Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Summer Reading: End of the Summer Exam Edition: Great Expectations (2011)

I know, we're now well into fall at this point. Again, I apologize for the delays on this.

I could have just let this one fall off the map, and considered it. At the same time, I stopped myself for three reasons:
1) The entire purpose of repeating these projects is learning to do them better
2) I'd been meaning to do this version since I started the project
3) I couldn't in good conscience, send this year's Summer Reading off with that crappy animated adaptation. Seriously. Not the worst thing I've ever seen, but this book deserves better.

Which brings us to the recent BBC miniseries adaptation. At three hour-long episodes, it's not the longest attempt, but it's definitely one of the more interesting renditions out there, at least that I'm familiar with.

I've mentioned before that this is a book that's particularly tricky to adapt thanks to just how many little pieces there are. Pip's story isn't told as a direct sequence of events, but rather a lot of different meetings and interactions which he learns and grows from before finally settling into the adult he is at the end of the book. Yes, Magwitch's involvement does provide a catalyst, but he's also absent for much of the story, with his involvement a mystery to the readers until it's made clear to Pip. As such, any adaptation of this becomes a matter of picking and choosing the events and acquaintances that will shape Pip's life. In a few cases (such as Cuarón and Newell's versions) the experiences largely get consolidated down to just Pip's love for Estella. While I can see the logic here, it DOES come with the accidental implication of Pip as stalking her. It would be an interesting take on the story, don't get me wrong, but it would require a LOT of creative liberties.

"Hey kid! Wanna see a dead bod--
Wait, no. If I kill you, you're not really seeing it, are you...?"

This version, helmed by Brian Kirk with a script by Sarah Phelps, does try to keep the wider cast, though it also compensates by folding certain events into one another. The result is at points a little surprising (Miss Havisham's interest in Pip coming to visit is broached during the same set of events that leads Pip to steal food for Magwitch) but in some cases, also helps tighten up the story to better effect for a visual medium (moving Pip's confrontation with Orlick to London saves the third part an extra trip out of the way back to Pip's hometown). The result doesn't always work - the previously mentioned version of the Orlick confrontation does away with his arrest and simply ends with Pip laying him out with one punch and taking off - but it's a game effort to try and translate a narrative with a lot going into it.

Besides the changes for time, I have to admit I was actually surprised by how this version took different perspectives on some of the cast, both in terms of writing and acting. The big example here, and certainly the most publicized, is Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham. I had actively avoided looking up images of her in the part coming up to this point so I'd be going into this blind, and it paid off here. While certainly not as old as many of the other women who've been cast, Anderson balances it by instead giving the character a much more haunted air, both in appearance and mannerism. At times, she's almost like an actual ghost -literally haunting Satis House and driving Estella to continue her cursed cycle of broken hearts. In the later parts, and something I really commend in this adaptation, more of an effort is made than in most adaptations to show the growing divide between Havisham and Estella. In this version it even leads into a unique take on her death: freed of the first person perspective Pip brings to the book, this version tries to shed more light on the other personalities, even staging Havisham's death to look as though, rather than an accident, her fate was a suicide. It's an interesting choice to make, and I actually have to give the team points for going with it.
Before Duchovny and Anderson went elsewhere, the later seasons of The X-Files were initially slated to be a LOT stranger. 

Alongside Havisham, the other particular standouts I have to give this version in offering a new spin on characters is the casting of David Suchet (known to many for his work as Hercule Poirot) as the lawyer Jaggers, and Mark Addy in a decidedly more cynical take on Pumblechook. In Suchet's case, his is a decidedly different take on the role even from his physical appearance, which I will admit threw me at first. In the end, he trades the heavier form and roundabout legalese for a much more blunt and concise character that still suits Jaggers as a lawyer and even allows them a chance to further remind that, for as ruthless as he can be at the bar, he's certainly not inhuman. In the case of Pumblechook, this version strips away the character's puffed-up self-aggrandizing and instead doubles down on his shameless self-serving nature. In that regard, Mark Addy does a surprisingly good job with the role, really nailing that 'slimy bastard' aspect this version is going for. It's a minor role, but I do have to give him points, I didn't expect to see him play that brand of jerk well.

The cast members who play closer to the page are also well chosen. In fact, this is one of those versions I can honestly say I had no particular issues with the casting. Douglas Booth's Pip is one of the better adult versions of the character I've seen since starting this with the David Lean version. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Harry Lloyd in the role of Herbert Pocket in this version. For an actor I will admit I still largely associate with the short-tempered and almost Napoleonic Viserys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, it was strangely refreshing to see him playing one of the small handful of genuinely friendly and likable people in this story. Similarly, Shaun Dooley's Joe does a good job at capturing the character's simpler side without playing it up into caricature, giving some extra weight to the moments when a young Pip finds himself drifting from the simpler joys of Joe's life as a blacksmith.

"Seriously, a whole thing of molten gold. It got pretty crazy..."

Besides a pretty solid script and some great casting, this version has the visual eye for translating the book to the screen. It takes the challenge of translating familiar sites like Satis House's crumbling estate and the offices of Jaggers and makes them both recognizable but distinct with its visual touches. Likewise, the editing does the material well in several areas, with some standout moments such as the above-mentioned death of Miss Havisham, as well as a montage of Pip's coming into his life as a gentleman, framed around an amusing sequence of Herbert teaching him how to dance.

To try and bring this one in for a landing, I have to admit I find myself torn where to place this. It's well made, but as an overall movie, I think Lean may take this one. At the same time, I think as an adaptation, I think this might be tied for, if not the best of the picks. Yes, it alters several events, but it still largely tries to keep to the spirit of the material- which is really the more important element of an adaptation when you get down to it. I even find myself preferring, of the versions, how this one addresses the book's disputed ending. I cut Lean some slack here, since there was some meta-reasoning on his ending, but otherwise, most other takes on this ending have let me a bit disappointed.

"...Ah, screw it. Let them decide for themselves if we work things out or not!"

Which is why it's weird for me to admit the reason this one worked for me was that they ultimately set it up and leave it open. We see Pip and Estella reunited, and whether they reconcile or not is left in the proverbial ether. Given the two different endings the book has written as is,  I do find this to be a good compensation between the two.

Besides that, it's also just a pretty well done take on the story on its own. Some good direction, a largely solid script, and a great ensemble cast all come together to make this a version worth checking out. Just try not to let the changes throw you too much.

So, we come to the end of another year of Summer Reading.

Not a moment too soon, either. In a few hours it will be October, and you all know what that means here.

Got a pretty solid list put together. Look forward to it starting this Friday.

Till then.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation 3: Super Continuity Breaking Happy Ending Edition

and we're back...

Actually, that pretty well sums up the start of this movie. Where the start of Lovers suggested a small time gap between the first and second movies, the third installment (the wordily subtitled Love is the Pulse of the Stars) begins almost where the second left off. After hiding off to the side for the past two movies, the Zeon remnants known as Axis have taken to the stage. What follows is the final arc of the series, stripped down, streamlined, and  with this racing stripe here I feel is pretty sharp.

...I went out of the way for that reference, didn't I?

While I was probably a bit more snarky in that description than I should have been, I will maintain what I said in the last review - honestly, I think this is better than the second movie was. I still don't think it comes together as well as the first, but for what it has to work with and what it's trying to do, it's not that bad, for the most part.

Probably the biggest area of improvement over the second is the pacing. Thanks to the sheer amount of map-hopping and different stories in Lovers, the movie never seemed to have a particularly strong sense of momentum. At its best moments, it sort of strolled along leisurely, and at its worst, it stopped and started abruptly. By comparison, LitPotS (God, even in an acronym it's unwieldy) hits the ground running and just barrels forward at full speed. As a result, despite being slightly longer than Lovers, it really doesn't feel it.

"So if I DON'T have a complete breakdown...how are they going to reconcile it with the sequel?"

Of course, as with any cuts, there's some degrees of give and take. In this case, probably one of the biggest chunks left on the cutting room floor (to the relief of many) was the return arc for Titans pilot Rosamia Badam. Personally, I've always been kind of split on this arc - in terms of what it was doing for Kamille, I liked some of the ideas it brought to the table. Yeah, the idea of him reliving his failure to save Four may have been a bit repetitive for viewers, but I was under the impression that was part of the point: the arc was just another turn of the screw on his becoming sick of the war around him. At the same time, Rosamia's character being retooled into a childlike individual whose behavior suggested severe brain damage WAS an annoyance, and I can see why a lot of people don't miss that in this film. Though it does create a bit of a continuity hole that she still appears among the spirits of the dead in the finale despite them reanimating that sequence.

As seen off to the far right there.

Besides Rosamia, the biggest issue this movie has as a consequence of its 'stomp on the gas' style of storytelling is the fact that some rather crucial pieces of storytelling are completely sidestepped and either entirely ignored or just snuck in without much fanfare. The former is best summed up in the movies' decision to excise a scene where Char gives a speech to the Federation assembly at Dakar. In the show, it's meant to be a turning point, both for Char and for the Federation. Without it, Char never really seems to fully take on the role of a leader, and there's not enough of a sense of the Titans falling out of favor to necessitate them seeking an alliance with Axis. An example in the case of the latter is with regards to the Titans' colony laser, a powerful weapon that is at the center of a lot of the fighting in this movie. The problem here is the fact that the laser, a weapon that can make or break this war, becomes a case of 'tell, don't show.' It's especially frustrating since the series did the opposite, showing its destructive power simply but effectively. In this case, we get a lot of people talking about how dangerous it is with no real indication of it being as such until the end of the movie when it's finally employed to deal the deciding blow of the war.

That awkward moment when you meet your ex again after many years...
...and she's now the de facto leader of a zealous army bent on world conquest.

Suffice it to say, my point from the last two reviews remains clear: if you haven't seen the series before this point, do not expect these movies to function as a substitute. So much of how they're edited is done under the assumption that you already know the story and so they don't need to explain everything to you. These are made as something of a bonus/perk for old fans to come back and enjoy.

Which brings me to the new ending. When this project was first announced, there was a fair amount of buzz generated by talk of plans to write a new ending for the story, one considerably happier than the original show's rather bleak cliffhanger finale. The result is probably one of the most divisive parts of this movie. Even before getting into the debates over whether these movies somehow cancel out the follow-up series, ZZ Gundam, people really weren't feeling how this new ending was written. To be perfectly honest, it's a sentiment I can agree with. I don't necessarily dislike the idea of Zeta having a happier ending. A new ending is a novel idea and a good hook for getting fans to give your movie a watch. For me, the big problem with the happy ending is that most of the series leading up to that point remains unchanged. So we go through a rather vicious final battle that sees most of the main cast killed off and Kamille still pushed to his breaking point by seeing all of this sense fighting and carnage around him...and then at the last moment, everything turns out okay. He gets out of the ending without experiencing a total break, and despite being on the verge of triumph, Axis simply pulls up stakes and retreats back out into space. I want to again stress, the ending itself isn't the problem for me here - it's the fact that the ending doesn't fit with the rest of the story. No effort is made to really rework much of the rest of the story leading to this point, barring some new visuals and a few shifts of who killed who, in order to make this new ending make sense. Instead it just feels like an inexplicable shift in gears for much of the cast.

Yeah, I'm primarily sticking to just discussing the story here. Again, this is because most of what I'd have to say about the animation I already covered in the first two. About the only thing I can say for this visually right now is that it hits a new hurdle given just how much of this particular art is focused on mobile suit combat. As a result, duels between characters go jarringly between some gorgeous new animation of robots slugging it out to older series animation ñ which, while not bad, is definitely NOT interchangeable with the new footage.

Likewise, the soundtrack is on par with the first two films. Saegusa's score again has aged very well and still captures the tone for a lot of these sequences quite well. On the newer end of things, Gackt this time around both hits and misses. His first insert song for this movie Love Letter is actually a really good fit for this ending. Playing as Kamille and Fa reunite at the end of the battle, it's a great fit for the sequence, really capturing the happier tone of the new ending. That it also fits quite well lyrically just makes the miss hurt even more. Just after the pleasant note the movie sends its story off on with Love Letter, the credits shift gears to Gackt's more hard-rock styled Dybbuk. It's not even that bad a tune, but its invocation at that point completely breaks up the tone of the prior song, a feeling even more bizarre thanks to some of the lyrics (the chorus including the phrase 'kill me'). It's such an abrupt change I can't help but wonder if it was done as a joke or not.

"Wait a minute! After all the different model kits and toys, THIS is how it's actually supposed to transform?!"

With this, the Zeta Gundam trilogy comes to a close. After my earlier praise of the Mobile Suit Gundam movies for avoiding the big problems inherent in compilations, these seem to ultimately fall back into the same problems the earlier trilogy avoided. If you're already familiar with the series, it's not a bad highlights reel. It has a brisk run time (awkward pacing of the second movie aside), some of the story reworking provides some interesting new takes on parts of the story fans may already know well, and the newly animated sequences - though inconsistent with the old footage - make for some great eye candy. If this is your first taste of Zeta Gundam, I know the newer animation may look tempting, but really, you'd do better to start with the original series first. It's not without its flaws (and I say this as a fan of it) but without it, the movies are just a mess. They're designed to be good fan tributes first and good movies second.

Ah well.

Can't win them all.

With this, we're now officially into the new wave of Gundam cinema after a sizable downtime. Next month brings us to the first all original content film the franchise had in years.

But first, tomorrow marks the last of the Summer Reading in preparation for October.

Till then.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation 2 - In Which Concept and Story Get In a Back Alley Brawl

Sorry for the delays on these, guys. Last two months have been hectic between getting set up on the other site and personal life in general. But, we're coming into October and all the fun that entails, so for the next few days, I'm gonna be settling old business (no, not killing people. This time.)

Which brings us to getting caught up on the Gundam reviews.

When last I left you, we had just ended the first of the Zeta Gundam compilation trilogy: a brisk, if somewhat sparse retelling of roughly the first thirteen or so episodes of Zeta's fifty episode run. Picking up shortly where that movie left off, we begin the second installment in the trilogy, Lovers.

I should probably just say this outright instead of trying to sidestep the issue. Of the three movies, Lovers is probably the biggest mess from a narrative standpoint. This isn't to say the first and third movies don't have their share of problems as well- because trust me, they do. The biggest problem with this second installment compared to its predecessor and successor is ultimately summed up by the movie's subtitle.

As the title suggests, relationship make up a good chunk of this movie. This is pretty logical at first, given the movie starts at a point where both Kamille and Amuro each enter into relationships that really help shape their characters in the events to come: for Amuro, it's in the form of somewhat overly idealistic resistance fighter Beltorchika Irma (Maria Kawamura,) for Kamille, it's the doomed romance of Titans soldier/guinea pig Four Murasame (Yukana.) Suffice it to say, the latter  gets the most focus, and as storylines  go, it's actually handled pretty well. They have to rush things along a bit more than in the series, but in this case they still manage to hit all the right emotional cues to sell this particular storyline. Which is commendable given how much of the rest of this trilogy is running at a breakneck pace. It's also one of the first major breaks in continuity this version has from the original series beyond folding events together for convenience. In this case, a follow-up storyline with Four is lopped off and left on the cutting room floor as this definitively ends her story early.

"I'm...I'm coming back for the next movie, right?"

This would seem a sufficient amount of coverage to merit the movie's subtitle just on its own. Yes, there's still an hour of storyline to go, but the fact is, it's a major piece of Kamille's development and easily the most iconic part of the series covered within the space of this movie. From there, however, relationships among the cast in general are emphasized and given the bulk of the focus in terms of screentime. In some cases, it's not badly done, and some of the best uses of it post-Four are in a lot of little vignettes (the awkward banter between Emma and Henken, Bright watching a video his family made for him.) In fact, most of the other relationships featured in this are handled well in terms of tying into the storyline.

Then comes Katz.

"You make a few mistakes, you get a few people killed and suddenly EVERYONE hates you..."

Katz is one of those characters that has always gets a mixed reaction in the fandom. Even at best, most people just sort of tolerate him. This is at least somewhat intentional, really. His arc is like a mirror of the immature, anti-authoritarian kid Kamille almost turned into before getting sorted out. Unfortunately, he never learns from it, much to the frustration of a lot of the audience. Which makes it particularly annoying here that close to a third of this movie is then dedicated to him and his semi-crush Sarah Zabiarov.

Personally, I don't even dislike these two as much as a lot of other viewers do. At the same time, I feel like their screentime in this is largely just a consequence of keeping up thematically with the movie's subtitle, because their arc doesn't add much to the overall story. At the start, it somewhat ties in to a larger over-arcing Titans operation, but then it just turns into a lot of back and forth over how Sarah is conflicted in her loyalties. Which is fine in a series that takes roughly twenty-five hours to tell its story, but in a trilogy of all of four and a half hours of screentime, it's time that feels like it would be better spent elsewhere. For example, one major storyline that's somewhat set up in this movie is with regards to Char and his role in the AEUG. Prior to this point, he's been content to hang back and let things work themselves out. This movie changes that when the AEUG's leader is assassinated and, with his dying breath, asks Char to take over. In the series, this is a major turning point for this character and is addressed at multiple points. In this film, it amounts to maybe less than ten minutes of screentime, counting the assassination. I might not mind as much, were it not for how much time is then spent on Sarah's issues and subsequently Katz's issues.

"Sir, it's not that I don't respect what you're trying to say here, but Kamille still needs to have a day out on the moon, so can we wrap this up?"

With all of this focus on relationships, it leads to one of the other reasons this is probably the weakest movie of the trilogy - the stakes feel astonishingly low. There are certainly some moments of danger - a city is attacked and at one point, the Titans attempt a colony drop operation (the bulk of which occurs off-screen) but the movie seems less concerned with those moments and more with a lot of the character interaction. Which on its own isn't a bad thing, except for the fact that it then makes those attempts to advance the larger world story feel disjointed. The first and third movies in this series have a relatively clear progression of how things lead into each other, even if they sometimes rush to get to the next point. This movie is just a lot of separate events loosely held together by the same cast and not much else.

I know I've been going on about the narrative a lot here, but there's a reason for that. Its technical strengths and weaknesses are very much the same as the first movie. Once again, we're treated to games of inconsistent animation, though in this case we at least get some sequences done up entirely from scratch. Though that's more because they're new scenes entirely so they had no prior footage to harvest. Which is something of a shame since, once again, the parts they actually did decide to give new animation to look quite good. In particular the mobile suit sequences continue to shine in this follow-up, such as during Kamille's first encounter with enemy ace Yazan (Houchu Ohtsuka.) We lose most of the fight, but the new piece that we do get to see is very polished and impressive. Which makes it a shame that we see so little of it, but I'm trying to keep positive here.

Even between giant robots, there IS such a thing as a one-sided fight...

The soundtrack, likewise, continues to be a strong point of these films. We get more of Shigeaki Saegusa's score from the original series employed to good effect in many scenes here. Likewise, Gackt has composed another song for this movie as well, providing the end credits theme Mind Forest. It's not the best of the songs he's done for these movies, but it's still a strong enough note to send this movie off.

In all, I stand by my earlier assessment. This film isn't all bad, but of the Zeta movies, it's easily the weakest. It tries to cover a large swath of the middle series and, despite a game attempt to try and use an arcing theme to rope everything together, the film remains a disjointed mess with too many pieces and not enough time to connect them all properly. Like the last movie, in fact, moreso than the last one, if you haven't seen the original series before this point, do NOT count on this to serve as a substitute for the experience. In fact, if it's this much of a mess WITH the show's knowledge, it's probably going to be even worse without the prior notes of context.

That was a bit more negative than I intended. Sorry, just rewatching this, I was struck by how clumsy a lot of it is.

Fortunately, things will be a bit more on track with the third and final installment in the trilogy Love is the Pulse of the Stars (...excessively long subtitle aside.)

Look for that in another day or so.

Till then.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Upper Footage

Before starting the review, I must be honest – I have had a love-hate relationship with found footage movies over the years. There have been some I have found to be creatively successful – [Rec], Noroi, and The Tunnel all come to mind. By comparison, the more financially successful movies utlizing this method- The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield- really didn't do that much for me. One of the big problems for me, even the films I like (though they do well enough otherwise for me to overlook it), is that the stories being presented often tend to use the found footage style to give their story an element of authenticity. Unfortunately, at least for me, marrying this style to the overtly supernatural, rather than give the latter a more realistic feel, works in the opposite. I can still find the films enjoyable as entertainment, but not particularly scary in most cases. In fact, the one film to date besides this which I could have believably bought as genuine found footage is Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. This may seem like an odd thing to be hung up on, but I feel that if the faux-realism is being undermined, it defeats any sort of purpose to making it found footage to begin with (barring certain cases like V/H/S, The Last Broadcast, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes where it's employed as a framing device.) In many cases, I look at the found footage style and feel it's being employed more as a gimmick to save on filming. I realize that's an overly cynical approach, but again, it's just putting my grievances with the genre in context.

With a poster design like this, you know you're in for a feel-good romp for the whole family!

It's with that mindset that I went into viewing Justin Cole's The Upper Footage. This is a movie I had heard almost nothing about and subsequently went in blind, beyond knowing it was a found footage movie. The resulting film is, in my opinion, probably one of the best concentrated displays of what found footage can be capable of doing- both good and bad.

I also feel I should clarify one thing: While this is most definitely a found footage-style movie, I feel a bit odd calling it a horror film- At least in the traditional sense of the word and how it's been utilized in these films. There' are no unseen creatures or demons in this case, nor is there a strange killer. The footage featured isn't even the 'last known footage' of a group that has gone missing. Rather, the narrative presented here is more of, for lack of a better term for it, a found footage thriller, albeit one with some horrifying elements of a different sort.

You know you're doing your marketing well when you don't have to fake a clip like this because they actually buy it.

The story we're presented with begins with a short clip being posted on YouTube under the title 'NYC Socialite Overdose.' The clip in question, with the participants faces censored, is actually part of the movie's prologue that, in further blurring the reality line, chronicles this movie's own bizarre path to release. Much of what is recounted in this prologue was a genuine media stunt the filmmakers assembled over the course of two years, building the clips up as possible blackmail of actual celebrities and even alleging that Quentin Tarantino wished to buy the rights to the footage and make a movie of it himself, only for the project to have then folded when people protested what was believed to be filmed footage of a person dying. The fact they got several media outlets to bite on the story works to their advantage here as the prologue features actual news footage of people discussing the clips that they had uploaded. From there, it segues into the movie's original story (Cole has since come forward about the fact the footage is all staged) – the footage in question resurfaces care of an anonymous party who initially seeks to use it to blackmail the families of the parties featured in the movie. After a successful payment, the families hesitate to pay a second time, which leads into the movie's main approach – 90 minutes of footage compiled from the 393 minutes that was shot on the fateful night in question.

I don't see why...nothing remotely blackmail-worthy here...

The footage itself, without giving too much away, concerns a group of upper class New York socialites getting ready for a night of drinking, drugs, and all-around debauchery. This is all chronicled by one member of the group, Will, who carries the camera around more as a novelty for his own amusement at first. The night takes a turn when Devin, one of the members of the party, picks up a girl named Jackie (the only member of the group whose identity remains censored in the finished film.) Clearly in over her head, Jackie is taken in by the drinking and drugs, and as the promotion suggests, eventually overdoses. What follows are the actions of the group as they desperately try to dispose of the body in such a way as to not incriminate themselves.

This is part of why I have a hard time categorizing this as a found footage horror, at least in the same sense as the label is usually applied. The story presented here is one that's less about scares, and more about the suspense involved in the interactions in this group as tensions run high and they begin turning on one another. This approach does make for some good work from the actors, who manage to make for some genuinely uncomfortable interactions as they begin to argue amongst one another over how involved each of them may be or who's accountable to what extent. The one consistently horrifying element within this could be said to be how self-concerned the group are. After the initial shock of Jackie's death, there is almost no acknowledgment of her as a person by the group – her corpse is a liability that they must dispose of for their own sakes. One well done touch with this being in the film's final act as the group, with the corpse, drives out of state to find a place to dispose of her. Blake and Devin, the two in the front, are entirely focused on not getting caught and seem completely uncaring to the fact a person has died. In the backseat, Blake's girlfriend Taylor and Will are each much more shaken by the incident, and the fact they can even smell the body while Blake and Devin remain unphased is a nice little touch showing the divide between how each group is feeling about what they've done.
Capping off this horror is an epilogue that makes this alarmingly plausible tale even more sadly believable. The whole thing, while fictionalized, is a story that would feel right at home in a local news report.

There are a few drawbacks to the film, mostly consequences of the nature of found footage. Given the film is from the perspective of a group of hedonistic 20-somethings, the camera work is often all over the place to the point of annoyance. There is one area where it actually works well: in the infamous overdose scene. Upon finding Jackie dead, Will puts down the camera and the scene plays out with the camera on the floor and the panic taking place out of shot. The result is a mixed bag – visually, the held shot isn't particularly interesting and that can get tedious. At the same time, it's logical within the setting for Will to put the camera down, and the fact the panic ensues off camera leaves one wondering at the full extent of things. The latter is prevalent in many later parts of the movie, as Will leaves the camera running while feigning that it's turned off. This leads to many scenes that are visually a mixed bag, though the off-screen arguments are still quite effective, and not seeing the fighting sometimes adds to the impact.

Well, there IS Will's bid for creative camera work here...but that's about it.

In all, The Upper Footage is a demonstration of some of the best and worst that found footage has to offer. In the latter case, it's the scattershot camera work that can be infuriating to watch at times for periods where the camera is shooting nothing, though the fact it would be doing so is logical within the narrative confines of the setting. In the former, it's a movie that feels like it has earned its use of the found footage thanks to its premise. It's a case where what the movie's suggesting, itself something that can and does actually happen, is framed in a way that makes it more believable that this could have actually happened. To that end, as a nice break from horror – in the traditional sense, anyway – this film has me now intrigued by the potential for found footage in the vein of more suspense thrillers like this. It's definitely not a movie I'd recommend to just anybody, but in terms of seeing found footage try something different – and in this case kind of disturbing – it's worth the ninety minutes of time it asks of you. As someone who went in pretty well burned out on the found footage style, this movie convinced me the tires still have some tread left on them.

Now if more people would just flex their creativity with it like this, I'd be a bit less of a crotchety old man.

Still, one step at a time.

As for the site, October's coming and it's time to clear the docket in preparation for my favorite time of year.

You've been warned.

Till next time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Godzilla (2014): I Believe The Blue Oyster Cult Once Said It Best...

History shows again and again
How Nature points out the folly of man.
--Blue Oyster Cult, Godzilla.

Let me start by saying this: Legendary, you missed a big opportunity by not sneaking this song among the various other Godzilla references you peppered throughout this movie. Don't even go telling me it would be too on-the-nose after the Mothra shout-out.


This is a review I sat on for a bit since I didn't get to the film in theaters until it was several weeks into its run, and at that point, the review seemed somewhat past its prime. However, now that the film is having it's home release, I figure these thoughts are still valid.

I'll admit I was pretty skeptical of when this was first announced. It wasn't even just because of the infamous Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie, because  I still haven't bothered with that one. Nor was it a matter of thinking the Japanese films are inherently superior, because anyone who thinks that needs to watch Godzilla's Revenge. I was just really unsure on how to feel about the approach being employed here. Everything in the marketing made it sound like this film was going to be a 'back to basics' approach to the brand, and I mean all the way back. Godzilla was going to go back to being the living embodiment of the destructive powers humanity had unearthed. On one hand, I was intrigued to see a callback to this. On the other, it's one that feels a little disingenuous to be coming at from this side of the Pacific- but that's a whole other matter. Plus, the fact this was then entrusted to the hands of a director who had only one feature film under his belt at the time had me hesitant.

So begins another morning commute for Godzilla...

With all of this in mind, I went into the film with my expectations reasonably tethered. I went in wanting to like it and be fair to it, but also not expecting the scaly, nuclear Second Coming.

So how did it do?

Depends on what aspect of it you look at, really.

As an overall movie, Gareth Edwards's Godzilla is a very mixed bag- when it's good, it's actually a blast to watch, but when it misses, it's very hard to forgive. Especially when the miss elements so thoroughly outnumber the hits.

Fortunately, one of the areas where they succeed is the one area everyone's paying to see- the monster fights in this are great stuff. In fact, they're one of the big reasons I'm glad I finally did go ahead with seeing this one on the big screen. My only complaint about the monster action- and I know I'm not alone in this-is that there's not enough of it. Which, don't get me wrong, is actually somewhat par for the course of a Godzilla movie, but it's still hard not to feel disappointed here.

Still, they make the most of their screentime here. Even though these monsters aren't the classic people in suits, they still genuinely feel solid and throw their weight around while fighting. These are knock-down, drag-out monster brawls, and I genuinely hope that with the success of the film, the sequel will actually deliver more. On top of all of this, it culminates in arguably the most rewarding part of the movie. After an entire movie of just slugging it out, Godzilla makes with one of his fan favorite moves-yes, the famous nuclear death breath, and oh GOD is it worth the wait.


The one other point I'll give the monsters (because much as I'd love to make this all about them, they're not the majority of this film) is the designs.  These are a HUGE improvement over the infamous '98 makeover. Yes, I know everyone's joked about the more heavy-set Godzilla, but honestly, once I got to seeing it more in action, it grew on me pretty fast. On top of this, his antagonists- the nuclear creatures codenamed Mutos - grew a lot on me once I saw them in action. Their look is distinctive, and surprisingly, the film even gives them some degree of personality, such as when they reunite in the middle of a city. For being creatures that look to be giant mutated insects, they have a moment of bizarre affection between them that provides a nice little touch.

Also, I'll concede that, sticking with the suits, this would have been a tricky design to make work.

Okay, much as I hate to do this, I'm gonna walk away from the monsters here. I can't put this part off any longer. As awesome as the monsters are, the rest of this movie runs from either "just okay" to "weak."
Again, I'll grant Godzilla movies- the first aside- aren't really known for having a strong human cast. It's just part of the formula, and I can accept that. The problem is, these go past unremarkable to outright painful to watch at points. The biggest offender here being Aaron Taylor-Johnson, or as I will refer to his character from here on out, Corporal Kick-Ass. The supporting cast in this movie actually have some interesting traits to them - most notably Bryan Cranston as CKA's conspiracy-minded father and Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as a pair of scientists following the various nuclear monsters. They feel like they at least have concepts behind them, which makes me wish we got to see more of them. By comparison, CKA's character is a placeholder. He has no discernible personality, and his background is largely there to set up Cranston. Otherwise he's there to be a laundry list of action hero cliches, complete with the family that consists of an utterly wasted Elisabeth Olsen to worry about.

I could keep going on this, but if I just let the floodgates flow, we could be here for a LONG time. This was frustrating for me. I know Godzilla movies aren't about rich characterization for the humans, but this crew at least had the potential to be interesting. Rather than seize that potential, all the characters who could have worked are thrown into the backseat for the human equivalent of drywall.

Meanwhile, the script and direction are between the two poles here. There are some great moments - many of the monster scenes, and an early sequence where Cranston talks CKA into joining him in revisiting their old home in Japan- an eerily evacuated area that evokes Fukushima fears as well as flashes of the movie Stalker. In fact, much of the first half hour is actually pretty effective at building up suspense of what's coming. At the same time, when it's just people and not monsters or mystery, the movie fumbles pretty hard. Most of the overall direction didn't bug me too much, but there are a few on-the-nose moments that prove irritating in just how 'Eh? Eh?' they can get- a tea kettle going off in the middle of an argument between CKA and Cranston being the most grating example.

I will say one of the weaknesses in the film's script also leads into probably its funniest joke: the fact the US Navy backed this movie in the hopes that it would be their 'look good' blockbuster. One big problem here: where films like Transformers and Top Gun worked by making their respective branch of the armed services look good, Godzilla's depiction of the Navy is almost comically inept. One of the big themes the movie plays with about Godzilla is the idea of his role as a sort of balancing act for nature: when creatures from the past arise, he is there to put them back down. As such, the movie is counting on him to do the heavy lifting, meaning the Navy has to learn the hard way to sit back and let the lizard do its work. What this means for them? That they spend the bulk of this movie trying, failing, and just making things worse while Ken Watanabe repeatedly admonishes them to just trust the giant nuclear lizard. In the end, their most successful decision is to stand back and let Godzilla work.

As you can guess from the review, this was a really all over the place movie for me. For as much as I've unloaded on it here, I wouldn't consider it a bad movie. In fact, I am glad I saw this one back in theaters. Despite that, I'd also consider it one of the more flawed blockbusters of the Summer season. It's got enough pluses to keep it from being a genuinely bad movie, but also enough shortcomings to keep it from being one of the best.

I will also admit to some personal disappointment regarding the earlier mentioned promotion of this movie. As I said before, they were really trying to play this up as a return to the classic Godzilla. Gone were the days of his being the Incredible Hulk with scales and firebreath, this was the vicious harbinger of mankind's punishment that the big G first came into the world as. What we instead got was a very polished version of a 'Godzilla VS *' movie. It was still fun, and I did appreciate the attempts to at least clarify "He may be fighting our enemies, but he's not our friend" but the fact is -- that still wasn't what they were promising. Don't make the sales pitch if you don't plan to deliver, Edwards.

Alongside this, I decided to rank the characters in this film from most to least potential to be an interesting protagonist:

Ken Watanabe

Bryan Cranston

Sally Hawkins

Juliette Binoche (yes, even with her dying in the first half hour.)

The animatronically operated corpse of Raymond Burr
Elizabeth Olsen
aaaaaaand Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Sorry kids, gotta call 'em like I see 'em.

Still, if nothing else, it helped prove that the west has the capabilities to make a fun giant monster movie, and that there is a market for it. Even with all its problems, I will be keeping an eye out for the sequel when the time comes.

...you know, for as skeptical as I was of this movie, I'd like to say I behaved myself pretty well under the circumstances. Went a bit longer than I planned, but hey.

More entries to come soon, guys.

Till then.