May 26, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

In 1954, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios decided to make a film that reflected the true horror of the atomic bomb that the japanese people had experienced in their own flesh after the attacks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Working with scriptwriter Shigeru Kayama and director Ishirô Honda, the result was the birth of one of the greatest horror cinema icons: Gojira, better known as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. After its release in 1954, "Gojira" kickstarted a whole horror sub genre (Kaiju eiga) that dealer with giant monsters fighting over cities, creating a mythology in which Godzilla played the central role. Either as brutal destroyer or as heroic defender of humanity, Godzilla is now part of out pop culture, representing how small we are in the face of nature's fury. After 50 years of cinema history, Toho Studios decided to let Godzilla rest for 10 years, and in 2014 the return of the Big G is in the hands of an American studio, in an attempt to resurrect the mythical monster and erase the previous American remake from memory.

The story begins in 1999, when scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watabanabe) and Vivienne Graham (sally Hawkins) discover the skeleton of a giant monster, and two eggs deep at the bottom of a mine at the Philippines. One of the eggs is broken and there are traces left by what came out from it reaching the sea. Meanwhile, at Japan, a series of earthquakes shake the nuclear plant of Janjira. Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) and her team of engineers check the state of the reactor when a huge explosion releases the radiation. Her husband Joe (Bryan Cranston), the plant supervisor, is forced to leave his wife to die in order to save the city from a major disaster. Years later, Joe is still convinced that what happened in Janjira wasn't a normal earthquake, as access to the Janjira zone is forbidden. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a marine, and lives away from Joe, considering a madman. Nevertheless, when Joe takes Ford to Janjira, they discover that what has been hidden in the zone is the existence of terrible giant monsters, and they have been awakened.

Through the years, Godzilla film have touched themes that range from nuclear horror to the destruction of ecosystems. This time, the story written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham (and David S. Goyer and Frank Darabont, uncredited) presents Godzilla as a nature's force of equilibrium in the wake of human action. However, the thematics the story tries to uphold lose strength given the fact that Godzilla takes the back seat and the spotlight is in turn given to the other giant monsters that the human beings have resurrected, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Given that the story circles around the threat that those monsters present, Godzilla gets reduced to be almost a living deux ex machine of sorts. While there's an attempt to develop a human story as a counterpart to the giant monsters, the character development is so poor that it's limited to explain the story to its audience. Certainly, Godzilla films have never tried to be serious dramas, but the problem is that in this version, the poor human drama in the screenplay plays (or tries to play) the central role.

The reason for this is that director Gareth Edwards (who rose to prominence with 2010's "Monsters") decides to focus his attention in the human characters that live the disaster left by the MUTOs and Godzilla. As in his previous dil, Edwards keeps his monsters in the dark, showing only the devastation that's left after every fight between the monsters. To be fair, in "Monsters" this approach worked quite well given the carefully constructed relationship between the human characters (not to mention the convenience of it for an extremely low budget film such as his), in Godzilla this becomes useless as the human roles are unidimensional empty characters with no real personality or sympathetic traits. While the special effects are magnificent (it's worth to point out that Godzilla has never look this great, and the original design by Toho is respected) and manage to capture the grand scale of the monsters' titanic fights, Edwards doesn't allow that tremendous work of effects to be fully seen, as he opts to cut to his characters' reactions anytime the monsters fight. Reactions that aren't performed that well by the cast.

While acting has never been the strength in Godzilla films, the work done by the cast in this incarnation of the franchise is particularly mediocre. Despite having respected actors in the cast, the performances are far to be the best this group of artists can deliver, and a lot of this is to be blamed to Gareth Edwards' poor direction. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, as Joe and Sandra Brody, deliver an admirable performance that manages to create the only real moment of human drama in the film. Unfortunately, their role in the film is too short and they are soon forgotten by the story. The real protagonist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as their son Ford), fails to escape from the typical American marine stereotype, to the point that it seems that he doesn't really care for his parents or his own family. Elizabeth Olsen, who plays his wife, limits her role in the film to scream anytime the monsters are on screen. The most unfortunate thing is to see actors Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn and specially Sally Hawkin sin meaningless roles whose only dramatic function is to spoon-feed the plot to the audience in long explicative dialogues.

The truth is, "Godzilla" is not really a bad film, it's simply an extremely mediocre movie that's sadly not really memorable. The disappointing result of the film makes it fell as if director Gareth Edwards had taken the Godzilla name and all that it represents to make a spiritual remake of his previous film, "Monsters". But without any luck. While the respect for the original design and "Gojira"'s mythology are welcomed, as well as the fact that the film takes its concept seriously (fortunately, no Minillas or Godzookys are around); the film fails to capture the magic and awe of watching two titanic monsters fighting on the city. Mainly because Edwards doesn't let the camera see much of it. And it's not that Edwards' focus on human drama is a wrong decision, it could be an interesting take on the concept if only such drama was well done. Since it isn't the result is a monster movie that feels boring and tiresome until Godzilla appears on the screen (late). A lot of this can blamed to the screenplay that Edwards had to work with, based on exaggerated coincidences and explanatory dialogue to advance the poorly developed plot.

As mentioned above, "Godzilla" isn't a bad film, it's merely a truly disappointing one. After ten years without the Big G on the big screen and with the backing of a big Hollywood studio, an epic return to glory was expected, one that could take advantage of the technical development of American film industry without forgetting the Godzilla mythos. Sadly, this wasn't the case. There are even things that the vilified 1998 film by Roland Emmerich did much better than this version. While there are remarkable things in "Godzilla" (Alexandre Desplat's music being one of them), in general Gareth Edwards' film fails to fulfill the huge expectations. There's a progress in some areas, but it seems that Hollywood still hasn't really understood the secret of how to make a good Gojira film.


May 22, 2014

Frozen (2013)

In 1937, Walt Disney Studios changed animated cinema forever with the release of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", their first feature length animated film. This would be the beginning of a long tradition of animated cinema that Disney would develop through the following years, taking inspiration from classic fairy tales to create films like "Pinocchio" (1940), "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) and "Beauty and the Beast" (1991). However, a famous story by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen had eluded Walt Disney almost from the very beginning: "The Snow Queen". Celebrated as one of Andersen's most beautiful tales, "The Snow Queen" would be part of a biopic on Andersen that Walt Disney wanted to produce in 1943, but unfortunately, the project fell down and was eventually forgotten. Years later, the "Snow Queen" project resurrected in the 90s, but once again it was considered too difficult to make. Finally, in 2008 director Chris Buck tried again to make it a reality, and after a long and tortuous process, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" finally saw the light in 2013, as a free adaptation titled simply "Frozen".

"Frozen" is the story of two sisters, Anna and Elsa (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel respectively), the young princesses of Arendelle, a kingdom located in Norway. Elsa has the incredible magic skill of creating ice out of thin air, but this doesn't stop the young kids from being very close. However, one night Elsa hurts Anna with her powers, prompting her parents to take the drastic measure of hiding Elsa, fearing her powers get too strong for be controlled. Anna's memories of Elsa's powers are also erased, in an attempt to create the idea that Elsa is a normal girl. The sisters are separated, with Elsa hiding herself in the castle fearing that she'll hurt her family with her magic. When their parents die in a shipwreck, Elsa must take the crown as Queen of Arendelle, an event that Anna sees as a chance to discover the world outside the castle. During the coronation, Anna falls in love with prince Hans (Santino Fontana), and wishes to marry him immediately, something that Elsa forbids at once. Anna argues with Elsa about this, and the stress makes her to show her powers to the public. Afraid of herself, Elsa runs away from Arendelle, becoming the Snow Queen.

Far from being a straight adaptation of Andersen's fairy tale, "Frozen"'s screenplay (written by Jennifer Lee, based on a story by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and Lee herself) takes only the core elements from the classic story as the basis for its universe, and then builds up a radically different story from it. Having a family bond between Anna and the Snow Queen, "Frozen" is essentially the tale of two sisters who need to solve their differences in order to recover the happiness they lived in the past. However, "Frozen" is also a story of acceptance, as the screenplay makes of Elsa, the Snow Queen, a complex character who needs to define her identity, tired of hiding who she really is and longing to be allowed to be herself in front of a world that condemns her. This is perhaps the most interesting element in the film, as Lee has created a "Disney princess" (or Queen) like no other, making her a symbol of acceptance of one's own identity (overtones are more than obvious). Anna, on the other hand, is a direct attack to the "Disney princess" stereotype, as she literally discovers that life isn't like fairy tales.

Given the deep involvement of Jennifer Lee during the project's development, she was given the chance of co-directing the film along Chris Buck, and her influence can be felt in every element of the movie. By transforming the Snow Queen fairy tale, Buck and Lee gave a twist to what perfectly could had been just another Disney princess film. Lee's main input was to make "Frozen" a modern film that doesn't hide its own femininity. That is, while Disney had previously released films outside the tradition ("Lilo & Stitch" and Pixar's "Brave" for example), those films protected their mass appeal in the universal theme of family matters. On the other hand, while "Frozen" has at its core a theme of family bonds, the individual development of both Anna and Elsa as grown women reflects an attempt of portraying a modern vision of femininity, attacking the outdated model propagated by Disney's own old classics (The Disney princess ideal). The extraordinary visual design of "Frozen", inspired in those very same classics (chiefly "Sleeping Beauty") makes the reference all the more obvious.

"Frozen", like the afore mentioned Disney classics, is first and foremost musical, so it isn't strange to hear Idina Menzel, a Broadway veteran, in the role of the Snow Queen, Elsa. While certainly Anna is the one leading the plot of "Frozen", Elsa becomes easily the most interesting character in the film. Menzel gives life to Elsa capturing perfectly her mix of fear and (apparently unlimited) power that make the burden of the Snow Queen. This is perfectly exemplified in her performance of "Let It Go", song that defines her character's struggle and reveals her as the story's true protagonist. Kristen Bell plays Anna, whose journey to rescue her kingdom will reveal her that the real world is actually different to the rose-tinted worldview she had as a princess (as a Disney princess). While Bell makes a terrific job as the youthful and cheerful Anna, Menzel's powerful voice outshines her in every way. The rest of the cast is in general pretty good, tough the film clearly belongs to Menzel and Bell. An exception is Josh Gad, whom as Olaf the snowman, manages to steal every scene he's in.

As mentioned before, maybe "Frozen" isn't the first Disney film with a non-traditional focus, however, the artistic quality of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee's film are what elevates "Frozen" to the level of Walt Disney Animation Studios' true classics. Michael Giaimo's work in the art department is simply overwhelming, creating the perfect atmosphere for the devastating winter of Arendelle, which mirrors Elsa's conflicting emotions regarding her former hometown (Giaimo had previously worked in Disney's "Pocahontas"). Music is perhaps the film's weak spot, as while the film has a couple of truly remarkable song (the aforementioned "Let It Go" for example), the rest of the songs are far from having a similar dramatic impact in the story. Nevertheless, and even when this should be a major problem give the fact that it's a musical, the movie never loses strength thanks to the great care directors Buck and Lee unfold there story. Perhaps the most significative of this is the way in which Buck and Lee get into the character's personal drama, which makes "Frozen" something beyond the traditional adventure film, it makes it feel almost intimate to a certain extent.

Mixture of a return to the traditional and a reinvention of an old formula, "Frozen" takes the best of Disney's animated classics and gives it a more than welcomed modern twist. Still, the most interesting about "frozen" is that it proves once again that behind a great movie, there must be a great story. Jennifer Lee's intelligent screenplay is "Frozen"'s backbone and an instrumental piece in making the movie a reassessment of fairy tales as well as a reaffirmation of female roles in Disney movies. While not entirely without flaws, given its thematics and its enormous visual beauty, it would be fair to consider "Frozen" as one of Disney's most important films of recent times.