm in DOOM, but Frankenstein just didn’t seem all that powerful in this battle between Good and Evil. I mean, yeah, he’s superhuman – which is good in a videogame – but does being artificially created really make you strong enough to battle angels and demons?
I was thinking maybe the idea would be that the opposing forces were so evenly matched that the monster would be able to tip the balance one way or the other, but instead it turns out to be that Team Evil just needs to study the Monster to learn something that will help them; meanwhile, Team Good doesn’t want the Monster to fall into the hands of Team Evil.
So your game avatar is really a pawn in what should be his own game instead of being the hero driving the acting. And it even turns out that Team Evil doesn’t even really need the Monster; all they need is the journal telling how the Monster was created, so the Frankenstein Monster avatar is that much less important to the game’s outcome.
At least, being superhuman, the Monster can fight, but though the action is nicely rendered, the fight scenes just don’t look that challenging to a potential player. Basically, any weapon with the game’s peculiar religious symbol carved on it will kill a demon, so all you have to do is pick up any weapon and hit a demon with it. That’s all there is to it. Not much strategy or skill involved. In fact, you wonder why Frankenstein’s monster need to be superhuman to do that. Anybody could hit a demon with a stick with a symbol on it. Or if the demons were too fast for that, why not carve the symbol on some machine gun bullets and just fire away?
So, uninteresting avatar and unchallenging fight scenes – at least the game might survive on the strength of its visuals, right? Because the fights are so easy to win, you should be able to quickly breeze through lots of cool settings with great-looking backgrounds and soak up all that wonderful atmosphere, shouldn’t you? Sadly, no.
Probably the biggest problem with I, FRANKENSTEIN is the way the “story” keeps interrupting the action and slowing down your progress from scene to scene. Once upon a time, you just killed something and then moved to the next level, where you could at least enjoy the graphics even if the game was not too exciting; now, however, videogames pretend there’s a story that ties all the death battles together, even though it’s pretty obvious that the story doesn’t really matter.
I’m not saying there’s shouldn’t be a story, but it needs to fit a little more smoothly into the game. Here, it just bogs the game down, constantly – in fact right from the beginning, when we get this prologue which acts like one big exposition dump telling us how “Adam” (as he is eventually named) was created by Victor Frankenstein – as if we didn’t already know that. In fact, I’m betting a big part of the reason they named the film I, FRANKENSTEIN is because they know we all know who Frankenstein is.
And that’s not all: the prologue also tells us way more than we need to know about the war between angels and demons. I mean, we get it: angels=good; demons=bad. About the only thing “new” here is that the angels call themselves gargoyles because they camouflage themselves as gargoyles, but I could have figured that part out for myself.
Unfortunately, figuring things out for yourself is not something I, FRANKENSTEIN ever lets you do. As boring as the prologue is, I took it in stride, because that’s the way these games start now, with the little introductory clip before the real game begins; sure, the absence of a “Skip” button was frustrating, but I figured a few minutes of tedium is par for the course before you get to the good stuff. Boy, was I wrong! Once you get into the actual game-play, the game keeps stopping to explain everything – and I mean everything. There’s never a moment when you wonder what to do next, because the character dialogue spells out what, where, and why before you start each new level.
This would be bad enough if I, FRANKENSTIEN were a non-linear game with multiple paths you could follow; however, the progression is strictly linear, with no two ways about it, so there’s really no need for explanations to justify “decisions” that are predetermined for you by the game. It’s as if they game designers realized their actual story was too flimsy to hold your attention from one level to the next, and so they tried to cover it up by giving you step-by-step explanations why you had to go on to the next scene and defeat the next demon or whatever.

Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants his scientific team to unravel Frankenstein's secrets.
Naberius (Bill Nighy) wants his scientific team to unravel Frankenstein's secrets.

Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t know why things happen, but part of the fun of a good game is strategy – weighing options and deciding what the next move should be. Here, it’s all laid out for you, and it left me wondering whether the designers even know who their target customers were. The fight scenes and computer graphics make I, FRANKENSTEIN look a cool game for teenage boys, but the constant hints and suggestions about what to do next make I, FRANKENSTEIN feel more like a lame Interactive Hidden Object Game for ten-year-olds. You know the kind: you can’t “lose,” because the game always tells you what to do next. (“Congratulations! You have found Frankenstein’s journal! You can use it to revive your fallen demon hordes and route the angelic gargoyle army!”)
What this means is that I, FRANKENSTEIN is predictable from beginning to end. Not just the usual predictability, where you know you’re going to win if you pay attention and play well – but scene-by-scene predictability, where you know what to do to complete each level even before you start playing that level. Watching the I, FRANKENSTEIN demo in theatres the other day, I ended up feeling like I was watching someone else play a videogame – someone not very talented. At first I wanted to take the controls for myself and show him how it was done, but after seeing how easy it all was, I just lost interest.
Sure, there would be a little more suspense with my fingers pushing the buttons to make Adam swing his club and whack his demon adversaries, but that’s not enough to make a satisfying game experience. I want some challenges, some puzzles, and adversaries whose weaknesses need to be discovered and exploited. To be fair, there is just a tiny bit of that in the end, when Adam comes up against the “boss” demon (named Naberius and played by Bill Nighy – another actor whose presence makes I, FRANKENSTEIN seem almost like a real movie). For some reason never explained (which is weird when you consider who much trivial stuff is explained) Naberius cannot be killed by weapons with the weird religious symbol carved on them.
If you plan on playing I, FRANKENSTEIN yourself, I recommend you watch the demo version on you X-Box at home and stop at this point before it gives away the solution for killing Naberius, which is just about the only halfway decent surprise in the whole game. As for me, as I said, I saw the demo in a theatre, and it totally gave away the solution for killing Naberius, which instantly killed any interest I had in ever adding this game to my collection.
The I, FRANKENSTEIN demo was show in 3D at my theatre, which did add a little bit to the game. I liked seeing wide-angle shots of the ancient cathedral (where the gargoyle order resides), which was surrounded by modern buildings, while demons swarmed the cobblestone streets for the final battle. But the 3D technology has its problems, especially when the game pretends to be a movie. If they had just done the whole thing with computer-generated imagery, it probably would have looked okay, but when they mix the real actors with the computer stuff, it doesn’t always line up properly – and in 3D, the alignment problems are more obvious. Like, there’s a scene where this character shifts from human form to his true demonic appearance, and his head is too big, kind of like a balloon – or more like that joke they do on THE TONIGHT SHOW, where they paste Jay Leno’s face on the body of some guy streaking through a football scene. Except the scene in I, FRANKENSTEIN is much funnier.
The last thing I will mention is that the actress who played Hannah McKay on the last couple seasons of DEXTER shows up as the doctor who sorta falls in love with “Adam.” Which is kind of funny, because on the TV show she fell in love with a serial killer who she thought might kill her because he had killed lots of other people, and now she falls in love with a monster who she thinks might kill her because he killed Victor Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth in that long boring prologue I mentioned above. But of course her blonde hair and good looks provide an invulnerability shield that guarantees she will survive through the closing credits.
Which, come to think of it, are the best thing about I, FRANKENSTEIN: at least there’s no post-credits teaser promising us a follow-up to a game no one wants to play in the first place.
[rating=1]
On the CFQ Scale of 0-5 Stars: avoid!
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I, FRANKENSTEIN (January 24, 2014). A Lakeshore Entertainment production, distributed by Lionsgate Entertainment. 93 minutes. PG-13. In 3D. Directed by Stuart Beattie. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie, based on a screen story by Beatie and Kevin Grevioux, based on the graphic novel by Grevioux, inspired by the character created by Mary Shelly. Cast: Aaron Eckhart as Adam; Yvonne Strahovski as Terra; Miranda Otto as Leonore; Bill Nighy as Naberius; Jai Courtney as Gideon; Socratis Otto as Zuriel; Aden Young as Victor Fraknenstein.

The Devil's Due, Oscar Noms & First Men in the Moon: Podcast 5:3.1

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Devil's Due

Volume 5, Number 3 of the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast brings you the latest news and reviews of what’s happening in the world of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. The intrepid CFQ podcasting team analyzes the 2014 nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including GRAVITY and HER; and eulogizes late actor Russell Johnson, most widely known for playing the Professor on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, who also featured prominently in several science fiction films. Steve Biodrowski exorcises THE DEVIL’S DUE, a new “found footage” horror film featuring a demonic pregnancy. Lawrence French lionizes FIRST MEN IN THE MOON with a 50th anniversary appreciation of the 1964 science fiction film, based on the novel by H.G. Wells and featuring special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
Also on the menu are this week’s home video releases for Tuesday, January 21, and a look back at the 2012 Blu-ray release of GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE.

The Legend of Hercules: Podcast 5-2.1

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The latest installment of Cinefantastique’s Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast muses on the casting of Zoe Saldana in ROSEMARY’S BABY; enthuses over the Blu-ray release of John Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS; and battles against boredom in THE LEGEND OF HERCULES – the latest (though far from greatest) attempt to transform the demi-god of Greek mythology into a modern movie superhero. Listen in as Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski tell you all you need to know!

Top Ten of 2013: CFQ Podcast 5:1.2

Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast
This week, the Cinefantastique Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast celebrates the new year by looking back at the old: Dan Persons, Lawrence French, Steve Biodrowski offer their picks for the Ten Best Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Films of 2013. We’d love to tease the titles mentioned, but that would be spoiling the suspense, so you will simply have to listen in and find out for yourself.
Also on the menu: reactions to trailer for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and a look at home video releases for Tuesday, January 7 2014.


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Thor: The Dark World film review

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Is this the most convenient superhero movie ever?

Thor: The Dark World is not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it may be the most convenient. How convenient is it? Well, let us enumerate:

  1. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) wields a magical hammer that is powerful enough to wipe out legions of enemies when necessary but not quite powerful enough to defeat the villainous elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston)  except after a protracted climax. Somewhat convenient for the screenwriter.
  2. The “aether” – the evil force used by the villain – is not powerful enough to protect the villainous elves from an onslaught in the prologue, but it is devilishly hard to defeat in the third act. Rather convenient for the screenwriter.
  3. After capturing the aether in the prologue, the soldiers of Asgard supposedly hide it in a place where it will never be found, but it turns out that to find it, all you have to do is look. In fact, Thor’s mortal girlfriend and all-round great scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is able to find it without even looking for it. Very convenient for the screenwriter.
  4. Unhinged scientist Erik Selvig has some sci-fi gizmos that he claims can stop the negative effects of the alignment of worlds that is the plot’s MacGuffin. Extremely convenient for the screenwriter.
  5. Perhaps sensing that #4 is too convenient, the screenwriter later has Selvig doubt his equipement will work: it was designed to detect gravitational anomalies, not create them, he abruptly opines at a crucial moment. In spite of this, Jane is able to manipulate the effects – zaping elves out of our world and into one of those aligned with Earth – by spinning a dial on a little black electronic box that looks like something you could buy at Radio Shack. This is convenience taken to the ultimate power.

Is THOR: THE DARK WORLD entertaining enough to make you suspend disbelief and overlook this convenience? Well, it ups the ante on the de rigueur superhero plot: the film is about the end of not only this world but the entire universe. Pretty exciting, huh?
Well, no. Not unless you think the sight of a long-haired blonde guy swinging a slightly ridiculous hammer is exciting. Helmsworth is an engaging on-screen presence, but Thor is a bit of a second-rate superhero. He underwent his entire character arc in THOR (from irresponsible lout to noble warrior), which leaves little left for the actor to do with the character this time, except express some mixed feelings about ascending to his father’s throne. (Because swinging a hammer on the battlefield is suitable for a superhero; sitting on a throne is not.)
But wait, there is depth of character in this movie. For instance, Thor’s sneering brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is not only sardonic, smug, and sinister; he is also very annoying. Selvig isn’t just smart; he’s crazy (apparently the aftereffect of his encounter with Loki in THE AVENGERS, but really just to give Stellan Skarsgard something to play). And Jane is not just beautiful but…well, smart – we know this, because she can spin that dial on the Radio Shack device.
And not only is their depth; there is also comic relief, thanks to the quirky supporting characters. The question: What does “comic relief” mean? Is it:

  1. Humor used to diffuse possible laughter at the wrong moment, by giving viewers the “right” moment to laugh.
  2. An attempt to be funny, that isn’t.

If you picked Answer #2, you probably just got through watching THOR: THE DARK WORLD.
The film’s few good moments revolve around the relatively low-key family drama. The plot contrives to get Thor and Loki working side-by-side after (SPOILER) their mother (Rene Russo) is killed, fueling their mutual desire for revenge. (END SPOILER). Lokis’s shtick is getting a bit worn-out by now, but his scenes with Thor actually generate some interest, as Thor admits he wishes he could trust his brother, and Loki responds, “Trust my rage.” The script carefully avoids going too far with the reconciliation, finding just the right note and bringing the narrative thread to a satisfying conclusion.
Which turns out to be a problem, because the film is not over at that point and must continue with that whole universe-in-peril thing, even after our interest in the character interaction has been satisfied. With no drama left to fuel the film, THOR: THE DARK WORLD relies on rote spectacle – which is not quite spectacular enough to sustain the movie all on its own (though the aether effects are pretty cool).
If you manage to sit all the way through the end, you will be treated to two of the worst “yes, there will be a sequel” moments in recent memory. The first is a simple “surprise” twist in which (SPOILERS) Loki turns out not to be dead, having someone replaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne (which come to think of it, is extremely convenient, but let that pass).
The second is one of the Marvel Comic Book movies traditional post-credits (or in this case, mid-credits) sequences, in which two of Thor’s friends place the aether in the hands of a character named The Collector (a slightly over-the-top Bencio Del Toro). Now, if I were a Marvel Comics fan, I’m sure I would know who The Collector is, but you know what? I’m not, but it doesn’t matter, because I know exactly everything I need to know about the Collector, and so will you when you see the movie, which is two things:

  1. Thor’s comrades trust The Collector with the aether.
  2. Thor’s comrades should not trust The Collector with the aether.

Loki makes occasional comments about Thor’s lack of intelligence. If Thor okayed this plan, then Loki certainly seems to be right. (END SPOILERS)
Whatever its flaws, I don’t to give the impression that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is an absolute disaster. It’s not egregiously stupid; it’s simply dull. It’s loaded with special effects and action, but it’s all rather lifeless. The end-of-the-universe scenario never builds up any suspense, and Eccleston, though he strikes a menacing figure as Maleki is never given enough to do to create the towering portrait of evil that would dramatically energize Thor’s quest to defeat him. But at least the Thor-Loki narrative thread is worth unwinding. Too bad it’s twisted up with all the overblown blockbuster nonsense. At least it’s mildly intriguing to note that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a superhero movie in which the superheroics are the least interesting element. The character interaction outshines the effects. If only the filmmakers had realized where the film’s true strength was…
Update: By the way, I forgot to mention that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is in 3D. Draw your own conclusions.
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THOR THE DARK WORLD (Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios: November 8, 2013). 112 minutes. Rated PG-13. Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, from a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Cast: Christ Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jamie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenon, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Alice Krige.