Pity poor Bryan Cranston.
Cranston is a counterintuitive subject of pity, as the possessor of a Tony, multiple Emmys and a public fan letter from Sir Anthony Hopkins. But by now at least as many people have seen him in Gareth Edwards' remake of Godzillaas in his star-making role in Breaking Bad, and a hundred times more people have seen him in Godzilla than will ever see him playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway. This is ill luck indeed.
The cast of the new Godzilla is not only solid but distinguished—Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But, to put it mildly, Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein don't show these actors to their best advantage. And, whereas the other actors get to mumble their silly lines, collect their paychecks and make their escape, Cranston is actually expected to emote. As Joe Brody, the scientist who has been trying to prove for years that prehistoric monsters are to blame for the meltdown at a nuclear plant that killed his wife and thousands of others, Cranston has to play multiple scenes of tearful anguish. It is masterfully played anguish, but because Cranston has no one and nothing to play off except stick-figure characters and computer-generated images of catastrophic destruction, he looks ridiculous.
"Ridiculous" is an appropriate word to describe Godzilla in its entirety. Richard Corliss of Time was exactly right when he said the trailers for the film promised a far more moving and powerful cinematic experience than Edwards & Co. actually deliver. The trailer promises that living, breathing people will be menaced by the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or M.U.T.O.s. The movie, however, reveals the same old ciphers we've seen in every other monster flick, being extinguished in a morass of devastation every 12-year-old boy in the audience will think is way cool. The CGI, Dolby and 3D effects are state-of-the-art, and when the film's eponymous star finally rises from the ocean, towering over a battleship and sending ersatz waves crashing through the screen, it is a textbook example of cinematic shock and awe. But the story is dull, the continuity terrible, and the actors superfluous.
At the end Edwards and Borenstein have the gall to have all the remaining characters smile at Godzilla as he regains his ocean, in gratitude and admiration for saving them from the M.U.T.O.s—never mind that Godzilla destroyed just as many buildings and killed just as many people as the M.U.T.O.s. Godzilla affords its audience the treat of seeing Tokyo, Honolulu, Las Vegas and especially San Francisco pulverized, along with any number of ships, buildings, bridges, railroads and faceless people in between. Not so subtly, the movie asks us to applaud the destruction of civilization; however, when you think about it, that really isn't more than other directors—and even some politicians—have asked of us recently.
It takes a movie with only one on-screen character, who spends the film's entire running time driving down an English motorway from the Midlands to London, to show us what real suspense is.
Steven Knight's Locke shows the titular character (Tom Hardy) in a series of Bluetooth conversations with several people—his assistant, his boss, his sons, his wife, and another woman. In the course of those conversations, Locke's life crumbles to smoking ruins, despite his best efforts to salvage it. To say precisely how his life crumbles, or how he tries to salvage it, would be to reveal too much. When he's not on Bluetooth, Locke holds a series of imaginary conversations with his deceased father, the gist of which are that he will prove himself the better man of the two, or die trying.
Despite its static setting, Locke is exciting visually. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos creates a nightmarish parade of glaring, smearing lights from passing cars, truck stops, toll plazas. The film's real excitement, however, comes from the dialogue between Locke and his callers as he explains, protests, wheedles, apologizes. This is a tour de force for Tom Hardy, who shows himself once again to be one of the finest younger actors in Britain. In his hands, Locke becomes a flawed but deeply sympathetic man, one who is really trying to live up to his obligations. The final, fragile wand of hope held out to him at the end seems thoroughly earned, and we can't help rooting for him as he drives off into the distance.
If you want a movie that shows a man redeeming himself in the most joyous way imaginable, look no further than Jon Favreau's Chef.
Chef marks Favreau's return as a triple-threat writer-director-star, as in Swingers and his other early films, after directing a string of blockbusters including Cowboys and Aliens and the first two Iron Man movies. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a brilliant, driven chef whose single-minded devotion to his craft has destroyed his marriage to high-level businesswoman Inez (Sofia Vergara) and made him a distracted if loving father to their small son Percy (Emjay Anthony).
Though Carl is a master chef, he is not the master of his fate. The beginning of the movie finds him working for a dictatorial Los Angeles restaurateur named Riva (Dustin Hoffman) who insists that Carl keep making the dishes he created 10 years ago, on pain of dismissal. This frustrates Carl, and his frustration reaches fever pitch when snobbish restaurant critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) lashes out at Carl in his newspaper column and on Twitter, accusing him of creative stagnation.
First, Carl plans a dinner for Michel in which he will dazzle him with a cornucopia of wonderful new dishes. Nothing doing, Riva says; you will serve him the same dishes you always have, or you're fired. Next, the technologically naÃ¯ve Carl accidentally touches off a public Twitter/YouTube war with Michel. The result: Carl is professionally disgraced, personally humiliated, and out of a job.
At Inez's suggestion, and in a Hail Mary attempt to salvage his reputation, Carl flies with Percy to their home town of Miami. With the help of Carl's sous-chef and best friend Martin (John Leguizamo), Carl and Percy renovate an old food truck and drive it cross-country to L.A., dispensing superb Cuban sandwiches to a famished America, while Percy Tweets and YouTubes their progress.
Chef is in no way deep or profound, but it is consistently pleasant, with a relaxed, summery tone. Favreau and his co-stars—who also include Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale and Favreau's Iron Man pal Robert Downey Jr.--are obviously having a blast. Also, Favreau treats the audience to endless tableaux of mouth-watering food. (You'd better scope out a good restaurant for dinner after seeing this movie.)
Some critics have opined that Chef is a metaphor for Favreau's own career, representing his return to his low-budget roots after making an ever more bloated series of CGI fests. I didn't see Cowboys and Aliens or Iron Man, so I can't speak to that. I just know that Chef is a helluva lot of fun. A lot more fun, for example, than Godzilla.