REVIEW: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

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Directed by Len Wiseman
Written by Mark Bomback, Story by Mark Bomback and David Marconi, Based on the Article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin, Original Characters Created by Roderick Thorpe
Starring Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Maggie Q, Cliff Curtis, Kevin Smith

12 years after arguably the best installment in the Die Hard series, Twentieth Century Fox gave us the long-awaited fourth film, Live Free or Die Hard. This time, Len Wiseman of the Underworld franchise assumed the mantle of director to a franchise almost 20 years old and on the verge of getting too big for its britches.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) receives a call to bring in a hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long), suspected of breaching the FBI computer system. But after John gets to Matt’s apartment, a group of men show up and try to kill John and Matt, who barely escape with their lives. As it turns out, a group of terrorists led by Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) are systematically shutting down the United States computer infrastructure, intent on bringing the country to its knees from the relative safety of a computer screen. John and Matt are now America’s only hope against a deranged former Defense official out to cause absolute chaos.

Live Free‘s inception makes for one of truly interesting story of Hollywood ingenuity. Originally a spec script by David Marconi called WW3.com, it was based on, of all things, a 1997 Wired Magazine article entitled “A Farewell to Arms,” in which John Carlin imagined a three-pronged attack upon the United States’ electronic and cyberspace infrastructure by a rogue party intent on bringing down the nation. After 9/11, the project stalled until it was picked up by Mark Bomback and rewritten to become the third Die Hard sequel. The rest, as they inevitably say, is history.

While the story of the screenplay’s creation is a much more intriguing tale than the one the film presents, Live Free still lives up to its ultimate purpose, and that is to provide a riotous fun time filled with bullets, explosions, and signature John McClane wisecracks. In fact, this film plays very much like a bigger version of the early nineties action flicks that the original Die Hard birthed. Does that make it slightly anachronistic, given today’s propensity towards superpowered warriors? To some, perhaps, but certainly not to me.

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The major story beats seem to steal a lot from the previous installment, Die Hard with a Vengeance, with its focus on buddy-cop elements, personified in the interplay between Willis and Justin Long’s nerdy hacker character Matt Farrell. While Long is no Samuel L. Jackson, the two have adequate chemistry to carry the film, with plenty of old-vs-young laughs between them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q provide the menace, in performances that are quite wooden but fit the bill alright. Besides Willis and Long, I’m sure audiences will find much more enjoyment in the relatively small parts of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as McClane’s tough and spunky daughter Lucy, and Warlock, a basement-dwelling master hacker brought to life by geek legend Kevin Smith.

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I wish I could say the technical end fared better, considering the cinematic history of the franchise, but Live Free sheds the coherent, analog-style of its predecessors for a look that resembles a generic form of Michael Bay photography. It isn’t quite a mess, but it isn’t beautiful to look at either. The frenetic and wild camerawork of the action scenes also doesn’t do the visual effects any favors; memorable action pieces such as the helicopter destruction and the car flip, while created using in-camera stunt work, appear artificial under the subpar compositing and over-blown color pallette. It’s a shame that action filmmaking, for the most part, has come to this. At least the final action scene, in which McClane takes down an F-35 jet with a semi-truck, revels in its CGI glory(?) and makes no pretentions to be realistic or believable.

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Another shame is in the film’s rating: PG-13. Die Hard has always been a hard R-rated franchise, with blood and f-bombs galore, so imagine my disappointment when Live Free was shot for a wider audience. I proclaimed it as a neutered property and almost dismissed it. I’m glad I didn’t, because even without the rougher edge of a higher rating, Live Free still delivers the action goods. However, if you can find it, I recommend tracking down the Collector’s Edition DVD, which contains an Unrated Version that more closely approximates an R-rated film. It’s a slightly more violent beast, and has plenty of trademark McClane profanity added in. One wouldn’t think this would matter much, but you’d be surprised how adding in a little grit makes it feel much more like an actual Die Hard film.

When it comes down to it, Live Free or Die Hard is nowhere near the best film in the franchise, but it manages to deliver on the promise of big booms and manly swearing that so many moviegoers picture when they fondly remember the Die Hard series. And while it may have started the downward spiral, I still place most of the blame on the vastly inferior fifth film, A Good Day to Die Hard. In summary, this 4th of July weekend, go ahead and plop it onto your TV. You won’t be incredibly impressed, but you won’t be too disappointed either.

 

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Maestro’s Marathons: The American Spirit Marathon

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This 4th of July weekend, prepare for the fireworks by catching the best of the best of red-blooded, patriotic American cinema!

The 4th of July. A time to celebrate freedom,

Independence,

Courage,

And star-spangled explosions.

The Movie Maestro presents to you, on this July 4th weekend, the American Spirit Marathon. 12 explosive, ass-kicking films, all ready to pump the free will of America straight into you! This Independence Day, welcome those freedom-hating aliens and Russians to ‘Earf’ and soar beyond the clouds to plant the Old Glory on the face of the Moon!

Every year on the 4th of July, I always popped in a movie to celebrate. Most of the time, my infantile mind picked Independence Day or Air Force One, and in recent years, I’ve stayed a bit infantile in my picks, going for a mix of some more nuanced examples of patriotism and the most bombastically-nationalistic action-fests out there. And now that we are here for the first Independence Day at the Movie Maestro, I figured I would share my usual picks for the ultimate American marathon.

Spaced out across four days, from July 1st to the 4th, the American Spirit marathon is the best prep for ‘Murican festivities out there!

And also, just because I know there’s someone out there who won’t get the joke, there is a heavy bent of irony to most of the picks here. No, I’m not a brain-dead idiot who will literally blow my arms off this 4th because I love me some ‘Murica, I’m just having fun with this. I hope you will too!

The picks:

Live Free or Die Hard
Live Free or Die Hard Movie PosterStart off the American festivities by saving the nation with its favorite foul-mouthed, working-class hero, John McClane. Live Free or Die Hard takes the old New Hampshire motto and puts it to work, throwing McClane into the high-stakes world of cyberterrorism. The holiday weekend, indeed, the entire country, is being threatened by a digital madman, the former NSA golden-boy Thomas Gabriel. His power seems endless, his goals are nefarious, but we have a secret weapon: Bruce Willis with a gun. And Justin Long with a laptop, but he’s obviously not the most important part. Leave it to that scruffy New York beat cop to bring an old-fashioned dose of analog justice to those high-tech freedom-haters, with fireballs aplenty. If you’ve ever felt that uniquely American need to blow up the grid over one annoying traffic light, then this is the movie to start with.

1776
1776 Movie PosterSetting aside the explosions and the gunfights for a moment, why not go back to the very beginning? With a splash of Broadway melody, this film details the lengths to which the Continental Congress had to go to keep the American Revolution afloat, while never sugarcoating the compromises that the founding fathers had to make to secure independence. It’s like no other history class in existence as the Founding Fathers spit rhymes like musket fire and dance circles around the Crown like their lives depended on it! (What’s that? I am being told their lives did depend on it. History!) You even get a crash course in some lesser known American history, like the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a big horn-dog or that John Adams was really Mr. Feeny! Don’t let the fact that it’s a musical scare you off; think of it as a break before more booms!

Air Force One
Air Force One Movie PosterWho doesn’t want their President to be an ass-kicking Freedom Machine? While in real life that leads to tired old TV stars becoming President, and unmitigated disaster as they charge into battle unprepared, getting their jacket threads caught in their rifle sling, resulting in Taps being played way too early, in movie-land it is a recipe for American pride, as Harrison Ford unleashes justice upon the terrorist hijackers of the Presidential Plane, one bullet at a time. Now that we seem to have to deal with Russian aggression again these days, won’t it be comforting to have Han Solo wreck their plans, American style? In an amazing suit, no less? While F-15 soar alongside, blasting bogeys with air-to-air missiles? Sign me up, I’m ready for that! Settle back into the action with this Die Hard-inspired thriller with an Executive twist! Harrison Ford has my vote.

Olympus Has Fallen
Olympus Has Fallen Movie PosterWhile Aaron Eckhart’s President isn’t as tough as Ford’s, at least he has one incredible bodyguard in Gerard Butler. Yet another Die Hard clone finds its way into the American Spirit marathon with Olympus Has Fallen, a battle for supremacy in the White House itself. It looks like those dastardly Kims have started their ultimate gamble, attacking our very seat of power with both subterfuge and superior firepower. Never fear though, as resident badass Butler, a.k.a. King Leonidas, a.k.a. Mike Banning loads up and singlehandedly defeats the North Korean menace within the walls of our most hallowed mansion! Does it matter that Butler is actually Scottish? Or that he seems just as well known for -shudder- romantic comedies as well as actioners? It won’t during this hairy-chested roller coaster ride of a movie! And we even have God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman on our side!

Rocky IV
Rocky IV Movie PosterThose Russians are at it again. In between election hacking and straight-up invading neighboring countries, now they’re sinking their dirty mitts into our sports! This time, their greatest boxer, Ivan Drago, has killed the Master of Disaster, the freedom-shorts-wearing Apollo Creed! Only one man stands in Drago’s way of claiming the title from the U.S. of A: Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion! A crowd-pleaser by any and all means, Rocky IV presents good old Philadelphian Rocky at his most triumphant, winning the Cold War all by himself in the ring, without a single Nuke fired or submarine sunk. While the original Rocky may be the better film, who doesn’t want to see the Stallion win in the most bombastic way possible, decked out in Old Glory, smashing communism with his powerful fists? There, I said it. Rocky IV is better than Rocky. Except it isn’t. Except it is. Isn’t it?

Lincoln
Lincoln Movie PosterReturn to the history books with Lincoln, one of Steven Spielberg’s best docudramas and Daniel Day-Lewis’s finest performances. Dealing with the difficult passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, Lincoln presents everything the titular President had to do, both painful and unethical, to bring about justice and freedom to a suffering people within the borders of our United States. A bit more somber than the rest of this marathon, it nevertheless is an important addition, reminding us that in between the RPGs and fistfights, there are true battles to be fought every day in the name of equality. And if I’m being much too serious and melodramatic about it, perhaps you can take solace in the fact that while there’s an overload of politics, it is much more interesting than your average CSPAN viewing, what with representatives engaged in the best insult battles I have ever had the pleasure of seeing.

Double Feature: The Right Stuff / Apollo 13
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Jaws
Jaws Movie PosterIs it a typical July 4th movie? No. Is it particularly patriotic? Not really. To be honest, Jaws is mostly here because of its setting: on the eve of a big 4th of July weekend full of tourists and sunny beaches. Depending on the holiday to pull them out of debt and off of welfare, because it’s very un-American to be on welfare, Amity Island finds itself in a pretty pickle, and in the sights of a killer shark. Resolving to eliminate the menace in the only way New England Americans know how, Chief Brody, ichthyolgist Hooper, and Captain Quint get ready to go sharking. Because fishing is for Europeans. One-half horror movie, one-half Moby Dick with a decidedly more explosive climax, Jaws is just what Uncle Sam ordered for his extra-large seafood platter. It could be your town. It could be your beach. It could be you as lunch. So kick back and take a bite out of this summer classic!

Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger Movie PosterYou knew a superhero film was going to end up on this list sooner or later. They’re just as American as apple pie, fireworks, and massive nuclear weapons! But while Superman may stand for truth, justice, and the American way, well, he’s got nothing on the Captain himself, who launches headfirst into battle with the flag on his uniform and his indestructible shield! Steve Rogers just wanted to be a good citizen and serve his nation, but his sickly body prevented him from doing what he felt was his duty. Enter Dr. Erskine, who’s Super Soldier Serum transforms Steve into Captain America, the Star Spangled Man with a Plan, ready to sock it to old Adolf and his fascist monster, the Red Skull! Full of 1940s action and feel-good American vibes, this movie is ready take back the weekend from sharp-toothed fishes! Revel in Marvel’s over-the-top version of the Greatest Generation’s greatest fight with The First Avenger!

The Patriot
The Patriot Movie PosterWith one more trip into the past we arrive at Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, the ultimate revenge story set within the embryonic throes of the United States during the Revolution. Join Benjamin Martin as he cuts a swath through the British redcoats, intent on avenging his fallen sons by destroying his nemesis, the brutal Colonel Tavington. Join his son, Gabriel Martin, as he mends Old Glory and beats back jolly old England on the hallowed shores of our home. And join General Cornwallis as he learns firsthand what happens when Brits mess with the U.S. of A. Is it accurate? Nope. Is it awesome? You bet! What, you expected a movie showing Mad Max going all Ahab on the British Hitler wouldn’t be rousing? It’s a damn blast, is what it is! So stop whining about “historical context” and “nuanced drama” and just enjoy the show!

Independence Day
Independence Day Movie PosterA July 4th classic, Independence Day offers the best of both worlds: a sci-fi extraordinaire set during the holiday, and a patriotic romp, as President Whitmore rallies the entire world to declare its own Independence Day against the alien invaders intent on conquering it. It’s got metropolitan sights, military hardware, and cheesy conspiracy theories, so it has to be American! To top it all off, President Whitmore gives us one hell of a cinematic speech, and it’s only the primer for the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind, complete with a crazy crop-duster ready to deliver the final blow to those meddling alien overlords. It doesn’t hurt to have Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in the mix, puffing cigars and ruining alien motherships with the almighty power of the Apple Mac. It doesn’t get much more American than that. Now say it with me, “TODAY WE CELEBRATE OUR INDEPENDENCE DAY!!!”

Armageddon
Armageddon Movie PosterWhat could possibly beat Independence Day as the quintessential July 4th film? How about Michael Bay’s Armageddon, a movie with more American flags than any other? As detailed in my editorial, Armageddon lends itself well to patriotic fervor, and it’s a damn fun movie to watch on a day already centered around drinking and barbecue. You even get the biggest explosion of them all at the end as Bruce Willis (yep, he’s back!) blows up the mother of all asteroids! If you want to feel the tingle of America without blowing your fingers off, finish the marathon with Armageddon. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

And that is a wrap! Now, of course, these are only suggestions, feel free to mix and match or add your own. This is the day of freedom, so embrace it!

REVIEW: Twister (1996)

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Directed by Jan de Bont
Written by Michael Crichton and Ann-Marie Martin
Starring Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lois Smith, Alan Ruck

There are things that humans instinctively know: the world is out to get you, your people are your family, and respect the wind. Some people respect it so much, they race toward it to get it on film, up close and personal. That sounds rather contradictory, but as the characters of Twister will tell you, it is all too true.

TV weatherman Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) is trying to get his tornado-hunter wife, Jo (Helen Hunt), to sign divorce papers so he can marry his girlfriend Melissa (Jami Gertz). But Mother Nature, in the form of a series of intense storms sweeping across Oklahoma, has other plans. Soon the three have joined the team of stormchasers as they attempt to insert a revolutionary measuring device into the very heart of several extremely violent tornados.

Jan de Bont’s follow-up to Speed is just as tense, even after 20 years, and pretty damn fun as well. Stacked with wonderful actors portraying lovable underdog scientists, supported by a top-shape crew and a script by respected novelist Michael Crichton, Twister proudly stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its disaster film brethren.

And yet, it is unique. After all, Jo, Bill, and the gang aren’t trying to escape nature–they are actively chasing it, cataloging it, studying it. The sweeping helicopter shots and in-your-face visual effects amp up the tension and action past typical genre levels, but the nature of the story arc presents a different kind of film, one easier to swallow on a free afternoon than, say, The Towering Inferno. Sure, the CGI looks pretty bad now in some spots and Rabbit’s endless supply of road maps date the film considerably, but fun is in the eye of the beholder, and the fans have consistently showered this exciting romp through the stormy countryside with all the love it deserves.

Why? Characters, characters, characters! This film has some of the best out there. Like James Cameron’s The Abyss, Twister is partially saved from the depths of B-movie hell by the fully-realized people in front of the lens. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt beautifully deliver laughs, tears, and genuine emotion as former spousal storm chasers, pushed together by the work day of a lifetime, forced by Nature herself to either confront their failings or fall apart completely, whilst also trying to simply survive. Their team of chasers, while much less fleshed out, are a lovable set of idiosyncrasies and charms, from Rabbit’s (Alan Ruck) and Beltzer’s (Todd Field) typically-male humor, to the shy, innocent screw-ups of Laurence (Jeremy Davies), to the wild, belly-laughing, rock-spewing Dusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), everyone is a joy to watch and probably would be a riot to hang out with. Even Aunt Meg (Lois Smith), a minor character of less than ten minutes of screentime, instills in me the feels of farmhouse living.

In light of the truly unfortunate passing of Bill Paxton, rewatching any of his films has become a priority for me. Twister has always been a trusty standby of mine and my girlfriend’s (she’s truly a keeper), so it seemed like a no-brainer. Hopefully you will feel the same way, because with as much talent that it took to bring this fun romp to the screen, two of whom are sadly lost to us, it damn well deserves to be remembered.

Rest in Peace, Bill Paxton and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

REVIEW: Logan (2017)

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Directed by James Mangold
Written by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant

On the tail end of a 17-year-long career as the Wolverine, a feat surpassed by no other in superhero cinema, Hugh Jackman embarks on his last ride as the sharp-edged X-Man, bolstered by director James Mangold’s ambition to make a much more vicious and bleak film than currently offered by any other superhero flicks today.

In 2029 the mutant population has shrunk significantly and the X-Men are no more. Logan (Hugh Jackman), whose power to self-heal is dwindling, has surrendered himself to alcohol and now earns a living as a chauffeur as he takes care of the ailing old Professor X (Patrick Stewart) whom he keeps hidden away in Mexico. One day, a female stranger asks Logan to drive a girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to the Canadian border. At first he refuses, but the Professor has been waiting for a long time for her to appear. Laura possesses an extraordinary fighting prowess and is in many ways like Logan. Pursued by sinister figures working for a powerful corporation, Laura’s only hope of survival lies within the man once known as the Wolverine.

When I described this as Jackman’s last ride, I should have really placed emphasis on ‘ride,’ because Mangold’s second Wolverine film and the end to the character’s trilogy is essentially a Western crossed with a road trip, replete with beautiful dusty vistas and warm, earthy color tones. The up-close and intimate cinematography signals a massive departure from the rest of 20th Century Fox’s X-Series, firmly placing Logan in a more real world than those films despite it taking place in their future (farther into the future than Days of Future Past, in fact).

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The screenplay is a mish-mash of different genre styles, heavily influenced by the Death of Wolverine comic storyline, with only minute additions from the Old Man Logan graphic novel. The narrative beats are all there: old gunslinger (or in this case, mutant superhero) is drowned in drink and melancholy, is confronted with a new purpose, grapples with the responsibility, and eventually becomes the hero again. Logan’s screenplay is incredibly proficient in this classic western formula, and Mangold’s direction is among the most sublime I’ve ever seen; Logan transitions between heartfelt drama, bloody action, small giggles, and disturbing terror as easily as I breathe, and sometimes the film manages all four of these emotions in one five minute scene. Striking a perfect balance between conflicting tones is a task many great directors have failed at, but Mangold toes the line effortlessly, cementing his status as one of the modern auters.

Hugh Jackman will always be the Wolverine, even if Tom Hardy does the right thing and eventually takes over the role; and it is here where he stretches his thespian legs to take the old Canuck to new places, of both despair and hope. Taking advantage of the change of scenery around him, Jackman spends less time pulling his punches and lets loose as the bitter, barely contained animal he is, and later in the film surprises in a dual role that shocks in all the right ways. Patrick Stewart too relishes the newfound freedom an R-rated film beholds, enveloping himself in the material given, showing us a Professor X in the throws of old age and mental degradation, a truly sad sight to behold. But in two moments, the old Charles comes to the surface, and finishes off what is one of Stewart’s two iconic roles. Leave it to that wondrous telepath Charles to show the audience that even in the twilight of life and sanity, compassion and true purpose are still available to those who seek it.

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Rounding out the cast is Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant as the villains, who are relatively simple and down-to-earth compared to recent superhero fair. This is especially welcome after the misstep that was X-Men: Apocalypse, and they excel with their roles. And surprising greatly is Dafne Keen as Laura, a 12-year-old prodigy who is as wonderful at silent acting as she is handling the extensive action pieces or the daunting task of out-performing Jackman. Even in action scenes, her movements are swift, shortened imitations of Jackman’s signature Wolverine fighting style–showing she can also do her homework. Watch out Millie Bobby Brown, you have competition!

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But don’t be fooled by the kid in the fray; this is certainly not a film children should be watching. Limbs fly, heads roll, and entire bodies are liquified as the hard-R this film shot for is rightly earned. The brutal violence on display lends the film a sliver of surrealism, an uneasy feeling that signals just how different this film is from the rest of the preceding franchise. Its almost terrifying at times, and really forces the audience to earn the bittersweet finale. Logan is a different X-Men film, enough so that in my mind that it knocks Days of Future Past off of the top spot as the best in the series..

From here, I see two possibilities: either the X-Men are folded into the MCU like Spider-Man and Wolverine is recast (or Jackman keeps his promise), or Fox holds onto its own universe and continues the tradition of the bladed X-Man with Dafne Keen as the X-23 Wolverine. Either possibility is fine with me, as long as the beautiful and poetic ending so lovingly rendered here by Mangold and his team is preserved. No more time paradoxes, no more retcons, just to keep this excellent and tear-jerking end to such a beloved character would be justice in of itself. To you James Mangold, for salvaging a franchise with more stumbles than a newborn giraffe, and to you Hugh Jackman, for being my generation’s Christopher Reeve. I will never forget seeing that cage match in 2000, and I will likewise never forget the final X.

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NOTE: Logan is also available on blu-ray as Logan Noir, a black-and-white version of the film. There are no alternate cuts or extended footage, just a glorious greyscale presentation that highlights the sunbeams and shadows of this sundrenched film. I still prefer the theatrical version’s western color and it handles contrast better, but Logan Noir is a beautiful composition that I highly recommend giving a watch.

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REVIEW: Godzilla (2014)

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Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein and David Callaham
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

If you don’t already know, than you will soon find out just how much of a tokusatsu and kaiju film fanatic I am; just the fact that I refer to those films by their actual subgenre terms and not just as “Godzilla” movies should begin to account for that. With this known, hear me on this: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the redemption American filmmakers and audiences have been seeking since the first fumble Roland Emmerich’s film made with the Big G’s legacy. It’s probably even the best Godzilla film since the original 1954 classic. It certainly is the only one that feels like it belongs in the same class.

In 1999, the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan is mysteriously destroyed with most hands lost including supervisor Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, Sandra. Years later, Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy ordnance disposal officer, must go to Japan to help his estranged father who obsessively searches for the truth of the incident. In doing so, father and son discover the disaster’s secret cause on the wreck’s very grounds. This enables them to witness the reawakening of a terrible threat to all of Humanity, which is made all the worse with a second secret revival elsewhere of an even greater threat. And yet, this new enemy of civilization may be its only hope. And its name is Godzilla.

Edwards probably had the toughest job imaginable ahead of him when he accepted the job directing this film. Having only directed one film beforehand, even if it was the critically acclaimed Monsters, this must not have instilled a lot of confidence in the fanbase. Boy, were they wrong. Everything about his gargantuan vision is perfectly suited to the King of the Monsters, and in many ways improves upon what Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka envisioned for their God of Destruction over 60 years ago.

However, to talk to the average moviegoer who claims to have “watched Godzirra movies back in the day,” you’d think this movie was a sin against God. “There’s not enough Godzilla!” “It’s boring and pretentious!” “Not enough monster fighting!” These are the usual complaints I heard from behind the concession counter when this film was still in theaters.And sorry, but all of these arguments betray a lack of true love for the titular creature and what he represents. Godzilla is best understood not through the prism of the seemingly-countless Vs. series of films from 1956 on (and don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had there), but through the dark iris of 1954’s Gojira.

As expanded upon in The Long Take’s excellent comparison video, Edwards’ Godzilla opens the story with a disaster related to the headlines of the time: the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown becomes the Janjira tragedy. And then the new film branches off: while Tanaka’s Godzilla was always a response to unchecked nuclear testing and aggression, the title monster having been awakened and severely scarred by a nuclear bomb, Edwards’ Godzilla is impervious to the bomb, indeed, to all human attempts to destroy him. The new Godzilla represents the entirety of nature’s response to mankind’s stupidity and arrogance, effortlessly swatting away the best of our weapons and soldiers in his single-minded quest to destroy this film version’s nuclear allegory, the MUTOs.

With this, the writers achieved a distancing from the old anti-nuke allegory in a perfect way that doesn’t negate those fears; it expands upon them, bringing every human action against Mother Earth into sharp, uncompromising focus. From there, all the nitty-gritty narrative plot points become borrowed from the best of the unmade Godzilla films. The MUTOs are discovered within the carcass of another Godzilla-like creature, just like in Jan de Bont’s 1994 script. The MUTOs themselves are constantly evolving; another lifting from Godzilla vs the Gryphon. The final battle takes place in San Francisco–hello, Godzilla 3D. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to reward us for waiting through the deaths of all of those promising projects by giving them a chance to shine through this one.

And then Edwards takes over, drawing out the suspense of the main set pieces Spielberg-style, keeping the camera fixed on a human-eye vantage point. Whether watching Godzilla stomp his enemy from an hovering helicopter shot or the male MUTO swooping over from a 40th-story window, not a single shot aimed at the monster is not in documentary style. There were a few moments where I felt like I was watching a Jurassic Park sequel.

And now comes one of the bigger complaints, and one that is hard to ignore: the human characters. Everyone gives a great performance, from Strathairn’s by-the-book command to Cranston’s tortured, obsessive search for the truth. The problem is that they all don’t do much. All of their actions contribute to the greater calamities that propel the plot along to the final confrontation. Ford is the only one who accomplishes anything worthwhile, but in the end, still fails in his mission. But I say this isn’t a failing of the screenplay, but a main feature. Looking back to the original film, the exact same problems exist: too many people who do nothing but watch, slack-jawed, in terror of the monster. Only one, Dr. Serizawa, is the man of action, defeating the beast in the end. Ford is now that character, but is infinitely more relatable as a soldier and a father–another aspect of American cinema.

I could go on and on, but I trust my point is made, or at least begun. Godzilla is more than the majority of its predecessors. It is the first successful reboot, from any country or filmmaker, of the original film. There are a handful in the Japanese series that are worthy followups, but none captures both the fear and wonder of the unknown, and the sheer power of Allmother Nature like this one. Like the incredible, bone-rattling roar of the Big G himself, Godzilla makes a mighty impression.

 

REVIEW: Stargate (1994)

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Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Viveca Linfors, Alexis Cruz, Mili Avital

Ah, the early-90s. The economy was up, all the members of Nirvana were still alive, and Roland Emmerich movies weren’t colossal jokes. Guess it couldn’t last forever.

In 1928 Egypt, a strange, ringed device is found by an expedition. In the present day, the outcast linguist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is invited by a mysterious woman to decipher the hieroglyphic writing emblazoned on the device, which now sits in a military facility. Soon he finds that the device was developed by an advanced civilization and opens a portal to another planet. Dr. Jackson is invited to join a military team under the command of Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) that will explore the new world. Into the portal they walk, emerging on a desert world populated by primitive humans that worship Ra, the God of the Sun, in reality an ancient alien ruler with designs of conquest for planet Earth.

Emmerich’s sixth feature-length film and his third collaboration with writer Dean Devlin, Stargate represents one of their best efforts, alongside Independence Day and The Patriot. Stargate is a unique sci-fi adventure, to say the least. To read the synopsis on paper, a new viewer would probably think it is a B-movie, and it certainly exhibits aspects of that genre, but the production is an elevated affair, featuring incredibly sweeping vistas and visual effects.

But detailed matte paintings and awesome space ships alone don’t make a good movie–that honor belongs to the script and the talent bringing it to life. Stargate‘s script is a run-of-the-mill adventure for the most part, proficient in delivering an entertaining two hours and not much more. There are interesting concepts at work, revolving around the ancient astronaut theory, but as soon as Ra himself is revealed, the mystery takes a backseat to the action pieces. This isn’t a bad thing, just don’t expect Prometheus.

What really sells this film are the performances of Spader and Russell, and the realization of the alien threat. By all accounts, Spader didn’t think much of the film, taking the role of Jackson “for the money,” but his professionalism shines through as he delivers a pretty funny performance as the nerdy scientist stereotype. Russell gives it his all as well, portraying the quiet torment of a father who has already outlived his young son. It’s the Kurt at his usual best; I couldn’t imagine anyone else as O’Neil (sorry Richard Dean Anderson).

As everyone well-versed in science fiction cinema knows, Stargate spawned a sizable television franchise, with the first spinoff series, SG-1, becoming the longest-running sci-fi show in history. I guess I’m the black sheep in the crowd that only seems to prefer the film only, but the shows aren’t bad at all, and worth a watch if you fancy them. Just be sure to start here.

NOTE: Stargate is available in two versions, the 121-minute theatrical version, and an extended cut featuring 9 minutes of additional footage. The extensions are pretty well spread across the feature, and while the theatrical cut really has no holes to cover, the extended cut offers a satisfying experience in its own right without any sacrifices to the pacing. Both are available on the “15th Anniversary Edition” blu-ray by Lionsgate.

REVIEW: Doctor Strange (2016)

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To be honest, I didn’t think much of Doctor Strange upon my first viewing back in November. I enjoyed it, but felt a tinge of disappointment in what seemed like a lack of ambition within the film made me fear that superhero fatigue was setting in. I’m happy to report that now, having seen it again for the first time since it was in theaters, I’ve learned to love it for what it is.

After a car accident robs him of the use of his hands, brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) sets out on a journey to heal himself, leading him to the teachings of the mystic arts of the Sorcerer Supreme, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange must learn to control powers beyond the bounds of reality if he wants to save the world from a vengeful former student (Mads Mikkelsen) seeking eternal life.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is known as being two things: incredibly successful and creatively safe. The fourteen films so far released by Marvel Studios have raked in over $4 billion, and its easy to see why: they’re fun as hell, and perhaps more importantly, they have a unified look and feel to them. This is key to the overall plan of the MCU, and one of its greatest criticisms: the settings and plotlines of these films have more variety to them than Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but for the most part, they all look the same. This does become a bit of a problem with Strange, as having the same smooth digital sheen to the picture that Captain America: Civil War has doesn’t do it any favors. I guess I was expecting more of a Batman Begins-type of look.

Strange makes up for this disadvantage with the craziness of its premise. The first glimpse we have of the mystic arts makes a veritable prism out of a city street, and the titular surgeon’s introduction to the multiverse is like an acid-fueled remake of Contact‘s wormhole sequence shot by Kubrick. And it just gets more and more psychedelic from there, serving up some of the best action scenes from the MCU I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. Who cares about the bland cinematography of dialogue scenes when the rest of the film is the visual equivalent of a Syd Barrett guitar solo?

Doctor Strange is certainly beautiful to look at, but the over-efficiency of the narrative did cause me some alarm, as I mentioned above. There were times I wanted Derrickson to slow down, to take in the devastating accident or the alleys of Kamar-Taj. I was especially let-down that Kaecillius’ backstory wasn’t more fleshed out, but upon my second viewing, this didn’t bother me much anymore. I guess it comes down to the viewer; if you have an imagination in overdrive like me, you can simply project similar stories onto the characters. If you don’t spend all day dreaming up film ideas, however, I can understand the disappointment in what seems like yet another two-dimensional villain.

The acting is, as always, the best of the best when it comes to the superhero genre, and a Marvel trademark. Cumberbatch is excellent across his character’s arc, achieving a conceitedness that avoids becoming a carbon copy of Tony Stark, whilst serving up a refreshingly crafty hero by the end. Mikkelsen, Ejiofor, and McAdams are their typical master-class performers, with special emphasis on Swinton. It still makes me feel uneasy to see an Asian character reduced to the “white person does oriental better” stereotype, but she takes to the role with such ease that I have to give it up for her.

I would say Strange is certainly among the best of the MCU, but I need more time to decide where exactly it would rank. It is most definitely worthy of recommendation, and when the action kicks in, it is one wild ride.