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].

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

I’ve left it a little too long since I saw this film to write an effective review, but if there’s anything I want to get across it’s how I really liked the way the atmosphere is handled by first-time director Sean Durkin. In fact, both the director and his lead actor, Elizabeth Olsen, are new to me and they certainly make their presence welcome. The film deals with rather fragile themes: a woman struggles away from a wilderness encampment to call her sister, and it slowly unfolds that she’d been inducted into a cult and must deal with years of conditioning that have removed certain inhibitions just as they’ve implanted paranoid suspicion. The title reinforces this in so far as Olsen is playing a young woman named Martha, who has been given the name Marcy May by the cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes), and who further subsumes her identity — as do all the female members of the cult — into that of ‘Marlene’ so far as the outside world is concerned.

Olsen brilliantly handles the fraught range of emotions her character Martha must go through, both in the framing story of her relations with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her sister’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), and in flashback scenes set at the cult. John Hawkes, too, is a wonderfully underrated actor who makes a real mark here as a very subtly creepy and controlling presence, and Hawkes is one of those rare actors whom I’ve seen do both extremes of good-guy and bad-guy characters and pull them off with equal conviction, which is possibly the best kind of background to have to really convince as someone whose shadiness must be tempered with some believable charisma.

The filmmaking heightens a slow-building tension through making good use of long shots in the scenes at Lucy’s secluded home, which open up the landscape around Martha and place her as often a small figure against the wilderness where the threat from the cult still lurks for her (and still casts an odd attraction). The flashback scenes also hint at some of the controlling methods used by Patrick and the group over the women, and combine with Martha’s actions when back in the care of her sister, to suggest a much darker and more disturbing life that she has escaped. Whether she really gets free of these influences is never quite resolved by the film, leaving the question of her rehabilitation hanging.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very confidently crafted film that introduces a number of excellent new filmmakers. It fits in the same kind of darkly ambiguous psychological territory as Night Moves (indeed, as many of Kelly Reichardt’s films), so I can only look forward to further films from Durkin (as director) and Olsen (as actor).

Martha Marcy May Marlene film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sean Durkin; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 28 November 2013.