Film review: Godzilla (12A)

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GODZILLA is big, unruly and interesting – which is just as a monster lizard blockbuster 
should be

Godzilla (12A)

A still from teh Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla. Picture: Contributed

A still from teh Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla. Picture: Contributed

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olson

Star rating: * * *

For a character that has weathered nuclear strikes, Roland Emmerich and the indignity of Godzuki, the greatest threat facing Godzilla is perhaps over-familiarity. He may not have been on a multiplex screen for 16 years, but after 28 official movies, countless homages and endless merchandizing opportunities, the “King of the Monsters” (as the Americanized re-cut of the Japanese original dubbed him back in 1956) is practically part of cinema’s blockbuster DNA.

This latest iteration of this literal blockbuster sees Brit director Gareth Edwards bring something new to the table. Although there’s city-levelling destruction aplenty, as well as a Spielberg-influenced impulse not to show too much too soon, Edwards puts his own spin on the latter by teasing us with cutaways to members of the public going about their business while news-reports of giant monster attacks plaster TV screens and tablets in the background.

A carry-over from his ultra low-budget debut Monsters (which was set several years on from an accidental extra-terrestrial invasion), it’s a nifty way of conveying the very real way in which catastrophic shock-and-awe can quickly become a normal part of life and fade into the background. It also works not just as a comment on how this movie is attempting to differentiate itself from the wrecking-ball mentality that has lead to premature spectacle fatigue in other blockbusters, but as a thematic unifier: when Godzilla does really get down to business here, humanity’s own insignificance in the face of such a destructive force is underscored by making the characters little more than helpless spectators, glimpsing fragments of chaos as they frantically try to flee to safety.

The implicit irony of this approach though is just that: the characters, almost by default, can sometimes seem a little insignificant. That’s also partly down to a bold decision early on to switch the perspective of the film from Bryan Cranston’s character to Aaron Taylor-Johnston’s. Though the latter is perfectly solid as a square-jawed Naval bomb disposal expert determined to do anything to protect his wife (Elzabeth Olsen) and child, as his estranged father, Cranston has by far the meatier character arc. Playing a Japan-based nuclear physicist whose plant experiences a Fukushima-style meltdown after a mysterious seismic tremor, his character, Joe, becomes obsessed with discovering the truth of what happened that day, letting his obsession with exposing what he believes has been a vast government cover-up drive a wedge between him and his now-adult son, Ford (Taylor-Johnston).

Edwards does a great job of setting all this up. Following a homage-paying 1950s-set prologue featuring both the discovery of a giant fossil in the Philippines and the aforementioned reactor meltdown in Japan, he establishes a strong emotional core for the film and follows through when the action picks up 14 years later with Ford, newly returned from active service and intent on spending some quality time with his own family in San Francisco, forced to fly to Japan to bail Joe out of prison. Finding his father frazzled and embittered – the walls of his cramped apartment pinned with newspaper clippings and research – he wants nothing to do with him. But after Joe convinces him to help him retrieve some research from their old house in the quarantine zone, his father’s wild conspiracy theories stop sounding quite so outlandish after the pair of them are captured by authorities and put on lockdown in a top-secret research facility.

The film’s first big slice of monster mayhem swiftly ensues and while it throws up some intriguing surprises and reveals the extent to which Edwards and his creative team have really thought through a plausible explanation for the film’s nuclear-themed creature carnage, when the focus of the action switches to Ford and his determination to follow the newly resurfaced Godzilla to the US, the plot starts to feel a little broken-backed. It’s as if Edwards has decided to dispense with the origins story altogether and move straight to the sequel, essentially giving us a remake of Godzilla and a remake of Godzilla vs Mothra in the same movie.

There’s something admirable in the way that Edwards’ determination to render his title character faithfully – from using the classic lizard-meets-whale-meets-man-in-a-rubber-suit creature design, to delivering Godzilla’s cacophonous roar in cochlea-cracking surround-sound – is complimented by the fact the film bearing his name refuses to be hemmed in by standard blockbuster story beats. As a film, Godzilla is big and unruly, but it’s also a noble attempt to do something interesting, and for all its occasionally clumsy missteps, the pay-off is a final monster smackdown that’s more than worthy of the “King of the Monsters.”

NEW RELEASES


The Two Faces Of January (12A)

Directed by: Hossein Amini

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst

Star rating: * *

Having cut his teeth as the writer of such diverse fair as Jude, Drive and Snow White And The Huntsman, British-Iranian screenwriter Hossein Amini has a crack at adapting Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 Greek-set novel for his directorial debut. Sadly, the results are as mixed as his CV. Deliberately courting comparisons with Anthony Minghella’s magnificent adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley 15 years ago (the late director is thanked in the credits and the film counts his son, Max Minghella, as one of its producers), it nevertheless lacks that film’s striking compositions, its period believability and Minghella’s skill at teasing out the nuanced psycho-sexual dynamics that frequently exist between Highsmith’s male protagonists. Instead, Amini makes this much more of a surrogate father-son tale as Viggo Mortensen’s crooked, on-the-lam American businessman, Chester, enlists the help of a younger, American expat stranger (Oscar Isaac) to dispose of a dead body – a partnership in crime complicated by the latter’s instant infatuation with Chester’s beautiful wife (Kirsten Dunst). Alas, Amini’s style, which is perfunctory bordering on pastiche, succeeds only in draining the plot and the characters of any dramatic urgency.

A Touch of Sin (15)

Directed by: Jia Zhangke

Starring: Zhao Tao, Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Lou Lanshan

Star rating: * * * *

China’s economic revolution is placed under a harsh, unforgiving spotlight in A Touch Of Sin, a bleak, brutal and bloody quartet of stories in which the power of money is lorded – with inevitably tragic consequences – over those who don’t have any. Apparently drawing inspiration from real-life news reports of desperation and criminality, Jia plays around with genre conventions in each segment, folding elements of gangster films, martial arts movies and revenge westerns into a damning portrait of the new China as a sort of wild west enclave full of nouveau riche inhabitants using money to beat people into submission – literally in one instance. Jia takes care not to sensationalise the moments of ultra-violence that punctuate each story, though. He shoots them matter-of-factly, removing any catharsis so that the causes of the violence remain more shocking. Set across various provinces of China, in locales that include mining towns, saunas, factories and luxury brothels, the film offers a fractured portrait of a country unmoored by communism’s waning influence and its rapid replacement with a system just as toxic to the well-being of its general populace. The end result is a tough to watch, but its pitiless outlook feels justified.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (15)

Directed by: James Erskine

Star rating: * *

Here’s a thoroughly frustrating documentary about one-time Lance Armstrong rival Marco Pantani, the Italian cycling champ whose double victory at the 1998 Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia has never been equaled. A charismatic figure who was affectionately nicknamed “the Pirate” thanks to his penchant for wearing a bandana instead of a helmet, Pantani was kicked out of the Giro in 1999 following an abnormal “health test” on his blood (at the time there were no direct tests for the blood-doping agent EPO). As he awaited the results of the myriad, needlessly protracted investigations which followed, he spiralled into a self-pitying depression fuelled by a mighty cocaine addiction which ultimately killed him. Not that director James Erskine explains that in the film. Instead he bandies around conspiracy theories without following through with any journalistic rigour, obfuscates details instead of clarifying them and fails to offer much in the way of psychological insight. With no convincing theories about why this multi-millionaire sportsman was so ill-equipped to deal with his fall from grace, all we’re left with is a mealy-mouthed attempt to present Pantani as a martyred victim of a thoroughly corrupted sport.

Concussion (15)

Directed by: Stacie Passon

Starring: Robin Weigert, Maggie Siff, Johnathan Tchaikovsky

Star rating: * *

In Concussion, a baseball to the head is the unlikely catalyst for a gay, married, suburban mother of two (Robin Weigert) to decide to spice up her humdrum existence by becoming a high-class lesbian escort. As silly as this makes the film sound, though, writer/director Stacie Passon’s low-key Sapphic drama isn’t much interested in titillation. It may be the umpteenth riff on Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour, starring Catherine Deneuve, but it doesn’t go the usual route of reconfiguring that film’s basic storyline as a piece of arthouse eroticism or a soft-core exploitation flick. Instead it turns it into more of a Sundance dirge, which isn’t exactly an improvement when dealing with such a familiar movie trope. As Weigert’s Abby (a property renovator in a sexless relationship with her wife) becomes Eleanor (a sensitive escort reinvigorated by responding to the needs of other dissatisfied women), Passon may have managed to avert the male gaze, but she still perpetuates the old movie myth about prostitution being a sexually freeing career dalliance in which bored, respectable women can safely indulge.