Gojira (1954) and Godzilla (2014)

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Produced around ten years after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and introducing a monster dislodged and empowered by nuclear testing, it isn’t hard to guess at the subtext in the original Japanese film Gojira (1954). What’s surprising is that the original isn’t just about a guy in a suit stepping on models of tanks, it attempts a message, and emotional impact. As the monster destroys the city, a woman huddles in flames and rubble, trying to shelter her children, saying “Not long now, soon we’ll be reunited with father… not long now.” Surprised? I was too. And while the monster is clearly a guy in a suit, the black-and-white is fairly forgiving, and it’s also an egodzillaxample of a era of filmmaking that’s simply gone, as they clearly used models even for simple shots of ships or planes (Night Train to Munich is a great little film, and uses a lot of this kind of model work). Finally, a little-known ultimate weapon is used to defeat Godzilla, even as the inventor attempts to ensure it can never be used again, lending even more potency to the idea the film is attempting a statement.

North Americans have mostly known Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) which is the same film recut with less emphasis on a tragic scientist, inserting scenes with Raymond Burr as a reporter who always seems to be in the right place, chomping on a pipe, shot so that it appears he was at the back of the room saying things like “My Japanese is a little rusty!” so that someone translates. On occasion, he also talks to the back of a head, meant to be one of the Japanese actors. In short, the English cut of the film is far inferior. The 1950s also saw a sequel, hastily produced in Japan after the tremendous success of the first film: Godzilla Raids Again (1955). While an entertaining film, it already begins to dilute the statement about the dangers of ultimate weapons, as Godzilla proves fairly useful taking out some other prehistoric beast, and the performances are already less anxious and sincere: the characters at one point crack a few jokes standing around in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction.

I haven’t seen them, but the rest of the century produced dozens of colour monster mash-ups (around thirty films, mostly produced in Japan) as Godzilla fights everyone from King Kong to creatures from space, and I think it’s safe to say it was all done for the entertainment value. Godzilla as a tremendous, painfully obvious metaphor eventually became nothing of the sort, which is why the original film is a pleasant surprise for those who like their monster movies somewhat meaningful and artful.

It takes nearly a lifetime to get to the 2014 film, but sixty years after the original it’s another pleasant surprise. It’s too much to expect serious statements in a summer blockbuster these days, but a good cast (including Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe) lend the film some dignity, and it’s certainly tremendous fun to see impressive, modern-day effects for the monster. Miraculously, the film also takes it’s time, allowing the viewers to get to know the characters a little before putting them in danger, an apparently long-forgotten secret that adds some dramatic strength. The film jumps straight to the idea Godzilla has his uses, though I suppose if you squint and try with all the strength of an English major, the current film could at least be seen as observing our toxic and wasteful way of life. Now that the film has been successful and has apparently restarted the franchise, what’s next for the big fella, long past his youthful artistic days and now roughly the age of a senior citizen? My vote would be for some kind of Godzilla-like take on Moby Dick, with the monster only trying to swim out of sea and someone out for vengeance. Surely it’s one of the few approaches that hasn’t been taken over the decades, though doubtless it wouldn’t be exciting enough.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

September 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Tyee Bridge, in his essay on stories The Things Ink May Do, comments on the power of “Once upon a time,” observing that “magic in literature lets us set aside the left brain and listen with a different, less acidic part of our intelligence.” Considered one of the best Spanish films of the 1970s, The Spirit of the Beehive doesn’t begin with that phrase, though the opening credits are displayed next to a series of childlike drawings, which certainly sets a tone. Six year old Ana (played by Ana Torrent) lives in a small village in rural Spain around 1940, when there’s a special screening of Frankenstein in town. Reviews vary so widely some say she’s “traumatized” by Frankenstein, and others that it unlocks her imagination. I think the film is structured somewhat loosely, like a poem that leaves some room for interpretation. Ana is certainly changed, but the film takes the time to show a return to daily life and a long, slow summer before she does anything like set off into the countryside in search of the monster, which rules out trauma for me.

I see the film as one about potential, with one unique experience dropped into a limited world and changing things, and it’s remarkable at capturing that childlike frame of reference where even the broken shell of a house has strange imaginative potential. Ana’s father enjoys a glass beehive for the “mysterious, maddened commotion,” inside, the “teeming bridges and stairways of wax.” If anything represents the constantly engaging adult world that leaves little time for imagination, it’s this beehive. And we all know her attempts to avoid an uncreative life are important and possibly doomed. Ana recalls that the Frankenstein monster responded to kindness from the girl by the lake, but also asks why he killed her. The answer is he didn’t mean it, he threw her in the water playfully but didn’t know his own strength, in a moment that was cut from early releases of the film. It was clear later in Frankenstein that the girl was dead, and ironically the cut scene left room for any number of horrific interpretations. It remains to be seen if Ana will grow up making the imaginative leap of putting herself in someone else’s place — the same imaginative leap that allows for compassion — but it would seem there’s a strong possibility.

Made in the declining years of the Franco regime, the subtleness and symbolism was at least partly a requirement, rather than a choice. There’s much more to be found in the film, though I’ll leave out any more plot details in favour of simply saying it’s a film I could easily see again to test my own interpretation and possibly make some new ones. It could just as easily be argued the beehive represents family, and Ana wanders dangerously from it (though of course, that’s a trifle suffocating and I don’t like it as much).  What’s certain here is that it’s a slow moving and almost meditative film, but a timeless one for its beauty, thoughtfulness and symbolism. The music, acting and cinematography are flawless, and even a brief scene where Ana and her sister run home from the film shrieking “Frankenstein!” rings true, and feels convincing, so that anything Ana imagines is embedded in the stark contrast of realism. This film is a classic for some very good reasons.

Red Cliff (2008)

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Directed by John Woo, Red Cliff is an epic film and an epic accomplishment. At over four hours running time (beware the edited version), it isn’t a film that feels long or tiresome, even as it takes time out to explore characters and the fractured political landscape of China in 208 A.D.

In short, Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) uses unification of the country as an excuse for power and harsh conquest, and Red Cliff is the story of his struggle against smaller, but much more motivated forces. It’s human nature to favour the underdog, just as this film does.

The film is closer to dramatic mythology than historical accuracy, with a mixture of battle tactics that seem realistic enough and the kind of floating high-wire fighting we’ve seen in kung-fu films. It’s slightly jarring at times, but somehow it all works. The battle scenes are terrifically impressive even if the CGI seems a little overdone — at least, it’s hard to believe quite so many arrows in the air — but it’s easy to forgive when the film takes time out to explore the characters and add occasional doses of reality. There are even memorable scenes of nameless soldiers: a man hacks at a barricade, is hit with an arrow in the upper chest but hacks at the barricade a few more times before two more arrows take him down. In a few brief seconds, it’s a portrait of a common soldier fiercely dedicated to the fight against an invasion of his homelands.

At the same time, all the military generals and more central characters are the ones capable of leaping from a balcony and floating gently to the ground, and while it suits the epic nature of the film, I also wonder if it’s meant to be symbolic that the more privileged characters have enhanced abilities to match. It’s certainly a striking contrast to the many soldiers we see struck down, and though unintentionally done it may be one of the few things that detracts from the film, because our heroes are less likeable if they’re just a weaker set of aristocrats controlling the common man.

Of the many great moments in the film, there’s a scene of two characters talking until one of them releases a bird and the camera follows it for several minutes as it sweeps over the armies and ships on one side, across the bay and down over the opposing armies and ships before landing right in the enemy camp. And sure, it’s a mix of special effects and a long helicopter shot of some kind, but the result is still spectacular, and that kind of care has been taken from start to finish. There’s even a good score to be found here. John Woo has directed stylish and impressive films before, but I think this one will be seen as the crowning achievement of his career.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

August 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Loosely based on Hamlet, but set in the Japanese corporate world, The Bad Sleep Well is one of the films by Akira Kurosawa that doesn’t appear to be as celebrated as some others. The director is a legendary one — Kurosawa made thirty films that have had a far-reaching influence in the film world, including various Samurai films I’ve found particularly memorable. Seven Samurai (1954) about a small band of samurai deciding to defend a village from bandits was translated into gunslingers and remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960), even as Yojimbo (1961) was remade as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a film George Lucas acknowledges as an influence — there’s a scarred villain who wears a mask, a princess, and a couple of bickering harmless men caught up in the narrative would eventually be translated by Lucas into R2D2 and C3PO.

The film has a handful of remarkably intense performances as Nishi (Toshiro Mifune) investigates the death of his father, an apparent suicide from the seventh floor of the construction corporation where he worked. During his investigation there are no literal ghosts, but he does corral one passive, nervous participant in the affair to saunter out and make appearances after he’s believed to be dead. The performances are almost over the top, but don’t quite go too far, instead managing to convey the intensity of shifting alliances and uncertain times.  The score mixes powerful, dramatic music with strangely chipper music that seems oddly inappropriate during dramatic moments. The settings in the film manage to include both current, living corporate environments and the industrial desolation left behind.

The trailer remarks “This towering masterpiece is a must-see for today’s public,” and while I’m not quite sure I’d use those terms exactly (and that’s a hell of a statement for a trailer that precedes public reaction to the film by two weeks) I do think it’s an impressive and timeless film, and an engaging one despite a two hour, thirty-two minute running time. Kurosawa is undoubtedly a director who created films that have remained relevant whatever subject he tackled. The end of The Bad Sleep Well may be a subtle and quiet one (and in that sense at least, isn’t much like Hamlet), but it’s also a remarkably powerful ending.

The Sea Inside (2004)

November 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

For those of you who were a little alarmed by Javier Bardem as the killer in No Country for Old Men — so unstoppable he seemed like fate itself — here he is in an utterly different role.  He’s no less excellent as real-life quadriplegic Ramon Sampedro, who broke his neck as a young man when he dove into shallow water, spent the rest of his life bedridden and cared for by his family, and fought unsuccessfully to have the legal right to end his life, arguing that he no longer lived with dignity.

Regardless of your position on that particular argument, this is a great drama, with a supporting cast of well acted, interesting characters.  Sampedro wrote a book before passing away with the assistance of friends who agreed to help him along, so it appears the filmmakers had lots of material to work with.  It also appears he was a remarkably charming and intelligent man, and people tended to visit with reverence (though a sequence where he argues with a self-satisfied priest about the right to end your life is an exception to that).

The scene where he imagines himself able to fly out the window is near the middle of a film, and it’s a beautiful centrepiece to an otherwise solid, fairly straightforward but interesting drama.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2004)

October 7, 2008 § Leave a comment

Given that this is a film with a great deal of sublety and grace from Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, it’s unfortunate that launching into a plot description makes it sound  overly simplistic, and like something you don’t really need to see. But really, this is one of the most beautiful films I’d seen in years. It involves a tiny Buddhist monastery — small enough to be a tiny island in the middle of the lake — where a senior monk and his young apprentice live, and each chapter in the film follows the seasons listed in the title, but also matches a different chapter in the life of the younger character, so in Spring he’s a child, in Summer a young man, and so on.

It’s a slow and pensive film, not even slightly rushed until the Winter chapter, but full of excellent moments, and if it happens to be slightly heavy-handed at times, it more than makes up for it with its intelligence, uniqueness, reverence, beauty and wisdom.

I won’t go into detail describing the scene where the older monk says goodbye to the younger one, except to say it’s a simple goodbye, and one of my favourite moments in film. Comments from the director indicate he not only wanted to cover the cyclical nature of life, but the whole range of emotions it encompasses. He succeeds remarkably well.

The Orphanage (2007)

July 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

When you watch a Spanish horror film that turns out to have heart and intelligence you can see how there would have been pressure to produce it differently in North America.  For example, there’s a ghost of a kid who keeps appearing with a bag over his head at the end of hallways, staring at people and making weird-ass noises, and you can’t help but think that in a North American remake, there’d be some desperate race to find a way to destroy the ghost, instead of a film that — without giving away too much, hopefully — has a central character who tries to understand the kid. Sometimes you can destroy the hatred, not the hateful object. This isn’t any kind of revelation, and yet many horror films ignore the idea.

Central character Laura grew up in an orphanage and later buys that same orphanage with her husband and young adopted son, who soon finds he has a lot of imaginary friends playing more and more complicated games, and drawing him away. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, with apparent help producing it from Guillermo Del Toro, it’s interesting to watch the directors talk about how they’re interested in using fantasy to get at truth, not reality.  Some of those weird-ass noises go completely without explanation, and it’s fair to say the film develops into something more complex than most horror films.  There are one or two truly horrific scenes, but I think they serve to illustrate that it can be a frightening world, and underline that desire to shelter someone from it.  Some will find the film a little sentimental, but I think the performances and music are actually restrained, and keep the film from going over the top. I have to be careful about what I watch in horror these days, because the current trend to produce what some critics calls splatter-porn holds no appeal for me.  Fortunately, this was not a misstep, and it’s even recommended.

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