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Has the Summer of 2014 Been the Best in Years?

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Quite simply: yes. We’re not even mid-way into July and we’ve already seen the meteoric rise of many masterclass takes on the summer tentpole. With the nearly perfect Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the breathtaking X-Men: Days of Future Past, Tom Cruise‘s thrilling sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s hysterical 22 Jump Street, Dreamwork’s stunning and heart-breaking animated follow-up How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Gareth Edward‘s crazily awesome Godzilla, the season’s blockbusters have been just that: blockbusters.

We’re not even half way into the season and we’ve got more certifiable showstoppers than ever before. And we’re not just talking superhero movies, a facet that has made 2014 stand out even more. We’re talking a wide array of films with varying perspectives and takes on what is great about a summer blockbuster. They’ve topped the charts and for good reason: they’re quite simply good movies on a bigger scale, and we’ve only yet mentioned the hundred million dollar ones.

On the indie side, we’ve seen Bong Joon-ho‘s wildly unconventional Snowpiercer, David Michod’s deeply unsettling The Rover and Jim Mickle‘s unpredictable Cold in July, each made in the traditional of big screen excellence but seen by a smaller, more niche audience and using with a smaller change purse to make it happen. But even this independent cinema has unleashed a pantheon of unforgettable big screen debuts this summer season, each in the tradition of the summer tentpole.

And when we do add superhero movies into the mix, even the overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier was solid as was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (a vast improvement over the original). Plus we haven’t even gotten to Guardians of the Galaxy that’ll debut the beginning of August and has the potential to be a breakout hit.

And sure the vastly inferior Transformers: Age of Extinction and Maleficent may have shown them all up in the box office ring but we have to take into account that old habits die slow. People take time to learn what’s good for them. The aforementioned blockbusters are Filet Mignon, it just so happens that people are used to eating hamburger. But so long as we continue to praise these movies and show up to buy tickets for them, things may just continue to trend in a positive direction. I’m no box office guru but I know that at the theater, your money is your voice. Make sure that you’re speaking up for the ones that matter.

Taking into account this fact, just compare with me the quality of 2014 Summer’s blockbuster to recent summer seasons past and you’ll see just how easily it eclipses anything from the past few years. Last year held the decent to middling to just plain bad; Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious 6, Man of Steel, R.I.P.D., Star Trek into Darkness, Pacific Rim, The Heat, The Hangover 3, After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Red 2. Sure I purposely left some of 2014 lesser films out of my analysis for the sake of making my argument but look at how many clunkers we have above. Just one after another.

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Blow for blow, 2014 trumps 2013 at every turn. And though 2012 had Dark Knight Rises, Avengers and the like-it-or-hate-it Prometheus, it was also filled with crud like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Expendables 2, Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall, Battleship and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Save for one or two exceptions (nearly all from the superhero camp), it was once again a summer left in the wash.

2011 had more Transformers, another unwanted Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Cars 2, the water-dump Green Lantern, the brutally bad The Hangover: Part 2as well as the truly awesome Mission Impossible 4, the conclusive Harry Potter installment, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Cowboys and Aliens and the very solid Fast Five. It also introduced us to Thor and Captain America but it still doesn’t compare to 2014 in terms of originality and vision. Superhero movies and sequels do tend to dominate these summer months but you’re gonna have to spend your hard-earned dollar on things like Edge of Tomorrow if you want to see the summer movie zeitgeist head in a positive direction. It means you taking a risk, or at least reading critical response to movies and knowing what you’re getting into. The good stuff is out there, you just have to be able to not be seduced by the golden arches every time round.

What I’m trying to say is: in terms of the big picture, 2014 is the year of the summer blockbuster puttering back to life and don’t let the big box office performance of Trans4mers or Maleficent tell you otherwise. If you’re still amongst the naysayers calling 2014 a bad year for movies, remove your head from your ass and actually head to the theater. I could recommend ten movies playing right this second that would simply wow you (just take a look at top tier of the 131 2014 films I’ve reviewed so far this year for proof of that). Summer 2014 really has been a showstopper and one that you probably oughta stop talking smack about. But with less and less people going to the movies, the onus is those who do care about the future of cinema to step up and gently herd the box office in the right direction. Spend your money wisely, unless you’re content seeing Transformers 29: Attack of the Robot Nazi Ninjas.

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Out in Theaters: GODZILLA

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Gareth
Edwards just sucker-punched Guillermo del Toro in his Chewbacca face, punted him right in his spectacle-pushing schnoz, and gave him a big old titty-twister for the whole world to see. To return to 1995 lingo, Godzilla rules. Pacific Rim – the asthmatic cousin panting to keep up, the ADHD-striken, Ridilin child who can’t keep his stories straight – you can go back to your rift where you belong. Godzilla is the alpha predator, the white whale, the great reckoner.

While my throwing down the gauntlet and continued pointed admonishment of Pacific Rim might not be the best means to celebrate Godzilla, I think the two films are wholly representative of where I – and collectively we – should draw the line on monster movies. It’s the triumphant versus the trash; what works and what doesn’t.

Evan’s story begins with a fascinating opening credit sequence setting 1940s-era footage of nuclear testing, and a water-cloaked Godzilla, behind the names and titles of those involved with the production. This is usually a time to tune out but here the names are intersected with brief easter eggs and exposition that are hastily redacted by quick-draw movie ink; it’s Evans’ look at government sanitization meant to keep us “safe”. Peering from one portion of the massive IMAX screen to another to try to take it all in, from the very get go, we’re racing to keep up. Even in the short context of these opening moments, Alexandre Desplat‘s brooding score quickly sinks its hooks in, his foreboding strings painting immediately iconic soundscapes. The stage is set. Let the mayhem begin.
 
We soon meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) a seismologist working at a nuclear reactor site in Japan. It’s his birthday but he’s too wound up in a phone conversation with a co-worker to notice the happy birthday banner his son Ford proudly set up. Sad face. “We gotta shut it down,” Joe barks. Without much spurning, we know trouble is a brewing. Cue an “unnatural” geographical anomaly that knocks out the plant, smothers Joe’s wife in a cloud of toxic waste and makes for some heart-rending Craston tears while effectively turning the city the Brody clan occupies into a cordoned-off, toxic wasteland.

15 years later, Ford Brody (now Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an army man – an elite soldier specializing in bomb disposal. He’s Sergeant First Class William James without as deep a chip on his shoulder and the boob-padding spacesuit.  “How’s the bomb business?” his father tiredly, maybe scornfully, asks. “I diffuse them, not drop them.” Like the portended atomic bombs of Godzilla yore, Edwards squeezes ample allusions to Ishirō Honda‘s 1954 original. But they find their place naturally, settling into this modernization without feeling tacky or copy-pasted in.

And while the original is an exercise in metaphorical philosophizing that so happens to feature a man in a rubber suit stomping model cities, Evan’s Godzilla is about magical realism: what if a gigantic monster surfaced from the depths of the sea to wreck havoc on the world’s biggest cities? While lesser movies skimp on exploring the implications of destruction to shower FX-heavy candy a la wanton carnage – think Rampage World Tour: The Movie – Godzilla is all about implications. Before he emerges from the ocean, the tides ominously draw back, whipping into a tsunami that pummels the mainland. Before Godzilla even arrives on the scene, his wake is already collecting a body count. Like Honda’s film, Godzilla is no malevolent presence but a force of nature. In his notes, Evans has likened Godzilla to a God. Part the seas, for He is coming.

While Guillermo’s Rim job is happy to service you at the beginning – hell you paid for it, you’re getting the goods upfront – Edwards makes you wait. He’s like the girl you want to marry: he doesn’t put out on the first date. But he’s not above flirting.

Our first sneaking glances at the behemoth are shrouded by scale; a whipping tail, those imposing, prehistoric scales cutting through the waves; but it doesn’t take long for Evans to yank up on the scope and offer halting panoramas of the God lizard in his towering enormity. So what if Godzilla is a little fat, because good lord is he epic.

Bringing to life a towering deity of this size, Edwards cranks everything to 11. The sights, sounds and theater-shaking signature roar are the product of diligent planning and fiercely ambitious blueprints. With the support of Toho Co. (responsible for 28 Godzilla features) Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures – which first teamed up with Batman Begins – have taken a great risk on Godzilla. They’re betting audiences will be patient, that they don’t need each bite spoon fed to them robot-punch by robot-punch. For critics, the gambit has mostly paid off. Hopefully, general audiences feel the same. All I know is that I was won over. Hook, line and sinker. And even though the characters never transform into the complex people we hope to populate this otherwise consummate spectacle, Edwards is still a saintly architect.

Now with Monsters and Godzilla under his belt, Edwards is here to usher in a new era of monster movie. Long may he rein. He borrows heavily from his earlier work with creeping shots in the jungle essentially replicating the same sights and feel from his inaugural film. He’s a man who knows his talents, who’s confident enough to homage himself. But with so much more to play with from a budgetary stance, his sandbox is that much more fun and the result that much more jaw-dropping. But while he’s able to crank up the dial in terms of special effects, the intimate character study that characterized Monsters withers to something far more flat.

Taylor-Johnson is sufficient as the “hero” type but he has very little to work with outside of running around or looking scared. Playing the role of Asian scientist, Ken Watanbe is equally ineffective, more a stereotyped homage than a character in his own right. He’s having fun chewing through these lines but he’s no Cranston, who, for his limited role, is able to milk most. But no one gets the shaft more than Elizabeth Olsen who is relegated to a shamelessly customary wife in distress role. It’s tired characterizations like these that remind us that we’re watching a blockbuster but those complaints ought to be laid at screenwriter Max Borenstein‘s feet. His characters are archetypes; Army men with young wives and younger children. Anything else just wouldn’t do, would it?

Though the performances are often showed up by the 150-foot beast stomping through the midst of Evans’ film, it is still a certifiable triumph, an idol of what studio films should – and can – do. If Pacific Rim made you feel like a kid again, all the more power to you and your dated nostalgia. I’m quite happy watching Godzilla and cherishing my adulthood, marveling at modern technology. Thankfully, Godzilla is the rare sort of big-scale entertainment that doesn’t dumb down to middle schoolers.

B

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Restored and Revisited: Godzilla (1954) Celebrates 60 Years


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has long stood as a universal symbol of destruction – a mighty metaphorical monstrosity whose roots are embedded so deep into the cultural zeitgeist that few corners of the world would be caught unfamiliar with the city-toppling beast. With over 28 films featuring his prehistoric personage, countless pop culture references and a slew of television, comics, video game, and toy appearances featuring the original kaiju, generation after generation have been clued into the lasting impact of this reptilian icon. But even with such a long line of successors, no film in its pantheon – or in the monster movie oeuvre at large – has left as large a footprint in the world of film and pop culture as Ishrio Honda‘s original 1954 Godzilla. Today, you may be able to pick out a man in a rubber suit but the satirical and tragic symbolism live on in robust, fiery glory.

Rialto Pictures have spearheaded this latest restoration in junction with the film’s 60th anniversary. Their previous endeavors have included such films as Breathless, The Battle of Algiers and The Third Man and have earned them the title of “gold standard of reissue distributors”. With their latest clean-up, the Godzilla of the past looks fit for the big screen again.

As all films age, they lose their original sparkle and dazzle. Not only does a shift towards new groundbreaking technology date older films in the context of the latest and greatest but the original material itself loses its cinematic punch over time. Sound gets stuck in its throat, pictures fuzz and skip, the film becomes washed out. Like a debutante out of her prime, it sags. You’ll be happy to hear then that this newest makeover of Godzilla looks and sounds, quite simply, rip roaring. The bellows have bark, the black-and-white cinematography has bite and the picture, all captured in gloriously old-fashion Academy ratio, is as epic as ever. Though some larger scale set pieces look like they could have been filmed in a sudsy bathtub, the chaotic swirl of Honda’s camera locks you tight in the moment. Dated or no, Godzilla is still a behemoth to behold.  

For those who’ve never actual seen the film, a quick plot synopsis. When a skiff full of fishermen sinks into the sea under mysterious circumstances – with a bubbling vortex reminiscent of a Kraken’s turning the crew to screaming jetsam – authorities are left baffled, and wives and children are left to cry and swoon. As the town seeks an answer, only an elderly islander can rightly identify the beast lurking in their waters. Godzilla, he mutters. Godzilla.

As the buzz of rumors swarm the town, Godzilla finally reveals himself a fire-breathing menace to the scurrying populace of Japan’s coastal regions and greatest cities. A tangential subplot involving young Japanese maiden Emiko and her beloved, but not betrothed, salvager, Hideto Ogata, takes us through the human end of this larger-than-life saga. As Hideto and Emiko flirt around revealing their forbidden love to Emiko’s archeologist father, Serizawa, to whom Emiko is engaged, invents a weapon capable of bringing down the beast that’s bringing down their city. Young love lives in one corner while mass destruction is pondered a few doors down. The juxtaposition of such youthful hope against calloused calamity feeds the tension to Serizawa’s conundrum. If he is to use the likes of such a catastrophic weapon, it would unveil a new level of destructive prowess to the world’s already thirsty superpowers. But the alternative involves the likely death and destruction of his entire country. Decisions, decisions.


This junction of themes of war-time morality, superstitious mythology and thoughtful historical reflection are set against a Japan decidedly haunted by Big Boy. Godzilla even looks like a nightmarish atomic bomb personified. Unnaturally pot-bellied and rounded out like the ghastly hourglass of the world’s most destructive weapon, his figure itself portends destruction.

As a metaphor for WWII-era America, the beastly, thoughtless rampager seems less a condemnation of Japan’s former enemies than an admission of invitation. Honda’s is a film that doesn’t place blame on the enemy for Japan’s history. Rather, Honda takes head-hanging responsibility for Japan’s great calamity. Godzilla is a dark beast awoken, his vengeance hot, his destruction wanton but warranted. Honda’s song is solemn and ponderous, his voice rings through Serizawa’s soulful mantra. There’s a remorseful sense of deservedness to Honda’s waxing morality.

Gojira (Japan’s word for Godzilla) is a hybrid of two Japanese words: gorira, meaning gorilla, and kujira, meaning whale. Originally, Godzilla was seen as a whale-like figure come to roam Japan’s shorelines after a bout of radioactive alteration. It seems a far cry from the spiny, T-Rex-like monster we’re familiar with today, but Godzilla does live on as a whale of a property. With a new version to hit theaters on May 16 of this year and who knows how many more on the horizon, we’re left hoping that the spirit of Honda’s brooding black-and-white monsterpiece can be replicated, or at least properly homaged going into the future. For those who are longtime fans or still unfamiliar with this original classic, be sure to make it out to see Godzilla roam the big screen. Otherwise, you might have to wait for the 75th or, God forbid, 100th anniversary.

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30 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 (30-21)

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With 2013 now in the rear mirror, it’s time to look forward into the new year and start placing our bets on what’s going to turn out best. As always, there’s a slate of big blockbusters on their way but I only have little interest in a bulk of these. For this reason, you won’t find the likes of Hunger Games, The Hobbit, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and the overpopulated The Amazing Spiderman 2 on this list. Rather, this is a collection of films that I feel could surprise me, entertain me, amaze me and really stick with me throughout the year.

Here is my most anticipated movies of 2014.

30. How to Train Your Dragon 2

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Let me just start by saying I absolutely loved How to Train Your Dragon. Between the inimitable animation and heart-rending tale of unexpected friendship (and did I mention dragons galore?), it was probably the biggest surprise of 2010 (a year overflowing with out of the park animated films). While HTTYD has become a certifiable pop franchise, with a television show, plans for a second sequel and three short films already under its belt, I’m hoping that this second installment is able to capture the magic and heart of the film but fear that it will suffer the blow of sequelitis.

Releases wide in 3D on June 13.

29. Jupiter Ascending

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After almost falling off the radar with the one-two punch of the Matrix sequels and the DOA Speed Racer, the Wachowskis returned to cinema in a big, bold way with last year’s Cloud Atlas, a film equal parts compelling, confusing, and, all around, courageous. Their latest, Jupiter Ascending, aside from sharing a strange, ethereal name shares the ambition found in Atlas and could potentially rise above being a B-grade sci-fi actioner. Aided by hot ticket items Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis, let’s hope that this reminds us of the stuff that put the Wachowskis on the map.

Set to debut July 18.

28. Chef

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You never know quite what’s in store when Jon Favreau steps behind the camera but no one can deny that the man knows how to harness fun. Though critics widely panned Cowboys & Aliens, I sided with it, calling it for the fun, tongue-in-cheek genre mash-up a title like Cowboys & Aliens suggested. And though I had some severe issues with Iron Man 2, we gotta give Favreau credit for putting Iron Man and the MMU on the map. But that’s neither here or there as Chef is a large departure from Favreau’s big blockbuster fare of late and is more in tune with his sardonic comedies the likes of Swingers. Starring Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr, as a chef who is fired and turns to working at a food truck, the cast is loaded with his trusty Avengers sidekick, Scarlett Jonahsson, alongside Modern Family‘s Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, and naturally, Favreau. If things looks go down as they should, this looks to have all the ingredients for critical and financial success.

Expected to release May 9.

27. Dumb and Dumber To

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It’s been 20 years since Harry and Lloyd rode a Vespa to Aspen singing Mockingbird and causing heart palpitations. This time, rather than recast the roles with two nobody actors, the original cast is back. Even better is the fact that in the time since their last outing, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels have gone on to lead really respectable dramatic careers. Seeing them return to their roots after a decade of serious stuff will hopefully make it all that much more sweet. While we all collectively try to forget about Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met (oh god I just can’t) let’s hope that they go and do something that totally redeems themselves.

Set for a November 18 release date.

26. Only Lovers Left Alive

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Jim Jarmusch is pretty much the Elvis of indie film (just look at his hair), and it doesn’t hurt that his latest benefits from a killer duo in Tom Hiddelston and Tilda Swinton, so the fact that the man is now dabbling in vampires is enough to get my curiosity piqued. Add to that the fact that buzz out of Cannes and Toronto was nothing but glowing and Only Lovers Left Alive earns its place as the one vampire movie of 2014 that I won’t dread seeing. If all goes well with my flights (*fingers crossed*) this should be the first film I see at Sundance so a mere ten days away for me at this point. The rest of you will have to wait until April 11 or later.

Will play at Sundance and then open in limit theaters on April 11.

25. Wish I Was Here

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Aside from having going down in history for having one of the best soundtracks ever, Garden State was widely loved by critics and audiences for its salty take on the transitory twenties. It was the kind of indie rom-com with heart and purpose that seems to escape so many filmmakers. So it’s no wonder that Zach Braff‘s sophomoric film (and it’s been ten years) lands on my list. The fact that Braff funded the film through his notorious Kickstarter campaign also means no studio interference so this is the untarnished piece bolstered by full creative control. Wish I Was Here follows Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor, father and husband, who at 35 is still trying to find his identity; a purpose for his life. Sound anything like Braff’s Andrew Largeman? I thought so. I guess we’ll see how close this one hems to being a thematic sequel to Braff’s celebrated debut.

Will premiere at Sundance. Wide release TBA.

24. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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I’m already kind of kicking myself for including this one but my lingering affection for Robert Rodriguez‘s first adapation of Frank Miller‘s crunchy graphic novel has twisted my arm. I can’t help but feel like this will be a throwaway follow up but the fact that Rodriguez and Miller have been working on this for ten years gives me a shimmer of hope that this will be the return to form the hit-or-miss filmmaker needs. Add to that the fact that Joseph Gordon Levvitt, Jeremy Piven, Eva Green, and Josh Brolin have joined a cast that already includes Sin veterans Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendez, and Rosario Dawson and I’m left assuming that they must have at least a solid story under their belt. Here’s hoping.

A late summer release means more Sin City for August 22.

23. Locke

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Locke debuted last year at the Venice Film Fest to near unanimous support and is yet another on this list that I’ll be catching at Sundance. Featuring the always triumphant Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson), Steven Knight‘s film is said to channel the minimalism utilized in the surprisingly fantastic Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. The film takes place entirely inside the car Hardy’s Ivan Locke drives while he takes a number of calls in a race-against-time scenario.

Another film featured at Sundance 2014, Locke will open April 25 in select theaters.

22. Edge of Tomorrow

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Tom Cruise is dangerously close to the “he can do no wrong” page in my book so just anything with the grinny 5’7″ action hero has me turning my head. Add to that a cool sci-fi concept that mashed mech suits with a Groundhog Day playground and I’m very much listening. Although I prefered the over-the-top original title, All You Need Is Kill, to the watered down product that is Edge of Tomorrow, this could be the type of blockbuster needed to jump start our faith in blockbusters. While director Doug Liman has a bit of a spotted past (Bourne Identity = good, Jumper = no so much), everything from this so far looks pretty impressive.

With a June 6 release date, you better believe this’ll be your IMAX screening of the week.

21. Godzilla

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After Roland Emmerich‘s failed 1999 Godzilla flick, it’s almost ridiculous to imagine that I would be anticipating the next stage of the lizard monster big screen return but here it is anyways. At first, the cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe had my interested piqued but it was really the uncharacteristically artistic approach seen in the posters and the excellent first teaser trailer that has me debuting this potential blockbuster so highly on this list. Back in his heyday, the iconic citystomper used to stand for something. His iconography is as engrained as Darth Vader or Sauron. I’m willing to bet that this Godzilla is going to put the Japanese monster back on the map in a big way.

A big blockbuster date with a May 16 tentpole release.

Tomorrow the list continues with my 20-11 picks

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GODZILLA Returns to the Big Screen In Style, Watch the Provocative First Trailer

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Ever since last year’s Comic Con, fanboys have been going nutso for the upcoming Godzilla reboot. And while many, myself included, didn’t understand where all this enthusiasm was coming from, looking back at the history of the monster icon reveals why he’s had such a massive cultural impact throughout the world.

Originally made in Japan, 1954, Godzilla was a dressed up metaphor for nuclear warfare, achieved by a mostly immobile man dressed up like a monster in a big green latex suit. Since the 50s, Godzilla has been on a continuous silly streak, battling other big baddies like Mothra (literally just a big moth) and King Kong and has since had a run, backed by Japanese production studio Toho, that sees minor Godzilla movies ever couple years. At this point, there are 30 official Toho Godzilla films.

Roland Emmerich re-imagined Godzilla for American audiences, in his 1998 film that takes the name of the monster, as a big preggo lizard to not so glowing results. Gareth Edwards looks to right that wrong with a much more classic take on the Godzilla design.

With a cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe, Edwards seems to be on the right track and this first trailer does exactly what a trailer should (but nowadays hardly ever does) – it teases. Instead of giving away the events of the first, second, and third act, it drops us into the situation and let’s us see the horror, confusion, and madness for ourselves. Surely, this doesn’t mean that Godzilla will be a guaranteed layup but it looks far better than I would have first thought.

Take a look at the trailer and see if, at this point, you’d be onboard to check it out in theaters.

Godzilla is directed by Gareth Edwards and stars Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe. It hits theaters May 16, 2014.

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