Tag Archives: Aaron Taylor-Johnson

London Film Festival 2016: Day 10

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Since last Sunday, I’ve taken to wearing my press badge whenever I’m out of the house I’m staying in in London.  Before I even step out of the door first thing in a morning, I throw the pass on around my neck and it stays there for the entire remainder of the day, until I get back to the house and start writing.  Even when I don’t need it on, if I’m just wandering around London killing time or attending screenings that I’ve paid money for, I still keep it hanging.  It brings me a kind of comfort, that I am making the absolute most of this experience whilst I have the chance to do so.  This fortnight has been the greatest – it really, really has – and I haven’t felt anything less than happy the entire time I’ve been here, on this trip.  And as I sat down in the Picturehouse Central café after definitely not watching a film that I am absolutely not under embargo for and so can’t talk about for the time being, that was the only thought that ran through my head: this has just been the greatest.

I can tell you that I definitely won’t miss the ridiculous sleep schedules, though.  Ploughing through a massive 18 hour day on less than 6 hours sleep is kind of a pain, I won’t lie, but at least that kind of schedule allowed me to be disappointed by Nocturnal Animals (Grade: C+) a good month before I would have been in general cinemas.  The long-awaited film follow-up to A Single Man by fashion designer Tom Ford, and an adaptation of the novel Tony And Susan, the film supposedly follows highly-disillusioned art gallery designer Susan (Amy Adams) who is in a loveless relationship with her second husband Walker (Armie Hammer), is slowly going broke, has grown to despise her artistry, and is also currently suffering from severe insomnia.  One night, she receives a package from her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she has not spoken to in the nearly 2 decades following their divorce.  Edward has finally finished the novel he always wanted to write and has sent Susan the first manuscript.  He’s also named it after an in-joke between the pair, dedicated it to her, and the characters in the story are heavily reminiscent of Edward (named Tony in the manuscript), herself (represented by Isla Fisher), and her daughter, and very nasty things happen to the lot of them.

Nocturnal Animals, basically, is an endless drumroll for a crescendo that never fully arrives.  In theory, the movie is two separate stories that are meant to keep converging and intersecting in ways that tell us more about the two characters, but the overlap turns out to be relatively minimal.  In reality, the movie is two films taking turns to play out across 2 hours, and the supposed subtext and character study elements in the second story don’t manifest themselves enough.  What instead happens is that you’re watching this B-grade gritty thriller that is clearly meant to be an examination of regretful male impotence, and then every 15 minutes the film will cut to a shot of an absolutely wasted Amy Adams staring pensively into the middle distance.  If you’re lucky, the film might even throw in a flashback to Susan and Edward’s relationship to add some kind of actual context to proceedings.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

There’s just no real indicator of what Ford (who also wrote the script) is trying to say with these sequences, outside of the immediately obvious theme of how creative types throw themselves into their work and that those who know the author and what to look for can become understandably troubled by what they experience as a result.  Otherwise, the film is so deliberately opaque and meticulously designed that any deeper meaning or reason for being or message that Ford is trying to convey was utterly lost on me.  Kind of like most fashion for me, come to think of it.  He clearly thinks he’s saying something profound or meaningful given the way he directs these sequences, but I’ll be buggered if I can tell you what those are.

That said, Nocturnal Animals isn’t a waste.  The manuscript sequences are quite entertaining, and its inciting incident is genuinely gripping in a way that kind of makes me wish that Tom Ford had just made a straightforward thriller, or actually delivered the psychological thriller he initially promises, rather than the unwieldy hodgepodge he’s crafted.  The film looks absolutely stunning, of course; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey having clearly pored over every single image in a concerted effort to ensure that each and every single shot could be slid into a fashion catalogue and fit right in.  There are also a great pair of performances from Michael Shannon, as a rule-adjacent West Texas Detective that is exactly as perfect a fit for him as you would expect, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as a slimy redneck psychopath – and from whom another good performance has been LONG overdue.  Mostly, though, I’m just disappointed by how empty I found the film to be.  There may be substance here, but it’s all been scrubbed away by the relentless need for style, and I’m left wondering if there was actually any substance in the first place.  If you want to make a nasty, gritty thriller, just make a nasty, gritty thriller.  Own that; don’t detract from it by trying to be something you’re clearly not.

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Having most definitely not spent the 3 hours between Nocturnal Animals and our next film watching a totally different film that I can’t talk about yet, my day eventually led me back into the realm of public screenings, which I’m now relying on for the rest of the festival.  The Last Laugh (Grade: C+) was the first of 3 for the day and attempts to tackle the burning question that surrounds Comedy ever more nowadays: should comedians make fun of tragic events?  Specifically, The Last Laugh attempts to discuss that question in relation to The Holocaust, one of human history’s greatest atrocities and still a taboo subject to this day, for the most part, when it comes to humour and jokes.  Is it OK to make light of The Holocaust?  The Last Laugh comes at this from a variety of angles, particularly through questioning whether Comedy can help people work through trauma and eventually heal thanks to it, as depicted through a Holocaust survivor who likes cracking really dark jokes about her experience.

All of the usual arguments in this debate are brought up and examined – whether jokes about taboo subjects re-enforce negative stereotypes even if they’re being done with kind intentions (as illustrated by Jack Benny’s “your money or your life” skit re-enforcing the stereotype of the cheap Jew), how much time needs to pass before such material becomes acceptable fodder, whether only certain groups of people are allowed to make certain jokes, how different people can find certain jokes and portrayals to be wildly different in terms of respectfulness or offensiveness based on their subjective beliefs, everybody’s personal “line” and whether they’re capable of finding comedy in situations that other comedians can, and of course the old standby of “if you’re gonna go there, the joke had better be a riot.”  Each is backed up by relevant clips and analysis, and the result is a very comprehensive look at this more-relevant-than-ever issue.

Where it all falls down is in two key areas, the first being the film’s half-assed attempt at trying to remain objective and not pick a side.  Despite attempting to remain neutral, by sheer force of number on the part of the comedians and the way the footage is edited and ordered, the film can’t help but come down on the side of those wanting to preserve their rights to make taboo gags.  I’m not knocking the film for coming down on their side, hell I mostly agree, but I am knocking it for clearly wanting to remain objective but doing such a terrible job at trying to be so.  For two: in a documentary about offensive comedy, 90% of the contributors to the talking-heads are Men, and all of them are White, so unchallenged issues of privilege come into play as a result.  To be fair, the film is explicitly primarily in relation to The Holocaust rather than offensive comedy at large, but given the social and cultural landscape that The Last Laugh has been released in, for it to be about taboo comedy and not feature a single person of colour and maybe just 4 women in your interview list feels incredibly out-of-step with the current world and recklessly irresponsible as a result.

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The evening brought about the second of the films I had bought a ticket for prior to the festival, in the shape of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (Grade: B), which I guess you could say was one of my absolute most anticipated films of the festival.  Set in New York, as many indie dramedies usually are, the film follows The Commune, a highly respected but struggling improv comedy troupe founded by the 37 year-old Miles (Birbiglia).  Its current incarnation includes the slowly-embittering Miles, obvious breakout talent Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and his girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the aging Bill (Chris Gethard), aspiring graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), and the parent-reliant Lindsay (Tami Sagher).  About twice a week, they perform a super-cheap sold-out improv show at Improv America, and the rest of the time they live together, work menial low-paying jobs to get by, and gather around every weekend to watch Weekend Live, an American comedy institution that likes to poach talent from The Commune at every opportunity.

The group begins to fracture once Weekend Live comes a-knocking once more, offering Jack and Sam audition spots, at the same time as their beloved Improv America is being shut down, Bill’s dad gets into a serious accident, and Miles becomes more and more bitter for being passed up by Weekend Live.  After all, “why wouldn’t the show want to hire the guy who taught most of their recent hires everything they know?” he reasons.  Don’t Think Twice pivots on this, on that heartbreaking moment where you realise that the artistic or creative lifestyle you desperately want may not be achievable after all.  Do you try and keep up that optimism, putting forward strong writing packets and hoping that your big break is still just around the corner?  Do you turn incredibly bitter towards your friends as they achieve the success that eludes you, especially if you think they don’t deserve it?  Or do you deliberately screw up your opportunity out of that anxiety of change, of wanting to try and preserve your life as it is now despite all the tides fighting back and winning against you?

It’s a very bittersweet film, funny due to our cast of characters being semi-professional funny people, but mostly dramatic as the group very slowly and very painfully splinters apart.  As a result, I honestly feel like this film was done a disservice by watching it with a sold-out crowd, who all seemed to think they were watching a straightforward comedy and laughed uproariously at any cutting remark regardless of how hurtful it was and loudly winced every time the drama got too heavy.  I feel that my viewing experience didn’t allow me to fully appreciate the film, snobbish as that is to say, and drew more attention that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have paid to the film’s minor flaws – the ensemble is all well-performed and lived-in but certain characters get noticeably underserved by the script, and the blatant Saturday Night Live swipes are too self-conscious and loudly inside-baseball, seemingly born out of genuine sourness on the part of Birbiglia.

But Don’t Think Twice is worth watching purely on the back of an absolutely sensational Gillian Jacobs.  Jacobs is a brilliant comic talent, as anybody who watched Community will be able to tell you, but she’s asked to carry the bulk of the film’s drama and pulls off that task masterfully.  Sam began as a super-fan of The Commune before being asked to join, and their slow disintegration causes her to start self-destructing out of a desire to try and preserve this perfect little status-quo she currently has.  To Sam, improv is not a stepping stone to Weekend Live or some alleged higher-form of comedy, improv is the best that things can get and that desire to remain locked in her comfort zone is quietly devastating to watch.  Jacobs absolutely nails her work here, especially during a heartbreaking final improv scene, and her performance will touch the hearts of anybody who has tried in vain to keep their group of friends together or has committed intentional or unintentional self-sabotage in their creative careers for whatever reason.

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Since press screenings wrapped up for good today, leading to there being no reason to get up super early the next morning, I chose to stay out on this Friday evening and catch a second evening movie for once, with my press-ticket-approved screening of The Man From Mo’Wax (Grade: B+).  A warts-and-all documentary about James Lavelle, the founder of the highly-influential Mo’Wax Records label and co-head of the group UNKLE.  And when I say “warts-and-all,” for once, I do mean warts-and-all.  This is the kind of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption documentary that really does properly lay into its subject during its middle-stretch.  I’m not talking about a documentary that goes “yeah, he could be an asshole during this period, but the man was a genius so it was all good,” I mean this is a film that unrepentantly looks at the man that James Lavelle was after Psyence Fiction dropped and goes, “No, this guy was an A-grade ASSHOLE and there was no excusing it.”

That’s actually really exhilarating to watch, and the film going so all-in on this period makes the two sections either side of it much stronger as a result.  Lavelle starts off as a youthful visionary, a misfit drawn to Hip-Hop thanks to it sounding “otherworldy,” with the drive, ambition, and raw unvarnished skill that led to him dropping out of college and founding Mo’Wax at just 18 years of age.  But that youthful nature quickly ends up enabling all of his worst impulses once he and the label become famous, leading to him burning professional and personal bridges through rampant assholery, letting his attention drift away from being a label boss, and trying misguidedly to become a musician and songwriter in his own right as the primary creative force of UNKLE, epitomised by the film’s reveal of just when exactly the vast majority of these “present day” interviews are taking place – a quietly brilliant reveal so masterfully done I was on the verge of standing up and applauding at the sleight-of-hand being pulled off.

Spending so much time on James driving himself further into a hole is what makes the epiphany of his behaviour and his eventual curation of 2014’s Meltdown Festival act as a genuine act of personal redemption.  The film doesn’t pretend that it’s some kind of massive world-beating success that shows everyone just how wrong they were to write James Lavelle off, and it doesn’t pretend that this lets him off for how much of a massive dick he could be throughout the 2000s, and that’s what makes James’ minor redemption work gangbusters.  It would have been so easy for director Matthew Jones and editor Alec Rossiter to betray all of the hard work of their film’s previous hour to give James an unambiguous happy ending, and their refusal to do so is what makes The Man From Mo’Wax a real find.  Even viewers with no interest or prior knowledge of Mo’Wax, UNKLE, or even Trip-Hop can find something in this focussed and super entertaining documentary about a youthful visionary being undone by success and eventually beginning to turn themselves back around again.

Day 11: Things become far less set in stone as I start braving the Rush Queues in order to make up my schedule on the fly.

Callum Petch got this sinking feeling he sank with the tulip.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Godzilla

It comes maddeningly close to excellence, but Godzilla is fatally flawed.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

godzilla-nature-has-an-order-trailer-7You ask people why Jaws works and most will reply that it’s because you don’t see the shark all the time.  Jaws is paced expertly, saving the big reveal until the very end and instead spending its run-time teasing you with little glimpses of it and showing you the effect of its terror, constantly baiting the audience with the threat of the shark and the promise of the shark but realising that it doesn’t carry much impact if it’s on-screen too often.  They wouldn’t be wrong, it’s a key component of the suspense tease of the film, but it’s not the whole reason.  Jaws also works because it has characters; real characters with multiple dimensions whose plights were just as interesting as that of the chaos the shark was wreaking.  They didn’t feel incidental to the plot and, most importantly, it didn’t feel like their existence is just marking time until the shark can turn up and do its thing.  That’s why their boat trip to the sea to find the shark is so captivating: you’re scared for people, not just waiting for fireworks.

Gareth Edwards’ remake/adaptation (whichever you want to call it entirely comes down to your personal perspective) of the classic 1954 Japanese monster movie Godzilla is a master of The Tease part.  It gets that having Godzilla turn up from frame one and tear sh*t up until the last of the 123 minutes the film runs for are done is a bad idea, one that would create fatigue for the audience and end up making his rampage duller the longer it ran on.  It gets that you don’t give a clear shot of the monster until it’s close to wrapping up time because that lets the audience fill in the blanks, an act which is frequently scarier than whatever you’ve actually come up with.  And it gets that you don’t deliver on your promised monster smackdown at the hour mark of your two hour film because that leaves you little else to go after for the second hour.  It gets all that, and its masterful approach to The Tease is why every even-slightly prolonged section involving a monster is giddy-inducing instead of “seen it all before”.  It gets that better than any film I have seen in the cinema in a long while.

What Godzilla forgot, though, in the gorgeous execution of The Tease, was to add any characters.  This basic, fundamental tenant of pretty much any great film is completely lacking here and that fact is what almost kills the film.  Godzilla gets so much right, The Tease, the cinematography, the score, the effects, that it comes close to excellence; when this film is on, it is frakkin’ on!  But by skipping out on this one thing, this one crucial element, the film is kneecapped irrevocably.  What could have been an excellent film, a strong contender for one of the year’s best if/when some of the Summer’s more promising titles flop disappointingly, is instead a frustratingly good one where its flashes of greatness are heavily outweighed by the one thing it does wrong which, not coincidentally, makes its biggest strength almost just as much of weakness.

OK, that’s the spoiler-free version.  I’m not saying that the rest of this review is going to dive into every single aspect and plot-point or anything, but it is going to have to reference something that a fair bit of the marketing material did a good job of hiding if you weren’t voluntarily looking for it.  And, honestly, I kinda wish I didn’t know it going in, because then I might have appreciated The Tease even more.  So, if you haven’t seen the movie or you just plain don’t care, stop reading now.  You basically already know what I thought about the film by this point, anyway.  If you have seen the film or just plain don’t care, keep reading.  Again, there are no giant spoilers (the thing I’m referring to is basically made explicit by the 45 minute mark) but you may enjoy the film more if you go in dark to its plot and stuff.

Still here?  OK, then.  Let’s talk about The Tease.

Wisely, Godzilla saves its giant monster smackdown, between Godzilla and a new creature classified as M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object), for the final 20-or-so minutes.  In addition, you don’t even get a clear shot of the titular monster until the very last minute of the film.  Instead, the film baits you and teases you.  A shot of his enormous foot here, the disappearance of its tail as it slinks around a half-destroyed building there; as you probably expected.  What you probably won’t be expecting, though, is just how far the film takes that tease.  Godzilla doesn’t just limit The Tease to a shot of the monsters, it also limits it to the destruction in general.  There’s a section where a M.U.T.O. begins destroying Las Vegas in broad daylight, but the film cuts away to the aftermath just as the destruction is ramping up.  The M.U.T.O.’s escape from its dormant pod is shot in low light, with occasional flashes teasing us as to its appearance but it also basically cuts to black when it seems like we’re really about to see some mayhem.  And, in the film’s standout example of how it gets The Tease, there’s a bit in Hawaii that I absolutely refuse to spoil because it will be the point where you are either on-board with what the film is trying to do or where you check out in frustration.

If you can’t get what the film is trying to do, you may find the whole experience the film equivalent of yelling “either sh*t or get off the pot!” at someone.  I, however, adored it as it trained myself to savour any piece of monster destruction I could get; it made those moments hit that much harder.  And when the film finally lets go of the reigns and gives you what you came here to see?  Man, it is an amazing feeling, let me tell you.  The fight itself is a slow, primal, animalistic affair, like watching two mad caged animals going at one another (which makes sense, considering the fact that they kind of are animals), that may have been underwhelming for most audiences in a post-Pacific Rim world if that build-up hadn’t been so masterful as to make a release, any release, feel like the coolest thing in the entire world at that moment in time.  I cackled with maniacal glee multiple times during this film and that was even before the really amazing moments entered the fray.  Edwards and his team get it, they get how to make what otherwise would have been mundane instead be a super awesome piece of ridiculous fun because they build up to it near-perfectly.

Credit should also go to the cinematography and visual effects.  In line with the teasing nature of the film, the cinematography holds off on giving you a clear shot of monsters causing carnage until near the end of the big fight.  Instead, it opts to show the action from a ground level, from the perspective of a bystander in the chaos, to fully impress upon you the scale of the action and the destruction.  It more than works, the first time the M.U.T.O. clambers out of its hibernation pod and effortlessly breaks through the containment barriers is shot on the surface just above the containment pit which makes the reveal of one of its legs that much more of a “sh*t has gotten real” moment.  There’s a section on a train bridge which manages to communicate the pure terror of being in the same area as a giant monster better than a lot of recent films I have seen.  And then there’s the entrance of Godzilla himself, which takes about an hour to occur, incidentally, and which really needs to be seen to fully grasp the effect of.

However, and thankfully, Godzilla also gets that shooting action from the perspective of bystanders (to make it feel like you are really there) does not give carte blanche to make the action incomprehensible.  Shaky-cam is kept to an absolute minimum and pretty much any action depicted on screen is shot by cameras that are steady and clear.  You can always tell what is going on where and who is involved when.  Everything is clear, everything is viewable and you have absolutely no idea how happy I am to finally see a Hollywood film that understands that shaking the camera like an epileptic having a stroke at a flashbulb convention does not make things more exciting.  And on that note, yes, a lot of the destruction and more monster-heavy sequences are shot at night under cover of darkness.  But, and this is crucial, the film still lights proceedings enough that, combined with the stable camerawork, you can still tell what’s going on at all times, which works gangbusters during the finale.

The score, meanwhile, handled by Alexandre Desplat, is damn near perfect here.  Eschewing both the gritty drone of your Hans Zimmer (or Hans Zimmer wannabes) and the faux-John Williams score of a lot of modern day blockbusters in favour of something that resembles classic Hollywood that’s been a bit updated for the modern day.  There’s a lot of brass, drums and urgent violins, bombast, that recall the style of classic monster movies from the 1960s.  But when the action slows down and the film is instead trying to create a more unsettling atmosphere, Desplat is more than happy to oblige with severely off-key instruments or, in a segment that I’m pretty sure took place on the Golden Gate Bridge, a choir that sounds like its announcing the incoming apocalypse.  It backs the action exceptionally; creepy and portentous at one moment, bombastic and energy-filled the next.  I realise that I’m doing a terrible job describing it, it’s one of those things you really need to experience to get why it works.

As for the effects… well, you don’t really need me to tell you how good this film’s special effects are.  You’ve seen the trailers, you know what to expect.  The M.U.T.O.’s design is excellent, heavily indebted to that of a bat but twisted enough to make the result much more nightmarish with its long, spindly arms and horrifying eyes, face and mouth.  Godzilla, meanwhile, is likely going to be more subjective.  Yes, he is much bigger than anything else in this movie and the scales on his back are rather a bit terrifying when they’re all you can see of him swimming through the water and bearing down on the camera, but his face is also rather a bit cute.  He looks strangely endearing and a bit huggable at certain angles which should spell the death-knell for his design… if it didn’t fit with his character in this particular film, which it does.  When it comes time for the monsters to make some destruction, though, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that things look great.  Not only do things get smashed real purdy-like, the monsters move with real weight and heft.  Not clumsiness, but force, how one would probably expect two animals of their size to move and duke it out and it is ultra-convincing.

So, right now, I imagine that you’re prepping to go to the cinema and fling all of your hard-earned moneybills at the people who hand out the tickets.  You’ve probably read all of that and decided that this is officially your favourite film of the summer, sight unseen.  And, in fairness, were there not this giant, puss-filled flaw blemishing Godzilla’s face, you’d probably be correct.  There were a tonne of highs in this film that I am expecting the rest of the summer to have a hard time matching.  Unfortunately, Godzilla has a giant problem that keeps dragging down the rest of the film the more and more it ruminates in my brain.  Hell, if everything else surrounding this problem wasn’t so good, it would have killed the film outright for me.  So, here’s the problem.

Godzilla has no characters.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  “Callum, that’s not a problem for me.  I didn’t come here for world class storytelling.  I came here to see giant monsters tear sh*t up.”  And you are more than welcome to want that out of your movie.  That still doesn’t stop it from being a problem, though, and it becomes a major problem because it almost serves to undermine the hard work that The Tease puts in.  We spend so much time with these humans whilst waiting for the next glimpse of a monster that the realisation finally sets in: I don’t care about any of these characters because none of these characters are characters.  At best they’re exposition machines, at worst they are quite literally nothing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who, to put it in the bluntest possible terms, does nothing.  He has a wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a kid, a father (Bryan Cranston) who lost his wife, Ford’s mother, in a nuclear power plant destruction 15 years prior that he insists was not an accident, and he works in the army as a bomb disposal expert.  All of this is just window-dressing for the fact that he does nothing.  At no point during the story does Ford have a narrative reason for being in a scene, at no point during the film does he alter the course of the plot (barring one instance in the finale that seems to have been engineered to stop me going on this rant, take a guess how that turned out) and at no point does his character display any personality or charm or charisma that makes spending time in his company in any way worthwhile or interesting.  I could excuse this if the point was to show what the perspective of the film’s events would look like to a guy on the ground, except that most of the carnage scenes don’t involve him or even focus on him, instead locking onto various other crowds of bystanders.  His scenes feel poorly copy-pasted on from a much less interesting and dull version of Godzilla; you could excise them entirely and lose nothing, yet pretty much the entire first hour involves him or characters and events relating to him (because OF COURSE), even though they add nothing to the film.

This focus on Ford and his various acquaintances comes at the expense of a much more interesting angle involving the U.S. military and two scientists’ (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) attempts to stop the monsters and contain the damage, with the military trying take care of things themselves, making things worse in the process, and the scientists (one of whom is the world’s leading expert on Godzilla and WHY WAS HE NOT THE MAIN FOCUS OF THE FILM) attempting to convince them that Godzilla is their only hope.  Unfortunately, thanks to the focus put on Ford and his attempts to get back to his personality-less family, nobody here gets to do or say anything that doesn’t amount to spouting exposition which, again, means that Godzilla has no characters and nobody worth giving a damn about.  I’d call the humans one-dimensional but that insinuates that there’s enough going on with them to class them as one-dimensional.  Maker, I cared more for the M.U.T.O. and that’s supposed to be the villain and had that caring come from one single ten-second scene!

Which, ultimately, is what nearly causes The Tease, which I have already named as the film’s secret weapon, to become its biggest weakness.  By spending so much time in the presence of these non-entities masquerading as people we’re supposed to care about, it makes the appearance of some monsters that much more of a treat.  However, it also makes the quick snatching away of that treat even crueller because we’re thrust back into the company of these characters that have no bearing on anything and barely factor into or appear during the carnage caused.  This should either have been focussed on the military and the scientist’s attempts to save people from the wrath of the monsters or a personal tale of people stuck in the middle of the chaos trying to get away.  Instead, Godzilla wants to do both and it does so at the expense of the two coalescing and crafting characters that we, the audience, are supposed to give a damn about.  Rather than having the human side feel just as relevant, it feels like we’re just marking time until Godzilla is allowed to show up.  None of these scenes are dull, it’s just that they coast by on the promise of more Godzilla and have no real reason in this film to exist.

Oh, and whilst I have the time, I’d like to quickly comment on this.  Because the film doesn’t have real characters worth investing in and it can’t be bothered to go back and craft some, Godzilla instead tries to engender some sympathy for the people stuck in the wreckage of the mayhem by putting kids into the centre of it and going “LOOK!  WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!”  It does this three times, which is three times too many, and it never works.  It even strands an entire school bus full of children on the Golden Gate Bridge in gridlock when Godzilla shows up, for the love of the Maker!  That’s how blatant it is in trying to get a “OH, NO!  PLEASE DON’T HURT THE CHILDREN, GODZILLA!” reaction out of you.  It’s cheap, overly-manipulative and I’d get angry if were done with a single bit of effort or care, which is not.  Can we please retire this device and instead invest some effort into creating actual characters that we, the audience, will care about in future?  Is that too much to ask?

I am really glad that I don’t have to score films here on this website, because I’m honestly stumped with regards to this film.  Look, when Godzilla is on, it is f*cking on and the feeling that comes from those moments of genuine excellence have been almost unparalleled for me, so far this year.  When it works, it more than works.  It’s never anything less than an enjoyable and watchable film, even with the total lack of characters.  The issue is that it touches excellence so often that it can’t help but call even more unwanted attention to that “no characters” issue, not helped by the fact that only Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe & Sally Hawkins seem to be putting in any effort (with Watanabe’s facial expressions and general mood leaving hints of a far better lead character story, that for some reason the film chose to ignore in favour of Lieutenant Beef McFaceSlab), and that issue is retroactively spoiling the film for me.  Hell, it may even happen to you, too!

Godzilla, then, is ultimately one of those movies that comes at you with a tonne of potential and fulfills maybe half of it.  When it does deliver on that potential, it is sensational, but it also makes those times when it doesn’t sting even more and ultimately makes the film a disappointment.  A great time, but a disappointment all the same.

Callum Petch wades through the buildings towards the centre of town.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Godzilla: King of the Previews

KingGhidorah92In a look ahead to his most anticipated film of 2014, Failed Critics’ in-house Kaiju aficionado Matt Lambourne talks through the Godzilla mythology and why you should be getting excited about one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters!

Back at the Failed Critics end of year podcast, we all made our case for the film we were all most looking forward to in 2014. My fellow critics chose shrewdly, perhaps projecting their my refined cinematic tastes to better educate our listenership. I however prefer to stick with dead-certs. I take comfort in knowing precisely what gets my blood-pumping, what really unleashes my inner-child as only a good movie experience can stimulate (see my 2012 film of the year review for Dredd, as an example).

Since I first heard Hollywood was taking another stab at Godzilla, I’ve been apprehensive. It’s not a source material particularly known for its calibre of strong acting, emotive storytelling or character building. Our editor-in-chief at Failed Critics, Mr James Diamond made an excellent point during our most recent podcast, that Hollywood has not always treated comic book material with the respect it deserves, however the Superhero movies of the last 10 years have been made by people who grew up reading and idolising the source material and the results really show.

Godzilla I truly hope will be the same. When Roland Emmerich completed work on the 1998 Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla, I met it with optimism initially. As I cast my mind back as an excited teenager at the time, it featured a fairly mouth-watering sneak-preview a good 12 months before it was even released (click here). Unfortunately the movie was everything wrong with American remakes and the Godzilla mythology was utterly disregarded by Emmerich, save for retaining the original Godzilla roar being the only homage paid to the Toho original.

It’s fair to the say, the world hasn’t been crying out for a sequel to the 1998 abomination. Toho, the owners of the Godzilla trademark were so intent on removing the US version from the record books that they reinvented the US monster as a different character entirely, known as Zilla in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. The pain lasts long in the memory for fans of the Japanese work and so we can be forgiven for being tentative about committing to the new American vision for Godzilla.

That said, much like the recent return of great comic-book movies, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, a man who respects and cherishes the mythology. The film is getting a Godzilla geek but with a Hollywood budget to hopefully create something very special and I for one am very excited.

So who is Gareth Edwards?

You’re forgiven for not knowing much about him, this is his 1st major film. His most prominent work is 2010’s ‘Monster‘, which did not exactly set any box office records alight, yet he achieved a very interesting premise with almost no budget and certainly caught the attention of some of Hollywood’s moneymen. Edwards is a self-confessed Godzilla nerd, who much like myself got his first experience of Godzilla watching Channel 4 late night specials, akin to the sort of thing we’d get on Film4 today.

It’s fair to say that Edwards understands what the the central motivation for Godzilla really is… not the silly WWE style tag-team wrestling matches against other monsters as the series slowly dilapidated into, but more the fear of nature at its most savage and how catastrophe will ensue when men dabble in powers they cannot possibly hope to control.

This should mean that Edwards’ Godzilla is more akin to the 1954 original.. a murky and pessimistic view of a society still reeling from the affects of the Atomic Bomb and ever paranoid that it may happen again. My hopes were substantially raised when I saw the initial (supposedly leaked) preview trailer, featuring Robert Oppenheimer quoting an exert from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. That was all the reassurance I needed to know this film will deliver on a massive scale!

So why get excited?

You should get excited because this will not be like the 1st American effort, or even the majority of the cheesey Japanese ones. This is the spiritual successor to the 1954 original. If you’re not familiar with that movie it is a fine exercise of praying on the insecurities of its viewership, much like the original Alien perhaps was, however you’re substituting Nuclear Holocaust for Phallic shaped violation, but whatevs.

This isn’t a monster versus monster movie, it’s not going to be kidnapping any good looking women and holding them hostage and certainly isn’t going to get Jamiroquai another gig. This film will be a dark disaster movie, kind of like if Armageddon was directed by Game of Thrones’ George.R.R Martin. There will be few lights at the end of even fewer tunnels, people will experience pain and suffering and it will be all in the name of humbling the human-race into its rightful place of being a slave to mother-nature and that we should not fuck with it.

The good news is, that to depict the human element, Edwards has recruited some top talent that are actually worth watching (no Ferris Bueller). The casting of Ken Watanabe (The Last Samuari / Inception) straight of out the Japanese Premier League of casting is a massive seal of approval for that market. Along with the ever lovely Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) and Kick-Ass‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson we can hope that the dialogue will be snappy and engaging. Then comes the leading male role, as served by the ever popular Bryan Cranston, whom Edwards has gone on record as stating he never saw him in Breaking Bad before casting him! If that is true then respect must go to Edwards for not surfing on the proverbial public wave of love currently being shown for one of TV’s greatest ever series, and signing him up purely on artistic merit.

Hopefully, that has you chomping at the bit as much as I am. Living on a cinematic void like the Isle of Man, I am flying to Liverpool on release weekend to enjoy my not-so guilty pleasure in the glory of IMAX. If you need to research or simply get warmed up, I have a top 5 Godzilla movies for you to enjoy in anticipation of the May release, just over 6 weeks away!

5. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

One of the highlights of the Heisei resurrection of Godzilla movies, G v KG is one of my favourite of the Monster battle royale type movies and is packed full of great action. It’s unique in that it was distributed by Manga Entertainment for its home release, who are better known for their Anime work and thus introduced Godzilla to a new generation in the 90’s. The film also has one of the more sophisticated science fiction plots of any Godzilla movie, featuring a genesis story that stays true to the original 50’s Gojira, whilst binding it to a complex but sensical time-travel story.

The time travelling, meant to rid the world of the birth of Godzilla (via Nuclear testing), actually duplicates him and also births King Ghidorah, arguably Godzilla’s greatest rival in all of the mythology. It also produces one of my all time favourite ‘bad quotes’ from a scene featuring non-other than Steven Spielberg’s dad!

4. Destroy All Monsters (1968)

A member of the original Toho series of movies, Destroy All Monsters should be appropriated renamed ‘Kaiju  All-stars’ as it’s a wonderful coming together of all the monsters in the Godzilla mythology up until that point and was originally intended as the final ever Godzilla movie.

The film predominantly takes place on Monster Island (Jurassic Park for Kaiju, basically). It features undertones of intelligent thinking, friendships and allegiances between the Monsters and a prevalent good versus evil plot that makes this a great gateway movie into the Godzilla universe, especially for children who will appreciate the variety of Kaiju on show.

The film’s highest is a massive 7 Monster tag-team (who side with Godzilla) attacking the massive 3-headed Space Kaiji, Ghidorah in what is a series highlight reel, with the various monsters showing off their individual abilities to defeat their adversary. Definitely one of the geek’s favourite fight scenes in any Godzilla film.

3. Return of Godzilla (aka Godzilla 85) (1984)

Following a decade-long hiatus, this is the first Godzilla movie of the Heisei rebirth (also known as the Versus series). It’s a retelling of the original mythology as this is a direct sequel to the original Gojira that conveniently forgets the other 15 or so or movies that took place during the original Toho series.

It’s one of my favourites as it features my preferred incarnation of the Monster itself (also seen in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah), as after many years of being portrayed as a human-friendly super hero of sorts, Godzilla returns to being the villain. Yes, he pretty much turns up, destroys shit and threatens world peace. This provides an interesting sub-plot, as Japan unleashes a new flying weapon known as the Super-X to disperse the monster, whilst the Russians panic into launching a nuclear missile him! Interestingly enough in the US re-edit the Missile appears to be deliberately aimed at Tokyo instead! Nice bit of Cold-War politics playing havoc with the edit there.

This film features the most aggressive and perhaps most scary version of the monster in all of the films to date and whilst not as charmingly campy as some of the older movies, it has some satisfying action sequences and improved effects over its predecessors make it a real landmark film in the mythology.

2. Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)

The last of the Heisei series and being that it was Toho’s 40th anniversary special, they just decided to knock it on the head. Yep, Godzilla… the indestructible force of nature, dies in the movie. Obviously, we know he returns in Godzilla 2000 so don’t get too upset, although I will admit to shedding a tear or two in the climatic sequence to the film *sob!*.

The film is the most sentimental of any of the series that come before it, featuring Godzilla and Godzilla Jr fighting a monster that was spawned from the man-made Oxygen Destroyer that took down the original Monster in Gojira. To make it easy for the kids of today to understand, the Monster Destroyah is a little ‘OP’… basically kicking the ass of Godzilla and son for the duration of the movie, whilst Godzilla Sr’s body is in meltdown due to his atomic heart giving out on him.

We basically witness the slow dismemberment of Godzilla prior to the army, who by the way have had zero ability to harm any Monster in about 30 films, manage to take out the Monster that’s just killed Godzilla. *say what?!?*. Anyways, the action in this film is quite brutal and witnessing the death of Godzilla will be a very hard image for any fan to take. That said, the film ends beautifully with the death of Godzilla and his energy transferring over to the dying little Godzilla Jr, who then becomes empowered and sets things up convenient for the Millennium Series, starting with Godzilla 2000.

1. Gojira (1954)

Put yourself into your most comfortable chair, darken the lights, get some snacks as we’re going to be here for a while. Gojira comes less than 10 years after the original Atomic Bomb attack on Hiroshima and really prays on the insecurities of a paranoid and fearful nation. If you put yourself back a few years and remember the reaction to films about the 9/11 attacks and the reaction they drew (even if they were terrible), then imagine how it must have felt to have lived in the generation that survived two nuclear attacks and then see Gojira? I can only imagine it was pretty terrifying.

Gojira, unlike its successors, isn’t a B-Movie, it’s a real catastrophe movie. There are no other monsters involved and the film takes a very serious tone, unlike anything that came after it. Gojira itself is a symbol of Atomic annihilation, created by minds who experienced the real-deal in the 40’s. Being a 2nd World War buff, I have a lot of respect for this movie and understand why it’s held in such high regard as a cinematic classic. Really it should be reviewed entirely separately from all other Godzilla movies as its intended purpose is much different.

So, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, Gojira is the Japanese name for Godzilla, loosely translated as Gorilla-Whale, although fans of the series would almost universally agree his closest comparative species are that of a T-Rex and Stegosaurus. The monster is of course a man in a rubber suit, which sounds like a barrel of laughs but it was no such thing for Katsumi Tezuka & Haruo Nakajima (Seven Samurai) who shared responsibilities for portraying the Monster. The suit was notoriously uncomfortable for its incumbent through its weight, thickness and lack of agile movement, not to mention the operator couldn’t see!

The suit operator regularly fell ill to heat exhaustion and they would often lose tremendous amounts of weight during the filming of the initial Toho series, talk about suffering for your art! But back to the film, the atmosphere really makes it a convincing plight for the residents of Tokyo, it’s grim and foreboding and only enhanced by its lack of colour… even the Monster is scary! Overall, the movie is very tense and for such an old film it puts together a remarkable Science-Fiction plot and ties together the genesis of Godzilla very well, something I fully expect Gareth Edwards’ film to pick up and run with.

The film’s climatic scenes are full of inner-turmoil, whereby a professor creates a weapon powerful enough to kill Godzilla. However the weapon threatens the existence of life on Earth at the same time creating a perfect analogy to the nuclear disaster that Japan had only recently experienced. Initially the professor is reluctant to release the Oxygen Destroyer but, as with Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, he is forced to relinquish it for ‘the greater good’. An uncomfortable premise for anyone’s disposition.

I’d recommend picking up the subtitled Japanese version as the US re-edit is very much tampered for US audiences, featuring actor Raymond Burr (yes, Perry Mason) narrating over almost the entire movie, an early attempt at audio description if you will. Gojira is the most standout film of all the series and if you have to watch only one Godzilla film before Godzilla 2014, I recommend you enjoy this. It’s an important piece of cinematic culture and will even sit unashamedly in your World Cinema collection.