Thursday, 19 April 2018

Shin Godzilla - stomping through politics

Hideaki Anno & Shinji Jiguchi, 
2016, Japan

A reboot of Godzilla by Toho Studios – directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Jiguchi – that focuses on the political turmoil caused by a super-monster stomping through Tokyo. That means lots of talk about military action, evacuations and international relations. From time to time, Godzilla impressively unleashes sheer destruction. He’s been upgraded to motion capture and CGI but they haven’t even used the latter to make the eyes blink and his arms never move so it’s feel is very much man-in-a-suit. More importantly, the long-shots of Gojira ploughing through the suburbs and the city are bright, spectacular, clear and the best yet seen, surely.* The film steers a very tricksy line between the appearance of seemingly clunky old-fashioned effects and state-of-the-art techniques, pleasingly and sometimes surprisingly.

But the film is mostly cutting between various political, scientific and military departments trying to deal with the crisis. Much is made of Japan’s international relations dealing with the giant monster crisis: boardrooms become the central location of the drama as a satire of government bewilderment and bureaucracy ensues. If Gojira was born from the Atomic bomb, here the monster more represents nuclear and natural disasters: he’s there to embody all the terrible tragedies that befall Japan it seems (most obviously here it’s Fukushima Daiichi and Tōhoko, but remember he also fought the smog monster Hedorah). There’s a sly acknowledgement to the origins of Godzilla by having America name the beast and Japan then adopting it. America is represented by an ineffective aerial assault – just one of many – and a Japanese-American liaison (Satomi Ishihara) who bears the most difficult English accent of the cast; she has a penchant for acting sassy and flipping her hair like she’s learnt her moves from perfume commercials and seems to have stepped in from one of the earlier tackier films in the franchise (there’s also a somewhat baffling subplot about her becoming president eventually?). But it ends up being France that proves Japan’s political ally.

There are so many characters and groups being introduced all the time that it’s probably forgivable if you don’t quite keep track (the IMDB page gives the flavour of this). But mostly we follow Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) as he angsts over Gojira and his political ambitions. Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Jiguchi try to keep all this boardroom and control centre action exciting by gliding the camera through offices and having sheets of paper deployed in quick cuts like karate blows, or more strikingly through a portable device’s screen’s POV of the people looking at it, but there’s no doubt that this gets in the way of giant monster action and that the film could have been shorn of much of this. Most of the dialogue is made of instructions and exposition so it’s certainly better than many Godzilla films, but the line that stuck out for me was also the most enjoyably ridiculous: “Deploy all train bombs!” Of course, if you want to up the cheesiness, just play the dubbed version.**

The monster genre is typified and marred by the sense that the drama is almost always weaker than the rampage, but here it’s more that the politics starts to get in the way of the Kaiju. The seriousness is commendable and it’s all very slick and less silly than most Gojira flicks, but as admirable as it is to return Godzilla to Toho studios, there’s the sense that it’s longer and less fun than it should be.

· Gareth Edwards much maligned 2014 ‘Godzilla’ had some spectacular showpieces but failed to film its monsters in a way that left the audience satisfied. Even if it’s a man in a suit, an audience likes its kaiju anti-hero bright and clearly seen.
·        It’s “Send in all the train bombs” in the subtitles and “Freeze the bugger!” becomes “Freeze the bastard!” in the dub. It’s the little things… But this has been a review of the subtitled version because dubbing makes everything less serious.

The Pyramid

Grégory Levasseur, 2014, USA

Another hand-held footage excursion into hell, except for when it’s not hand-held. All the tedious motifs of found footage aesthetic are here (always exposition; why are they still filming? Etc.) but there are no characters that reach more than two-dimensions to enliven things. In fact, they are stupid (what’s the point of it all if they think the air is poisonous and yet still take off their masks?). Director Grégory Levasseur and producer Alexandre Aja have been responsible for some interesting nasty stuff – ‘The Hill Have Eyes’ remake, ‘Haut Tension’ and (my favourite) the ‘Maniac’ remake – but this isn’t one of them; this falls more into their sillier pile along with ‘Piranha 3D’Bringing Egyptian monsters to life could have been interesting if it all wasn’t so dull, and ultimately the monster looks like dodgy claymation, and not in a fun way.

Friday, 13 April 2018

A Quiet Place

John Krasinski, 2018, USA

‘A Quiet Place’ comes with a defining concept – monsters are attracted to any noise – designed to make anyone eating popcorn and opening sweets and chocolates in the audience act like the characters onscreen: delicately, cautiously, painfully self-aware. Every chair squeak in the auditorium is likely to be heard. Myself, being a good cinema-goer, I only buy quiet food (pastilles and chocolate that I open before the film starts) because eating popcorn loudly and talking through films really ruins the experience for me (he says with understatement) – but even I had a slight coughing fit during the film, made only worse by struggling to suppress it. It’s a film with the emphasis on the tiniest sound without necessarily being quiet itself: there’s Marco Beltrami’s score that underlays without quite disturbing the focus on silences; there’s the roars of the monsters and a cameo from Neil Yong’s ‘Harvest Moon’, for example. Even so, you have been warned that you can’t talk through this one without causing the ire of other audience members; that is, more than usual. Like Lynne Ramsey’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’, it’s a film that wants you to pay attention to the sound design.

Having established the concept and the high stakes from the opening – because kids want to be kids even in this scenario, which is a major theme –‘A Quiet Place’ focuses on a few set-pieces, sidestepping many demands for exposition and background information, not to mention internal logic – wait, so how would it work that these creatures seemingly decimated the human population? – and gets on with the job of racking up tension. Some context given by fluttering old newspaper headlines and notes written on a board but these are mostly things we have already intuited. Then there’s mum Emily Blunt, who is good at being stoic, son Noah Jupe, who is good at being vulnerable (almost unbearably so in ‘Suburbicon’), dad and director John Krasinski trying to do his best paternal protector thing and daughter Millicent Simmons finding she can’t quite go full stormy and noisy troubled teen because she has to be mindful of the monsters. She’s also deaf which gives the family an advantage in already knowing sign language.

Nitpicks could be found in that why does it take hundreds of days for the dad to show the safety of waterfalls to their son; or wouldn’t the military have worked out the monster’s weakness long before and let everyone know? There’s a baby on the way too, which is surely a bad and irresponsible choice, considering (but what else are they going to do? And thankfully it’s mostly quiet when it comes). But these matter less when there is plenty of attention paid to piling on the suspense.  When the majority of a film is doing so much else rightly and strongly, the constant questioning of internal logic isn’t such a priority; a few things can slide. (For example, there’s a lot of doubting the workings of the monster in ‘It Follows’; and where is the security in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ to stop Luv from just walking into the police station? And why aren’t they wearing Hazmat suits in ‘Annihilation’? etc.) But picking apart isn’t so rewarding when the set-pieces are strong and the main concern is to simply have some genre fun.

The grain silo and a flooded basement are highlights.

The monsters are big, all angles sticking out plus over-complicated head-and-ear designs, but that’s fun too; they are simply the bogeymen to scare and to be overcome. Mostly, the story is simply “surviving the set-pieces” and Krasinski directs cleanly and with care, despite some confused editing, forging some unforgettable images – the bath in the foreground and the thing coming up the stairs in the background doing its best 'Nosfertu' impersonation; the monster almost blending with the shadows in the cellar, for example. The main theme seems to be “If we can’t protect the children, then what are we?” (which is surely political - he says with understatement), but mostly, despite its downbeat veneer, this is a focused action piece that delivers tension and scares with the minimum requirement of nuanced characterisation  and bloodletting that is a true crowd-pleaser.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Pacific Rim Uprising

Steven S DeKnight, 2018, USA

Bang!! Crash!!! Jaegers fighting Kaiju. It’s a crowd pleaser of the undemanding, empty-headed popcorn type and, for that, we do get plenty of giant robot action. Otherwise the characters are of the obvious kind and all the charm and liveliness rests with John Boyega. Boyega seems to know this sequel is pitched at the kids – but without the wannabe poignancy of ‘Star Wars’ (which you may argue makes ‘Star Wars’ easily superior) – and is playful and fun, even if he has the same rudimentary character-arc as others: learning to go from rebel to conformity. In fact, the narrative strikes a clear line from being a kid mashing your figurines together (which is the premise of ‘Pacific Rim’) to being a scrappy cadet to being a legendary soldier and all without losing your rebelliousness. As an advert aimed at youths for the military, it does a fair job: you too are the chosen one (“you may already have it”, as the commercial says) and for all those in charge that don’t understand you, for all your angsty noncompliance, you will show ‘em all when the shit hits the fan. Etc. To this end, it’s the cadets that get to face off the Kaiju. 

Elsewhere, there’s the overacting to distract/annoy you, although whether Burn Gorman or Charlie Day is the worst offender may depend on your personal taste (for me, Gorman settles into his hamminess and makes his a cartoonish character whereas Day is repeatedly aggravating) and some anti-corporation (boo!) red herrings (hey, drones will never beat real soldierism!). The last act is just one giant CGI extravaganza where the city (“Everyone’s safe underground” we’re told) is just a playpen for crashing and bashing and total destruction. Skyscraper’s aren’t just for punching and ploughing through but for robots to roll across too. But it’s CGI with all the soullessness inherent in that, although it looks expensive enough.  

The action admirably tries to keep things rooted in the characters and tactics, but there isn’t much to go round. It all has to be taken on that bashing-and-crashing level because that’s the whole aim. Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 original had, for all its shortcomings, a genuine love of its monsters and robots and a kind of individualism that this doesn’t. It’s the kind of thing where you wonder how it took four people to write and if they ever shared the same room. It does what it does. The whole thing is just for popcorn so criticism doesn’t matter much anyway.