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Posts Tagged ‘Ken Watanabe’

Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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I have a friend who I generally get on quite well with, probably because he tends to say very nice things about me – he was the one, by the way, who suggested I should forget about the blog you are currently reading and become a YouTube sensation instead. The only thing which is a source of good-natured animosity between us is his passionate and apparently sincere belief that Batman Vs Superman is not only a good film, but a genuinely great one, comparable to Schindler’s List in terms of its artistic merit and thematic power. Well, as you can imagine, he gets a good deal of ribbing from me about this view – I mean, all opinions are of equal merit, yadda yadda yadda, there’s not accounting for taste, blah blah, and so on, but even so, we’re talking about Batman Vs Superman – my old role-playing group regularly improvised better superhero plotlines than the one that film possesses. My friend is, however, one of the biggest Batman fans I have ever met, which may explain why his objectivity has slipped a bit.

The boot may be about to find itself on the other foot, as I find myself poised to say very complimentary things about Michael Dougherty’s new movie Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a film which has received, shall we say, mixed reviews. Some of them have been downright hostile and even rather scathing, calling it ‘stupid’ and the year’s first indisputably bad blockbuster (I find myself quite ready to dispute that, by the way). I am aware that there are many elements of this film which do not fall within the realm of storytelling excellence as it is conventionally reckoned. I am aware this is an attempt to bring a traditionally mocked and derided movie sub-genre to a mass audience on a $200 million budget, and thus quite probably qualifies as folly on a breathtaking scale. Sorry, don’t care: I really enjoyed it.

I should mention that I am the world’s worst person to give an objective opinion of a new Godzilla film, as I have seen all of the previous thirty-four films in this franchise and – well, I was about to say there’s never been a Godzilla movie I didn’t enjoy watching, but nowadays you have take the three animated Godzilla movies on Netflix into account, and they comprise the most horribly boring interlude in the entire sixty-five year history of the series.

Still, Dougherty’s movie puts the franchise (or the American end of it, at least) back on track. The movie follows Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film, which saw the existence of Godzilla and other massive ancient creatures revealed to the world at large, since when monster-wrangling agency Monarch have turned up more than a dozen others, which they are containing and keeping tabs on. This is rather vexatious to the world’s governments, who would naturally rather see these ‘titans’, as the monsters are referred to, exterminated – even the ones which might be friendly.

A promising premise for a Japanese-style monster movie, then, and the film further demonstrates its familiarity with the tropes of the form by introducing a melodramatic subplot about some thinly-drawn human characters: we meet the Russell family, who were struck by tragedy off-screen during the 2014 film¬†– Mark (Kyle Chandler) and Emma (Vera Farmiger) lost their son in the monster attack on San Francisco, leading him to develop a brooding hatred of Godzilla, and her to decide to build a gadget which will allow her to communicate with monsters using their ‘bio-sonar’. Needless to say, they are not on close terms any more, which is a source of angst to their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).

The monster-translator seems to be working out, allowing Emma to calm down a baby monster which hatches out in the facility where she is posted: this turns out to be the larval form of Mothra, who despite spraying silk everywhere turns out to be as mild-tempered as ever. The good news does not last, however, as eco-terrorists commanded by Evil British Person Colonel Jonah Alan (Charles Dance, enjoying himself) blast their way into the site, kidnap the Russells, and commandeer the monster-translator.

Monarch boss Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is naturally alarmed to learn of this development, and he and his team naturally recruit Mark Russell in the hope he will know how to track the signals from the monster-translation gadget. He is not exactly a willing team-member, belonging to the ‘kill ’em all’ party where monsters are concerned. He is only strengthened in his views when it emerges that Godzilla is behaving unusually, showing signs of agitation before heading towards Antarctica. But why? Well, it turns out the eco-terrorists are planning to excavate and defrost a monster discovered frozen in the ice there: a triple-headed dragon code-named Monster Zero – an ancient rival of Godzilla, known in legend as King Ghidorah…

Well, it certainly brings a new meaning to the term ‘extinction rebellion’ – the eco-terrorists have decided that the best way to restore the natural balance is to get giant super-powered monsters to flatten civilisation as we know it. Not sure if Greta Thunberg would be on board with that. Here I suppose we come to the crux of the matter: either you will be thinking ‘that’s a fairly cool and authentically dingbat basis for a Japanese kaiju movie’, or you’ll be going ‘this sounds like the most moronic thing I have ever heard’. And I can empathise with the latter view, I really can.

What you have to bear in mind, though, is that all Japanese monster movie plots seem kind of moronic when you write them down in those terms. It kind of goes with the territory: they are predicted on the existence not just of ridiculously huge creatures performing physically impossible feats, but such creatures who also have distinct personalities and weirdly detailed inner lives. You can either get on board and enjoy the madness, the absurdity, and the extravagantly fantastic imagination of these films, or you can just dismiss the entire sub-genre as a stupid embarrassment to cinema as an art form and not go anywhere near them.

There is a lot about Godzilla: King of the Monsters which even I will agree is no good. The film has an oddly old-fashioned vibe to it, recalling Hollywood blockbusters from the mid to late 1990s, while Kyle Chandler (normally a perfectly able screen actor) is kind of useless as the film’s supposed hero; the character’s arc (it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal he goes from hating Godzilla to being a supporter and ally of the big G) is lumpenly detailed. The same can be said for most of the human characters; they are thin and seldom well-played (Watanabe shows he is a class act, however).

On the other hand, there are a lot of elements in the film which will probably look just as ridiculous to the casual viewer – but which are actually hugely satisfying and enjoyable if you know your monster movie lore. There’s a plot reversal where it is revealed that King Ghidorah, rather than an earthly monster, is actually a malevolent alien invader, contrary to what everyone previously thought. This sounds like a stupid plot contrivance, but it’s actually staying completely faithful to how this character has been traditionally portrayed. The same is true of the revelation of the traditional alliance between Godzilla and Mothra – ‘so these two have some kind of a thing going on?’ asks a sceptical minor character when they learn of it – by normal standards it is a deeply silly idea, but once again this is simply the nature of how these characters have always been presented. Likewise an attempt by the military to kill the monsters using a weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer – it’s only a dopey-sounding plot device until you recognise this is a call-back to the original 1954 film. (Ghidorah’s code-name as Monster Zero itself is taken from 1965’s Invasion of Astro-Monster.)

I feel like this is the first American movie to really embrace the history and traditions of the Japanese monster movie and try to have some fun with the form. It does feel like a genuine fusion of a traditional Hollywood blockbuster with the kind of film Ishiro Honda was making back in the early 1960s. Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah and Rodan all look and act pretty much as you would hope – they may be realised through state of the art CGI, but Godzilla is still temperamental and imposing, Mothra is essentially benign, Ghidorah is the villain, and Rodan the bad-tempered sidekick. The soundtrack incorporates terrific new arrangements of the classic Godzilla and Mothra themes by Akira Ifukube and Yuji Koseki, and, most surprisingly of all, there’s even a strong suggestion that a couple of supporting characters are actually Shobijin (something which will mean nothing or everything to you, depending on how steeped you are in the lore of Toho’s universe). Rather touchingly, the film is dedicated to Yoshimitsu Banno, long-time director and executive producer of the franchise, and Haruo Nakajima, the original Godzilla suit actor, both of whom passed away while it was in production.

In short, the film works tremendously hard to appeal to the existing fanbase of these movies and characters. I suppose this is kind of a go-for-broke move, as it could potentially alienate the mass audience who couldn’t give a stuff about which island Mothra usually lives on, or what Rodan’s special powers are. As I say, it quite possibly qualifies as a monumental folly by most rational standards. I honestly don’t know whether the film’s spectacle and action will be enough to lure in the sceptical in large numbers – what I found to be hugely enjoyable, and a film I feel like I’ve been waiting to see for many, many years, may seem to others to be an absurd, poorly-plotted mess.

This is the first American Godzilla movie to bear comparison with the better Japanese films in the series: it’s not afraid to be crazy and fantastical in a way that the films by Gareth Edwards and Roland Emmerich simply weren’t. Whether this ultimately proves to be a good idea or not remains to be seen – it’s less than a year until the next film in the series, Godzilla Vs Kong, comes out, and it will be interesting to see if they choose to sustain the same kind of tone. I really hope they do, because – from my entirely partial and biased perspective –¬†this film was honestly a treat.

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