by Philip Price
There is always a sense of trepidation within me when approaching a Seth MacFarlane comedy as I've never been a fan of “Family Guy” or any of his other animated outings. This is not necessarily because I don't like them, but because I've never really become interested enough to actually sit down and watch them. I realize this isn't MacFarlane's fault and that I might actually appreciate his brand of humor if given the chance. That is almost what happened after seeing “Ted” two years ago and being surprised by how much I actually enjoyed and laughed at the outrageously broad comedy. I say almost because I still never watched a single episode of any of his television series' or “Star Wars” parodies, but instead I looked forward to what he might do next in an effort to sustain the good will he received from “Ted” and bring to the big screen another one of his ridiculous premises only to have it hit with a certain, under-appreciated crowd. MacFarlane makes it clear throughout his latest feature in which he stars, directs and co-wrote titled “A Million Ways to Die in the West” that he is the underdog and always has been. He seems intent on making very clear not only that he is accustomed to playing this role in life, but that he truly embodies in Albert, his character here, the kind of person it takes to become the guy who'd rather talk things out intelligently than put up their dukes. In fact, he's learned from his no frills father that life isn't easy and so he resorts to ridiculing everything and everyone around him while ultimately feeling like he's never good enough. There is nothing wrong with this and as a general consensus I imagine audiences will agree with his tactics, but it is also made clear that Albert is better than you and he knows it, but he can't bring himself to say it to your face. It's a tough position to be in and an even tougher attitude to pull off when preaching to the crowds that will flock to see this in hopes of another original comedy. The thing about MacFarlane's comedy (and again I'm only speaking from the experience of having seen this and “Ted”) is that while he condescends and outsmarts his opponents the majority of the time he never makes us, the audience, feel as if we're in on the joke with him, but instead that we are as stupid as those he is talking down to.
This kind of narcissistic mentality can be glimpsed simply from the premise of “A Million Ways to Die in the West” as the entire point of the movie in essence is to look down on the era of the American West and how terrible it was. This seems kind of ironic to MacFarlane because he clearly feels that what you would refer to as "tough guys" today might see the opportunity to live in the old west as something awesome and to that notion he slaps them in the face repeatedly with how stupid they would have to be to actually want that. John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood have all made the Western look so badass that it would seem an attractive thing to do, but while MacFarlane is out to show just how meat-headed a notion this actually is what he does in turn is basically create a gross-out romantic comedy because, well, that seems to be his default. We first meet Albert as he is set to face off against his neighbor in a gunfight to which he responds by miming a blowjob with their shadows and then expertly swindles himself into paying over what he owes his challenger in the money he lost when Albert's sheep ate off his land. You see, Albert is a sheep farmer and not a very good one at that and after a year and a half together with his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), she decides she wants more out of life. Albert is heartbroken, not knowing what to do with himself, hating his pre-determined destiny and only finding solace in the company of his best friend Edward (Giovanni Ribisi). Edward is a bit of twit as he's dating one of the town whores (Sarah Silverman) who forces him to wait until their wedding night to have sex, because they're Christians, of course, and they needed a running joke to beat into the ground. Things start to change when Anna (Charlize Theron) shows up in their small town though, finding someone to root for in Albert and a way to escape her reality of being married to the deadliest man in the west, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson). Anna is mysterious yet interested and Albert isn't one to ignore a pretty lady, especially one who shows so much interest in showing up ol' Louise after she publicly sports a new beau in Foy (the always wonderful Neil Patrick Harris). It is when Clinch catches up with Anna and things come unspooled that Albert must face his fears and claim his girl or remain a coward and never know what might have been or some sort of BS like that.
The point is, we all know where the film is heading as soon as Neeson's character is introduced and so what we expect is for the ride to be fun and enjoyable even if it is predictable. Unfortunately, what MacFarlane has put together is a string of set-ups for jokes that have no real context within the film but simply exist in the hopes of getting a laugh. As the film opened I was already smiling because of the fact the actor/writer/director found it necessary to allow his credits to scroll openly at the beginning of the film against the beautiful backdrop of aerial shots of Arizona desert as the great, throwback score from Joel McNeely (not to mention the fun closing credits song by Alan Jackson) plays over it all. As soon as we settle in and ready ourselves to laugh though we are met with the opposite approach the credits implied as MacFarlane doesn't operate his cameras in a way that mimics those of the old westerns nor does he even bother to try and make himself look like a person of the time. There is no aesthetic except for blandness. The extras and a few supporting characters sport fangled teeth and unkempt hair with dirt seeping out of every pore while MacFarlane and his other, well-renowned co-stars look as polished and kept as they would any day of the week walking through a studio back lot. MacFarlane doesn't care that his hair is styled or that the food he eats in the second scene of the film looks straight from a grocery store, no, all he seems to care about is if the jokes land. While the point of the film is to be a parody of the way of life in that time in history the only time these type of topical jokes come up is when Albert explicitly states why things suck so bad in the west. Other times, situational times, we simply get sheep penises or fart and diarrhea jokes that not only feel sophomoric, but extremely forced given the intelligent and thoughtful analysis that come from our protagonists mouth at other points. I was hoping that not only would “A Million Ways to Die in the West” be a smartly satirical take on the old west and expectations vs. reality and I genuinely believe that is what MacFarlane set out to do when this idea first popped into his head, but what his final product ends up delivering is a conventional studio comedy with high-brow ambitions and low-brow humor. At least there are the celebrity cameos, but spotting the who's who among the extras almost becomes the most enjoyable thing about this predictable ride.
Despite all of this, and even considering the lowered expectations given the quality of the jokes in the red band trailers I was hoping this might turn out to be something more, something that might actually force me to finally fully jump on the Seth MacFarlane train. More than anything though this has derailed any interest I had in further investigating his filmography. The worst part, really, is that MacFarlane just wasn't made for live action work and that seems to be the harsh truth no one around him wants to tell him. I get it, this is his first time actually being in front of the camera and comedy is the hardest of genres to pull off and convey in a naturalistic manner, but it is his performance that does more to discredit the film than anything else. We are not accustomed to his mannerisms or his odd facial features that can't help but make us wonder what nationalities his parents were while the fact we feel the need to better familiarize ourselves with actually seeing the real-life MacFarlane on screen is not a good sign as he can't seem to match his quick wit and delivery with his body language. His body language feels awkward throughout, he is unsure of how to put into physical form the kind of frustrations or comedic elements he needs to in order to emphasize his lines and we can feel it, for the first time we can see it. The good news is the guy has wrangled up a strong cast of credible supporting actors that help the film stay afloat if not making him look all the more amateurish. As Anna, Theron is just as modernized in her approach as MacFarlane is to Albert yet there is a charm to her shtick and we immediately like her not because she is the opposite of what we expect a woman in the old west to be, but because Theron is inherently intimidating with her beauty and uses that cocky facade here to impress upon others she is not one to mess with. Ribisi and Silverman do fine with what they have to work with and the running gag about the Christian prostitute is pretty solid, but it runs out of steam so fast and there is nothing for them after that. Neeson is here because Liam Neeson playing an outlaw is a funny idea while Harris all but steals the show every time he walks on screen. On the other hand Seyfried, who showed so much comedic potential 10 years ago in “Mean Girls,” offers absolutely nothing here in a role that could have literally been played by anyone else. Seriously, her funniest moment on screen is when someone else makes fun of her. All of this to say that “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is a bit of a disappointment and only at its best when we're in on the joke and not on the outside wanting, but not being allowed in.
by Philip Price
David Gordon Green is a director unafraid to explore the entire range of human emotion and while Hollywood sometimes requires that he segment these separate emotions into individual films Green has always been capable of dealing in the honesty of the human spirit. It would have been hard to find people who agreed with that assessment in 2011 when he released not one, but two critically panned straight-up comedies (“Your Highness” and “The Sitter”) one of which I understand the harsh reception, the other I think is sorely underrated. After taking a year or so off it seems Green re-evaluated what direction he was taking his career in and has since crafted two, lower-key character studies that have been able to access that full range of emotion he likes to explore rather than restricting him to the archetypes of slapstick, situational or conversation purely intended to make the audience laugh. While last year’s “Prince Avalanche” was a subdued little slice of life story that felt relaxed, improvised and more a quiet concentration on the point of it all, “Joe” is a character study as meticulously plotted and thought over as an extravagant poem meeting all the requirements of its goal scheme. “Joe” is not only about its title character but the place in the world in which he resides and the people around him that influence his decisions, those who he oversees and whose quality of their life he determines and the community that is both fed up and inebriated with him. As played by Nicolas Cage this outdoor, rugged, man among men character becomes a kind of Christ-figure to these small town people looking to be saved from their depressing, trash-riddled lives and it is only in Cage's furrowed brow and hardened soul that we see how Joe wants to try and live, but that he can't bring himself to be what the standards of society expect of him and so he rebels and he continues to rebel because that is the nature of his surroundings, no doubt of his upbringing and he can't help but to continue to think of himself as simultaneously better than those around him while never good enough to break free of this place he's found himself trapped in. I was riveted by “Joe,” moved by its performances and intrigued by its interest in these people’s lives. I think it is safe to say Green is back to doing what he does best.
In the opening shot of the film we meet Gary (Tye Sheridan) as he talks to his drunken father, Wade (Gary Poulter who's real life story is as haunting and disturbing as the one he portrays here), an alkie and a complete degenerate who beats his family that also includes a wife and daughter as well who he would take no regret in pimping out for more booze. If he is this kind of man to his family, this kind of disgusting presence you can only imagine how he might treat those he has no emotional connection to in desperate times and when the answer to that question arrives on screen you want to look away. As much as Joe is the titular character, protagonist, fractured hero of the story Wade is the by all-accounts villain that while seeming all bad, and he pretty much is as there is no valid excuse for the way he behaves, is not the one dimensional antagonist of this southern gothic tale. Gary is his offspring, but how this child came out as ambitious as he did with an attitude highlighted by stubborn courage is something to be marveled at altogether. He sees the path his father is traveling and instead of allowing it to influence him he takes it as a sign of what not to do and this pushes him to go out, look for work, make money and do what his father can't do which is take care of his family. Gary comes across Joe who heads up a crew of men that is clearing trees off the land for the owner. They are dead trees, trees no good to anyone yet even in this instance Joe sees it as killing, sees it as something he could likely be doing better, but doesn't have the care or ambition, as Gary does, to look for anything else. Gary needs a job and Joe is willing to oblige as what he has to offer is hard work and can use as many hands as possible. Around town, Joe seems to be known as a good guy, a respectable man, but a dedicated drinker himself and someone who can stir up trouble from time to time. It is when Gary comes into his life that he begins to see himself as something more, a role model even and a way for him to do right for all the times his instincts have pointed him to do wrong. It is this developing relationship that forms the core of “Joe” and all the action that takes place around it only serve to ignite the demons Joe has to drive out.
Based on the 1992 novel by Larry Brown, Green knows how to capture the grit of the South and in this case, the heavily-forested landscape of Mississippi. The look of “Joe” is as important as any other aspect because it relays the authenticity of the story being presented. So much about the south has become clichéd and an easy target for mocking that it is easy to tell when someone who knows the area is influencing the atmosphere of the film and when it is being faked by a set decorator. It is the small things here that make you appreciate the quality of a small town, such as the radio forecasts heard in the background or the standard small talk dialogue that the old store owners default to in an attempt to try and make a connection with their varied customers. It is all here, all to the point you can almost smell the dusted tops of the cars and the stale wind that blows through the ancient houses some of these people remain in. It is this air of authenticity that seeps into the film and makes for the elements of the story to be all the more compelling. “Joe” isn't the first film to get this tone right as “Mud” and Jennifer Lawrence's breakout film, “Winter's Bone,” were both more poems with verses moved by the land than full-fledged dramas, but out of this sub-genre of films “Joe” is easily the most complicated plot-wise and arguably the most compelling because of it. That is not to say the mysticism of “Mud” or the portrait painted by Lawrence's Ree are to be undermined by something as simple as more complicated plotting, but when meshed with the strong hand of director Green and the performances of not only Cage and Sheridan, but that of Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins and Adriene Mishler you get a fully fleshed out story with the emotion at the core of it that really allows for the entire film, as a complete package to be all the more moving.
When we break it down to its more basic points for standing out among this current crop of Southern cinema though, the one outstanding factor is the performance of Cage. I am of an age where I never really had the opportunity to see what Cage really had in him as an actor. The first big hit he had by the time I really began to decide I had an invested interest in film was “Gone in 60 Seconds” and since I had no older siblings and my parents weren't much for movies I never fell in love with his string of late 90's hits and despite the fact that since the turn of the millennium the man has mainly turned in performances that are completely forgettable, over the top or basically work for hire parts that he is given because of his name we will every now and then get an “Adaptation” or a “Matchstick Men” or “Kick-Ass” and even “The Weather Man,” which never received much love and is mainly forgotten these days, but I thought was rather insightful and moving when I was 18. The point is, despite my love of film my age and the era I was brought into seeing movies has never really allowed me to know the Nicolas Cage that pulled out all the stops for “Raising Arizona” or won an Academy Award for “Leaving Las Vegas” and so that youth of today have no idea that the man could even come close to something relied upon as a credible actor. “Joe” turns that stereotype around as Cage turns in what is easily some of the best work he's done in years and most certainly one of the best leading performances of his career in a film that not only serves the purposes of giving Cage a showcase but also kind of doubles as a tale of how both the actor and the character can be their own worst enemy. As Joe, Cage embodies the tortured soul, the guy who wants to have a good time and who wants to live his life the way he'd like with no interference from anyone that could lead him to circumstances where his choices will prove to be his downfall. We see this illustrated through a romantic relationship with Mishler's Connie, but it is through the bond formed with Sheridan's Gary that Joe realizes living the way he has will amount to little to be proud of when there is no will left in his mind and body to go on. Sheridan is a gifted young actor and the way he slips into these ruined adolescents is both charming and fleeting as we can see the maturing of his mind and physical features beginning to take place making us only hope he continues to make the intelligent choices in his films as he has so far. Their relationship is at the heart of “Joe” and at its most intense peak, this is a film both worthwhile in its substance and noteworthy for what it will do for Cage.
by Philip Price
Everything about our comic book movies that we receive these days are dictated by what works in others and what has become outdated, but when it comes to the X-Men films they are the ones who set the trend of what has now been flourishing (for the most part) for nearly fifteen years and with their latest installment they continue to be able to change with the times while also sticking to their roots and using what has come in the past to influence the relationships between the characters and make the impact of the events that occur in the latest installments all the more powerful. I was a big fan of First Class three years ago as it was able to give the series a much needed fresh start after the perceived misstep of The Last Stand (which wasn't ALL that bad) and the definite blow that was X-Men Origins. Not only was the series getting a fresh start, but it was also a chance to see what has always been the core of the franchise, the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, blossom and become the iconic battle of ideologies that guided each of the original X-Men trilogy films. In saying that the X-Men films continue to adapt to the current climate of superhero films is to reference how this latest installment, which is technically the sequel to First Class, incorporates the idea of continuity and world building. The idea to bring in everyone from past films, essentially creating an all-star roster for an embodiment of everything the past films have been leading up to is the new niche studios are pushing after the success of not only The Avengers, but the Fast & Furious films. The X-Men have always been an ensemble though so their way of putting a spin on this approach is to connect the original franchise with that of the First Class world and in doing so have created a universe where every X-Men film that has been made can co-exist in the same space (except for maybe Origins, but that bears little matter here) and in that regard Days of Future Past doesn't quite feel as spectacular or as epic in scope as it probably should, but it is still highly entertaining and more satisfying on a level that leaves us with a film that will resonate with us the more we watch it rather than becoming less impressive over time because it's nothing more than empty spectacle.
After the events of last years The Wolverine where we saw what trouble Logan gets himself into outside Xavier's school for gifted youngsters we saw a tease that not only glazed over the fact Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik (Ian McKellen) were not only both alive and well despite the conclusion of The Last Stand, but that they'd apparently teamed-up and were actively looking for Wolverine in order to stop an impending threat in the form of Trask Industries (which was also slightly teased) which comes to be known more specifically as Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage). This all to give us some context for when the three of them, along with Halle Berry's Storm, show up in the not too distant future to aid a few former students, Bobby Drake aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), as well as a few new mutants that include Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) as they fight to avoid the wrath of the latest wave of Sentinels that the government has sent out to do away with not only mutants, but humans who they detect might have mutant children. It is a bleak future and in an opening fight sequence we are shown how real the consequences truly are; prompting the idea that it is necessary for those with the power to re-write what they can of history, putting the world on track for a future that might be more pleasurable for us all. Due to some mutant jargon that is unnecessary to delve into here it becomes clear Wolverine is the only one with the ability to travel far enough back in time at the hands of Kitty's abilities and so trusty Hugh Jackman's consciousness is sent back in time to his 1973 body where he has to put plans in motion to stop a specific event spearheaded by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that gives way to advances in the technology of the Sentinels as well as the climate for the mutant movement and its damning effects on their integration into society. To do this, Logan ventures to collect his old friends who are much different people in this decade then when he came to know them some thirty years later. Xavier (James McAvoy) has given up on teaching and moving forward altogether as he's given up his powers to a serum created by Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) that allows him to walk again while he mourns not only the loss of Raven (aka Mystique) but boils with hatred for Magneto (Michael Fassbender) after he took everything from him.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but the film itself never feels overcrowded or bloated in ways that the narrative structure isn't designed to handle. We are given the parallels between the two time frames only when necessary and the majority of these flash-forwards and flash-backs are used in order to up the tension rather than spill exposition or dialogue that is simply meant to inform rather than move the story at hand forward. There is no hesitation in jumping head-first into this world and into the conflict that is currently pitting these mutants against the latest antagonists they have to face in their fight for equality and unfortunately the efforts made in all the previous films seem to have led to nothing more than what looks like utter extinction. The film hops around the world to several major cities, but the landscape, the clouds, the overall tone is all the same and in giving us this desolate emptiness we feel an overwhelming sense of failure as we see the worn and weathered looks on Stewart and McKellen's faces as they exit their ship for the first time. It is in the hands of original series director Bryan Singer that all of this is orchestrated with real depth and understanding. While I have enjoyed each of Matthew Vaughn's directorial efforts and very much engaged with the time period setting and his quick, insightful storytelling methods that gave First Class its style and good reception as much as the terrific casting it is unlikely he would have been able to handle the reigns of something as massive as this the way Singer so delicately has. Singer is a master of building individual scenes to be that of a full experience only to allow them to breathe as much life as they can and need into the overall arc of the film and he does that countless times here. Not only is the opening fight sequence a collage of creativity with the assorted powers the mutants possess, but the introduction of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and his assistance in helping break Magneto out of prison are among some of the best character work and choreographed action we've seen in a film like this in a long time. It is, to put it quite simply: classic. The thing is, Singer understands these characters, he has been there with them through everything that has brought them to this point in their lives and in directing the younger cast members he knows what they will become allowing for each performer to lend a new sense of discernment to their characters.
Speaking of performances and digging deeper into these characters, if there is anything Days of Future Pastexcels at rather than simply checking off the list it is the ability to not just understand the end goals these mutants are each going after, but more importantly the internal conflicts and how they play into the current situation they are having to deal with. This is always relevant in Jackman's Wolverine who by this point we can't pick up a bad performance on because Jackman is so committed to the character he inherently knows where to go in any given situation. The more interesting cases here are of course the dynamic between Stewart and McAvoy and Fassbender and McKellen who, while the elder two could be chalked up to little more than glorified cameos, give serious influence to the way we watch McAvoy and Fassbender execute the actions of these respected icons in their youth. We see the gravitas Fassbender is employing to greater effect this time around in his voice while we pick up on the way in which McAvoy attempts to further distance himself from the initial perception we have of what a younger Xavier might have been. If nothing else it makes for a more interesting evolution and that is what these films are all about, right? The focus here truly is on Mystique though, which I'm sure has nothing to do with the fact Vaughn was smart enough to cast a pre-Katniss Lawrence in the role, but no matter the reasoning her service to the story is completely justifiable as her powers have consistently been called out throughout the series and have been highlighted as completely unique to the point it makes sense that Trask finds her the most fascinating, the most potentially useful. Lawrence gets to play several scenes with the most variety of co-stars, but the tension between her and Fassbender and our slight uncertainty about how far it went that is somewhat confirmed by how far it goes is some of the most interesting conversation in the film. In saying that, the biggest task Days of Future Past was always going to face was that of balancing all of its characters and everything it had going on and the expertise with which this is handled really shines in the final half hour as the editing moves us not only between the big finale (which is more concerned with resolving its themes than mass destruction) but also keeps us in tune with the implications of all that we are seeing unfold. Singer has returned to the X-Men and in doing so has given us some resolution in what he started and then allowed to go astray those fourteen years ago bringing his audience and his characters only more to look forward to.
by Philip Price
Admittedly, I have never been a fan or seen much of the supposed entertainment value in what a giant lizard fighting other monsters brings to the table other than spectacle, but for some reason Hollywood feels a need to keep going back to this well to the point it seems they have something they really want to unearth, but can't put their finger on.
I was only eleven years old when Roland Emmerich's version of the King of the Monsters hit the screen and for the most part I enjoyed that one with my easy to mesmerize mentality. It has been a long while since I've re-visited that take and was never able to get into the string of films featuring the creature produced by the Toho Co. What has always evaded me is where audiences find substance in this idea that watching a mythological monster, sometimes played up as the lesser of two threats, has anything more to say other than it looks pretty awesome when he fights these creatures, but only if we know the city's they are destroying in the wake of their battles to determine who resides at the top of the food chain are completely abandoned. Otherwise, we just feel bad for the countless lives being lost in one seemingly small motion of this monster rather than being able to enjoy the majesty of what is taking place before us. Coming around to director Gareth Edwards take on the monster though, Godzilla, the marketing did something unexpected and actually had me fairly excited to see what this new film might bring to the table and if the studios may finally have been able to press that button or unearth that value they so desperately are searching for with this property. I guess, if I were to say anything in this introduction without giving specifics away it would be that Edwards has given over to the more serious undertones that were the point of origin for the character in the first place. With that, he has crafted a film as much about the story and the impact of the fact Godzilla exists rather than simply producing a film that goes exactly where your instincts want to take you. That the film subverts the obvious ideas and goes in a completely different direction assured me that audiences don't really know what they want when it comes to a Godzilla movie, but would no doubt be satisfied with monster-fighting on an epic scale. While Edwards Godzilla is not the exceptional piece of popcorn entertainment I was hoping for, he still delivers on many levels.
We open with one of many impressive sweeping shots that places us in the Philippines in 1999 as we meet Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his fellow scientist Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) as they are brought to the site of where the earth has begun to cave in, but with evidence that something caused this, something human eyes had never seen. We see the outline of a massive skeletal structure with two egg-shaped pods, one of which is now empty, and we can only imagine what this thing is or where it might have gone as the camera pans out and we see a massive trail that has been cut through the forested area of the Philippines and out into the ocean. Cutting to the coast of Japan at the Janjira Nuclear Plant near Tokyo, we meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) who is a nuclear technician and in the wake of what feels like an earthquake sends his wife and co-worker Sandra (Juliette Binoche) with a team to check on things. But whatever is causing the tremors around the plant isn't waiting and quickly causes a meltdown within the plant leaving Joe a widow and their son, Ford, without a mother. The entire area around Janjira becomes quarantined including where the Brody's lived and it isn't until fifteen years later when we catch up with Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is now an explosive ordinance disposal technician in the United States Navy, that we learn Joe has become obsessed with conspiracy theories around what happened that day and determined to get back into the area where his families old house sits and where his wife died. Ford has grown up and grown distant from his father, creating his own family with wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde), but when Joe is arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area Ford promptly returns to his father’s side only to be wrangled back in to wanting to believe his father and the justification he needs in resolving what was the cause of his mother’s death. It creates a personal connection to the catastrophe and when Ford reluctantly joins his dad in returning to the site of their old home in the shadows of the nuclear plant they get more than they bargained for, realizing that while there is a lack of nuclear radiation in the air a serious operation has been set-up in the remains of the plant run by Dr. Serizawa. What it contains isn't exactly what I expected and while that is refreshing, the outcome never feels as if it rises to the ideas it intended.
First and foremeost, let me say that while I have never been an avid fan of Godzilla I was curious as to how the makers might approach a new incarnation of the monster tale and how they might make it appealing to modern audiences who like to find their fiction rooted in a brutal reality while keeping in step with the traditions that the Toho films stood for and carried out because that seemed to be the main detractor with Emmerich's version. I was weary of the reasoning to even make another Godzilla film, but when the trailers began appearing months ago there was an immediate aura around the scope and visual storytelling that spelled whispers this could be something truly special. The cast certainly hinted at as much, why else would real, credible actors like Cranston, Hawkins, Binoche (in what is truly a bit part), Watanabe and David Strathairn sign up for a summer blockbuster when they typically prefer to reside in smaller, more subtle pieces of work that allow them to feel more at ease with their artistic conscience than the paycheck they would earn simply on the basis of personal financial advancement. There must have been something about the script that lured them in or something they saw in the eyes of director Edwards that captured their imagination like no other tentpole they'd been pitched recently, right?
You would think so, and I certainly had hopes all of this would turn out to be true but the funny thing about Godzilla is not the fact it is very reserved in showing its titular monster or its overall subdued tone, but instead it is the way in which the human elements of the movie, the meat of the movie in fact, are not very interesting or compelling. We should care about these people, we should feel as if we are in their shoes, but when you bring in the big guns early and then revert the weight of a giant film such as this to the shoulders of someone such as Taylor-Johnson (who doesn't seem all that sure of what to play here) you get a lead character that is neither interesting or charming enough for us to care about what role he plays in combating these massive unidentified organisms. We hardly get to know Elle or Sam before Ford is whisked away on his journey and we only return to them periodically in segments that feel more shoehorned than actually necessary in advancing the story. Because there is no real connection (in fact there is an odd disconnect between Taylor-Johnson and Olsen) between these two there is no investment in the audience rooting for them to be re-united.
The good news is that Edwards is a visual storyteller with a hand that is able to paint lush, striking images that convey as much if not more than the lead character. To be fair, both Watanabe and Strathairn do what they can with their supporting roles that seem to give little more than archetypes to work with, but Watanabe with his quiet wonder and reserved nature infuses some of the more iconic lines and Spielbergian camera movements with a real sense of substance that are too few and far between to actually count as character development.
Let's be honest though, when you go to see a Godzilla movie you aren't going for things like character development and though this film is told strictly from the perspective of humans and relies heavily on their plan to resolve the issue of monsters fighting in and destroying their cities it is the visual poetry of seeing these monsters come to life that serves as reason enough for people to buy tickets. This, as I began earlier, is where Edwards flourishes and his money shots that are littered throughout the film truly inspire. There were no less than four times throughout the course of the film that a smile spread across my face not from some dialogue exchange or piece of acting, but due simply to the way in which a certain shot was framed and the emotion and impact of what it was showing invoked from within me, a child-like glee if you will. It was very much an enigmatic experience where I realized that what I was seeing was truly affecting yet I had little to nothing to tie it to or even any reason as to why I should feel affected by it because in the realm of the film I was watching it was implied for characters I didn't care much about.
It could be said that Ford and his soldiers represent the front lines and that as audience members we are supposed to feel like the ones our main characters are protecting here, but there is never an impending sense of doom or inherent fear when we see Godzilla rise from the sea, but instead we are simply thankful to get another glimpse at the monster we all came to watch that honestly, almost feels shafted in his own film. I am not necessarily complaining about how little we do actually see the main monster because I thought that balance was fine and left just the right amount of mystery to him and didn't spoil our appetite, but in doing that one needs something just as interesting to balance it with. The human aspect of the story that writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham came up with just didn't suffice. Godzilla is a solid action film and a fine enough summer extravaganza flick, but for all the majestic shots and truly impressive effects work there is ultimately little that leaves an impression on us.
by Philip Price
There has been so much made of the trial that “Devil’s Knot” dramatizes that the film itself almost seems irrelevant at this point. If you've seen any of the three ‘Paradise Lost’ documentaries or for a more complete look at the 18 years after what happens in “Devil’s Knot,” last year’s excellent documentary “West of Memphis,” than you already know everything there is to know about this trial with ample amounts of theories and extraneous evidence to boot, but while “West of Memphis” encapsulated this entire ordeal from beginning to present when it turned from a trial about the murder of three little boys to a witch hunt for three other boys and the eventual plight to free them from the prison cells that constantly reminded them of the actions they were wrongfully accused of, “Devil’s Knot” is simply looking to see what made everything go so wrong from the inception of this incident and more importantly, give a voice to the often forgotten victims and their families. The film is very open to interpretation in terms of what avenue you prefer to travel when it comes to this well-publicized case, but it certainly lays inclinations to what the current state of the case would best indicate. With such a sprawling story, a large cast of characters and multiple perspectives from which you could approach this it always seemed the choice to go with a documentary as far as chronicling the events of this case was the most efficient thing to do, but with Mara Leveritt's 2002 crime book of the same name proving an interesting and well-read piece of source material it was unavoidable that at some point a narrative feature might be attempted that pulled from the well that has seemed to officially run dry. The interesting question here is whether or not the film might be more highly looked upon were there not so many other films surrounding this same set of events because this film, on the most basic of principles, is still engaging due to the horrible circumstances under which these murders happened and the horribly botched job that the police did with the investigation that, when paired with the fine, but admittedly passive performance of actors at the caliber of Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, you are bound to find a few things making it worth a look.
What “Devil’s Knot” has in being a full on dramatization (or one long re-enactment) and not just a documentary that steps through all of the facts and presents them in a fashion where each audience member can make up their own mind is the advantage of placing its audience right in the middle of things, coming face-to-face with the complexities of the relationships, of the environment, of the pressure-essentially it has the unique opportunity to place you purely in the moment; something that, in the documentaries, has only been referenced to or looked back on in a fashion of it being in the past. The most chilling moments of “Devil’s Knot” come, not from the incompetence of the detectives or the look on Damien Echols’ (James Hamrick) face as they read his initial sentence, but when Stevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer) is pulled from his watery grave or when his mother, Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon), reacts to the news that her son has been found dead. These are moments that those who can remember the events when they actually happened in 1993 likely saw clips of on the news and for those that have followed the case through the news and documentaries and have seen the crime scene photos time and time again know there is something distinctly affecting about seeing these small moments in time, these moments that would come to define and represent so much more in the grand scheme of a town and other people’s lives that it is impactful in a way pictures or raw footage from the search parties cannot be, especially when rendered by such present performers and precise detail. That is what is so interesting about this film though because even though I sat back and was engulfed in what was going on, marveling at the way in which director Atom Egoyan and his team had reconstructed not only an authentic sense of the early-‘90s but the looks of these real-life characters I'd seen in the documentaries was fascinating for its own reasons, while all the while still feeling rather stale. Naturally, the details of what actually happened on the evening of May 5, 1993 are still very much up for debate and thus cause enough for those interested in the subject to seek out anything new that might cover more ground on this subject and the horrific events. The question is, has the ground that “Devil’s Knot” chooses to cover been turned into dirt?
What it tries to do to differentiate itself is take on the case from the most outside and level-headed of perspectives while still remaining directly connected to the crime and the courtroom drama. In doing this (and I don't know how Leveritt's book is laid out) they choose to focus on Ron Lax (Colin Firth) who is a private investigator that, after seeing the events of the missing boys, the discovery of their bodies and then the hasty charges brought against Echols, Jessie Misskelley (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) that accused them of being part of a satanic cult due to the sexual and violent nature of the crimes and the fact they were seeking the death penalty for teenagers, decided it was more or less his moral obligation to get involved as it became more and more clear that this wasn't as much about finding the actual person or persons who committed these crimes, but bringing in someone (even the most obvious of someones) to take the blame for it so that the people of the community might feel safe and that those involved in the investigation may further their political careers by so successfully closing out such a high profile case. It is a noble action to take and as played by Firth we relate to Lax on an endearing level and even an admirable one in that among all of the hoopla and mass hysteria surrounding this case he was able to see what so many others were blind to because of the shocking nature of the crime and the gut-reaction of needing to blame someone. He was able to look into the future and see how this could affect our society in the long run and the fact I am even still writing about it twenty years later shows that he was right, that this wasn't something you turn your head at and say, "oh, well," but instead that it truly defined the judicial system in our country and undermined the whole ideology that justice should be honorable and that what was happening and going to happen to these three boys was not remotely justified or by any means honorable. These frustrating feelings, themes and tension are all brought to somewhat fresh light by the impressive ensemble Egoyan has assembled. In the smallest of roles you have actors who are worthy of so much more, case in point being Amy Ryan who is literally in one scene as Ron's ex-wife while others featured are Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer and Bruce Greenwood among other well-known character actors and familiar faces.
Beyond all of this though, what “Devil’s Knot” really brings to the table beyond the inherent drama of being present in those small moments due to its fictionalized nature is the prospect of allowing more focus to be spent on the victims and the families of the victims which, if you've seen “West of Memphis,” might make for an all the more interesting film. The downfall of the film is that it tries to do too much and in doing so takes the sole focus off of the more interesting parts of the story surrounding the night that Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore disappeared. For the first half or so of the film we focus solely on Witherspoon's Pam (though we get intermittent introductions and updates to Firth's character and why it was important to see him bid on a piece of furniture for $21,000 still escapes me) and how she is married to somewhat of a creeper named Terry (Alessandro Nivola) who winks oddly at his step-daughter when he gets home from work and refers to Stevie as "the boy" rather than by his name when he inquires about his location to Pam. Even these slight details that Egoyan and his actors incorporate into the film breathe a certain air of intrigue around this story we thought we knew so well and yet when Terry picks Pam up from her shift as a waitress the night her son disappeared and he doesn't seem frantic and the fact he didn't come pick her up earlier to help him look because he was really getting worried is paid no attention to and not dissected any further. The most recent example I can think of to compare source material and feature film incarnation to would be “Lincoln” where instead of attempting to tell a cradle to the grave story about Honest Abe, Spielberg took a specific time and set of events that occurred in the man’s service as President and highlighted them in a single feature and I think if that same kind of mentality might have been applied to the West Memphis Three case and in how Egoyan and his screenwriters Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson approached this picture knowing the history the case had with the media and it’s at least four documentaries than they might have come up with a more successful film with more reason to be seen and not dismissed so quickly. The fact that they didn't leaves us with a film that is solid in seemingly every aspect, yet leaves you yearning for something more, a deeper connection to these people you feel you know and the tragedy they are still dealing with.
by Philip Price
“Neighbors” feels natural. For all its contrived plot set-ups that for no seemingly apparent reason allow a large, stereotypical fraternity to move off campus and into a typical suburban neighborhood where children play and senior citizens work in their gardens, it still feels completely natural. There is honesty, an authenticity to the way in which the characters interact with one another and go about developing relationships with those around them and their changing worlds that make what is essentially an extended investigation into a premise rather than a full-fledged story work as well as it does. I'm a lover of comedy, whether that springs from a longing to not let go of adolescence (a theme explored in Neighbors) or simply because I've always felt a more inherently deep connection with those that make you laugh rather than those that deliver strong drama I am always excited to see what people (actors, directors, writers) have to offer in the comedic genre and while this genre will no doubt always be the most subjective it has retained somewhat of a reliability factor due to the specific groups of actors working within it over the past decade or so now. There were a few years between 2008's Pineapple Express and last summer’s This Is The End where it seemed Seth Rogen had seen his career pinnacle come and go, that he'd had his good run in Knocked Up, Superbad and Express while his next few broad efforts (Zack and Miri, Observe and Report, Funny People) were all somewhat underwhelming either critically or commercially which only caused him to reassess and go in a different direction, some of which worked (50/50) and some of which didn't (The Green Hornet). With his resurgence not only as a comedic actor, but as the writer and director of last year’s summer hit he has seemed to hit a comfortable stride that has allowed him to surround himself with the right people (new and old friends) and to make the kind of strong, raunchy comedies he was always meant to while continuously diversifying the types of stories he is telling and the kind of comedy he is conveying. I may be getting a little ahead of myself as this is his first effort since This is The End, but that is how confident I feel about Neighbors.
The aforementioned premise of the film is quite simple: A relatively young couple (they're going for early thirties) which includes Mac (Rogen) his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) and their new born baby Stella (twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) come to face unexpected difficulties after they are forced to live next to a fraternity house. That fraternity house belongs to Delta Psi and its leader Teddy (Zac Efron) is something "a gay guy designed in a laboratory" according to Rogen's Mac. He along with his vice president Pete (Dave Franco) and the rest of their brothers including Scoonie (an underused Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Garf (a hilarious Jerrod Carmichael who has no less than four great comedic moments) as well as pledges such as Assjuice (Craig Roberts who you may recognize as the lead from Submarine) have been moved off campus for burning their last house to the ground with fireworks. There is no explanation as to why the university might think this out-of-control band of partying pre-adults might survive better further away from their supervision, but the dean of the college (Lisa Kudrow) seems to care little about actualities and more about what headline certain events may relay into the next day. From the beginning Mac and Kelly are keen on not being the uncool, older neighbors who spoil all of these kids fun, but they still want the guys to keep it down; they have a baby after all and Mac has a nine to five desk job that he doesn't seem to particularly like, but it has paid for their new house and Kelly is able to stay at home with Stella so he does what he can to make it bearable despite his boss (Brian Huskey) wanting to be his best friend. Despite their attempts to play it cool though, and even after a night of partying and bonding with the frat, Mac and Kelly aren't able to handle the noise every night that keeps them and Stella awake through to the wee hours. This results in an all-out war between the Radner's and Delta Psi and they attempt to one up the other in hopes of driving each other from the neighborhood. There is seriously no bigger end-game than for the Radner's to have peace and quiet and for the frat to have their fun, though there is the slight goal of trying to earn their place on a legendary Delta Psi wall that Teddy really takes to heart, but besides that we are here to sit back and watch the shenanigans ensue.
Some may find this lack of narrative drive a little distressing or uninteresting, but the resulting film is anything but as both Rogen and especially Efron spearhead this thing as if they were actually fighting a war; rallying their troops, building enthusiasm and team spirit, strategizing plots to infiltrate and disrupt the circles of trust and beyond. It is an all-out comedic battle of how far either side is willing to go and fortunately for us, both sides are willing to go to pretty great lengths to both prove themselves and entertain us. It is also interesting to note the slight social commentary the film has at its core despite no signs of heavy-handedness anywhere near the feature. Where films such as last year’s Spring Breakers and Pain & Gain look at the excess of youth and the abandon of responsibility to obtain the ideology of organized fun and comeradery Neighbors addresses these issues in the essence of Efron’s Teddy. Things are kept consistently light-hearted, but the film ultimately touches on a nerve of today’s social climate where the claims you make and the reputation you build is equal to what defines you rather than the work you put in and the talent you have. Teddy is a good-looking, likable guy who has the charisma to become friends with anyone willing to hang out and create a conversation with him, but who has little ambition beyond giving his peers the best time possible and making the college experience exactly that: an experience. He isn’t looking towards the future, he doesn’t see the importance in going to class or the rush to grow up, but he’s been doing the same schtick for four years now and it’s finally starting to catch up with him. He sees Pete going to job fairs and Mac and Kelly navigating an adult relationship and though he likes to call them old he knows he isn’t far off from where they are. As Teddy, Efron is on fire. His intensity and charisma is through the roof and his sense of comic timing as far as delivering the cocky sarcasm he relies on and the physical comedy aspects that rely on his ridiculous lack of body fat are consistent in their sting. Rogen also does some interesting things here as he is essentially documenting his break with the man-child persona he has employed for a fair amount of time now. He is technically a grown-up as he has the wife, the kid, the house, the whole nine yards, but is desperate to remain the cool guy at the party though he is having a more difficult than anticipated time deciding which party he actually wants to stay at.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek) this is a comedy of break-neck speed and an inhibitions to the wind mentality as it doesn’t dwell on the themes it may or may not elicit in its simple story and it doesn’t feel the need to overindulge in its characters or its comedy as it runs a mere 96 minutes which is basically nothing when compared to the kind of insightful comedy that Apatow raised Rogen and his pals on. Speaking of pals, it is in these small supporting bits that the film finds much of its inspirations, as much if not more so than some of the grade-A gags it puts in place that I won’t spoil here. The most notable is Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, MADtv) who plays Mac’s co-worker and good friend who likes to believe he is even younger than what Rogen is stretching for, but has already lived enough to the point he’s divorced. I initially didn’t expect Barinholtz’s Jimmy to factor in much, but when combined with the complication of Mac and Kelly choosing to hang out with either him or his ex-wife Paula (Apatow regular Carla Gallo) and the dynamics this allows on top of how they figure into the revenge plot against Delta Psi I couldn’t help but be psyched his brand of humor was a larger part of the film. I haven’t seen him in anything prior, but immensely enjoyed his contributions here (the scene in which he does a few impressions will get some of the biggest laughs in the theater). Speaking of brands of humor we must touch on the fact that Stoller and Rogen recruited Hannibal Buress to play the running joke that is Officer Watkins and he stays consistent with his stand-up persona by not trying to be the funniest guy in the room, but simply delivering his dialogue as he sees fit to talk to the person in front of him and the placid tone kills it every time. Looking closely you’ll see Natasha Leggero, Randall Park and Jason Mantzoukas all pop up which is just another reason I love comedies because I love knowing all of these funny people hang out together and appreciate one another enough to lend them some work while one sequence in particular features a roster of more popular troupes and one glorious Nick Miller cameo that will have you rolling from the creativity alone never mind the funny, recognizable faces they have participating in it. All of this is to say that Neighbors is basically a blast and though it never reaches the peak of comic greatness it is a more than solid farce that delivers exactly what you’d expect and an Efron/Rogen dynamic that elevates it that much further.