Saturday 3 February 2024

New Movies Round-up # 1:
Big Movies.

Looking back, it seems I began 2023 with a rare round-up of ‘new’ movies I’d seen recently, and… things seem to be going that way for 2024 too, so why don’t we make a Jan/Feb tradition of it? The first of two planned posts, this one will be looking at a few recent releases your friends, co-habitants and co-workers might actually have heard of, including the latest iterations of two of Japan’s (and my own) favourite cinematic franchises.


Godzilla Minus One 
(Takashi Yamazaki, 2023)

Just before Christmas, my wife & I took an afternoon off work to go and watch Toho’s attempt to expand upon the domestic success of 2016’s ‘Shin Godzilla’, at an ‘old folks’ screening at our nearest cinema. (I’d question how many - cough - ‘old folks’ really want to see a subtitled CGI monster movie, but hey, we’re all getting there, right?)

Truth be told, I didn’t emerge with particularly strong feelings either way, but I enjoyed it - which in blockbuster terms, seems about as good a definition of ‘success’ as any.

Rowing waa-aa-aa-ay back from the sophisticated political satire of ‘Shin Godzilla’ (which often felt more like being dropped into a Japanese equivalent of The Thick Of It than watching a monster movie), Yamazaki’s film is a far more conventional/commercial proposition, mixing state-of-the-art kaiju chops with a hefty dose of tear-jerking melodrama, a sheen of the kind of progressive/pacifist we’re-all-in-this-together patriotism that 21st century Japan (to its credit) does so well… and I suspect, more than half an eye on the overseas market, which has been richly rewarded by the movie’s success in the USA.

Leaving all that aside for a minute, it must first be acknowledged that the monster stuff here is all really good. Though perhaps not quite up to the level of that seen in the 2017 American Godzilla, the quality of the CG work has improved immeasurably since ‘Shin Godzilla’ (which I personally found conspicuously lacking in this regard).

The Big G’s appearances here are always dramatic and cool, he is sufficiently huge, weighty and terrifying to invoke comparisons to the gold standard of Honda’s ’54 original. Both his destruction of a battleship and his obligatory rampage through a painstakingly assembled facsimile of post-war Ginza prove to be incredibly effective set-pieces, giving us punters what we paid for in no uncertain terms, whilst reconfiguring his bursts of heat ray breath as individual nuclear detonations proves an especially frightening and powerful touch.

Unfortunately however, the accompanying human storyline (which comprises a somewhat higher percentage of the overall run time than it really should) proves ridiculously melodramatic, heartstring-tugging stuff, weighed down with coincidences and unlikelihoods which border on total absurdity in places. Even as a gaijin, I feel like I’ve seen these familiar historical narratives (survivor’s guilt experienced by a former kamikaze pilot, new family units being reconstituted out of the ruins of war, the desperation and gradual reconstruction of post-war Tokyo) done so much better, with so much more nuance and honesty, so many times in Japanese cinema and literature, that Yamazaki’s latest attempt to rinse my emotions just didn’t wash.

It’s always watchable mind you (much in the same way that we in the UK could probably spend the rest of eternity watching tales of dashing spitfire pilots romancing pretty young code-breakers on sepia-tinted bicycle rides to the NAAFI), but despite some strong performances from the supporting cast, both my wife and I basically found ourselves sniggering and whispering sarcy comments to each other whilst the the film was clearly trying to get us to weep and beat our chests. So… less of a success on that score, I reckon.

Somehow, based on advance publicity, I’d gotten the mistaken impression that ‘Godzilla Minus One’ was going to look at the events of the original '54 Godzilla, as experienced from the POV of ordinary folks on the street - an approach which, personally, I would have found that a lot more interesting than yet another tale in which our central characters get to enjoy multiple up-close-and-personal encounters with the Big G, before their sense of individual exceptionalism drives them to single-handedly save Japan and resolve their respective existential life crises at the same time. Oh well.

Beneath the Big Themes of national togetherness and reconstruction, there are a few bits of political sub-text bubbling away somewhere in the background which I found interesting, although they never really add up to much. As per ‘Shin Godzilla’, I liked the way that the occupying American forces are basically like, “eh, no - sort it out yourself please” once the kaiju threat emerges, leaving war-ravaged Japan to try to pull together a solution to the Godzilla problem using a few old fishing boats and bits of wire.

And, I also found it note-worthy that the coalition of ex-military/scientific expertise which eventually comes together to defeat Godzilla is a privately funded enterprise, operating independently of the (assumed to be useless) state apparatus - certainly a very different approach from anything seen back in the old days, and one whose implications quite possibly feel even more sinister than that of the big, quasi-utopian global super-organisations who used to call the shots in so many of Ishiro Honda’s SF movies. 


(Emerald Fennell, 2023)

An odd choice for a New Years Eve movie, but hey - I didn't make it.

Still, I’d rather see in the new year whilst watching a contemporary ‘cuckoo in the nest’ type takedown of the moribund British class system than I would catching a throat infection whilst queuing endlessly for drinks in a catastrophically over-crammed pub, listening to somebody’s idea of ‘party music’ blaring from a shit-fi PA, so - result.

But anyway! The problem with getting old as a fan of movies/culture in general is - you’ve see it all before.

This, for instance, is a perfectly well-made, compelling film, and had I watched it when I was within the same age group as the central characters, I may have found it all terribly thought-provoking and subversive and so on.

As it is though, by the halfway mark I already had this tale of a proletarian scholarship boy at Oxford (Barry Keoghan) inveigling himself into the stately home-based family life of disgustingly posh classmate Jacob Elordi pegged as 50% ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, 40% ‘The Servant’, and 10% some random TV drama about the lives of the rich and privileged which I didn’t bother to watch - and thus simply spent the remaining run-time contemplating the potential of re-watching / re-reading the first two of those again instead. (Actually, I think there’s a fair bit of Ken Russell’s adaption of ‘Women in Love’ in here too… but this is only meant to be a short review, so I shouldn’t get carried away.)

As per Fennell’s previous film as writer/director (2020’s ‘Promising Young Woman’, which I liked quite a lot, for the record), innovation here largely stems from the unconventional and kind of knowingly ‘unfair’ games played with the audience’s sympathies, and the deliberate holding back of certain key pieces of narrative information - a technique which holds up well here, but feels pretty precarious also. I’d be wary about the prospect of Fennell pushing it further in film # 3, but let’s see, eh?

There are a few nods to classic gothic imagery here - most notably, a startling scene of sexualised vampirism which put me in mind of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel ‘Some of Your Blood’ (you see what I mean about getting old?)

For the most part though, realism predominates in spite of the dream-like grandeur of the setting, and the particular ‘vibe’ of a landed, upper class household adapting to the more open and inclusive norms of late 20th century life - studiedly casual, lethargic and welcoming on the surface, yet still hidebound by a bottomless cauldron of prejudices, petty cruelties and labyrinthine rules of conduct bubbling just beneath - is both beautifully captured and entirely convincing.

Sadly for good ol’ Richard E. Grant - perfectly, if obviously, cast as the clan’s pained patriarch - however, the whole affair also feels aggressively contemporary, in the sense that there's lots of pervy, uncomfortable sex stuff going on, but nobody actually enjoys any of it, and the characters all swear and say nasty things about each other incessantly.

All the malignancy and kink which Joseph Losey and Patricia Highsmith were obliged to deal with through allusion and smoke signals in their earlier iterations of this tale are dragged up to the surface of the murky bathwater and beaten black n’ blue here by Fennell… which is not necessarily a criticism, merely an indication that I can sometimes feel the generation gap yawning wide when I watch stuff like this. (Although, mercifully, it’s at least set in 2006, so they’re not all banging on about each others ‘socials’ and covertly videoing everything all the time once the inter-personal skulduggery gets underway.)

Barry Keoghan is certainly a very striking central presence - an old man’s face on young man’s body, with a weirdly disconcerting muscular torso, he’s like the genetically engineered mutant grandson of Dirk Bogarde’s character from 'The Servant' or something. Difficult to say whether the recognition he will inevitably gain from this role will totally make his career, or whether he'll be forever cursed by Anthony Perkins-esque type-casting, but either way - he definitely makes an impression.

As mentioned above in fact, the main thing which allows ‘Saltburn’ to live on in the memory is an uneasy ambiguity over the extent to which we’re invited to feel implicit in / sympathetic toward his character’s machinations.

As much as ‘The Servant’ may have caused controversy back in 1963, watched today, what seems most remarkable is that, despite his socialist convictions, Losey declined to re-tool Robin Maugham’s source novel as a take of class revolt. Instead, for all its many qualities, his film primarily still just reads as a warning to louche aristos that perhaps their Northern-accented man-servants should not be trusted.

Much as we might wish we could side with him, Bogarde’s character is unambiguously presented as an evil, depraved man (his implied Jewishness and homosexuality making this characterisation feel even more questionable to modern eyes), whilst James Fox remains his hapless victim, and Sarah Miles the rival predator whose position he usurps (a role assigned to Archie Madekwe’s Farleigh in ‘Saltburn’s expanded cast list).

It is unsurprisingly therefore that, six decades later, ‘Saltburn’ takes a rather more ambivalent position. Going in, Keoghan is our identity figure, front and centre; we feel sorry for him, and accept what we learn about his inner life at face value. An uncomfortable sense of disjuncture thus occurs when we subsequently become distanced from him, as he begins doing things which do not square with the character whose thoughts we felt we were privy to, and as the film is forced to adopt a colder, more objective perspective as a result.

But, nonetheless, the notion of an (admittedly sociopathic) member of the lower orders using the illusion of an ‘open’ society to gain the foothold be needs to bloodily claw back the privilege and luxury traditionally denied him will still be read by most 21st century viewers as a necessary corrective to historical injustice, rather than as the horrifying upending of the natural order envisaged by Maugham. 

At the same time though, few of us are likely to applaud the character’s conduct on a personal level - thus creating an interesting ethical tension which is likely to go back-and-forth across the nation’s (world’s?) dinner tables and office spaces for months to come, like nothing this side of Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ (yet another noteworthy precursor, now that I think about it).


The Boy and The Heron 
[‘Kimitachi Wa Dô Ikiru Ka’] 
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2023)

Just over twelve hours later, and we began 2024 the right way, by going to see this at a lunch time screening [the Japanese language release, of course].

And what can I say? It’s bloody magnificent.

It’s probably a redundant observation to make about a Miyazaki film by this point, but this is such an aesthetically beautiful film - the mere act of looking at it feels like bearing witness to a expertly curated exhibition of natural/cultural wonders. The attention to detail evident in the background of nearly every frame speaks to a lifetime of dedicated craftsmanship and visual research, whilst the compositions and the gentle, gliding pace of the cel animation are - of course - relentlessly exquisite.

I confess I’ve found many post-‘Spirited Away’ Studio Ghibli projects a bit too frenetic and whimsical for my tastes, and my attention to their output has lapsed as a result - but the more sombre, more reflective tone adopted here suited me perfectly.

The film’s fantasy aspects are mysterious and intriguing, carrying a persistent undertow of physical menace and flat-out scariness which prevents them from veering too far toward the twee, and, as in all of Miyazaki’s best films, the accompanying human drama takes a potentially sentimental subject, but steadfastly refuses to dumb it down for a ‘family’ audience or to engage in manipulative heart-string tugging, meaning that (whilst not exactly an original concept within either cinema or fantasy literature), the core tale of a boy processing trauma and grief through a retreat into imagination remains incredibly moving, in a way that almost defies verbal explanation.

Likewise, during the film’s ‘real world’ segment, Miyazaki’s eerily surreal image of factory workers laying out the insect-like glass carapaces of fighter planes amid the beatific environs of a provincial shinto shrine said more to me about the effect of war upon Japan than two whole hours of ‘Godzilla Minus One’s sepia-tinted historical bombast. A small moment in a long and densely-packed film, but one which will stick with me.

Admittedly, the film does lose focus at times - I fear the opening act may prove too slow for a mainstream  audience to latch onto (although I liked it just fine), and later on, once we’re embroiled in the calamitous fate of the trans-dimensional fantasy kingdoms through which our young protagonist has travelled, sense does get a bit lost for a while in an endless cavalcade of stuff exploding and collapsing, brightly coloured creatures flying/flapping around and the weird details of the script’s fantasy-land logic etc, etc.

Perhaps a tighter edit might have helped mitigate this a bit, but - a minor criticism, in the face of great wealth of things within this film which feel good, and right, and true. There is so much good here in fact, so much spirit and compassion and visual/conceptual inspiration, it almost makes me feel that, so long as the human race can knock out something like this once in a while to pass on to future generations/civilisations, all the shit and pain that comprises life on earth will have been worth it.

I’m unsure how things stand with Miyazaki at present (I thought he had retired, until this one popped up as a new release), but if ‘The Boy and the Heron’ does turn out to be his final film, he’ll be going out on a high. For my money, it stands as one of his finest achievements… and in fact, as one of the finest pieces of human artistry I’ve seen from this sorry century for quite a while, to be perfectly honest.

3:00pm on 1st January, but if I see a better film than this during 2024, I’ll be surprised.

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