Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014); Locke (Steven Knight, 2013); Bendor (Vendor, Ralston Jover, 2013)

(Warning: stories and plot twists discussed in close detail)


Liked Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014), not the least because the creature looks like Godzilla, not some generically ugly mutant iguana in search of a hiding hole (looking at you, Devlin and Emmerich). Liked the intro, which plunks Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche in the same car toether (by way of birthday greeting she showers her husband with kisses--you the man, Mr. White!). Fact is, Cranston's storyline provides much of the pathos and emotion in the film--gives us an unsettling measure of the cost of death and loss, a lesson that puts into perspective all the death and loss that follows. When Cranston's character departs (much too early), so does all that dramatic gravitas, with his son (the blandly handsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson) serving as an uncharismatic substitute (they would have done better to use Walt Jr.).

Which matters surprisingly less than you'd think. Edwards clearly loves his kaiju the way Guillermo del Toro loved his; he swathes them in mist and shadow, hiding them like so many treasured toys clutched close to his chest, allowing only the most miserly of glimpses--a claw here, a leg there--until the precisely timed moment when they are revealed in all their old-fashioned glory (no shakycam, ADHD-style editing nonsense here).

Edwards actually proves to be a remarkably supple filmmaker--he adopts the same strategy used in Jaws, when Spielberg realized that the mechanical shark wasn't working and had to indicate the creature's presence through indirect means (a stratagem used as early as Jack Arnold's The Creature From the Black Lagoon back in the '50s). 

The tactic serves another purpose. Never personally been sold on the solidity, much less realism, of digital constructs; no matter how careful the rendering or how much money they throw at all the workstations, the end result always seemed insubstantial, lightweight. This filmmaker seems to have gone a way towards solving that problem--as with Spielberg's flimsy mechanical shark, as with Arnold's clumsy scuba-diving fish suit, Edwards sells the effect by obscuring it with thick fog and even thicker dark, enveloping you with a shiver-inducing wall of sound (the nightmarish chittering of MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), for one--like cockroaches the size of city blocks, moving just a few feet beneath you). 

Instead of smash-and-grab scare tactics, the slow burn; instead of monsters that dart forward like real-life predators, a stately (though not necessarily slow) and stylized glide across the nighttime landscape, maybe a fateful pause with clawed arm lifted high above the cable-supported motorway.*

* Sadly, Edwards doesn't seem to have any more idea than Christopher Nolan does on how suspension bridges really work; the cables snap and a large portion of the bridge remains up--by sheer force of script, for all I know.

David Edelstein in his review rakes the movie over coals for changing the original message (we are poisoning ourselves) to something more optimistic; I came out with a different takeaway--that Man is so feeble and unnecessary he's not even needed to deal with these kaiju (Godzilla will take care of it) and anyway he'd only screw it up (exhibit a: the aforementioned Taylor-Johnson); that if anything the Japanese and not the can-do, never-say-die Americans are more likely to understand the mysterious ways of nature. Wouldn't be surprised if American audiences stayed away in droves, or that local critics hated this (didn't happen). 

As for me--always liked a striptease, even from a nine hundred foot radioactive lizard, so long as the payoff at the end delivers. This in my opine delivered, filmmakingwise.

Close combat

Steven Knight's Locke (2013) is a nice little chamber piece with at most three elements--man, car, cellphone--that's it. Two kinds of suspense ensue: whether or not the man loses control of his car or his temper; whether or not the director (the more difficult challenge) manages to hold your attention for the full ninety minutes.

Knight does quite well, employing side windows and windshield like video screens where he can throw images, backgrounds, suggested interior states; sometimes he shoots the reflections directly, adding a third layer as we see the landscape beyond the glass, the driver, the background behind the driver. 

The sound design's nicely done too--mostly a claustrophobic cushioned silence, punctuated by road sounds and the eponymous' Locke's voice (Tom Hardy, soft-spoken and seductive with his rich Scottish brogue). Not a lot of music--but then the man is understandably in no mood for music: he's just left one of the most important engagements in his career and his wife to be at the side of a woman giving birth to his child, and he's desperately placing calls right and left, trying to keep his chaotic life together. 

When it comes to the challenge of shooting in enclosed spaces one thinks of Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Rope, and above all Rear Window, and one smiles; in addition to telling a compelling story in a confined space Hitchcock (at least with Rear Window) also manages to raise important points about privacy, and our voracious need to live life through others. Knight does well here, but he's not quite up to the level of the master, yet. 

She works hard for the money

I'd noted before that Ralston Jover's Bakal Boys gave us some of the most harrowing working conditions a Filipino youth--or any youth, for that matter--has ever experienced; with Bendor (Vendor, 2013) Jover pulls back to give us this character study of a woman who works hard selling dry merchandise by a street corner, though her real breadwinning activity is to act as front and liaison for abortions (an illegal procedure in predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines). 

Jover again uses his cinema verite style to immerse us in the retail industry that is the Quiapo Church plaza, where everything and anything is for sale, from plastic shopping bags to prayer candles to grilled skewered chicken feet (they're called adidas) to rosaries to aborfacients of dubious effectiveness (you think of Christ and the money changers at the temple, your hand just possibly itching for a leather whip). As the eponymous entrepreneur Blondie, Vivian Velez masks her legendary sensuality (not completely, hard as she may try--she's still a strikingly handsome woman) to focus with laser intensity on the bottom line--and the thin blue line; when the abortionist she works for runs afoul of the police, Blondie has to run literally for her life, everything else fallen by the wayside. 

Everything else seems to have fallen by the wayside for Jover too; his focus on his protagonist is every bit as intense as hers is for the profit margin, and you wonder ultimately what point he's trying to make--most intriguingly, what point he's trying to make with the doppelganger figure Blondie glimpses once in a while from the corner of her eye and follows, sometimes to good fortune, sometimes not (you think of the similar figure in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and wonder, darkly). 

As with a laser, by film's end (it runs for a brief seventy-five minutes) Jover's storytelling comes to a sharp and startling point, not through anything that happens but rather through something that fails to happen; not through any action but rather through unexpected and eloquent inaction. Suddenly the film snaps into focus, and you see the clever, clever design in all its entirety--the whole eloquently and wordlessly expressed in Blondie's careworn face. 

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