Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)

A couple of notes. I only half-watched the various child-friendly Godzilla films as a child, and only properly watched the original 1954 movie recently. I also have not watched Edwards’ previous film, Monsters, so had no idea of his style but, buoyed by the reviews that referred to the film having a human interest, and yet still wary that some have said there’s “not enough monster” and that it tends towards the boring, I watched this version with guarded optimism. But, to that second group, I say PIGSWILL!. There is exactly the right amount of monster. Just like Jaws (referenced by the surname of the father and son monster hunters, Brody) or Alien, Edwards lets us get to know the human protagonists properly, while regularly giving us enough signs of the monsters to build up a sense of menace.

Then, when the monsters are finally revealed, we have both a sense of peril for our human characters and a sense of scale of the monsters, which is kept up by constantly showing the monsters’ fighting from the perspective of bystanders, usually named characters. Without this perspective, we’d just have a big-budget recreation of the Beastie Boys’ video for Intergalactic.

The film does take a while to establish the threat, starting with Brody Snr (Bryan Cranston) present but unable to prevent a nuclear disaster in Japan in which his wife dies, and scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) investigating a mysterious cave in the Philippines, where uranium miners have just experienced a cave-in and discovered some strange remains. This latter scene has all the menace that the discovery of alien remains in Alien had, and that Prometheus should have had, but didn’t. The action then switches to fifteen years later, with Brody Jnr returning to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) from bomb-disposal military service in the middle-east, only to find that his father has been arrested for trespass in Japan, trying to investigate the mysterious circumstances of that previous disaster. Gradually, we see the conspiracy of silence unravel as monsters from the deep awaken and all of humanity is threatened with extinction.

From the opening credits onwards, there is a great attention to detail and obvious love of the Godzilla film inheritance that gives it a really warm feeling, even as cities are crushed and people flee in terror. The film is by no means flawless, some tremendous actors not really having a great deal to do (though doing it well!) and the plot over-dependent on coincidence and characters’ lucky guessing, but I still enjoyed it tremendously. Not only does this wipe the floor with the 1998 effort, but it reboots the franchise, reestablishing the idea of Godzilla as humanity’s, somewhat heavy handed, friend.


The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

The Apartment
Ah, for the days when “RomCom” didn’t mean “crass” and “stupid”. This 1960 offering is a gem, with wit, brains and heart, and with a sexual politics more advanced in many regards than many much more recent Hollywood films. How many films these days would have a heroine who not only knowingly sleeps with the wrong guy, but with a married wrong guy?

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lowly clerk in an insurance company, industrious and downtrodden, with a great Manhattan apartment in a nice area he can no longer really afford. His situation is pretty desperate and his worklife is complicated by the fact that he has found himself renting out the apartment to several managers in his work who use it to conduct illicit liaisons. He gets a little money for this and the promise of recommendation for promotion but the downsides are that he frequently has to vacate his own apartment at late hours and bad weather, regardless of his own wishes or health, and that he is somewhat morally compromised by assisting serial adulterers.

This state of affairs, so to speak, comes to a head when the company chief, Sheldrake (Fred Macmurray), finds out and insists that Baxter immediately stops before any adverse publicity affects the company. Stop completely, except for Sheldrake himself. Baxter gets his promotion but at the expense of being utterly in hoc to Sheldrake and now with a set of prior “buddies” who are holding a grudge for losing their privileged access to the apartment. Worse, and as yet unknown to Baxter, is that Sheldrake wants the apartment for one particular affair, with cute lift operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine), with whom he’s shyly in love, as yet undeclared. “Miss Kubelik” has broken off from Sheldrake, having learned that he’s married but Sheldrake is determined to win her back promising, not evidently sincerely, that he’s going to leave his wife.

There is a level of detail about the characters, about their situations, and about their reactions that elevates what could easily have itself been crass and simplistic. The performances are also wonderful, Maclaine in particular being a revelation to me. She is smart and sexy, vulnerable but strong-willed.

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

There is a post-film credits dedication to “outsider artists” and, to fully enjoy this film, you may need to have an appreciation of, or at very least tolerance for, leftfield music. Based on Jon Ronson’s experience as keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Band, the title character is an amalgam of Sidebottom (particularly the look), Captain Beefheart (the difficult recording process), and Daniel Johnston (an artist with whom I’m not familiar – yet) but this is not a biopic, apparently to the dismay of many Sidebottom fans, aghast at the transformation from a Northern UK suburban oddball to a more intense US artiste. Nontheless, this is an enormously enjoyable, funny and moving account of what it means to be an artistic creative and, perhaps as importantly, what it does not.

As the story opens, the Jon Ronson cypher Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is wandering through a pleasant English seaside town, attempting to find inspiration to write songs, though his lyrics are boring and his tunes either terrible or become remembered tunes from other people. While on his lunchbreak from a humdrum office job, he sees the rescue of a man losing his mind and trying to drown himself. This person is (or was) a keyboard player for a band Jon had seen was due to play that evening and, seeing an opportunity, Jon volunteers that he is a keyboardist and finds himself booked to play with the unpronouncable “Soronprfbs”, not yet realising that losing your mind is a recurring pattern amongst Frank’s keyboardists.

This seems to be an epiphany for Jon, as he plays, utterly unpracticed, with the off-the-wall intense band and their papier-mâché headed front man, Frank (Michael Fassbender). The gig is cut short by technical failure and Jon’s chance seems to have gone when he is contacted by the band; Frank wants him to go to Ireland with them for “a thing”. Thinking this is a gig, Jon drops everything and goes but finds himself blowing his inherited savings and spending a year of his life in a cottage in rural Ireland painstakingly recording an avant-garde album with Frank, and competing for Frank’s approval with icily sexy theremin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

This being set in present day, there are plenty of jokes around the modern music scene, including twitter, blogging and SXSW, but the core of the movie is still about that creative process and, while never stopping being funny, it is also thoughtful and moving. My film of the year so far, & I’m eagerly looking forward to a soundtrack album!