What kind of a movie would waste the talents of Oscar nominees Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe and Juliette Binoche?
A “Godzilla” movie, that’s what kind.
Another way to look at it is that “Godzilla,” the newest reboot of a franchise that started in Japan in 1954, didn’t waste these fine actors’ talents at all, but rather used their formidable reputations and screen presence to “class up” a genre that’s become synonymous with kitsch. Sure, most of them aren’t doing much more than delivering a bunch of junk-science exposition, but they deliver it convincingly and without a hint of irony.
The challenge for “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards — the man who made the indie monster movie “Monsters” for $500,000 and did all the CGI effects himself on a laptop to save money — was to utilize the big studio budget to respect the tenets of the kaiju film, take the premise dead seriously, and create some actual awe-inspiring cinematic moments.
Considering the limitations of the genre, I’d say he more than succeeded.
Bryan Cranston sinks his teeth into what I’m calling the Richard Dreyfuss “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” role — the guy who knows something big and ominous is coming to the planet, and yet no one will listen to him. His name is Joe Brody (a nod to Chief Brody from "Jaws"?), and the first half of “Godzilla” is a series of glimpses that allude to a mythical backstory and build anticipation.
Some clever misdirection from screenwriters Max Borenstein and David Callaham toys with an audience that’s waiting with baited breath for the Godzilla reveal. But Edwards is in full Spielberg mode, alternating between monster teases and a straightforward story about a military lieutenant (a bland Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returning home to his family.
This foreboding aura finally manifests itself, and what Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey are so good at doing throughout all of the giant monster scenes is keeping them in perspective. For the CGI Godzilla to be truly jaw-dropping, a sense of scale has to be present at all times. To us, this towering dinosaur-like beast is unfathomably huge — and unstoppable. To Godzilla, we are insignificant, like insects. We’re just tiny creatures inhabiting the Earth at this point in time. He’s been here much, much longer and sees a bigger picture — literally.
This concept comes across naturally from the plot mechanics, but Edwards strengthens it visually as well, framing every shot of the monster with scale in mind. We see Godzilla through a car or bus window, over the shoulder of a human, from a bridge, and every other perspective you can think of.
In “Pacific Rim,” when a giant machine fights a giant monster in the middle of the ocean, there’s no reference point to reinforce the hugeness of the objects. But when Godzilla emerges from the ocean and there are people in the foreground on a bridge watching his giant iconic fins go by right in front of their eyes, you feel the creature’s size.
There are even a couple of bravura cinematic set pieces, like a thrilling skydiving sequence, shot with the smoking ruins of a city below. Alexandre Desplat’s score is also a standout, creating dread and menace with unsettling string arrangements, and punctuating the shocking moments with big bursts of brass and taiko drums that play like a darker take on classic '50s sci-fi/horror.
Edwards’ movie also contains shades of the 1954 “Godzilla,” which was haunted by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with subtext about the dangers of nuclear power and man’s hubris that are especially relevant in the shadow of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. Without revealing too much of the plot, let’s just say that the nuclear option is not a viable one, and man’s greatest threat turns out to be himself.
To pay tribute to the legacy of “Godzilla” without completely re-inventing it, one must have a certain amount of humans frantically scrambling to wrap their heads around the giant monster phenomenon and shouting clunky dialogue. But Edwards has cast his reboot well, and does a fantastic job of building suspense and preying on the audience’s apprehension.
Once the monster appears, it delivers on virtually every level. Driving around after the screening, it was impossible not to visualize a giant monster towering above and tearing through the Kansas City skyline as if it were trash on a floor. Mission accomplished.
A Criminally Overlooked 80s Comedy Celebrates 25 Years
At 8 p.m. Friday, Liberty Hall pays tribute to the 1983 comedy "The Adventures of Bob & Doug Mackenzie: Strange Brew" (shortened on home video to "Strange Brew"), one of the most bizarre, meta movies of its decade. Using Shakespeare's "Hamlet" as a template, writer/director/stars Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas bring their beer-loving Canadian brothers from "SCTV" to the big screen with a level of absurdity that rivals Monty Python and "Blazing Saddles."
Bias alert: I have seen this film probably 100 times.
I have almost every line memorized, even the expositional dialogue from supporting characters — especially Oscar-nominated screen legend Max Von Sydow, who as the evil Brewmeister Smith, says things like “What the stink are they doing in there?” My brother and I used to watch this movie as kids and “steamroll” each other. We’d wrap our arms around our chests and act out the scene where Bob and Doug get thrown in the Royal Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane and are put in straitjackets. What can I say. I was 12.
After the super-meta quasi-brain-busting opening, in which the brothers are watching themselves watch a movie with a packed house of multiplex filmgoers, the "plot" kicks in. Instead of the nefarious plan to take over the throne of Denmark, "Strange Brew" has Smith and Claudius, er, Claude (played hilariously by Paul Dooley) plotting to take over Claude’s brother’s Elsinore Brewery. Dooley veers from classic slapstick to idiotic simpering throughout the movie, and his comic timing is never less than impeccable.
The original brewmeister Harry Green is Polonius, the well-meaning adviser. Pam Elsinore and Rosie are a gender-switched Hamlet and Ophelia, with Pam’s murdered father coming back to her as a ghost just like "Hamlet," but now he's sending coded messages from inside an old arcade game (huh?). Rosie drowns, just like Ophelia, but he doesn’t exactly die at the bottom of the lake because, well, beer.
Bob and Doug are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the inseparable, naïve ignoramuses wandering the "castle," blissfully unaware of all the double-crossing behavior of their new pals at Elsinore Brewery.
What better way to set the most ridiculous movie plot ever in motion (one that includes hockey-playing mental patients, a karate-chopping defense lawyer, and a flying dog that sprouts a cape) than with two sweetly idiotic and inseparable Canadian drunkards who mean well?
For my money, "Strange Brew" is 100 times funnier and more clever than the critically acclaimed Tom Stoppard movie "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," based on his play of the same name.
Everything I learned about beer I first learned from "Strange Brew." I wasn’t even sure 100 percent what getting drunk really meant when I was a kid. I just know it looked like fun. Thanks, Bob and Doug, for turning me into a lifelong beer drinker!
The movie remains a seriously overlooked and underrated comedy, and a product of a time when fringe comedians had the opportunity to make low-budget studio pictures and have complete creative freedom.