Archive for August 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

August 25, 2019

Godzilla_-King-of-the-Monsters--Final-Trailer-Warner-Bros.-UK-0-46-screenshot Look, who are we fooling here? Does anyone go to a Godzilla movie for the plot? Or the human actors? For years I’ve been agitating for a disaster movie that is all disaster, or a giant-monster movie that is all giant-monster destruction, and to hell with the pallid subplots about parents trying to track down their kids in the midst of the maelstrom or whatever. Such a movie would be a pure-cinema mammoth with no dialogue and no stars except the disaster or the monsters. Name me one moviegoer who said “Let’s go see that new Kyle Chandler monster movie!” I’ll wait.

I should’ve known Godzilla: King of the Monsters, despite its promising title, would not be the answer to my demands, but really Godzilla’s amount of screen time has traditionally always been scant; in the original 1954 Gojira, the big guy only showed up for less than nine minutes (out of a 96-minute running time). But by now, the footage of humans staring at screens or discussing what to do about the kaiju or having moral debates while cities burn is so. fucking. dull. I appreciate that they’ve tried to get terrific actors like Chandler and Vera Farmiga (playing a divorced scientist couple) and Millie Bobby Brown (as their daughter), and there’s some comic relief from a sardonic Bradley Whitford. But there’s so much pressure on a big expensive thing like this — from Warner Bros., from Toho, from its own fan base — that it can’t truly be surprising or inventive.

The suspicion is that the old-school Godzilla movies play better in nostalgic memory than they do in actuality. And at least the old man-in-suit throwdowns between Godzilla and, say, Ghidorah — his big nemesis here — were fun, in a goofball way, and easier on the eyes and ears. In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘R Treat), the fight scenes between kaiju are always shot at night or during terrible rain or snow storms, the better to hide the CG seams, and the design of the creatures is “dark,” grim, gritty, ugly, lacking the charm of the old critters. And when they fight, they take down skyscrapers by the dozen, and even though the movie takes pains to establish mass evacuation, so what? These are not real buildings with real people inside. The assumption that we care about loss of human life in these movies is hypocrisy. Of course we don’t. The height of true sadness here comes when Godzilla appears to be dead.

The trailers for these things are always electrifying. When the trailer for this film landed and we first saw Godzilla and Ghidorah racing at each other in the middle of a city, we shuddered and laughed and swore to catch it on an IMAX screen — I did, anyway. I’m sort of glad I didn’t bother. There’s Godzilla and Ghidorah and Mothra and Rodan and a few other beasties named Scylla or Behemoth or Baphomet or Dennis, and there’s forever the problem of showing action between really tall creatures on a really wide screen — either you have to pull way back, or go so close in you might as well be watching leather suitcases bashing into each other. (The O.G. Gojira occupied the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio.) Godzilla started out in black-and-white movies and, for all intents and purposes, has circled back there. The look of this film is gray with the occasional blast of colorful radioactive breath; the sound is bass-heavy, headache-inducing. It’s not a good time or aesthetically pleasing or even very exciting. There are two or three fantastic apocalyptic images (see above), but that’s about it.

At this point, I prefer off-the-beaten-path big-monster stuff like Big Man Japan or The Host or even Colossal. They don’t have the big guy’s name recognition, or the giddy buzz (which soon dies when you see the actual thing) of going to a Godzilla flick. But they have more interesting things to say, and therefore better things occupying our brains between kaiju rampages. This movie tells us that the monsters are vital to the survival of the human race because they maintain “balance,” even though they tend to destroy cities (Boston gets turned into an ashtray here). Their destructiveness holds our destructiveness in check. This is a bitter pill to swallow when we’re watching the Amazon rain forest die in real time, and our children’s future with it. Save us, Godzilla! But he won’t. No one will. And movies like this add to the delusion that there’s hope to be found in the rubble.

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Chained for Life (2018)

August 18, 2019

chained_for_life_still A little while back, Scarlett Johansson took some heat for wanting to play a transgender character. The controversy came on the heels of earlier heat attached to Johansson playing a formerly Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s tone-deaf response, which she later walked back, was “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal,” summoning an image of her as a pomeranian or as the title role in The Giving Tree. Yes, an actor can conceivably play anything, but should they? There are transgender actors, Japanese actors, not yet any tree actors, and they have enough trouble breaking through without cisgender white hetero actors enacting their experiences for plaudits and awards.

This goes double for disabled actors, and Chained for Life, written and directed by Aaron Schimberg, is an attempt to address their specific challenge as actors who are also disabled. Schimberg, himself born with a facial deformity, has lived and thought through the experiences of his characters, starting with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who has been hired to play a misunderstood-monster type opposite a blind character who falls in love with him. The movie within the movie is meant to be stupid, and many of the abled cast and crew say insensitive things (the script reflects Johansson’s remarks despite having been written long before she made them; her attitude is many things but not uncommon).

Pearson, who you may have seen opposite (ha!) Johansson in Under the Skin, lives with neurofibromatosis, and tumors pull and push his features out of alignment. His character Rosenthal says that he scares kids and animals, but I thought his face looked gentle — he looks kind, not monstrous. Sometimes his elongated jaw and full lips recall Fred Gwynne’s elegant mug. He speaks, with some effort but with precision, in a quiet English accent, though he gets his voice up in a roar when filming an argument in the movie within the movie. Rosenthal’s leading lady is Mabel (Jess Weixler), who plays the aforementioned blind woman. Mabel is the one who says, early on, to a reporter, “We’re all blind in some respect, aren’t we?” Well, no, Mabel, we don’t all have to contend with literal lack of sight and all the societal/political indifference, negligence, and downright violence associated with it. The movie knows this and doesn’t want to punish her for her entitled actor’s jargon — it wants to educate her, and eventually she comes to an understanding of disability that’s at least sharper than she had before.

Titled in a left-handed salute to the 1952 film of the same name starring the conjoined Hilton twins, Chained for Life brings in a group of actors with physical differences to play patients in a pompous melodrama about a surgeon who performs operations to make disfigured people “normal.” The director is an abusive jerk with a German accent — there’s some speculation on the set that he isn’t even German — called only Herr Director, strongly played by Charlie Korsmo in his first movie in 20 years (his last was 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait, as the drunk kid who sings “Paradise City”). The performances in general are incisive, with the insecure Weixler playing deftly off the witty Pearson, who carries himself in a way that makes the case for disabled actors playing disabled characters all by itself. He simply speaks, gestures, and stands in a fashion that almost no abled actor (Daniel Day-Lewis may be the exception; most everyone else gets a side-eye these days, rightly so) could duplicate without having lived that life year after year.

It’s a fine movie, though sometimes it tests our patience with scenes in which we have to watch actors try and try again to nail a take. The film is as much about Schimberg’s chosen medium as about disfigurement and its discontents. I get the sense that Schimberg’s script consciously diverged from any clichés (he says he’s seen and mostly disliked every film he’s seen about deformity), including the one where Mabel and Rosenthal end up together. The final shot, over which the end credits appear, is one of shared, neutral-faced community — the disfigured, the tall and short, the conjoined, the folks of indeterminate gender, all sitting in the back of a moving bus. This feels right. Rosenthal doesn’t need to have his life validated by becoming part of the pretty-face world. He has his people, and they understand each other, and Mabel, however well-intentioned, can’t be on the ride with them.

The Abyss

August 4, 2019

the abyssAfter all these years — it turns 30 on August 9 — James Cameron’s The Abyss remains the most intense movie I have ever seen. Cameron is never happy unless he has a thousand plates spinning, each threatening our heroes and the very existence of human life itself, and the threat grinds on in mega-sequence after mega-sequence until we stagger out half-dead, played out, winded. The attitude here, if not the aesthetic (which owes more to Moebius), is clearly heir to the macho clenched-teeth posturing of Bronze Age Marvel comics — the adventures drawn by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Buscema, where the gods themselves whale on each other inside a live volcano in eruption, or inside an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, or something. This is Clenched Teeth: The Movie. It runs, in the director’s cut, two hours and fifty-one minutes, and there are maybe a few seconds of downtime. Six, possibly seven. The rest is showdowns and light shows and drowning horrors and phosphorescent aliens.

This all might sound as though I don’t honor The Abyss. I do. From a distance, mainly in memory. Going through it, actually watching it, can be an endurance test. By about the two-hour mark, when things look bleak for oil-rig engineer Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and the rig’s big dog and her estranged hubby Ed Harris is screaming himself hoarse for her to “FIGHT! FIIIIIGHT!” you might rub your temples and mutter “Jesus Christ, there’s almost another hour of this?” Ed Harris’ head explodes or threatens to explode about 27 times in this movie, by the way. I can imagine a lot of fist-holes in the walls of his dressing room on the set, if he had one. Famously, Harris offered the following to a Premiere reporter, probably through clenched teeth: “I’m not talking about The Abyss. And I never will.”

Michael Biehn is also on hand, clenching until he cracks several molars, as a Navy SEAL who is along for the mission (the oil rig is commanded to go find a sunken sub) and soon develops High Pressure Nervous Syndrome, which is another good name for this movie. Helpfully, Cameron has a few characters sit around and discuss the symptoms so we can recognize them in Biehn later. This is a film with a million Chekhov’s things — Chekhov’s wedding ring, Chekhov’s “hammer,” Chekhov’s hand tremor, Chekhov’s pink liquid that people can somehow breathe. A rat is dunked in this liquid and held under, for real, until it respirates the stuff. I never really bought this — for use on humans with human-sized lungs, anyway — and I don’t buy it now; we don’t seem to be much closer to people regularly chugging air than we were 30 years ago. For a long time I thought The Abyss was meant to be slightly futuristic for this reason, but I guess the film’s events are set in 1988, when we were having problems with Russia. Gee.

Those problems furnish one of the many moving parts that heat up the film’s sense of urgency. We seem to be on the brink of nuclear war (started because we think the Russians sank the sub), and the alien race, Cameron’s deus ex machina, intervenes to save us from ourselves. This point was muted in the half-hour-shorter cut that saw release in American theaters, but it’s all there in Cameron’s version. He was really, really concerned about the bomb back in the ‘80s, until finally in Terminator 2 he threw up his hands and showed us what nuclear holocaust would look like. Cameron put himself and Ed Harris and us through all this just to deliver the homely message: All you need is love. Seriously, the aliens are about to flush us down the toilet — before we destroy the planet that they share with us — but their hands are stayed by Harris’ heartfelt goodbye text to his wife. Like Bonnie Bedelia in Die Hard, Mastrantonio accepts her identity as Mrs. Clenched Teeth and falls in love with her blue-collar man anew. This sort of thing was in the air we breathed in the late ‘80s.

The Abyss has major flaws, but is still, and probably for that very reason, the closest Cameron has come to his blunt-force, beef-stew, crap-dialogue version of art. Terminator 2 may be the most pristine example of his overbearing aesthetic, but The Abyss sees him reaching for the stars — and not the stars above but the stars below the waves. And, man, does he ever maintain a crisis pitch for almost the complete running time, while Alan Silvestri’s score shrieks and ejaculates or a children’s choir sings to sell maximum awe. Cameron tightens the screws until their heads are stripped. The movie expresses extreme anxiety, claustrophobia, things catching on fire while submerged, mini-subs imploding in deep dark water with a crescendo of heavy bubbles. Cameron taps into something of the national mood at the end of the Reagan era, yearning for the past, afraid of the future, letting the present slip by. At the end, Ed Harris emerges from the abyss, looking beatific, enlightened. He has seen a superior race, and he knows it loves us. He will no longer clench nor scream. The Abyss is nutty as hell but almost as unguarded as a diary entry. Its intensity is genuinely felt and earned.