Friday, July 20, 2018

Top 10 Daikaiju Films



It should be no surprise at this point that I adore monster movies. But if there's one particular subgenre of monster movies that I love the most, it has to be Japanese giant monster movies, or daikaiju movies. And what better way to pay respect to this subgenre than to look at the best it has to offer? So here are my top ten daikaiju films of all time.

To clarify the difference between a giant monster film and a daikaiju film, these ones have to have a monster that's bigger than any animal on the planet, whether it's in the film for an hour or a minute, and it has to be produced, owned and released by a Japanese film studio. This means that films like the original "King Kong" or "Pacific Rim" cannot make this list, even though they are great monster movies. We're looking at those monsters from the land of the rising sun. The ones that transcend their genre and conventional stories to become an enjoyable experience, even for those who aren't a fan of the genre. So to start things off with, here is...



Number 10

To kick off this countdown, let's look at those movies use giant monsters in a more minor key. Ones that aren't so verbose or upfront about the presence of monsters. These are the ones that just so happen to have giant monsters in a story that could otherwise be a serviceable film without them, but is amplified by their presence. And these ones could be telling tales from entirely different genres to showcase the diversity of the kaiju genre, saying that these monsters aren't all alike.

Some of the prime examples of this include the gangster-monster fusion of "Dogora," the end of the world scenario that becomes even more complicated with a giant monster in "Gorath," weirdly mysterious and supernatural films like "The H-Man" and "Matango," and the feudal Japan-era "Daimajin" trilogy. And while I was very tempted to give this slot to "Atragon" for its adventurous scope and size, it can't quite hold a candle to the 1965 classic "Invasion of Astro-Monster."



"Invasion of Astro-Monster" (aka "Monster Zero") (1965) - Monster(s) in a minor role

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

While the highlights of this one are the fights between Godzilla, Rodan and King Ghidorah, "Invasion of Astro-Monster" is more so about what it would be like if explored the cosmos and found alien life. The special effects from Eiji Tsuburaya have never been better and atmospheric, while the slow start gives the film an creepy edge that shouldn't be understated. Even the aliens are given their own mythology and culture that serves as a great development throughout the later half of the film. The monsters just serve as a powerful backdrop to an otherwise great science fiction experience.

Even if Godzilla, King Ghidorah and Rodan weren't in this movie, it'd still be a captivating and tense piece, especially when they're on Planet X. But with those monsters in it, the film expertly melds two genres together, giving us some great use of miniatures and that classic Akira Ifukube score. This is the combination of Honda, Tsuburaya, Tanaka and Ifukube at their best and most creative, which is why it deserves to be on this list.



Number Nine

Now that we've got monsters in a minor role covered, let's step it up a bit and showcase the films that have monsters in even bigger roles. These are ones where the monsters build off of an already escalating plot and feel like an organic part of the story, like an orchestra building up to its bigger and bolder pieces of music. These films don't necessarily have to start with the monster attacking, or have everyone fighting to stop the monster, but use the monster as the engine to the whole movie.

The best examples of this include the somber and personal "Frankenstein Conquers the World," the mythological "Varan the Unbelievable," and would certainly include impressive and vast scale of "Rodan." There's always the comical and ludicrous "X From Outer-Space." But for my number nine pick, I can't think of a better example than the elegant look at Capitalism, "Mothra."

 

"Mothra" (1961) - Monster in a major role

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

On the surface, "Mothra" may not seem like an interesting concept - a giant worm rampaging through Tokyo. But then the film throws in many subtleties and complexities that breathe far more life into it. The film is strange mix of ancient mythologies about religion and how that effects modern society, especially when confronted by men who are selfish and greedy. This battle between old and new rages on alongside the fight against Mothra.

Yet the whole movie has a very elegant and sophisticated approach to everything, from the kind and whimsical twin fairies, to Akira Ifukube's fantastical score, to the more upscale effects on Mothra's rampage. I can't recall ever seeing such detail and nuances in the effects of a kaiju film and it plays well into the whimsy of the movie, especially as Mothra's rampage escalates and evolves, showcasing that elegant mythology that we've come to know and love about Mothra.

 



Number Eight

Now that we've seen monsters in minor and major roles, what better way to escalate that further than by having two monsters? There are lots of different ways to tell these types of tales, including having the monsters team up or pitting them against one another, but the main focus is typically on how humanity has to rally together to combat two powerful threats and what risks they take to bring the monsters down.

This would include a large number of Godzilla movies, including the first example of two monsters fighting each other with "Godzilla Raids Again," or the far more memorable and epic "King Kong vs. Godzilla." "Space Amoeba" is a campy, cheesy example of this, as is "King Kong Escapes." But for my number eight spot, there really isn't anything quite like 1966's "War of the Gargantuas."



"War of the Garganutas" (1966) - Two monsters for One

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

Like "Invasion of Astro-Monster," this film came out at the height of kaiju popularity in Japan and took things a slightly different direction than that film. Rather than going bigger and more epic, "War of the Garganutas" feels scaled down, focusing on the minute and personal rather than the grand scheme. The two monsters in this movie have far more personality and inner conflicts going on than any other previous monster, all without saying any words, which makes their brotherly battle feel so more real and passionate than most other monster battles before or after it.

These monsters are smaller than many of the other ones on this list, which allows for more attention to detail on the effects and sets. Even watching one of the garganutas falling into the side of building feels more intense and harmful than most effects in these other entries. This is probably why "War of the Gargantuas" feels so much more brutal and raw than other kaiju films, which is why it deserves to be amongst the greats.



Number Seven

Of course, not all kaiju films involve the fate of the world or the destruction of major cities. Some of them can surprisingly tug at the heart strings or make us laugh, so let's take a moment to look at those that do both effectively. These are films that put sentiment and comedy above anything else and treat their monsters more as the butt of a joke than you'd see in films like "Mothra" and "War of the Gargantuas."

Think something like the outrageous and ludicrous plot of "Ebirah, Horror of the Deep" or the child-like imagination of "All Monsters Attack." Nearly every campy or cheesy kaiju film would fall into this category, which includes nearly every Godzilla film from the 1970s and all of the early Gamera movies. But I'm looking for one that is both sentimental and funny, which is why my number seven pick is 1967's "Son of Godzilla."



"Son of Godzilla" (1967) - Sentimental/Comedy Kaiju

Directed by Jun Fukuda and Released by Toho Co.

"Son of Godzilla" excels by doing the exact opposite of what a kaiju film should be doing. Rather than offering commentary on the problems the world faces and monsters destroying cities, this film thrives on giving its monsters rich character development and making you care for Godzilla and his adopted son. Minilla serves as a contrast to any other monster by behaving and acting like a precocious and intrigued child, while Godzilla begrudgingly puts up with his behavior and ends up being the butt of a lot of jokes. Like the Garganutas in the last entry, all of this is communicated without the two ever saying a word.

But the true reason this film stands out is because of how surprisingly touching and heartwarming the film can be. There's a genuine love that develops between these two that becomes infectious, which is no easy feat for two actors in rubber lizard suits. This culminates in the most heartfelt and honest moments in monster history, making stand out as possibly the most unique kaiju film ever made.



Number Six

But not all of the best monsters come from Earth. Some have been terrorizing planets just like ours for thousands of years, so let's talk about a modified version of the "Monsters vs. Monsters" concept and look at monsters fighting aliens. Films that showcase two different worlds colliding in a struggle between the best both worlds have to offer.

This could include the trippy yet surprisingly poignant "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," or the first film to give us our favorite three-headed golden space dragon in "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," or even the first incarnation of Godzilla's mechanical doppelganger with "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla." But just for a change of face, I think it's appropriate to mention an often underrated kaiju film with 1996's "Gamera 2: Advent of Legion."



"Gamera 2: Advent of Legion" (1996) - Monster vs. Aliens

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and Released by Daiei

Coming directly off the success of the surprising "Gamera: Guardian of the Universe," "Advent of Legion" ups everything the first film established while expanding on the mythos, better emotional acting and of course some of the best practical effects of any Japanese monster movie. As the film explores the biology and desires of the alien Legion, a large swarm of bugs that feed off of silicon, the more terrifying and horrible they become, again without the aliens ever saying a word. It's amazing how this film breaks down how this swarm ticks in such elaborate detail without removing any of the mystery and menace.

But one thing I've learned that gives this 1990s Gamera trilogy its staying power is the brutal struggle Gamera has to endure in each movie, getting holes blasted in his shell, parts of his body getting mutilated and more of his green blood than I'd care to admit - and yet Gamera fights through all of this, always showing his discomfort and pain, but never willing to give up. This is on full display here, as Gamera goes through a horrendous journey to fight a foe he can never hope to understand, shown to us through some stunning effects that give Gamera a full range of emotions. Even the defense force gets some great moments and development, taking an active role in preventing the destruction of the planet, which is often unheard of in this situation. While it may be overshadowed by another film in this trilogy, there's no doubt that "Gamera 2" is one of the best looks at an tenacious monster fights a cold swarm of aliens.



Number 5

One of the biggest fears in these movies is if a monster suddenly showed up in the real world. What if Mothra did start rampaging through Tokyo? Or if a swarm of Legion invaded the planet? How would we react to this? This is a question brought up fairly often in a subgenre I like to call realistic interpretations. These kaiju films thrive on taking the political and sociological landscapes of our world and throwing a giant monster into the mix, making it less about the monster and more about how the world interprets such a creature, how it exists, why its here now and what we do to stop it.

A good example of this would be the 2014 American "Godzilla" and how it analyzes the situation from the perspective of a soldier. But that one wasn't made by a Japanese company, so it doesn't count. One of the best examples is "The Return of Godzilla" and its take on how Godzilla would escalate the Cold War and tensions around the globe. But for my pick, I feel it'd be criminal to go with anything other than 2016's "Shin Godzilla."



"Shin Godzilla" (2016) - Realistic interpretation

Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi and Released by Toho Co.

"Shin Godzilla" stands out, not because of its radical changes to the Godzilla structure, but because of its style and commentary. Unlike many other kaiju films in 2000s, the scenes with the Japanese government interpreting and reacting to the monster are just as enjoyable as the destruction and monster evolution. It helps that the fear and confusion of the government is on full display, leading to them making some baffling and cold responses to show that Democracy is unequipped to handle an unexpected crisis like this.

Of course, it helps that "Shin Godzilla" doesn't have one main character, but instead makes Japan its main character. Rather than hearing one perspective, we're given countless points of view, even from ordinary citizens and those who aren't fighting the monster. This gives the movie an unprecedented national perspective to an event that should be seen that way. These elements, combined with a terrifying new design for Godzilla that only gets more haunting as the film goes on and a breath-taking cinematic approach that adds to an already impressive size and scope, and you get a modern kaiju classic that easily competes with the founders of the genre.



Number Four

Now that we've covered so many different story possibilities within the kaiju genre, let's discuss the main reason people generally watch these movies - to watch giant monsters beat each other up. Let's not pretend that we all don't love this s*it. This is the Japanese equivalent of action movies, the ones that get our blood pumping and excitement at the ensuing mayhem and destruction. But just like action movies, this can be done poorly, but also done so well that it stands out, not just as a great monster movies but as genuinely great entertainment.

Some of the best examples include the low-budget yet dark "Terror of MechaGodzilla," the equally low-budget "Gamera: Guardian of the Universe," the thought-provoking and beautiful "Godzilla vs. Biollante," and one of my guilty pleasures in "Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II." But I've always felt the most entertaining and rewarding clash between giant monsters has to be 1964's "Mothra vs. Godzilla."

 



"Mothra vs. Godzilla" (1964) - Monster vs. Monster

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

This one makes it so high on the list because this is the team of Honda, Tsuburaya, Tanaka and Ifukube at their peak, creating a piece that is not only highly entertaining and stunningly beautiful, but rich with character and world development. It takes the themes of its two leading monsters and has them clash, not just physically but also psychologically, as a creature worshipped as a god faces a man-made monstrosity. Even without the monsters, the acting and script carry this story about distrust and greed that remains as interesting as its monster scenes.

Which is saying a lot, because this is the best use of scale and perspective of any Toho monster film, making every scene with Godzilla feel like he's about to devour the world. The soundtrack serves as the perfect emotional compliment to the effects while breathing even more life into these action sequences, which themselves are some of the most tense and suspenseful of any monster movie. Which is why it absolutely deserves to be on this list.

 

 



Number Three

But one step up from monsters fighting other monsters is throwing as many monsters as possible at the screen. If one monster is great, then why not throw in all of them? And Japan loves to do this more often than you'd think. These are the films that are addicted to monsters like caffeine and want to share that love and admiration with the audience, creating as many insane scenes as possible with a large roster of monsters. These are, what I like to call, the all-out extravaganza's, films that throw caution to the wind and go all-in on the monster scenes.

The previously mentioned "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster" is probably the first example of this, while "Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" is one of the more recent examples. Cheesy films like "Godzilla vs. Gigan" and "Godzilla vs. Megalon" do this to varying degrees. But I think we can all agree that no kaiju film has ever done it quite like 1968's "Destroy All Monsters."



"Destroy All Monsters" (1968) - All-Out Extravaganza

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

What was supposed to serve as the end to Toho's kaiju films instead becomes a love letter to everything that is grand and epic about these movies, bringing in as many monsters as possible and setting them loose on the world. This film is nonstop madness, always throwing everything it can at the screen and loving its vast range of monsters and massive sets and destruction, culminating in quite possibly the greatest scene involving guys in rubber monster suits.

Not only that, but it serves as a capstone to Ishiro Honda's legacy, following his many themes of brotherhood amongst all citizens, exploration for the benefit of mankind, and man's struggles against the monsters of the past to its logical and futuristic conclusion. This ultimately gives us Honda's vision of utopia, which is a perfect way to end a series of movies about mankind overcoming all these monsters. Even though we're clearly here to watch some insane monster action, Honda's interpretation of the future gives "Destroy All Monsters" its staying power.



Number Two

As this list winds down, I feel it's appropriate to look at those films that see monsters from an entirely different perspective. The ones that take a more personal look at these giant monsters that could crush us without even blinking an eye. Think of this is as the opposite of something like "Shin Godzilla," where rather than looking at it from a national perspective, it's just one person and their struggle in the face of impossible massive threats.

This could be as simple as a fight for survival in a crumbling city, or someone trying their best to live their lives while a monster is around. But the most common type of this example is the revenge tale, where someone feels an overwhelming desire to make the monster pay for their terrible acts. Many of the Millennium Godzilla are a prime example of this, but it was never done quite as well as my number two pick, 1999's "Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris."



"Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris" (1999) - Monsters' impact on the human psyche

Directed by Shusuke Kaneko and Released by Daiei and Toho Co.

This is one of the most beautiful and powerful kaiju films, not just because of its visuals and special effects, but because of its perspective. Can we really ever consider monsters as our saviors when they are, by their nature, creatures of destruction? The Gamera in this film blurs the line between good and evil, but its the points of view that puts Gamera's actions into question, both from a teenage girl whose family was killed by Gamera and two leaders of a cult see Gamera as standing in the way of letting nature run its course.

This makes "Gamera 3" more of a meditation how people can interpret giant monsters and what we should do to remain in control while facing such a threat. The film doesn't have an easy answer to this question, leaving a lot of its ending up to interpretation. But beyond this, "Gamera 3" has some of the most impressive effects ever put in a Japanese movie, especially in its climax where two monsters fit inside of a train station, while still serving as a fitting conclusion to the endless, brutal battle of the Guardian of the Universe.



Number One

And finally, for my number one spot, let's look at the most commonly used trope of in Japanese monster movies - the allegory. Of course, monsters are never just there to be lumbering abominations. They've always had subtle context or meanings behind their actions, trying to make a statement about the troubles or fears of our world. In Japan, these monsters are typically allegories about the atomic bomb, radiation, pollution, or as something as simple as mankind's greed.

Many of Toho's earliest kaiju films are some of the best examples of this, but I'd be fooling myself if one didn't stick out above the others. The one that started it all and still remains the greatest achievement in kaiju filmmaking, and my number one pick, 1954's "Godzilla."



"Godzilla" (1954) - The Allegory

Directed by Ishiro Honda and Released by Toho Co.

As obvious as this number one pick is, this is the best example of Japanese monster filmmaking as it perfectly captures the hopes and fears of Post-World War II Japan, without ever losing sight of the emotional and personal factor. The effects are still just as jarring and horrific as they were in 1954, made even more terrifying by the cinematography always showing Godzilla from low angles while civilians run from the living atomic bomb as they struggle against something they cannot hope to conquer.

Yet, the whole movie remains intriguing from start to finish, going from a mystery that uses Godzilla like the shark in "Jaws," before making a statement about mankind's endless desire to create a better weapon and the destruction that brings. All while the filmmakers emphasis that, it's not just empty cardboard buildings being destroyed, but devastated people that are helpless to stop their homes from being destroyed. So many of the best shots in this film come from ordinary people facing down Godzilla and their demise, some do it with gusto, while others hold their children in their arms one last time. It is a powerful, emotional movie that believes less is more, with a profound statement about nuclear weapons that still resonates after 60 years. Which is why I feel it is the greatest kaiju film of all time.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Movie Review - "Fail Safe" (1964)



It amazes me that "Fail Safe," a film about a mechanical failure that causes a bomber group carrying hydrogen bombs to head towards Moscow during the height of the Cold War, came out the same year as "Dr. Strangelove," a comedy with a nearly identical plot. It certainly speaks to the growing fears in the 1960s - what a nuclear war between the Americans and the Soviets would do to the planet, the concern that wars shouldn't be handled by politicians far away from fight, and that mankind was putting too much faith in machines and computers to handle wars when they're just as likely to fail as we are. The world was just as terrified as the characters in this movie, afraid that everything we know and care about could end just because of a few blips on a screen and a computer error. Which is why it's so fascinating to me that this and "Dr. Strangelove" so accurately capture those feelings, but do so in night-and-day manners.

"Dr. Strangelove" does this by portraying every character as incompetent, inept, and unqualified to handle the power to turn the planet into a nuclear wasteland, but then again it also says that no man is qualified to handle such extreme power. "Fail Safe" is more about how man would be unable to make the impossible decision of starting a nuclear war because of that destructive power, so we allow the computers to make that decision for us. The thrilling chase to stop the bombers is the result of that cold and calculated decision.



Once more, "Fail Safe" differs from "Dr. Strangelove" due to its strong moral center. Despite the mechanical failure that causes all this to happen, there's a strange bond shared between the Americans and the Soviets to show that neither side is a monster that wished for the destruction of the other. From the President (Henry Fonda) attempting to mediate the decision with Soviet officials, the group of senators discussing what can be done to help the Soviets, and the generals in Omaha actively working with the Soviets to bring down their own bombers, there's a strong sense of looking out for our fellow man in the darkest moments, even under indescribable pressure.

While I do think "Dr. Strangelove" is the better film for its absurdly relevant commentary, there's no doubt that "Fail Safe" is a strong and effective political thriller that does make you feel like the fate of the world is at risk. It is unnerving with its lack of a soundtrack and tight pacing. The film feels like an episode of "The Twilight Zone" at times, blurring the line between reality and fiction while always remaining thrilling and tense.

Final Grade: A-

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Movie Review - "Sorry to Bother You" (2018)



The best way I can describe a rather indescribable film like "Sorry to Bother You" is as an incredibly stylized and bizarre take on "Get Out," ingrained in the fears and culture of an ever-evolving world and the impact that has had on the African-American community. All while its characters proudly proclaim their senses of individuality and fighting for what they believe is right and fair, yet still having a sense of humor and over-the-top style. "Sorry to Bother You" is just as funny and strange as it is trying to make about the hypocricy of the world.

Set in Oakland, the film follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he tries desperately to find a job in a shrinking economy. Cassius settles on a job as a telemarketer, but gets no where until a coworker (Danny Glover) suggests that he use his "white voice" so the callers won't hang up on him immediately. Cassius sees quick success with this and feels that he has finally found his calling in life. His company notices his success and gives Cassius a promotion to a "power caller" just as his coworkers organize a strike. Now Cassius has to choose between a life of luxury and purpose or fighting alongside his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) for what he believes in.



I've had difficulty talking about films like this, "Get Out" and "Black Panther," because I'm not the target audience. Which is a great thing to have being made at a time like this - we need films that speak to a wider range of people, instead of trying to please everyone. There have been plenty of relatable films for me, so let's see what other types of stories can be told! This is even more incredible because these films are amazing pieces of cinema, from intriguing mysteries and stylized action pieces to, now, zany comedies. Even if I don't fully understand the rational fears and sense of style in these movies, I can still appreciate and respect that it so perfectly captures and represents that style proudly.

For this reason, I highly recommend "Sorry to Bother You" as it sees just how far it can tow the satire line. It is as unpredictable and crazy as it is funny and poignant. The film is proud of its style and heritage, while taking a vastly different and modern approach. If you enjoyed "Get Out," then this film is right up the same alley while amplifying the style and comedy to the maximum setting.

Final Grade: A-

Friday, July 13, 2018

Marvel Cinematic Universe: From Worst to Best



I think it's safe to say that no one has had quite an impact on the film industry at the moment like Marvel studios. Since 2008, they've now released twenty movies in their shared universe, typically releasing three movies every year, with each film building off the the events of the last to make a shared cinematic universe that everyone is trying to copy now. They're films are some of the highest grossing movies of all time, and they're single-handedly keeping superheroes as the most popular genre at the moment.

Everyone has seen their movies and eagerly wait for their next entries to see where they'll take their dramatic, funny and always entertaining movies next. So now that Marvel studios has released exactly twenty of their own movies, I feel now is a good time to look back and countdown all of them from their worst to their best.

Keep in mind that I'll only be looking at the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not every movie Marvel had a part in. Which means no X-Men movies, Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, and unfortunately no Deadpool films. With that said, these are how I would rank all of the MCU movies.



Number 20 - "Iron Man 2"

As a direct sequel to the first film in this cinematic universe, "Iron Man 2" takes everything that made the first film likable and charming and makes it obnoxious. This film is loud, irritating, makes the least amount of sense of any Marvel film and has the worst pacing of any film in this series. It doesn't really have a lot going for it, especially when the lasting image of this film are the annoying conversations between Downey Jr. and Paltrow talking over each other. Easily the worst film in the series.

Number 19 - "Thor: The Dark World"

Not as annoying or irritating as "Iron Man 2," but this films' crime is that it's so boring. The characters are dull, the plot is forgettable, the way it uses the other nine realms of Asgard is lame, and it feels like nothing is accomplished. The only saving grace of this film is Tom Hiddleston's always great performance as Loki and how he's given a chance to do way more than he did in "Thor." Speaking of which...

Number 18 - "Thor"

Like "The Dark World," this one is just forgettable. It is better due to the heroic character arc of its lead, and many of the scenes with Thor learning to live on Earth are funny in that "fish out of water" style. Beyond that, there is nothing worthy to be seen in "Thor."

Number 17 - "The Incredible Hulk"

This one now feels like the black sheep of the cinematic universe and is often forgotten among the many other super heroes. It also didn't help that Ang Lee's "Hulk" was always on people's minds and that Edward Norton didn't want to keep playing the Hulk after this movie. For the time, this film had great special effects and it made good use of the Hulk's size and scope. But there was really nothing else going for it.



Number 16 - "Doctor Strange"

In the grand scheme of this universe, "Doctor Strange" doesn't really have much going for it outside of its stunning visuals and the odd journey its title character goes through. It is impressive at times, but other moments are just so bland and predictable that it makes for an average blockbuster.

When the best character in your film is a piece of clothe, you know you goofed on a few things.

Number 15 - "Iron Man 3"

Some people really hate this one because of how it mistreats the comic origins of its villain. I always overlook that and instead remember "Iron Man 3" for making me laugh so hard. For a long time, it had the best sense of humor of any Marvel film and loving most of the film as a result - it basically sent the standard for how comedy in Marvel would be handled in the future. But beyond this, the plot is nonsensical and full of holes, and the climax leaves a lot to be desired. Not the strongest Iron Man tale, but far from the worst.

Number 14 - "Ant-Man"

Now we've reached that films that are just...fine. Perfectly serviceable summer blockbusters that were a lot of fun while I was watching them, but had no reason to watch them again after my initial viewing. "Ant-Man" did everything right, especially in scale and storytelling, but didn't leave much of an impact on me. The film did it's job and gave us a unique superhero with a very similar personality to many of the other Marvel leads. It wouldn't be until his next film that we would get a better taste of his personality.

Number 13 - "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

The best way I can describe "Age of Ultron" is that it is a sequel to an experience. Rather than being it's own thing, it tries to replicate something that cannot be topped and captured again. Even though "Age of Ultron" is, in many ways, an improvement over "The Avengers" in terms of storytelling, tension, dialogue and character dynamics, everything it does tries to be "The Avengers" all over again. It just doesn't feel as genuine this time around.



Number 12 - "Captain America: The First Avenger"

Now we move onto the ones that I thoroughly enjoy, starting with quite possibly the best superhero origin tale. Right from the beginning, our lead shows us his charm, compassion and likability that would become his defining characteristics, with some of the best scenes being little moments to prove that he's not trying to be a great soldier, but a good man. This whole movie is like if Captain America made a movie, cutting out the nitty-gritty and leaving only that which the filmmakers feel is important. Certainly one of the more underrated Marvel films.

Number 11 - "Ant-Man and the Wasp"

We come to the most recent Marvel film, one that won me over with its charm and likability. I appreciate the smaller-scale character driven piece, especially since it was a palette cleanser after "Infinity War." I ended up loving every character in this film, which is a testament to the writing and acting throughout.

Number 10 - "Iron Man"

For a long time, this was my favorite. It was the one to start it all and introduced us to Robert Downey Jr.'s unparalleled acting abilities. But then time passed and we got better made superhero movies. Tales that had better character arcs, and much better climaxes. It showed that "Iron Man," while still a solid entry in the shared universe with great acting and writing, is weaker compared to films will see later on this countdown.

Number 9 - "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

The most realistic and authentic of the Marvel films, "Homecoming" was more of a treat than I initially gave it credit for. The comedy felt genuine, the dialogue was fresh and witty without being over-the-top, and Tom Holland plays the best Spider-Man to date, perfectly balancing the line between the comedy and drama of being Spider-Man while still learning how to be the best hero possible. It is as refreshing and honest as we've gotten from Marvel.



Number 8 - "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

While I initially thought of this one as little more than a funny summer blockbuster that was another sequel to an experience, I thought more about "Guardians Vol. 2" and how it blurred the line between really funny scenes throughout with very intense and emotional moments. This thread is forever connected because of the theme of family and how each character has a different interpretation of it. This is far more than a funny summer blockbuster and it deserves all the credit it gets.

Number 7 - "Black Panther"

I know this one is special for a lot of people, and for very good reason. It is a game-changer in terms of what it is saying and what it represents, while still remaining as thought-provoking as a superhero film can get. For me, watching "Black Panther" was like a gateway to vast and diverse culture that I wanted to see even more of. I respect this film for what it accomplished and what it was trying to say, while still being a whole lot of fun.

Number 6 - "Thor: Ragnarok"

Speaking of fun, here is the most balls-to-the-wall insane entertainment of any Marvel movie. It is uproarious, thrilling, charming and so crazy that it's hard not to crack a smile just thinking about it. The whole film never takes itself too seriously, unlike the previous Thor films, and just has as much fun with Asgard as it possibly can, leading to some of the coolest sequences of any superhero movie.



Number 5 - "Avengers: Infinity War"

The most ambitious and epic movie out of this universe. Everything about this film felt big without sacrificing the smaller character driven moments. The pacing is stellar and everything about it felt satisfying while keeping the fun-loving Marvel style. This film is what ten years of development leads to, and it did not disappoint.

Number 4 - "The Avengers"

When I think of Marvel movies and what they're capable of doing, "The Avengers" is typically the first thing that comes to mind. It was an event when it came out and felt like more than just a normal film-going experience. No body have ever made a movie quite like "The Avengers" at the time, and it still hasn't been topped by anyone except by Marvel. This has become the standard for summer blockbusters now with it walks that tight rope between tense character-driven drama and witty comedy. It may seem small now compared to "Civil War" and "Infinity War," but "The Avengers" is still just as mind-blowing today as was in 2012.

Number 3 - "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Now we get the truly great Marvel movies, the ones that transcend being just summer blockbusters. I wish I could say all three of these last ones are a tie for number one, but instead I'll place "The Winter Soldier" here because it not only works as a wonderful political thriller, with some of the best action sequences in the entire cinematic universe, especially the highway fight scene, but because of struggle to find the difference between right and wrong in a world that is constantly evolving. The fact that it's Captain America that undergoes this struggle makes it even more interesting as we watch him personally struggle with his beliefs against the rest of the world. A simple yet highly effective movie.

Number 2 - "Captain America: Civil War"

Now take what "The Winter Soldier" said about the difference between right and wrong in an ever evolving world and add in a personal yet passionate conflict between its leads, and you have the most human portrayal of superheroes I've seen in a long time. It is amazing how well this film works on so many levels and never stops being entertaining for even a moment. The acting, the writing, the pacing and tension is solid throughout, but the relationships are the star of this film, especially with how brutally real they feel. It's one of the few Marvel films that made me think about what these heroes were fighting for and what they were doing to the world at large, all while still being thoroughly entertaining.



Number 1 - "Guardians of the Galaxy"

This may come as a surprise to some, since I wrote off "Guardians of the Galaxy" as little more than a dumb popcorn flick in my initial review. But the more I thought about how different this film is from every other Marvel film, and as they released more superhero tales, the more I looked back on this film and realized how smart, witty, emotional and stunning this film can be. On paper, this film should not work - every one of these characters are assholes, while four of the five main cast members aren't human, one of which can only say three words. Yet through clever writing, unbelievably captivating performances, an unparalleled soundtrack and the best world building of any Marvel film, we get a gem amongst some already awe-inspiring movies.

But the main reason "Guardians of the Galaxy" is my number one is because it was a risk. Marvel had no idea if this film was going to win people over. Unlike their other products with heroes that everyone knows about and could turn a profit even if they made a bad movie, only die-hard comic book fans knew who Star Lord, Rocket and Groot were. Marvel took a huge chance by doing a story that, not only didn't contain any previously established characters, but was filled with characters that were far from heroes. Hell, two of it's characters were a CGI raccoon and living tree! But despite all of the odds, this is the most memorable, fun and heartwarming film that Marvel has ever released.

With Marvel dominating the film industry at the moment, as well as how many companies conduct their business, it's safe to say that their movies aren't going anywhere, especially since "Black Panther" and "Infinity War" are in the top ten highest grossing films of all time while still being critically praised. These films keep finding new ways to tell fascinating and surprisingly complex stories that seem to keep getting better over time. As long as people enjoy people becoming more than what they are, Marvel will always have a special place in our hearts.
 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Movie Review - "The Blob" (1958)



Meet the definition of cheese and camp for science fiction in the 1950s - "The Blob."

Looking beyond the laughable yet effective special effects, mostly consisting of running slime down a slope, and the story being made up of adults playing rebellious teenagers while trying to stop an alien amoeba creature, I feel the main reason people still talk about "The Blob" is because of the lead actor - Steve McQueen in his film debut.

Despite the fact that he does not look like a teenager in his Mister Rogers sweater, all the elements of what made McQueen so likable are here - cool, suave, rebellious, but with a heart of gold. Even if this is just a B-movie with a cult following, McQueen gives an A-list performance and sells that this is a teen that feels like he has the world against him. Effectively, he's playing the boy who cried wolf, as the whole town doesn't believe there is a gelatinous monster and every time he spots the jelly, it vanishes. He spends the rest of the movie proving that he's not insane and trying to save the town from being consumed by the blob, and McQueen lives in the agony and pain of his character.



Beyond this, "The Blob" feels like a beach party movie that turned into a low-budget monster film, with it's overplayed rebel teens versus the police plot and how the adults just don't understand the kids these days. This plot takes up far more of the film than the story about the monster terrorizing the whole town. Then there's the 1950s groovy theme for the Blob that feels like something out of "Scooby-Doo." The whole film is campy fun like this, but it never takes itself too seriously so that the mood becomes disturbing, despite the fact that citizens are being dissolved by an alien jam.

Overall, "The Blob" has certainly earned its cult status, even if it belongs on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." It's a strange mix of a rebel teen tale and a B-horror movie and works as both for the most part. The effects are minimal and dated, but still get the job done, especially during the climax. And of course, Steve McQueen turns in a captivating and heartfelt performance that he would become known for long after this film. Watch this one with some friends and some alcohol, and you'll have a blast.

Final Grade: C+
 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Movie Review - "Ant-Man and the Wasp" (2018)



2018 for Marvel will certainly be remembered for the release of "Black Panther" and "Avengers: Infinity War," which have quickly become the two highest grossing superhero films of all time, while "Black Panther" gave us a stylized look at a diverse culture and "Infinity War" showed the epic potential of the superhero genre at its most extreme. In the scheme of things, "Ant-Man and the Wasp" feels small and rather unnoticeable compared to everything else Marvel has done this year, much like its heroes powers. Though honestly, I believe that was the intention of "Ant-Man and the Wasp."

This is a palette cleanser after the intense and convoluted "Infinity War" blew everyone away. It doesn't try to match that ambitious style and instead goes for a low-stakes yet funny and character-driven action piece. It matches the style and tone of the previous "Ant-Man" while upping the charm of its cast and their relationships. While "Ant-Man" was strictly a heist film, "Ant-Man and the Wasp" plays out unlike any other film Marvel has produced, due to the love-hate relationship of its two leads, and it is a welcomed addition.



This makes "Ant-Man and the Wasp" an improvement over "Ant-Man," while never trying to be anything more than fun summer blockbuster that often feels like a buddy cop film.

Set two years after the events of "Civil War," Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been under house arrest for fighting the Avengers and is nearing the end of his imprisonment. But after he has a strange dream about going back to the Quantum Realm, he tells Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) about it, and is subsequently kidnapped. Pym believes that Lang is the key to finding his long lost wife, Janet, who has been trapped in the Quantum Realm for 30 years and set out on a mission to rescue her, along with Pym's daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). But when a new villain that can phase through solid matter surfaces, Lang is forced to become Ant-Man again and finds that Hope has her own suit with shrinking abilities.



The main thing I took away from "Ant-Man and the Wasp" was how charming and likable the entire cast is while remaining flawed and broken characters. The lengths Scott and Hope go to for other people had me smiling all throughout the film, especially in the early scenes. The way Scott is reintroduced to us as a passionate, loving father with a lot of free time on his hands, thanks to his house arrest, is one of the most touching and heartfelt scenes in any Marvel film. While Hope is determined and focused, yet seems to really love being a super heroine, taking every opportunity she can to show off her skills. I fell in love with these characters again from their first scenes, while appreciating the filmmakers downplay the romantic interest to focus on character development.

In fact, many elements from the first film are downplayed. Luis (Michael Pena) and Scott's group of ex-cons have only a handful of scenes and one really great scene involving a group of black market dealers. Instead, the film uses this time to show the conflict between its leads, namely Scott's lack of commitment to the mission and Hope's inability to care for anything besides the mission. This creates tension that feels honest without saying too much about it, lending well to Rudd and Lilly's acting abilities and their on-screen chemistry.



The comedy in "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is effective, but more so in the cute way it plays with the characters powers. Some of the funniest scenes involve objects or people growing or shrinking, especially Luis during the climax or Scott getting shrunk to the size of a kid while in an elementary school. The dialogue is sharp and witty without coming off as over the top or begging for jokes, letting most conversations play out as naturally as you'd expect for heroes who can control ants. It's not the funniest Marvel film, and some jokes aren't as effective as others, but it has several hilarious scenes that add to the cute charm of this film.

Overall, "Ant-Man and the Wasp" is the exact opposite of "Infinity War" - small, low-stacks, while focusing on just a handful of characters that go on a journey that should be simple and gets more complicated over time. And that's exactly what Marvel needed right now. After such a big epic that felt like a bit too much at times, it's pleasant to watch a superhero film that focuses so much on family relationships. Rather than winning the audience over with effects, action sequences or even comedy, this one does it with little moments of heroes becoming human, highlighted by superb acting all around. This is one of the more fun, laid-back Marvel films, and it certainly one worth seeing.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review - "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964)



"Cheyenne Autumn" is another case where the story of how the film was made is far more interesting than the film itself, much like "Spartacus." This is the last western that John Ford ever made and was based on the true events of Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878, as group of nearly 200 Cheyenne Native Americans marched from their designated land in Oklahoma, given to them by the American government, back to their homeland in Wyoming.

Ford chose to make this his last western as a way to apologize to the Native American community after decades of portraying them as the heartless villains in his other westerns, such as "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers." Instead of the rugged cowboy risking his life to save a town or a girl from the clutches of the evil Indians, the roles are reversed - The Native Americans are the heroes for fighting for what they believe in, and the cowboys are the villains for trying to stop them.

That being said, "Cheyenne Autumn" takes a lot of artistic liberties with history, namely the path the Native Americans take to get back home being vastly different and the many side plots of other forces trying to stop them outside of the U.S. cavalry. And although Ford made this film as a way to show his love and passion for the Native American people, it is not without the Hollywood touch that tends to be a bit racist. Namely, several of the lead roles for the Native Americans are played by non-native actors, with the biggest one being Ricardo Montalban played Chief Little Wolf and Gilbert Roland as Chief Dull Knife.



So the whole idea of racial equality is muddy and unclear with this film - it's hard to promote a message about the power of Native Americans when you don't cast native actors in the lead roles.

Beyond this, "Cheyenne Autumn" has no sense of direction or plot. Large chunks of the film are dedicated solely to side plots that never connect to the main plot. This includes a nearly 20-minute sequence involving an elderly Wyatt Earp (played by Jimmy Stewart) hanging out in a saloon and playing poker. Earp never meets up with the Cheyenne, nor does anybody in the town he's in - it's all just comedic filler. Even the presence of Jimmy Stewart in this role doesn't help the meandering plot and dull pacing. But the biggest offender of this huge scene is that it isn't funny, thus wasting everyone's time in a film that's nearly three hours long.

As the final western made by John Ford, it is admirable to make this film as an apology to those who didn't need to be portrayed as the villains. Ford was the one to start the trend of Native Americans being the antagonists in most westerns, which would lead to so many things about cowboys and Indians. So to see the same man that started this trend come forward and say it was wrong of him to do gets my respect.

However, beyond this, there is nothing special about "Cheyenne Autumn." It is dull, without emotion or passion, and is a sign that the western genre was dying as the energy and flare for the dramatic is missing. If you're curious about this film, it's better just to read up on the behind-the-scenes than it is to actually watch this film.

Final Grade: D+