Sunday, 10 August 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Gareth Edwards, 2014, USA - Japan


What to do when a film is half good? For example, the parts of “Godzilla” 2014 that work are the stuff to do with Bryan Cranston and the monsters, but the parts with Aaron Taylor-Johnson don’t so work so well. The trailers were great – and as a general rule I don’t like most trailers - and this Godzilla promised so much when it was disclosed that it was to be helmed by the director of “Monsters”, Gareth Edwards. “Monsters” was like the “Before Sunrise” of creature features in that it focused primarily on a couple discovering love on the wrong side of an alien infestation. In fact its crossing-the-border drama made it more understated and equally successful in the social commentary stakes than Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” and “Elysium”. But “Monsters” was interested in real people whereas “Godzilla” offers only Hollywood types: a good-looking stoic lead whose story intertwines with the rise of the Kaiju, but the story is based upon three-act clichés that ask us to relate to a somewhat two-dimensional lead character. The interesting actors are killed off early – Cranston won’t make it to the second act, no matter what the trailers may promise, and Julette Binoche is just a cameo – and we are left with under-written characters. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the film didn’t invest so much in the “human story”, but what this means is caring for the lead character at the expense of the presumably hundreds upon hundreds of faceless dead. So what you end up saying is The parts with Godzilla are good and the parts with Aaron Johnson-Smith are bad.   


The Godzilla stuff is what the audience comes for, of course, and this Godzilla certainly looks the part. The highlights: the sky-dive; Godzilla’s back lighting up; Godzilla blasting his death-ray down a MUTO’s throat. Oh, and Godzilla screaming into the audience. CGI has come a long way since “Jurassic Park” and when it’s used well it can be impressive: filming everything through the fog of destruction helps the effects a great deal, just as having the apes actors on set as much as possible helped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. These two CGI extravaganzas are both impressive on a technical level but both share the weakness of a somewhat obvious script and thinness of human dramatics: but “Apes” overcomes because it focuses on the ape dramatics and its weaknesses, for the most part, are secondary whereas in “Godzilla” the insistence on the human element – which worked so well for “Monsters” – only goes to show how hackneyed the human element is.


Let’s not forget how gloriously daft most of the Godzilla sequels are anyhow, and how feeble the characters have always been, but that’s no excuse. Everyone is unanimous that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 “Godzilla” was terrible but Edwards’ reboot isn’t terrible, just half good, which means half the audience disliked it. It’s proven a divisive film. So what can you do? Lower your expectations and enjoy the monster show, perhaps. Edwards takes his time but the teases are excellent and the monsters and the destruction they cause are indeed spectacular. It’s not the ultimate monster narrative we wanted because the story does nothing to elevate the material, but for monster action it shows that CGI can now deliver on its promise and Godzilla has probably never looked so realistic.


"Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth" (1992)

“Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth”
“Mosura tai Gojora”
Takao Okawara, 1992, Japan

Meteorite falls on Earth and wakes up Godzilla and Battra. Meanwhile, in Indiana Jones land, treasure hunter Takuya Fujito gets involved in a Government investigation of various ecological disturbances around the meteorite. Battra destroys city. Fujito and others discover Mothra’s egg and as they take it home for some unethical company, Godzilla, Mothra and Battra have a fight, setting off all kinds of volcanic activity. Mothra’s tiny fairy-like guardians, the Cosmos, are kidnapped. Mothra levels Tokyo to check up on them and then Mothra changes from unconvincing caterpillar into unconvincing fluffy moth thing and fights now airborne Battra. Godzilla joins in. Battra turns good and helps fight Godzilla.
   With a plot surely made up as it went along, propelled by nothing more than someone gasping “Godzilla!” and then there he is, it’s up to the showdowns to save the whole enterprise. Subplots drop away and characters with typically bad dialogue (and dubbing) become nothing more than ringside spectators heckling the monster fights. The fights here are less wrestling than laser beams and it has to be said that “Godzilla vs Mothra” provides quite a light-show. Some moments such as Mothra cocooning the Capital Building are bizarrely pretty, shot as if they were gorgeous epics. The scenes of the city being trashed and refugees fleeing are closer to the original “Godzilla” than the late Seventies jokey efforts, but the series latterly moves into ecological rather than nuclear warnings. Although Godzilla remains a startling signifier of man-made holocaust, the plots aren’t strong enough to uphold the original message.
So it’s up to the monsters. Battra is a vast spiky improvement upon the Mothra design; a mole-moth-rhino of sorts. Godzilla is in his oddly cat-like phase with barely a jaw to jutt. Forget the humans; enjoy the light-show and mass destruction. 

"Godzilla vs Hedorah" (1971)

"Gojira tai Hedora"

"Godzilla vs the Smog Monster"
Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971, Japan

A truly bizarre film with almost everything thrown into the mix – psychedilic visuals and musical interludes, animation (not quite Pink Floyd – The Wall, though), stop-animation, kiddie-movie, anti-pollution warning, multiple screens, etc. None of this enlivens the sluggish pace, dull dialogue and ~ catastrophically ~ mundane fight-scenes between Hedorah and Godzilla himself. In fact, Godzilla is almost incidental as the creature made of sludge and pollution, Hedorah, runs amok. It shits, pukes and gases out over people, sometimes dissolving them into skeletons. Hedorah itself is a truly repellent and silly creation, but the script labours under the destruction-of-nature message. A tropical fish tank represents pure oceans, but even that succumbs. Once, just having Godzilla lay waste to Japan was enough to conjure hints of atomic bombs and mass-disaster but the Earth faces pollution monsters too.

            This eleventh Godzilla installment begins with a bizarre opening number, a psychedelic theme, a cross between a James Bond credits sequence with lyrics listing elements polluting our world. Next thing, it’s a children’s “Save the Earth” monster flick with a tadpole turd-like Hedorah and pauses for science lessons. Half atrocious, half spellbindingly odd ~ who knows what they were thinking? Most resonant moment has Godzilla being buried under an ocean of sludge. 


"Godzilla vs Mothra" (1964)

Mosura tai Gojora
Ishirô Honda, 1964, Japan

Fourth, somewhat lackluster entry into the Godzilla series. Giant Mothra egg is found and is immediately accosted by unscrupulous company that want to exploit it. The miniature Mothra guardians, the Peanuts Twins, plead with the human race to return the egg, but the businessmen are too busy building a theme park around it. All this is quickly swept aside when Godzilla, disturbed by some atomic tomfoolery again, rises up out of a muddy wasteland – which makes a change from his usual aquatic entrances. Mothra is persuaded to stop Godzilla’s rampage before dying of natural causes and making way for the  contents of the egg, which turn out to be twins.
            Since the human ingredient and plots in these sequels give daytime soaps a sophisticated feel, the films mostly fall and stand on the monster, the fights and the destruction. “Godzilla vs Mothra” delivers only sundry efforts in these departments. Godzilla looks as if he has bushy eyebrows. The bad guys over-act like “Thunderbirds” puppets. The good guys barely register. Plastic model tanks melt. As with all Mothra films, the action pauses for musical interludes from the Peanuts Twins and friends. The element of children is introduced, if briefly, paving way for the more kid-orientated sequels and, inevitably, “Godzilla vs Hedorah”. It is always funny to watch something so awesome and primal as Godzilla fight a monster as crap as Mothra. The giant lizard puts up a disappointing fight against the overgrown moth and its twins who, in their larvae stage, simply squirt Godzilla with sticky stuff until he falls into the ocean. Until next time.    

Saturday, 2 August 2014

"Bangkok Dangerous"

Oxide PangDun & Danny Pang
2000, Thailand

Actually, there isn’t too much “dangerous” in the Pang brothers’ soft-centred hit-man tale. Oh, plenty of blood and shooting, but nothing that will trouble or tax the genre. The excess is all in the aesthetic and tricks with which the Pangs overwrite every scene: they cannot film someone washing their face in a sink without multiple cuts to a turning of the faucet. Filters colour everything, every action affected in some filmmaking tic, nothing left to breathe on its own. The film chokes on its own style, but it isn’t necessarily stylish: its action scenes edited to such an extreme that they are often whittled down to incomprehensibility; the doomed romaniticism is saddled with childish scripting so that they whole things ends up being something like a teenagers playing at gangsters playing in funky clothes. But back to style: it does not have the genre savvy or let’s-screw-with-this attitude of Takashi Miike; it is not a film that could ever achieve the elegance of  Wong Kar-Wai, no matter how hard it uses colour and changes film stock. But if you have come for style-over-substance, there is that.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

"Locke" and mistakes as meltdown.


Steven Knight, 2014, UK-USA

But from tales of youngfemale assertion to the life meltdown of a man. Effectively it is Tom Hardy as a construction manager in a car, on the English motorway, trying to stage-manage and salvage his life through the very modern means of hands-free phone calls. By all accounts, he is a very trustworthy and successful family man and construction manager, but…

Director Steven Knight overcomes any pretensions and limitations that its high-concept premise may have with a lucid, thoroughly engaging script. It is in effect a one-act play/radio drama that simply allows Hardy to do his thing whilst employing motorway lights and dissolves to create a naturally, faintly trippy atmosphere. So organic and convincing are the conversations we hear that the contrivances take a while to become obvious: Ivan Locke fights to ensure the foundations of a building are being laid in his absence whilst his family life is simultaneously falling down around him due to a fleeting infidelity which has him deserting everything in an attempt to do the right thing. Since it is one face we see for the entire running time, there needs be an actor that can effortlessly command his space and Tom Hardy is definitely up for the job, supported by an exceptional supporting voice cast. That he is as far from his “Bronson” persona as he can probably get makes him more fascinating: can you do good when you’ve done bad?

Arguably, “Locke” offers a bleak worldview where mistakes are not to be forgiven, where one wrong foundation, one wrong ingredient in the mix will mean reconciliation is not possible. Are we to agree that Locke – an ostensibly decent man – is deserving of almost complete estrangement due to his infidelity? And surely saying “no” is not endorsing that infidelity but without the room to further explore the complexities and ongoing changes or lack-of-change in the family crisis, there is an aftertaste of meanness. The tale implies that mistakes can’t afford to be made, but surely the film is equally arguing that good people will stumble and blunder and, ultimately, act human. For Locke, he discovers that his sills in reliability and negotiation will not resolve everything, no matter that he carries the philosophy that any crisis can be made good with effort and by doing the right thing. The film gets to the frailty of things but all the grey areas leave our flawed protagonist out on his own.

WhereSpring Breakers” and “We Are The Best” present young women aching to discover and assert themselves, “Locke” presents a man discovering that he is not quite who he hoped to be. “We Are The Best” offers that growing up is as quietly as fun and surprising as it is difficult and painful; “Spring Breakers” offers self-discovers as envisioned by a rudderless, immature youth pop-culture; “Locke” suggests that all your good work can be undone at any given moment, just given a key mistake made.

"Spring Breakers" and cluelessness as a trippy thing.


Harmony Korine, 2012, USA

Certainly, the rounded and engaging girls of “We Are The Best” make the bad girls gone bad of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” look ridiculous, wafer-thin and inane. They start off with a similar sufferance and disillusion of their surroundings and schooldays. These are the privileged class but nevertheless unhappy with not having more and not being able to do just what they like. And so they rob a restaurant with water-pistols, acting like gangster-girls, and head off to Spring Break to discover themselves. Indeed, they mutter on voice-overs about such discoveries and that they are amongst the sweetest people, the best friends ever and that this is a paradise realised: but the truth in the visuals is that they are simply getting drunk, taking drugs, taking off their tops a lot, indulging in indulgence and orgies and hi-energy music. Their vision is vacuous and limited and absurd. It leads nowhere and they offer nothing but their own vacuity. Inevitably, it would seem, this escalates into the pose and debauchery of dressing up in nothing but bikinis, guns and Pussy Riot bunny-masks and going on a killing spree (it’s like the psychedelic MTV-minded wet-dream of “Gummo”’s bunny-boy).

The shallowness is part of the point; there is satire here of a privileged generation stoked up on music-video crime fantasies, pop-culture pose and dressing-up (or lack of), of particularly American fantasies and aspiration of youthful excess. In fact, it is no less deep than “Tree of Life’s” cosmic and domestic musings, and like Malick’s film, “Spring Breakers” strength is as a visual piece, the visuals transcending and giving meaning and life to the limits of the script and meaning. Through neon colours, temporal scrambling, an ever-drifting camera and repetitious phrases on the voice-overs, a psychedelic and dreamy rhythm builds up, making the film seductive as an ambient mood-piece.

Korine’s greatest letdown is in failing the girls of his film: that they are barely characters at all and that their friendship is all the gestures of friendships without substance all becomes very clear when James Franco turns up and steals the show from under them. Franco’s performance has been rightly celebrated and he certainly offers a fine depiction of a shallow, ridiculous character; someone who believes the tokens of what is supposedly the gangster lifestyle maketh the man. Oh, there is no mistaking that these girls are his soul mates … although surprisingly, when a couple of the girls just want to go home, that’s what they do. He isn’t mean, cruel or sexually sadistic, but he is the only fleshed-out character in this bikini-kill fantasia: he takes over the voice-over and by the end the girls don’t even have that to convey the discrepancies between what we hear and what we are seeing. This also leave the satirical edge all dried up long before the end. They have one potentially game-changing scene where they turn the tables on him half-way through his boasting, gunplay and foreplay, but this proves not be a twist in the tale where they reclaim their story but a bonding exercise.

But still, the visuals cascade and blur and push for a genuine pop-fantasia. Had “Spring Breakers” kept focus the girls and given them their due, it could have been similar to one of Lana del Rey’s pop-tales of messed-up girls falling for a life of crime, thinking it’s all part of being cool. As it is, it leaves them nowhere as more-or-less gun-toting nobodies.

Nevertheless, it’s still quite a trip through a very minor crime story. If one gives in to the visuals then Korine emerges as a pop-director who has filtered the nihilism of the MTV generation into perhaps his most accessible mash-up yet.


"We Are the Best" and punk as the sweetest thing.

By chance, I happened to see “Spring Breakers”, “We Are the Best” and “Locke” consecutively and each seemed to say something about the other in comparison.  


 "Vi är bäst!"

Lukas Moodyson, 2013, Sweden


In tales of “good girls gone bad”, as it were, “We Are The Best” proves a delightful and modest tale of growing up for three Swedish teenage girls forming punk band in the early Eighties. It is not so much coming-of-age, which perhaps implies some lesson learnt, but more just growing up and trying to get noticed, make your mark, have friends, have fun and trying to assert your identity. The young women in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” dive into a world of hedonism trying to find themselves, trying to work out who they are: the just-teen girls of Moodyson’s “We Are The Best” seem to already know who they are, but just need to work out the world around them with that information in mind. Bobo is shy but also aware and quietly as sure of herself and as playfully rebellious as her outspoken, politicised best friend Klara (Mira Glosin). These are punk-posing kids, but they aren’t mean or stupid. They’re just bored of the hypocrisies they see in the adult world around them and just want to push back a bit and have a good time: punk happens to be the language and medium that they use.

So, fed up with onset of crap disco and new wave around them, as well as being told that they are ugly, the girls hilariously blag themselves some rehearsal space at the expense of the local prog-rock band just to get back at them and to shake things up. And so, inadvertently, they find themselves in a band. They have no skill but lots of attitude and they know what they don’t like, all good for inventing a punk band from nothing. And what they don’t like is gym class, so they have quickly put together an anti-sport, anti-mainstream song. But they can’t play, so they cheerfully set about befriending and recruiting quiet Christian girl Hedvig because she can actually play guitar. Of course, her Christianity is totally against what Klara and Bobo are against – being the apparent home of conformity and conservatism – but it doesn’t stop her joining the band and turning punkish herself. Indeed, perhaps the most moving moment in this joyfully rambling and naturalistic film is when Bobo and Klara begin to properly learn how to play their first proper notes and start to hear their anti-sport song coming together, or their simple realisation that changing a lyric can improve a song. Oh, they aren’t interested in any craftsmanship, but anyone who creates art can surely take delight in these adorable girls taking their first proper steps as artists of some sort. The conversion of their boredom and general teenage disaffection into music is a fantastic act of development and personal growth.

The film may be a soft-natured affair, but its strength is a nuanced and unfussy respect for offhand humour, for the teenage condition and the growth of an artist and friendships between three girls. It falls into light but mature tales of growing up such as “My Life as a Dog” and “Boy” and “Ake and his World”, but also spiced with the rebellion of music. Based upon the graphic novel by Moodyson’s wife Coco, it is a more convincing confection than the contrived miseries of his “Lilya4ever”. There will be many particular Swedish jokes and details that will be missed by non-Swedes, but it has plenty of material recognised to anyone who has been an outsider kid. Never once does the film let itself talk down to these kids by circumscribing their innate maturity and goofiness with cheap drama: this is just their friendship and they learn perhaps nothing more than how to play a song to piss off people and then to act up a lot over the end credits. These are good girls going not so much bad but punking around for fun and to go against the grain.

For comparison, look at Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers".

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Tod Slaughter haunts my murky memory.... (or at least a few of the same streets).

On the mysterious Bushey Studios, the kind of place where both I and Tod Slaughter stalked....
Currently I am working on a book on killers in film, and this has lead me to perhaps England’s first real horror star, a master of melodramatic villainy, Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was total crowd-pleasing ham of the stage and then, during the 1930s mostly, of the cinema; if you weren’t literally hissing and booing him, then he wasn’t doing his job. He was mostly recognised for his “Sweeney Todd”, but he also played dastardly bad guys called “The Spinebreaker” and “The Wolf” and so on. I would even go so far as to say that his smarmy grin and murderous cackling are the kind of thing that inspired Batman’s nemesis, The Joker.
But anyway, I was surprised to discover that Slaughter made some of his films at Bushey Studios. Well, I grew up in Bushey in a tiny dead-end street: at the bottom was a field where they kept a horse called Trigger, fields that I would also cross to get to school. These were also the fields that spread to the end of our garden: we had a long, long garden (so it seemed to me) and at the bottom we had a gate in the fence that opened out onto those fields and we used to go blackberry picking there. But, across those fields was a wooded area and in that wooded area was a great burnt out building. I recall walking through once with my mother on a public trail when I was probably around six years old, and I remember looking at this building and my mum telling me that these were Bushey studios that had burnt down. That charred husk did intimidate and frighten me, standing there amongst the trees in the clearing as evidence of the destructive power of fire … but the truth is that memory is a faulty thing, of course. I have tried to look up the history of Bushey Studios but there seems to be very little out there; I’ve searched online and looked through my books, but I can’t find much at all except that they were originally built by renowned local artist Hubert von Herkomer and ran from 1913 to 1985. They were known for quota-quickies and sex comedies… yes, Bushey sex comedies, if you will. Some commentators say that Tigon did some projects there. They were also, at one time, the longest standing studios in the world, it is said. But it would seem to be that its history is quite a lost one. Perhaps I will find some decent account one day.

Well, since my charred vision would have been around the early 1970s and the studio went on long after that, I largely suspect my memory is at fault. Nevertheless, I have never quite forgotten that chill I enjoyed thinking that a burnt-out film studio seemed quite a creepy and fearsome thing. This is also just to mention how surprisingly close to home the finds can be when researching this sort of thing. I’m not especially a Slaughter fan, for there is too much fakery about him for my taste, but nevertheless it’s fun to know he did his villainy in the same murky realm as my childhood memories.
But anyway, here is a little passage on Tod Slaughter from my book, not a definitive edit by any means, but a taster.
Tod Slaughter is the throat-cutter - naturally.

The truth is that Tod Slaughter probably did not possess the oddness of Lugosi nor the subtlety and skills of Lorre and Karloff to have matched their career highlights. He is very broad, twiddling his moustache and skipping from murder scenes uttering “Heheheheh!”; and he was so famed for this that one can safely draw an evolution from Slaughter to The Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. He practically comes with speech-bubbles. Slaughter represents the kind of performance that would carry well in melodramatic theatre, utilising the kind of easily identifiable techniques outlined by the dramatist André de Lorde in his guide for actors. For example:
The eyes. – Half-closed: malice, disdain. Lowered: great respect, shame, etc.
The Body. – With shame, and often with terror, the body is held in, the back is curved, the arms held tightly by the sides … with fear and with repulsion, the torso is held back.[1]
And so on. Indeed, it is a style suited to the physical nature of theatre: the distance between stage and audience does not especially allow the remarkable nuances possible with the close-ups of film and television cameras. But this is also an actor’s short-hand indicating what and who they are, quickly and symbolically, which for example creates necessary urgent recognition within the confines of one-act plays of The Grand-Guignol. They play upon and reinforce the gestures and style of what popular culture identifies as indicators of good and bad characters and of heightened emotion. It simplifies. 
Slaughter himself is quite a heavy-set looking man, not particularly rotund, but more forceful than naturally imposing, pushy rather than intimidating. He lets his head dip so it is more in line with his shoulders, reducing his natural height as if his greed and murderous ways have left him hunched over with evil-doing. He looks conflicted between toadying and a barely repressed urge to pounce. Often this angling forward, his constant leaning in towards his co-stars, is matched with the ever-present and false upward grin which also forces his eyebrows upwards in his long, slightly jowly visage. It is indeed the kind of face that you imagine belonging to the well-fed, patriarchal and corrupt country squires that he often played; indeed he was already into his fifties when his screen career took off. Jonathan Rigby’ description of Slaughter’s essence is particularly English in flavour:
With his George Robey eyebrows, jug ears and prominent belly, his villainy is redolent of boiled beef and carrots gone rancid […][2]
But in some ways, his face is too plain for the pantomime villainy he trades in: there’s a kind of softness there that perhaps projects that he really is only play-acting; it does not really possess the vividness or distinctiveness of his peers. His face does not have the brooding of Legosi, nor the pathos of Karloff, for example; this is why he pushes his face to such extremes. There are moments when his physical technique is quite remarkable, as in ‘The Crimes of Stephen Hawke’ where – to aid his double-life – he seems to cause his body to shrink to half its size in order to appear to be a feeble old man. Nevertheless, this is a broad transformation from one archetype to another.
That smile is simultaneously shark-like and earnestly welcoming, both obsequious and devious. Occasionally he relies upon menacing moustaches, which he troubles and twirls, and those wide grins and bugged-out eyes to convey the malformed souls of his schemers and murderers. He is outsized in his films because those around him are often such dull foils, just as Sherlock Holmes is so brilliant because others are so slow on the uptake. He may have liked to brag of his character’s murderous ways when promoting his films, but there is never any doubt that he is merely playing at being despicable. The phoniness is essential to enjoying him.
Yes, you may hiss the villain.

[1]             André de Lorde, ‘Pour jouer la comédie de salon, guide pratique du comédien mondain’ (1908) 83-86 –
               Quoted in Richard J Hand and Michael Wilson, ‘Grand-Guignol: The French Theatre of Horror (Exeter Performance Studies)’ (University of Exeter Press (1 Aug 2002) pg. 40
[2]        Rigby, Jonathan, ‘English Gothic: a century of horror cinema’, ( Reynolds & Hearn Ltd; 2nd Revised edition, London, 2002) pg. 27


Tuesday, 1 October 2013

"Self-Portrait": a short film

Lewis Rose, 2013

The short film formula is quite ideal for horror: the brief length allows the genre to indulge in its penchant for fun-size nightmare-logic and surrealism. A lack of narrative structure and realism is not necessarily a hindrance to the thing working; the pleasures of the uncanny can suffice. For example:

 My friend Lewis Rose has made a short film “Self-portrait” which lays out in the corners of the horror genre, looking the Gothic part and feeling like a variation on ‘The Portrait of Dorian Grey’ and reminding the viewer perhaps of a ‘Night Gallery’ skit. But ‘Self-portrait’ is not looking for the imposition of terror and an external threat: rather it finds its horror in basic human anxiety, self-doubt and a simple promise of body-horror. It is even, a little perversely, optimistic and empathising in its conclusions that the broken image is the one worth embracing.