Tag Archives: Cloverfield

Massive Success and/or Giant Failure — “Godzilla”

Park all the tanks on that bridge

A fin coming out of the water and a two-note anthem. A velociraptor tapping her claw impatiently on the floor as she hunts two children in a hotel kitchen. These are some of the most terrifying moments on film, but why? It’s not the fin that frightens, but the monster it suggests, gliding underwater through Jaws. Yes, we’re scared of the raptor’s scythe-like killing claw in Jurassic Park, but the eeriest moment happens when she impatiently taps it on the tile – as if to say finding you is inevitable, so why keep her waiting? And so it is in Godzilla, in which monsters loom out of the midnight fog and detach from the shadows themselves. We’ve reached a point in filmmaking where it’s very difficult to scare audiences through complex visual effects. But the simple shadow of a monster around the corner? That will always set hearts and minds racing.

Does Godzilla reach the peaks of those epic Steven Spielberg monster tales? In terms of visual tension, absolutely. One of the biggest keys to creating a successful suspense film lies in withholding the payoff an audience expects. You can’t answer every moment of tension with a release. If you do, a movie becomes formulaic. You have to make a game out of when that inevitable jump scare or action scene will occur. Earning an audience’s trust while constantly betraying their expectations is what makes horror and suspense such difficult genres, but Godzilla director Gareth Edwards has obviously watched those Spielberg movies many, many times.

Get used to this expression

Even the opening credits of Godzilla build its mystery, redacting text in black marker as faux-historical footage plays in the background. From here, we’re offered a tragic prologue involving nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad) and an apparent earthquake. Years later, we pick up the plot with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s lured to Japan when Joe gets arrested. Godzilla spends a lot of love and care setting up these characters and their history, which is why it’s so strange that it all becomes immaterial once monsters start hatching and destroying the countryside.

There are considerable problems here. The biggest is Taylor-Johnson, who may look the part of a typical leading hero, but who fails to elicit much emotion. Tell him a loved one’s dead, inform him of prehistoric beasts the size of skyscrapers, and even have one gnash its gigantic jaws feet from his head, and he only ever looks like he’s waiting very courteously for the camera to start rolling. It’s a shame; when the monsters are this big, it doesn’t matter if your hero’s as tall as The Rock if he can’t manage the curiosity and wonder of Richard Dreyfuss. In a cast featuring Cranston as a conspiracy nut and character actors Ken Watanabe (Inception) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) as scientists with a near-religious fervor for the giant beasts they hunt, Taylor-Johnson’s perpetual lack of emotion is glaring and begins seeping into the audience. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and all it takes is one conversation – on the phone, no less – to make you realize who you’d rather see facing off against giant monsters.

Olsen shows you how to do a reaction shot

The plot is incredibly uneven. We don’t expect Shakespeare from Godzilla, but after the lush and detailed opening half-hour is chucked to the side, narrative developments later on are rushed so badly that, at one point, a character literally washes up into the next scene. Disaster-movie cliches – will the dog outrun the tsunami, will the hero find the lost boy’s parents – are answered with such coincidental ease that it’s easy to start distrusting any emotional investment we’re asked to make. These cliches are always manipulative, but they should never feel that way.

There’s a lot that’s right about Godzilla and a lot that misses the mark. It’s visually clever in a way few films are, but combine an illogical story and an unengaged lead and you have one strangely apathetic movie. What we’re left with is something that works exquisitely on the primal level – seeing the fin in the water – but that fails in giving it personal consequence. It’s half-a Spielberg movie, visually awe-inducing but without that crucial human element. Call it the inversion of Super 8 or Cloverfield, both of which I preferred more. In the end, though, I can’t remember the last time a movie had acting and a plot this bad and I still came out liking it. The visuals really are that striking, but I have to admit that little else about Godzilla is. It’s rated PG-13 for destruction and creature violence.

Godzilla imagines a better colead

Fast Food Horror — “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones”

The Marked Ones 3

I’m not a fan of the Paranormal Activity series of movies, in which overprotective husbands place constantly recording cameras in every corner of their houses (is this something that anyone does?) for no other apparent reason than one day an audience might want to peep in. Inevitably, their wife or daughter is revealed to be possessed and horror hijinks ensue.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones takes the cameras out of the home and puts them in the hands of a pair of high school graduates. There’s a sense of place and character its forebears lacked. Even when the horror starts, best friends Jesse and Hector are more interested in drinking and hooking up with women than in figuring out any mystery. So what if being possessed gives me demon strength and a strange force stops me from being able to hurt myself? Let’s go show it off! The sense of skewed priorities does a lot to shape the characters.

As happens in these films, the handsome one gets possessed, the funny best friend stays by his side to make the audience smile, and the beautiful girl whose job it is to wring her hands and look worried does exactly this. There are a few blurts of plot, but they’re quickly abandoned. The film assumes you’ve seen a demonic possession movie before, so you know the beats of the plot.

The Marked Ones 1

The Marked Ones is point-of-view (POV), filmed through Jesse’s camera. This means we have to see enough of everything that we can tell what’s going on, but that the actors have to act more “real” and less dramatically. This demands a couple of concessions. When Jesse is mugged, for instance, Hector tries to help while still holding the camera squarely on his best friend getting beaten. When I’m being attacked, my first instinct is to defend myself with the biggest, hardest thing I can find – which, in this case, would be the camera. A blur of sidewalk and a burst of motion sickness don’t make for a good shot, however. In moments like these – desperately trying to pull a plank off a window with only one hand because your life isn’t as important as making sure the camera’s capturing it – the film’s reality breaks. Other POV films are smart enough to direct around these situations.

POV films also have trouble with climaxes. In action and horror movies, we expect larger-than-life endings – bigger explosions and jumpier scares. When you take things that extra mile in a POV film, however, bigger and jumpier often translates to inauthentic. There’s a higher suspension of disbelief to overcome because we’re asked to adopt the story’s visual perspective as our own. It’s a fine line to walk, and The Marked Ones has some very cheesy action.

That’s what’s wrong. What’s right is that director Christopher Landon uses his nonexistent budget to his advantage. The scariest sequences are those in which we see nothing, waiting to discover what’s around the next corner, past that sheet of plastic or on the other side of a dark room. It gives our imaginations time to dream up horrors far more shocking than what’s eventually delivered. Little things, like effectively spare art direction and clever sound design that plays with white noise, do a lot to make the quieter moments the scariest. The ending is bravely abrupt and a smart piece of fan service to those who’ve seen the rest of the franchise, though it may leave some wanting more of a conclusion.

I also applaud The Marked Ones for featuring an almost all-Latino cast. I particularly enjoyed the feisty grandmother who, once she discovers her grandson is possessed, decides this thing’s getting exorcised pronto. I have a feisty abuelita who lives in San Antonio, and I pity any demon that thinks it can go toe-to-toe with her.

The Marked Ones 4

Is The Marked Ones good? Not really. It doesn’t come close to the best of the POV horror genre: [Rec], Cloverfield, and the underrated The Last Exorcism. Is it scary and fun? Sure. It’s fast food horror – it hits the spot and satisfies a certain craving. It’s no turkey dinner, though. There are some effective scares and interesting enough characters, which will all be forgotten a half-hour after you walk out of the theater. The Marked Ones is rated R for language, violence, nudity, and drug use. This is no family film.