Friday, April 25, 2014

Blue Ruin


Grade: 60/B-

Blue Ruin is an uncommonly well-made thriller, which makes its devolution into familiar territory all the more disappointing. The film was directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the cinematographer on last year’s well-liked I Used to Be Darker, and he demonstrates a natural gift for composition, rhythm and sound in the film’s suspense sequences. His notions of what makes for compelling drama are considerably less assured.

The film stars Macon Blair as Dwight, a soft-spoken man who lives out of his car and picks through dumpsters for food. He’s introduced taking a bath in a stranger’s home, and when the police knock on the door, he assumes he’s in trouble.  When they finally do get ahold of him, they inform him that man named Will Cleland is being released from prison. Visibly shaken, Dwight returns to his home state of Virginia to enact revenge for a past wrong, and his actions have consequences that will endanger his estranged family.

The first half-hour of Blue Ruin is remarkably tense stuff precisely because Dwight’s motives and thought-process are unclear. As played by Blair, he’s a nervous, antisocial man who’s clearly haunted by something, but it isn’t immediately apparent what his trauma is. Saulnier follows Dwight as he struggles to find a gun and stalks Cleland after he’s released from prison, focusing on action over dialogue to extraordinary effect.

The film reaches its high point early on in a breathless sequence where Dwight, hides in a restroom, waits for Cleland to enter, and has to make an frantic escape when he’s discovered (for the spoiler averse: I’m being deliberately vague here), a gradually building sequence that takes its time to set up all the pieces, explodes, reaches a calm, and then grows more tense as we realize that there’s something that Dwight didn’t count on. Saulnier’s use of limited perspective (both in terms of the narrative and the use of the camera) is especially effective, given Dwight’s lack of planning and his clear lack of skill in violence.

Unfortunately, the film soon takes a turn for the obvious as Dwight is reunited with his family. Given that the film is more about the consequences of revenge than the act itself, it makes sense that Saulnier would reveal what, exactly, Dwight’s vengeance is for before leading up to the fallout. But as soon as the film clarifies Dwight’s mindset, he immediately becomes less interesting. What was once frighteningly opaque is now simple, and while Blair’s work as a meek, frightened version of the man (complete with a clean-shaven, softer look) is strong, the character loses the thrilling immediacy he held in the first half hour.

That isn’t to say that Blue Ruin’s next hour is without interest. Saulnier crafts a number of terrific set-pieces (including a home-invasion that sees Dwight on the defensive), and there is something refreshing about a thriller protagonist who’s weak and clearly out of his element, never more so than when he tries to perform makeshift surgery on an injury and finds that it isn’t quite as easy as it is in the movies. The character actor Devin Ratray (one of the dipshit cousins from Nebraska) also gives a memorable turn as a gun-nut buddy of Dwight’s who’s wary of what his old friend has planned. But the story further devolves into a rote sins-of-the-father narrative, a cycle of violence that’s understandable but irritatingly mechanistic. Saulnier is a director of considerable talent, but it’s exasperating when a film that started so fresh winds up at a place that feels predetermined.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

GodzillaMania #9: Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla/Terror of MechaGodzilla


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla: 67/B

Given Jun Fukuda’s terrible track record with the Godzilla series, it’s hard to expect much from his final entry, 1974’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. Fukuda had never shown much competence with the camera, and his tendency towards broad comedy and kid-friendly goofiness negated most of what was interesting about the series in the first place. Yet with MechaGodzilla, Fukuda made the most entertaining Godzilla film since 1967’s Destroy All Monsters and introduced one of the big green guy’s greatest nemeses.

The film is set in Okinawa, where an Azumi priestess predicts the destruction of a city by a giant monster.  Shortly thereafter, a group of scientists unearth both an artifact that bears likeness to the legendary monster King Caesar and a strange metal foreign to earth. Soon thereafter, a mysterious thief tries to steal the statue, and Godzilla emerges from Mount Fuji and begins a destructive rampage. But another Godzilla appears, and the destructive one is revealed to be MechaGodzilla, a giant robot modeled after the King of the Monsters and controlled by a group of aliens (of course) who plan to conquer the world.

The “aliens vs. humanity” plot is well-trod territory in the series, but Fukuda and company manage to make it seem fresh by focusing on the aliens’ attempts to steal the King Caesar statue, as the monster could stand in the way of their domination if awakened. Fukuda somehow became a more competent director between Godzilla vs. Megalon in this installment, and he choreographs the human fight scenes with an effectively down-and-dirty handheld aesthetic. Even better is a scene in which the thief sneaks into the room while one of the heroes is sleeping in order to steal the statue. Fukuda uses silence very effectively to mine tension before the thief is forced to run from one of the heroes in a pretty solid foot chase.

The same scene reveals the true form of the aliens, and it’s a good deal more interesting than the lame giant cockroach effects from Godzilla vs. Gigan. It turns out that when shot or seriously injured, the aliens revert to their human-ape form in an effect that’s reminiscent of The Wolf Man. The actual costumes are pretty cheesy – they essentially just stuck gorilla suit heads on them – but the transformation effect and the weird, echoing sound design helps sell the moment.

Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla has a bigger budget than the past several Godzilla films, and it shows. The quality of the special effects and film is markedly improved, and it’s the first film since Destroy All Monsters to not use stock footage from previous entries. But the real ace in the hole is MechaGodzilla, one of the coolest villains in the series. When MechaGodzilla loses its Godzilla skin, Fukuda introduces him in a series of close-ups that show off the terrific work they’ve put into it: it’s a monster with rocket fingers, a nasty-looking glare and metal jaw, and the appearance of a leaner, meaner version of our hero. And it’s hard not to have one’s inner 5-year-old take over when watching the thing fly, shoot lasers out of its eyes or mouth, or turn its head around in order to shoot backwards and forewards (with its rocket fingers) simultaneously.

What might be more impressive, though, is how Fukuda introduces the villain first as Godzilla gone mad. It’s important to remember that at this point, Godzilla had been a protector of humanity for the better part of ten years, give or take a brainwashing by aliens (this is a silly series). There’s a sense that something’s not quite right early on, as MechaGodzilla’s roar is much higher-pitched and his fire is the wrong color. When things really seem off is when he fights longtime Godzilla ally Anguirus (a friend in everything other than Godzilla Raids Again at this point). The monster recognizes something is wrong with his old pal and attacks, revealing a hint of the metallic skeleton before MechaGodzilla gives a beatdown complete with a King Kong-referencing tear of Anguirus’s jaw. It’s brutal stuff, far removed from what’s expected from Fukuda.

That isn’t to say that Fukuda has suddenly turned into a great filmmaker. Some of his worse instincts are still present, including a decent but distractingly jaunty score that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film. Fukuda and his three (!) co-screenwriters also waste way too much time on a dull prophecy involving King Caesar (a boring lion-like monster) and Godzilla teaming up to save the world, which reaches its low point when the priestess has to awaken him by singing a song that plays like a lamer version of the Mothra theme and goes on forever. And the dialogue ranges from goofy to insultingly overexpository. Examples include:

“This is space titanium.”
“Space titanium!” You mean this metal is from space?!”

(after it is very clearly demonstrated that MechaGodzilla is not the real Godzilla)
“Now I understand! It was a cyborg!”

“We are the spacemen from the third planet of the black hole in outer space.”
“Then you really are aliens.”
“I admire your deductive reasoning.”
(OK, this one might be intentionally funny)

All is forgiven when the film reaches its killer finale, however. Saving perhaps for the fight in the otherwise lame Gigan, Godzilla never got this bloody, and watching him turn himself into a magnet (he was struck by lightning earlier in the movie, just roll with it) to pull MechaGodzilla toward him and pull its head off is the thing of spectacularly silly beauty. Even the human climax near the end, in which the humans sabotage the alien control base, is pretty exciting. It makes for a fitting return to form for Toho’s greatest kaiju, and it would lead to one more strong outing before a long break.

Terror of MechaGodzilla: 70/B

This direct sequel to MechaGodzilla sees the remaining aliens from the third planet of the black hole (god I love typing that) grabbing the remains of MechaGodzilla to rebuild it.  In addition, the aliens have teamed with Dr. Mafune, a mad scientist whose bizarre experiments with sea life disgraced him and caused the near-death of his daughter, Katsura. When the aliens intervened and saved Katsura by giving her a bionic heart, Mafune, already furious with the rest of humanity, agrees to use his sea monster, Titanosaurus, to help them conquer the world. Things are complicated, however, when Katsura falls in love with an Interpol agent, and Godzilla arrives to save the day.

The fights in Terror of MechaGodzilla aren’t terribly different from the fights in the previous installment, less bloody but more rough-and-tumble. Titanosaurus is a decent addition to the Godzilla rogue gallery, and there is a new challenge when Godzilla finds that this updated MechaGodzilla won’t be stopped by having its head pulled off. More impressive are the monster introductions: Titanosaurus in an imposing low angle, MechaGodzilla in a crane shot that shows the scale of the work done, and Godzilla in an expressive cloud of smoke. If it feels like there’s a greater sense of artistry on board, it’s because original director Ishirō Honda has returned, and he’s used the bigger budget and success of the previous film as an excuse to get more ambitious.

Terror of MechaGodzilla is the rare installment in the series where the human story is actually more interesting than the monster material, which often feels like it’s moving too slowly. Mafune makes for a pretty compelling mad scientist, a man who slowly has a sense that his choices are leading to terrible places, but who nonetheless feels indebted to the beings who saved his daughter. There’s a sense of long-brewing anger and grief (over his wife’s death and his daughter’s predicament) that’s only accentuated by a number of extreme eye close-ups that seem to be Honda’s answer to Sergio Leone.

Honda also gets into darker territory with Katsura, played by Tomoko Ai in a tortured performance as a woman filled with self-hatred. She too is indebted to the aliens, but as she falls in love with a man, she’s taunted by them: “Your heart is made of wires and gears. Who could ever love that?” She’s made less human as the film goes on, as another injury forces the aliens to replace most of her organs with mechanical parts. She’s the most human character in the past several Godzilla films, and yet she’s dehumanized, and her confusion and shame over her identity leads to tragedy. It’s a remarkably melancholy moment to end the franchise on, even as Godzilla triumphantly strides into the ocean after defeating his foes. The film would be the least successful in the series, and as the world oil crisis took over and the budgets for these films got bigger, Toho chose to give the series a long break.  

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive


Grade: 87/A-

“Why is life worth living?” So asks Woody Allen’s character in Manhattan, as he runs down a list that includes Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, and the face of the girl he loves. Jim Jarmusch, the eternally cool hipster director behind tales of alienation and emptiness like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, not to mention the protracted death rattle of his 1995 masterpiece Dead Man, isn’t the first person one would expect to pick up from that monologue. Yet his new film Only Lovers Left Alive is almost the anti-Dead Man, a film that posits if you’re going to live forever, you’d better find someone great to share it with.

Married vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have lived for centuries, influencing musicians, scientists, and other artists. Adam has become a reclusive rock musician in Detroit, constantly recording and asking unassuming rock-and-roll fan Ian (Anton Yelchin) to run odd jobs for him. Eve, meanwhile, spends her time in Tangiers.

Both of them have found ways to drink blood without having to harm anyone, Adam through a blood-bank doctor (Jeffrey Wright), and Eve through another vampire, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt, and yes, he’s that Christopher Marlowe).  When Eve senses Adam’s depression (he refers to humans as “zombies” and speaks openly about suicide), she travels home to bring his spirits up. But their peace is threatened as Eve’s impulsive sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) comes for a visit and fans of Adam’s music start to flock around the house.

The film’s first half deals a bit with the need to control vampiric urges, not to mention the drug-like euphoria that passes over them as they partake. But it’s more delightful when Jarmusch focuses on what hundreds of years of life has done for these people, whether they’re adding to their endless knowledge of music, science, and literature, touring Jack White’s house, or taking simple delight in what new technology can bring them (video chats for their long-distance relationship, the possibility of blood popsicles). Jarmusch observes these ancients among modernity with a typical deadpan, yet it’s hard not to sense a greater trace of warmth as Hiddleston and Swinton (both spectacularly ethereal) battle wits during a chess game or dance during Denise LaSalle’s “Trapped By a Thing Called Love.”

When Wasikowska shows up in the second half, the film becomes more driven by incident than by behavior, and it can’t help but feel a smidge more deterministic as Ava starts to hang with humans – with so many (admittedly funny) hints about what “happened last time,” it’s hard not to know what’s coming. Yet the film gains cumulative emotional weight as Adam is forced out of his funk, forced to care about his own life as well as Eve’s. Only a filmmaker as cool as Jarmusch could end up making a vampire film his warmest effort, but maybe it takes an eternity (and the right person) to get the best perspective of things.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

GodzillaMania #8: All Monsters Attack/Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Gigan/Megalon


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

All Monsters Attack: 0/F

We’re entering the dog days of Godzilla, folks. Following the success of Destroy All Monsters, Toho reneged on its plan to end the series and made the 10th, and shittiest, film in the series, All Monsters Attack (also known as Godzilla’s Revenge, to my utter bewilderment). It’s not that gearing a Godzilla film specifically towards young children is a bad idea, especially given that the King of the Monsters primarily appealed to kids at this point. The problem is that All Monsters Attack is an almost impossibly lazy cash-grab of a movie, one destined to bore children and adults alike.

Ichiro Miki (Tomonori Yazaki) is alatchkey kid in Tokyo. He doesn’t have many friends his age (only Eisei Amamoto’s eccentric toymaker mentor) and is relentlessly bullied by Sancho (Junichi Ito), nicknamed “Gabara.” Lonely, Ichiro daydreams about visiting Godzilla and his son Minilla on Monster Island. One day, he’s forced to hide from Sancho and his friends in an abandoned factory, where he finds the driver’s license of one of the two bank robbers hiding in the factory. The men follow Ichiro home and kidnap him, and it’s only Ichiro’s imaginary friendship with Minilla, who urges him to face his fears, that can save him now.

It isn’t the most exciting narrative, to put it lightly. Perhaps the material could have made for a halfway decent children’s film about facing fears had that been the full picture, but with Ichiro’s daydreams and the shoehorned in bank robbers plot to contend with the central storyline doesn’t develop beyond a rote bullied-kid storyline. Beyond that: this is a goddamned Godzilla movie. Kids come to these things to see Godzilla fight, not another small kid fritter away his hours daydreaming and dealing with a pair of bumbling thieves who play like a boring version of Harry and Marv from Home Alone, or take his “fight your own battles” lesson to dubious places when the film ends with him purposefully startling a painter so as to get him to drop paint on himself, then running away from it. Ichiro’s train conductor father mentions at one point that it’s hard to understand kids today. Hey, guy, I understand that kids go to monster movies to see monsters.

But what really makes All Monsters Attack an inept and galling exercise is the footage of Ichiro on Monster Island, as around 80% of it is comprised of stock footage from previous Godzilla movies. Ichiro arrives to watch Godzilla fight a bunch of monsters, but devoted viewers will recognize that they’re the exact same fights from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla.  It’s not even good recycled footage; we get to re-watch the lame fights between Godzilla and the giant lobster Ebirah, Godzilla and the giant mantises (Kamacuras), the giant spider (Kumonga), and the unnamed giant condor. The new footage is largely comprised of A. Godzilla and Minilla dealing with a rather stupid-looking new monster called Gabara (just like the kid who bullies Ichiro!) and B. Minilla talking with Ichiro about how Godzilla expects him to fight his own battles (though he’s less aggravating in Japanese than he is in English). To make matters more depressing, All Monsters Attack was directed by series founder Ishirō Honda, who had wanted to get out of the kaiju genre and who tossed this one out after Destroy All Monsters renewed interest in the series. The series would see other low points, including that abortive American remake, but this is almost undoubtedly the nadir.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah: 56/B-

For the 11th Godzilla film, Toho handed the series to a director other than Ishirō Honda or Jun Fukuda for the first time since 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again. Inspired by a visit to a polluted beach, director Yoshimitsu Banno decided to give 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) an overt message, the series’ first since Mothra vs. Godzilla seven years earlier. Banno also decided to incorporate a few other, trippier elements, including animation and psychedelia. The results were uneven, to say the least, but far more interesting than the previous effort.

After being brought an odd tadpole-like creature by a local fisherman, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and his young son Ken investigate, only to find a microscopic alien life form that feeds off of Earth’s pollution. The creature, Hedorah, attacks Yano and moves on to land, where it can switch between aquatic, terrestrial and airborne forms. Ken has a vision of Godzilla helping mankind fight the pollution monster, but when Hedorah’s toxic body both harms the giant lizard and doesn’t react to Godzilla’s usual attacks, Yano must find a new way to make the creature more susceptible to him.

The film establishes jarring disparate tones early on, beginning with an effective B-movie moment of creepy reptilian eyes moving through a polluted lake only to switch to an rock-and-roll tinged opening credits sequence that feels like a Japanese James Bond movie is starting up. It doesn't get any less schizophrenic: after a fairly effective scene where Hedorah attacks Yano and Ken discovers that using a knife on a sludge-monster won’t have much effect, the film shifts to a cheerful Hedorah cartoon, and later to a scene that sees Godzilla framed against the sun like a kung fu hero, and later alternating between Godzilla fighting Hedorah and a rock club with a guy freaking out and hallucinating a bunch of people wearing fish masks. It’s a nutty film, in short, but that’s part of what makes it so bizarrely enjoyable – you never quite know what Banno’s going to throw at the screen next (answer: a bunch of TV personalities appearing in split screen and yelling at Hedorah while a baby cries, the hippie characters going into a field to escape pollution and rock out, or Godzilla making himself fly by using his radioactive breath).

The oddness helps leaven the fact that Banno’s allegory is pretty blunt, bordering on didactic, and that Hedorah is a pretty goofy looking monster. The monster-movie moments aren’t without their charms: Godzilla actually seems badly hurt when he’s hit by toxic sludge, the characters try to find a scientific (well, pseudo-scientific) solution for the first time in a long time, and the effect of Hedorah’s toxic fumes or sludge on humans (cut away, back to disintegrated clothes and skeletons) is effective, if obvious. But it’s hard to choreograph fights between Godzilla and a giant sludge monster even if you’ve made it a bit of a shape-shifter that can walk or fly depending on the situation. And some of the dialogue setting up the us vs. pollution storyline is pretty goofy (“Godzilla would be angry if he saw this!”). But then, there’s a certain goofiness to most of the films in the Showa series (roughly the first 15 films), so it’s nice to get one that’s at least trying something new.

Godzilla vs. Gigan: 41/C

The same can’t be said for 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, which was put into production after Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka saw Godzilla vs. Hedorah and hated it, saying that Banno had ruined Godzilla (which, if All Monsters Attack didn’t do it, nothing will). Tanaka fired Banno from the planned Godzilla vs. Hedorah 2, also making sure Banno would never direct for Toho again. He then brought back director Jun Fukuda and scrapped Hedorah 2 for a more traditional “Godzilla and Humanity vs. Aliens” storyline. Intended as a return to form, Godzilla vs. Gigan is more of a sign of a series that was running out of steam.

Manga artist Gengo (Hiroshi Ishikawa) is hired by a peace-themed park creepily titled World Children’s Land, which has a centerpiece called “Godzilla Tower” (shaped like the big green guy himself). Gengo starts to suspect something’s up when he notices the intense secrecy of the place, and when a pair of newfound friends steal a tape from the organization after explaining that they’ve kidnapped their brother. Gengo and company discover that World Children’s Land’s staff is made up of giant alien cockroaches who have taken on the form of dead humans in order to colonize earth. The stolen tape contains a signal incomprehensible to humans, but totally understandable to Godzilla and Anguirus, who realize that the aliens are bringing Ghidorah and the new monster Gigan to attack earth.

At this point, the series had more or less milked Ghidorah bone dry, so it’s probably a positive that the original plan to make him the central monster antagonist was rejiggered. To the film’s credit, Gigan is a fairly interesting monster far different from what the series had seen before. He seems to be part organic monster, part mechanical, with a lizard body but a beaklike mouth, scythe-shaped hands, a laser-red eye and a buzzsaw on his chest. It’s a cool design, and one that makes for some of the more memorably bloody moments in Godzilla history.

But Gigan’s design is just about the only point of interest in the movie. While the mystery of what exactly is going on is doled out fairly effectively, pretty much everything about the villains’ actions and ways of carrying themselves screams “I AM AN ALIEN! AN ALIEEEEN!,” and they don’t differentiate themselves from the previous extraterrestrial villains in any memorable way. The heroes are pretty dull, too, save for some odd opening moments in which Gengo pitches his ideas for manga monsters, Shukura and Mamagon (monsters made up of homework and strict mothers, respectively). Fukuda didn’t become any more skillful a director in the five years between his last Godzilla movie, either, with some of the compositions being particularly inept (he uses a fisheye lens for a driving scene, for some reason).

For all of the effort to create Gigan, it doesn’t pay off. Fukuda drags out the scenes of Ghidorah and Gigan destroying Tokyo, with no real obstacles, to the degree where it becomes repetitive, and he doesn’t stage the monster fights in a memorable way. What’s worse, he relies on stock footage from Destroy All Monsters for many of the Ghidorah moments (Anguirus chomping on Ghidorah’s neck and being lifted into the air), darkening the scene to make it look slightly different. And Godzilla himself has rarely looked worse, as the budget was low and the reused suit from 1967’s  Destroy All Monsters was clearly falling apart at this point. It’s a shoddy way to treat the main attraction. When the most memorable moment in your Godzilla movie is a bizarre scene in which Godzilla and Anguirus communicate via speech bubbles (gravelly spoken voices in the English version), you have not made a very good movie.

Godzilla vs. Megalon: 19/D+

Still, it’s better than the follow-up, 1973’s notoriously awful Godzilla vs. Megalon. The byproduct of the popular tokusatsu genre (heavy special effects films and TV shows often involving superheroes or mechas), the film wasn’t initially going to feature Godzilla at all, but rather serve as a vehicle for an Ultraman knockoff called Jet Jaguar. Toho wasn’t sure that Jet Jaguar could headline his own film, however, so they brought Godzilla and Gigan on for marketing value, shot the film in three weeks, and called it a day. It didn’t turn out well.

Nuclear testing has harmed the underwater nation of Seatopia, and they’ve decided to set their god, a giant beetle called Megalon, upon the human race. For whatever reason, they decide that they need Jet Jaguar, a robot created by an inventor living near the lake (!) where Seatopia lives under, to guide Megalon to destroy whatever they need. The inventor, his younger brother, and their friend are able to steal Jet Jaguar back and bring Godzilla to the fray while the Seatopians send a distress call to the aliens from the previous film to send Gigan.

It’s a half-assed story executed indifferently, with Fukuda’s terrible knack for pacing making the early going of the film particularly slow. The Seatopians are lame adversaries even for a late-period Showa film, and their undersea lair is cheap and poorly constructed. The lowlight (or laughable highlight, depending on your point of view) of the human storyline in the film is an incoherently shot fistfight between one of the heroes and a Seatopian that never seems to connect one shot to the other to form a clear picture.

Godzilla vs. Megalon can’t quite live down to All Monsters Attack’s cheapness or Ebirah, Horror of the Deep’s dullness, but it still has a number of series lows, including some of the worst effects of the series. Godzilla got a much-needed new suit following the wear and tear on the previous model, but he now seems to resemble a giant frog…whenever Fukuda and company aren’t cutting back to old stock footage, which again comprises much of the film’s effects, including most of the opening.

Megalon is a pretty lame new foe, too, a giant beetle with hands the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew compared to small Chrysler buildings and a tendency to bungle his way into destruction (he destroys a dam seemingly out of incompetence). Godzilla isn’t even the main attraction, most of the time, but rather second banana to Jet Jaguar (who gets a memorably silly song). The giant robot is more interesting than anything else that’s happening on screen (save for this delightfully goofy moment), but that’s not saying much. The film ends with a noncommittal shrug, as the heroes claim that the Seatopians should be left alone, as they don’t want to fight any more than they do (what). There were a couple more films left in the Showa series, but at this point it was clear the King of the Monsters needed to take some time off.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Under the Skin


Grade: 90/A-

The term “Kubrickian” is thrown around a lot these days, but it legitimately applies to Under the Skin, the third film by Jonathan Glazer and his first since 2004’s underrated Birth. Under the Skin opens with one of the strangest and most arresting sequences in recent film history, as a large circular objects lowers itself to the screen as ambient sound and scratching string music blares on the soundtrack. The sound of Scarlett Johansson’s smoky voice enters, but it’s not forming coherent words. Glazer doesn’t immediately explain what’s happening, but rather expects viewers to put it together. What’s even more thrilling than what Glazer trusts us with is that even as the object turns from something abstract to something more coherent (an eye), we can’t forget the alien origin of the object – it remains deeply unsettling.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who remains unnamed in the credits, although some reviews have referred to her as “Laura.” Johansson spends her days and nights traveling Scotland, picking up men, enticing them to follow her. When she brings them into their apartment, she strips off her clothes, and as they do they same, they’re trapped in an odd black liquid.

There’s more background in Michel Faber’s original novel, but Glazer forgoes exposition and abstracts the narrative to deliriously cinematic effect. Most of Under the Skin’s first two thirds play like a cross between 2001 and a horror movie: Johansson cruises Scotland, picks up men, and lures them to their horrible fate. Mica Levi’s deeply unsettling score begins with low violins and a slow near-metronomic march as the men are lured into a black void of a room as Johansson strips without emotion, her body reflected by the sleek black floor. The men can’t help but follow her lead, ignoring her vacant, predatory gaze and the HOLY SHIT THERE IS NOTHING IN THIS ROOM SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG as they’re swallowed into a void to the sound of shrill violins.
                     
It’s repetitive, but hypnotically so, as each episode gradually reveals more about Johansson’s purpose and what awaits the men beneath the liquid while still remaining essentially abstract. There’s an intense sense of alienation as Johansson roams the country, as voices around her become indecipherable, echoing noise and the men’s thick, often difficult to understand Scottish brogues make humanity seem just as foreign to us as they are to her. Glazer capitalizes on that feeling by placing Johansson in places where she’s forced to react to human behavior.

A breathless sequence on a beach could serve as its own mini-masterpiece: Johansson tries to pick up a vacationing Czech surfer, only to have her conquest interrupted as a nearby woman runs into the tide to save her drowning dog, followed by her husband trying to save her and the surfer chasing after him. Johansson’s non-reaction to the tragedy before her eyes is made more eerie by the long shot Glazer frames her in to heighten her distance from the messy humanity on display. And that’s before the shocking climax to the scene plays, followed by an even more uneasy denouement involving the couple’s screaming infant child completely forgotten on the beach.

It’s not just human behavior Glazer makes unrecognizable and distancing: large chunks of the film borrow from cinema history in order to render the familiar alien. There are wide shots of vistas reminiscent of John Ford or David Lean, but the landscapes are punishing rather than lush. The seductions-turned-murders have the structure of slasher movies, but they don’t follow the same rhythms and are more frightening and unpredictable because of it.

The “Kubrickian” label applies in this sense, but Glazer takes that influence and turns it on its head as well, as there’s a more open and intuitive sense to Johansson picking up men, with many of the scenes on Scottish streets being shot on the fly without the knowledge of the people around it. And while Stephanie Zacharek has already mentioned in her excellent review of how the nudity feels more akin to Eadweard Muybridge’s anthropological stills than horror or even art-house films, but there’s also a sense of making Muybridge’s humane and curious photos into something more outlandish and terrifying.

Glazer’s most daring gambit is taking one of the world’s most glamorous movie stars and defamiliarizing her. In the polar opposite of her performance in Her, in which her body is removed but her warm and lively presence remains, Johansson appears as a living abyss, something that mimics human behavior without understanding it or ever fully achieving it, all for a cruel and deadly purpose. Many praise actors or actresses as brave whenever they appear onscreen nude (as Johansson does here), but the real fearlessness in her performance is the willingness to appear blank and inscrutable, allowing the viewer to project their thoughts and feelings onto her in any attempt to find out what’s going on in her head.

For the first hour, Under the Skin follows her lead, remaining horrifying and enigmatic up to the point where Johansson picks up a deformed victim without realizing there’s anything strange to him, allowing him a kindness he hasn’t known that makes the knowledge of where this is heading all the more unbearable. And then the film shifts. It develops a more defined narrative that orients us more than the previous hour. Johansson turns from predatory to a lost, confused and lonely soul more curious about human behavior and aching for a connection.

Thematically, this shift is totally in keeping with the rest of the film. Glazer covers the universality of loneliness, the control of sexuality and body image (and the loss of control), and the frustration of all of the above. Glazer and Johansson handle the shift deftly, as she tries to embrace her body, her sex, the human senses. It’s a path not unlike that of Jeff Bridges in Starman, only without ever being able to transition to human experience.

The only trouble is that while this section is beautifully realized, not to mention still singular and audacious compared to most films, it can’t help but feel conventional compared to what’s come before. Even as the film moves towards a haunting finale, there’s a feeling of familiarity that was gloriously absent from the early going. It’s a relative disappointment, however, and one that may fall away with repeat viewings (this is a film that defies instantaneous reactions). Even if Under the Skin falls short of near-perfection, it still feels like one of the major film achievements of the year.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Dom Hemingway


Grade: 61/B-

Dom Hemingway loves his penis. That’s the first thing we learn in Dom Hemingway, in an opening scene that features Jude Law shirtless, sweaty, and clearly getting a blowjob as he rants about how his cock should be declared a work of art, and that wars should be fought over it. A cell window is in the corner of the frame, but prison hasn’t stopped this safecracker from getting off or diffused his ego. In the next scene, Dom starts an argument with a guard who wants him to put down his pudding and get a message, insulting him endlessly until he relents, only to find out that the guard is there to give him good news, that’s he’s getting out following 12 years in prison.

These scenes establish an enjoyably wackadoo tone for Dom Hemingway, the new film from The Matador director Richard Shepard. Like that earlier film, Dom Hemingway works best as a vehicle to see a star (Pierce Brosnan in the former, Law here) take his persona to hilariously venal heights. Law has played nasty characters before (the entitled rich kid of The Talented Mr. Ripley, I Heart Huckabees’s soulless shill), but here he tones down the megawatt smile and cranks up the nastiness. Dom’s the kind of guy who’s skills as a safecracker can’t quite live up his legendary hedonism or his habit of insulting or threatening anyone who comes across him.

Dom Hemingway is never more entertaining than when pitting Dom against more subdued criminals and watching them react. Richard E. Grant is a terrific foil Dom’s erudite but long-suffering best friend, while the polite under-reactions of Demian Bichir (as the Russian crime boss who owes Dom for not naming him) to Dom’s volatility are a great contrast to Grant’s constant state of exasperation. It’s true that most of Dom Hemingway plays as a serious of episodes (separated by title cards like “12 Years is a Long Time”) without too much on their mind, but the episodes are consistently funny, so it’s hard to care too much.

At least, that’s the way it plays for the first 45 minutes of the film. At a certain point in the narrative, Shepard makes the mistake of humanizing Dom by giving him an estranged daughter (Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke). It’s a maudlin development that feels at odds with the inspired lunacy of the first half, and the film inelegantly shifts back and forth between the two. For every sequence of Law going wild (highlight: betting that he can open a safe, putting his beloved penis up as his bet, and humping the safe to get it open), there’s a painful scene of a hardened criminal getting weepy over how he treated his daughter and deceased wife. But even for all of its missteps, Dom Hemingway is held together by Law’s fearlessly abrasive performance and charisma. Dom might be a bastard, but for the best stretches of the film, he’s our bastard.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or the brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

GodzillaMania #7: Ebirah/Son of Godzilla/Destroy All Monsters


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep: 13/D

Ishirō Honda guided the Godzilla franchise through most of its early days, but in 1966, for the first time in over a decade, he wasn’t available to work on the next one. With Honda committed to another kaiju film, The War of the Gargantuas, Toho brought on Jun Fukuda, a director better known for comedy than big budget horror. Fukada’s had the same series screenwriter has Honda, Shinichi Sekizawa, but either the franchise was running thin or Fukuda and Sekizawa just came up with a particularly poor scenario, because Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) is one of the weakest films in the series.

Yata (Toru Ibuki) has lost his brother, Ryota (Toru Watanabe) at sea, but a psychic tells him that he’s still alive. Yata nd his friends steal a boat belonging to a bank robber on the run (Choutarou Tougin), but on the way the group is attacked by the giant lobster Ebirah and are washed ashore. There, a terrorist organization known as Red Bamboo is brewing chemical weapons and has enslaved natives from Infant Island for their purposes. The natives hope that Mothra will rescue them, but Yata and company come up with a new plan: revive Godzilla, who’s sleeping in a cavern.

On top of Honda’s upcoming The War of the Gargantuas, Toho’s budgets were going down as Japanese theater attendance declined with the growing popularity of television (having Akira Kurosawa’s expensive Red Beard in their books probably didn’t help any). Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Fukuda is working on a much tighter budget. While the film is mostly shot on location rather than expensive sets, the film still feels cheap, with poor effects and endless time wasting on an uninvolving espionage subplot in order to keep the monster fights to a minimum.

Even with the budget aside, however, this is shoddy work. Fukuda’s broad comic instincts make for some irritating moments, from the mugging of the hero’s two friends to goofy music to a moment where our heroes are hanging upside down (it’s wacky). On top of that, Sekizawa’s human plot is needlessly convoluted even for a Godzilla movie, with too many heroic characters, character bits that don’t pay off (the bank robber’s past), and the needless delay of Godzilla coming back into action.

Speaking of which: the big green guy takes nearly an hour to show up in an 87-minute movie, and when he does, much of his behavior doesn’t feel quite right. Toho originally intended for the film to star King Kong instead of Godzilla, but they didn’t change the script when they switched monsters. Consequently, Godzilla’s frequently acts like Kong did in King Kong vs. Godzilla: he’s resurrected by lightning, he fights more often with boulders than with his radioactive breath, and he attacks Mothra when he shows up to save the day, despite their being friends in their last joint outing. And even if we’re to ignore that, the fight sequences are incoherently shot and dull, whether Godzilla’s fighting Ebirah (a lame antagonist in any right) or a giant condor in what’s essentially a shitty retread of the Godzilla/Mothra/Rodan fights. Poorly directed, plodding, and almost totally without interest, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep is one of the worst Godzilla movies.

Son of Godzilla: 37/C

That said, it was still reasonably successful, so Toho barreled ahead with another one the next year. Fukuda and Sekizawa returned, armed with an even lower budget than before but a surefire idea to keep Godzilla popular with the kids: give him an adorable, comical son. Given the level of backlash that Son of Godzilla has received among friends from making the King of the Monsters even more innocuous than he had been in a few years, it’s a welcome relief to report that it’s not as mind-numbingly dull as the previous installment. Is it still plenty dull? Oh, lord yes.

Goro Maki (Akira Kubo, who played the inventor in Invasion of Astro-Monster) is a reporter who parachutes onto down (just go with it) to get a scoop on the scientists doing odd tests on an island. When an experiment goes awry, a bunch of 2-meter tall giant praying mantises grow even larger and start to terrorize the island. The mantises (called Kamacuras in the Japanese version and Gimantises in the English version) dig up and attack an egg, which contains Minilla, the son of Godzilla. Godzilla rescues and raises his son, who befriends a woman on the island but inadvertently awakes a giant spider, Kumonga.

That’s not so much a plot as it is a bunch of stuff happening, so it’s hardly even worth getting into the human material. The least that can be said is that the movie isn’t quite as slow as Ebirah, but it does give a bigger showcase to Fukuda’s excruciating sense of humor (see: man washing his vegetables in a sink, only to find that’s where another man washed his underwear). The whole feel of the film is wrong, down to the littlest details – the musical score from Masaru Sato sounds more at place in a Jerry Lewis movie than here.

Most of the new monsters rival Ebirah for dullness, with the Kamacuras looking decidedly unthreatening next to Godzilla and Kumonga serving as your average B-movie giant spider. The biggest complaint for fans comes down to Minilla, the Scrappy-Doo of the Godzilla series. Minilla isn’t quite as irritating here as he will be a few films from now, and for the kids movie angle the film is shooting for, the film isn’t torture. But Godzilla fans’ tolerance for the movie largely depends on how much they can take of Godzilla acting like a deadbeat dad and Minilla acting cutesy. The former is occasionally a mitigating factor, with Godzilla showing little patience for his kid’s shit when he’s training him to be a big bad monster (he can only blow radioactive smoke rings, which isn’t enough for big Godzilla). But a little of Minilla goes a long way, and by the time he’s put in peril in the film’s finale, it’s hard to not want to ever see him again.

Destroy All Monsters; 68/B

Minilla returns for Destroy All Monsters, but in a limited way. Who was back in a big way? Ishirō Honda! As ticket sales declined for Son of Godzilla, Toho brought Honda back as a director and co-writer (along with his War of the Gargantuas collaborator Takeshi Kimura) for what was planned to be the final film in the series, complete with a larger budget. Honda and Kimura had a hell of a plan to go out on: bring back the successful space elements from the Ghidorah elements, and throw in damn near every monster who’d ever appeared in a Godzilla film, with a few extra Toho monsters to boot. The result wasn’t the end-all-be-all of the series, but it was a welcome return to form.

All of the monsters in the world have been captured and contained on Monsterland, which keeps the likes of Godzilla, Minilla, Rodan, Anguirus, Kumonga, Gorosaurus, Manda and Mothra (even though he’s never harmed humanity) in a well-maintained area, complete with force fields and a research center to study them. When all communications are cut off on Monsterland, Captain Yamabe (Kudo again) is sent on his spaceship to investigate. They find that a group of feminine aliens known as the Kilaaks have taken control of the scientists and the monsters, who they have transported to different locations around the globe to wreak havoc until humanity surrenders. Yamabe and company discover that the Kilaaks are using their lunar base to transmit signals, and they attack it to break their control of the monsters and win back the world.

It’s a bit of a retread of Astro-Monster, but who cares? Production value, and lots of it! The film starts with a sense of grandeur as we get to see all of the monsters together, living in peace, and better space sets than ever. The aliens still look silly, but Honda uses an echoing sound design to make them feel otherworldly and menacing. And while the human plot is never going to be as interesting as the monsters on display, there’s genuine suspense in the story as the brainwashed scientists start behaving unpredictably, committing suicide to avoid questioning. There’s even some impressive make-up work at one point as the heroes have to perform an autopsy to find out how they’re being controlled and they find small metallic devices buried underneath the characters’ ears.

More to the point though: monsters! All of them! And they’re not just in Tokyo. The sheer excitement of watching Honda and co cut between Rodan attacking Moscow, Godzilla in New York, another monster destroying the Arch de Triumph is incredible. When it comes to an all-out attack on Tokyo, Honda uses space better than he ever has before, utilizing the foreground and background of the scene to showcase just how overwhelming it is.

The finale comes with a bit of a cheat, reintroducing King Ghidorah at the drop of a hat, but it’s hard to complain when holy shit a monster Royal Rumble with everyone vs. King Ghidorah you guys! Perhaps it’s not exactly the most suspenseful fight in the series, given how outmatched Ghidorah is, but the teamwork on display and the clarity of the fight more than makes up for it as Anguirus chomps down on one of Ghidorah’s necks while he’s lifted off the ground as Ghidorah flies, or as the group whales on Ghidorah to the point where even Minilla is getting in on the action, blowing a radioactive smoke ring that goes around the monster’s neck like a horseshoe (see: Minilla actually being funny, Fukuda!). Destroy All Monsters was too successful for it to be the last in the series, but it would have made a fitting conclusion.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.