The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “New On The Shelf”

New On The Shelf – Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a 2015 science fiction film directed by Alex Garland, known for his success as a screenwriter on films such as 28 Days Later and Dredd. It stars Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander in the lead roles, with a limited supporting cast. Caleb Smith (Gleeson) wins a week-long vacation away from his job as a programmer for Bluebook, a futuristic social networking company. He becomes one of the few people to met the creator the company, Nathan Bateman (Isaac), a brilliant but volatile hermit who is intent on creating functioning artificial intelligence. To test his latest attempt, “Ava” (Vikander), Nathan recruits Caleb into administering the Alan Turing test to see if Ava can pass as a human being.

Caleb and Nathan

During Caleb’s stay, he realizes two very important things: Ava is much more human than he thought possible, seemingly developing romantic feelings for him during their talks. And Nathan, though friendly on the surface, is less than stable. The later causes him to question if his days on vacation will be his last, and he hatches a plan to free Ava and himself from Nathan’s control.

Ex Machina is essentially a small “art” film, with limited sets, a very small cast, and relying primarily on dialogue to drive its narrative. However, the film’s special effects budget paid off in spades: Eva’s body, a mix of humanoid skin (the real actress) and a metal, robotic form created by CGI, is a masterpiece of visual effects. I never once questioned whether she was really, physically there, and that’s the best praise I can give to any character presented through special effects. I certainly hope that Ex Machina gets some recognition for its excellence in this category. And of course, considerable credit goes to Vikander for being so convincing as a robot who is learning to feel and make her own decisions.

Ava

Of course, if Ex Machina was simply a special effects showcase, I would not be talking about it on this blog. The film has been met with generally favorable reviews, with many audiences finding it to be a fresh film in today’s climate where truly good science fiction is something of a rarity. If I’m completely honest, I found the hype around this film to be a little too strong for what is, essentially, a very good movie that does not cover any new ground. If you have seen one movie about artificial intelligence, then you almost certainly know how this one plays out. Ex Machina fails to buck the trend of A.I. movies by showing that it is dangerous to create something as smart as ourselves, playing “God” so to speak, which I find to be the most disappointing aspect about the movie.

However, aside from that criticism, I don’t have much to complain about. After all, something that is truly new in this day and age is almost impossible to find. It isn’t the themes a movie has that make it good; it is how effective the film is at entertaining the audience while challenging them to think critically. And in that category, this movie soars. Caleb and Nathan have many interesting conversations about how Ava was created, whether she is sentient and deserves to be treated with the same rights as a human, and the like. Gleeson and Isaac are very talented actors and their scenes work well together. Ava also has completely different dynamics with Caleb and Nathan, meaning that any combination of the two on screen feels different enough that the relationships feel real and stick with us.

'Ex Machina' star, director discuss their thoughtful film

If Ex Machina taught me anything, it’s that a smartly written film can cover the same basic themes while never seeming boring. There is nothing I got out of this film that I couldn’t have gotten from say, Blade Runner, but it is the presentation of the story, the entertaining and sharp dialogue, the nail-biting tension of several scenes, and the performances of the actors that give this movie its own unique identity. If you are a fan of the science fiction drama and want to revisit the worthwhile questions that artificial intelligence poses to us, I strongly recommend seeing Ex Machina. It is a standout in a crowded field of good movies to come out this year, and one that is worth going out of your way to watch.

New On The Shelf – Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a 2014 psychological crime thriller directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. The films screenplay is written by Gillian Flynn, adapted from her novel of the same name. The movie revolves around a missing persons case that starts when Nick Dunne (Affleck) finds that his wife Amy (Pike) has gone missing from his house in what appears to be a violent kidnapping or possible murder. The film alternates between following Nick’s cooperation with the police as they conduct their investigation, and flashback sequences told through Amy’s diary about the couple’s somewhat troubled history.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl is an excellent suspenseful human drama, perhaps not at its best, but certainly very close. Even though it clocks in at just around two and a half hours, I think most people will find it incredibly engaging. The plot is full of twists and turns and keeps the audience second-guessing at every turn. We are lead to believe quite a few things and it is difficult to tell what is really going on, but it is certainly a captivating story about the dark side of love and marriage. This does make it arguably the worst movie to watch on a first date. Or any date. Unless you are a mature adult in a healthy relationship where a movie isn’t going to make you think your spouse may be planning to kill you.

Gillian Flynn’s story and her script are definitely highlights of the film, but this is a case where a really good story has the right director to tell it. David Fincher is extremely talented and this movie is a perfect example of that. The color palette, the editing, and the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are all used to help create tension. Fincher is also unafraid to push the envelope with the crazy stuff we see in this movie, allowing scenes to truly rattle us. it’s another worthy edition in a distinguished filmography hat includes Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999), and The Social Network (2010). And I daresay that even with the same story and script, this movie probably wouldn’t have been as good in the hands of most other directors. They are a perfect match for each other.

Pike

With a great story and a great creative team, the only thing that could have been this movie’s downfall is the acting. Fortunately, that may be the best thing in the movie. Ben Affleck gives what may be a career best as an actor. He’s perfectly cast as an “every man” who is clumsily making mistakes, and really sells the anger that the situation makes him feel. I think my favorite scenes with Nick are whenever he addresses the media; seeing him start as a timid, awkward victim to the more confident speaker he becomes is a real treat and proof that Ben is a better actor than a lot of people give him credit for.

Rosamund Pike gives an extremely charismatic performance as Amy Elliot-Dunne. She impressively excels in the role of a narrator, which is not something that’s easy to do. She lures the viewer in to make us connect with her and hope that she is safe, and… well, I won’t spoil anything. Those who have seen the movie know just how good she is. Since I don’t want to get to into detail about Pike’s performance, I also want to recognize the work of of Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris and especially Tyler Perry. This is genuinely the only time where I found myself that there was more of Tyler Perry on my screen; his character is fantastic and provides some much needed comedic relief in a movie that gets very dark and unpleasant.

Lawyer

Gone Girl was one of favorite movies of 2014, hitting pretty much every note that I want in a pure drama film. Everything in this movie is well done, and I especially respect that Gillian Flynn was allowed the chance to adapt her book into a screenplay. Movies have been adapted from books for well over a century now, but it isn’t all that often that an author gets to be so in charge of the process. Flynn has proved that she has a lot of talent as a screenwriter and I hope that she continues to contribute in the future. Affleck gives one of his career best performances, Rosamund Pike genuinely breaks through as a star to watch out for, and David Fincher continues to prove how good of a director he is. If you haven’t gotten around to giving this movie a watch, I definitely recommend checking it out.

New On The Shelf – Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is a 2014 CGI-animated superhero film directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. It is the 54th film in the Disney Animated Canon and is very loosely inspired by the Marvel Comics series of the same name. The film tells the story of Hiro Hamada, a young scientific genius with a talent for building fighting robots, his interactions with his older brother Tadashi, Tadashi’s university friends, and a healthcare companion robot Tadashi designed named Baymax. Without giving any explicit spoilers away, Hiro eventually finds himself working alongside Baymax to stop a man in a Kabuki mask who is cooking up a nefarious plan that could hurt the citizens of San Fransokyo.

Yeah, that’s the name of the city. We’ve all got to live with it. Fortunately, the movie is about equally as good as that name is terrible. It is another hit in Disney’s recent list of successes such as Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen.

Big Hero 6

The focus of the film is on the relationship between Hiro and Baymax, and they are the characters I want to talk about most. However, I will take a moment to say that most of the supporting characters work for me. The heroes have enough personality to not be forgettable and the villain has a good enough backstory to give him some layers. I would have liked to have seen them develop these characters a little bit more, but for their roles they are good. I also appreciate that if one looks up the Marvel characters that Honey Lemon, GoGo, Wasabi and even Fred are based on, it is easy enough to see how they inspired their film counterparts. Tadashi is also a good addition to the story and the bond between Hiro and Tadashi feels real and natural, which isn’t as easy to accomplish as some might think.

Hiro is one of the more lead characters in a Disney film in quite some time, for me at least. Part of that is because Disney leads are usually young women, and most male leads tend to be a little older. The last young male lead in a Disney film was Jim Hawkins in 2002’s Treasure Planet, so this is really Disney Animation’s first go at this type of character in a generation. So do they pull it off? Pretty well in my opinion. Even though he’s absurdly intelligent, Hiro still comes across as a believable thirteen year old kid. I especially enjoy how utterly flawed he is as a human being. Frozen had two girls with communication issues and Wreck-It Ralph had a misunderstood but nice enough guy in the video game “villain” Ralph.

But Hiro is a brat. And that’s glorious.

BIG HERO 6

When I say he’s a brat, I mean this as a compliment to the writers. Hiro is stubborn and full of himself, he can be very moody, doesn’t listen very well, and often rushes into things without thinking of the consequences. All of this just makes him feel like a real teenager, and I think that kids will have an easy time relating to him. I enjoy that Disney was willing to present a character that has definite flaws but still has plenty of heart, brains and mental toughness that we can enjoy him and root for him. I’d like to see more of their characters presented this way; the more flaws a character has, the more human the character feels and the easier it is for an audience to relate to said character.

That said, the film is absolutely stolen by Baymax. The robot is one of my favorite characters from any movie in 2014 and managed to steal the crown of “most lovable” from Groot. It’s close, but Baymax wins. I want a Baymax. He may actually be Disney’s best supporting character since The Genie, and indeed, the relationship between Genie and Aladdin may be the best comparison for how Hiro and Baymax play off of each other. Hiro has serious problems that he has to address and Baymax is the only thing around with enough patience and empathy to really get to him and help him. He’s also insanely funny without trying to be. There is a lot of physical comedy that is mined from Baymax’s status as an enormous balloon.

Flying

Overall, Big Hero 6 is a movie I would grade as a B+. The main focus of the movie works very well, but the overall plot sometimes falters and the characters other than Hiro and Baymax, while colorful, are underwhelming. I personally preferred Disney’s last two efforts, but taking a small dip in quality here is much better than say, the bomb that Pocahontas was after the smashing successes of Aladdin and The Lion King. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a “good” movie; plenty of movies don’t even make it to that level. Kids will love it, and adults, especially parents with teenagers, will probably find plenty to like as well.

New On The Shelf – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a 2015 action-comedy film based on the series of comic books The Secret Service by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar. It is directed by Matthew Vaughn and stars Taron Egerton as Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, with Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson and Mark Hamill in supporting roles. The film is both a love letter to old James Bond films and a parody of them; the tone of the film is generally over-the-top and comical, thought it does have a few moments with some effective pathos. But mostly it’s just a fun time at the movies; violent, crass, utterly ridiculous, but mostly just fun.

kingsman

The bulk of Kingman’s plot centers on the recruitment and training of Eggsy by Harry Hart (Firth), a secret agent who goes by the name of “Galahad” in the secret service known as Kingsman. Eggsy is the son of a former Kingsman who was killed on a mission with Hart, shown at the beginning of the film. In the modern day, he is little more than a street punk who is unlikely to go anywhere except for jail (or the morgue) until he calls in a favor from Kingsman as a tribute for his father’s death. After some convincing, Hart convinces him to try his hand at becoming a member of the Kingsman. He is one of several hopefuls that will be replacing Lancelot, an agent who was recently killed in action.

While Eggsy does his training, Galahad picks up where Lancelot left off, following a trail that leads to philanthropist Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Valentine believes that humans are killing the planet and is looking to build more moral and financial support for a plan that will be extremely harmful to the human race, but hopefully save the planet. With a trademark lisp and a hatred of blood and gore, Valentine is a quirky megalomaniac villain who definitely feels at home in a movie that spoofs so many tropes from spy movies. He also has a female bodyguard named Gazelle whose feet have been replaced by springboard razor blades. In case you hadn’t picked up on the tone of this movie yet.

Valentine and Gazelle

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a movie that I would consider more “good” than “great”, and there’s nothing wrong simply being a good movie. For me, the good far outweighs the bad; there is a lot of good acting here, the action is well shot and memorable, the film’s humor works more often than not, it has some moments with legitimate tension and emotion. The mentor-student relationship between Harry and Eggsy is one of the better takes on this trope I’ve seen in a while; they have good on-screen chemistry and I found it easy to get emotionally invested in that bond. Colin Firth is an actor I have a great deal of respect for, and it was cool to see him thrive in the role of an action star, something he was definitely unproven in.

Eggsy is a very good archetypal character, someone who is living in a bad situation where nothing seems to go right for him; he’s got a lot of edge to him but it’s also obvious that he cares about his mother and his friends. That loyalty, his willingness to fight, and a desire to achieve greatness makes him a hero that is capable of growing; he feels like a completely different character at the start and ending of this film, but not unnaturally so. Taron Egerton is definitely an actor I’ll be keeping an eye on from now on. Similarly, Sophie Cookson was highly entertaining as Roxy Morton, Eggsy’s friend and primary competition for the role of the new Lancelot. I want to see more of her.

Recruits

Something I do want to address, while being careful not to spoil, is a joke at the end that has generated some controversy among viewers. Being a tribute to and parody of James Bond films, it’s no surprise that sexual conquest is brought up in the movie. Women always threw themselves at Bond, and something similar happens in this film. My view on it is this; people who are offended by a crass joke after two hours of over the top violence and warped humor clearly are in the wrong movie. Secondly, compare the way the male and female characters act in this film compared to how James Bond interacts with say, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger and try to tell me with a straight face that Kingsman’s joke is more sexist.

There’s also a brilliant subversion of “gentleman spy seduces a woman” earlier in the film, and Roxy herself is a character that is never treated as anything less than equal to her peers. I can’t recall a single camera shot that treated her as sexual object, and that’s a good thing.

Overall, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a fun and solid bit of escapism that I would recommend to fans of the spy genre, fans of good action, and those who enjoy campy and over the top humor. It’s not a movie for everyone, but I think the target audience will find a lot to enjoy.

New On The Shelf – Whiplash

Whiplash is a 2014 drama film telling the story of an exceptionally driven drummer named Andrew Neiman, studying at the prestigious jazz school Schafer Conservatory. His drumming skills attract the attention of Terrence Fletcher, the conductor for Schafer’s competitive studio band, and Neiman is added as the alternate drummer. While it is definitely an opportunity for Neiman, it soon turns into a nightmare as Fletcher is the most abusive monsters to ever take a teaching job.

The movie is directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to great critical acclaim and rode the momentum of good buzz all the way to five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Though it failed to secure that award or Best Adapted Screenplay, it was recognized for its editing and sound mixing. J.K. Simmons was the heavy favorite to win Best Supporting Actor and was able to win.

Whiplash

Terrence Fletcher may be role that J.K. Simmons was always meant to play; the character actor was probably best known for his portrayal as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy where he stole the show in every scene he was in. But here he brings his charisma to a meatier role with more of a spotlight, and creates perhaps the most despicable villain to grace the cinema in 2014. He doesn’t have super powers or a desire to take over the world like the bad guys in blockbuster films, but he has absolute control of his little kingdom and rules over his students as an abusive tyrant. It really is hard to put into words just how vicious and brutal Simmons is in this role; his verbal and physical abuse is so well done that many viewers walked away from the film feeling a certain degree of trauma. While that probably isn’t the most positive memory one might want to have associated with their film, it is a tribute to just how effective Simmons is as Fletcher.

While Simmons’ performance has deservedly gotten most of the hype, Whiplash is not a solo performance, but a duet. Miles Teller is a young actor who hasn’t done many roles that were on my radar; his most notable film besides this one is probably the commercially successful Divergent movie. But with this performance Teller has gotten himself on my radar as a talent to watch. Andy is a character that at first seems relatively normal and likable, but as the pressure from Fletcher and his own desire to excel mount, he shows an ability to explode just as loudly as Fletcher. He’s got moments of arrogance and blunt cruelty that smartly make him more than just a hapless victim.

Drums

I have read some reviews that criticize the film’s attitude toward music or art in general. Fletcher in particular makes a comment saying that the worst thing anybody can tell a musician is “Good job.”. Why people act like the movie is trying to offend their sensibilities is beyond me; Fletcher is clearly the villain and while he might make an interesting point or two, everything he says has to be approached from that lens. He’s the bad guy; he’s supposed to say things that aren’t true or healthy. I have also seen some criticism towards the actual quality of the music, which I have to admit isn’t my area of expertise. This is a blog about comic books, professional wrestling and movies; I never claimed to know good music when I hear it.

What I do know is that Whiplash is an excellent drama with two phenomenal characters, played by actors who are clearly sinking their teeth into the role and riffing off each other’s performances. Teller and Simmons are able to tell so much of what their characters are going through with their body language and their eye movement that it was impossible for me not to be captivated by them. Another thing I greatly appreciate about the movie was that it didn’t overstay its welcome; at just 106 minutes it feels refreshingly quick and devoid of pointless filler. I saw this movie in the same week that I saw Christopher Nolan’s three-hour Interstellar and I can’t express how thankful I was for tight editing after that. The movie’s pacing is perfect, almost as relentless as an action film, and builds to a brilliantly executed climax. The final scene is deeply satisfying and may actually be worthy of the cliched “you will cheer” comment you’ve probably seen on bad movie reviews.

Fletcher

Whiplash was one of the best films of 2014 and I don’t have anything but praise for it. However, I cannot give it a universal recommendation. If you are somebody who has suffered through verbal, physical or emotional abuse, think very carefully before seeing this film. Simmons won an Oscar for playing one of the cruelest, most sadistic characters I’ve ever seen, and that isn’t the easiest thing to sit through. With that caveat out of the way, Whiplash is definitely a film I recommend to fans of great acting and really good movies.

New On The Shelf – The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is a 2014 historical thriller and biopic of Alan Turing, the inventor of what would eventually become our modern computers and one of the most unsung heroes of World War II. Directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, the film’s primary focus is on Turing and other cryptanalysts working to decode the Nazi’s “Enigma Code”. While most of them pursue more traditional means of decryption, Turing creates a spectacular machine that will be able to calculate and decipher the code faster than any human could ever hope to.

The movie also recounts Turing’s personal history, from his childhood with few friends to his life as a persecuted gay man in a time when simply being homosexual was considered illegal in the United Kingdom. Turing is a man of startling intellect but considerable social awkwardness, as well as obsessive compulsive tendencies. As a viewer with Asberger’s Syndrome, I found myself deeply relating to Alan’s personality quirks and that personal connection has helped to make The Imitation Game one of my favorite films of 2014.

Doomed Couple

The best way I can describe The Imitation Game is “nothing you haven’t seen before, but it is exceptional well done.” I mean that more in the movie sense; it is a historical biopic thriller and they all have a certain degree of sameness to them. Fortunately, Turing’s life and his accomplishments are fascinating and tragically unappreciated. His work helped save the lives of millions and shorten World War II, yet had to be kept a secret until very recently. Instead of being celebrated as the hero he was, his country rewarded his existence by chemically castrating him simply because he preferred men. And while nobody can ever undo that injustice, this movie at least brings attention and honor to a remarkable and important man that history books have forgotten until recently.

Another reason for the film’s quality is the spectacular acting of Benedict Cumberbatch, who has already put together an impressive resume of impressive roles. But it is in this film that he gives his best performance to date. I have heard some refer to it as simply an exaggerated version of his take on Sherlock Holmes in the BBC crime thriller series Sherlock. I personally find this opinion insulting at worst but simply uninformed at best. The character of Sherlock and this adaptation of Turing’s life have very little in common outside of their brilliance; Sherlock is a borderline sociopath and narcissist. Turing is simply socially unaware and insecure. Benedict’s performance as Turing brings raw vulnerability but also unflinching brilliance to Turing’s personality; whatever Turing is saying, Benedict is able to completely sell the sincerity of it.

Broken

Benedict’s performance is the standout of the film to be sure, but most of the other actors turn in good work as well. Perhaps most surprising is Kiera Knightley, an actress who has shown flashes of talent in other roles but seems to elevate her game for this movie. I’ve never seen her so consistently good as she was in this and I hope it is a sign of things to come. Her character is tasked with delivering some of the most important and inspiring lines in the film, words that could have easily become cheesy and insincere if delivered poorly.

The Imitation Game is a movie that succeeds on multiple fronts. Those who enjoy learning about history’s unsung heroes will definitely find much to love here, as will any fan of World War II films. But there is also a very human drama going on as well, and those who are looking for a movie with great actors portraying inspiring people are likely to walk away satisfied. For me, I was deeply affected by this film and even thinking about it still makes me tear up a bit. That is the mark of a movie that has done its job well.

Alan Turing (1912-1954). Artist: Anonymous

As a special aside, this post is dedicated to the memory of Alan Turing, in recognition of his brilliance and his heroism. If you have not heard the story of this remarkable man, I recommend starting with this film and then doing further research.

New On The Shelf – Nightcrawler

When I heard that there was going to be new movie in theaters called Nightcrawler, I got extremely excited. After all, what’s not to love about everyone’s favorite blue-furred, elf-eared, demon-tailed teleporting X-Man? I love that guy!

Kurt Wagner

Sadly, Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir crime thriller has nothing to do with mutants. Fortunately, it is one of the best movies of the year and one that I’m very glad that I went out of my way to see. The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a character that I believe will come to be revered as one of the greatest villain protagonists in film history as the movie gains more awareness. Louis is one of the more unsavory characters I can recall in recent film; he is a thief, a manipulator and con-man, and a murderer. Sociopathic and narcissistic, he is a character that is incredibly easy to dislike, but Jake’s performance and natural charisma also make it almost impossible to keep one’s eyes away from Bloom.

The film is set in Los Angeles and has one of the more original plots that I can recall. When Bloom is unable to scrape by with thieving and cannot secure an honest job, he is suddenly hit with a bolt of inspiration when he sees a freelance film crew documenting a car crash. Their intent is to sell the footage to the highest bidding local news channel; after all, violence and crime draw people’s attention and thus ratings. Realizing that he can strike a goldmine with this method of self-employment, Lou steals a bike and sells it for a camcorder, cons a desperate young man named Rick into becoming his assistant, and starts his career as a “stringer”, or as the movie indirectly titles him, a Nightcrawler.

Gyllenhaal

I think what sets this film apart from others is that it is unafraid to play against audiences expectations of morality. Generally, a protagonist is somebody who is essentially a good person; they may be rough around the edges but they have some line that they will not cross. Louis Bloom is the protagonist of this movie, but he is not a hero and not even an anti-hero. This is just a story about a horrible but captivating person who is willing to cross any line in order to be successful. That isn’t entirely new ground for a film, but I can’t think of many where a villain protagonist doesn’t endure any consequences whatsoever for his actions. Bloom is never arrested or killed and he doesn’t have anyone he cares about to lose; this is the story of his success. It’s just an ugly, reprehensible road to success.

The movie even cleverly uses swelling, triumphant music to manipulate the audience into rooting for Louis at his most vile moments. The film’s mood is established early on; it is clearly a neo-noir film that actually would probably be very effective if watched in black and white. Stylistically and narratively, it has most of the trademarks; only the femme fatale is missing because one of Lou’s defining characteristics is his own seductive nature. He’s able to coerce people into helping him and that just makes him all the more devilish. Watching Lou’s career as a stringer play out before us is not unlike the car crashes he is filming; horrible and tragic, but captivating in a morose way.

Camera

I do feel that Nghtcrawler is lacking in some critical areas though. As a character study, the main character is well defined and memorable, but most other characters are one dimensional and uninteresting, serving more like plot devices than actual people. It doesn’t ruin the film, but it is a noticeable flaw in the screenwriting and directing. Gilroy is a first time director and will likely improve in this category, but he should still be applauded for making a movie as good as Nightcrawler in his debut as a major director.

The one word that I would use to describe this film is “fresh”; it isn’t the best movie I have ever seen, but it feels new and different and is thus more engaging and thrilling than some other films that may be better put together. Gyllenhaal’s performance with the character is clearly the best thing in the film, and I feel that he was majorly snubbed by most award committees who should have at least nominated him. If you are in the mood for something different, or just want to see a great actor sink his teeth into a meaty role, Nightcrawler has you covered.

New On The Shelf – Godzilla (2014)

When Ishiro Honda was working on the groundbreaking 1953 monster film Gojira, I doubt that he ever considered that his prehistoric monster would become a worldwide pop culture icon. He was simply creating a movie that was a metaphor for the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as a lesser known incident involving the ship called Lucky Dragon 5. This was during a time when Japan was unable to directly criticize the bombings of World War II, so the destruction is caused by the enormous dinosaur with atomic breath that the world would come to know as “Godzilla”.

Gojira

While somewhat elementary by today’s standards, the costuming, puppetry and model effects used to create Godzilla and the damage he caused were revolutionary in the 1950’s; Gojira is perhaps the most important monster movie other than King Kong in terms of impact on the genre. It was a commercial success in Japan and made it to American shores as the heavily edited Godzilla; King of the Monsters, which helped to raise the stock of the monster. Over the next six decades, the Toho Company would produce twenty-eight Godzilla films. Hollywood also tried to adapt Godzilla for American audiences with the 1998 Godzilla movie by Roland Emmerich with less than stellar results.

Fortunately, this article is about the 2014 Godzilla movie directed by Gareth Edwards.

2014

This American reboot of the Godzilla franchise was one of my favorite movies of 2014, a movie that stayed remarkably close to the original interpretation of the monster while also playing to his status as a revered icon of cinema. While the titular monster is obviously the star attraction of the film, the majority of the film is told from the human perspective of Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Brody is a lieutenant in the Unites States Navy, returning home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young son, but is immediately pulled away from home to chase after his father Joe (Bryan Cranston) who has been arrested in Japan. Joe was a lead engineer at a nuclear plant in Janjira, Japan where his wife was killed in an accident, and he has spent his life trying to prove that it wasn’t just a mechanical failing.

Sure enough, Joe is correct; a prehistoric monster that feeds on nuclear energy caused the disaster at the plant, and now it is done feeding and wishes to mate with the female of its species. The Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) will converge in San Francisco and their children will spell doom for the human race. With these monsters roaming the earth again, their ancient predator resurfaces to hunt his prey. Unsurprisingly, that predator is Godzilla. While the military’s efforts to kill both the MUTOs and Godzilla fail to work, scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) has studied the creature for decades and believes that if he is allowed to hunt his prey, Godzilla will kill the beasts and then return to the ocean.

Humans

Godzilla is, in my opinion anyway, a good but not necessarily great movie. I have a lot of affection for it, but I can also see some of the flaws and I understand that very few people will enjoy it as much as I do. I appreciate that the film takes its source material seriously; the film understands that Godzilla is a metaphor for atomic weapons and knows that this shouldn’t be taken lightly. That can make the film a bit dry as there is rarely a moment of humor, but the bleak atmosphere and the world-ending stakes do make for a lot off tension. The human characters could have used some more fleshing out to make them stand out more as individuals (only Cranston’s character seems to have a defined personality), the film effectively portrays the disaster elements of the film and I think most viewers will want them to survive. That’s all I ask for in a monster movie really; as long as we aren’t wanting the monsters to kill the humans because they annoy us, then the movie is doing an effective job.

Aww

While the movie does pay ample respect to the tone of the original Gojira, it also deals well with the fact that sixty years have passed and Godzilla has as much of a legacy as a hero and defender of mankind as he does as a destructive monster. So Godzilla is not the antagonist monster in this film; those are the MUTOs, and they are suitably impressive without overshadowing Godzilla. I greatly appreciated the primitive nature of these beasts; they are not particularly intelligent and are are motivated by food and reproduction. There’s even a few moments where we can feel a bit of affection for the MUTOs while understanding that it is either them or the humans who will survive.

But let’s get down to what you really want to know about: Godzilla is absolutely magnificent in this film. The CGI creature actually looks like the Godzilla we know and love with some tweaks. He is mostly black, as the film pays tribute to the original film by using mostly shades of gray in the final scene, and he is a bit thicker and more like a dinosaur than previous incarnations. He is also by far the largest Godzilla to date. In fact, perhaps the only complaint anyone had about Godzilla in this movie is that there was not enough of him.

Roar

While I can understand this argument, I also understand Edwards’ “less is more” approach; Godzilla is teased but never overused for the bulk of the film. When he shows up, we aren’t bored by him, we are still in awe. The final battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs is an incredible spectacle, and all big moments such as Godzilla’s roars and his impossibly cool atomic breath are given suitable build up. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the final kill in this film is quite possibly the most impressive idea ever in a monster movie. The payoffs work remarkably well.

While this film did make me want more Godzilla, it is in a “Let’s have an even better sequel!” way and not in a “Man, that movie really suffered from not enough Godzilla,” way. If you are a fan of Godzilla or monster movies, I definitely recommend checking this one out.

New On The Shelf – Selma

Selma is a 2014 historical drama film documenting the protest marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other prominent civil rights leaders of the times. Directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., the film has received critical praise both for the entire film and for the performance of its leading star, with many award nominations thrown its way. Since this is a blog that tends to focus on things that I like, you can probably guess that my opinion doesn’t differ too far away from that.

Mostly.

Protest March

I believe the single strongest creative choice for this film was to not back it an autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Biopics that try to capture the entire life of a person can sometimes fall short, exchanging depth for breadth. Selma focuses on a single important event in the life of its main character and allows us to look into what is going on in Martin’s head at the time. While events like the CIA’s investigation into Martin’s life and the effects his life has on his family, all of the focus is on the protest marches. I really like this because I think MLK, Jr. would rather be remembered more for what his work helped to accomplish than for his winning personality.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t have one. David Oyelowo’s performance as the civil rights leader is easily the best thing about this movie. Oyelowo has said in interviews that he felt like God was pushing him to play the role, and that conviction is largely what sticks out about his performance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most gifted public speakers of the last century and having bits of his speeches to use in the script certainly helps, but if Oyelowo’s delivery wasn’t spot on it would have been hokey and a detriment to the film. When he is preaching it feels like preaching should feel; it is easy to believe what he is saying and to be moved by it. Oyelowo also does very well with some of the quieter scenes and says a lot with only his facial expressions. The fact that his performance was not recognized by the Academy Awards this season still baffles me.

Selma

Not all of the cast is able to hold up to David Oyelowo’s standard of excellence though. Actually, that’s a little too kind; most of the other actors are just there. Most are fine and functional, but when David isn’t on screen the film does seem to falter quite a bit. The only other performances I can distinctly recall are Tim Roth and Tom Wilkenson. Tim Roth is a treasure in my opinion, an actor who always elevates whatever he is in. Portraying a racist like George Wallace is not an easy role for anyone and I always have respect for people who are willing to sink their teeth into a role like that knowing that it could hurt their reputation to some viewers. I unfortunately remember Tom WIlkenson’s performance as Lyndon B. Johnson for negative reasons. Wilkenson is a fine actor and has had several roles that I have enjoyed, but this isn’t one of them.

While most characters other than Martin Luther King, Jr. are more functional than genuinely interesting, the film does succeed on other levels. It manages to avoid the traps that some of these types of films by not portraying its main character like a complete saint or trying to get too inspirational. It just feels raw and real and that’s infinitely more powerful than forced sentiment. One of the biggest reasons this mood is achieved is the score by Jason Moran, which allows the truly horrific moments in this film to resonate without distracting from the emotion of what is going on. On the other end of the music spectrum is “Glory”, a song by Common and John Legend that plays at the end credits which is absolutely spectacular and deserves all of the praise it can get.

King

Selma is a very good film that doesn’t quite reach greatness in the traditional film making sense. But it is an extremely important film, and is surprisingly the first theatrical film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as its focus, which is really sad to me. This is a movie that I believe deserves to be watched and will probably hold up several years from now. It is definitely recommended both for being a good movie and for covering a topic that deserves more attention.

New On The Shelf – Edge of Tomorrow

I am not a person with very many regrets, but one of them is not seeing Edge of Tomorrow in theaters. For some reason the critical buzz just wasn’t enough to convince me to watch it until months after it was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. Now that I have seen the movie I can pretty much guarantee it will always have a place on my shelf.

Edge of Tomorrow (which you may know for it’s tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat.”) is a 2014 science fiction action film directed by Doug Liman and adapted from the Japanese novel “All You Need Is Kill”. It stars Tom Cruise as “Major” William Cage and Emily Blunt as Sergeant Rita Rose Vrataski in what may be the most subversive gender roles ever put into a major action film. The plot revolves around an invasion of aliens called Mimics attacking Europe and the world army’s attempts to defeat them.

Edge of Tomorrow

The primary hook of the film is that Cage’s character is killed by one of the Mimic’s acidic blood, which has the impressive side effect of causing him to get caught in a time loop. Every time Cage dies, he wakes back up at the same point in time with all of the memories of what he’s experienced. Hence the tagline. Once he realizes what is happening and continuously experiences the same day, he attempts to use this knowledge to help defeat the Mimics although nobody will believe him until he runs into Rita, who has gone through the same experience but no longer is caught in her time loop. This plot device is used to great effect throughout the film, providing a lot of comedy and drama that makes it seem less like a gimmick and more like an essential storytelling tool.

For those who are expecting Tom Cruise to play the same invincible action hero that he has played for the bulk of his career, Edge of Tomorrow is an extremely pleasant surprise. William Cage is little more than a charismatic salesman, creating the ad campaign for the world army but avoiding the fighting himself. He is a coward when we first meet him and is thrown onto the battlefield as punishment for trying to avoid the war. It isn’t until he is caught in this time loop and realizes that death isn’t exactly the end for him that he starts to develop into a more familiar action hero archetype.

This is another benefit of the “Live. Die. Repeat,” gimmick. By the very nature of the time loop, Cage’s character is able to fail over and over and over. He suffers constantly and this allows us to have genuine sympathy for what he is experiencing and to get invested in his character growth. This somewhat unexpected focus on action as a vehicle for character development is largely what makes this such a refreshing watch. It stands out among other action films which, even if they have strong characters, rarely uses the action to help them grow.

Blunt

William Cage is a male protagonist who is virtually useless but becomes a hero through dogged determination forged from repeated failure. This is definitely a deviation from the norm, but it is emphasized even further by Emily Blunt’s character, the hardened and capable soldier that Tom Cruise would be playing in a lesser film. The makers of this film understand that such a character is cliche and uninteresting in the lead role and instead make use of it as a highly entertaining mentor. The fact that Sergeant Rita Rose Vrataski is a woman is never brought up; it’s just accepted that she is this awesome, dangerous character who is superior to William Cage and that he needs her help.

In short, Rita Rose is the knight in shining armor and William Cage is the damsel in distress. The fact that nobody in the film seems to make a big deal of the fact that she is the stronger, more capable character out of the two is a great example of how female action stars should be portrayed, and Emily Blunt gives a strong performance to compliment the importance of her role.

Live Die Repeat

Edge of Tomorrow was not a smash success at the box office but it has slowly gained a cult following because of it’s quality. It is not a film that was on my radar and I regret that. It is one of the most fun, original and engrossing action films to come out in a long time. There is a strong focus on telling a story and building characters without sacrificing the intensity of the action genre. Outside of superhero movies which I have an obvious bias towards, I would say this is probably my favorite action film since Skyfall. Naturally, Edge of Tomorrow is heavily recommended; it deserves to be seen.

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