Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Top Ten Godzilla Films

With the release of the newest trailer for “Godzilla” out, I have been in a Godzilla mood lately. And why not? The King is gaining all sorts of new popularity and notice these days, which he hasn’t received now for more than ten years. Godzilla is now coming out of his hibernation and the revitalization of the daikaiju genre seems to have begun.

So, with an all new audience starting to appreciate Godzilla, I think its time we look at the best the franchise has to offer. With twenty-eight entries in the series, there is more than enough room for a top ten list of the best Godzilla films. 

These are the films that I feel are the most well-made of the Godzilla legacy. Not just the most entertaining ones, but the ones that have the best writing, acting, directing, tone, music, special effects and style of all the many films. These films are the reason I cling to Godzilla so tightly and why I love cinema so much.

Ten: “Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster” (1964)

Not only is this the film to introduce us to the classic Godzilla enemy, King Ghidorah, but it is the film that shows a dynamic shift in Godzilla’s character. Up to this point in the franchise, Godzilla had always been the enemy of man. This film introduces a threat far greater than Godzilla. A threat that has already destroyed worlds and civilizations and could easily do the same again. It is because of this that Godzilla must team up with Rodan and Mothra to take down King Ghidorah, or be destroyed.

On top of that, there is hidden political commentary going on with this film. In 1964, Communist China was beginning to rise to power and had begun to threaten Japan. Filmmakers Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka felt that the only way to stop such a threat was if the other two super powers in the world, the Soviet Union and America, put aside their differences and worked together to stop China. Isn’t it convenient that King Ghidorah just so happens to look like a three-headed Chinese dragon, and that Godzilla and Rodan are so blinded by fighting each other that they can’t see the bigger threat, hmm?

Overall, it’s a nice film that manages to make all four monsters in the film stand out and give them their own strengths. The human stories are a little cluttered and confused and the pacing is all over the place, but they make up for it with a wonderful climax.

Nine: “Invasion Of Astro-Monster” (1965) aka. “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero”

Now this is the film that takes the ideas given to us in “Ghidrah, The Three-Headed Monster” and develops them even further. This one is a combination of director Ishiro Honda’s favorite films to make. It is part alien invasion story, part monster flick and is all topped off his continued themes of unity through nations and exploring the depths of space. 

What really shines throughout this one is the chemistry between the lead actors, Akira Takarada and Nick Adams (yes, an American actor). While filming this, the two spoke their native languages, but their reactions to what they were saying felt natural, like they fully understood one another and have been friends for years. When the aliens aren’t melting satellite dishes or Godzilla isn’t dancing, watching these two is a blast.

Eight: “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” (1971) aka “Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster”

One of the things I find most fascinating about Godzilla is how he reflected the change in mood and tensions in Japan. When the country was scared to death of the bomb and still feeling the effects of the war, Godzilla was dark, destructive and unforgiving. As that tension was relieved, Godzilla began this ambiguous creature who could either destroy us at a moments notice or fight to save us. 

When new threats were introduced to Japan, Godzilla was still there, but now to fully protect Japan from those threats. The first of those threats was pollution. In “Godzilla vs. Hedorah,” Godzilla fights a gigantic space spore that fed off of our pollution and grew in size every time he ingested more of it. Soon, he is much bigger than Godzilla and there is little that Godzilla can do to stop Hedorah. 

Hedorah is pretty much the biggest threat that Godzilla has ever faced in one monster. His atomic fire has no effect, punches and kicks just bounce right off and his innards are made of acid, so even if he does hurt him, the acid will just melt the skin right off of Godzilla. Hedorah also emits toxic gases, making it hard for Godzilla to breath. 

The real highlight of the film is the overall style and presentation of the film. This film is a time capsule that will take you back to the 1970s, trippy hallucinations and all. This is neck-deep in counter culture ideals and seems to be made by someone who completely understands how weird it is to be Japanese but also the strength of it as well. From weird dance numbers to animations showing the strength of Hedorah, this film is a blast to watch.

Seven: “Godzilla vs. Biollante” (1989)

This is an example of everything going right. The film is able to nail every aspect just right, from the acting, story, characters and tone. 

The second film in the second series of Godzilla films, also known as the “Heisei” series, “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is a direct sequel to the previous film, “The Return Of Godzilla.” That one suffered from having uninteresting characters that were the backbone of the film, and thus became boring and predictable quickly. This one solves that problem by introducing characters like Dr. Shiragami, who wants to use Godzilla’s cells to cure diseases and even death. Like many great scientists, he oversteps his boundaries and combines the Godzilla cells with a rose to create a giant plant monster. 

“Godzilla vs. Biollante” works because it so atmospheric and moody, but not so moody that it goes over the top and suffocates the fun out of the film. This is mostly done through the music, which is slow and methodical, even from the opening as we start on something at the molecular level but pan out to see Godzilla surrounded by fire. Now that is a way to open up your monster film.

Six: “Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack” (2001)

Yeah, long title but I’m not complaining. The subtitle is just too awesome to be left out.

GMK is a different Godzilla from any other. Directed by Shusuke Kankeo, who had previously directed the 1990s Gamera trilogy, decides to take Godzilla both back to his roots, while also adding elements of fantasy and mysticism to it all. In this film, Godzilla isn’t just a rampaging monster, but is an embodiment of all the souls lost during World War II and are attacking Japan because the people have forgotten about their sacrifices to ensure they could live. 

In the 2000s, this was a big problem in Japan. The newest generation was neglectful and unsympathetic to Japanese traditions, including remembering those who gave their lives during the war. Kaneko felt that this was a great opportunity to reintroduce life into Godzilla and a wonderful way to make him attack modern-day Tokyo. 

On top of that, this is probably the best-looking Godzilla film. The effects are integrated well with some CGI and it doesn’t feel like it takes place on a model of a city. The explosions have weight behind their impact, which is often shown through the camera moving ever so slightly when something big happens. Godzilla’s design is both menacing and harkens back to his design in the original Godzilla.

Overall, GMK is the best Godzilla film from the 2000s, with updating the image of Godzilla without forgetting where he came from. 

Five: “Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep” (1966) aka. “Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster”

“Ebirah, Horror of the Deep” is different from any other Godzilla film, but in a good and noteworthy way. Rather than effects and monster fights, this film is more laid back and focuses mostly on the characters and story, to create a Godzilla film that isn’t forgotten easily. The film also has several elements that give it a re-watchability that is unlike any other film in the franchise, such as comedy and an atmospheric score. This film knows what it wants to be, and does not fail at providing solid entertainment.

Unlike most Godzilla films made before this one, the characters and story are the main attraction, with the monsters taking a back seat. With strong performances from Akira Takarada and Kumi Mizuno, among others, it propels these characters to icons of the late 60s Godzilla films. While the monsters aren’t amusing as the characters, Godzilla and Ebirah provide some decent fights. What gives the film its re-watchability is the theme of rebellion and how each character acts around rebellion. 

Four: “Terror Of MechaGodzilla” (1975)

If you watch this one, I highly recommend watching the Japanese version, because there is one aspect which drastically changes the outcome of the film. For years, I watched the English dubbed version and thought it was alright. Then I saw some of the scenes which were cut from the English version and I feel in love with this film. 

The reason this film is so high on the list is because of two reasons: Dr. Mafune and his daughter Katsura, easily the most well-written and interesting characters in any Godzilla film. They are tortured souls who only wish to be recognized for their achievements and will do whatever it takes to achieve that, even siding with an alien force bent on wiping out humanity. In a way, their characters are very Shakespearian-esque, with these of loss, regret, vengeance and sacrifice. 

On top of all that, this is one of the darker Godzilla films, right down to Akira Ifukube’s atmospheric score to punctuate moments of dread and hopelessness. Even the classic Godzilla theme seems suffocated and closed in by how screwed Godzilla is in this film. I said before that Hedorah was the most powerful single monster he has ever faced, but this situation is even worse. 

Godzilla now faces a mechanized version of himself, whom he fought before and nearly lost to, only winning due to the help of another monster and getting a brand new power that he now lacks. MechaGodzilla is also equipped with even more powerful weapons than before and features security measures in case Godzilla tries any of his old tricks. Not to mention, MechaGodzilla has backup with the help of Titanosarus, whose strength is on par with Godzilla. Finally, Godzilla has no backup. He faces these two monsters on his own and without any hope. 

This is a tense and nerve-racking film and I love it for that. Wonderful characters, excellent score, beautiful effects and unique fight scenes. Everything I love about monster movies.

Three: “Godzilla” (1954) aka “Gojira”

You can’t have a top ten Godzilla list without including the original somewhere. 

I feel like this film speaks for itself. Countless remakes and different interpretations, classic themes that have been adapted to many monster films, stunning effects that changed the way we look at guys in rubber suits and is often referred to as one of the greatest monster films ever made.

This is the “Citizen Kane” of giant monster films. When it came out, it changed everything, whether we knew it or not. All monster films, whether they were willing to admit it or not, took some inspiration from “Godzilla.” Why not? It is a technical marvel and encapsulates the struggle of life in Japan following the war. It took something like a giant monster and it relevant and exciting in everyday life.

That is a major accomplishment, and this film and its creators have my eternal respect for that. This isn’t just a great monster movie, this is a great movie. Period.

Two: “Son Of Godzilla” (1967)

You’re probably wondering what this film about Godzilla’s son did that makes it better than “Godzilla.”

It makes me emotional. 

This is no easy task. To my knowledge, there are only two films that are able to make me burst into tears: “It’s A Wonderful Life” and this film. 

This is also one of the few Godzilla films that gives Godzilla an actual character-arc. It makes out to be more than just a monster, but a character with flaws, wants, needs and emotions. At the beginning of the film, he starts out as a heartless and uncaring monster. By the end, he is willing to sacrifice himself for his adopted son. To make me care about something like that shows the strength of this picture. This is made even better when you realize that it is being conveyed by two guys in rubber suits. Stunning.

Also, this is probably the most well-written Godzilla film. Every scene has a purpose, with every action sequence having a reason to be there. The monsters have a bigger reason to be here than to just smash buildings and trample people and the human characters don’t feel like superfluous additions to spout exposition. In fact, the humans are funny, well-thought out and have some tense moments where they are at each others throats. 

Above all else, this is a fun movie. It does exactly what I love most about monster movies: Making me smile. That’s probably the biggest reason why I put this one ahead of “Godzilla.” Because as good as that film is, it does not make me happy. “Son Of Godzilla” is a blast to watch, whether it is making you laugh, exciting you with suspenseful action sequences or pulling at your heartstrings. 

One: “Mothra vs. Godzilla” (1964) aka. “Godzilla vs. The Thing” 

To me, this is movie that I have the most fun watching. Some people might say it is “Star Wars” or the Indiana Jones movies or even “The Lord Of The Rings” but for me, it will always be “Mothra vs. Godzilla.”

There is not a dull moment in this film. From the beginning, it throws us into the middle of a typhoon where a giant egg washes up on the shore of Japan. A corporate company buys the egg and intends to make an entire amusement park around it, only seeing endless amounts of money coming from this egg. Their plans are ruined however when Godzilla rises up out of the ground, also washed up by the typhoon and attacks Japan, seemingly confused and disoriented by the storm. The main characters, finding out that the egg belongs to Mothra, plead for help to the natives of Infant Island to get Mothra to take care of Godzilla, only to find out that she is dying. That won’t stop Mothra from protecting her egg and all of Japan from Godzilla.

Every bit of this film exists for a reason and all of it adds to the overall picture. From the corporate figureheads wanting to buy the egg and Mothra’s twin fairies, to the gruff head of the newspaper our lead characters work at complaining about doing something instead of complaining, to the themes of distrust and cooperation throughout the film.

The score fits the film like a glove, each note punctuating the scene, especially once Godzilla is introduced. The fight sequences are easily the best of the franchise, with each monster fighting for a reason and fighting like their lives depended on it. The effects have no aged one bit and still look wonderful even today. I just love everything about this film.

It is not only my favorite Godzilla film, but is one of my favorite films of all time. I could watch this film at any time and my mood would immediately brighten. I feel like that’s exactly what Godzilla does for me. He is constant source of happiness in my life and will always be there to make my day better. Whether he is doing that with awe-inspiring action sequences or representing both the strengths and weaknesses of humanity, Godzilla is amazing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My thoughts on "Godzilla" (2014)

If you told me four years ago that in 2014, one of the biggest and most anticipated new releases would be “Godzilla” I would not have bought it for a second. 

After the abomination that was “Godzilla: Final Wars” which was supposed to celebrate fifty years of everyone’s favorite giant fire-breathing reptile, Toho Studios decided to take a long break from everything giant monster related. In the ensuing years, it seemed like interest in giant monsters was dying, especially with films like “Cloverfield” only doing lukewarm at the box office and even worse with critics. 

Thanks to the success of “Pacific Rim” for revitalizing the genre, it seems like daikaiju films can still entertain an audience with their awe-inspiring size and scope. I feel that one of the biggest appeals of the genre is that everything feels so much bigger, especially compared to us. Everything we hold and cherish is tiny compared to what is out there and we are in danger of being destroyed by these behemoths. 

This was the selling point of “Godzilla” from 1954 and the ensuing franchise would keep that feeling of inferiority by scope, which would partially explain why Godzilla has survived for so long. 

So, it only feels natural that, with the revival of the giant monster genre, one of the first monsters they attempt to bring back is the King. With the film being helmed by Gareth Edwards and starring Aaron-Tyler Johnson (“Kick Ass”), Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe (“Inception”) and Bryan Cranston (Walter “The Danger” White from “Breaking Bad”), this is “Godzilla.”

I will admit, when I first heard about who would be directing, I had my reservations against the film. For one, after the last time Hollywood attempted to handle Godzilla in 1998, that only led to disappointment and disgust. The film had more to do with “Jurassic Park” than it did with any previous Godzilla film. 

When news came out that Gareth Edwards would direct “Godzilla,” I was skeptical to say the least. At this time, Edwards has only directed one other movie, a low-budget indie project called “Monsters” which was met with mixed reviews. To go from being an independent filmmaker to piloting a massive Hollywood production with some of the biggest actors in the business seems like it could be too much for Edwards.

In a business like filmmaking, it is entirely possible for someone like Gareth Edwards to blow us all away and turn out something that can impress us all. That is not out of the realm of possibility, and based off of what has been shown so far, this seems like a step in the right direction. 

I usually reserve judgment of a film until I either see it in its entirety, or when a full-length trailer is released. Since we now have a trailer, I think it is safe to give some thoughts on what we now know. 

One thing I’ve enjoyed about what has been shown is how utterly massive they are making Godzilla out to be. According to some posters, this Godzilla is twice the size of the Trans-American Building in San Francisco. We have yet to see a full shot of Godzilla’s face and most of his frame has been kept in shadow. It is reminiscent of “Jaws” by concealing the shark in shadow, only showing the destruction he has caused and his point of view as he rips other living creatures apart. 

Then again, the original 1954 “Godzilla” did that 21 years before “Jaws” did, so this could just be a throwback to the older films.

Speaking of those films, this new one seems to be paying as much homage as possible to them, in particular the original Godzilla. In that film, Godzilla was not just some force of nature, but an allegory for the atomic bomb. The two have much in common: They will strike without warning, they both show no mercy, they are quick and efficient. Worst of all, they are both unstoppable. You can’t fight it and if you try to do so, you’ve already lost. 

The only thing you can do: run. Run as fast as you can. Yet the thing about both of these creatures, even if you are able to run, you probably won’t be fast enough.

This film is making Godzilla out to be in the same vein as the 1954 version. From Bryan Cranston’s narration talking about how this isn’t a natural disaster to witnessing Godzilla rise out of the water, literally causing battleships to be pushed aside. Those are the moments that have stuck with me from watching the trailer.

I also find their choice of music quite fascinating. The only distinguishable piece from the trailer is a choir wailing, as if something majestic yet terrifying is coming. Some people will recognize this piece of music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” any time the monolith was attempting to communicate with humankind. 

In “2001” this music was used to signify the next step in human evolution. It was used as apes discovered how to use tools, as well as what led us to create a giant spaceship that would be used to travel to Jupiter. 

So what does this mean for “Godzilla”?

Well, I think it is partially being used because it is a creepy piece of music, but also to signify our evolution, much like it was used in “2001.” In particular, our evolution of weapons. If Godzilla is still an allegory for the atomic bomb, then after thousands of years of creating the perfect device to kill other creatures, we have perfected that device with the atomic and hydrogen bomb. 

Godzilla takes that one step further, by doing exactly what the bomb was designed to do: Wipe out all living things. Godzilla is the final step in our evolution to creating the perfect weapon. 

That is what I was able to get out of the trailer at least. There are many more things that are still up in the air and are being kept mysterious, including our plans to stop Godzilla, what they mean by trying to stop Godzilla with atomic bombs back in the 1950s and whether there is going to be another monster to fight Godzilla.

Some promotional information and previous teaser trailers have been indicating that a monster of some sort will fight Godzilla, but whether it will be a monster from the previous films or a new monster remains unknown. Some information is making it out to be an insectoid-like monster, so it could be Kumonga, Kamacuras, Megalon, Megaguirus or even Mothra.

The question I have been asking myself about “Godzilla” is not if I will go see it or not. I had every intention of seeing this film upon its release. I will be the first in line to see this film, no matter what. What I have been asking is whether this will make me want to see more Godzilla films again?

After how bad previous films like “Godzilla: Final Wars” and the 1998 American film were, I wanted to see filmmakers take Godzilla in a different and better direction. The early Godzilla films were so much fun to watch because each one tried something fairly different. As the series wore on, the became tedious and repetitive, and therefore become boring and not worth mentioning. The last truly good Godzilla film was “Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack” in 2001, which took a more mystical and fantasy approach to the idea of Godzilla. 

I want to see Gareth Edwards do something like with “Godzilla.” Don’t just pay homage to the films that came before you. Try something that has never been done before with Godzilla. Give your film its own unique flavor. 

Above all else, treat the King of the Monsters with respect and grace. If you do that, I will love this film. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Film Pet Peeves: Being campy and/or cheesy

One of the biggest and most common remarks I often hear about the Godzilla franchise is that it is campy and cheesy. That people often can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of these films and could never once take them seriously.

My common response to this is to ask, “Really? What is so campy about the Godzilla films?”

The problem with this is that there is no set definition of “camp” in films that people can agree on. Everyone has a different tolerance with cheese in cinema, but most people will often note that it involves a situation that is played for laughs while breaking the tone and flow of the film.

Which begs the question of why people often jump to the Godzilla franchise as an example of this. 

While there are certainly moments in these films that are ridiculous to say the least yet still get a laugh out of me, these moments are rare. The most notable one coming from “Invasion Of Astro-Monster” in which, after forcing King Ghidorah to retreat, Godzilla does a little dance directly into the camera.

This is an undeniable moment of camp. The filmmakers put this in because they felt it was funny. At no other point in the same film does it try to do something similar. So does that make the entire film campy? I say no. It makes that moment of Godzilla doing something ridiculous funny, but the rest of “Invasion Of Astro-Monster” is done competently and without ever winking at the camera. 

Some will define being cheesy as attempting any sort of comedy where it shouldn’t belong. This might explain why people use the Godzilla films as an example, as these films will often use comedy in giant monster movies. 

My question is, if a giant monster film attempts any sort of comedy, does that automatically make it cheesy or campy? If so, isn’t that unfair?

I can think of plenty of monster films that use comedy as a way to relieve tension or to make the film feel more human or to even set an entirely different tone and atmosphere. All without ever going over the top or being ridiculous. 

The best example of this comes from “Son Of Godzilla” where most of what Godzilla’s son, Minya, does is portrayed in a comedic way. He will kick and scream if he doesn’t get his way, he is incompetent in combat, he is happy when he gets fed and will often wag his tail, and when he is bored he will jump over Godzilla’s tail for amusement.

To me, none of that is campy. Minya is a child, and as such, he acts like a child. Children get bored easily and are prone to quick mood swings. They aren’t familiar with the world so don’t know exactly how to act. What Minya does is funny, but not ridiculously funny as to become cheesy. 

In my opinion, there are only three or four true moments of camp in all twenty-eight Godzilla films. The previously discussed moment from “Invasion Of Astro-Monster,” Godzilla using his atomic breath to fly in “Godzilla vs. Hedorah” and Godzilla using his tail to slide roughly a mile so that he can drop kick an enemy in “Godzilla vs. Megalon.”

These three moments are absolutely ridiculous and feel out of place in their own films. They break the rules that the film had set up and are all played for laughs. That makes those instances campy. 

To say the entire franchise is the same based solely on three moments of cheese seems a tad unfair. Especially when most of the films are done in a competent manner and trying to tell stories that try their best to relate to the audience. To start with a film that shows the impact and horrors of the atomic bomb and what that meant to the Japanese should tell you that the filmmakers are not making these films just to entertain, but to enlighten. To show the world just what our continued use of atomic power can do and the path that we are heading down.

A much better example of camp would be the Gamera series, which takes every opportunity to poke fun at the ridiculous situations of two giant monsters fighting. From Gamera using a skywalk as a swing set to a knife-headed monster cutting up another monster like sushi, the franchise is full of memorable cheese-fests. 

The difference between the Godzilla films and the Gamera series is how they chose to view their audience. While both franchises were often marketed towards children, the filmmakers of Godzilla respected their audience and often treated them like adults, by telling stories that weren’t afraid to hold back and had characters who often weren’t defined by being “good” or “bad.” Gamera, on the other hand, knew that these films were for kids and were simply making these films to entertain those kids. 

As such, the Godzilla films can be enjoyed by both children and adults, whether for their action sequences or the story. While I’d be hard-pressed to find an adult who enjoys the Gamera films without the camp. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Film Pet Peeves: "Based On A True Story"

Welcome to a new segment of Seeing Is Believing that I like to call “Film Pet Peeves.” These will be “short” editorials on subjects in films that I don’t care for or just outright hate. These opinions and feelings may not always be favored in the majority but I still feel these are statements worth looking at. 

This may be a shorter series since there isn’t many things that piss me off about movies, but we’ll see about that when we get there.

With that said, let’s look at one of my biggest pet peeves about movies: “Based On A True Story.”

Everyone has seen movies like these, where that particular phrase is totted around like its some kind of accomplishment worthy of praise. It is usually done in the trailer of a movie, but sometimes extends to opening narrations and even beyond that. 

Cinema has been doing this for quite some time, dating as far back as 1925’s “The Battleship Potemkin” being based on a 1905 mutiny aboard the battleship of the same name which lead to a rebellion, to as recent as 2013’s “Jobs” being based on the life and lessons of Steve Jobs. Other examples include “12 Years A Slave,” “Pain & Gain,” “Argo,” “The Blind Side,” “Changeling” and “Pearl Harbor.”

My problem with this is the air of smugness that films will often have when they use that phrase. They use it as if that’s the only thing they care about, or the one thing that is worth mentioning above all else. The direction, acting and cinematography might be piss poor, but at least we stayed true to what happened. 

“Jobs” is a good example of this. They might have gotten many points of Steve Job’s life correct (although that wouldn’t be hard since most of his life is already well-documented), but that doesn’t change the fact that Ashton Kutcher is lifeless, the director doesn’t know what to do with the actors and that there is nothing all that special about the film.

If I want to know about Steve Job’s life, I’ll read his autobiography. That makes the entire point of the movie irrelevant. 

Here’s another problem with being based on true events: Movies will often take artistic liberties with source material. They will often overlook certain events and omit points that are sometimes necessary for an audience to know. Film doesn’t do this just with books, but true events as well. They will literally change aspects of what happened so that audiences will enjoy the film more. 

However, if you change anything about what happened in real life, then it is no longer based on “true events.” It is just a story that as somewhat inspired by something that happened once, but heavily changed so that more people will go see the movie.

A great example of this is “Patch Adams” a film based on the life story of a doctor of the same name (played by Robin Williams) who at the time was one of the most controversial medical doctors by choosing to make his patients laugh before treating them. 

In the movie, Adams has a love interest who supports him throughout most of his career and is always a constant source of happiness and hope in a world that seems completely against him. One day though, she dies unexpectedly and Adams is sent into an emotional rampage. Yet this eventually leads him to rally up his strength and courage and defend what he believes in.

In real life, the love interest didn’t exist. This person was a man and there was never any romantic feelings between the two. Yet this movie still claims to be “based on a true story.” 

I’m sorry, but no. It is not based on a true story. Far too much is changed from real life. The filmmakers should be ashamed of themselves for thinking that it was okay to say it was based on Patch Adams real life. 

If you want to make a film based on events that happened, fine. Just make sure that you get absolutely every detail right, do not change anything just so more people will watch your movie and, most importantly, make sure that it is still a well-made and respectful movie. 

Better yet, stay clear of the phrase “based on true events.” 

When that is put on any movie, you are automatically putting a stamp on your film, asking for audiences to compare the film with what happened. 

This stamp always makes me roll my eyes in frustration, because this isn’t something that makes your movie any better. I may enjoy movies like “12 Years A Slave” and “Argo” but it is certainly not because they are so close to the source material. It is because they are still well-made movies, with “12 Years A Slave” being so brutal yet beautiful and “Argo” being tense, atmospheric and funny.

If either of those films had been based on events that happened or not, it would not have changed how I feel about them. I would still enjoy them either way. Just like “Jobs” doesn’t work because it is poorly made. 

This wouldn’t be such a big problem if there weren’t so many movies coming out every year that use this phrase like no other. In 1985, only four movies used that expression. In 2013, 27 films are supposedly “based on real events.” Each year, this number increases and each time it is used, I can’t help but wonder why filmmakers think this is something worth bragging about. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

When it comes to politics, there is never one correct and true side. Whether you are Democratic, Republican, Communist, Fascist or anything in between, politics is a dirty system that leaves no clear cut victor. There are strengths and weaknesses for all sides, especially when the opposition will resort to anything to win.

Including murder and corrupting innocent lives.

This is the point of the 1962 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.” The film doesn’t take one particular side of the spectrum, but instead chooses to say that all political sides are flawed and that the idea of taking politics at face value is dead. 

For its time, the film took many chances with telling a story about brainwashed soldiers attempting to kill political figures, especially with the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the threat of Communism in America and the eventual assassination of JFK in 1964. Some people at the time believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was one of these soldiers. So this film has left a fascinating impact on the American psyche by convincing onlookers that its implausible premise could happen to anyone. 

At the end of the Korean War, an American platoon is captured by a group of Chinese soldiers. The platoon is experimented on and brainwashed by a group of Russian and Chinese leaders to do their Communist bidding. Their intention: To get the leader of the platoon, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), into a comfortable political position so that he can assassinate the proper political figures that would lead to a secret Communist takeover of America. 

Some people start to notice unusual behavior in Shaw, including his war partner Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra). After Marco has bizarre nightmares of being brainwashed by the Communists, he takes it upon himself to find out what Shaw is up to and why he has been playing a lot of Solitaire lately. 

What I walked away from “The Manchurian Candidate” with was it being one of the most thrilling and suspenseful films I had seen in a long time. It sets an eerie and otherworldly tone by making you question whether this is all real or just an illusion manufactured by the Communists, mostly through editing, cinematography and state of mind.

Information about how Shaw’s mind control works is conveyed to us through a meeting with figure heads of the Reds, but to Shaw and his men, all they see is a woman’s gardening club in New Jersey. To show the strength of the brainwashing, they even order Shaw to kill two of his men, both of whom show no resistance, and Shaw has no memory or regret of doing so. 

Shaw is described as the perfect assassin, but that would imply that he acts somewhat human during these actions. When he is ordered to kill, he is nothing more than a computer carrying out an order. He has no feelings, no remorse, no recollection of even doing these acts. He’s not just the perfect assassin, he is the perfect killing machine hidden in plain sight. 

Shaw is made all the more creepy with the addition of his overbearing and extremely controlling mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury). Not only does she have complete and total control over her second husband, Senator Iselin (James Gregory), but it seems like she had Raymond’s life planned out from the moment he was born. Much like with her husband, she can do whatever she wants to Raymond and she will always get her way.

Raymond comments that he could never beat his mother and he despises her for that. To her, Raymond is just a means to an end to enact her political agenda and have absolute power over not just her husband and son, but all of America. She is greedy, repulsive, selfish, controlling and will do whatever it takes to get her way. 

What was it with parental figures and their terrible parenting in the early 1960s anyway? First “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom,” now this. That decade gave birth to some of the worst parents imaginable. 

An interesting side note about “The Manchurian Candidate” is that after JFK’s assassination, Frank Sinatra bought all the rights and copies of the film and kept them hidden from everyone to see. From 1964 to 1988, it was impossible to watch this film. It is said that Sinatra did this out of remorse for what happened to JFK and that he felt partially responsible. Yet when he finally rereleased the film after 24 years, he said it was the highest point of his acting career for people to be able to watch such a wonderfully hard-hitting movie.

That should tell you the strength of this film. Not just to convince audiences that an impossible practice like reprogramming the brain can be taken as a fact, but that even after two decades, the film’s stance on politics still hits just as hard as it did in 1962. It is able to mirror real life politics, including Communism, McCarthyism and Left-wing vs. Right-wing and mock them all without being played for laughs. 

“The Manchurian Candidate” is suspenseful, poignant, sharp and doesn’t pick any side over the other. To this film, all politics are ridiculous and flawed, so why should one side be better than the other?

Final Grade: A

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Roger Ebert and his legacy

On April 4, 2013, Roger Ebert, often regarded as on of the greatest film critics ever, passed away. Although his life has ended, he has left behind a legacy that will continue to resonate for quite a while. 
While there was film criticism long before Roger Ebert was born, Ebert helped to make film criticism interesting and exciting through his reviews and television show with Gene Siskel, entitled “Siskel & Ebert.”
While watching these two tell us about their opinions and feelings on every movie they viewed, we learned so much about not just these two, but also about the world of film criticism and a bit about ourselves.
Week in and week out, Siskel and Ebert would watch around five new movies, sometimes even more, then write their own reviews and come on the camera to make a show about it, arguing with one another over which movies were good and which ones were bad. The two would often disagree and argue over these films, each one saying that the other was wrong. 

The reason these discussions got so heated was not because Siskel and Ebert were stubborn or couldn’t see any other way besides their own, but because of their passion and love for cinema. These two were able to take discussing movies, something that many people would argue is just mindless entertainment, and were able to talk about it so passionately and from the heart that it felt like they were taking this discussion to a whole new level.
These two saw film as important, and always wanted to stress how incredibly important it was. They never looked at it as mindless entertainment, but as many things, including art or even representations of life. The struggles, hardships and emotions that people go through every day, captured on camera and given a whole new meaning about how our culture acts and behaves.
People enjoyed watching these two argue about movies, otherwise their show would have been cancelled rather quickly. So why did people keep watching? That comes back to one of Siskel and Ebert’s biggest characteristic: Their passion. Passion for films, passion for talking about films, passion for writing about films and simply a passion for life. 

Whether someone disagreed with Roger Ebert on a particular film or not, there was always that passion and energy for cinema to be enjoyed. It’s not difficult to tell that Ebert loved doing what he did, like he had found his life’s purpose and enjoyed every second of it. If we had just an ounce of the passion Ebert had for cinema and life, in any aspect of our lives, we would all have many great things going for us.
Nearly one year after his death, his passion for cinema and life still shines through and speaks to the heart of every one who has something to hold onto. 
If there is one thing to take away from Roger Ebert’s life, it’s that everyone should find that one thing they’re truly passionate about in life and follow it. Follow it and center your life around it. That passion will not only bring you happiness, but a purpose.