Film: Roars and Whimpers

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It’s only mid-May, but at the multiplex it already feels like we’re in the middle of the ever-growing, seemingly endless summer movie season that kicked off in underwhelming fashion with Spidey Whiney, somewhat improved with Rogen and Efron Go Topless and, I was hoping, would come roaring back to life with the release of Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards’ ambitious update of the iconic oversize reptilian creature of yesteryear.

I’m not going to mince words: This Warner Bros. monster mash, one of three new movies I’m reviewing on this oversaturated weekend at the movies, is a monster-sized letdown. An impeccably crafted snoozefest. The work of a gifted filmmaker conspicuously in over his head. And he drags down an overqualified A-list cast with him. Were it not for the film’s foreboding, genuinely unsettling imagery, enhanced by composer Alexandre Desplat’s Herrmann-esque score, this would be a truly sorry spectacle.

During its first hour, the film appears to be stuck in exposition mode, as if we were climbing a steep roller coaster with no drop in sight. We begin with a helicopter ride, in a majestic aerial shot that pays homage to Jurassic Park without coming across like a rip-off. Scientists Ishiro Serizawa (a wooden Ken Watanabe), and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) arrive at a dig in the Philippines to discover a mammoth skeleton … along with some sort of gestating egg. Details are fuzzy in Max Borenstein’s screenplay, the better to keep holding that carrot just out of the viewers’ grasp. It’s a tactic that paid off for Edwards in Monsters, his low-budget, alien-creatures-south-of-the-border thriller, but here it all amounts to unnecessary buildup that makes the film feel longer than its 2-hour running time.

Have patience, Edwards appears to be telling us. In order to get to the good stuff, I want you to care for the people in my family drama I weaved into the story. No, not the stiff scientists you saw at the beginning. These other stiff scientists: American nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, capably picking up a paycheck) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche – yes, really). (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.) In the late 1990s, they both work at the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, until one day something unexplained makes the facility go kablooey, tearing a loving household asunder. On paper, this feels like the ideal approach to update Godzilla to a more sophisticated, 21st Century audience: humans before spectacle. It’s a noble attempt that, regrettably, goes belly up when we realize just how dull and thinly conceived these characters are.

And so Godzilla lurches along, asking us to identify with Brody’s son, U.S. Navy Lt. Ford Brody (Kick-Ass‘ Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) in the present day, as they confront a global threat that the elder Brody, reduced to a crackpot conspiracy theorist with Psych 101 baggage, never stopped trying to unearth. Edwards keeps serving us dysfunctional domestic malaise, whereas we want to see monsters, dammit! You can almost hear Edwards caving. “Oh, OK, I guess I better get to the Godzilla part of Godzilla,” he seems to utter at the halfway point.

Better late than never? It would have been … had Edwards not opted to continue playing coy. It might be called Godzilla, but a more accurate title for this feature-length tease would have been Peek-a-Boo Kaiju. After an interminable setup, Edwards finally introduces two mammoth creepy crawlies (they look like mutated cockroaches) and the titular king-size prehistoric iguana … and then proceeds to cut away every time he gives us a few seconds’ taste of his brand of passive aggressive mayhem. It’s not until the last 20 minutes that we finally get to witness an extended, unfiltered smackdown, one that not only tips its hat at Toho’s creature gallery, but includes an unmistakable move right out of the original King Kong. It’s clear Edwards has his heart in the right place, and some shots showing humans as tiny figures dwarfed by these beings’ massive scale are breathtaking. The film’s deliberate absence of villains is also laudable, but it also lays bare how Edwards and his team have wasted this stellar cast, Binoche and Olsen especially. Cranston gives it his all, but he’s swimming against a mighty current of uninspired storytelling. Reviewing Alien 3, the great Bill Cosford had this to say about David Fincher’s debut feature: “It captures the night, but not the nightmare.” (And he actually liked that film.) That statement seems to fit this Godzilla to a T(-Rex).

MillionDollarArm_1Considerably more entertaining but also more problematic than Edwards’ creature feature, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm needs to be taken on its own cornball terms or not at all. The film is a whitewash of a true story that could have benefited from a non-Mouse House approach. Less The Rookie (which I really dug) than Cool Runnings, the tale of J.B. Bernstein (a husky-voiced, shrewdly cast Jon Hamm), a struggling L.A. sports agent who travels to India to recruit cricket players to become baseball pitchers in the States circa 2008, shares Runnings‘ penchant for depicting its athletes as exotic types often relegated to comic-relief status. It’s virtually impossible to draw a distinction between J.B.’s fish-out-of-water bewilderment and the filmmakers’ broadly drawn portrayal of India.

Whenever director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) is not trying to ape Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire – the results hew closer to Travel Channel programming than that Oscar-winning film, even though they even hired Slumdog composer A. R. Rahman – he spins a sporadically engaging underdog yarn that’s more effective than it has any right to be, thanks in large part to a sturdy supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma and the lovely Lake Bell. Within the stifling confines of a live-action Disney romantic interest, Bell, nicely playing J.B.’s lodger, asserts her character’s independence with charisma and poise. She’s a career girl with a healthy sex life, and when it comes to wooing the object of her affection, has no qualms about making the first move. She belongs in a movie that knows what to do with her. (Been there, done that: She wrote, directed and starred in the indie screwball comedy In a World…)

Locke_3Opening against these two high-profile studio releases in South Florida on May 16, here’s hoping Locke doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. In this U.S./UK co-production, Tom Hardy – aka Christopher Nolan’s Bane – plays a Birmingham, England-based construction foreman about to embark on the most challenging night of his life … from inside his BMW SUV. Ivan Locke is driving to London to be there for an emotionally unstable former workmate going through a crisis in which, he eventually discover, he played a crucial role. Here’s the problem: He has chosen to walk away from the biggest project of his career, and his superiors on both sides of the pond are none too happy about his decision to go AWOL. Meanwhile, he’d promised his family he’d be home to watch a soccer match with his two boys. It’s safe to say Daddy’s not coming home.

Locke unfolds entirely during that tension-filled ride, which means it lives or dies by its leading man’s magnetism. It’s a high-wire act Hardy pulls off with an assured command of the screen. Shooting his leading man from various angles, writer-director Steven Knight makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, using the merciless onslaught of phone calls Mr. Locke receives to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. That’s not to say everything works in Locke. Knight, for instance, inserts conversations the main character is having with his long-deceased father – cue the cut to an empty backseat – to illustrate the demons he’s fighting, but the tactic feels irrevocably contrived. Ironically, the phone conversations Locke has with his work colleagues are far more riveting than his personal calls, though Hardy’s commitment to the role is never less than inspiring. The actor’s lilting baritone is enough to elevate the most moribund narrative – though not even he could have saved Godzilla – and it’s more than enough to make Locke a journey well worth taking.

About Ruben Rosario

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