Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Hellboy (2004)

Feature films based on comic books are nothing new. Hollywood's been making them since Kirk Alyn played Superman in the serials in 1948 and 1950. However, all the attention went to making movies with Superman or Batman. Outside of a few notable exceptions, most comic book movies that didn't feature Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne were either poorly made or simply faded into obscurity. But after the first X-Men movie became an enormous success in 2000, movie companies started churning out comic book movies like crazy. Since the 21st-century comic movie boom began, there's been at least a dozen movies released based on comic book heroes. One of those movies, based on Mike Mignola's demonic hero that appeared in comics published by Dark Horse Comics, ended up being a hit just as big as the lead character's right hand.

Our story begins on October 9, 1944. The Nazis have began dabbling in the occult as a way to achieve victory in World War II, enlisting the help of Siberian mystic Grigori Rasputin (Karel Rodin). Gathered with a group of Nazi soldiers at a graveyard on an island off the coast of Scotland, Rasputin opens a portal that would bring the mythical Seven Gods of Chaos to Earth. But you know how these things go. Their little party gets interrupted by a band of Allied soldiers, who arrive before the Seven Gods of Chaos show up. A scuffle ensues, and the Allied soldiers manage to destroy the machine used to open the portal.

Rasputin is sucked into the portal during the fracas, but his bride Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and undead cohort Kroenin (Ladislay Beran) escape. In the aftermath, the Allied soldiers discover something did come through the portal after all: a baby demon with bright red skin, horns, and an abnormally large right hand made of stone. Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), who works as paranormal advisor to President Roosevelt and the Allied troops, wins it over with a Baby Ruth candy bar, adopting the baby demon and naming it "Hellboy."

Flash forward sixty years into the future. The now 88-year-old Professor Broom (now played by John Hurt) serves as the head of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a hush-hush government agency formed to deal with the demons, monsters, and various hellspawn that threaten the world. They're kinda like a cross between The X Files and Men In Black. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is now an adult, and has become something of an urban legend similar to Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster thanks to his exploits. Said exploits often puts him at odds with Broom's superior, smarmy FBI chief Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), who is often stuck running PR control to dismiss the existence of the BPRD and Hellboy. Anyway, Broom recruits naïve FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) right out of the academy, bringing him in as a new partner for Hellboy and the half-man/half-fish psychic Abe Sapien (the body of Doug Jones and the voice of David Hyde Pierce). Agent Myers is just introduced to Hellboy when an alarm sounds and the BPRD is called into action. Turns out that Ilsa and Kroenin, neither of whom have aged a day in six decades, have resurrected Rasputin and liberated a creature called a "Sammael" from inside an ancient statue from a museum display. Turns out that every time you kill a Sammael, two are born in its place unless you destroy the monster and its eggs at the same time. And folks, that monster lays a lot of eggs.

But luckily for them, the BPRD crew discovers they eggs are sensitive to heat and light, and they know someone who can supply them with both. Agent Myers visits former BPRD agent Liz Sherman at a local sanitarium, and convinces her to leave and rejoin the Bureau. Now you may be asking me, "Matt, why is Liz in a sanitarium?" Here's your answer: Liz is a pyrokinetic that uncontrollably bursts into flame whenever she gets excited or upset, and she had herself committed to prevent herself from hurting someone the next time she turns into Drew Barrymore from Firestarter. Liz is reluctant to return to the Bureau due to her awkward on-again/off-again romantic relationship with Hellboy, but is soon convinced and decides to rejoin the BPRD. She's welcomed back with open arms, but pisses off Hellboy (who's borderline obsessed with her) when she starts dating Agent Myers. So now we've got a love triangle betwixt Hellboy, Liz, and Agent Myers to contend with too. But there's let's not forget Rasputin, who lures the BPRD to Moscow through nefarious means, hoping to employ Hellboy's "right hand of doom" to finally unleash the Seven Gods of Chaos.

I'll admit, I wasn't too familiar with Hellboy before the movie was released. I'd barely even heard of him. So lucky me, I went in with no preconceived notions on what to expect. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's a bad thing. But I have to agree with Roger Ebert's review: Hellboy is one of those few movies based on a comic book that actually feels like a comic book. And unlike other movies of the sort, it seems more like an action movie with outlandish characters. The movie doesn't feel burdened by the weight of being a comic, but instead comes across as if someone made Indiana Jones 4 and replaced Harrison Ford with a demon that loves kittens, pancakes, and Baby Ruth candy bars.

Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro is no stranger to comic book movies, having directed Blade II prior to his work here. With Hellboy, he gives us is a fun, exciting adventure throughout its 122 minutes. Del Toro has gone on record for several years saying that Hellboy was a dream project for him, even turning down Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Blade: Trinity to do it. And boy, does his enthusiasm show. While I don't think his script will win any awards, Del Toro's work as director is part of what gives the movie its charm. With director of photography Guillermo Navarro, Marco Beltrami's awesome superhero score (including the brilliant use of Nick Cave's song "Red Right Hand"), and some great CGI and makeup effects, Del Toro gives us quite the entertaining spectacle. Unfortunately, the last fifteen or so minutes of the movie seemed to really lag. It's like they used up so much imagination, they didn't have enough left for the end.

Minor gripe aside, benefiting the movie more than Del Toro's direction is the casting. I'm not a reader of the comic, but I can't imagine anyone else but Ron Perlman in the role. Perlman was the perfect choice for the character, and I'm willing to bet that this is his best performance since he was on the old Beauty and the Beast TV show from the late '80s. Watch the scene where he spies on Liz and Agent Myers during a date and tell me you can't connect to that. We've probably all done something like that once, haven't we? I also loved Selma Blair as Liz, the love of Hellboy's life. She's just so sympathetic, and so heartwarming at the same time. I found her to be very much like Violet from The Incredibles, in that I just wanted to reach into the screen and give her a hug if I knew she wouldn't set me on fire.

Rupert Evans, John Hurt, and Jeffrey Tambor were all fun to watch as well, and Doug Jones and the uncredited David Hyde Pierce teamed up to do a fine job as Abe the merman. What I didn't like, however, were the villains. With the exception of Ladislay Boran's awesome portrayal of Kroenin, the villains were just so bland. They want to destroy the world, big whoop. If they destroy the world, doesn't that mean they die too? Or would it be like that one Duck Dodgers cartoon where they're left hanging from what's left of the planet?

All in all, lovable characters, boatloads of action, impressive special effects, and a sweet love story make Hellboy well worth the watch. The plot may be as anorexic as an Olsen twin, the villains may suck, and the ending may be a tad underwhelming, but there's enough here to justify giving Hellboy a rating of three and a half stars and one big Red Right Hand of Doom up.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, March 28, 2005

Scarface (1983)

Gangster movies are an odd genre. They rarely present us with truly likable characters or try wrapping things up with a cute little bow of happiness like other movies. Instead, they oftentimes take us inside the minds of flawed people that commit evil acts in order to prosper. Such is the case with movies like the Godfather trilogy, Casino, and Heat, but perhaps the most indicative of this is Brian DePalma's Scarface.

A loose remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks classic (which itself drew inspiration from the career of legendary gangster Al Capone), Scarface spins the polar opposite of the Corleone family around the excesses of the 1980s, using the result to tell the tale of an immigrant who lived his own version of the American Dream.

The movie opens in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift. If you've never heard of the Mariel Boatlift, let's learn us some history, okay? From April 15 to October 31, 1980, Cuban president Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel Harbor for anyone wishing to join their relatives in the United States. This prompted a mass exodus that saw thousands of Cubans arrive in southern Florida, the majority of them storming the beaches of Miami. Out of the 125,000 immigrants, an estimated twenty percent of these had criminal records. Turns out Castro was playing a big joke on America, shipping out criminals with the weary and huddled masses. It's sort of like a Castro-ized version of Punk'd.

Two of these exiled criminals are street thug Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and ladies man Manny Ray (Steven Bauer), who arrive in Miami with dreams of a better life. Manny hustles them a commission to kill a fellow internment camp resident that pissed off local Mafia drug dealer Omar Suarez (F. Murray Abraham); their success earns Tony and Manny a fresh new pair of green cards as a reward. The duo tries their hands at earning an honest wage as dishwashers at a taco stand in Little Havana. Unfortunately, since doing legitimate work gets them nowhere, they turn to Omar for work on the wrong side of the law.

Tony and company are soon hired for a cocaine exchange by Omar. The exchange goes sour (resulting in one of Tony's associates being chainsawed to death), but Tony's crew comes through with both the drugs and their money in tow. His success earns Tony the respect of Omar's boss, Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia), who brings Tony and Manny on as part of his drug ring. Tony's star in the organization quickly rises, and he immediately gains wealth and power beyond his wildest dreams, as well as an eye for Frank's consort Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer). Frank begins to view his new lieutenant as a threat after catching him flirting with Elvira, and attempts to have Tony snuffed out.

Tony lives, and he isn't too happy with his boss. He violently supplants Frank as kingpin, and Tony's authority grows by leaps and bounds with Manny as his right-hand man. His reach even spreads to South American cocaine factories, where we see Montana enter into a business partnership with Bolivian drug czar Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar). But if this were Behind The Music, this is where the announcer would say "...and it all came crashing down." Tony frequently butts heads with Manny and Elvira. He has a falling-out with his mother (Miriam Colon), while growing increasingly possessive and protective of his younger sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). He even gets busted for money laundering and faces up to five years in prison. Combining that with his high greed and paranoia, Tony soon spirals out of control as his empire starts falling apart.

Owing more to The Godfather than the original Howard Hawks movie, Scarface is a gangster movie if there ever was one. Every character has at least some share in the pie that is organized crime, no matter how trivial it may seem. Only one of the characters is likable at all (Tony and Gina's mother), yet the viewer is drawn to each of them. They don't conform to the usual gangster movie clichés that we're used to, but I wouldn't expect that out of a movie written by Oliver Stone.

Like the Scarface directed by Howard Hughes, Brian DePalma's Scarface drew much controversy upon its initial release due to its content. Excessive profanity, insane amounts of cocaine use and abuse, and lots and lots of gratuitous violence weren't exactly the norm back in 1983. There's death via grenade launcher (the "say hello to my little friend" scene), death via chainsaw fu, death via hanging from a helicopter, and a rather high number of deaths via gunfire. However, when held up against the cast of characters, the violence is essential to the plot. Oliver Stone's script isn't about giving us a tidy little story and making its lead character a lovable scamp. It's about the rags to riches life (along with the ensuing downfall) of an international drug czar in the early '80s.

As I sad above, the movie doesn't strictly adhere to the usual crime drama clichés, where everyone has a certain label. You know what I mean: the greedy boss, the faithful sidekick, the boss's superficial wife. Yeah, those characters are in Scarface, but they're more than just clichés. They're not cookie-cutter characters, they're actual criminals. The script is filled with memorable moments and dialogue, and Stone wisely shies away from softening Tony. He remains unchanged from start to finish, a snake that believes that the world is his. Stone's writing and Al Pacino's acting give us a character that is far from sympathetic, but is someone who can be bizarrely identified with. Tony wants to be rich and powerful, have sex with beautiful women, have people do whatever he asks, and not have to work all that hard for it. Who doesn't want that?

Tony has wealth, power, and a beautiful wife, but none of it brings him happiness. He has all of the luxury, but none of the comfort. Perhaps the most indicative scene is one near the end of the movie. We see Tony at dinner, drunkenly ranting and asking himself if he really has all life has to give. It seems as if he realized that true happiness comes not from material possessions, but from inside. But the catch is that inside, he's just hollow. He'd become a slave to his own flaws, and by the time he'd realized it, it was too late.

George Alonzo's wonderful cinematography and Giorgio Moroder's music both benefit the movie as well. Known for writing songs by bands such as Blondie, many of his songs in the movie are distant and impersonal, with no real connection to its listeners. Sure, the songs are horrendously bad twenty years after the fact, but in 1983, they worked. Moroder's synthesized techno-pop score near the end sets a fine tone, especially for the finale. And Alonzo's cinematography coupled with DePalma's direction give the movie a distinct visual flair. The movie begins with wide shots that capture the size of Tony's empire, slowly transitioning to smaller shots as the foundation crumbles underneath him.

The cast, both lead and supporting, give wonderful performances. The whole show is held together by Al Pacino, who plays the complete antithesis of his role as Michael Corleone from The Godfather. Michael Corleone is calm, cool, and intelligent; Tony Montana is short-tempered, reckless, and impulsive. The sheer contrast between Michael Corleone and Tony Montana is a testament to Pacino's talent. If his acting is too over the top, it's because it has to be. Tony Montana is that kind of character. And who better to play the opposite of Michael Corleone than Michael Corleone himself?

Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio also put forth very good performances. Bauer's portrayal of Manny is fun to watch, playing him as a self-absorbed Don Juan who slowly gets fed up with his boss's own egotism, making a good semi-comedic foil for Tony. Pfeiffer wonderfully depicts Elvira as a gold-digging junkie, which makes sense since it's kinda obvious that there's no love between her and Tony. She just sticks around for the drugs and the money, which has to be the only reason that the two stay married.

Mastrantonio gets to take part in perhaps the movie's creepiest subtext. I mentioned that Tony is protective of Gina, right? Well, the movie starts with Tony making attempts to be a good brother, trying to keep Gina from going out with guys like him. He knows he's rotten, and he knows she can do better than a guy like him. As the movie progresses, it develops more and more and Tony looks like he has something resembling a incestuous attraction to her. So Tony's a coke addict and he apparently wants to bang his sister. I'm not Dr. Phil or anything, but I'd say that guy has some serious issues. And whoever did Mastrantonio's hair should be shot. Her hair looks like a cross between Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons and Justin Guarini from American Idol. It does her no favors, I'll definitely say that much.

While I find the movie's reputation to be a tad bit exaggerated, its influence cannot be denied. One could argue that with out Scarface, there would be no Carlito's Way. There would be no Goodfellas. There would be no The Sopranos. And without Scarface, at least 85 percent of the rap music industry would be out of work. The movie is a great character study, a snapshot of someone who came in search of the American Dream, but when he found it, he still turned up empty-handed. To Tony Montana, the world was his for the taking. But unfortunately, the world was not enough.

Final Rating: ****½

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Incredibles (2004)

How often do you see an animated Disney movie that takes midlife crises, marital dysfunction, fears of inadequacy, and childhood angst, and lumps them all together into a big thrill ride of a movie? That's what sets The Incredibles apart from the rest. The sixth Disney/Pixar venture is quite different from what you've seen in the past. Ever seen a Pixar movie rated anything higher than G? No? Then take a gander at the big PG rating on The Incredibles. While similar to its Pixar brethren (there's lots of adventure, humor, and imagination), it's also strikingly distinct. Originally conceived as a conventional cel-animated feature for the now-defunct animation department of Warner Brothers, it not only ventures away from the standard Disney/Pixar fare, but turns the entire superhero genre on its ear.

The incredibly strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is a superhero straight out of the 1940s serials. He fights crime, he saves those who need saving, all that goody-goody hero stuff. You'd think people would be happy getting saved, but that isn't the case. After Mr. Incredible saves someone attempting suicide, said rescued person files a lawsuit because he didn't want to be saved in the first place, and ended up with whiplash because of it. Turns out there's a huge number of ungrateful people, as people start filing frivolous lawsuits right and left over similar minor injuries and "wrongful saving."

In exchange for immunity from the overwhelming court cases, the superheroes are forced to give up heroics and permanently settle into their secret identities. Under the government's Superhero Relocation Program, Mr. Incredible and his new bride ElastiGirl (Holly Hunter), who can stretch any part of her body to any length, begin life as anonymous civilians.

Fifteen years later, Mr. Incredible and ElastiGirl are now Bob and Helen Parr, residing in the suburbs with their three children. Helen is a stay-at-home mom, which, in her case, is a fulltime job in and of itself. Teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell) wishes to be one of the crowd and blend in with her peers, but is embarrassed that her superpowers would cause her to stand out. Oddly enough, the power she fears will cause her to stand out is the ability to turn herself completely invisible, as well as being able to create impenetrable force fields. Violet often finds herself butting heads with younger brother Dashiell (Spencer Fox), called simply "Dash" for short. He's hyperactive, cocky, and his wont to show off often gets him in trouble at school. Dash's hyperactivity is complimented by his lightning-fast speed, which allow him to effortlessly run on almost any surface, even water.

Forced to keep their powers a secret, both Violet and Dash give their parents hell over it while vocalizing their jealously toward their infant brother Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews), who they feel is the only "normal" member of the family thanks to his apparent lack of powers.

Meanwhile, Bob is stuck in a crappy job as an insurance claims adjuster for Insuracare, where he can hardly squeeze his oversized frame into a tiny cubicle. While Bob is a nice guy that tries to help people in any way he can (usually in the form of making Insuracare's customers aware of policy loopholes), his kindness often gets him a lecture from his greedy boss, Mr. Huph (Wallace Shawn).

Bored with his mundane life and longing for the good ol' days, Bob often sneaks out with his close friend Lucious Best (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow relocated superhero formerly known as the ice-manipulating "Frozone." Claiming they're part of a bowling league, they instead don disguises and do a little low-profile heroism. After one particular boys' night out, Helen discovers what they've been doing, which prompts a nasty argument between her and Bob that a hidden Violet and Dash are privy to.

Back at work, one particularly stern lecture from Mr. Huph prevents Bob from stopping a mugger outside, and he doesn't take that too well. If you want to earn a spot on the unemployment line, just do what Bob did: flip out and throw your boss through a bunch of walls. You'll be getting a pink slip so fast, your head will spin faster than Linda Blair's in The Exorcist.

Following his firing, Bob's old life begins to beckon in the form of the enigmatic Mirage (Elizabeth Peña), who entices him with the chance to return to his "Mr. Incredible" role. Once again donning his now ill-fitting costume (he's gotten really out of shape in his 15-year retirement), Mirage lures him to the Pacific Islands, where he is pitted against a massive robot called "OmniDroid." He handily defeats OmniDroid, and is soon thereafter hired by Mirage and her rather shady boss to fight various robots on their island. He hides his excursions as repeated business trips for Insuracare, but he's getting in shape and making plenty of money, so Helen doesn't ask questions... until she intercepts a telephone conversation between Bob and Mirage.

At first believing that Bob is cheating on her, it isn't until she discovers he had a new costume made that she realizes he's not only been fired by Insuracare, but he's gone back to performing feats of daring-do. She goes to fashion designer/supersuit creator Edna Mode (Brad Bird) and asks what's up, and is quickly informed by Edna that not only did she make Bob a brand new suit, but she also made suits for the other four Parrs as well.

Turns out all have homing devices in them, and Helen uses said homing device to track down Bob. She packs up the suits, and with Violet and Dash stowing along, Helen borrows an airplane from an old friend and must reprise her "ElastiGirl" persona in order to bail her husband out.

This is where the big bad kicks in. During his latest trip to the island, we learn that Mr. Incredible wasn't the first hero called to the island. It turns out the previously defeated OmniDroid was one in a line of killer robots built by Mirage's boss, Syndrome (Jason Lee). In his youth, Syndrome was Buddy Pine, Mr. Incredible's biggest fan. Buddy's admiration for Mr. Incredible knew no bounds, and he repeatedly tried to persuade his hero that he needed a sidekick, dubbing himself "Incrediboy."

But after repeated rejection, young Buddy's bitterness and envy overwhelmed him, and he reinvented himself as a supervillain. In the fifteen years since he last crossed paths with Mr. Incredible, he fashioned dangerous weapons that can give normal people power equal to those of superheroes, and has dedicated himself to exterminating every known superhero.

He captures Mr. Incredible after a battle with another OmniDroid and displays him as a trophy, torturing him before heartlessly shooting down Helen's plane as it enters the island's airspace. Helen, Violet, and Dash survive and arrive at the island, and soon stage a dramatic jailbreak. The Parr children make short work of Syndrome's henchmen, while Helen sneaks through the prison towards her husband. They're successful, but the four Incredibles must soon team with Frozone and contend with Syndrome's mega-OmniDroid, set to destroy their home of Metroville and all of its citizens.

Whoa, that was a lot of synopsis. Now for the actual review. The Incredibles is not only a fun movie for both kids and adults, but can call itself one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. While the movie is an obvious play on superhero conventions and clichés on the surface, inside is a funhouse mirror view of your typical everyday family. Bob is the hardworking father that loves his family, but can never seem to make time for them; Helen is the doting, loyal wife and mother often frustrated with Bob's workaholic demeanor; Violet is the normal teenage misfit, desperately longing to love and be loved, with a want to realize her place in the world; Dash is the stereotypical "little brother," often causing mischief and drawing attention to himself. Their powers are also very complimentary to those that possess them. Bob's strength and size are representative of his status as alpha male, Helen's ability to stretch signifies her having to overexert herself and go above and beyond the call of both matrimony and motherhood, Violet's invisibility and force fields symbolize her feelings of loneliness, and Dash's speed mirrors his exuberant personality.

Like his prior work on the criminally underrated The Iron Giant, writer/director Brad Bird gives us a movie that dares to be different. It subversively celebrates those that can excel, but are held back by those who can't. As Mr. Incredible laments during the movie, "They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity." This is most evidenced in the character of Syndrome. He's just a regular person with no powers (outside of an alarmingly high IQ), luring superheroes to their deaths so he can take their glory for himself.

The Incredibles even challenges the "everyone is special" slogan, going as far as to say that those forced to hide what makes them special for fear of offending someone makes nobody special at all. We see early in the movie that Dash wants to try out for his school's track team, but Helen refuses to let him, lest his super-speed be revealed. He protests, saying that his power is what makes him special. His mother retorts that everyone is special, prompting Dash to respond, "Which is another way of saying that nobody is."

Bird's script is tight and exciting, while simultaneously managing to be touching and sweet. The interaction amongst the Parr family is heartwarming, giving us a cinematic family that a viewer would understandably wish was his or her own. The voice work is also stellar, with each actor bringing something more to the character than what is in the script. Perhaps the biggest highlights of the cast, however, are Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Jason Lee, and Brad Bird himself. Hunter gives us a hilariously feisty family woman that truly cherishes her husband and children, a complete 180-degree turn from the indifferent mother without a clue she played in Thirteen. Vowell, a staple on public radio, doesn't really get a lot of screen time, but she makes her character quite sympathetic and memorable. I might be alone in this, but I just wanted to reach into the screen and give poor Violet a hug, because she could have used one.

Lee as Syndrome was both fun and convincing, still sounding like a hurt little boy despite being an adult evil genius. And Brad Bird as Edna Mode... wow. Based on legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, Edna is a fast-talking firecracker that, in one of the movie's funniest moments, explains that a superhero's cape can be as dangerous as Isadora Duncan's scarf. Despite being in only a handful of scenes, Edna joins Rex, Ham, and Mr. Potato Head from Toy Story on the list of my favorite Pixar supporting characters.

Along with showcasing the love the Parrs have for one another, the movie serves as a funny sendup of superhero culture. Many of the heroes and villains mentioned in passing by various characters have extremely stupid names, while ElastiGirl takes hers from a long-forgotten DC Comics character resurrected by John Byrne around the time of the movie's release. The powers of the characters even take obvious inspiration from their comic book counterparts, ranging from Bobby "Iceman" Drake of the X-Men to the Fantastic Four to The Flash ("Flash" and "Dash" can't just be a coincidence). They even crib the forced retirement of the superhero community from the classic graphic novel Watchmen.

But comic heroes aren't the only things lampooned in The Incredibles; the movie takes a shot at James Bond as well. The island hideout? The crazy gadgets and schemes? The villain delivering a monologue that details his master plan to the captured hero? That's right out of every Bond movie ever. And folks, Edna Mode's ingenuity could put Q to shame. Even Michael Giacchio's enjoyable score takes a stab at the jazz-orchestra scores from '60s spy movies, similar to the ones composed by John Barry and Henry Mancini.

The whole of The Incredibles is fun from beginning to end, going from a light family comedy to Pixar's answer to the question, "What if Indiana Jones met James Bond and someone made a comic book out of it?" Once again, Pixar knocks one out of the park and makes a movie that puts them at the top of the CGI animation scene, and I can't ask for better. The Incredibles gets five stars, and it deserves them all.

Final Rating: *****

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Godzilla (1998)

Monster movies have been around almost as long as cinema has existed. However, the genre didn't really venture into the realm of sci-fi until World War II ended and the Cold War began, when filmmakers saw the potential in monsters created by nuclear weapons. Of all of the giant monsters spawned in that era, one emerged from the depths of Tokyo Bay to become one of the most beloved monsters in movie history: Godzilla.

Born in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's destruction during World War II, and fueled by the fear of America's hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean, Godzilla (née Gojira) has spawned almost thirty sequels, several video games, and dozens of similar movie monsters since his 1954 debut. Forty-six years after being unleashed by Japanese film studio Toho Company, Godzilla was given a complete American makeover by Columbia Pictures and the producers of Independence Day. Gone were the veiled social commentaries of the early Godzilla movies. What resulted was a run of the mill "let's destroy a major city" popcorn movie that became what many consider to be the biggest cinematic disappointment of 1998.

Following a series of French atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific, a massive creature begins to cut a path across the South Pacific and is spotted passing eastward through the Panama Canal. The U.S. State Department is called in, and they enlist nuclear biologist Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) and a team of scientists to help them figure out what they have on their hands. Nick is kinda like what Matt Broderick's character from War Games would be like if he was an adult and really liked lizards. So now you know the character.

Anyway, by simply judging by the location of the first sighting and correlating it with his study of larger-than-normal earthworms at Chernobyl, Nick determines that they're up against a gigantic lizard mutated by fallout from the bomb tests. The next day, Godzilla hits New York City like a freight train. Looking like the bastard child of a komodo dragon and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he comes ashore and decides to go sightseeing. He's what you'd call the proverbial bull in a china shop. Thanks to Godzilla and the general ineffectiveness of the military, half of Manhattan ends up as a big pile of rubble. And guess what, folks? That isn't the worst of it.

Through some insane stroke of genius, Nick discovers Godzilla is (get this) pregnant. He's kinda like one of those Tribbles from Star Trek, only a zillion times bigger and more reptilian. Nick tries to tell the military that they'll probably have to deal with the pregnancy too, but since the military is ran by trained helper monkeys (isn't that always the case in movies like this?), Nick ends up partnering with a team of shady French secret service agents led by the even shadier Phillippe Roaché (Jean Reno) and starts hunting for Godzilla's nest.

Nick also ends up getting a little help from his former girlfriend and aspiring television reporter, Audrey (Marie Pitillo), and her cameraman, stereotypical Brooklyn resident Animal (Hank Azaria). After delving through the sewers, the crew happens to stumble upon a massive batch of man-sized eggs in Madison Square Garden. And just their luck, the eggs start hatching. After all of the French guys but Phillippe are wiped out, the climactic finale sees the four remaining survivors trying to escape not only the wrath of Godzilla, but two hundred pissed-off baby Godzillas as well.

Well, there's good and there's bad about Godzilla. The Godzilla here is similar yet far removed from his Japanese cousin. Sure, he's a huge lizard. Sure, he's got those funny-looking dorsal fins on his back. Sure, he crushes a major metropolitan area. But two things separate them. One is the fire breath. One of Godzilla's trademarks is his atomic fire breath, and this movie lacks that. I mean, you've got a 200-foot-tall mutant lizard terrorizing Manhattan, so it's not like the movie would be too unrealistic if he breathed fire. The fire breath was loosely inspired by the burning of Tokyo during World War II, and outside of his trademark roar and his dorsal fins, it's his most recognizable feature. Godzilla missing his fire breath is like Superman without the ability to fly, or Wolverine not having his claws.

The other big difference, the most important one, is how Godzilla is portrayed. In Japan, Godzilla is portrayed as an unstoppable force of nature. He serves as an allegory for the horrors wrought upon Japan during World War II, and the most diehard fans have come to think of him as Japan's god of destruction. However, our Godzilla really doesn't serve as any kind of allegory. He's just a big reptile that squashes stuff. The Toho brains have even taken to referring to the American Godzilla as just plain "Zilla." Why? With Godzilla's reputation as the god of destruction, they felt Columbia Pictures having him be just another monster took the "god" out of "Godzilla." It's like the producers took the plot from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, added the T-Rex and raptors from Jurassic Park, and slapped the "Godzilla" name on it. While the American monster has a similar look to the Japanese one, it's definitely not the same monster.

The movie itself won't go down in the annals of cinematic achievement. The script by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin won't be considered a paragon of Western literature by any means, especially with those out-of-place parodies of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and none of the actors deserved any awards (though I did like Matthew Broderick, even if he's not up to the War Games/Ferris Bueller level here). But who cares about that? It's a monster movie! You don't go see a movie like this for well-crafted plots or Oscar-caliber performances. You see them for wanton acts of carnage and destruction. At least, that's what I do, anyway.

The CGI effects actually aren't too bad. They could have gone the route of the Japanese movies and used a guy in an ugly rubber suit, but the larger budget and better technology was used to Zilla's benefit. If Zilla's anything, he's definitely better looking than the other Godzilla. The action on-screen is rarely boring, and the work of Emmerich's direction and Ueli Steiger's cinematography makes the movie look great. When combined with David Arnold's score and the occasional song, the movie is actually rather well-made. What I didn't like was the upset reaction of the critics and fans. The movie was just supposed to be a big, wild, fun action ride, and that's what it is. A big, wild, fun action ride. Sure, the criticism isn't entirely unmerited, since the movie promised a lot and was just mediocre at best, but all the vitriol and hatred from Godzilla's bashers is a little exaggerated.

Despite the rather "blah" response from moviegoers, Godzilla came awfully close to being everything I could have expected. Yeah, there was the whole lack of fire-breath thing, and the fact that Zilla is unable fill the huge shoes of his Japanese counterpart, but I didn't think it was completely awful. And while I will admit that it is kinda hard to lump it in with the Toho movies (despite the name and occasional similarity), you'll be okay if you look at it as a movie featuring a huge dinosaur-looking monster instead of the actual Godzilla.

Final Rating: **