Archive | May 2014

Godz and Monsters (Godzilla, 2014, Gareth Edwards)

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(mild spoilers follow)

Godzilla – the big, greenish-gray irradiated lizard that became Toho Studios’ biggest cash cow in 1954 – means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And as is so often the case these days with nerdy formerly-niche properties being given the hundred million dollar Hollywood treatment, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla has stirred up some strong feelings on both sides of the fence. So it falls to this longtime Godzilla fan to come as a peacemaker and reveal the truth that the blockbuster reimagining of the King of the Monsters is, in fact… okay. Not great, but not terrible. An appropriately satisfying time at the movies. Sorry, these are the most controversial opinions I can muster up.

The film, after the opening credits spool out over grainy atomic bomb test footage (careful, movie, this is how Godzilla 1998 started), opens in Japan in 1999 with nuclear technician Joe Brody (everyone’s favorite TV dad Bryan Cranston) losing his wife Sandra (everyone’s favorite French lady Juliette Binoche) in a catastrophic earthquake that levels the entire nuclear plant, in full traumatic view of his son Ford’s elementary school. Skip ahead to present day, where grown up Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, nobody’s favorite anything) has to return to Japan to bail out his crazy old dad, who is convinced that it wasn’t a natural disaster that killed his wife and turned a wide swath of Japan into a quarantine zone, but something more sinister – something alive. And, being that we as viewers, presumably of our own volition, walked into a movie called Godzilla in 2014, we can probably all guess that he was right.

Godzilla’s handlers claim “food poisoning” to avoid embarrassment.

BUT, maybe he’s not right in the way that we assumed, because before we get to the G-man himself, we meet the MUTOs, a couple of spindly, insectoid monsters that actually caused the destruction of the plant, and once awakened get right back to destroying, because this film is not just an attempt to get back to the awe and gravity of the 1954 original, it’s an attempt to reconcile that gravity with the fun, wacky matinee sequels featuring Godzilla wailing on other monsters. Once we watch the MUTOs wreck up Japan and then Hawaii, only then, nearly an hour into the movie, does Godzilla rear his scaly head. And it is not until nearly an hour later that we get to see Godzilla and the MUTOs duke it out.

The relative paucity of Godzilla in this Godzilla movie has become the big talking point, but before I get to that, I’d like to examine this film’s place within its titanic, 30-film franchise. The particular films Godzilla 2014 is being held up against are Ishiro Honda’s stunning 1954 original Gojira and Roland Emmerich’s stunning-in-an-entirely-different-way 1998 Godzilla; the first Godzilla film and the first American Godzilla film respectively, and boy does that put Godzilla 2014 in an awkward position, sandwiched in the collective pop-culture mindset between what is almost certainly the best Godzilla movie and what is with absolute certainty the worst. But the film Godzilla 2014 ends up resembling most of all is actually the less noteworthy Godzilla 2000. Both were films put out to celebrate some sort of milestone (the first Godzilla film of the new millennium; the 60th anniversary of Godzilla), both served as damage control by Toho after a disastrous previous installment (Godzilla 1998; Godzilla: Final Wars), and both sought to reintroduce the idea of Godzilla stomping on shit to a fresh audience while also pitting him against a new original monster with a 4-letter name (remember Orga? anyone?). So instead of holding the new film to the impossibly high standards of Gojira or the embarrassingly low standards of Godzilla 1998, maybe we should be comparing it to Godzilla 2000, that is to say, just another movie about Godzilla engaging in monster-on-monster combat.

Godzilla & choreographer.

Godzilla & choreographer.

So, now that I’ve alienated half the people reading this, how does the movie stack up as just another entry in one of cinema’s longest running junk food franchises? The answer, again, is “okay,” although I’d certainly say it’s closer to the top half of the list than the bottom half. But as for the most persistent complaint that’s popped up in just about every review, you have indeed heard right: Aaron Taylor Johnson is boring as shit. One could easily blame the script, which does him no favors, except that Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen (as his wife, who I haven’t mentioned because the movie gives me little reason to) manage to give far better performances with even more underwritten roles and maybe one-fifth of his screentime combined (although Johnson is far from the only actor hobbled by the material; it pains me to say this about David Straithairn, but you could cut every single one of his scenes and lose nothing of value). Once a delightfully off-kilter Bryan Cranston exits the film far too early, it’s left entirely without a human anchor.

But hey, it’s even more boring to talk about these puny humans than it is to watch them, so lets get to what we’re all here for anyway: the monsters. It pleases me to say that the design of Godzilla in this film is absolutely top-notch; some have complained about how it makes Godzilla look less reptilian, with an expressive face and stubby snout that makes him alternately look like a bear or a dog and rarely like a lizard, but to me that embodies the concept of Godzilla as some unholy melange of beasts that has always been one of my favorite parts of the character. As for the MUTOs, well, they embody not much except that Gareth Edwards really liked Cloverfield, and it’s a little disappointing how much more eager the movie is to show them off as opposed to Godzilla.

Which brings us back to that big talking point I mentioned earlier: is it true that this Godzilla movie does not have enough Godzilla in it? Maybe. Although a better way to phrase it would be that it has too much of everything else. At 123 minutes, Godzilla 2014 is roughly tied with Godzilla: Final Wars as the second-longest movie in the franchise (behind the truly punishing 142 minute length of Godzilla 1998 – God, what a piece of shit that movie was), and there’s no way it has more than 10 minutes of Godzilla in it. “A ha,” you might say, “but Jaws is 124 minutes, and it too keeps its beastie offscreen for the majority of that running time.” And you would not be wrong, and Gareth Edwards surely knows that too, what with all the Spielberg references he jams into his movie (the most obvious being the name of his lead character, and the weirdest being not one, not two, but three setpieces lifted wholesale from War of the Worlds). But simply having seen a lot of Spielberg movies does not actually make you Spielberg – just ask J.J. Abrams. Edwards does manage to wring some tension out of the way he parcels out glimpses of the big guy, Alien-style – the moment we first see Godzilla’s foot enter the frame is an instant-classic – but the hour of flabby deadweight before Godzilla shows up and the tedious war room exposition scenes do a lot to kill the momentum. And let’s not forget, while we might not see the shark a whole lot in Jaws, it’s already eaten a woman and child by the fifteen-minute mark.

The photo that landed Godzilla in all the tabloids.

The photo that landed Godzilla in all the tabloids.

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh, so let me reiterate that I did enjoy this movie, for its rewards are not inconsiderable. In the absence of any standout acting performances, the clear best-in-show honors go to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, whose exquisite framing of the wide shots makes the film’s big “wow” moments really sing, and whose bouncy energy is frequently all that keeps the scenes of dull human drama afloat. I haven’t seen enough of his work to say if this is career-best material, but it’s certainly a fuck of a lot better looking than The Avengers.

And I’m very glad to say that my biggest apprehension for the film based on the marketing campaign – that it would be entirely grim and joyless – is pretty much unfounded. Sure, the humor in the film is of a fairly morbid variety (I’m thinking primarily of a scene where Elizabeth Olsen tries to put on a cheerful face for her son and say everything’s fine while an extra in a black vest reading “MORGUE ATTENDANT” takes up the entire frame behind her), but it’s definitely there, and the movie knows how to squeeze some fun out of Ken Watanabe’s impossibly grave pronouncements and the completely whackadoo pseudoscience of the MUTOs; you know you’re in good hands when you get actors trying to explain how a monster eats radiation with a straight face. And the final twenty-or-so minutes are when the movie finally comes into its own with an extended sequence of rock ’em sock ’em monster action that delivers on every expectation one could have of an American megabudget kaiju flick (if Pacific Rim weren’t so forgettable, I’d tell it to eat its heart out), complete with an absurdly ironic ending that is sure to plaster a grin across the faces of any fan of giant lizards and/or destruction of property.

Godzilla, moments before eating three children.

Godzilla, moments before devouring three children.

So, is this a perfect Godzilla movie? Absolutely not. But then, there hasn’t been a perfect Godzilla movie since Godzilla Vs. Mothra came out 50 years ago. And what we have at the very least is an entertaining Godzilla movie – and beyond that, a promising Godzilla movie. As much as I hate the modern trend of summer blockbusters to write for the sequel, the Godzilla franchise is far more conducive to sequels than most, and if Edwards et al are now comfortable enough with the property to deliver a more concentrated dose of the things they got right here, then I’d say everyone’s favorite irradiated dinosaur is in good hands.

But seriously, would it kill you to bring back the Akira Ifukube theme song next time? Godzilla without that is like Superman without the cape.

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How Tall is King Kong? (The Stunt Man, 1980, Richard Rush)

The Stunt Man is a movie about – among other things – how human beings experience the passage of time. Within it, moments blend into one another in a way that is not like real life – this is one of those movies that is very emphatically A MOVIE in ten foot high letters – but reflects real life in a way that is more real than realism.

It is also one of the most interesting and clever movies about making movies that I’ve ever seen. Director/Screenwriter/dedicated son of a bitch Richard Rush combines the playfulness and magical realism of 8 1/2 with the creeping tension and acerbic satire of The Player (and incidentally, The Stunt Man is a movie that basically does everything for me that I wish The Player did). And between three very different but all wildly effective performances from Peter O’Toole, Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback, the film gives us a wholly unique look at filmmaking – and specifically, historical epic filmmaking, that classic province of lies – from all the angles

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a ways to go before the film gets into the dirty business of moviemaking. First, we get a dog licking his balls.

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Pictured, L to R: Car, dog’s balls, dog.

After that somewhat ignominious opening, we meet Cameron (Railsback), a scruffy denim-jacket wearing dude with “weird loner” written all over him, on the run from the cops for reasons unknown. After an energetically shot foot chase, Cameron tries to hitch a ride from a conspicuously fancy vintage car that then careens off a bridge into the water below. This turns out to be the latest stunt in the shooting of a big budget World War I epic, and Cameron – a Viet Nam vet – finds himself where he last wants to be, strafed by a helicopter and surrounded by people with cameras. And this is where enigmatic director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) first catches his eye.

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“The trick, Steve Railsback, is not minding that it hurts.”

As it happens, the stunt didn’t go so well, in about the worst way a stunt can fail to go well. Confronted by angry policemen, with one fewer stuntman and one more weird loner on hand, Cross sees an easy out. As does Cameron. The two defuse the situation and enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement: Cameron will assume the identity of deceased stuntman Burt and be the new stunt double for pretty boy leading man Raymond Bailey (Adam Roarke), and Cross won’t tell the police he’s here. And if that isn’t a sweet enough deal, Cameron/Burt will also get $650 (1970s dollars) per stunt, as well as getting a chance to cozy up with chameleonic leading lady Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey).

And now we get into the real meat of the movie. Because it turns out the deal may not be as sweet as it seems; Eli Cross’ megalomania goes beyond typical Hollywood director levels. He’s soon shoving the, for his part, very game Cameron/Burt into more and more dangerous stunts, and throwing him curveballs even as they film. Cameron/Burt, now made up in a blonde shag that calls to mind O’Toole in his younger years, starts to wonder if the original Burt’s death wasn’t so much a tragic accident as the logical end result of Cross’ filming style, which may be as much an expression of sociopathic and even murderous desires as it is dedication to his craft. And the more Burt (I’m just gonna follow Cross and the movie’s lead on this one and call him Burt from here on out) slips into his double- no, triple- no, quadruple-role, the less he can be sure of anything.

So yes, this is one of those “what is reality?” movies. But don’t worry, we’re not talking the Baudrillard-aping pseudophilosophy of The Matrix here. Rush never stoops to literally sitting his lead down in a chair and asking him “what is reality?” Its all expressed in the filmmaking itself. I’m thinking particularly of the first big mid-film stunt sequence, which is extraordinary:

We start with a self-contained bit where chief stunt coordinator Chuck Barton (actual stunt man and therefore perhaps impressively good actor Charles Bail) takes Burt through all the motions of a particularly complicated stunt sequence, from a footchase on expressionistic angled rooftops to hand-to-hand fighting and dodging tracer bullets on the same, to a death-defying leap and a crash-landing on a “perfectly safe” stunt awning.

When we then see the filming of the stunt sequence itself, it is not presented as such. It is presented as we might see it in the finished product, with one expert stunt flowing into another expert stunt without pause (as is to be expected in a movie called The Stunt Man, the stunt work is fantastic, making the movie a great love letter to a type of filmmaking that has been almost totally eradicated by CGI), underscored by a jaunty Ragtime-influenced soundtrack – but also with quick behind-the-scenes asides that the viewers of the film-within-a-film would not be privy to.

The effect is indescribably disorienting. We know that this is not what the filming of a stunt sequence looks like, not just because we are canny filmgoers, but because the film that we are watching went out of its way to show us that. So when we see Steve Railsbeck playing Cameron playing Burt playing Bailey stopping to exchange coworker-banter with Barton in the middle of a complicated action scene, we’re not really sure what the hell it is we’re watching. It’s certainly not reality, and it’s not the film-within-a-film either. No, what we are watching is, after all, The Stunt Man itself. But I can think of no other movie that so pointedly asks the viewer to consider what the act of watching the film itself means (indeed, the closest comparison I can think of is not a film at all, but Italo Calvino’s labyrinthine novel If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler…).

I’ve surprised myself here by writing almost 1000 words without mentioned the ten-ton fucking elephant in the room that is Peter O’Toole’s performance. That might be because it’s hard to do justice to. Like in Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class (as of yet the only other performances of his that I’ve seen), it’s an uncompromisingly dominating performance, one that casts a large shadow even over the scenes he doesn’t appear in (Railsback almost certainly has a lot more screen time). According to popular lore, O’Toole based his performance on David Lean, with a wardrobe cribbed from Richard Rush himself. It’s a pitch-perfect movie star turn, with O’Toole pushing his usual charisma into overload with plenty of Mick Jagger swagger and a scarily simmering sense of menace that more than justifies the nomination for a Best Actor Oscar he had no hope of winning (as with The Ruling Class in 1972, O’Toole had the bad luck of having a very bizarre performance nominated up against a mortal lock; Brando for The Godfather in 1972 and De Niro for Raging Bull in 1980).

As with a lot of cult films, particularly of this vintage, The Stunt Man is a bit of a boy’s club, but Barbara Hershey still manages to give a vibrant, scene-stealing turn as the unpredictable Nina Franklin. It’s a role that could easily play as pretty thankless – the one beautiful woman on the set that all the men are fighting over – but Hershey turns it on its head with a performance almost as volatile and off-kilter as O’Toole’s, keeping both Burt and the audience in the dark as to her motivations but still letting the audience in on her inner self at key moments, particularly her reaction at an especially cruel mid-film bit of manipulation by Cross. She also gets a great Ophelia reference in her last scene, complete with a final line that’s one of my favorite in the movie.

Between those two, Railsback is somewhat the weak link of the main cast; it’s not until he really settles into his role-within-a-role-within-a-role-etc. that he hits his stride, and I like the way he always hints but never confirms that Burt might – might – be smarter than he lets on. Still, I kept waiting for most of the movie for him to reveal the intensity of his frankly traumatizing take on Charlie Manson in Helter Skelter – and sure enough, when he finally does, it doesn’t disappoint, in a mesmerizing two-hander between him and Hershey late in the film that goes from romance to tragedy to psychological horror to comedy back to tragedy and then back to comedy again, all in the span of about five minutes.

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Into the spider’s web.

But still, this is the O’Toole & Cross show, as they both remind us in a tremendous “and don’t you fucking forget it” gesture in the film’s closing moments. It’s a role and a performance that would make The Stunt Man a must-see even if it didn’t have so much else to offer – and there’s still so much I haven’t mentioned! From the virtuosic, humorous editing by Caroline Biggerstaff and Jack Hofstra to Allen Garfield’s wonderful supporting turn as the weirdly endearing little creep of a screenwriter to how appropriate it seems that Rush got his start directing Korean War propaganda films to – you know what, I’ll just leave it off there. The Stunt Man is really all about the magic of the movies, and what better way to communicate that than by letting you experience it for yourself? Just don’t get too lost in it.