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The 1971 Godzilla movie, Godzilla Vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster), was a) a heartfelt parable about the importance of protecting the environment and b) hallucinogenically bonkers. Longtime series overseer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t keen on it at all, banished director Yoshimitsu Banno from the series, and set about producing something a bit more traditional for the 1972 film, which eventually emerged in the form of Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla Vs Gigan.

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(Banno probably got the last laugh, as he is the Japanese exec producer of the current run of American Godzilla movies.)

I first came across this film in the summer of 1990, when one of the British TV channels ran a short season of some of the Showa Godzilla films (the 1954-75 run). Even as a relative newcomer to the canon it was still pretty clear that the early 70s films suffered from limited budgets (and limited imagination), although this is to some extent offset by the vaulting weirdness that also ensues. Godzilla Vs Gigan is a pretty good showcase for all of this.

Our main character (who isn’t thirty storeys high and radioactive, anyway) is Gengo Kotaka (Hiroshi Ishikawa), an artist looking for a gig. With the help of his girlfriend he lands a job at the corporation responsible for the building of Children’s Land, a new theme park – although there appears to be some confusion over whether the theme in question is ‘peace’ or ‘giant monsters’ (maybe time to get the brand consultants in). The wunderkind chairman of the place insists on the former, but the centrepiece of the park is a life-size Godzilla Tower filled with offices and so on. The chairman even goes so far as to suggest that once the park is finished Monster Island (where Godzilla and his associates live happily, thanks to the wonders of reused footage) should be blown up. Clearly he is a bad ‘un.

Well, despite Gengo’s own ideas for new monsters being rubbish (he comes up with the Monster of Homework and the Monster of Over-attentive Mothering), he lands a job at Children’s Land. However, he soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue, for there are rum doings going on behind the scenes at Children’s Land. Another employee seems to have disappeared and is being looked for by his sister and her weird hippy friend, and their investigations have turned up a mysterious spool of tape. Meanwhile their investigations reveal that the chairman and secretary of the park both apparently died in an accident the previous year, so what are they still doing walking around running a corporation?

Eventually the tape gets played, which answers a few questions and also provides one of the moments this movie is remembered for: the electronic bibbling that ensues just confuses the human characters, but it really annoys Godzilla over on Monster Island (much clutching of ears ensues). Having a busy schedule that day (we are invited to imagine what this may involve) Godzilla packs his fellow monster Anguirus (also known as Anguillas and various similar names, due to the wonders of English-Japanese transliteration) off to investigate. (Anguirus is a veteran monster from the Toho stable, but in this film he’s essentially Godzilla’s kid sidekick.)

Yes, this is the movie where Godzilla gets dialogue. How do you go about writing lines for a giant nuclear dragon? I’ve no idea, but I would suggest that making Godzilla say things like ‘Something funny going on! Go check it out!’ is probably not the best way to proceed. Anyway, Anguirus swims off to Japan, where he is promptly shot at a lot by the army and driven off (this probably constitutes the greatest single achievement in the history of the JSDF’s monster defence division), going back to Monster Island having found out pretty much nothing. Nice work, Anguirus.

In the end we find ourselves dealing once again with the spectre of an alien invasion, for the park is secretly being run by giant alien cockroaches from another planet, the humanoid inhabitants of which polluted themselves to death. The cockroaches (who can disguise themselves as dead people, it would appear) are going to use the mysterious tapes to control two space monsters, King Ghidorah and Gigan, and use them to devastate Japan as part of their conquest of the world. They are also planning to off Godzilla, naturally. Can our hero and his unprepossessing gang of friends do anything to help?

Oh, well: as I say, this is a pretty standard late-Showa Godzilla movie, with aliens trying to invade and Godzilla firmly ensconced in his position as a wholly non-threatening defender of Japanese society, complete with (as mentioned) kid sidekick. The monster suit is of the googly-eyed kind, and it does seem like the film is sometimes in a race against time to complete the story before the suit actually falls to bits, but as I say this is par for the course at this point.

Key opposition this time around is, of course, Gigan, who gets even less back-story than most antagonist monsters: he just turns up working for the giant cockroaches, the most distinctive thing about him being that he has a buzzsaw mounted in the front of his torso. I suppose this must count for something as Gigan has gone on to make a bit of a rep for himself, reappearing in Godzilla Vs Megalon and as the second villain in Final Wars. Certainly the buzzsaw makes for some striking moments: huge, Peckinpah-esque sprays of blood erupt as Gigan carves up Godzilla and Anguirus.

If the Godzilla and Gigan fight isn’t exactly prime stuff, at least it’s original to this film, which is more than can be said for a lot of the other monster action, which is recycled from other films in the series – one might even suspect that the main reason Anguirus and Ghidorah are in the film is because of their extensive stock-footage back-catalogues. It’s not exactly hard to spot, either, given the earlier films were differently lit and with higher production values.

In the end it boils down to the usual tag wrestling shenanigans – Godzilla gets the crap kicked out of him at extraordinary length before suddenly recovering to vanquish the opposition with startling ease – while the human characters dispose of the aliens and their Godzilla Tower with a deeply stupid plan (it involves hippies sneaking into the towe carrying big boxes clearly marked ‘TNT’). ‘Everything was going so well!’ wails a giant cockroach as it expires, and the Earth is safe again.

Many Japanese monster movies operate close to the intersection between fun/bonkers/silly/stupid, but Godzilla Vs Gigan crosses the line into ‘stupid’ more often than most of them. If you like Godzilla movies, then there is probably enough going on here to make the film a worthwhile and entertaining watch. If you’re still agnostic about the Big G, this really isn’t the best place to start.

 

A Fistful of Sevens

In an unprecedented development, the blog finds itself reviewing two westerns on the spin. Once upon a time (in the west), this might not have seemed so notable, for the cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple for decades, with literally thousands of films being produced. Not so many these days, of course – and the films that do get made are usually reinventions, or low-budget deconstructions, or remakes, or films that creep into western territory without genuinely being truly of the genre (is The Revenant a western? Is Cold Mountain?).

So it should come as relatively little surprise that the movie under review is Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Magnificent Seven, as this is one of the very few westerns with any name recognition these days that wasn’t made by either Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood. This would usually be the place for me to complain about Hollywood’s habit of doing pointless remakes of brilliant extant movies, but (possibly annoyingly) the new movie has a ready-made defence: the 1960 John Sturges version of The Magnificent Seven was, of course, already a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. (Neither Sturges nor Kurosawa gets a credit on the new film, by the way.)

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The thing is that Seven Samurai is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the greatest movies ever made, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is also a classic in its own right, an almost-perfect film. (The story has been pastiched many times since, too, and some of those were also pretty good – I really should look again properly at Battle Beyond The Stars one of these days.) Surely the new film is just asking for a critical drubbing up by going up against this sort of competition?

The story is more or less recognisable. The year is 1879 and the inhabitants of the small town of Rose Creek are being driven from their homes by ruthless businessman Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but being a tidy-minded sort of villain he sets a convenient three-week deadline for them to pack up and get out. Feisty young widow Emma (Haley Bennett, who is a perfectly acceptable actress but whom I suspect will mainly succeed in her career due to her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has been killed by Bogue’s men, refuses to be cowed and sets out to find help in resisting him.

And, well, she ends up with seven gunmen, as you might expect. Denzel Washington plays Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt plays Steve McQueen, Ethan Hawke plays Robert Vaughn and Byung-Hun Lee plays James Coburn. (The film is trading off the popularity of the Sturges version, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this sort of comparison – though I should mention that character fates from the 1960 version aren’t necessarily repeated in the new one.) Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier complete the septet, though their characters are essentially original.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. As you may have noticed if you’ve seen the trailer, one of the seven is now a native American, one is a sort of Korean ninja, and various other ethnicities are in the mix too. Some have gone so far as to describe the new film as a ‘diversity western’ (as opposed to what, I wonder), and there’s a slightly laboured scene drawing attention to just what a mixed crew they’ve ended up with. Still, at least this film hasn’t drawn the tsunami of abuse directed at the all-female Ghostbusters remake, possibly because there’s at least a tiny element of historical accuracy here, and the original film and its sequels took a few steps in this direction, too, featuring black, disabled, and Russian gunfighters.

It’s perhaps illuminating to consider just what has been changed in the new movie: well, first off, the whole film is set in the US, rather than the seven going off to Mexico to defend some villagers – but this is hardly a surprise, given the Mexican government objected to its citizens being presented as so weedy 56 years ago, before we even get onto present-day US-Mexican relations. On perhaps a related note, the villain is no longer a simple bandido but a super-rich industrialist intent on despoiling the landscape for his own betterment, but I think suggestions that the bad guy is a thinly veiled caricature of the current Republican presidential nominee is probably pushing a point. Perhaps most significantly, in story terms, this is no longer just a story about a bunch of guys going off to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing: there’s some Questing For Vengeance going on here, because being virtuous for its own sake is apparently not a proper motivation any more.

I’m not sure I agree with this: one of the things I like about the 1960 movie is that it’s such a simple story of good guys pitted against bad guys, without a great deal in the way of moral ambiguity. Then again, this is very much a post-Unforgiven western, with the west presented as a hard, somewhat squalid place: nearly everyone has a beard and looks like they probably smell quite bad. At least the good guys are still pretty good, although what were subtle touches in 1960 have become hammer blows here – the knife-throwing member of the seven is festooned with blades, the one whose nerve has gone is afflicted with the screaming ab-dabs, and so on. The bad guy is, regrettably, fairly terrible: he’s an absurdly underwritten cartoon villain and it’s very jarring when he eventually starts coming out with some of Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the original script.

This doesn’t happen too much: only a few lines and a couple of bits of business are retained, but I can’t decide whether this is for the best or not. These moments are fun, but do you really want to be reminded of another, better movie? Where the film really struggles is in its soundtrack, which was one of the final projects worked on by James Horner before his death. Writing a completely original Magnificent Seven soundtrack would challenge the greatest composer who ever lived, for Elmer Bernstein’s music is surely one of the most famous and best-loved scores ever written – it’d be like trying to write a new Star Wars soundtrack without being able to utilise any of the elements written by John Williams. Sure enough, the music spends most of the film trying as hard as it can to surreptitiously suggest Bernstein, before the movie caves in and plays the main theme of the 1960 movie over the closing credits. Of course, by this point it just feels rather incongruous, almost like a contractual obligation.

In a sense this extends to much of the film – it’s really compelled by its very nature to reference the Sturges movie, because that movie’s continuing popularity and fame are the main reasons why this one exists at all. But it never really feels comfortable doing so – it wants to be dark and gritty and psychologically complex where the 1960 film was breezy and light and entertaining (The Magnificent Seven is itself a very 1960 sort of title – no-one gives their movies such on-the-nose names these days.)

In the end the new Magnificent Seven isn’t a particularly bad film, but it isn’t going to rock anyone’s world either, I suspect. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood studios stopped making westerns on a regular basis so long ago that they’ve kind of lost the knack. It does feel oddly self-conscious about the classic genre elements, and much more comfortable with its modern-style action sequences (suffice to say much stuff blows up). The cast are pretty good (Ethan Hawke probably makes the biggest impression) but most of them still look more like grown men dressing up as cowboys than authentic western heroes. Perhaps the classic western is truly dead and it is time to stop interfering with the corpse; this movie passes the time fairly agreeably but if you want to watch this story, you have other, far superior options available to you.

 

Down and Out in West Texas

Summer has come to an end, and there are few more reliable signs of that than the disappearance of the really big studio films, in favour of a somewhat more mixed slate of releases: unashamed genre movies, smaller comedies, unnecessary remakes, and the odd serious quality film which has somehow snuck past security.

Definitely falling into the latter category is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a brooding, thoughtful thriller which oozes a very particular kind of Americana. The director’s name didn’t ring a bell and I was rather surprised to learn he’s actually Scottish – he was responsible for the slightly bonkers apocalyptic romance Perfect Sense – but I suppose it only goes to show you never can tell.

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The film is set in Texas in the present day. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of brothers who embark on a spree of bank robberies in order to finance a get-extremely-rich-moderately-quickly scheme. Pine is taciturn and thoughtful, worried about his estranged family – Foster is a not-too-bright headcase with a short fuse. Luckily Tanner has form in the bank robbery department and things initially go according to plan, more or less.

Then the law gets on their trail, in the form of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges is crusty and close to retirement, Birmingham is long-suffering. Bridges soon figures out there’s more than meets the eye to the brothers’ activities, but will he be able to get one step ahead of them and put a stop to their scheme?

The most obvious thing that Hell or High Water has going for it is a very strong set of lead performances. For quite a few years now it has been generally accepted that Jeff Bridges has become one of the best and most reliable character actors working today, and his performance here does nothing to cast doubt over that. Initially it looks a bit like a collection of quirks and tics, but as the story progresses Bridges manages to make it very clear that much of this is a front his character affects, masking a very sharp and dedicated cop. Ben Foster isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but he has done some big movies – he was one of the X-Men for about ten minutes, not to mention starring in The Mechanic and Warcraft. He comes across as a fairly serious actor, though, and this film suits his talents better. You would have thought the weak link might be Chris Pine – there were, last time I checked, billions of people in the world who are not William Shatner, but Pine is the only one for whom this is a professional impediment. He’s never made much of an impression on me in the past, but here he is very good – there’s a two-hander between him and Bridges in which he holds his own very comfortably.

The film is, as you may have gathered, something of a western-inflected heist movie, with perhaps a bit of a resemblance to No Country for Old Men. Nearly everyone wears cowboy hats, some people even ride horses; many of the characters routinely carry heavy-duty firearms. Texas seems lost in the past – or not quite up to date with the present day, certainly.

This seems to me to be more than just background colour, for it’s quite clear that there is more going on here than a simple crime story: the script obviously has things to say about the state of the American economic system. The Howards are targeting one particular banking corporation, simply because they feel it ruthlessly exploited their late mother, and their ultimate motivation is to provide security for Toby’s sons. Pine even gets a speech about how poverty is like an inherited disease, one that can destroy lives. The subtext is woven through the film consistently, and if I had a criticism of it, it would be that it almost becomes text – the various characters are always driving past vistas of industrial decay, prominently featuring billboards with slogans about Debt Relief and so on.

This probably makes the film sound slightly heavier and more worthy than is actually the case, for there is some humour along the way (most of it courtesy of Bridges’ character and his somewhat unreconstructed attitudes), and some extremely well-mounted action, too. Mackenzie stages a very tense bank-robbery-goes-wrong sequence, which concludes in (perhaps) unintentionally comic fashion as it turns out practically the entire town is packing heat and seeking to stop the robbers’ escape. But the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence, either.

If there’s a sense in which the film’s deeper concerns gradually overwhelm its identity as a straightforward thriller – it opts for a ending steeped in ominous ambiguity rather than conventional closure – this doesn’t stop it from being a highly accomplished and intelligent script, brought to the screen with skill and energy. Well worth catching.

Lord Meyer’s Show

It occurs to me that there was nothing on the blog to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Trek, but then – other than a few small mentions in the news – it didn’t seem like that big a deal generally. The latest movie doesn’t appear to have made much of a splash (and I’m tempted to add ‘not without reason’), the only UK TV channel to do anything to mark the occasion was CBS Action, and all they managed to scrape together were some documentaries from about ten years ago.

Hey ho. At least news about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, is starting to trickle out, although breath-holding is not an advisable procedure, Captain, as the show has already been pushed back to early next Summer. News that the show will focus on a ‘minority female’ protagonist is hardly a surprise; the revelation that the programme will a) be set in the proper Star Trek timeline and b) occur about ten years prior to the original series and explore an event from the mythos, probably is. Not, apparently, the Romulan War, the dates are wrong anyway, so what could it be? If that ‘ten years’ reference is accurate it cuts the possibilities down quite significantly.

Well, anyway, my expectations are under strict management (this is the twitchy, burnt-out state to which the likes of Moffat and Abrams have reduced me), but one hopeful sign is the presence as writer and producer of Nicholas Meyer. Whenever Star Trek is spoken of, the name accompanying it most closely is that of Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, and this is only right and proper, but at the same time it was not Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek which became a popular and critical success in the 1980s and gave the franchise its second great lease of life, but that of Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II, for many people (including myself) the best of the Trek movies and a high point of the franchise generally.

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I just recently finished Meyer’s memoir of his career up until 2009, The View from the Bridge, and a curious but definitely entertaining read it is. One of the things Meyer comments on is the attitude of the original Trek crew to the series – how they variously came to terms with the fact that, one way or another, this was the thing they will forever be associated with. Meyer doesn’t seem to consciously think of himself as being in the same situation, but then he goes and organises his book into three sections entitled ‘Pre Trek’, ‘Trek’, and ‘Post Trek’ – one senses his tongue may be ever so slightly in his cheek, but even so.

One senses very little animus towards the series from Meyer, anyway, even though there are many other interesting lines on his CV, some of which the book deals with in some detail – his Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which were hugely successful in the mid 70s, the steampunk time travel movie Time After Time, which isn’t nearly well-known enough nowadays, and various other productions (some of which I hadn’t realised he’d been involved with). Objectively, perhaps the most significant thing Meyer has ever done was the TV movie The Day After, which presented the effects of a nuclear strike on the USA in such sufficiently dismal manner as to make Ronald Reagan start thinking in terms of arms limitations treaties rather than Mutually Assured Destruction. Just think – we might all have ended up as clouds of radioactive vapour, were it not for Nicholas Meyer. And he wrote that scene where William Shatner shouts ‘KHAAAAAAAAAAN!’ I don’t know about you, but I would kill for a CV with either of those achievements on it, let alone both.

This is a professional memoir rather than a personal one, and so Meyer’s domestic situation only gets referred to when it impacted on his career (or vice versa). One commentator thought that the book comes across as ‘slightly grumpy’, but I can’t say I really found this to be the case. He comes across as a guy who knows his own mind, and not really one with the greatest tolerance for idiots, but not really congenitally irascible.

For a book which is mostly likely to get read by people with a greater-than-average interest in Star Trek, I’m not sure there are many great revelations to be discovered: William Shatner ‘liked to be the first man through the door’ (an interesting euphemism), and was ‘no ego, all vanity’ (something I struggled to understand until it occurred to me I could imagine people saying the same about me). The (in Trek circles) famous anecdote about how Star Trek II came to be written in less than a fortnight is retold, along with various other old favourites plus a few I hadn’t encountered before: Ricardo Montalban started work on the film by bellowing all his lines at the top of his voice, and when Meyer tentatively suggested there might be something to be gained from a more moderate approach, the star’s response was ‘Ah, you are going to direct me? Good!’

Much of the non-Trek stuff is just as interesting, although for a book which opens with Meyer reflecting on the intrinsic decency of the majority of the people he has met in Hollywood, there’s an awful lot of material about arguments with the studio and friendships disintegrating under pressure. The only real omission, if you ask me, is any reference to the fact that Meyer apparently did some uncredited work on the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies – the fact that there were script difficulties explains a lot about this movie, if you ask me – presumably because he was friends with Pierce Brosnan and related by marriage to the director. But no mention whatsoever here, which is curious and a bit of a shame.

If one were to take anything away from this book, it would probably concern the dangers of over-familiarity and over-reverentiality. A running theme is Meyer’s near-total lack of awareness of Star Trek prior to starting work on his first movie – ‘the TV show with the guy with the pointy ears’ is his not-especially-shorthand for it – with the obvious conclusion that this served the franchise better than dogmatic fidelity to Roddenberry’s own vision (in its 70s and 80s version at least). Then again, you could probably argue that Meyer’s influence on Star Trek didn’t really extend beyond the Kirk-era movies, and was of variable significance even then: his scripts are all about characters and their choices, they don’t have the reliance on techno-bibble or the slightly laboured sense of This Is Our Theme you get later in the franchise.

It will be interesting to see just how indicative the appointment of Nicholas Meyer proves to be, when it comes to the direction of the new Trek. Personally I think the series could use a bit more zest and wit and Hornblower right now. The expectations bar may have crept up a few microns.

The Maternal Triangle

Here’s the thing about me and the Bridget Jones movies: it’s never quite as simple as the usual ‘want to see a movie > see the movie’ progression. One day in 2001, my sister, her husband, and I wanted to go and see a movie to cheer ourselves up (we had just been to the funeral of a much-loved relative). I proposed Bridget Jones’s Diary, she said okay, he vetoed it on the grounds that it was ‘a chick flick’. So we ended up going to see Spy Kids instead, most of which my sister ended up sleeping through.

Then three years later the sequel came along, which I confess I was not much interested by, until word came along that this film – for some reason which is utterly beyond me – would be preceded by the first showing of the first trailer for Revenge of the Sith. Friends who know me only in my jaded current incarnation may have a hard time believing it, but this was a Big Deal at the time, and in my usual deftly Machiavellian way I talked my family into going to see it (the Bridget Jones sequel, obviously; I kept quiet about the last Star Wars film being in any way involved).

And that seemed very much to be it, although there is of course no statute of limitations on doing sequels (increasingly it feels like there really should be, though, don’t you think?). Now here comes Bridget Jones’s Baby, which I got talked into going to see (it was not a particularly hard sell as I’ll watch almost anything), and…

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Well, look. Fifteen years is a long time in movies; the life expectancy of a career can be very much less than that (just ask Chris O’Donnell or Alicia Silverstone). In 2001 Renee Zellweger was an up-and-comer and Miramax Pictures were a force to be reckoned with – these days, I imagine most people would struggle to name a recent vehicle for the actress and since the Weinsteins sold the company, Miramax have been making rather fewer waves of late. In short, this film feels a bit like it’s been made simply because it’s likely to be a commercial success for a bunch of people whose careers really need one right now.

The film is directed by Sharon Maguire. The laws of sequeldom demand that nothing has substantially changed for the principals in the 14 years since the last movie, so Bridget Jones (Zellweger) is still working in TV news, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) is still a high-powered barrister, and so on (the plot also requires them to have split up, although of course they still have deep feelings for one another). What, you may be wondering, of Hugh Grant’s character? Well, as Grant has opted not to come back (A Wise Career Move? Discuss), his character is missing, presumed dead – clearly they are still hoping he may be talked into appearing in Bridget Jones’s Menopause or Bridget Jones’s Hip Replacement or whatever the next sequel is called.

Anyway, having just turned 43 (all I will say on this subject is that Renee Zellweger herself is somewhat older) and feeling somewhat forlorn, Bridget allows herself to be talked into going to the Glastonbury Festival (cue mud-splattered slapstick pratfalls) where she ends up having an only moderately contrived one-nighter with passing billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). Then, a few days later, she bumps into Darcy again at a christening, and when I say ‘bumps into’, I mean it in the Biblical sense.

Well, as the film is entitled Bridget Jones’s Baby, I’m sure you don’t need me to draw you a diagram as to what happens next. Cue lots of farcical misunderstandings and chaos as Bridget attempts to determine who the father is, while trying to keep the two men from finding out about each other. Zellweger’s main achievement is still her English accent. Emma Thompson appears as Bridget’s obstetrician, and gets most of the best lines, but then this should not come as a major surprise seeing as she co-wrote the script.

And in the end I suppose it all passes the time agreeably enough, though it did feel to me to be a bit too long. There are some very funny set pieces, mostly of the low-comedy variety, although they strike an unexpected vein of comedy gold quite early on when Zellweger starts lip-synching to House of Pain. This is, essentially, very much a standard British mainstream rom-com in the modern idiom, which translates as aspirational lifestyles, just a bit too much graphic sexual talk for you to feel comfortable watching it with your parents, upbeat pop-songs, and a slightly bemusing certainty that people shouting the F-word a lot is still inherently funny. (I mean, it was when Hugh Grant did it in 1994, but nowadays?)

The problem I had with the film is that its central idea just isn’t that funny or easy to identify with – the first two were essentially about whether your life partner should be the exciting, fun, unreliable one, or the dull but solid one (Colin Firth’s main achievement in these films is to make ‘dull but solid’ seem so attractive). Many people have had that kind of dilemma, I would imagine, but the situation of unexpectedly becoming a geriatric single mother while being uncertain who the father is probably less universal.

Does Grant’s absence hurt the film? I would have to say so, partly because parachuting in a new main character three films in is never very successful, but also because Hugh Grant is simply an extremely accomplished light comedy actor of exactly the kind this sort of film needs. Dempsey isn’t actually bad, but he’s just a bit dull. As a result, Colin Firth really has to take on the job of lifting the film, and to be fair he does a better than decent job of it – but, and this may just be a personal thing, he seemed to me to be surrounded by a strangely mournful aura, as though every fibre of his being had grown accustomed to being a serious leading actor and no longer wanted to just be the male lead in a British rom-com.

The central thrust of the story is therefore just not that funny and the film resorts to a sort of lowest-common-denominator sentimentalism instead; all the bits which really made me laugh were rather peripheral. As I said, a lot of this is very broad comedy, and the rest is an extremely mixed bag – there are some desperate-feeling jokes where people who are middle-aged and feeling it make fun of young people and their beards, a peculiar not-very-topical subplot about Darcy representing a band clearly meant to be Pussy Riot (then again, this film has apparently been in development for six or seven years), and even a gag about Margaret Thatcher which would have been cutting-edge in 1989 (I’m sure it hasn’t been in development for that long).

For me it all felt rather contrived and perhaps a little bit desperate; I mean, I’m not saying I didn’t laugh, but I did sometimes feel like I was perhaps doing the film a favour by doing so. But your mileage may vary; most of the audience at the screening I went to were rolling in the aisles pretty consistently all the way through, and the person whose idea it was that we saw it said she couldn’t remember the last time she had such a good time at the cinema (what, better than West Side Story?, I rather grumpily wanted to say). I still can’t help thinking that this is undemanding stuff which knows its audience and will probably do quite well as a result. But God knows what the next one will be like.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. None of them exactly double acts in the same way as, say, Laurel and Hardy, but they tended to do their best movies together. And to this list I would like to add Godzilla and Mothra. There is a bit of a difference here, I suppose, in that (outside Japan, at least) Mothra is only really known as a supporting character in Godzilla’s own movies, but in terms of monsters with the ability to carry their own series of films, Mothra’s CV is rather impressive: not as extensive as that of Godzilla or Gamera, but a respectable (if somewhat distant) third place. We are promised some sort of appearance by Mothra (Rodan and Ghidorah too, apparently) in the next American Godzilla film: but will she get the treatment she deserves?

The original Mothra dates back to 1961 and was directed, as is so often the case with Japanese monster movies, by Ishiro Honda. At this point in time Toho was less reliant on annual Godzilla sequels and were trying out all sorts of variations on the monster movie formula, of which this is surely one of the most successful.

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Things get underway with a ship going down during a typhoon in the south Pacific, with the crew washing ashore on the mysterious Infant Island. There is much concern back home, with the island being heavily irradiated following recent atom bomb tests, but when the mariners are rescued they are completely healthy, something they attribute to the ministrations of the native islanders and their magic juice. Needless to say, the authorities are intrigued and an expedition is sent out to investigate further.

The expedition is largely made up of Japanese scientists and journalists (Frankie Sakai and Hiroshi Koizumi are the male leads), but in charge is the sinister and enigmatic Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito), who – despite all evidence to the contrary – is not Japanese at all, but from the little-known nation of Rolisika.

(Key facts from The Rough Guide to Rolisika (forthcoming): the locals are Caucasian and speak English with a pronounced American accent. One of the main urban centres is ‘New Kirk City’, notable for its many suspension bridges and skyscrapers. In short, it’s fairly obvious what game the film-makers are playing here – making the main villain American might not play well with the lucrative US market they had half an eye on, and so the transparent conceit of ‘Rolisika’ does an adequate job of letting them do so while still providing plausible deniability.)

On Infant Island, the scientists discover giant fungi, ancient inscriptions, blood-sucking carnivorous plants, and many other jolly things, but most interesting of all is a set of tiny twin women, the Shobijin (Emi and Yumi Ito, a noted J-pop duo of the time). Most of the expedition is all for leaving the island and the Shobijin in peace (‘sorry about the atom bomb tests,’ someone says), but Nelson turns out to be a ruthless main chancer and kidnaps the twins, drags them back to Tokyo, and puts them on stage in a musical extravaganza of his own devising. As you would.

Our heroes, now joined by plucky photojournalist Kyoko Kagawa, who wasn’t allowed to go on the expedition as she’s a girl, are outraged by Nelson’s ruthless exploitation of the Shobijin, but their uncertain legal status and Nelson’s Rolisikan citizenship makes it difficult to take action. The Shobijin regretfully inform them that matters are effectively out of their hands anyway, as the outraged natives of Infant Island have summoned the ancient defender of their people, Mothra, and she is already en route to Japan to rescue them, regardless of what collateral damage may be involved…

Yup, this is the one with the singing fairies, the enormous caterpillar/grub laying waste to Tokyo, and a humungous butterfly-moth creature hatching out of a cocoon in the ruins of Tokyo Tower. There is a sort of epic, beautiful weirdness about Mothra which simply isn’t there in most of the other early Toho kaiju movies, but it undeniably adds something to the formula. This is a much lighter and more colourful film than (for example) the original Godzilla – the monster rampages here are a spectacle rather than a tragedy, hardly anyone actually seems to die as a result of them, and the songs are pretty good too (the twins’ first performance of Mothra’s song is a genuinely spellbinding moment).

The lack of a body count is sort of understandable when you consider that the Japanese (and most of the Rolisikans, come to that) are innocent parties, and Mothra herself isn’t actually a bad guy either. Villainous duties are left solely to Clark Nelson and his goons, and the film has a solid don’t-be-an-exploitative-tool message at its heart, albeit one which is expressed through a variety of psychadelic imagery and monster movie tropes.

Latterday Mothra movies have occasionally been criticised for making Mothra’s adult form look rather like a plush toy, but it seems to me that this was there right from the start. Mothra is actually pretty well realised, although the fact that she doesn’t have to do very much other than just fly around probably helps. This does point up something of a weakness in the film, though, in that it doesn’t really have a strong climax – with them actually killing the monster not being an option, the script goes for another detour into strangeness with some stuff about church bells and the power of prayer. I suppose contriving another monster for Mothra to fight would just have complicated the script, as well as demand they figure out a way for the big moth to engage in battle (this latter issue would obviously be resolved by the time Mothra Vs Godzilla appeared).

In the end, though, Mothra is a film which predates the establishment of the kaiju movie formula – it’s much more of a traditional monster movie, and as you may be able to tell the plot is somewhat informed by King Kong (exotic island, sympathetic monster). It seems to me that there are some parallels with Gorgo, a British kaiju movie from the same year, as well. None of which would really matter if the film was no good – but this is a superior monster movie, simply in terms of its atmosphere and willingness to do something new and different with the genre. I am aware that the fact this film is about a giant moth who is friends with fairies may make it difficult for some people to get on board with it, but if you are one of these folk then all I can say is that this is your problem, not the film’s. Is it quite as good as the best of the movies Mothra appeared in alongside other monsters? Well, perhaps not, but this was my point at the start. Can a major American film company produce a version of Mothra which honestly does justice to the original? I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised.

 

Paternity Rites

My parents have enjoyed a long and mostly very happy marriage, but one of the few faint moments of tension came in the early 2000s, when my mother discovered the Lord of the Rings movies, and (more specifically) the actor Viggo Mortensen. Posters of Mortensen started to appear around the house and the VHS of The Two Towers was seldom very far from our video recorder. My father took all of this with commendable restraint, on the whole, but I think it is fair to say he was somewhat relieved when the series came to an end and appearances by the great man became both rarer and rather lower-profile.

However, perhaps the relationship counselling services of south-east Leicestershire should go to a state of high alert, for Viggo Mortensen has made another of his occasional returns to the big screen in Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, one of those hard-to-categorise movies which struggles to get a wide release but are so often well worth hunting down. There is no Orc-battling or horse-licking on display here, but this is still a significant piece of film-making.

capfan

Mortensen plays Ben Cash, the devoted father of six children of various ages, all of whom he is raising and educating himself, deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. As Ben is a defiantly individualistic man (or, if you prefer, a raging loon), his curriculum includes not just languages and history, but also knife-fighting, rock-climbing, and a back-to-basics form of hunting (the opening sequence of the film depicts Ben’s eldest son stalking and killing a deer using just a knife). The family celebrates the birthday of Noam Chomsky rather than Christmas.

Ben’s wife has been away for some time seeking treatment for psychological problems, and then news reaches him that she has died and is soon to be buried. Her father (Frank Langella) is insistent that Ben and the children stay away from the funeral, which is being carried out in accordance with their desires rather than the terms of her will, but this is not the sort of thing which Ben pays much attention to. Loading the whole tribe into an old bus, he sets off across country to do right by the woman he loves…

There seems to be something about the road movie format which really lends itself to this kind of indie-ish comedy drama – I’m thinking of films like About Schmidt and Nebraska – but Captain Fantastic is a superior example of the form. Parts of it are very funny, parts are extremely moving, and above all it does raise some serious questions about the values our society has and what it means to be a good parent.
There is never any doubt that Ben is utterly devoted to his children and a deeply loving father, but his love can be quite tough sometimes and many people would doubtless find some of his parenting choices highly irresponsible (handing out lethal weapons as presents). The children are intelligent, literate, thoughtful, compassionate, and extremely healthy. But is he really preparing them to lead lives in the real world?

It’s a question of what you consider to be the real world, a point which Ben himself makes in the course of the film. Much of the comedy arises from the clash of values between Ben and his children and the rest of the world – ‘Is everyone sick? Why are they so fat?’ asks one of the younger ones as they travel deeper into society – but there’s a deeper issue here, of course: what kind of society is it that considers young people like these to be ridiculous misfits, and poorly educated, soon-to-be-obese X-Box addicts as paragons of normality? Is it just a case of a warped society producing warped citizens to populate itself?

The film is, naturally, broadly sympathetic to Ben and the children, and you’re never quite laughing directly at them no matter how inappropriate or naive their behaviour becomes. Much of this, I suspect, is simply due to the casting of Mortensen in the role. One sometimes gets the impression that a lot of screen actors are relatively ordinary people, apart from being celebrities: they are possibly less interesting than the characters they play. I doubt this is the case with the poet, photographer, and painter Viggo Mortensen, who seems to have a rather more substantial hinterland than most, and the film seems to be tapping into his presence as a significant figure, in addition to this being the kind of otherworldly, shamanic role he always plays so well. This is the most impressive performance I’ve seen from Mortensen, the kind that makes you wish he did more films, although no doubt a significant portion of his fanbase will also be curious to get a glimpse of (ahem) the full Viggo, which goes on display for a little while here.

He is well supported by a brief but effective appearance from Langella, and the acting from the children is consistently rather good too. This is a consistently impressive movie, for the most part: the shifts in tone are well-handled, the questions that it raises are not over-laboured, and it genuinely manages to feel properly life-affirming at more than one point. Perhaps you have to cut the film some slack in the manner of its conclusion, but that’s equally true of many other modern movies of considerably less substance than this one.

Captain Fantastic really defies conventional genre classification, but it’s a smart and actually rather beautiful film which genuinely doesn’t have an obvious weak link in it. Naturally this means you will probably struggle to find it in a mainstream multiplex near you. O tempora! O mores! Oh well, wheel on another sequel or remake…