Godzilla (2014)

Remaking and reimagining the Japanese creature feature Gojira (1954) seems to be a periodic interest of filmmakers, especially those in massively capitalised industries like Hollywood. Therefore, it’s a bold choice to choose as director Gareth Edwards, whose previous credit was a low-budget feature, Monsters (2010), renowned for its relative paucity of monsters and featuring his own self-made special effects. If this, then, is a big step up for him in terms of budget and impact, Edwards and his writer have also been quite canny in the way the film introduces its titular monster, whose existence is only hinted at for the first half of the running time.

The story retains its allegorical thrust about the hubris of humanity — reawakening this primaeval creature through the proliferation of nuclear power — though here the dinosaur is joined by a pair of huge mantis-like insect creatures called “MUTOs” (for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism — except that, as pointed out right after this term is explained in the movie, “they’re not terrestrial, they’re airborne!”). These latter are the film’s real threat, their eggs gestating for decades in massive underground lairs that resemble nothing so much as the Giger-designed pods of Alien, and which come over like steroidal versions of Starship Troopers‘ insectoid menace. The MUTOs’ first appearance in the film results in personal tragedy for scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), and fifteen years later it’s his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who muscles in on the effort to deal with the now-fully-grown threat, although Ken Watanabe’s Dr Serizawa is the one who’s really in charge.

While the primary interest for this type of film remains the punishingly monstrous creature effects (the CGI for which has a weighty feel to match those in Pacific Rim, which remains my high-water point for this kind of thing), there’s still a nice human interest drama that plays out between Ford and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and between them and Ford’s now-paranoid dad. That said, even Cranston and Olsen’s fine acting is quickly overshadowed once the monsters are all in full flow, and it’s to the film’s credit that it all feels satisfying in the end despite the fact that nothing any of the human characters do in any way affects the drama being played out amongst the warring creatures.

Of course, it’s yet another film that takes an urban setting and delights in crushing it to bits, which seems like something that’s been a bit overdone in recent years, given it’s been the basic formula of all the recent Marvel and DC films. This time the city is San Francisco, chosen presumably for its Pacific rim proximity to Japan, and truly there’s a lot of collateral damage as the MUTOs and Godzilla square off under the impotent gaze of the American military. It’s this utter ineffectiveness of humanity in the face of Godzilla that’s the point, though, I suppose, and the film succeeds well in conveying this.

Godzilla film posterCREDITS
Director Gareth Edwards; Writer Max Borenstein; Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 17 May 2014 [2D].

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Anna Karenina (2012)

I’ve only recently become familiar with British director Joe Wright from his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. On the basis of his short filmography, he seems to like adapting heritage literary sources. That earlier film showed a fair amount of directorial flair, but in this new film he rather surpasses himself, to the extent that the technical aspects of the filmmaking become even more central to the tale being told than any of the acting (though there are some standout performances, on which more below). I’m not entirely convinced this always adds to the story being told, but it certainly makes for some striking cinema.

The opening 15 minutes or so is probably where Wright’s technical virtuosity is most in evidence, as we see a succession of scenes introducing the central characters for the ensuing drama. These are chiefly Anna (Keira Knightley), her ministerial husband Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), her dandy aristocratic brother Prince Stiva Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), Dolly’s sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and Kostya Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a shabbily-dressed lank-haired friend of Stiva’s who is in love with Kitty. These opening scenes are framed — as are several throughout the film — by the front of a stage with its footlights, as seen in many of the posters. It’s a cute way of presenting the story as a self-consciously staged one, only heightened by the colour and detail of the costumes and the elaborate intricacy of the set design.

Scenes, too, blend into one another, as characters seamlessly move from one geographical and spatial setting to another without any ostensible cuts, another distancing technique which recalls similar sequences in classic post-war new wave filmmaking, but which most brings to my mind the playful experimentation of Raúl Ruiz, especially his adaptation of Proust, Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1999). Yet where Ruiz’s touch was light and perfectly integrated into the sense of nostalgia and memory that Proust’s work dealt with, here the technique seems far more self-aggrandising, and serves to distance us further as viewers from the grand, melodramatic story being shown.

And it is melodramatic, with all kinds of ridiculous touches, showing excess in the costumes and in the sets (trains entirely encrusted with snow, as just one example). Where the film palpably scores is in some of the supporting acting. While I remain unconvinced by the lovers at the film’s centre, Jude Law imparts real pathos to the upright, slightly dull politician, while Alicia Vikander is charming as Kitty — even if the scene between her and Kostya where they reveal their feelings via coloured alphabet bricks is too cute by half.

Still, it hits all the rights kinds of notes for the sumptuously-staged period drama it is, so those who are partial to this sort of thing will find it passably enjoyable, no doubt.

Anna Karenina film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Wright; Writer Tom Stoppard (based on the novel Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy Лев Толстой); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Alicia Vikander, Jude Law, Domhnall Gleeson; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 3 February 2014.

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

There’s a refrain that’s repeated over and over in this film: “this is real life”. It’s repeated often enough that I get the feeling the writer-director must have a bit of a complex about quite how abstracted all this stuff is from any kind of recognisable reality. I mean, that’s fine — it hardly hides its comic book origins with all those luridly saturated colours, the glib violence, the superheroes and supervillains storyline and the superimposition of comic book captions — but the repetition of that particular phrase just comes across as witless irony in such a uneven work.

The unevenness is in the tone, which bounces around in a rather discomfiting manner. There are so many big melodramatically emotional crescendoes that it’s very easy to stop caring about any of the characters, though certainly the filmmakers must expect their audience to be fairly apathetic given the casual slaughter involved (most notably of a squad of police officers, who appear to have done little to merit such treatment, unlike the misanthropic ‘super’-branded characters). There’s scarcely a scene lacking a major character repenting of his/her actions, pledging to change, being confronted by the bitterness of life, and grappling with their life choices. There are earnest close-ups and stirring music but little real emotional catharsis — it feels more like desperate sententious back-peddling to justify the next bout of “real life” cartoon violence, all nunchucks and red dye packs.

And yet, somehow, I don’t really hate this film. It’s not that it’s particularly funny — it may be going for action-comedy, but the latter never really gets much beyond the colourful cartoonishness of the characters and a bit of underage swearing, and so is easily forgettable. It also has a troubling relationship to race — (white) characters make jokes at the expense of racist stereotypes yet the fact that there are always other characters to call them on it doesn’t really change some of the racial dynamics in play. Almost all the ‘super’ characters are white, and more often than not possess a fair amount of independent wealth, while there’s an extended sequence of them battling a group of shady oriental clichés lifted straight from some fever dream of Hong Kong cinema. Plus there’s a real underlying nastiness to the film’s worldview, that familiar reactionary politics of vigilantism with which filmmakers like Michael Winner or John Milius would surely be comfortable — but that was all there in the first film, and every bit as troubling.

No, I think what I like is Chloë Grace Moretz as an action hero, and as Hit-Girl she’s very much the focus of this second film (over the nominal titular character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, gawky, geeky and very much post-adolescent by this point). She’s charismatic and capable, with greater fighting skills not to mention self-confidence than most of the rest of the cast, and hardly requires saving at any point — except perhaps from her ‘normal’ self, as she spends rather too much of the film not being Hit-Girl. Her nemesis in the film is Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s pathetically-likeable supervillain Chris, who dubs himself The Motherfvcker, and gets the closest in the film to laugh-out-loud comedy, generally while doing something unspeakably vicious. Pretty much everyone else is rather lost amongst the peaks and troughs of ersatz emotion.

Reading back over what I’ve written makes it sound like I was seething throughout this film, but if that’s not the case, it’s certainly not a film that leaves me feeling particularly charitable. It’s a nasty vision of a broken society that’s only barely held together by brightly-coloured spandex and pleather.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Wadlow (based on the comic books Kick-Ass 2 and Hit-Girl by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.); Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 September 2013.