Rating: The Ugly 66.8 Genre: Action, Science Fiction Duration: 123 mins Director: Gareth Edwards Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
A big budget attempt to rectify Hollywood’s attitude towards Toho’s most famous monster shows the right intentions and some of the right ideas but is ultimately crushed under their weight. Bringing Gareth Edwards in to steer this reboot towards Toho redemption was in and of itself a brave move. The director of the critically acclaimed Monsters had recently demonstrated that the monster movie wasn’t the purview of the big studios by making a compelling emotional drama that kept the monsters on the periphery of the action. That he was going to be permitted to similarly sideline the Big Fella was the second surprise! Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and David Callaham thus built this tale around Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s attempt to reunite with his family amid catastrophic destruction as Godzilla resurfaces from his primordial rest to tackle a couple of MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) who are laying waste to the central pacific. It’s a good idea as the battles get to play out in the background through oblique glances and character PoV. And when combined with the stunning visual effects, it paves the way for some electrifying images and action scenarios.
Unfortunately, two major shortcomings prevent those images from manifesting into the emphatic release they should’ve become. Firstly, Taylor-Johnson’s story is only really nominally central. It seems the executives got their grubby mitts on the script after all because just when the movie should be aligning itself with his travails, it keeps darting off to a bunch of faceless military types who are orchestrating the defence against the monsters (and it takes some doing to nullify David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe’s faces!). This repeated marginalisation of the human lead ultimately negates all the decent attempts at character construction to the point that we become completely apathetic to his plight. With the elimination of the human interest, the monsters which continue to be revealed in side-glance, half light, and shadow aren’t enough to salvage the movie as they become a sideshow with no main event. Therefore, as is typical with so many big budget movies these days, it seems the multiple interests were pulling in different directions and the movie fell between two (or three) stools. If the human drama was nourished in the manner it was in Edwards’ previous outing, his Godzilla battles would’ve been an ever building release of large scale monster carnage, a gleaming red cherry on top of the cake. If the human drama was abandoned from the start and we got more than just the five minutes of Godzilla vs MUTO’s, then at the very least, we would’ve had an albeit unoriginal but reasonably distracting “brain-at-reception” popcorn movie. As it is, all we have is a laudable uneven monster drama that fails to build up enough steam on either stage to engineer anything but the most impotent of drama.
Rating: The Good – 78.4 Genre: Thriller Duration: 120 mins Director: Ben Affleck Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman
Director and star Ben Affleck hits three for three with a pitch perfect account of how a CIA agent extracted six American citizens trapped in Iran after the 1980 revolution with the “best bad idea” that he could come up with. Based on actual events, Argo does something that not many films get to do. It gives us the real scoop on a well known yet relatively recent moment in history by telling a story so inherently dramatic and daft that we’d scarcely believe it was possible if told as outright fiction. Yes, it takes some liberties here and there but the essential story of US citizens being “exphiltrated” from Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew who were ostensibly there to shoot a science fiction epic is entirely true. In fact, this story would almost write itself if allowed but the end result would probably be nothing more ambitious than a wacky comedy. Thankfully Affleck and writer Chris Terrio don’t let it and they instead look deep into the people and events of the time to find the genuine heroism, intelligence, and downright bravery that in reality defines a tale like this. Nothing here is glossed over from the emotional baggage of Affleck as the agent with the crazy plan to the tensions, fear, and mistrust of the Americans in hiding and the Canadian ambassador who is hiding them. And yet somehow Affleck manages to stitch it all together with the unerring momentum of the best thrillers.
Shot in the style of the 1970’s thriller (à la Fincher’s Zodiac) Argo is already working our subconscious recognitions even before a word of dialogue is uttered. The signature palette and textured production design of the era brings us back to a simpler time when films worked because of their craft and not because a glossy public relations campaign brainwashes its audiences into thinking it works. It’s a nuanced directorial effort as Affleck moves the drama forward with a soft pace and controls the tension through intelligent framing, cutting, and general discipline as opposed to the big score and hyperactive editing used by so many of today’s paler counterparts.
The actors are first class with John Goodman and the great Alan Arkin excelling as the big shot Hollywood producers called in to make the fake movie project look real. Of the trapped Americans, Clea DuVall and Scoot McNairy do particularly well in capturing the essence of being constantly caught between fear, expectation, and guarded hope for months on end. However, it’s fair to say that Affleck turns in the most substantial acting turn. Yes, he has more to play with but as the dust settles on the final scene there’s a definite sense that he did something substantial here. It’s not a big performance nor is it overtly intense but it’s weighty nonetheless and he puts you in the character’s shoes.
The result of all this is an enthralling and utterly gripping edge-of-your-seat thriller that rewards true movie lovers for the crap we’ve had to sit through as the genre has been badly approximated for nearly two decades now. Moreover, it’s a marker laid down by a hot and young(ish) talent that Hollywood has a new director to whom we can pin our hopes.
Rating: The Good – 67.3 Genre: Thriller, Disaster Duration: 106 mins Director: Steven Sodernergh Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Steven Soderbergh has recently announced his intention to retire from directing and given the rate at which he has been churning them out over the last few years, one can understand his desire to step back. The calibre of these films is also impressive with every one of them proving interesting in their own way. Contagion is certainly no exception as it’s a uniquely sleek take on the “outbreak” movie. It follows the outbreak of a lethal hybrid strain of the swine and bird flus from “patient 0” to the point of near apocalypse with specific focus on the attempts of the various scientists and experts to culture, sequence, and kill the virus.
Contagion has many admirable qualities. Laurence Fishburn and Elliott Gould give standout performances as respectively a government and private scientist. Kate Winslet is even better as Fisburn’s “person on the ground” while Matt Damon as the beleaguered husband of Gwenneth Paltrow’s “patient 0” is strong despite the movie’s overall problem with personal subplots (more on this below). Soderbergh combines much of the exposition (of which the film has a lot) with Cliff Martinez’ energised score and overlaps the scenes with his usual verve. This gives the film a solid momentum despite the majority of the action being dialogue-based. Scott Z. Burns’ script is polished and technically informed which emphasises the authentic vibe which his director’s style naturally brings. The film is also full of striking imagery such as Jude Law’s subversive blogger wandering through the deserted streets tacking his propaganda flyers to walls and lamp posts while kitted out in an oxygen suit which evokes memories of Bruce Willis’ sample gathering expeditions in Twelve Monkeys.
Contagion tries its best to show snippets of the wider “outbreak” story. That is, it covers both the technical and medical efforts to contain the virus and the personal trials of the average Joe Citizen. The problem is that Soderbergh’s quasi-documentarian direction and Burns’ (the Bourne Ultimatum) slick writing style are both excellent at capturing the former but not always great at the latter. A better balance was needed on this project to prevent the sharp procedural and dispassionate quality of the scientific investigative scenes carrying over into the subjective drama thereby neutralising it. Thus, despite a considerable amount of time looking at the changes and stresses to the domestic life of many of its protagonists, there’s a distinctly impersonal feel to the story. This is particularly the case with Damon’s subplot which is almost entirely emotionally framed. The film would be better served if they had of discarded the personal stuff and focused exclusively on the technical and bureaucratic drama which in truth the film needed more of.
A second major issue concerns Law’s greedy blogger. Though there are some nice attempts to invert typical notions of conspiracy caricatures (including a nice nod to 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), such is the extent of his paranoia and his influence that it comes across as a little unbelievable. As such, this potentially fascinating subplot feels a little out of kilter with the rest of the film and only serves to distract from the extremely clear and even surgical focus of the main drama. Another subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organisation agent and some Chinese kidnappers is equally daft.
Contagion is a laudable effort from a great director and top cast and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Fukasaku’s Virus and maybe even Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. As it is, it will probably please most mature science fiction fans though it certainly feels like it tried to do too much and got caught between two stools. Thus, those with a broader interest in film appreciation will be frustrated by the missed opportunities.
Rating: The Good – 72.4 Genre: Crime Duration: 100mins Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
An ice-cool getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) living the life of a loner strikes up a relationship with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her son but when they fall foul of some violent gangsters, his savage attempts to protect her threaten that very relationship while also escalating his problems with the worst of those gangsters (Al Brooks).The first thing that needs to be said about this film is that the premise was completely lifted from Walter Hill’s 1978 unsung classic The Driver (this has been shamefully under-acknowledged by the director who claims to have not even seen Hill’s film prior to making Drive – the opening sequences are identical). As that film was, Drive is also about a supreme getaway driver for hire who shows up on the night of the job to ferry his criminal clients through LA by avoiding the cops, getting them to safety, and then disappearing never to be seen again. In both films, the main protagonist is referred to only as “The Driver” (played in that film by Ryan O’Neill) and in both films, he is defined by an austere personality (though in the 1978 film, this is explained through an implied intolerance the driver bears for the fools he has to work with). Although Drive’s premise is identical to the earlier film, the story differs substantially as it substitutes the fascinating game of cat and mouse between O’Neill’s Driver and an obsessed cop for a plodding romance/revenge drama between Gosling’s and Mulligan’s characters.
Drive is a terribly frustrating film. From a technical point of view, it is a cool and interesting film going experience. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s vision is as audacious as it is slick. The nighttime cityscapes accompanied by Cliff Martinez’ serene score and the complementary retro soundtrack are sumptuously shot while Matthew Newman’s editing particularly in the driving scenes is flawless. Refn was clearly inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral in his depiction of LA but it’s from Mann’s earlier 1980’s films, namely Manhunter and in particular Thief, Drive takes its lead (in fact, while it takes its premise from The Driver, it takes its story from Thief). The action is quite restrained in that crafty driving is favoured over brute force and daring and although we would like to give credit to the director for seeing the strength in that decision, he has claimed it was simply because they didn’t have enough money to shoot any large scale car chases. Regardless of the reason, however, it does indeed heighten the power of the action sequences as well as giving them an original feel. In front of the camera, Gosling does the best he can with a limited script as he succeeds in breathing life into his character in a manner of subtle ways. His walk, his stare, his smile, even the methodical way he puts on his gloves all combine to give this man with no name a fascinating yet serious disposition. The supporting cast are also very good if a bit underused. Mulligan plays a decent emotional counter-point to Gosling but as with Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman, we did not really see enough of her to warrant further comment.
There’s no doubt that these strengths add up to an interesting and unique film which the audience becomes desperate to like. However, there is equally no denying that Drive is marred by hamfisted villainy and a central love story which is painfully flat and insubstantial. As the gangsters, Ron Perlman and Al Brook’s dialogue is just plain laughable at times as are the inconsistencies in their characters’ actions. Perlman is a walking cliche and his motivations for getting involved in the central heist are manically conceived and revealed in a ridiculously trite moment of exposition. On Drive’s release, it became quite fashionable to point out how good Brooks was and while he is enjoyable in the role, his character is a mess (this is elaborated on below). But all this is nothing compared to the central dynamic between Gosling and Mulligan. The dialogue here is nearly non-existent and the chemistry is, not surprisingly, awkward and clumsy. When Mulligan’s character asks Gosling’s Driver a question, he stares at her vacantly, and after a long pause mumbles an answer. This may tie into one interpretation of his character (see below) but it makes for excruciating cinema.
Another major weakness pertains to a continued lack of discipline and maturity in the career of Winding Refn’s. Refn has been accused of being gratuitous in his use of violence in previous films and this criticism can be fairly levelled at him again in both his depiction of the Driver’s actions and those of Brooks’ character. Though Brooks is charismatic in his playing of the Jewish gangster, there are a few obvious moments towards the end where his more violent actions feel forced and extremely artificial. The question is, would those scenes have worked without the violence? In the case of at least two of them, the answer is not only “yes” (because Brooks’ delivery of his lines is more menacing than any action could ever be) but they might have actually worked better as the depth of Brooks’ mean streak would have been unseen and thus, in the imagination of the audience, it would have been potentially limitless. Unfortunately, Refn showed no such understanding and so these scenes ultimately come off looking ridiculous.
However, the most frustrating aspect to Drive is that there is the glimpse of a fascinating notion underlying the Driver’s motivations courtesy of what Gosling brought to the role (the scorpion jacket and featureless stunt mask were his ideas) and what writers Hossein Amini (screenplay) and James Sallis (book) intended. However, the director seems completely oblivious to it and constantly pulls the film in contradictory directions. In interviews and Q & A’s, Refn states that he sees the Driver as the modern day hero and so his ridiculously violent behaviour have no bearing on his mental stability as far as the director is concerned. Not only is his obtuse notion of heroism nonsensical but in his rambling explanations as to how he chose “A Real Hero” for the soundtrack (because he thought it sounded “cool” only to later realised it might explain his protagonist’s behaviour), one gets the distinct impression he had no idea what this film was about, made it up as he went along, and rationalised everything around the simplest explanation. However when we look at Gosling’s contribution to the film, such as the jacket with the scorpion on the back (and, by implication, on The Driver’s back) and the featureless stunt mask he wears during the movie’s most potent scene, we realise that he may in fact have an entirely different interpretation in mind. Gosling’s notion of the Driver seems more akin to Travis Bickle than Refn’s childish and even confused notion of a modern day John McClane. A man struggling to live a normal life but hampered by an emotional coldness which peaks in moments of savage brutality. In other words, a sociopath. (And for those who balk at such a suggestion, ask yourselves, does any other explanation account for the elevator sequence?). It’s a brave idea and it worked well in Taxi Driver but it seems it was too deep for Refn to appreciate.
Which interpretation which we decide is correct is crucial because Refn’s interpretation is not only nonsensical but it means the Driver’s lack of dialogue, long mono-expressional staring, and extreme levels of violence are only explainable as indulgent, pretentious gratuitousness with no bearing on the story. On the other hand, Gosling’s (and we must assume the writers’) interpretation gives Drive a profound subtlety. Unfortunately, because the principals are pulling in opposite directions, the latter isn’t allowed to flourish in the way we assume Gosling had in mind and we are left filling in many of the blanks which Refn’s confused direction leaves in its wake. That said, if one chooses Gosling over Refn, the story can still be enjoyed on that level.