Godzilla (2014)

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The stench which emanated from the sheer awfulness of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like Emmerich’s movie was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects which look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end, it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one-night stand.”

But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters who look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami which occurred there.

The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.

Joe is still convinced the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of its captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn another MUTO (this one a female) has been held in the United States and has also escaped and quickly laid waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring which will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.

This is where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past, this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as an antihero who looks to take down any other monster who foolishly thinks it can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships which sail alongside him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring down the MUTOs.

Edwards takes his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at him until almost an hour into the movie. When he does finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into a tremendous applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he towers over the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.

One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath its feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.

As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong, but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give the screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie this “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how things will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.

It also helps there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity a character like this deserves.

As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. Still, you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them into memorable characters when they could have been ones who were easily forgettable.

This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times I wished Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.

What makes this “Godzilla” work is how it is clearly made by filmmakers who have a great love of monster movies. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.

I also got to say watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claim adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges which now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!

* * * out of * * * *

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Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals” is a movie which will stay with me long after I have seen it. Based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” it follows a non-linear path and combines stories which deal with the real world and a fictional one to where, after a while, it’s almost hard to tell the two apart. Either that or you will leave wondering which story is the most emotionally exhausting. Judging from the movie’s first images of an art exhibit created to challenge our perceptions of what is beautiful or acceptable, director Tom Ford is quick to take us on a cinematic ride, and the kind we are not often accustomed to taking.

We meet Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who appears to have it all: a handsome husband, a fabulous house and an income we would all envy. But we can tell from the start she is a lonely soul wandering through the superficial world she inhabits, and it doesn’t help that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has been distant and may very well be cheating on her. Clearly, we are about to see why she is the damaged individual she is, and it will not be a pleasant trip whether it’s through reality or fiction.

One day, Susan receives a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) named “Nocturnal Animals,” a nickname he gave her upon realizing she stays up late at night because she has trouble sleeping. Edward has dedicated his novel to her, and it tells a very bleak tale of love and tragedy as we watch Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) suffer the utter humiliation of seeing his wife and daughter kidnapped by three troublemakers who later kill them. From there, Tony teams up with Texas Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring the three men to justice, but the justice these two seek may not be one which is altogether legal.

Ford has the movie weaving in and out of its real world and fictional storylines to where you can’t quite tell where things are heading, and he does it in a way which is quite inspired. A story like this can be tricky to pull off as you can jump from one storyline to another at the worst possible moment to where we are desperate to see the movie get back to where it once was. But Ford has managed to weave all these storylines seamlessly to where everything feels in balance and not out of place.

At its heart, I think “Nocturnal Animals” is about the transformative power of art more than anything else. Whether it’s Susan’s art gallery or Edward’s novel, both of these characters use their individual artistry to channel emotions they couldn’t quite get to the surface in their relationship. The fact it takes Edwards years to reach this artistic jump in his writing abilities through his tragic novel shows how artists are not so much born as they are molded through years of life experiences.

Amy Adams gives her second great performance in 2016, her other being in Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” She makes Susan a sympathetically tragic character as we watch her go from youthful promise to insomniac surrender as her life has become defined by isolation from everyone and anyone around her. Even when she has too much eyeliner makeup on, and her makeup is a distraction at times, Adams delves deep into her character’s complexity to deliver a performance of piercing sensitivity.

Gyllenhaal is riveting as both Edward and Tony, characters who suffer the indignities of life and love to where all that’s left is revenge. While the actor still seems a bit young to play the father of a teenage daughter, he is fearless in exploring a character who suffers a fate worse than death. Kudos also goes out to Isla Fisher who plays Tony’s wife, Laura, as she has to reach an emotional fever pitch and keep it high whenever she appears onscreen.

This movie is also proof of how there are no small roles, only small actors, and no actor here should be mistaken as small. Andrea Riseborough, completely unrecognizable here, steals some scenes as Alessia Holt, a person who has found happiness in a space filled with obliviousness and fake promises. Michael Sheen also shows up as Alessia’s husband, Carlos, who is actually gay, and she gives Susan some advice worth following. Ellie Bamber gives us a convincingly down to earth teenager in India Hastings who ends up coming face to face with her worse fears. Laura Linney has some strong moments as Susan’s mother, Anne, whose words hang over Susan throughout the rest of the movie. Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo portray two gang members whose intimidation knows no bounds, and even the audience has yet to see how far they will go. And it’s always great to see Jena Malone, and she gives a wonderfully quirky performance as art gallery worker and new mother Sage Ross.

But there are two performances in “Nocturnal Animals” which stood out to me in particular. The first is Michael Shannon’s as Bobby Andes, a man of the law who looks to play it by the book, but who is slowly losing his moral bearings along with his body to the cancer eating away at it. Shannon doesn’t act but instead inhabits his character to where we don’t see him performing but becoming this sheriff, and he becomes increasingly frightening to where the anticipation of him letting go of a bullet is almost too much to bear. Seeing him bear down on a suspect with his piercing eyes and gruff voice makes him even scarier, and you have to admire the person who doesn’t need to do much to instill dread into another with such relative ease.

Then there’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from his “Kick-Ass” days, as Ray Marcus, a lethal and disgusting bully of a character who revels in emasculating and humiliating Tony in front of his wife and daughter. Johnson’s performance reminds of you of those people in life who robbed you of your worth and self-respect and didn’t show the least bit of remorse about it. You want to smack Johnson in the face after watching him in “Nocturnal Animals,” and that is a compliment.

This is only Ford’s second movie as a director, his first being “A Single Man” with Colin Firth, a movie my parents are still begging me to watch. He is primarily known as a fashion designer whose clothes have made some of the most beautiful celebrities look even more beautiful. With “Nocturnal Animals,” he proves to be as gifted behind the camera as he is with clothes, and he gives this movie a striking look with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. This could have been a movie dominated by style more than anything else, but Ford gets terrific performances out of his infinitely talented cast, showing his attention is on the story and characters more than anything else.

It should also be noted how Ford has not put anything from his own clothing line on display here, so this movie should in no way be mistaken as a commercial for his fashions. He wisely removed this conflict of interest from “Nocturnal Animals,” so those hoping for a glimpse at his latest fashion line will have to look elsewhere.

“Nocturnal Animals” ends on an ambiguous note regarding Susan and Edward. This will probably annoy some viewers who demand concrete answers to their relationship or the state of their lives and where they will go from here. But Ford is wise to know this is a question he cannot answer himself as the fate of these characters has to be open up to interpretation. Some relationships are meant to be repaired, others are better left broken. When it comes to Susan and Edward, we can only wonder if they can or even should rediscover what made their love spark so passionately.

“Nocturnal Animals” is a movie meant to stay with you for a long time after the end credits have finished, and boy does it ever.

* * * * out of * * * *