Fandango (1985)

2017 #22
Kevin Reynolds | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG

Fandango

In this coming-of-age comedy drama, pitched as “celebrating the privilege of youth”, a group of college buddies — two of whom are about to be drafted into Vietnam — go on a final road trip to celebrate their graduation and defer the impending seriousness of adulthood.

Fandango began life as a student short made by writer-director Kevin Reynolds that just featured the skydiving sequence. That was seen by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, who liked it enough that he gave Reynolds the money to develop a feature film around the idea. But when he saw the finished result, Spielberg distanced himself from it — he even had his name taken off the credits. No idea why — it’s a super movie. If we’re being picky then its structure is a little episodic, but the scrapes the gang get into are linked by arcs that chart their characters’ development, which is where the film has it’s heart. It’s also resplendent with nice little touches, like well-composed shots (for a first timer, Reynolds clearly knew what he was doing), poignant character moments, and some occasionally profound dialogue, too. A sequence that sees the guys fighting with fireworks in a graveyard, foreshadowing the war several of them are about to head off to, is a particular standout.

Boys will be boys

Kevin Costner, tearing through Texas as a free-spirited college flunk-out wearing one-armed sunglasses, an increasingly grubby tailcoat, and a shit-eating grin, has never seemed cooler. That almost masks the fact that it’s also a very good performance, actually. It might’ve been forgotten under some of the blockbusters he did, and some of the crap in more recent years, but the guy can act. The lead cast surrounding him is equally as likeable — it genuinely feels like hanging out with a ragtag gang of college mates on their last hurrah. The final act stretches credibility pretty darn thin with what those guys are able to pull off, but it’s nonetheless a suitably emotive finale.

I’d never even heard of Fandango until the ghost of 82 recommended it to me last year, which is possibly the end result of Spielberg having disowned it. The history of cinema is no doubt littered with these little gems that, for whatever reason, only resonated with some people at the time. One of the real benefits of the blogging era is that we can recommend them on.

4 out of 5

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Anomalisa (2015)

2017 #2
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Anomalisa

Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (of Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and so on), Anomalisa tells the story of Michael (David Thewlis), a depressed customer service expert who perceives everyone else as looking and sounding the same — until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose uniqueness to him immediately attracts Michael.

If you hadn’t noticed, Anomalisa (a portmanteau of “anomaly” and “Lisa”, not “anonymous” and “Lisa” as I’d assumed) is an animated movie. Although an everyday kind of drama that would be largely achievable in live-action, it uses the form to its advantage when depicting the central conceit, giving every character who isn’t Michael and Lisa the same face and having them all voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan). For me, this was the most effective part of the movie. It’s a really neat way of executing the concept of not being able to tell people apart. Noonan is the film’s real star, too, voicing “everyone else” in a way that makes them sound plausibly unique but also all the same, a tricky balancing act that he nails.

The one thing that did disappoint me about it was this: the inability to distinguish people is a genuine medical condition, but the film tackles it only as a signifier of Michael’s depression rather than as an issue some people live with. Conversely, I presume that’s a pretty rare condition, whereas depression and isolated feelings are increasingly widespread, so the film perhaps has more to say in that regard. Ultimately, I shouldn’t be criticising a film for not being about something it’s not trying to be about (even when I thought that was what it was going to be about).

Even puppets get the blues

As for the rest of the movie… hm. It takes an age to get going, but once it does there are a few funny scenes (the “toy” shop; the hotel shower; Michael struggling with his room key), and who’d’ve thought a puppet movie would have one of the more realistic sex scenes in the movies? Especially as it pulls that off without becoming laughable thanks to Team America. More pertinently, it gradually unfurls a sometimes touching story about isolation and love. However, by the time it reaches the happy-sad ending (one person’s life seems to have been transformed; the other continues to be miserable), I wasn’t sure what it all signified. Maybe the line that “sometimes the lesson is there is no lesson” is very relevant.

So, some good stuff, but that long slow open takes getting over, and I’m not sure what it all meant.

4 out of 5

Awakenings (1990)

2017 #154
Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Awakenings

Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

4 out of 5

The Exorcist (1973)

2017 #150
William Friedkin | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English & Arabic* | 18 / R

The Exorcist

Did you know The Exorcist was based on a true story? I didn’t, until I watched some of the special features on the Blu-ray release. “Based on” is a bit of a stretch, to be honest. “Inspired by” would be more accurate. But you get the sense from author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty that he believes all this stuff so much that he thinks “based on” would be fine.

The Exorcist does start out very plausibly. It’s about Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), a sweet 12-year-old kid living with her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C. But one day Regan begins to act oddly: delivering insults and soiling herself at a party; yelling obscenities; slapping her beloved mother; somehow causing her bed to shake uncontrollably… Doctors run tests, but they reveal nothing. The only suggestion they’ve left to give is that Regan may believe she’s possessed by an evil spirit, and that she might be tricked into believing she’s cured if the church will perform a little-known procedure called an exorcism.

Worried mother

Everyone’s so busy talking about The Scary Stuff when it comes to The Exorcist, no one ever tells you how low-key and grounded a lot of it is. Okay, the talking in voices and spinning heads and vomiting green gunk and bloody crucifix masturbation are pretty memorable, so fair enough. Before that, though, it’s more of a character drama, about a single mother struggling to handle what appears to be her daughter’s out-of-control mental health problems. Meanwhile, a priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggles with a crisis of faith brought on in part by his ailing mother. Naturally these two threads align when Chris calls on Karras to investigate Regan’s condition.

Another thing I’ve never heard about The Exorcist is how good Miller is. This is his film debut, before which he was a stage actor, but he delivers a very naturalistic performance as a man of the cloth who also has his head screwed on — his training in psychology keeps him suitably skeptical of what’s going on with Regan. Events conspire to challenge his point of view, of course. Karras has the clearest arc of anyone in the film, giving Miller the most scope to develop his role. I’d venture he’s the film’s most interesting character.

Father Karras

That’s not to dismiss Burstyn, who’s also excellent as the very together mom who begins to crack under the increasing strain of her daughter’s worsening, inexplicable condition. As said daughter, Blair’s performance is certainly memorable, though the potency of Regan is aided by special effects and voice work from another actress. Although second billed, Max von Sydow only pops in at the beginning and end in the titular role of Father Merrin. It’s no wonder someone later thought Merrin’s past was ripe for a prequel, because there’s a backstory there that’s only hinted at.

And no one ever says how little Tubular Bells is in it, either.

The thing people do say about The Exorcist is how scary it is. Tales of audiences fainting and running out during its initial theatrical run are the stuff of movie legend. Today its releases are branded as “the scariest film ever made”, with the justification of several polls that have named it thus. I can well believe that, in the early ’70s, it was indeed the most shocking film most people had ever seen, certainly from a major studio. The extreme bad language, the gruesome special effects, the morally depraved acts, and all of it happening to a child…

Regan... or is it?

It was surely an element of sensibilities being offended (especially in America), as much as it was actual horror, that provoked such radical reactions from audiences back in the day. Nowadays we’re a bit more deadened to those things — the last 40+ years have served up plenty of elaborate gore, and potty-mouthed pre-teen girls are more likely to be found in comedies (Hit-Girl is even younger than Regan when she utters the C word in Kick-Ass, for example). I also thought it frequently undermined its own intensity by cutting away from the scary scenes to more mundane stuff. Maybe the goal was to never give those scenes an ‘out’ — we always seem to leave them when supernatural stuff is still going on — but for me it killed the momentum that was building.

That’s not to say the horrific and shocking stuff is no longer powerful. What really works in its favour is how long the film spends being grounded and plausible — most of the first hour is a ’70s social drama about a child with a mental health problem. That level of realism helps the later horror scenes be all the more effective. They quite quickly transcend the realms of the plausible (unless you’re some kind of religious fanatic, I guess), but the grounded setup lends weight to them nonetheless. The climax in particular — the actual exorcism — might just be silly without the realistic world it’s been placed in. Instead, it’s a suitably tense climax.

The exorcism

Obviously it was the extreme stuff that caught people’s attention and earnt The Exorcist a reputation that it still trades off to this day. However, I’d say it’s best regarded, not as a fright-fest, but as a film about characters: the mother who’ll do anything for her child; the priest battling with a crisis of faith. It’s a drama about real people in extreme circumstances, it’s just that these extreme circumstances happen to be horror movie fodder. In this respect it’s such a film of the ‘70s, which I mean in the best possible way.

5 out of 5

The Exorcist was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

* IMDb lists half a dozen other languages, but Arabic’s the only one I remember being significant enough to earn subtitles. ^

Musical Review Roundup

My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • 21 (2008)

    2017 #114
    Robert Luketic | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    21

    21 is based on a true story. Actually, it’s based on a book that’s based on a true story. Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich was a non-fiction bestseller, telling the fun and exciting story of the MIT blackjack team, a bunch of college kids who learnt card counting and took Vegas for millions of dollars. It was such a popular book that all the attention made people look into it, and it turned out it was heavily fictionalised — Mezrich not only exaggerated events, he flat out invented whole chunks of the story. (At the same time, he also left out some good stuff.) In turn, the book has itself been heavily melodramatised for this movie adaptation. What we’re left with is probably about as close to the truth as Game of Thrones is a fair depiction of the Wars of the Roses: some of it happened, but not to those people, not in that way, not at that time, and certainly not all of it.

    As a film, it’s been mashed broadly into the heist movie template. Setting aside the veracity and treating it purely as an entertainment, this has pros and cons. Whenever it’s whizzing around in Vegas it’s kinda fun, with flashy camerawork and a slick feel for the excitement of being a successful high-roller. But when it puts that aside to get stuck into the characters’ thinly-drawn personal lives, it gets kinda dull. Part of the point of the book is how boring normal life began to seem to the team when compared to their Vegas lifestyle, but 21 tacks on more interpersonal subplots that just become finger-drumming.

    Counting cards

    Trying to make the chosen genre function isn’t helped by the fact that there’s no complicated heist here. The blackjack team are doing the same thing over and over — that’s basically how their system works as a moneymaker — and once the system’s been explained and we see it in action, the film only has a few ways to jazz that up. Between that and those subplots, at over two hours 21 is much longer than it needs to be, but doesn’t focus that time in the right areas: at least one major character undergoes a huge personality change across a single montage.

    21’s got enough pizzazz to make it enjoyable purely as a lightweight movie experience, but you do have to wonder: would the incredible real story, by dint of being true and not movieised to fit a genre template, actually have been more interesting?

    3 out of 5

    Arrival (2016)

    2016 #179
    Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

    This review sort of contains spoilers.

    Arrival

    An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

    For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

    At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

    We're only human after all

    Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

    Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

    I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

    In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

    While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

    Majestic

    Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

    5 out of 5

    Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

    It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

    * Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

    Shin Godzilla (2016)

    aka Shin Gojira / Godzilla Resurgence

    2017 #108
    Hideaki Anno | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese, English & German | 12A

    Shin Godzilla

    To the best of my knowledge, the Godzilla movies have never been particularly well treated in the UK. With the obvious exceptions of the two US studio movies and the revered 1954 original (which, similar to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection in the US, has been released by the BFI over here), I think the only Godzilla movie to make it to UK DVD is King Kong vs. Godzilla, and that’s clearly thanks to the Kong connection. Contrast that with the US, or Australia, or Germany, or I expect others, where numerous individual and box set releases exist, not only on DVD but also Blu-ray. There were some put out on VHS back in the ’90s (I owned one, though I can’t remember which), but other than that… Well, maybe we’ll be lucky and the tide will now change, because the most recent Japanese Godzilla movie — the first produced by the monster’s homeland in over a decade — is getting a one-night release in UK cinemas this evening. It’s well worth checking out.

    Firstly, don’t worry about it being the 29th Japanese Godzilla film, because it’s also the first full reboot in the series’ 62-year history (previous reboots in 1984 and 1999 still took the ’54 original as canon). The movie opens with some kind of natural disaster taking place in Tokyo Bay, to which the Japanese government struggle to formulate a response. But it quickly becomes clear the event is actually caused by a giant creature, which then moves on to land, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Ambitious government secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is put in charge of a special task force to research the creature. Soon, the Americans are muscling in, contributing a dossier they’d previously covered up, which gives the creature its name: Dave.

    Alright Dave?

    No, it’s Godzilla, obv.

    Written and directed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame (and fans of that franchise will recognise many music cues throughout the film), Shin Godzilla is not just a film about a giant beastie stomping on things. Most obviously, it pitches itself as a kind of political thriller, as an intrepid gang of semi-outsiders battle establishment red tape to get anything done. In this respect it’s something of a satire, though not an overtly comedic one. It also seems to be taking on Japanese society, with the in-built deference to age or rank being an obstacle to problem-solving when it’s the young who have the outside-the-box ideas to tackle such an unforeseen occurrence. There’s also the problem of the Americans sticking their oar in, being both a help and a hindrance. Clearly the Japanese feel broadly the same way towards the U.S. of A. as do… well, all the rest of us.

    Anno takes a montage-driven, almost portmanteau approach to the storytelling, flitting about to different locations, organisations, departments, and characters as they come into play. This lends a veracity to the “as if it happened for real” feel of the film: rather than take the usual movie route of having a handful of characters represent would would be the roles of many people in real life, Anno just throws dozens of people at us — the film has 328 credited actors, in fact. It means there’s something of an information overload when watching it as a non-Japanese-speaker: as well as the subtitled dialogue, there are constant surtitles describing locations, names, job titles, types of tech being deployed, etc, etc. In the end I wound up having to ignore them, which is a shame because I think there was some worthwhile stuff slipped in there (possibly including more satire about people’s promotions throughout the film).

    We can defeat Godzilla with maths!

    I’d be amazed if anyone can follow both, to be honest, because the dialogue flies at a rate of knots. Anno reportedly instructed the actors to speak faster than normal, aiming for their performances to resemble how actual politicians and bureaucrats speak. Apparently he cited The Social Network as the kind of vibe he was after, though a more appropriate comparison might be that other famous work from the same screenwriter, The West Wing. Either way, I think he achieved his goal, further contributing to the film’s “real” feel and the (geo)political thriller atmosphere — even if it’s a nightmare to follow in subtitled form.

    Letting the side down, sadly, is actress Satomi Ishihara, who plays an American diplomat of Japanese descent. Apparently she found out she was playing an American after being cast, and was shocked to see how much English dialogue she had to speak. It shows. There’s nothing wrong with her performance on the whole, but casting a Japanese actress as a supposed American is a really obvious mistake to English-speaking ears. All of the English speech in the film is subtitled, which isn’t necessary for American generals and the like, but for her… well, I didn’t always realise she was no longer speaking Japanese. Poor lass, it’s not her fault, but it does take you out of the film occasionally.

    On another level from the politics, Shin Godzilla is also about wider issues of humanity and the planet. The ’54 film was famously an analogy about nuclear weapons, and Anno updates that theme to be about nuclear waste and its effect on the environment, inevitably calling to mind the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima power plant disaster. This is less front-and-centre than the thriller stuff — the actions of the humans are what drives the film’s plot, whereas the nuclear/environmental stuff is more thematic subtext. Put another way, I wouldn’t say the film gets too bogged down by this — it’s still about a giant monster blowing shit up with his laser breath.

    Either that or the purple goo he ate earlier really disagreed with him

    Said giant monster is realised in CGI, some of it derived from motion capture, presumably as a tribute and/or reference to the old man-in-a-suit way of creating him. This is not a Hollywood budgeted movie and consequently anyone after slavishly photo-real CGI will be disappointed, but that’s not really the point. It still creates mightily effective imagery, and for every shot that’s less than ideal there’s another that gives the titular creature impressive heft and scale. He’s also the largest Godzilla there’s ever been, incidentally.

    If you come to Shin Godzilla expecting to see a skyscraper-sized monster destroy stuff and be shot at and whatnot for two hours straight, you’re going to leave dissatisfied. There are scenes of that, to be sure, but it’s not the whole movie. If a thriller about a bunch of tech guys and gals fighting bureaucracy while analysing data that will eventually lead to a way to effectively shoot (and whatnot) the monster, this is the film for you. It was for me. I have to mark it down for some of the niggles I’ve mentioned, but I enjoyed it immensely. (You can make you own size-of-Godzilla pun there.)

    4 out of 5

    Shin Godzilla is in UK cinemas tonight only. For a list of screenings, visit shingodzillamovie.co.uk.

    Nocturnal Animals (2016)

    2017 #55
    Tom Ford | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Nocturnal Animals

    In her second Oscar-worthy role of 2016 that didn’t even get nominated, Amy Adams plays rich art gallery owner Susan, who out of the blue receives a package from her ex-lover Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing an advance copy of his debut novel, which he’s dedicated to her. With the weekend alone to herself, Susan reads the novel — in which the family of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are terrorised by a gang led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), before copper Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) helps them seek justice/revenge — in the process reliving memories of her tumultuous former relationship.

    At first the plot of Edward’s novel seems more interesting than the framing narrative that contains it — after all, you’re pitching a tense thriller against a woman reading a book while she remembers falling for a guy. But as it becomes clear that the novel is just a pulpy thriller, and as the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s history reveal a mystery of their own, the balance begins to shift. The question is not really “why is the book dedicated to Susan”, because she clearly knows that from very early on. Instead, the quandary for the viewer is: what exactly did she do that merits this lurid tale being her… what? Punishment, maybe?

    Although the story is black as night, it’s a beautifully constructed film — as you might expect from someone with a background in design like writer-director Tom Ford. It’s not just the visually appealing work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey or the film’s various designers that is so striking, though. The three narrative strands are expertly handled. There’s never any doubt about which is which, even when Ford at times intercuts between all three in one sequence, but he hasn’t resorted to simplistic tricks (like vastly different colour grading, say) to pull that off. It’s subtler, and more effective, than that.

    Shocking reading

    To guide the characters through his sombre narratives, Ford has put together a helluva cast. Of course there’s the primaries — Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson are all superb — but turning up for just a scene or two are the likes of Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone, any of whom could be leads in their own right. It does make it slightly disconcerting when you assume someone that recognisable will turn up again later and then they don’t, but I suppose that just sits with the generally unsettling tone of the film.

    Taking its artfulness to heart, some people have dismissed the film as being no more than an artily-dressed-up simplistic revenge story. Personally, I think the point of the story-within-the-story is to be simplistic. I don’t think Edward is meant to be a very good writer, and that’s why he’s produced a very pulpy novel. What matters is the effect this bluntly allegorical piece of trash storytelling has on the person it’s primarily aimed at — i.e. Susan. And there’s still ambiguity for the audience in just what Susan is interpreting from the novel. I mean, Edward is Tony, that’s obvious; and maybe he’s Bobby, too; and Susan must be Laura… but who is Ray? Is Ray just the concept of what happened between them made flesh? Or maybe Susan is actually Ray? Or perhaps Edward is Ray too? Or perhaps it’s something else entirely, I don’t know.

    Who's who?

    Equally ambiguous is the ending to the present-day framing narrative, but I’m not sure I have much to add to that other than what you can easily find online, so no spoilers here. Other than to say I think the main plot points are all solved (the story-within-the-story wraps up, and how it mirrors the characters’ history has been revealed), but there are some open-ended points that the viewer can choose how to read as they see fit.

    Nocturnal Animals has been a pretty divisive film. Lots of people compare it to last year’s even more controversial The Neon Demon, in one way or another — I’ve seen both “at least it’s better than…” and “it would make a good double bill with…” Well, I really ought to get round to that, then, because I admired Nocturnal Animals very much. It’s a beautiful movie about ugly deeds and ugly thoughts.

    5 out of 5

    Nocturnal Animals is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

    2017 #98
    Matt Reeves | 140 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & American Sign Language | 12A / PG-13

    War for the Planet of the Apes

    Previously on Planet of the Apes… the rise of intelligence in apes resulted in them establishing a new ape society in the woods. After humanity was mostly wiped out by disease, the actions of a few apes, still angry about their treatment at the hands of humans, led to the dawn of war began between peaceful apes and vengeful humans.

    Now, ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has been in hiding for years. After a human sortie into the forest leads to them finally discovering his location, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) executes a stealth assault on the apes’ home. Incensed, Caesar and a small band of his most dedicated followers set out to find the humans’ stronghold and bring the Colonel to justice, hopefully ending the war in the process.

    When it was announced that the follow-up to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was going to be titled War for the Planet of the Apes, it only made sense. The previous film ended with that war beginning, for one thing. More than that, the clear point of this prequel trilogy has been to show how the world as we know it ended up on the path to becoming the one Charlton Heston encountered in the original Planet of the Apes — and you just knew mankind wasn’t going to give up without a fight, making some kind of war all but inevitable. However, as it turns out, the title is almost a misnomer.

    Cheeky monkeys

    This is not a war movie in the sense of it being two hours of epic battles. There’s a set-to at the start (one which reminded me of the opening of Saving Private Ryan without in any meaningful way being a rip off of it), and a big battle forms the backdrop to the climax, but in between the film is something else. Or, rather, somethings else: there are multiple genres one could cite as an influence on the film as it transitions betweens phases of its story. There’s a bit of the “men apes on a mission” thing going on, with an edge of the Western in there, before it turns into a POW camp movie of sorts, with a healthy dose of Apocalypse Now for good measure. If that makes it sound restless, it’s not; it’s just not beholden to picking one set of tropes and sticking to them — it goes where its story dictates. That works.

    Similarly, the film is a tonal masterclass: as befits the subject matter of its title, there is grim and serious stuff here, but it’s laced with splashes of comedy, heartfelt emotion, moral debate, and social commentary, the vast majority of which is handled with understatement rather than Hollywood grandstanding. And if there’s one throughline to connect all this, it’s the characters. In a summer blockbuster?! I know, right? But that’s been a marker of quality throughout this new Apes trilogy: a willingness to be thoughtful and considered, not just trade on shoot-outs and explosions.

    Military might

    Andy Serkis is once again phenomenal in the lead role. Caesar’s story this time is almost Shakespearean, the film’s biggest war being his internal battle over the right course to take, and what his desired actions mean for his soul. He was always the sensible, reasonable, merciful ape, but events provoke another side in him — is he just like his old enemy Koba after all? Through him the film considers themes like justice vs revenge, the needs of the few vs the needs of the many, the rights and wrongs of actions in wartime. Caesar may be the hero, but he’s certainly not perfect.

    On the flip side, Woody Harrelson is a clear-cut villain — a heartless bastard; a thoroughly nasty piece of work… or so it seems, because, when he eventually gets a chance to state his case, to explain where he’s coming from, the things he’s seen and decisions he’s had to make, you can see understand his point of view. That doesn’t mean we necessarily agree (it’s pretty clear that, like Kurtz, he’s gone off the reservation), but it does make him a character rather than a cardboard cutout. As the film manoeuvres its way around these two characters, their differences and similarities, It’s abundantly clear that this is a much more complex film than your usual blockbuster fare of “always-right good guys shoot at thoroughly-evil bad guys”.

    Talk with the animals... or not

    Serkis and Harrelson are the stand outs, but there are brilliant performances elsewhere. Steve Zahn plays a character called Bad Ape, who’s both funny and touching, while Amiah Miller is a human girl the apes pick up on their travels, and the way she conveys a genuine emotional connection with the apes helps to sell them as real characters. Not that the CGI work of Weta needs much help there — it’s one again phenomenal, so real you don’t even think about it anymore. They had to break new ground for Dawn, for the first time taking performance capture outside of specially-designed studios (aka The Volume) and onto location filming. Perhaps that innovation explains why some of Matt Reeves’ direction last time was a little stilted and TV-ish. More years of development have removed those constraints, however, and his work on War is marvellously cinematic.

    It’s also a true trilogy capper. They may choose to continue the story after this point (we’re still a couple of thousand years away from Charlton Heston showing up), but if they don’t then this will happily serve as an ending. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, although each film of this prequel trilogy has been quite distinct (pleasingly so, I’d say), there’s still a sense of this one rounding off things that were set in motion back in the first movie. There are also Easter egg-like nods and hints towards the original film; and to some its sequels too, apparently (I’ve not seen those yet so I’ll have to take other people’s word for it).

    They don't wanna be like you-ooh-ooh

    War for the Planet of the Apes is possibly not the movie we were expecting, but that’s no bad thing. I’m not sure how well it’ll go down with the crowd that pushes things like Transformers 5 to over $500m (and counting), but it has to be applauded for sneaking emotionally and thematically considered material into a huge-budget summer blockbuster. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s great drama. It’s also cemented these Apes prequels as arguably the greatest movie trilogy of the decade.

    5 out of 5

    War for the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas most places now.