Movie Review ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

million_ways_to_die_in_the_west_ver11

The Facts:

Synopsis: As a cowardly farmer begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town, he must put his new-found courage to the test when her husband, a notorious gun-slinger, announces his arrival.

Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The posters for A Million Ways to Die in the West tout “From the guy who brought you Ted”…that should have been enough of a warning for me to head for the hills.   For the “guy” in question is Seth MacFarlane and Ted wasn’t exactly my favorite film of 2012.  Though I’ve come to a point of forgiveness with MacFarlane after his arguably unforgivable job hosting the Oscars in 2013, I got saddle sores while sitting through his attempt to make a Blazing Saddles for his Family Guy audience.

I realized while watching (more like grimacing through) MacFarlane’s latest directorial effort that Westerns don’t often get a new spin but when they do, more often than not they work.  Blazing Saddles from 1974 and Django Unchained from 2012 are the first examples that come to mind.  While Saddles was a Mel Brooks exercise in comedic buffoonery, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western revenge epic was bloody good fun.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is an example of the wide, wide chasm that exists between films like Saddles and Django and MacFarlane’s raunchy and ribald supposed comedy.

There’s a good laugh right off the bat but sadly, like the roles played by Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi, the funny stuff all but disappears for more than half the film.  In place of actual laughs is MacFarlane’s ill-advised attempt to Woody Allen-ize every paranoid, fatalist diatribe he’s written for his character.  His clueless sheep farmer in 1822 speaks like an overindulged frat boy from Yale and looks like he got lost on a back lot tour of the set of Gunsmoke.  MacFarlane is so pasty white and healthy looking that when he’s in crowd scenes with his fellow dust bowlers he stands out like a sore thumb…either he didn’t want to get dirty or he’s going after an endorsement deal with Noxzema.

In Ted, MacFarlane only provided the voice for the naughty bear and that was somewhat tolerable.  This film makes it clear that he’s better suited doing his various voices behind the camera than being front and center.  Previously mentioned team players Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Ribisi (Contraband) don’t have much to do but make voraciously explicit sex jokes that had the college age guys sitting next to me literally falling out of their seat with laughter.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) spends the entirety of the film rolling her eyes (possibly mimicking the audience?) and Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, The Nut Job) provides another cinematic example of why needs to learn to say no to every role he’s offered.

Rounding out the cast is an unusually game Charlize Theron as bandit Neeson’s wife that takes a head-scratching interest in MacFarlane’s character.  Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) hasn’t done much in comedy and if she isn’t entirely successful here, I hope she gives it another go with a better script, director, and leading man because she has good instincts.  Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl) is overexposed.  There, I said it.  Even more in love with himself than MacFarlane, Harris’ broadly drafted mustached louse is a painful sight to behold — especially when he’s seen defecating in not one but two hats.

The defecating (and its fully visualized aftermath) is just one example from a film filled with an endless supply of gross out gags, aroused animal genitals, rogue bodily fluids, and rancid jokes that are lingered on and even explained for good measure.  I don’t doubt that the population in the early 1800’s knew how to swear a blue streak, but I have mixed feelings that the phrase “Let’s get f***ed up!” was popular at the time.

I’d like to say I’m not the target audience for the film…but that just isn’t true.  I’m all for dumb humor and the kind of time wasting that movies allow and provide excuses for enjoying…but this just takes things too far.  Thanks to MacFarlane’s major miscalculation that he knows from funny, A Million Ways to Die in the West should D.O.A. by high noon the day it opens.

Note: If you simply MUST see this film, there are several cameos that may make it worth your while.  One cameo in particular is brilliant…you’ll know it when you see it.

Movie Review ~ Maleficent

maleficent_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: A vindictive fairy is driven to curse an infant princess only to realize the child may be the only one who can restore peace.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville 

Director: Robert Stromberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 97 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Like a hunter circling a hungry lion, I approached the screening of Maleficent with the greatest of quiet care.  See, I’ve been mauled before by revisionist fairy tales that promised big and delivered small so I was cautious to not get my hopes up that Walt Disney Studios would get it right.  Even after seeing the production photos and previews of Angelina Jolie as the horned titular character I wasn’t totally sold that this would be different than the others.

So perhaps the bar was reservedly low enough that Jolie and the team behind Maleficent could easily hop over it.  Actually, that sells the film shorter than it deserves because for the most part it’s a success thanks to a dedicated true star performance and a script that puts the humanity back into the fairy tale we all grew up with.

Not that the film doesn’t start out pretty rough, though.  The first 20 minutes or so had me worried as we were introduced to young Maleficent, a sylvan fairy with horns and a mighty wing span.  Though small of stature she easily keeps the peace in the moors that lie just beyond the realm of a neighboring kingdom.  Colorful but garish CGI creatures float by (and off the screen if you’re seeing it in 3D) as the script by Linda Woolverton (2010’s Alice in Wonderland) lays on a back story of love gone wrong between Maleficent and Stefan, a human who starts off very benign until his royal ambitions turns him very bad.

Betrayed by the man she loves, the adult Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) concocts a plan of revenge not toward Stefan (Sharlto Copley, Elysium) but to his newborn daughter, Aurora.  That brings us up to the point where Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty starts off and this new twist on an old classic liberally borrows from the animated film, sometimes verbatim.

Though it does add some interesting layers to the oft-told tale and tosses an ample amount of sympathy toward Maleficent, too often the film loses its focus and retreats into a CGI world of fantasy to distract audiences that nothing really new is happening.  The long prologue and extended ending both are disappointingly CGI heavy…a remnant perhaps of when director Tim Burton was attached to the project around 2010.

What gets the film a recommendation from this critic is Jolie’s lip smacking turn as the not so misunderstood villainess of the title.  While it does take a page from Wicked, the novel turned Broadway smash about the Wicked Witch of the West, it doesn’t weaken her when it shows that there’s a wounded heart underneath the snakeskin wrapped horns and skintight leather ensemble.  Jolie revels in every moment she’s onscreen, letting her blood red lips part to reveal a menacing grin of blindingly white teeth whenever possible.  She’s at her best, though, when she allows the “evil” fairy moments of vulnerability, thanks to Woolverton’s reimagining of Maleficent being seen by Aurora as a fairy godmother, not the conjuror that puts a deadly spell on her.

Copley, on the other hand, would be a reason to stay far away from the film.  Though Stefan and Maleficent are supposedly the same age onscreen, Copley looks like a recently roused Rip Van Winkle and sports the kind of overemphasized Scottish burr usually reserved for animated dogs.  Copley seems to think too hard about his performance, compensating with ACTING so violently that it’s puzzling to know what he wanted to accomplish.  The trio of familiar fairies assigned to protect Aurora suggests more of the dim witches in Hocus Pocus than the loveably dotty ones of the original.  And Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo) as Aurora does her best with an accent learned from, no doubt, Downtown Abbey but is found often with a blank stare suggesting she was in the middle of figuring out an algebra equation.

No, it’s Jolie that’s all over the film and deservedly so.   Working with Oscar winning production designer turned director Robert Stromberg, Jolie is instrumental to the success of the film.  Where Mirror Mirror was too much zany comedy and Snow White and the Huntsman was too darkly violent, Maleficent strikes the right balance between the two.  With moments of humor that fit in nicely with its darker edge, the PG rated film is way too scary for young children but is solid family entertainment for children a tad young to take in the latest X-Men adventure or watch Godzilla wreak havoc.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Days of Future Past

xmen_days_of_future_past_ver5

The Facts:

Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can.  So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing.  Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.

Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.

It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000.  The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud.  Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship.  I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.

Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward.  There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in.  After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.

Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part.  Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.

Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done.  I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.

With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here.  Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up.  As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them.  Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.

Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place.  Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.

With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix.  I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.

Movie Review ~ Blended

1

blended_ver6

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a bad blind date, a man and woman find themselves stuck together at a resort for families, where their attraction grows as their respective kids benefit from the burgeoning relationship.

Stars: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Joel McHale, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kevin Nealon, Jessica Lowe, Terry Crews, Dan Patrick, Bella Thorne, Emma Fuhrmann, Alyvia Alyn Lynd, Kyle Red Silverstein, Braxton Beckham

Director: Frank Coraci

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Let me take you back to 1998 when Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler first teamed up for the retro fun of The Wedding Singer. Here was a movie that capitalized on the enormous appeal of Barrymore and the comedic shenanigans of Sandler that hit the right notes, poked fun at itself, and had the most excellent rapping granny that left the audience in stitches. Six years later, Barrymore and Sandler tried to recapture that chemistry in 50 First Dates, a pleasant but arguably lesser bauble for the duo that nonetheless brought Sandler ever so briefly back from the absurd films he was drifting into.

It’s 10 years later and while Barrymore (Cat’s EyeBig Miracle) has matured in her film selections and even displayed some genuine strength in her performances, Sandler (Hotel Transylvania) has regressed even further. After years of delivering knuckle-dragging doofus roles I’m wondering if Sandler’s manager suggested re-teaming with Barrymore again as a way to hit the reset button on a career that was flagging. Barrymore, bless her heart, took the bait and the end result is Blended.

I’ll say that Blended started out with a curious promise of something better…so much so that I remarked to my theater companion that, though the film was uniquely dumb, I was actually enjoying it. Clearly the movie was going to end up in the “Pleasant” category on my Enjoyable Time at the Movies scale.

Then I guess the inevitable happened. Once the audience was fooled into thinking the movie wasn’t going to be the lame write-off we’ve come to expect from a Sandler film, that nice rug of laid back fun was yanked from under us and Blended became another obnoxious bore of a flick that isn’t worth your time or your second-thoughts.

One thing the trailers fail to inform you is that precious little time of the film is spent in the African setting that’s in most of the promotional materials, even the poster. In fact, you have to wait at least 45 minutes before Africa is even mentioned and by that time you may be diagramming your escape plan from the theater. There’s some business of Barrymore and Sandler being set-up on a date, one that goes horribly wrong at the local Hooters. Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera’s wafer-brained script miraculously has the two meeting again, all in service to the single parents being in the right place at the right time to hear about an unused vacation package in Africa purchased by the head of Dick’s Sporting Goods.

OK…if anyone can legitimately watch this film and tell me how middle class Sandler and Barrymore manage to find the funding to go on this trip I will write a song about you and sing it in a slow straight tone ala Carey Mulligan in Shame. Even more…how Dick’s employee Sandler manages to have the private number of the owner of Dick’s in his cell phone. Or why Barrymore’s co-worker (a so-so Wendi McLendon-Covey) who was dating Dick would put her in touch with a man that she just dumped. At that point, the movie completely lost me and it never recovered.

The conveniences continue when Sandler and his three girls and Barrymore and her two boys arrive at an African resort that looks straight out of Epcot Center. The suite the two blended families have to share, the indignities they all suffer, and the attractions they embark on are over the top and provide zero laughs along the way. It doesn’t help that all five children are the kind of home schooled straight out of acting class teeth gnashers either…

It’s hard to develop any sympathy for both children and adults in the film because they’re either incompetent dipsticks (like Kevin Nealon and Jessica Lowe) spouting the kind of giggly double entendres that went out of style when people stopped saying “righteous”, incorrigible snobs (Joel McHale, the very definition of autopilot) with lackluster line deliveries, or a mixture of both.

Director Frank Coraci (a frequent Sandler collaborator and director of The Wedding Singer) isn’t talented enough to hide the many weaknesses of the script or coax some semblance of authenticity from the performances. Someone also dropped the ball in telling the extras that not only should you not look into the camera, you shouldn’t stare into it for long stretches of time when the action takes place elsewhere.

Running a truly punishing 117 minutes, I’d expect any sane audience member will not only be able to predict the ending but will know the exact dialogue and setting where it’ll take place. Even after the credits begin to roll, Sandler and company aren’t through with us because anyone who is desperately trying to rouse their friends rendered comatose from lack of laughs will be subjected to Sandler and his real life children bleating their way through the kind of home spun song that you’d record in a Hallmark card to give on Mother’s Day. Truly awful.

The third time’s for sure not the charm where Barrymore and Sandler are concerned. At this point, Sandler should start paying us to come see his films, though I’d require compensation in advance. Barrymore, to her credit, remains ageless and shows flashes of the breezy carefree nature that has always made her a bright light…even if she’ll never be an award worthy actress. A definite pass and an early contender for worst of 2014, Blended throws its audience on the rocks.

The Silver Bullet ~ Magic in the Moonlight

magic_in_the_moonlight__2014__by_myrmorko-d7aki6z

Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: My thoughts and feelings about writer/director Woody Allen’s personal troubles aside, it’s hard to deny that he had a most impressive 2013 with the slam-dunk of Blue Jasmine. Not only was Cate Blanchett’s performance of the Oscar she was awarded, Allen’s script (a veiled re-working of A Streetcar Named Desire) was sparkling and en pointe. Now Allen (who is in front of the camera on the recently released Fading Gigolo) takes a page from Noel Coward in the Blithe Spirit-y comedy Magic in the Moonlight which seems to be the traditional lightweight comedy he typically follows a more dramatic film with. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Colin Firth (Paddington) seem right at home with the period and while it’s true that any bad movie can be made more interesting with a well-cut trailer, I have my eye on this one as a late summer refresher.

The Silver Bullet ~ Foxcatcher

foxcatcher

Synopsis: Based on the true story of Mark Schultz, an Olympic wrestler whose relationship with mentor John du Pont and brother Dave Schultz would lead to unlikely circumstances.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: It came as somewhat of a shock that this film was moved from its late 2013 release to almost a year later thanks in no small part to crowded fall slate of Oscar contenders. Who knows what impressive films 2014 will bring but this first look at Foxcatcher leads me to believe Sony made the right call. Building on good buzz for Steve Carell (The Way Way Back) and featuring a formidable supporting cast with the likes of Channing Tatum (Side Effects), Mark Ruffalo (), and Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) this looks like a compelling piece of filmmaking. One of the movies I’m most looking forward to this year.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #2)

interstellar

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: Now at the point where the mere mention of his name guarantees you’ll buy a ticket to his films, director Christopher Nolan steps out of the shadow of The Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) and looks upward into space. The first teaser for Interstellar had tongues a-waggin’ though it had next to no original footage and while this second look reveals a tad bit more about what the film is all about, it’s still more intriguing than verifiably interesting in my book. Then again, Nolan’s trailers have historically been as spoiler-free as possible so that’s par for the course. Make no doubt about it, this is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year and it doesn’t hurt Nolan has the star power of Oscar darlings Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge) and Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day) to escalate this to warp speed. I expect big things from this one…and I’ll bet we get ‘em.

The Silver Bullet ~ Life Itself

1

life_itself_ver2

Synopsis: A documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert.

Release Date: July 4, 2014

Thoughts: Gulp, I got a little teary just watching the trailer for this documentary of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert. Inspired by (and taking the title from) Ebert’s must-read autobiography, Life Itself will probably be required viewing for any casual movie fan and for sure anyone that claims to be a movie critic. Though I didn’t always agree with Ebert’s reviews, I often found myself checking in on what he thought if I was on the fence – a practice I still follow to this day for older movies. Even through his famous clashes with Gene Siskel, I have always respected his style and his willingness to take every movie for face value and report back on his experience. Losing him was a huge blow for film criticism and this documentary looks as reverential as it has every right to be.

Movie Review ~ Million Dollar Arm

million_dollar_arm_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A sports agent stages an unconventional recruitment strategy to get talented Indian cricket players to play Major League Baseball.

Stars: Jon Hamm, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Aasif Mandvi, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Alan Arkin

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Much to my number-minded mom’s chagrin, I was never the math whiz she wanted me to be. With a flick as by the numbers as Million Dollar Arm is I can, however, spot a movie formula without the use of a graphing calculator. It’s a simple equation, really, made simpler by a hokey screenplay courtesy of Tom McCarthy and pedestrian direction from Craig Gillespie. You ready?

True story multiplied by 2 Indian youths divided by 1 Jon Hamm-y performance plus 1 extraneous subplot = Million Dollar Arm

Here’s the thing: I actually think there’s a respectable movie to be made out of the story of an arrogant sports agent (Hamm, ) scraping the bottom of the financial barrel who strikes a deal with the baseball league to sponsor a contest to find the first Indian baseball player.  The problem is that Walt Disney Studios, McCarthy, and Gillespie all made the movie from the wrong perspective. If you see the movie (as a rental, por favor) you’ll understand that it’s the two young men and their baseball loving translator that are the heart of the picture and anything/everything related to Hamm’s agent character drags the film to TV movie of the week levels.

Though he’s popped up in ok supporting roles over the past few years, Hamm sadly doesn’t have the chops that make the type of leading man this type of film needed. Better suited for a Dennis Quaid, Ben Affleck, or shoot, even Casey Affleck, Hamm struggles with Don Draper-izing his small screen handsome features and wardrobe. Taking a page from Jerry Maguire, he can’t even do what Tom Cruise accomplished in that film and make his character likable…even when he’s speaking lines that should do the trick.

It’s puzzling that the film so desperately tries to avoid telling the story at the center of it all with way too much of the way too long 124 minute running length devoted to Hamm’s gradual realization that the woman renting his guest house (Lake Bell, who knows she and Hamm are mismatched) is girlfriend material. Bell, Bill Paxton (Indian Summer), and Alan Arkin (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, who literally sleeps his way the film) do their best to counterbalance the enormous anchor Hamm ties to the film but can’t keep it afloat.

As the fish out of water baseball hopefuls, Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) are winning presences and do much of their own impressive pitching. However, the one person that manages a home run if not an outright grand slam is Bollywood star Pitobash making his Hollywood debut. At first I wrote the tiny bundle of energy off as simply comic relief but as the film went on I wanted to see more of him. To say that he makes a great save in the final inning is to put it mildly as in one short speech he nearly makes up for all the hooey that came before. It’s in this moment that you might, like me, realize how much better a movie was waiting to be made had Disney recognized where the true focus should have been.

Reminding me a lot of Disney’s 90s offering Cool Runnings, Million Dollar Arm can’t complete in the big leagues of other sports related family entertainment (rated PG, parents should know this really skates the edge of PG-13 material) due to Hamm’s not ready for primetime performance and a lack of faith in the material. Instead, take a peek at The Rookie, Disney’s 2002 baseball-makes-grown-men-cry offering.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla (2014)

godzilla_ver13

The Facts:

Synopsis: The world’s most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

Director: Gareth Edwards

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Boy, do I love a good blockbuster. Personally, I don’t lump the superhero films featuring men who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and hulky iron men teaming up with American captains quite into the same category as the epic scale movies that remind me of all those summer films I so eagerly anticipated back in the 90s. Give me a Jurassic Park over another Marvel film any day of the week, not that the Marvel films aren’t enjoyable in their own right.

Though I wasn’t yet born when 1975 became the summer of the shark (Jaws) and created the blockbuster event film, I do remember seeing Jurassic Park in theaters and I found myself flashing back to Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure as the reboot of Godzilla played out before my eyes. Here is a film that knows its audience, takes its time, and seemingly says “You want your money’s worth…OK…we can do that.” Setting a high bar for every other film to come in summer 2014, Godzilla is that must see entertainment that even people who only venture into a dark theater a few times a year will want to put on their list.

You know you’re in good hands right off the bat with a smart credit sequence that covers a lot of ground, showing newsreel clips from history about the A-Bomb testing and eventually making the suggestion that the bomb was actually used to subdue a threat to humankind rather than making a case for scientific advancement. From there, the film uses a lengthy prologue to its advantage as it hops continents, laying the groundwork for our titular monster to rise again from the ocean depths.

Not too long after an estranged scientist father (Bryan Cranston, Argo, Rock of Ages) and his military son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick Ass 2, Savages) are reunited in Tokyo, the men get swept up in a closely guarded multi-government secret involving, well, here’s the rub…I could tell you what they find is being contained in an abandoned nuclear power plant but that would give away one of the secrets the marketing department over at Warner Brothers has wisely kept out of sight. Let’s just say that it ain’t good for anyone involved. What they find there sets into motion a good old fashioned creature feature as a hunt ensues with edge of your seat thrills and the kind of massive destruction of major West Coast cities that only a fire breathing lizard could be forgiven for.

Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein take a page from Spielberg’s Jaws (even naming of the leads Brody) and keep Godzilla out of sight until almost half the movie has gone (flown, really) by. When he’s finally shown in full, the effect is similar to the first time the shark in Jaws rears up to say hi to Roy Scheider – that of a giddy release that the great beast is actually as satisfyingly menacing as we imagine him to be. Impressively rendered via state of the art visual effects, this 2014 Godzilla is a mash up of many different versions of the beast over the years. Edwards and company did their research and have produced a greatest hits Godzilla, and the overall effect is spot-on.

There’s a lot going on in the film and if the end result is that the flesh and blood characters get a little short shrift, I’m totally OK with it…especially when you have a scenery chewer like Cranston on board. Much like Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm, Cranston proves that he’s no movie star (something he seems to have been making a case for in a series of disastrous supporting roles the last few years) thanks to a hammy, overly emotive performance. When Godzilla’s performance can be described as more subtle, you know you’re on the wrong track. It also doesn’t help he seems to be wearing two of the least convincing wigs in recent memory…the first making it look like he has the same haircut as Juliette Binoche.

The rest of the players seem to be content with playing second fiddle to the lizard. Taylor-Johnson’s cardboard performance oddly works for the film and Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy) does what she can as a woman always either crying or on the verge of tears. As in-the-know scientists, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins) are called on only when needed but lend a head-scratching gravitas. Even with Cranston, Edwards has pulled together a unique cast, one that you wouldn’t instantly think “Monster Movie” if you heard their name.

Don’t get too wrapped up in the human element of the film because this is an old-fashioned yet decidedly modern monster movie through and through…and a damn entertaining one at that. The first half of the film is largely a set-up for the mayhem of the second hour and the wait is both involving and well worth it. By creating a believable back story and letting his star shine, Edwards has done what Roland Emmerich’s soggy 1998 attempt couldn’t…have its lizard cake and eat it too. April showers truly brought May flowers as Godzilla stakes an early claim as the best film of the summer.