Saturday, 3 January 2015

2014 home-viewing highlights

Here are some of my favourite non-cinema watches this year (there are so many that you can forgive me if I say you can IMDB them for yourself…)

Wake in Fright”: an Australian nightmare that I found I couldn’t quite shake.
Lore”: notable for great performances and for not going where you think it might.
“Heli”: does a fine show of what it’s like to live with unspeakable violence as part of daily life
Blue Ruin”: a brilliantly performed little thriller that concentrates on how pathetic and self-destructive revenge fantasies can be.
“What Richard Did”: a small story about how one irredeemable act can ruin lives, all filtered through the kind of convincing naturalism that makes most other drama look like panto.
“A Field in England”: because having a tiny budget shouldn’t stop you from making a trippy Civil War re-enactment.
12 Years a Slave”: an important film about what men can do to one another – pretty and painful in equal amounts.
Bronco Bullfrog”: captures that adolescent feeling of being unwanted and having nowhere to go as well as a miserabilist Britain that will instantly recognisable to anyone living through either.
Animal Kingdom”: because I like this style of film-making and I like Ben Mendelsohn.
Neighbouring Sounds”: The guy that served me in Fopps said this had a tremendous opening.  Better than ‘Enter the Void’? I asked. Yes, he answered after some thought. The truth is that it is different rather than better, of course, and the subsequent film is no let down. A film full of the tensions of everyday life.
The Grand Budapest Hotel”: funny and gorgeously designed, of course; probably Wes Anderson’s most commercial film.
The Selfish Giant”: a moving account of a friendship between two boys, one of which especially isn’t particularly likeable, but it is all credible despite its Oscar Wild fairy tale basis.


Surprise watches…
Spring Breakers”: for being a trippy music-video of a film and almost the total opposite of Harmony Korine’s “Trash Humpers”.
Tucker and Dale vs Evil”: for its central gag (what’s the ‘evil’?) and for being funny and nasty.
“Permissive”: for being like a Larry Clark film decades before Clark had a career (minus the porn-fetish); and for a glimpse into another England long since gone.
Combat Shock”: for being no-budget guerrilla film-making, looking it, and being grungy, unforgettable and ambitious in equal amounts.
“Sky Blue”: for being delicious to the eyes and not having a storyline that totally ruined the pleasure.
Arbitrage”: for showing how money corrupts and can get you out of anything without resorting to reducing Richard Gere to standard villainy.
“Frankenweenie”: for being amusing and gorgeous and a horror fanboy’s delight.

I also want to mention “A Separation” for outlining how complex working life can be, and “Import/Export” for portraying working life as a series of degradations.

Notable re-watches:
The Tin Drum”, because I have always loved this film and haven’t seen it in a long time.  
The Fall of the House of Usher”: how did I not see how wonderful and wonderfully twisted this is the first time I saw it? I mean, I knew it was good, but… And gothic atmosphere to die for. And Vincent Price, of course.


Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014 favourites at the cinema

In 2013, I didn’t go to the cinema much, so it seemed redundant to do an end-of-year post. 2014 was different, I’m glad to say, so here’s my favourite seven in no particular order.

1.      Under the Skin
2.      Boyhood
3.      The Rover
4.      The Babadook
5.      Faults
6.      Nightcrawler
7.      The Raid 2

I went to Frightfest this year and although I only went for two days due to the online meltdown obtaining weekend passes. I saw 12 films over Saturday and Sunday and out of that, I’d say 10 had something of merit about them. Two were stand-outs: “The Babadook” and “Faults”. I only felt that “All Cheerleaders Die” by Lucky McKee and Robert Sivertson insulted the intelligence and Guy Pidgen’s “I Survived a Zombie Holocaust”, despite being sporadically amusing, went on too long until you couldn’t help notice that it wasn’t very good.

I’ve been happily surprised at the near-unanimous love Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” has been getting as it’s a proper horror film that doesn’t think that just being scary or gory is all a horror film can do. There is something genuinely dangerous about it and – despite some people thinking the final act is somehow a disappointment – it has an ending that is both logical and carries through on its initial promise. Since most horror fails somehow come its finale, that’s a relief.

Riley Stearns “Faults” is more a psychological horror, but seeing it in a horror context helps to enhance its sense of the uncanny, of something not being quite right. Mostly it has terrific performances, especially from Leland Orser and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as well a great opening scene.


Paul Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is a heady character study of Scarlett Johansson as an alien, trawling Scotland for victims. It’s like Jonathan Glazer took the first half of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” as his template and hasn’t watched a sci-fi blockbuster since. Intimate and trippy, this is the kind of genre flick that gets made too rarely.


Gareth Evan’s “The Raid 2” goes big whereas its predecessor was streamlined. The film may have to go looking for its fight scenes, but when they come they are superlative. We may be ready for them this time around but that doesn’t make them any less exciting and impressive.


“Boyhood” immediately stood as a cinematic milestone just for taking a single child actor and growing up with him and the other actors around him over twelve years. The fact that Richard Linklater crafts a casual bildungsroman from the material is remarkable: every time the film seems to approach the kind of dramatic input that other films would lap up, he goes on to something else. It rambles in the best sense and finds truths that your average biopic could only wish for. Rarely does a film transcend its own gimmick so artfully.

I had heard good things about David Michôd’s “The Rover” before seeing, but I knew it was my kind of thing within the first scene. Then Robert Pattinson turns up and delivers a performance that will surely leave naysayers wondering if really it’s the same actor that helmed the “Twilight” series. And that’s in a film brimming with good performances. This is the kind of film-making that says that not everything has to be spelt out all the time.
I went into Nightcrawler” knowing nothing but Jake Gyllenhaal was a sleazeball and that it was meant to be good. Apparently the trailer gives everything away, but it was all a surprise to me. By halfway through, I was chucking sardonically repeatedly and pretty sure I was watching one of my films of the year.


& runners up…

8.      We Are the Best” for leaving a big punky smile on my face.
9.      Locke” for being a great actor’s showpiece.
10.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes” because this is how you do mainstream effects showcases.
11.  Guardians of the Galaxy” for being a lot of fun where very little was expected.
12.  Maps to the Stars” for being Cronenberg-creepy and for some great performances.
13.  Boxtrolls” for being grimy and odd and funny.

And I will also mention…

The Drop”: exactly what you expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less.

Only Lovers Left Alive” doesn’t quite transcend its frequently bad dialogue, but the soundtrack and the vampires-for-hipsters vibe make up for a lot.

Godzilla” has moments of brilliance, and great monster moments, but too often follows its least interesting angle in search of emotional-connection-with-the-audience.

Interstellar” has emotional-connection-to-the-audience galore, which means its popular but, for me, its best stuff is in the middle section when they leave Earth: that’s where the real awe-inspiring material is.

The Wolf on Wall Street” was as good and as well-made as expected.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” was an improvement on the middle part of the trilogy and a fair ending after all, but not enough to match the heights of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or quite enough to remind us why that was so ground-breaking.

“The Guest” made little sense and seemed to be just an ‘80s nostalgia vehicle: enjoyable for all that, I’m sure, but shallow, too smug and nonsensical.


Biggest disappointment goes to….
Mood Indigo” can’t even have a character walk down the street without something whacky happening. I am a Michel Gondry fan but couldn’t connect to this at all. I find it hard to subscribe to the idea of a woman dying of terminal illness as poetic. What might seem poignant as a music video becomes tiresome and shows its cracks at feature length.

Worst cinema visit:
Has to be when I saw “Maps to the Stars” and had to listen to people eating popcorn for at least its first two acts. And multiple times this year I left the cinema thinking: People do tend to talk through films, don’t they?

Best cinema visit:
Two days of Frightfest: whereas last year was inundated with mostly tedious found-footage or turgid mainstream stuff and the year before that was mostly full of rape, this year provided two days that made me realise that watching so many films with something to offer was just as tiring as watching a lot of crap and waiting for the gems to appear. You kind-of want the good stuff to soak in a bit before the next one… But gorging on brilliant or decent film is always pleasant, of course.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Salem's Lot

Tobe Hooper, 1979, USA

Adaptation of Stephen King’s novel has a small town gradually destroyed by vampires. Its deterioration is watched by typical King heroes: a successful novelist and a teenage horror fan. Central is the old Madsen house with a gruesome, haunted reputation and the arrival of antique dealer Straker and his employer Barlow. Overnight, the vampire is delivered to the quiet town in a crate and the deaths begin.

With two genre heavyweights at the helm with Stephen King and director Tobe Hooper, expectations were high for this adaptation. The general consensus amongst critics appears to be that King’s novel suffered from the limitations of television, but the novel was never particularly explicit in its horrors. It was more interested in the menace and weakening community. In this way, the TV film format seems ideal for King’s picket fence society threatened by the supernatural. The wide cast of secondary yet vividly drawn characters that populate King’s fiction often offer a soap-like backdrop, yet there may be something to Peter Nicholls’ accusation of David Soul being a “predictably wet bit of television casting.”1 It is up to James Mason to deliver the acting delights in a nicely ambiguous turn as Straker. And it is also true that the moments that crescendo to a freeze-frame might hint at CBS censorship more than subtlety. The same year, John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ created a similar community under supernatural threat horror, yet also demonstrated how a film may be both bloodless without compromising its violence too far.
Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot’, as Kim Newman has written, is a “respectable rather than devastating” adaptation that lives under the “baleful shadow of ‘Psycho’.”2 He identifies the more typically Hooperesque moment as that when a husband catches his wife and her lover and humiliates them with a shotgun. The feel here, with the over-boiled facial distress and violence implied by editing rather than by outcome, is certainly more akin to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ than the rather plain direction elsewhere (don’t forget that ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was relatively bloodless too). Nevertheless, there is enjoyment in its long running time and slow build-up of character and incident that is closer to the novel than the 112 minute film that was subsequently edited from the miniseries.
‘Salem Lot’s greatest improvement upon the novel is in its use of the Glick brother vampires. In the novel, what mostly happens off-stage and is known through dialogue exposition is here given an unforgettable visual rendition. The vampire boys float outside windows, scraping on the glass, demanding to be let in. It is perhaps the film’s most memorable and chilling image, although certainly not it’s only one. I remember as a young teenager watching ‘Salem’s Lot’ and being terrified, not only by the vampires-at-the-window moments, but also at the graveyard cliffhanger and the Mr Barlow reveal. I remember watching it a second time from behind a cushion because I knew it was going to be scary. Its ambience and shock moments certainly worked on me and I am sure this particular mini-series traumatised a generation of horror fans.

The film’s greatest deviation from the novel is in its conception of Barlow the vampire. Hooper has opted to make Barlow a homage to Max Shreck’s ‘Nosferatu’; he is no longer the pretentious, condescending orator of the book: Straker is now his mouthpiece. Barlow’s entrance is another unexpected shocker, but his appearance gains the story little more than monster-make up, but nevertheless a strong defining image. It is at its best when Barlow invades an ordinary domestic dinner scene.

In many ways, ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a successful King adaptation. Despite its TV conventions, ‘Salem’s Lot’ manages some rawness, black humour and shocks; it is at least scary and atmospheric and has aged better than the televised and fondly remembered version of ‘It’. It is a long way down from here to ‘The Lost Boys’. There is no vampire sub-genre deconstruction as in Romero’s ‘Martin’, but ‘Salem’s Lot’s greatest strength is in allowing the vampires the greater visual set-ups and juxtapositioning them against the otherwise naturalistic framing. Vampires sitting in rocking chairs and coming to life on autopsy tables will still provide the delights for genre fans.


·        - Larry Cohen made A Return to Salem’s Lot, another television horror in 1987, but its relationship to the original novel and film was highly tenuous.
·        - Stephen King’s anthology ‘Night Shift’ contains a short story that vaguely follows up ‘Salem’s Lot’ called ‘One for the Road’. Typical of the collection, it is a slight, only mildly satisfying short.


[1]               Peter Nicholls,  Fantastic Cinema: an illustrated survey, (Ebury Press, London, 1984) pg. 145.
2               Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: a critical guide to contemporary horror films, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 54.


Sunday, 14 December 2014


Dan Gilroy, 2014, US

Or the American Dream is for assholes. Something like that. This could be seen on a double-bill with Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Jake Gyllenhall as Louis Bloom is a slime-ball: not particularly likeable but he knows the right things to say when he needs to. He is not a cool guy, but he can spin a tale that makes him sound more important than he actually is; he knows how to spin and he knows how to use his leverage. He’ll use this rather than genuine friendship and he’ll do what it takes to get ahead. He’s a true sociopath, in fact. It’s a blistering performance by Gyllenhall, a career best. By the time he is word-bullying TV executive Nina (Rene Russo) for sex, you can hear in the script why some consider this the best film of the year. Writer-Director Dan Gilroy’s script positively throbs with sardonic black humour. It’s not a comedy but, like a horror, you might find yourself chuckling at Gyllenhall’s outrageousness.

Louis Bloom has nothing: no back story, nothing to fix him in place, nothing to lose. He is a blank slate looking for his chance, for his business opportunity, which he finds when he stumbles upon a film crew filming a car crash and realises that he can do that. 

Chris Cabin notes the moments where Louis Bloom moves a corpse so it is more photogenic and, of course, there is the moment where Bloom walks around a fresh murder site to film it in the most cinematic way possible. Bloom himself states that doing so is crucial. Cabin rightfully prods at this as the point where the film associates Bloom with the film director’s trade: always making murder and death look at their most filmable. Perhaps ‘staged’ is a better term: the giallo genre thrives on this. Cabin takes on Gilroy:

“Sadly, he doesn't develop this deeply alluring aspect of his narrative. Instead, he takes the moral high ground via Ahmed's conflicted character, and in a final twist, provides a shallowly cynical condemnation of the press that reveals a pointed preference for banal pessimism over further exploration of how his own profession thrives off of illicit, even sexy images of murder, pain, and blood”

But I don’t think that is the film that “Nightcrawler” is: it has far more to do with the aforementioned “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Cheap Tricks” than it does the films that directly accuse the audience, like “Funny Games” or “Peeping Tom. The other criticism is that “Nightcrawler” chooses easy and old targets, but as “car crash TV” is currently flourishing, I don’t believe this holds for long. Besides, I saw “Nightcrawler” as far more allegorical and that the world of TV was just one facet of a larger satire. I don’t even think it is subtext: like “Killing them Softly” or “Map to the Stars”, the intent is on top. This is about how those without scruples make business successes. It’s about what people will do to make money.

But “Nightcrawler” is also an excellent character study about a man who is able to go that extra moral-less inch to get what he wants: cash and power. The American capitalist dream is, here, that you will stumble upon a car crash and find away to exploit it; but you must be the one to go and to do what others will not. There is nothing Louis Bloom will not do to achieve his goal: that’s the American Dream right there. At the end, he has taken his chances and is on his way up, through the loopholes.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

"Down by Law"

Jim Jarmusch, 1986, b/w, US
This year, Joe Sangre and I saw Jim Jarmusch’s vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive”, and we liked it but we decided that there was something about Jarmusch’s aesthetic that left the actors looking bad. Was it the dialogue where the vampires couldn’t last a scene without referencing how they had met some renowned artist in history? The final image showed that Jarmusch could do Horror if he wanted to. Perhaps he is least successful when trying to be clever and poignant? Perhaps he was unaware that vampires meeting Famous People In History is a stale Horror conceit, although having high art the domain of hipster vampires was a decent gag. The film is most successful when just travelling around deserted streets in a car, or poking its camera through a bar door to listen to a deliciously haunting singer.

Perhaps that is why his early feature “Down by Law” works so well: it just rambles, and therein lies its magic and realism. I don’t mean that anyone would mistake the compositions and atmosphere for realism, but the sprawling and open-ended agenda feels akin to the unresolved relationships and dramas of life. “Down by Law” certainly feels bluesy and jazzy, loose-limbed and funny because people are naturally funny, but it’s also true whenever Roberto Benigni turns up citing from his book of English the film is a full blown comedy, not just an amusing slice-of-life tale about three guys thrown together in a cell that make a jailbreak. I have seen “Down by Law” many times and it always exists in my memory as a scratchy, pock-marked feature, as amateurish as it is sublime in its modesty. But watching the blemish-free Critereon edition reveals not only gorgeous black-and-white but that perhaps I misremembered the amateurish elements and that in fact Tom Waits and John Laurie’s performances are equally as strong as Benigni: Waits is deadpan but no less funny in a different manner and Lurie holds his own as the straight man. They know that Benigni is there to steal the show – that’s his character, after all – but the film is no weaker in Benigni’s absence. It’s the other characters that stop this from being just a funny film, because “Down by Law” is so much more. Like Malle’s “Lift to the Scaffold”, “Down by Law” seems to capture that blues and jazz mood, that sense of life as a series of coincidences and small dramas that remain relevant to maybe two or three people. But that’s all. It is the smallness and the ellipses that the truth of life comes through.

There is indeed something appealing in the scratched-and-warped vinyl feel of the well-used prints I’ve seen before, but the Critereon print shows “Down by Law” in its best light yet.

"Black Water"

| David Nurlich & Andrew Taruk, 2007, Australia, 90m
Excellent streamlined killer crocodile horror. Amazingly, directors David Nurlich and Andrew Taruk decide that crocodiles are terrifying on their own: you don’t need them supersized, mutated or CGI-ed. And you don’t need them to be seen all the time either: that old adage that what you can’t see and what you imagine is scarier than what you do see. Our fated protagonists are a couple with a sister in tow who jump in a boat and let the guide take them way, way out into the Australian rivers. Before there has been any time to set-up, the crocodile has attacked and our protagonists are stuck up the winding, brittle looking trees. Two thirds of the film is what they do when trying to escape out of those trees. As writers, Taruk and Nurlich don’t try to be too fancy with characterisation: in fact, these may well be some of the most average and relatable characters ever put in a b-movie. Oh, I am sure there are those who would want something showier, but the ordinariness of our imperilled characters strikes me as exactly the winning presentation. It is easy to care about them without having to treat them as heightened archetypes.

This is a prime example of a low budget film using its limitations and restrictions to its advantage. It sets up a near impossible scenario and doesn’t cop out with easy solutions and implausible behaviour. In fact, what truly makes “Black Water” stand out is the convincing mental shifts, the deterioration and the resourcefulness of our characters. It is properly concerned with terror, but also the effects of it; for example, the women’s initial denial of what needs to be done, then their growing courage out of necessity without any recourse to obvious heroics. The ending is unusually bold in deploying the more mundane and heartbreaking effects of experiencing such horror on a person.

The show pieces are vivid: the most beautiful being the electric storm at night. More importantly, the reveals and appearances of the croc are all chilling (slowly coming into view) or terrifying (the fast attacks). Nurlich and Taruk also don’t overexpose the croc and execute brilliant and brief digital trickery to put it at the scene  leading to a finale that doesn’t rely upon a big grand showdown, but rather simply relying upon the frighteningly intimacy of an attack.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

"The Way, Way Back"

Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013, USA

Trailers seems to do the films they are promoting no favours, mostly. They offer up the cliché moments as touchstones so that the audience knows what it’s getting into, which has the effect of either (a) giving too much away, and/or (b) misrepresenting the film at hand. Take the modest, unsurprising but appealing coming-of-age film “The Way, Way Back”: the trailer tends towards something that’s more “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” when the actual film is a little more subtle than that. For example, in the trailer Sam Rockwell is just the funny motormouth archetype – he plays Owen, a manager at Water Wizz waterpark – but he is a little more nuanced in the film so the trailer does no justice to his character or performance. Note how he puts himself between Steve Carrell’s condescending boyfriend and the somewhat shy son-figure Duncan (Liam James), a moment that implies backstory without having to spell things out.

Where Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “The Way, Way Back” is interesting is in its vision of a job being a place where the kid Duncan can process his meekness and relationships with older people. The first job is often a neglected topic in cinema, especially when considering how many coming-of-age films there are, and there are fewer that explore the workplace as a space that is positive for social development. One can go to “Deep End” for how hormonal and confusing a first job may be, or “Import/Export” for how hellish work can be in general, but “The Way Way Back” makes work a positive experience. Duncan makes the waterpark his own and comes out of his shell without becoming a tiresome extrovert.

The film has a fair amount of coming-of-age clichés – there is some pathetic phallacy and a losing-your-swimming-shorts moment, for example – but it seems to skate through them so that they aren’t laboured, as if it wants to do something else but doesn’t quite know how to. Likewise, the misogyny of the guys at the top of the waterslide making the women stand there just a minute longer so the feminine form can be ogled lacks the voice of female characterisation elsewhere: it jars against the respect shown elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it’s amusing, undemanding entertainment. Faxon and Rash’s script is sparky and subtle enough as a tale of people coming out of their shells, teenagers and adults alike, and left open-ended enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence. It is also a film steeped in the smallness of the world, leaving the dead-end properties of Water Wizz waterpark implied (for example, perhaps it one of the few places where Owen can get away with his schtick): life is what you make it, the film says, but never quite beats the audience over the head with this message, for its other theme is we are what we are. We may be left wondering how Trent will save the relationship with Duncan’s mother (probably he’ll pull some boorish, patriarchal bullshit out of the hat), but this is the tale of how Duncan found some confidence at a summer job.

Friday, 24 October 2014

"Crack in the World"

"Crack in the World", Andrew Marton, 1965, USA

Old-fashioned disaster flick with aging, cancer-ridden, over-ambitious scientist Dana Andrew’s plans to tap the Earth’s core for power resulting in the movie’s title. Desperate and deluded scientist Andrews foolishly still competes for his wife with a younger, equally ambitious ex-student Moore. The global crack runs parallel not only with his disease, but with these domestic troubles: personal and external frictions and frissures finally meet head-on so that the old man’s suppressed rage and cancer explode, sending his soul/life/delusions/guilt etc. spiralling into orbit as a serene second moon.

          Ludicrous End of the World films have always enjoyed an eager audience keen to assuage their fear of headlines, hysterical and otherwise. Talky but lively, the cast try to give “Crack in the World” some emotional gravitas while dealing with science and disaster that, even to a layman, are self-evidently unconvincing. Namely, the end of the world as we know it surely would have arrived half-way through the running time. But the second-moon born in a new burning red world is a fair act of bravado and, finally, the implausibility of it all doesn’t quite hinder decent number of dramatic and special effects.

"Chopping Mall"

"Chopping Mall", Jim Winorski, 1986

Starting decently enough with a mock-commercial for security robots, preceding “Robocop” by a year, “Killbots” otherwise known as “Chopping Mall” soon descends into ‘80s campy fun and that is all. These new security robots get a taste for killing people when their rooftop computer gets zapped by lightening (!). They also acquire the ability to: (1) be sneaky by hiding here and there; (2) pretend to be turned off when they are really getting ready to kill; (3) go up escalators even though they move on big treads; (4) find our partying teenagers wherever they run throughout the mall. The teenagers that foolishly stay in the mall after hours for some sexy time are the kinds that do nothing for the prejudice that Americans are stupid as a culture. They mostly go about getting themselves killed and reacting in ridiculous manners. It’s the kind of film where you find yourself saying things like: (1) “Wait, the robots can hide bodies? (2) “Wait, how did the robot open those doors?” (3) “Wait, they have lasers now?” And all in the same scene.

Mostly logic free and coasting on its camp qualities, “Chopping Mall” offers one impressive breast-bearing followed by an exploding head, but then all it has, from this distance, is ‘80s nostalgia value. The shopping mall makes for an interesting “house of horror” – as it did in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” – but the robots delightfully clash with the retro-vibe and provide a lot of humour, intentional and otherwise. The credits sequence establishing the mall itself may be the most lingering and pleasurable moment it has.    

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.