Review – Godzilla

The King of the Monsters may have rediscovered his rrrrroar after Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster (pun intended), but Gareth Edwards’ creature feature follow-up to his micro-budget debut doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights you’d hope it would.

Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn't have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some

Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn’t have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some

Trailers often fail to quicken the pulse, but the promos for Gojira’s latest big screen outing were a masterclass in wringing every last of drop of anticipation from an audience rubbing their hands at what the director of Monsters would bring to the table.

There are enough moments here to remind you of why Edwards is such an exciting talent. However, for a film that (correctly) chooses to spend so much of its time exploring the human story, it’s a shame too many of the characters fail to leap off the screen.

Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) go in search of the truth in Godzilla

Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) go in search of the truth in Godzilla

Godzilla‘s cracking opening credits sequence doffs its cap to Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Japanese original and runs with that film’s nuclear-inflected theme. Rather than a nuclear test, the hydrogen bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll by the US military was, we learn, aimed at destroying the gigantic ocean-dwelling Gojira.

All is quiet until 1999 when a Japanese nuclear power plant succumbs to what’s labelled a ‘natural disaster’, although plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is having none of it and believes something else is going on. Cut to 15 years later and Joe’s search for the truth lands him in hot water, forcing his estranged bomb disposal expert son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) to leave his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son behind in San Francisco to fly to Japan to bring him back to the US. Joe’s convinced the government is hiding something, although not even he can quite believe what it eventually turns out to be and soon enough all hell is breaking loose.

Scientists  Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigate in Godzilla

Scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) investigate in Godzilla

That Edwards’ Godzilla stomps all over Emmerich’s effort is pretty much a given (Ed Wood could have made a better film in all honesty). However, a cast full of stellar names are often reduced to delivering one-note performances that serve the story without adding any substance.

The strained father-son relationship between the Brody bunch is worthy of screen time and a driver of the film’s opening half, but Cranston and Taylor-Johnson never truly sell it to us.

The US military HALO jumps into the carnage in Godzilla

The US military HALO jumps into the carnage in Godzilla

Ken Watanabe spends almost the entire film as scientist Serizawa looking like he needs to go to the toilet, while the incredibly versatile Sally Hawkins never deviates from appearing ashen-faced as Seizawa’s colleague Graham. In fact, all the female roles are underwritten; with Juliette Binoche in a blink and you’ll miss it turn as Joe’s wife Sandra, while Olsen gets very little to do as Elle.

That being said, it’s admirable in this day and age for a blockbuster to even give a second’s thought to developing relationships and a narrative ahead of budget-sapping CGI. It’s an approach that worked well for Edwards in Monsters (although, with next-to-no funding it’s always easier to film talking heads rather than space creatures) and, with a little more finesse, will undoubtedly serve him well going forward.

A terrified Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son hope for the safe return of husband Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) in Godzilla

A terrified Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son hope for the safe return of husband Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) in Godzilla

Where Edwards really hits it out of the park is in the action scenes involving Godzilla and the massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) that are thrown into the mix. These aren’t just faceless CGI monsters; each of these creatures (Godzilla especially) are emotive forces of nature, whether it be the extended glance shared by ‘zilla and Ford or the moment of tenderness shared by the MUTOs amid the destruction. If this is indeed going to become a franchise (as looks likely) then it’s only right that you feel something for the King of the Monsters.

ROOOOAAARRR!!

ROOOOAAARRR!!

Other dramatic moments, including the Fukushima-inflected destruction of the Japanese nuclear power plant are deftly handled, while the film’s real highlight remains the awesome HALO jump sequence (a candidate for scene of the year), wherein Ford and a crack team of soldiers free-fall into a devastated San Francisco to the eerie strains of György Ligeti’s Requiem (a piece of music used to equally unnerving effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Edwards’ love for Spielberg’s Jaws is evident throughout, from the name Brody, to the long delay in showing the monster in all its titanic glory and the boat which Ford clambers onto in the film’s final act. Let’s hope the sequels fare better than the follow-ups to that franchise.

Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn’t have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some.

Here’s that awesome trailer…

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Review – Argo

It’s frankly remarkable Argo has taken this long to reach the big screen – a film with a you-just-couldn’t-make-it-up storyline in which Hollywood comes out smelling of roses.

More than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after Islamist protestors and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979.

Argo is the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made these days

The story of their long ordeal has been well documented. What isn’t as well-known is the plight of six Americans who made it out of the country as a result of an extraordinary CIA plot led by operative Tony Mendez in which an elaborate cover story was hatched to pass the group off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo.

It wasn’t until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified the CIA files that the story officially came to light and only now do we have the movie ‘based’ on Mendez’s historical account courtesy of actor/director Ben Affleck.

Much like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Argo adopts the look and feel of such classic 1970s nail-biters as Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), right down to the old Warner Bros logo at the front end of the movie and the use of old film stock to provide a suitably grainy look. Affleck also mixes things up with fast zooms, long lens shots and close-ups to crank up the tension.

The use of handheld cameras during the scenes in Iran give the action a confused, panicked quality that is effectively handled and works as a parallel to the comical exchanges between Mendez (Affleck), make-up artist and CIA contact John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as they work against the clock to put flesh on Argo‘s bones.

This is most powerfully demonstrated during the scene when a speech given by a spokeswoman for the militants outlining to the world’s media their political position is intercut with a script reading of Argo featuring actors in ridiculous costumes.

CIA agent hatches a so-crazy-it=might-just-work scheme to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck's Argo

CIA agent Tony Mendez endeavours to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck’s Argo

In lesser hands you would have heard someone dramatically declare “it’s crazy, but it might … just … work”. However, Affleck has matured as a director since his admirable 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone and shown he can helm claustrophobic action in his follow-up The Town (2010).

Affleck makes emphatically clear the life or death stakes facing the group and the paranoia and queasiness that fear can exert. You get a very real sense that one false step by any of them will mean the game’s up for all.

That being said, the wheels begin to fall off somewhat in the film’s final third. Lest we forget, this is a Hollywood picture, and as the embassy staff and Mendez make their tortuous way through Tehran Airport it’s difficult not to feel like you’re being deceived just as much as the security guards.

"It's so crazy it might just work". CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

“It’s so crazy it might just work”. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

That’s not to say Affleck doesn’t handle the group’s final escape well – it’s a masterful, pulse-quickening action sequence that pushes all the right buttons. But the contrivances of the plot (plane tickets being confirmed with seconds to spare and other moments I won’t spoil) are hard to swallow (in fact they’re plain inaccurate) and bring to mind the over-the-top denouement to the otherwise enjoyable The Last King of Scotland (2006).

With Iran having rarely been out of the news for the past few years, Argo‘s politics are inevitably going to be put under the spotlight. Affleck doesn’t let himself down here. While we’re under no illusion who the heroes of this tale are, from the opening sequence (filmed as a movie storyboard) where we get a short history lesson on the brutality of the Shah’s rule and the subsequent revolution that saw the birth of an Islamic republic, we are asked to  understand the anger of the Iranian people and why the embassy was stormed. This is no Black Hawk Down (2001) with an implacable, faceless and one-dimensional enemy.

While Affleck won’t win any prizes for historical accuracy (what Hollywood film does?), Argo nevertheless stands on its feet as the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made in Tinseltown these days.