Sunday, December 21, 2014

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2014 at the Movies: Edge of Tomorrow

Since the couch-jumping drama on Oprah nearly a decade ago, movie star Tom Cruise has drawn much flak from the mainstream and Internet press.  
And yet, objectively, one should also recognize that Cruise has consistently lent his considerable power, influence and resources to the science fiction genre.
Specifically, since 2002 Cruise has headlined four sequel-less, non-franchise-oriented genre pictures: Minority Report (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Oblivion (2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
Even depending on vicissitudes of personal taste, you may agree that at least three of those titles are modern-day genre masterpieces. 
We just may disagree on which three...
Another way to put this is that while today’s studios and stars have gone gaga over endless and incestuous superhero sequels and YA franchises in cinematic form, Cruise has purposefully and meaningfully committed his resources to top-of-the-line adult genre imaginings.
Cruise’s newest effort, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) failed rather dramatically at the box office this weekend, and yet it is, by my estimation, just such a modern masterpiece. It is this summer’s John Carter (2012): a science fiction effort of exuberance, intelligence, humanity, and tremendous artistry.  It is an enormously entertaining film and more.
Yet for reasons that likely have nothing to do with the Doug Liman film -- and much to do with the demands of modern mainstream audiences -- it has not yet caught fire as it should.  To me, that fact suggests that the American box office is perhaps hopelessly broken, a place where only “brand name” sequels, prequels, re-boots and remakes can thrive.
For Edge of Tomorrow isn’t just an enjoyable sci-fi film, it is perhaps the best “altered states” or “mind-fuck”-type science fiction venture since The Matrix (1999).
And if audiences aren’t interested in seeing something so good, so powerfully-wrought…the question must become: why?
But hopefully it isn’t too late for strong word of mouth to get out about Edge of Tomorrow, and if you haven’t seen it yet…go.
Edge of Tomorrow proves triumphant on three creative or artistic fronts. 
First, it honors our collective past by remembering D-Day, and the way that allies across the globe gathered to defeat a threat to our very freedom. 
Much of Edge of Tomorrow’s action concerns an Information Age version of the landing at Normandy that occurred on June 6, 1944, seventy years ago to the date of the film’s release.  This allusion to the past asks modern audiences to remember a time when people were united in a worthwhile cause, not divided by petty differences.
Secondly, Edge of Tomorrow dynamically concerns communication, and tags effective communication as the very thing that can save a world at war.
The film’s central conflict pits an alien hive-mind -- essentially one brain -- against the individual minds of diverse humanity.  By constructing this comparison, the film (based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill) raises significant questions about how humans relate, and more aptly, how they could better relate.
Thirdly, and perhaps most impressively, Edge of Tomorrow more closely approximates the act of playing a video game than any other film yet created.
Old school film critics like to complain vociferously when any movie looks too much like a “video game,” of course, but in the last several years, we have seen just how much video games have come into their own as an art form.  They are now a crucial aspect of modern pop culture. 
Edge of Tomorrow pinpoints valid, pro-social reasons for the format’s existence, and thus speaks to a future in which, I suspect, film and games will grow more closely related than ever before.
I have seen critics describe this film as a kind of sci-fi version of Groundhog’s Day (1993), but Edge of Tomorrow is inventive in a manner all its own. For example, the film plays lightly with the established Tom Cruise persona, and gives the actor his best role since War of the Worlds, where he played a deadbeat Dad trying to make good.  The film is also exciting to a degree we haven’t seen in some time…an action film in which the action looks and feels real, and in which the suspense becomes almost unbearable because we have become so invested in the protagonists’ cause (and their continued survival).

In Edge of Tomorrow, Earth has been invaded by terrifying, hostile aliens known as Mimics.  The vast majority of Europe has fallen to these conquering extra-terrestrials, but the nations of the world, thanks to the introduction of a new fighting technology -- exoskeleton suits called jackets -- are on the verge of winning the war.
Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a PR flack for the war cause, and is responsible for recruiting hundreds if not thousands of young soldiers to the cause.  But when General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders Cage to the front to film the landing of invasion forces at Normandy, Cage has an outbreak of cowardice.  He is not a soldier, and he refuses to fight.  When Brigham won’t back down, he tries to blackmail his superior officer.
Brigham promptly has Cage arrested and sent to the front…as a deserter. 
After one night of basic training with a group called J-Squad, Cage is then dropped onto the beaches of France during the first moments of the invasion.  The bad news is that the Mimics were expecting this move, and meet the invading armies with lethal force.
On the battlefield, Cage encounters a war hero “The Angel of Verdun,” Rita (Emily Blunt), but sees her die in a blaze of glory.  And when he is attacked by a larger-than-normal Mimic, Cage sees the alien blood splattered on his face. 
Then, he dies…
…Only to awake and have the same last day to “do over.”
Cage tries to determine what is happening to him, and relives the day several times, attempting different avenues of escape from the beach.  All fail.
Now Cage must learn about Rita – a person who knows something about his plight -- and figure out not only how to survive the day, but defeat the aliens in the process.
In particular, Cage learns that the Mimics are a hive mind, and that the alien general, called an Omega, is hidden far from the front.  Rita trains Cage to survive the battle on the beach, and find and destroy the Omega, but all that must happen in one day, or the Mimic invasion succeeds and humanity dies.

There’s an old song with lyrics that go “what a difference a day makes,” and Edge of Tomorrow concerns, literally, making the most of one twenty-four hour period.  

If Cage -- a man literally “caged” by fate -- can make allies, gain territory and defeat one enemy, the Omega, he will save the planet. 

If not, mankind will die.

That’s a tall order for any one individual, and fortunately Cage develops some key allies during the film.  His one constant ally is Rita, and I admire how the film visualizes this “Angel of Verdun” as the “glue” in Cage’s stream of endless do-overs and resets.

Specifically, Rita meets Cage while physically training.  We see her stretched out on the floor in a yoga position, a Vinyasa position. 

The vinyasa is a move in yoga that “interlinks postures to form a continuous flow” (per Wikipedia) and creates a ‘movement meditation that reveals all forms as being impermanent.” 

This is very much Rita’s role in Cage’s odyssey, which is why -- no doubt -- we get to see (the splendid...) vinyasa again and again in the march of Cage’s days. 

The vinyasa pose visually implies that Rita is the crucial linkage that allows Cage to move forward.  She is the one who knows what he is going through, because she has possessed the same “gift” or curse he now possesses.  She is also the one who introduces Cage to deeper knowledge about the Mimics, particularly the Omega. 

And finally, Rita is the person who convinces those in J-Squad that Cage is telling the truth about his strange experience, and not just some lunatic.  She is the linkage which not only makes Cage’s journey possible, but ultimately successful.  She reveals the “impermanence” of his efforts, and forms “the continuous flow” of his days, helping him progress.

Because Cage gets just one day to save the world, and is therefore allowed only a limited range of options, he must become the world’s greatest, most economical communicator.  As a former communications student myself, I appreciate this aspect of the film.  Cage very quickly learns how to avoid conflict, and say just the right thing at the right moment.  We see Cage’s trial and error first, and then watch as he aces social situations and hones his communication -- his messaging -- to crystal clarity and sharpness.

Essentially, Cage’s only strength rests with his choice in words. He is not a soldier. He is not trained in combat.  He has no power in the world into which he is thrust.  Communication becomes his spear, or his sword.  The film becomes a delightful dance as Cage must navigate his way through situations using only his ability to effectively communicate.

This proves an ironic and interesting commentary, because Cage is, essentially, a PR flak. He’s a good-looking guy who goes in front of the camera to “sell” the war in hopes of enlisting the young.  He does so based on his charisma and good-lucks. 

But suddenly -- and in a twist worthy of Rod Serling -- this shill for the military, this PR hack, must save the real world, not merely sell a product.  Suddenly, all of his powers of persuasion must be used to remain alive, and accomplish a pro-social goal. 

The philosopher Aristotle believed that rhetoric had to reflect the true nature of the speaker, and not just be an artfully constructed con job.  Therefore, you could “know” a person by his words, by his very arguments, by his cause. 

Again, this is very much the journey that Cage undertakes in the film.  He must convince others – through his words and rhetoric -- of his legitimacy, of his “gift.”

Viewed from one perspective, Edge of Tomorrow is all about answering one question.; how do convince people that you’ve never met before today that you are trustworthy, and more than that, worthy of leading them into battle, and possibly to their deaths?

To get to that place, Cage needs to go from “selling” a message, to internalizing and becoming the message himself.  I admired how the film sees Cage thinking on his feet, figuring out precisely how to say the right thing in any given situation, sitting across from any given personality.  He’s not always successful, but I believe the message is simply that it is effective communication, not weapons of mass destruction, that can wars, or change the world.

Furthermore, I loved that Edge of Tomorrow takes a shill, a coward, and a deserter, and grants him redemption.  As much as I love The Matrix, I am deeply fatigued with all the Hollywood stories featuring a “Chosen One” destined for greatness. 

What about us unlucky, un-chosen ones? Is it possible for us to be heroes too?

In Edge of Tomorrow, Cage acquires his gift through an accident, through a weird twist of fate, not by the auspices of some pre-determined or grand destiny.  And then, delightfully, he must live up to the gift that fate has handed him. The film is not about being pre-destined for greatness. Instead, it is about playing the hand you are dealt, and striving to succeed anyway.

The deliberate comparison to D-Day that the film forges -- creating a visual, futuristic corollary for the visceral beach scene you might remember from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) -- seems to fit well with the film’s musing about human nature.

The visuals remind us that humanity -- when working together-- has accomplished amazing things in the past.  Seventy years ago, during the Allied effort to liberate Europe, ten thousand men died.  They did so because they believed the message, simply, that they were fighting for the survival of the free world.  The cause succeeded, even though so many patriots lost their lives on those beaches, and the course of history was changed.

Edge of Tomorrow is very much concerned with the same idea, of people acting by choice as a unified force for good.  And again, this is a deliberate comparison to the Mimics, invading hordes that operate as one by nature, not by conscious selection.  This fact of alien biology makes the war all the harder for the humans.  For Mimics, working together is literally second nature.  For humans of different political, religious and ethnic stripes, it’s more like herding cats. 

And Cage is able to do that herding (for the most part) because of the friend he has in Rita, and because the “do overs” grant him the opportunity to understand what people want, and communicate with them effectively and economically on that particular basis.

All these ideas combine admirably with the video game-like nature of the film’s core structure.  Cage dies again and again, then resets and must start over.  This act of dying and getting a second, third, fourth, and fifth chance reflects the gaming process to a remarkable degree.  In video games, your avatar dies, and you then start again and your avatar gets a little further.  You die again, and then you inch forward even more. 
Eventually, through these fits and starts, you accomplish your goal, which is the game’s completion. 

Accordingly, Edge of Tomorrow very amusingly accounts for the fact that in some game resets are very brief and unsuccessful, and all the knowledge you gained leading up to your death doesn’t necessarily get used. 

For instance, at one point, Cage is treated to an almost instant, involuntary do-over when he tries to save a fellow soldier’s life, and gets crushed by a falling transport plane instead.  We’ve all had the experience in which a video game sortie goes wrong in the first few minutes (or seconds), and we don’t get to top our previous threshold.

Likewise, the film is structured a bit like a typical survival video game, with particular “arenas” that need to get defeated before the player can progress to the next level.  Mysteries must be solved and battles must be won before matriculation can occur. 

The stages or levels here might be termed, “The beach,” “the parking lot,” “the farmhouse,” and “the dam.”  

And then of course, there’s the boss battle at the Louvre, in which a more dangerous enemy -- the Omega -- must be brought down so the game can be won.

What’s the point of structuring a film in this video-game friendly fashion?  Well, a generation is coming up that doesn’t view video games as the terrible “addictive” things that many of our parents worried about.  In fact, I know I am grateful for the fact that my seven year old son plays some (age-appropriate) video games, like Minecraft because they hone his thinking, his reflexes, and encourage patience.  A good gamer -- much like Cage in Edge of Tomorrow -- demonstrates flexibility, imagination, and tenacity.

The same skills that get us through a video game get us through the hazards of life, essentially.  Games make us think about pursuing different options. They make us imagine new answers and new avenues.  And they reward discipline and patience. 

And if you quit, you don’t win, either in life or in video games.  The only difference is that in life there are (good) cheat codes.

Edge of Tomorrow is very intriguing in the way it ties these three elements -- our historic past at D-Day, efficacy in communication, and video games -- into a coherent and artistic argument about human nature. 

Through these three aspects of the film we see man’s capacity, in the past, to join in common cause.  We see, in the present, his ability to bridge gulfs and bring people together.  And through the video games, we see what could be the future of warfare. 

And really, are flexibility, imagination, and tenacity so different from the qualities those brave men had on those beaches 70 years ago?  The video game concept crystallizes these qualities but they have always been humanity’s greatest virtues.

As we move into the unbound future, those qualities will be reflected in different ways. Warfare will be different.  Space travel too.  We will learn from our failures as much as we learn from our victories, and that, in some crucial way, seems to be a key leitmotif of Edge of Tomorrow.  One brilliant moment in the film sees Cage attempt to escape from basic training by rolling under a truck.  He times it just right…he thinks.

But the scene plays out in an unconventional way that elicits laughter and also provokes thought. He doesn’t time it right at all, and the results are terminal.

Imagine how much we could achieve -- and how much we could learn -- if we could relive every day a hundred a times?

That idea represents more than enough intellectual fodder for a great science fiction movie, but Edge of Tomorrow takes that idea and runs with it, connecting it to a video-game savvy generation, and the need for common cause unity in broaching world events and global crises.

I’m certain that entertainment reporters are wasting ink (or keystrokes, I suppose) right now about how Edge of Tomorrow is a bomb, and about the downfall of Tom Cruise as a marketable star.

Well, I hope that this review can rewrite that narrative, at least a little, because Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t merely repeat old victories in the genre, it treads new ground in the same way that The Matrix did in 1999, and is a stimulating, engaging summer movie of the highest order.

Like I said, go see it.  And then experience some déjà vu and see it again. 

2014 at the Movies: Godzilla

Godzilla is sixty years old in 2014, and there’s likely no better birthday gift for the long-lived atomic lizard (or his devoted fans…) than Gareth Edwards’ impressive new film.  The 2014 Godzilla treats the sturdy old creature and his franchise with abundant respect, and perhaps more importantly, with a sense of ingenuity and even love.

Because of Edwards’ meticulous care and devoted attention, Godzilla likely qualifies as one of the best Hollywood blockbusters made this decade. It is far more interesting and comprehensible for instance, than the over-sized, mind-numbing Marvel movies of late, like Thor: The Dark World (2013).  

Furthermore, Godzilla is constructed with an eye towards character and human-sized thrills rather than CGI special effects or monumental set-pieces. 

And commendably, the film’s narrative actually makes sense…a factor one can’t actually take for granted in the age of turgid, over-stuffed, “synergistic” summer blockbusters.

One critic, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir has even termed Godzilla the best action movie since Jaws (1975). He writes of Godzilla: "This is a movie of tremendous visual daring, magnificent special-effects work and surprising moral gravity."

That comparison to Jaws may be a bit of an over-statement, but there are points of comparison worth making, and O'Hehir's description of Godzilla's virtues are right on the money.

Jaws, of course, was the very first “summer” blockbuster and Godzilla is the latest, but the connection between films run deeper than that, and deeper, even, than the fact that both film feature protagonists named “Brody.”

This Godzilla thoroughly impresses based, to a great degree, on its careful generation of suspense, and Edwards’ insistence on providing a “human eye” perspective to the kaiju-sized action.  One might make the same statement regarding Spielberg’s classic. There, the human story about Brody, Hooper and Quint was just as captivating as the death scenes with the great white shark, if not more so when one considers the power of the Indianapolis sequence aboard the Orca.

And just as in Jaws you don’t see the great white shark for long spells there are times in Godzilla wherein the story moves along quite nicely without giant monsters wrecking national monuments on screen. 

The film’s prologue in Japan is absolutely riveting by itself, even outside the giant monster milieu.  And this has precisely nothing to do with scale, special effects or disaster movie clichés, but rather the fact that the scene involves two people the audience cares for trapped in a terrifying and tragic situation.

In total, there are likely four crucial factors that come into play when considering the success or failure of any Godzilla film, and Edwards’ 2014 fresh take on the material absolutely runs the table.  It aces the checklist. 

I’ll discuss each of the four factors in turn -- and in detail -- after the synopsis below.

In the year 1999, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) makes a strange discovery in the Philippines: the egg-sac of some giant, unknown and apparently recently-dormant creature.  Unfortunately, the prehistoric being is now awake but gone…having escaped to the sea.

Soon after this unique discovery, something strange occurs at the Janjira Nuclear Facility in Japan. An engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has detected strange readings emanating from the plant, and he sends his wife, a scientist (Juliette Binoche), to discover their source.  Disaster strikes however, and Janjira is evacuated as the nuclear reactor apparently goes into meltdown.  

In 2014, Joe’s grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. soldier and expert in explosives, is called to Japan to bail his Dad out of prison.  Unable to put down his obsession with the 1999 incident, Joe is convinced that the government and nuclear plant company are hiding something dangerous inside the Janjira facility.

Joe’s suspicions prove correct, and at the facility, Ford and Joe witness the awakening of a horrible creature: a giant creature called MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).  It destroys most of the plant, kills several people, and flies away. Joe is injured during the incident.

Later, Ford teams up with Dr. Serizawa aboard the air-craft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga, a vessel which is attempting to pursue the monster.  Serizawa reveals that this creature is not alone, however.

In fact, another beast -- which Serizawa dubs “Godzilla” -- was awakened by nuclear testing in 1954 and is now pursuing the MUTO.  Serizawa believes Godzilla, nature’s alpha predator, is hunting the newly-awakened monster, and attempting to restore the Earth’s sense of balance.

Before long, another MUTO rears its head in Nevada, near Yucca Mountain, and the U.S. military is faced with the possibility of three giant monsters on its soil.  Worse, the MUTOs are preparing to reproduce… 

In my introduction above, I mentioned a checklist consisting of four boxes, and noted that Godzilla marks each one successfully.  I want to discuss these four qualities in detail now.

First, does the film feature -- and successfully express -- a viewpoint about Godzilla? 

This is the arena where the 1998 version of the material failed most egregiously. 

The Roland Emmerich film had no notion about why Godzilla is special, or why people should care about him or his story. 

Was he a villain? A mere animal? A hero? 

The film never decided.  In fact, the 1998 film never even gave serious thought about answering the question.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if Godzilla is portrayed as Terror Personified (as was the case in the Ishiro Honda original of 1954) or as a stalwart friend to mankind (as in Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1972] for instance.) 

Instead, what matters is that the filmmakers possess a clear concept of and opinion about Godzilla, so they can capably transmit it to audiences.

On this front, Godzilla (2014) succeeds marvelously. The new film contextualizes the giant beast as a kind of “alpha predator” whose main purpose is to balance out-of-whack nature.

Long-time fans of Godzilla films will recognize this approach as seeming rather Mothra-esque (think: Godzilla vs. Mothra: Battle for the Earth [1992]). Yet it certainly works in terms of Godzilla and our understanding of him. We have seen Godzilla as an Earth defender before, in the aforementioned Hedorah film, and also in efforts such as Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972). Even in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1995), Godzilla was our champion (perhaps reluctant…) against more ravenous, horrible monsters.

But this Godzilla of 2014 is a hero, and the filmmakers realize it. They humanize their hero by giving him soulful, old eyes, and letting our human hero, Ford, register them.  This is no mere “wild” animal, no mere berserker.  

No, this Godzilla is not a monster at all…but a God who walks among men. 

And judging by this Godzilla’s gait and lumber, he has seen quite a few fights too.  There is something wise, deliberate and, again, soulful about this creature.  I would even state that at times he seems somewhat gentle (particularly during his evacuation from San Francisco).

And indeed, that’s how the movie understands, recognizes and treats Godzilla for the audience’s benefit.  If Godzilla is an avatar of nature, then he can be both dangerous and beautiful, and Godzilla 2014 nails that duality.

Second on the checklist: Godzilla films function best, universally, when the giant monsters serve as avatars for man’s misuse of the Earth or Earth’s environment. 

In Godzilla (1954), of course, Godzilla represented the bugaboo of atomic bombs, and atomic testing in the Pacific by the United States.

In the aforementioned Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the “smog monster” was an alien who thrived on pollution, and mankind provided more than enough sewage and garbage to allow him to rise up and challenge the human race and the king of monsters. 

And Godzilla 2000 explicitly compared Godzilla to a tornado: a natural force without malice, but with great destructive capability, nonetheless.

Again, Godzilla (2014) satisfies regarding this expectation, or artistic comparison.  Many critics have read the film as an anti-global warming tract, and that seems, at least, a borderline legitimate reading. 

However, the film hits many environmental notes -- and ones across the board -- in terms of modern environmentalism.  To wit, the film opens in 1999 in the Philippines in the aftermath of a mining disaster. It is that mining disaster that leads promptly to a nuclear disaster in Janjira, Japan. 

The MUTO -- a formerly dormant giant monster -- is awakened by man’s destructive hand at this particular mine, and so it is not impossible to see Godzilla as a commentary on fracking. 

That mining technique is the source of many environmental risks, including contamination of the air, noise pollution, and the bringing up of (unhealthy) chemicals to Earth’s surface.  Clearly, the MUTO is comparable in terms of noise pollution (!) and was brought up from beneath the Earth’s surface with very unhealthy consequences for man. The MUTO can thus be interpreted as an avatar for man’s greed in plundering the resources beneath our soil.

Similarly, the anti-nukes metaphor from the original Honda film is updated masterfully here, if that is the aspect of the film one chooses to concentrate on.  Godzilla’s opening scene, about a pseudo-meltdown at the Janjira nuclear plant is frighteningly plausible, and brings back all-too-vivid memories of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011, which is still being cleaned u even as I write this review. 

But in Godzilla, man knowingly nurtures the MUTO at the Janjira facility, nursing it, essentially on a diet of nuclear waste or nuclear energy.  This facet of the MUTO implies that man is a self-destructive organism who courts disaster by continuing to “feed” technologies that are dangerous, and which could radically recreate the environment.

In the movie, fortunately, Mother Nature “summons” Godzilla -- the restorer of balance -- to set things right. 

In real life, as I informed my son, Joel, we are not so lucky as to have a Godzilla on our side, and it seems we often don’t possess the wisdom to respond well when we create an imbalance.  This facet of man’s nature is diagrammed in the film by the U.S. military force, which wants to detonate more nukes in order to stop a creature that actually feeds on nukes…a terribly reckless and poorly-considered notion.

There’s an old saying that man proposes and God disposes.  In a very real way, Godzilla concerns what happens when nature must correct damage that man has created.  Regardless if one focuses on the mining aspect or the nuclear aspect of Godzilla’s narrative, it is plain that Gareth Edwards’ film concerns, often deeply, the idea that when man errs catastrophically, nature will respond, and not always in a manner that directly benefits us, or our civilization.

By focusing intently on this subject -- that man is a fool to believe he can control nature -- Edwards’ Godzilla absolutely lives up to the noble and pro-social meaning of Toho’s Godzilla film series.  The very existence of Godzilla reminds one that man is not, necessarily, at the top of the food chain on Earth.

Thirdly, in terms of the Godzilla movie checklist:  do the human beings who move the story forward do more than merely serve the plot, and actually enhance the film as a narrative and as an experience?

Again, I’d suggest that the answer is strongly affirmative. 

Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche vet powerful supporting roles early in the film, and almost instantly establish that there is a strong emotional and human under-current to this Godzilla film.  Again, a contrast to the 1998 film seems to be in order. 

There, the characters were one-note jokes (remember Mayor Ebert and the Tatapoulos joke?), and some characters were so unlikable, so disconnected from the experience of being in a world with Godzilla, that you actually found yourself wishing they would get killed by the giant iguana.

Not so here. The new Godzilla not only opens strongly with Cranston and Binoche as a doomed and tragic couple, but features a cerebral Godzilla “advocate” in the form of Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), a man who has seen precisely how man can imbalance nature through his father’s experience at Hiroshima in 1945. 

This new Dr. Serizawa essentially fulfills the role of Miki Saegusa in the Heisei Era of Godzilla films, feeling and expressing a kind of emotional connection to this “alpha predator.” 

Everyone else sees Godzilla as a monster, but Serizawa see him as something more…something remarkable.

In terms of the action, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing Ford, is asked to carry the greatest burden, and he does a fine job of establishing a character who is contending with less-than-ideal circumstances.

Ford encounters the MUTO in close-quarters twice, and sees Godzilla close-up at least once, but Taylor-Johnson doesn’t reach for irony or humor, instead embodying a brand of wide-eyed operational-intelligence, or survival mode instincts.  Dropped into the frying pan, he’s constantly figuring out how not to get burned.  The character need not do more than that, especially since he is also well-defined by the film as a good son, a good father, and a loving husband.

But importantly, Edwards permits us to see through Ford’s human eyes on multiple occasions. The air jump scene is one example that allows us to experience his point of view in visceral terms.  And when Ford sees Godzilla relatively close-up, as I noted above, we see with him.  We see the “monster’s” eyes through the man’s eyes.

This is Gareth Edwards’ greatest gift as a filmmaker: he is able to keep a strong focus on the human and the individual, even in moments that could seem unbelievable, or far-out.  He grounds everything in the human experience, and the result -- as was also the case with Monsters (2010) -- often proves staggering.

Last but not least vis-à-vis the checklist: any Godzilla movie worth its weight in lizard scales needs to feature great monster fights. 

Here, again, the film does not disappoint. 

Edwards plays against expectations and reveals only glimpses of the first MUTO vs. Godzilla encounter.  He holds his fire as long as possible before showing us the Full Monty, as it were.  This reserved approach works effectively because suspense is generated, and we mustn’t suffer through a continuous orgy of destructive, non-stop special effects.  Man of Steel (2013), j’accuse. 

That film gave up plot, characterization -- everything -- for an hour of city-destroying action that ultimately had no visceral impact.  A lot of CGI doesn’t have tremendously more impact than a little CGI, and Edwards seems to understand that lesson.

Godzilla doesn’t go there, and gives us a great final scene.  Had the battle occurred at Honolulu mid-way through, the battle royale would not have succeeded.

Instead, the final battle between monsters in San Francisco proves a wonderful catharsis, and it lasts just long enough so that we don’t have to ask questions about Godzilla’s capabilities (such as: why didn’t he use his atomic fire breath in Hawaii).  By keeping that battle largely off-screen, Edwards avoids a lot of questions about how and why things go down. 

The final battle is extraordinary in Godzilla, so much so that the audience I watched the film roared, clapped and hollered in joy when the giant green monster powered up and fired his atomic breath for the first time. 

Everyone was waiting for that precise moment -- a moment that Emmerich’s film studiously avoided because it wasn’t “realistic,” I guess -- and the moment here truly plays as cathartic, and if truth be told, rousing.  Godzilla also lands a brilliant death blow on the last MUTO, and one that recalls, nicely, a similar move involving Orga in Godzilla 2000.   As a monster, Godzilla has always been a slugger.  He’s not always the strongest monster, and he doesn’t always have the most impressive powers, but he learns from each encounter and devises a strategy to win.  That idea plays out in the film’s climactic encounter.

This Godzilla is truly a king of monsters (and monster films), and it could be the savior not just of the summer box-office, but of a certain style of blockbuster film-making; one where we care about the people and the narrative outcome as much as we do about the special effects, and plugs for upcoming franchise films.

2014 At the Movies: Sacrament

Director Ti West has already made a strong name for himself in the horror genre with sterling efforts such as House of the Devil (2008) and The Innkeepers (2011).

But none of his efforts thus far -- save perhaps for the vignette about marital infidelity and murder in V/H/S (2012) -- have proven to be relentlessly bleak. 

Until, that is, The Sacrament (2014), his newest film.

Unlike, his two previous feature films, West’s The Sacrament does not tread into supernatural-styled horror tropes, but instead operates on a frighteningly realistic level.

In short, the film is a fictionalized version of the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978, only re-told in modern “found footage” format.

The names and individuals have been altered from the ones that history records at Jonestown, but the screenplay nonetheless hews very closely to the details of the mass suicide/mass murder in Guyana.

Accordingly, The Sacrament unfolds with a frightening sense of inevitability, and the movie doesn’t shy away from every ugly aspect of the hideous crime it depicts: the poisoning deaths of 167 individuals, including children and babies. 

One horrifying scene in the films sees a mother slit her child’s throat rather than contend with a cult leader’s draconian punishment for their disobedience. Another sequence records the agonizing death throes of a likable young teenager who should, by all rights, have a long life ahead of him.

The Sacrament is relentlessly upsetting and dark, in part because it is always clear that this brand of atrocity is no mere fantasy, but a recitation of actual human cruelty and ugliness.  The film will rivet your intention, and is very well-made. In fact, The Sacrament serves as a stark reminder about what can happen when people choose to put their faith in a larger-than-life leader, and not in the levers of a functioning democracy.

The film is timely because we live in difficult times, certainly, and America is starkly divided about the way out of such difficulties, both economic and social.  In its nerve-wracking, point-blank view of a deadly cult that hides its true nature beneath bromides about equality and justice, The Sacrament reminds audience that in the impulse to “escape” our flawed (but functional) culture, we risk the possibility of landing in a place and system that is much, much worse.

“Father had a vision, and we built a Heaven on Earth.”

The filmmakers at VICE, a New York news-magazine -- Sam (A.J. Bowen) and Jake (Joe Swanberg) -- learn from their friend and former subject, photographer Patrick Carter (Kentucker Audley) that his troubled sister, Caroline (Amy Seimetz) has apparently turned her life around in an unusual way. 

Specifically, she has moved out of America all together and into Eden Parish, a foreign commune.  The agrarian society is overseen by the mysterious but beatific Charles Anderson Reed (Gene Jones) -- known as “Father” -- and Caroline has given up all her worldly possessions to be a part of his vision.

Patrick has been invited to visit Caroline inside Eden Parish, and so Sam and Jake decide to go along too, and document on film everything they see inside the community. 

At first, Eden Parish seems a paradise on Earth, an egalitarian society where all people are respected and all needs are met.  The denizens of Eden Parish appear to be delighted to live there, and testify at length about their love for Father, and how he brought them back from the precipice of self-destruction and despair.

On the night of a musical reception and Sam’s tense one-on-one interview of Father, however, a woman and her daughter approach the visitors and hand them a note requesting help. They want to escape.

Eden Parish is not what it seems.

The next morning, chaos erupts in Eden Parish as Father learns that some of his beloved “children” intend to leave on the helicopter with the visitors.  Rather than allow his community to be splintered and separated, Father proposes and executes a final, devastating solution.

“America is coming apart at the seams.”

Jonestown -- the home of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project -- was the creation of James Warren Jones (1931 – 1978).  The commune was located in Guyana and consisted of over 900 citizens at its height.  Though The Sacrament’s corollary, Eden Parish, houses less than 200 citizens by comparison, there are nonetheless several notable parallels between history and the film’s reality. 

Specifically, the cult leader in both cases imposes mass suicide, or “revolutionary suicide” upon his people, including children.  That suicide comes in the form of cyanide, which has been laced into cups of Kool-Aid or red punch.

Similarly, The Sacrament accurately reflects the final hours of the Jonestown commune. The end came for Jones and his acolytes soon after a Congressional delegation, led by Congressman Leo Ryan and consisting of “concerned relatives” came to visit Jonestown.  In that case, the guests were met on the night of the arrival with a party, or musical reception, at a pavilion…but one denizen slipped the visitors a note asking for help in fleeing the cult. 

In The Sacrament, the media comes to Eden Parish and VICE’s arrival spurs its final chapter.  But again visitors are handed a note following a party, petitioning for their assistance. 

Similarly, in both cases, the cult leader cultivates an atmosphere of intense fear and paranoia about the outside world, making it seems that the inhabitants of the commune simply have no choice but to die.

Jones was famously recorded exhorting revolutionary suicide in a forty-five minute “death tape.”  That tape has been re-parsed here, in the film, as a video recording.  We watch in great detail as Father spins his tale of the war that will follow the visitors’ return to America, and how the only thing for the people to do now is lay down their lives in protest.

Finally there have been hints about Jim Jones over the year that his madness resulted, at least in part, from his deteriorating physical condition. He may have suffered a series of strokes, and The Sacrament implies the same….at least a bit. Apparently, Father has not been feeling well of late and is on medication, according to Caroline.  Late in the film, however, we see him snorting cocaine, so we can’t be certain if Father is genuinely ill, or simply stoned out of reality.

The scariest thing about The Sacrament is not the close attention to the details of the Jonestown massacre, perhaps, but rather the fact that, at times, Father seems to be, well, persuasive, in his speeches.

He has built a society free of racism and poverty, just as he asserts, and one away from the temple of avarice and materialism that has been erected here in the U.S.  Even the idea of “going back to nature” and tuning out of 21st century technological life is enormously appealing…at least briefly, to many healthy, sane people.

Father even lands some well-directed hits on the gossip-mongering, slanted modern mass media, and there’s some part of us -- even at our most rational and logical -- that is alarmingly susceptible to this kind of talk, this kind of rabble rousing. 

I suppose that’s the movie’s point.  It is easy for many rational individuals to “hook” onto one point of agreement with a cult leader like Father, and then miss the forest for the trees.

But Father’s apparently rational “progressive politics” -- as Sam terms them -- cloak a deeper and darker truth. 

It’s easy for a society to ditch racism or inequality when everyone is already at the lowest level, cowed into obeying every edict of an apparently benevolent dictator. In other words, all men, women and children are “equally” subjugated at Eden Parish, without the freedom even to come and go as they see fit. 

The equality here is the equality of the subjugated.

And secondly, we see as well that Eden Parish -- for all its natural and apparent social glories -- is not self-sustaining. Instead, denizens send letters back home to family members getting them to come to the commune.  Once there, these families are brainwashed or otherwise convinced to hand over their life’s savings to Father, in furtherance of this Eden.  In essence, Father is running a scam to support his society.

The Sacrament proves clever and worthwhile as a work of art because it doesn’t offer up platitudes or black-and-white assessments of Eden Parish.  Indeed, if it were a battle between plain black and white, or obvious good and evil, nobody would have ever gone to live in Jonestown, or come here, to Eden Parish.  Instead -- as it is present in all life -- there is nuance to consider.

During one scene, for example, an African-American teenager testifies to the fact that if he stayed in America in poverty -- his previous environs -- he might not even be alive today. That life would have proven toxic to him. He is incredibly convincing in his assertions (and sincere in them, to boot…) and yet he isn’t seeing the full picture, as he finally begins to suspect.

In short, Father is able to espouse meaningful words about racial equality and the sins of materialism, but he is not on the up-and-up, and his charismatic delivery of his philosophy means that, essentially, the majority of his flock can’t resist him.  The people have handed him complete control, and he betrays their trust. He has delivered them to nature, and to an equal society, but it is a society that steals from others, and that demands total obedience.

Considering this line of inquiry further, The Sacrament seems to concern our willingness, as a species, to turn away from a problematic but operative system in favor of a fairy tale…without actually examining the specifics of that fairy tale’s narrative.

The Sacrament is neither sensationalist nor gratuitously gory, but it is authentically disturbing.  The found-footage technique is here occasionally troublesome, and you may stop and wonder why certain people continue filming events, especially after a camera hand-off prior to a self-immolation.

But in broad terms, West oversees a grounded, respectful matter-of-fact approach that enhances our sense of reality in the situation, and there’s the sense at times that he even limits the narrative’s boundaries so that it doesn’t go out of bounds, or risk defying overtly belief.

So, in a way, you already know how The Sacrament is going to end. The end is predictable. But the (dark) achievement of the film is that we see, in that closing chapter, how a madman justifies his actions, and cloaks them in religion, politics, and rhetoric. 

For a very long time, there’s been a debate about Jonestown massacre and nomenclature.

Was the massacre “mass suicide” or “mass murder?” 

After watching Ti West’s The Sacrament, I know I definitely fall on the “mass murder” side of things. If you assume direct responsibility for every decision in someone else’s life, you are also responsible for the nature and time of their death.  That is precisely how Father behaves in the film, and I suspect how Jim Jones did as well. 

Disturbing and unsettling, The Sacrament is thus the bleak portrait of a man with a vision. He builds a would-be Heaven on Earth…that quickly goes straight to Hell.