Contagion (2011)

2015 #108
Steven Soderbergh | 102 mins | streaming | 16:9 | USA & UAE / English | 12 / PG-13

Director Steven Soderbergh takes the methodology he used to depict the drug trade in Traffic — an ensemble cast divided among a portmanteau of colour-coded storylines to examine different aspects of the theme — and applies it to the outbreak of a devastating global pandemic.

It’s a little bit terrifying because it feels pretty plausible, riffing on real-world ‘false alarm’ viruses to suggest there may be a time we’re not so lucky. It’s not as focused as it could be, with some threads too melodramatic and eminently cuttable (one with Marion Cotillard in particular), but it remains sporadically illuminating and largely engrossing.

4 out of 5

Godzilla (2014)

2015 #31
Gareth Edwards | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

GodzillaThe second attempt at a US re-imagining of Godzilla received mixed reviews last summer, though there can be little doubt that it’s much more successful than the first, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempt. Where that movie basically starred a generic dinosaur-esque creature, here British director Gareth Edwards (director of the exceptional, five-star low-budgeter Monsters) has endeavoured to stay faithful to the style and structure of the original Japanese movies starring the titular beast, albeit brought in to the Hollywood fold with slick storytelling and a modern CG sheen.

In many respects, Edwards’ work is the real star of the film. Other elements are successful, but sometimes fitfully so, and it’s his choices and vision at the helm that hold the whole together. This is none more obvious than in the way the movie treats the titular beast — essentially, it’s a giant tease. It’s a slight spoiler to say when he first turns up on screen (the unknowing, like myself, will expect him in one specific bit considerably earlier), but we’re made to wait for it… and then Edwards abruptly cuts away. Godzilla disappears off under the water, heading for the next plot location, and he’s off screen for yonks. When he does (literally) resurface, we’re again teased with glimpses, and any full-on shot is a quick few frames before jumping to something else.

Some viewers and/or critics have questioned this as a bizarre attempt not to show the monster, but they’re entirely missing the point, and Edwards’ genuine filmmaking technique. It all becomes obvious in the finale (or should, anyway, but clearly some people don’t get it): after over an hour and a half of teasing us, there’s an almighty brawl, and Godzilla is shown off in all his glory. Edwards isn’t trying to hide the monster, he’s saving it. What is THAT?He’s denying us shots of it not to punish the viewer or to trick us, but literally to tease us, to build excitement and suspense and desire for the final battle. Too many people aren’t used to this — modern blockbusters have trained them for non-stop show-us-all-you’ve-got action from start to finish — and that’s a shame, and their loss, because Edwards’ method is superior to, and ultimately more entertaining than, 95% of other similar blockbusters.

It’s fair to say that around the monster action is a fairly rote plot. The human characters get some drama early on, but then are largely swept away by events. I can’t say I minded this too much — I don’t come to a Godzilla movie for the emotional relationships of the characters. At any rate, I’ve seen an equal number of reviews that criticise the film for not making more of the Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Elizabeth Olsen storyline, to those that think there’s too much of it and it should have been dropped. I guess it depends what you want from the movie — for me, Edwards almost hits the Goldilocks point of getting it just right, though I think Olsen is ill-served by how little she has to do.

The cast is full of actors who you might say are better than this — Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche — which, again, is a bone of contention for some. Why are such quality actors in this? Why are they given so little to do? Again, this is a decision I think worked. For one, they’re actors you’re not used to seeing in this type of movie, which immediately brings a freshness. For another, no, the script doesn’t give them all it could. But because they’re such good actors, they bring it anyway — Hawkins and Watanabe, in particular, bring all kinds of layers to their characters Layered looksthat simply aren’t present in the functional dialogue they have to work with, simply in the way they stand, the way they look at things… It’s not the focus of the film, it’ll pass many people by (indeed, it has), but I think there are some fine performances here. Not awards-winning ones, obviously, but in the hands of lesser actors, they would’ve been so much poorer.

If the human drama isn’t always up to scratch… actually, I’m going to stop myself there, because this is a blockbuster about giant monsters — how many of those have human drama that’s “up to scratch”? Very few, if any. I’m not saying that to excuse the film, but rather to point out that the fact it manages any at all (and it does) is a greater success than most of its ilk achieve. Nonetheless, the stars of the show are the action sequences. Rather than assault us with them, Edwards keeps them nicely spaced out. Each one feels different from the last — not an insignificant feat for a movie about a giant monster that stomps on things, which is more or less what these movies usually do ad infinitum. They’re clearly constructed, cleanly shot… I don’t always mind ShakyCam, but it’s too easy to do, and as such is most often used unintelligently. This is proof that a well-executed classical style is the way to go.

Perhaps the best thing of all is the sense of scale. I believed in the monsters’ size and the effect it had. That was something I never got from Pacific Rim (as I noted in my review). Some have claimed the monsters’ relative size shifts around, or that their effects on the environment are inconsistent (at one point Godzilla’s arrival causes a veritable tsunami; Godzilla-scalelater, he slips quietly into the bay). Maybe, maybe not, but they always look big — more importantly, they feel big. There are various reasons for this, including Edwards’ shot choices: we often see them from a human perspective on the ground; when we do see wider shots, they’re from suitably far away, or high up, like a helicopter shot (if it were real…) Too many directors shoot their giant monsters with angles and perspectives as if they’re human-sized, which makes them come across as human-sized even when there’s a building next to them, never mind when they’re in places without reference points (coughatsea,PacifcRimcough). Edwards never does this, and it pays off. More than once I regretted that I can never be bothered to go to the cinema any more, because I bet this looked stunning on the big screen (I know I’m certainly not alone in this feeling).

Another point worthy of praise is Bob Ducsay’s editing. It’s hard to convey in text exactly why, but the size of the monsters is used to wondrous effect when it comes to scene changes. For instance: we might be in part of the story following Olsen’s character. The monsters appear fighting in the background, so we follow the action. In the last shot of that particular sequence, the camera pans down to find Taylor-Johnson and pick up his thread of the story. The film does this multiple times throughout; it’s a distinct style, even. Written down like this it sounds kind of cheesy and forced, but it isn’t in the slightest: it’s subtle, seamless; I’d wager it goes unnoticed by most, even, but I was impressed.

Godzilla clearly isn’t a perfect film, but Edwards has done a great job of taking the essence of Toho’s long-running character (celebrating its 60th anniversary in the year of this film’s release) and rendering it in a Hollywood blockbuster style, one that’s pleasingly more classical (as it were) than the crash-bang-wallop instant-‘gratification’ style of In Marvel movies, they're brother and sistermost present big-budget summer tentpoles. That it got a little lost and under-appreciated in a summer of mega-hits is a real shame — it may not quite match summer 2014’s high points of X-Men: Days of Future Past or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but, for this viewer at least, it edged closer to them than to Marvel’s two widely over-beloved offerings.

And it wraps itself up as a completely self-contained film to boot — bonus! A sequel is forthcoming, however, just as soon as Edwards is finished with his Star Wars rumoured-prequel. I think both films are something to really look forward to.

4 out of 5

Godzilla debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.

John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.