Godzilla (2014)

★★★

Godzilla (2014) PosterDirector: Gareth Edwards

Release Date: May 15th, 2014 (UK); May 16th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe

On a scale respectively topped and tailed by Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, the former’s reincarnation of the latter beast is perched around the middle. In other words, Godzilla 2014 is something of a disappointment. Not a bad film, far from it. In fact its technical aspects are better than many a modern blockbuster has to offer. Edwards’ contemporary version of the giant kaiju is both reminiscent and magnificent, and it bellows a rumbling roar that’ll have your popcorn flying and Coke Zero spilling. The problem isn’t when he’s on screen, but when he’s not. The director’s intentions are clear and commendable: to gather tension in preparation for that first monster reveal. But while said anxieties are simmering the characters must carry the torch and they, unfortunately, are burned by a deficiency in multi-dimension.

Having attempted to destroy the creature known as Godzilla half a century ago with the aid of nuclear weaponry, civilisation now faces another threat in the form of Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO). Physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) believes that a 1999 earthquake in Janjira, Japan is actually a government cover-up rather than a natural disaster, shielding from view the mistakes of humankind. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) heads out to Japan after hearing of his father’s arrest and witnesses first-hand the validity of Joe’s argument in the form of a creature wreaking havoc on everything in its path.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Godzilla is a game of two halves. The first hones in on the people involved and their actions, whereas the second explodes into a big-budget blockbuster bonanza. For a long time we don’t see Godzilla, instead teased only by murmurings and the occasional fin shot. In the monster’s place are a number of characters set to fulfil a variety of uninspired roles and, sadly, none of them really matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford isn’t a compelling lead and it’s not just him either. Ford is our latch, the constant human presence who we are supposed to invest in: he has the loyalty chops as a US Navy officer, whilst his young family denotes a common identity and demands empathy. But we’ve seen it all before. There’s nothing particularly special about him, nor anyone else. Ford’s wife is a nurse and she spends her limited screen time frantically pushing hospital gurneys and panicking over the phone.

It doesn’t help that those portraying these inconsequential characters are a talented bunch, their talents frustratingly wasted to all intents and purposes. Elizabeth Olsen, the aforementioned wife, is fairly fresh off of exceptional work in the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene, but here she’s diminished to nothing more than husband-fodder. Bryan Cranston plays Ford’s father and probably delivers the best performance as his character’s flesh is allowed to grow, but even he struggles to be memorable. It’s less of a shame than a surprise really, given Edwards’ track record when it comes to delivering engaging presences on-screen. Perhaps we’ve become attuned to gorging our way through masses of CGI and rip-roaring action when blockbuster season hits and in that sense, well-rounded human beings aren’t necessarily top of the menu. However, given the nature of this narrative in particular — one that endeavours to build before letting loose — audience captivation must begin with the characters as they are the primary load carriers.

The story itself is customary and therefore doesn’t offer much in the way of support to its participants. We watch an awful lot of Tab A into Slot B shenanigans — there’s to-ing and fro-ing aplenty — but again, we’re only really here to see gargantuan beasts collide. Right? On occasion the film does delve into the semantics of its historical monstrous figure and in those moments Edwards is in control. The opening sequence sets an ominous tone as the theory of natural selection is enshrined by images of nuclear testing and bolstered by a booming sound. Not long after, Japan’s misfortune sees it become the site of both natural and human-made catastrophe; we view both a volcano and a nuclear power plant as they loom forebodingly over family homes and a local school. Somewhere amongst the raft of uninteresting characters and impressive effects is a serious satirical backbone that denounces the domineering attitude of humanity. (“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”) Edwards brings a semblance of dignity and respect to the nuclear-nature fable, two traits totally lost throughout the franchise’s 1998 meltdown, and this version would benefit further from purveying greater impetus in this regard.

The director’s obvious admiration is also wholly captured in Godzilla’s visual manifestation. The reptile is a mishmash of classic and modern, wearing a familiar scaly attire that has been furnished by digital implants to make the creature look as grotesquely fearsome as ever (and, thankfully, as un-tyrannosaurus rex-like as possible). The reptile itself is going through post-Emmerich debilitation syndrome and Edwards successfully paves the way for phase one of recovery. The filmmaker who now infamously created his previous outing whilst curtailed by a minute budget of only $500,000, is eager to unleash the grander financial backing afforded to him here and to the Brit’s credit, he absolutely makes the most out of the cash available. From an early mine visual through to the final showdown, no skyscraper is left standing and each demolition job is almost as fun as the last. The ghostly infestations of urban decimation seen in Monsters are carried into this outing, destroyed landscapes as disconcerting as they are imposing. The film is also capped off by one of the year’s best scenes: a HALO jump that is both haunted by eerie hums and utterly scintillating in execution.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is an odd concoction. His decision to reveal the monster later in the game is a good idea. A great one in fact. But the minutes subsequently left action-depraved must then be filled by goings-on that are even more engaging, and the characters offered are simply unable to comply. Perhaps high expectations are to blame but, more than anything else, Godzilla is an opportunity missed.

Godzilla - ATJ

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

★★★

Director: Woody Allen

Release Date: August 23, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard

Upon its release Blue Jasmine received rave reviews from viewers and, after a few months hovering around cinema screens and iffy online streams, is variably considered a return to form from the eccentric Woody Allen. I’m not extensively versed in Allen-lore, not nearly as much as i ought to be considering his lofty status in Hollywood and abroad. That being said, whilst his newest offering brims with scintillating performances (two Oscar nominated deliveries stand out in particular) the content, narrative and direction all add up to something a bit… bland. It’s a difficult story to consume and a tricky one tell, a story that shouldn’t insist on generating humour as often as it tries, particularly when there’s non to be shared. It’s possible that I just don’t get it; that the quirky, erudite versus blue-collar joust is something not entirely compatible with this 20-year-old. More than that though, Allen seems to be trying overly hard as he attempts to deliver on one too many fronts, leaving the intended humour absent and the compulsory drama simmering. But only just simmering.

Jasmine (that’s Jasmine, not Jeannette) Francis is an upper-class socialite from New York who finds herself mentally, physically and financially drained following separation from her unashamed husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin). She isn’t used to earning, to maintaining herself and her life outwith superficial externals such as high-brow struts and an aristocratic ambience. Only it’s not an ambience, it’s an annoyance. An annoyance that has haunted her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) ever since childhood, when their foster parents favoured Jasmine’s superior “genes”. In her time of need, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) moves to San Francisco to live and survive by Ginger who remains frustrated over a misshaped business deal proposed by Hal, amongst a number of other issues related to her now spiralling sister.

Evidently there’s a lot going on, yet too often the happenings are overly trivial — discussions reigned in on antiques for example — and therefore aren’t substantial enough to fully engage the viewer. Perhaps that’s the point, that Jasmine is such a one-dimensional and flawed character, therefore the film should be too. This approach doesn’t catch on though as Jasmine and many of the other people on screen are very difficult to relate to. At one point Ginger points out the obvious: “When Jasmine don’t wanna know something, she gotta habit of looking the other way.” In a sense the narrative follows this mantra too — just when there’s a glimmer of something intriguing on the horizon the road suddenly detours back to stagnant repetitiveness.

And it certainly is repetitive. As their lives together progress and various agents enter and exit (boyfriends mainly), Jasmine constantly scalds Ginger for her poor taste in unworthy men. First it’s Augie, a working-class and slightly optimistic guy held down by the harsh realities of life. Chili follows, a mechanic who unlike Augie treats Ginger with respect even if at times his exuberance gets the better of him. Jasmine relentlessly disapproves, neglecting her own prior misdemeanours when it comes to settling with the right partner. In fact, her wrongful rejection of Chili is probably the only time Jasmine is not thinking about herself: she often reminisces about sailing around San Tropez in front of her less fortunate sister who has hardly travelled America never mind the world; she flies first class on her way to Ginger, even though she has no money, which is the main reason for her relocation; in fact Jasmine removes herself from all tasks unbecoming of her (“I never pay attention to house business affairs”). Combined, this makes it incredibly difficult for the viewer to like or even sympathise with Jasmine, which is essentially the downfall of the film as the camera stalks her every move and not much else.

Allen juxtaposes the past and present as life events interchange; from detailing the breakdown of Jasmine and Hal’s marriage to the breakdown of Jasmine herself. Occasionally happenings on screen are tough to watch, but it is often the case that these demanding moments are followed by attempts at humour thrown in as the embodiment of a panicky life-jacket, almost as if the film is fearful of advancing that extra step into Jasmine’s oblivion (which would’ve worked better than the half black comedy, half drama on show). For example, after a tortuous altercation pitting Ginger and Jasmine against an enraged Chili, Jasmine is seen quickly shaking off any resultant cobwebs as she searches for her ringing phone in a nonchalant manner. This woman has recently lost the love of her life in onerous circumstances — wouldn’t she be affected more by this attack with potentially mirroring connotations on her sister?

There is success emitted from Allen’s alternating timeline approach though, as the method distinctly displays the degree of culture clash between Jasmine and Ginger. Jasmine has had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Now that life has crumbled, her anxiety over what’s next conveys exactly how behind she is in the experience of every day normality: she wants to return to school (to study what?); will study fashion or interior design (can’t use a computer); takes computer classes (has no money to afford); accepts the “medial” job that she never wanted, the job that the vast majority of those around her do on a daily basis.

As average as the film is, there’s absolutely no denying the power and sheer struggle evoked by Cate Blanchett as Jasmine. It’s not even a case of the film’s downfalls making her performance glow even brighter, no, Blanchett’s display would stand out in any offering. Even though you don’t really like the character, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by Blanchett’s depiction of painful demise as Jasmine slowly loses all sense of wherewithal and dignity. The portrayal is uncomfortable to watch at times and it should be that way. Without Blanchett at the helm, the film might have teetered worryingly close to Diana territory.

Sally Hawkins also deserves plaudits for her starkly contrasting role as the less fortuitous sister; likeable and empathetic as she establishes and maintains a strong sense of empowerment throughout the film’s progression. In an abnormal role from his usual work, Peter Sarsgaard is astute and pompously slick as the yin to Jasmine’s yang. Their first meeting is actually one of the film’s better moments, where the pair enter a self-congratulatory word-off as they divulge many an “I” and “my husband and myself”. It’s arrogant and self-absorbed nonsense, and it completely works because these characters come across as utterly undesirable just as they are supposed to in that moment.

Blue Jasmine is a film where nobody really seems to be listening to each other (“Pay attention Augie”), where characters are solely focused on getting their two — or 20 — cents in, meaning proceedings feel too feeble. The darkly comic moments don’t really fit in, and the emotionally wrought sections seldom have the desired effect. It’s no surprise that that actors are receiving awards nominations left right and centre as opposed to the film itself. While it is far from terrible, there’s a lot of onus on Cate Blanchett to make the picture worthwhile. Thankfully, in doing her worst, she does her absolute best.