Godzilla is back and he’s not alone


Three years ago, thanks to the Wexner Center, I witnessed something that few people in this country have had a chance to see: the original 1954 version of Godzilla. Unlike the Americanized edition that was released in the U.S., it had no Raymond Burr reporting on the mayhem for the folks back home. There were only thousands of scared Japanese citizens trying to avoid being crushed by a prehistoric creature that nuclear weapons had brought back to life.

It was a startlingly grim experience.

Now a special-effects veteran and relatively unknown director named Gareth Edwards (2010’s Monsters) has revived Japan’s favorite beastie. Though the overall tone is quite different, this Godzilla also has its share of grimness.

Like the 1954 original, it could be seen as a cautionary tale—and not just in the sense of “Look out! Something big and scaly is about to step on you!” In an opening that calls to mind the Fukushima disaster, American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) suffers a personal tragedy as a Japanese nuclear plant is damaged by seismic shocks too regular to have been caused by a natural earthquake.

The flick then fast-forwards 15 years to find Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), returning to his wife and son (Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) after defusing bombs for the military. But before he can settle back into family life, Ford is forced to travel to Japan to bail out his father, who has been arrested for sticking his nose where it’s not welcome. Joe, it seems, is still trying to find the source of those mysterious seismic shocks, even though the government is determined to keep the matter hush-hush.

Before long, the source becomes all too clear. It’s something big and monstrous. And—surprise!—it’s not Godzilla.

Like many cheesy sequels that were spawned by the 1954 classic, Edwards’s film pits Godzilla against other monsters, with humanity caught in the middle. The explanation is that these ancient beasts existed in a time when the Earth’s atmosphere was far more radioactive, and they’ve now come back to life to feed on the dregs of mankind’s nuclear activities.

The script, by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham, leaves a few questions unanswered. Why, for example, is Japanese scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) convinced that Godzilla is out to save society rather than join in its destruction?

Mostly, though, the tale is packed with so much suspense and heart, along with giant helpings of spectacle and judicious sprinklings of humor, that doubts are gladly set aside. Edwards is said to be an admirer of Steven Spielberg, and the Great One’s influence can be detected in scenes that may remind you of Jurassic Park.

Visually, Godzilla is in a class of its own. Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey create dark, somber images that inspire a sense of foreboding and awe, particularly when the title creature slowly ascends to his full height. Seeing it in 3-D on an IMAX screen (as I did) probably maximizes the excitement, though I was occasionally distracted by foreground objects that seemed unnaturally fuzzy.

But whether you see it in 2-D or 3-D, this new Godzilla is an instant classic. It may not scare human beings into abandoning nukes, but it will treat them to a tensely entertaining couple of hours at the multiplex.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)


Looking for baseball talent in the land of cricket


Disney seems to have a knack for telling a true story in a way that makes it come across as manipulative fiction. Luckily, Disney also has a knack for entertaining us in the process.

The studio accomplished this difficult feat last year with Saving Mr. Banks. Now it’s doing it again with Million Dollar Arm.

Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) from a script by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), the new flick relates the tale of JB Bernstein, a sports agent who comes up with a desperate ploy for saving his struggling business: He’ll travel to India and launch a televised search for cricket players who have what it takes to pitch for Major League Baseball.

Why India? Because, JB reasons, its athletes are likely to work for less money than their U.S. counterparts, and because India represents a huge, untapped market for American baseball.

As played by Jon Hamm, JB comes off as an extension of the driven, self-centered skirt-chaser he portrays on TV’s Mad Men. But that appears likely to change. The movie telegraphs its intentions so obviously that from the moment we meet Brenda (Lake Bell), the spunky medical student who rents the little house behind his big house, we suspect two things will happen: (1) JB and Brenda will end up together, and (2) she’ll somehow inspire him to become a better person.

First, though, JB has to go to India to launch the “Million Dollar Arm” talent competition. Once there, the script falls back on familiar culture-clash humor, but an interesting story soon emerges as countless Indian athletes vie for the chance to step up to the plate. With the help of a seemingly half-awake scout (the always amusing Alan Arkin), JB finally settles on promising pitchers Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), as well as an eager-to-please assistant named Amit (Pitobash).

Back in the U.S., Dinesh and Rinku’s struggle to learn the fundamentals of baseball would be interesting if we didn’t know the real question is whether JB can earn Brenda’s love. It’s not until the romantic element has gone through its predictable paces that the focus returns to Dinesh and Rinku, with heart-tugging results.

Considering all the innovative projects the cast and crew have been involved with in the past—Lars and the Real Girl, Station Agent, Bell’s In a World… and, of course, Mad Men—it’s disappointing that their collaboration has resulted in such a by-the-numbers effort. Still, the flick ultimately achieves its goal of telling an uplifting story.

It’s all the more uplifting because we know, despite all the Disney-fication, that it’s basically true.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)