Cinema Review: Godzilla

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DIR: Gareth Edwards • WRIMax Borenstein PRO: Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, Thomas Tull • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Bob Ducsay • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • DES: Richard Bullock • CAST: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston

Godzilla, the most famous monster of them all, is unleashed on a modern-day San Francisco. Unfortunately, Godzilla is not the only monster to be awoken… Can the might of the US Navy, led by Admiral Stenz (Strathairn) and scientist Dr. Serizawa (Watanabe), stop the King of the Monsters before it’s too late?

Godzilla – originally created by Japanese film director Ishiro Honda and the Toho Co. Ltd. production company in the 1950s – is the most iconic movie monster in film history, whose filmic infamy remains unsurpassed (not even by King Kong) to this day.

Honda’s 1954 original spawned over a dozen sequels and has its fingerprints all over nearly every creature feature since. It still continues to inspire today’s contemporary directors such as J.J. Abrams (Cloverfield) and Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim).

Bringing an up-to-date version of the story to an American audience was always going to happen sooner or later, but the less said about Roland Emmerich’s 1998 monstrous flop the better.

This time around the reins were handed to a relative newcomer, Gareth Edwards.

Edwards filmed his debut feature (Monsters, 2010) – about two people travelling across America six years after aliens invaded Earth – on a shoestring budget of just $800,000 with a minuscule crew of just seven people.

He had to be imaginative in the way he showed the dangers at hand by merely alluding to them, rather than explicitly revealing them. It was a technique Edwards used effectively in Monsters and it’s also one he’s migrated to the much bigger budget (an estimated $160 million) of Godzilla.

Instead of splurging the cash on extended action scenes early in the running time, Edwards instead gives us mere peripheral glimpses of the action through TV news coverage or unexpected cut-aways at the last moment. Thus Edwards deftly keeps the big reveal of Godzilla doing his thing relatively obscured until the third act.

As with all big-budget monster movies, the fortunes of the film live or die by the quality of the CGI. The effects on show here are near faultless. Edwards and his visual effects team (as well as the Irish director of photography, Seamus McGarvey) deserve high praise for the stunning visuals – not just for the computer-generated monsters, but also the battle-ravaged cities and landscapes. A scene showing a military parachute jump into the middle of Godzilla battling through San Francisco is a particularly impressive highlight (although its impact was somewhat diminished by its inclusion in the trailer).

Sound is also noticeably well used. Rather than a constant ear-bashing similar to a Transformers films, you get moments of desolate quiet, allowing Godzilla’s signature roar to pack an even mightier punch.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Godzilla is not a compact film and the plot takes some time to get into its stride. Getting the most from your (excellent) cast early on to flesh out the relevant back story and character development rather than jumping straight into the action was a smart move by Edwards but after half an hour you do find yourself ready for something big and loud to break something expensive.

It’s a bit of a surprise to find such a wealth of acting talent in a big-budget blockbuster such as this, but it’s an extremely welcome one. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as the army bomb disposal expert whom we follow through the story, proves an able body in the action stakes. Ken Watanabe has very little to do other than wear a look of perpetual shellshock throughout and Sally Hawkins is equally underused – providing nothing more than plot exposition. Bryan Cranston, meanwhile, is a joy to watch and steals every scene he’s in.

Honda’s original Godzilla was borne out of a nation still recovering from the nuclear devastation of World War II and came to be a representation of such. In Edwards’ update, similar contemporary parallels are noticeable by their absence. Threat of nuclear war is not as prevalent today as the 1950s, thereby making Edwards’ Godzilla a more diversionary spectacle rather than a contemporary social metaphor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. With Godzilla, Edwards has produced an entertaining, engaging, superior blockbuster and a worthy addition to the King of the Monster’s canon of films.

Chris Lavery

12A (See IFCO for details)
122 mins

Godzilla is released on 16th May 2014

Godzilla – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Oldboy

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DIR: Spike Lee • WRI: Mark Protosevich • PRO: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Spike Lee • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Barry Alexander Brown • DES: Sharon Seymour • MUS: Roque Baños • CAST: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley

 

On paper, everything about this remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult action thriller seems promising: one of the best films of the past ten years as source material, an ‘auteur’ director in Spike Lee, Josh Brolin starring with the up-and-coming Elizabeth Olsen and the recently excellent Sharlto Copley.

 

The plot is hard to fault, too. Simple in its synopsis but complex in its narrative, Oldboy tells the story of Joe Doucett (Brolin), who is kidnapped and held prisoner with no explanation and with no idea who might want to hold him captive. After 20 years in captivity, Joe is released with a phone and a wallet full of money. With no answers and many questions, he sets out to seek vengence on the stranger who stole 20 years of his life.

 

All good omens that this particular Hollywood remake of a highly respected piece of Korean filmmaking could be the exception to the recent rule of lazily recycling much loved non-English language genre films. With a chequered history in this regard, perhaps Hollywood was learning to give its source material the respect it deserves, letting the spirit of the original film shine through while making the story relevant to a new audience?

 

But alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Oldboy has been transformed from an imaginative, gripping and (crucially) original action thriller into a by-the-numbers revenge thriller.

 

Lee takes Park’s complex protagonist and changes him into the standard ‘bad man who learns the error of his ways and vows to reform himself’, explicitly showing the audience in the first act that Joe is a bad husband, an even worse father, a cocksure businessman and a terrible drunk. The original left all this to be implied.

 

See also the signature action set piece, in which the protagonist battles a posse of assorted ne’er-do-wells with a hammer. In Park’s version, this is simply thrilling in its execution, shot (imaginatively) as a cross-section of the building. In Lee’s, it’s shot in a similar way, showing his obvious respect for what is an impressively-constructed long shot. But the scene is let down by the fight’s choreography, which looks more like a dance with its over-exaggerated falls and dives rather than anything approaching peril.

 

The plot has been given the Hollywood treatment, too.  In Park’s Oldboy, the mystery surrounding the main character’s imprisonment and sudden release only deepens as the film progresses, further drawing you in. But Lee unleashes major plot revelations much sooner than Park, leaving precious little mystery in the film’s final third. Where the original perfectly straddled the grey in-between, Lee looks to attain a perfect symmetry in the unfolding storyline between Brolin’s Joe and his mysterious captor. The director seems to have little trust in his audience, pointing out every little plot nuance, just in case we missed it.

 

It becomes increasingly clear that Spike Lee is merely a gun for hire on this project, rather than the ‘auteur’ of his earlier career. A fact confirmed when Lee neuters the original’s brave ending.

 

Most of the supporting cast do an admirable job with some below-par scripting, with special mention for Copley who is unrecognisable here, playing the polar opposite of his deadly mercenary in Elysium. Brolin works tirelessly trying to combine the physically demanding action set pieces with the deep inner turmoil being felt by Joe but, in the end, neither of these entirely convince.

 

There are things to be admired, though. The film looks great. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography combined with the set design give Joe’s imprisonment a washed-out dullness, juxtaposed nicely with the outside world’s vibrancy.

 

Measured against Park’s original, Lee’s Oldboy is dumbed-down and hamfisted (and that’s before mentioning the exaggerated product placement). While the film shows the occasional flash of promise, Lee would have done better to fully embrace the brilliance of the original, rather than using it merely as a blueprint.

Chris Lavery

18 (See IFCO for details)

104  mins

Oldboy is released on 6th December 2013

Oldboy  – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Liberal Arts

DIR/WRI: Josh Radnor • PRO: Brice Dal Farra, Claude Dal Farra,  Jesse Hara, Lauren Munsch, Josh Radnor • DOP: Seamus Tierney • ED: Michael R. Miller • DES: Jade Healy • Cast: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Zac Efron

Kids, did I ever tell you about the time I realised John Radnor was more than just a TV actor?

The star of long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother has rarely been seen in other productions in more than bit parts, and it was easy to assume his career could never go the distance of those of his co-stars, who have appeared in such crowd-pleasers as American Pie, The Avengers, The Muppets and the life of Neil Patrick Harris.

But the man who is almost inseparable in public perception from the ambitious and romantic Ted Mosby of HIMYM, has shown a similarly ambitious and romantic streak since he began moonlighting as a filmmaker. His writer/director debut Happythankyoumoreplease opened in 2010 to little fanfare, but Radnor’s attempt to expand from TV acting, while not extending his range as an actor beyond the shadow of Ted Mosby, was admirable. With his second feature, Liberal Arts, Radnor has made a more personal and borderline-adult film, and comparisons to a young Woody Allen, while somewhat premature, are not entirely unfounded.

Radnor (who also wrote, directed and co-produced) stars as Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions officer at a New York college, facing a crisis of faith in where his life is headed. Recently dumped and finding himself no more grown-up than he was when he graduated 13 years earlier, Jesse is in need of change that will not come. When his favourite college professor (a delightfully grumpy Richard Jenkins), who has few friends of his own, summons Jesse to his retirement do, Jesse is only too happy to get out of the city and revisit his small town alma mater.

Jesse feels both a prodigal son and strangely old and alien, and matters get confused when he finds himself drawn to plucky student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who is 16 years his junior. Their attraction to one another is evident from the get-go, but Jesse is more frightened of the emerging relationship than Zibby. Separated by distance, the pair continue a would-be courtship via snail mail, while both realising they have a lot of growing up to do.

Hardly groundbreaking, Radnor’s film still contains a gentle honesty and surprising amount of wit that elevates it above more standard indie fare. One sequence after Zibby sends Jesse a mix-tape of classical music sees Radnor walking the streets of New York to a personal soundtrack of Mozart and Vivaldi – it’s little new, but the juxtaposition creates a pleasing sensation. Radnor is short on new ideas, but he doesn’t lack inspiration, and is a champion recycler.

Jesse may be a close relative of Ted Mosby, but Radnor proves his trademark character can carry a feature-length film. Elizabeth Olsen, this year’s breakthrough actress, plays the innocent optimist exquisitely – she’s neither infantile nor manic pixie. It is evident both why Jesse would be drawn to her and why she is of little interest to boys her own age, a testament to her acting chops and Radnor’s writing. Richard Jenkins plays Richard Jenkins, which is never a bad thing, while Allison Janney has plenty of fun as a fierce, man-eating, queen-bitch English professor. The film is briefly and improbably stolen by Zac Efron, in an extended cameo as a spaced-out student of life, who takes on the role of a badly hatted spirit guide to Jesse. His appearances feature some of the film’s finest dialogue, and help energise some more sombre scenes.

While ostensibly a belated-coming-of-age drama, there’s no denying Liberal Arts is very funny. Awkwardly hanging out with college students nearly half his age, Jesse is asked when he graduated, and dismisses the question with a shrugged ‘The ’90s’. With deflating enthusiasm, the young women respond ‘We were born in the ’90s!’ One of the film’s finest scenes sees Jesse calculate the repercussions of his and Zibby’s age difference. As well as exposing some curious truths about age (and gender) gaps, the fact Jesse requires a calculator to perform basic mathematics highlights the day-to-day impracticality of his liberal arts education.

It may take the best bits of Manhattan and Annie Hall and produce a lesser beast, but Liberal Arts is a finely made and often touching film about nostalgia for more hopeful days. It looks like there may be a great career ahead of Radnor, even after he finally meets the mother of those children.

David Neary

Rated 12A
97mins

Liberal Arts is released on 5th October 2012

Liberal Arts – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene – Film of the Week

DIR/WRI: Sean Durkin • PRO: Antonio Campos, Patrick Cunningham, Chris Maybach, Josh Mond • DOP: Jody Lee Lipes • ED: Zachary Stuart-Pontier • DES: Chad Keith • Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes

Sean Durkin’s debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene won him an award for direction at the Sundance Film Festival last year and since then the film has accumulated shelf-loads of trophies from festivals and critics’ circles all across America. Now arriving in Europe, its slow, sombre tone and pitch-perfect acting are likely to win it similar praise around the world.

The film opens on a farming commune in northern New York State; a sort of idyllic escape for young school drop-outs who don’t feel the world “gets” them. One morning, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) rises from her bed and runs away. Reuniting with her well-to-do older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whom she has not spoken to in over two years, and Lucy’s yuppie husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), Martha struggles to adapt to life with regular people. Delaying a return to society as a whole by waiting out the weeks at her sister’s holiday home, Martha reflects on her life at the commune.

Through a series of well-connected flashbacks we quickly come to realise the commune was a highly seductive though seemingly unambitious cult, led by a charismatic snake-charmer of a man named Patrick (John Hawkes). We see how Martha, known to the cult as Marcy May, came to be indoctrinated and how the unapparent danger of the cult began to escalate.

The crowded farmhouse, home to more than a dozen cult members, contrasts brilliantly with Lucy and Ted’s vast, near-empty country home. The film uses its flashbacks to compare the soullessness of modernity to the communal bliss that seems to be at the core of Patrick’s cult. As Martha clashes with her sister and her husband over the morality of the real world, she is left wondering if she was perhaps better off remaining with her fellow outcasts.

Shot with ponderous long-takes and minimal camera movements, Durkin’s film has an airy quality that works well with the uncertainty of its central character. Young Elizabeth Olsen, in her debut performance, is simply outstanding; equal parts strong and determined, and weak, lost and petrified. Former Winter’s Bone Oscar nominee Hawkes also stands out, giving a chilling performance as a crooked man with more power than he ought to have.

While its ending will undoubtedly divide audiences, Martha Marcy May Marlene is an interesting study of an unlikely form of post-traumatic stress disorder, held together by one superb performance. Its slow pace will not keep the attention of all viewers, but it is a welcome start for a director and actress who will likely bring some more great films in the near future.

David Neary

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)

Martha Marcy May Marlene is released on 3rd February 2012

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Official Website

 

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