GODZILLA (**)

Godzilla

Ask yourself this question: Why do we go to see Kaiju movies? Is it to dwell on the human drama and suffering that people go through in the wake of the cataclysmic destruction? Or is it to experience forces of nature embodied in brobdingnagian beasts colliding in the oppositional purity of good versus evil? It is a question that I wish I could ask Gareth Edwards. Because regardless of which answer one adheres to, his efforts in GODZILLA fail to satisfy either desire as it tries confusingly to satisfy both.

This is not to say that both answers are not mutually exclusive. Though I prefer the kind of monster movies that fueled my childhood excitement of seeing beings that were cinematically larger than life, I would have been equally thrilled in witnessing a grave parable on man’s destructive folly (such as the original GODZILLA in 1954) or the humbling and indifferent power of nature (in the spirit of Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA). Such a somber tone was what I was expecting when the first Godzilla footage was leaked with Oppenheimer’s words. Subsequent trailers featuring Lygeti’s “Lux Aeterna” only reinforced my expectations.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW

The film initially plays out that way with interlaced clips of atomic tests from the past. It introduces a nuclear disaster at the turn of the 21st century, which breaks the lives of the Brodys, an American family in Japan. Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are the father and mother; scientists who are hit directly by catastrophe, claiming the life of the latter and driving the former’s guilt-ridden obsession to find out what caused the tragedy in the present day. As long kept secrets come to the fore, their now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) continues his father’s fight.

These initial scenes of human drama are done splendidly, perhaps better than they have any right to be, with Bryan Cranston serving as the emotional anchor of our investment. His loss and dogged pursuit carries us through the long plot points building suspense for the film’s otherworldly sights. But once it gets there, the movie doesn’t work out as intended.

The creature that caused Joe’s misfortune, as well as most of the devastation later in the film, is revealed not to be GODZILLA, but that of a competing winged beast (M.U.T.O.) which feeds on atomic radiation. It is at this point where scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) presents Godzilla to us as a stabilising force. A good guy that flies in the face of everything it was advertised to be. I then thought that the movie would take a more awe-inspiring adventurous spirit as Godzilla sequels had done in the past. No worries, I thought.

But as the movie played on, it was hard to place in which direction Gareth Edwards wanted to go. The film’s structure dictates a battle between opposing entities on a godly scale, but its interest in them is fleeting. Glorious shots of Godzilla and its adversaries are held but momentarily, often cutting far away to side conflicts or scenes of distressed survivors amid ruin, just as I wanted more. These shifting contrasts frustrated me. Did it want to leave me in wonder, or to ponder an apocalyptic aftermath?

The film does have some breathtaking sights to behold. A MUTO’s assault at a Honolulu airport is held in a stunning panoramic shot. Godzilla’s forays through the bay of San Francisco is terrifically conceived. And I absolutely loved the sight of a massive electrical charge searing from its tail through its spine all the way to its firestorm breath. But these sequences are few and far between many puzzling decisions.

He films TV screens displaying overlooking sequences instead of displaying them directly. He decides to muffle the effect of sound through POV shots within containment suits or gas masks. He at times decides to use a handheld perspective that though not as nauseating as Michael Bay’s shaky cam gimmicks, is still distracting. He lacks a sense of confident climactic pacing, the kind that was evident in Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. Although few directors have del Toro’s immense directorial gifts, the comparison is unavoidable (I couldn’t ignore it).

Even Godzilla’s new design bugs me. In terms of size, detail and physicality, it is very impressive. But let’s face it, he looks fat, ineffectively conveying power and fear. His M.U.T.O. foes are ungainly, appearing anything but organic. Once again compared to del Toro’s inspired and naturalistic designs in PACIFIC RIM, they come across as somewhat wanting.

The film’s story is unremarkable, completely predictable as it triggers memories of other familiar blockbusters, including the last Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla in 1998. But it is written in the most thoughtful and intelligent way possible. There is no one winking at any coincidence or reference. No catch phrases or clichéd deliveries. What is strange though is how the film’s earth-shaking disasters feel largely disconnected from the larger world which the film inhabits. The Philippines, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco are all invoked, but they feel distant and muted. The stakes are apparent, but they don’t feel as all-encompassing as they should be.

It is also a pity that aside from Bryan Cranston’s character, there is no other role that is given the same depth and importance (not that there is much to begin with). Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe all do very well with their serviceable roles. Mr. Watanabe’s requirements saddened me the most, as he served to spout lines and express looks of stunned realisation in scene after scene. The film is littered with these faces of agape disbelief that it becomes annoying. Hardly any character transitions completely into decisive action.

It is hard to justify why such immense talent was needed for these roles in a film that doesn’t have the structure or nerve to go down the poignant road it is clearly more interested in. Its title character is supposed to be the heart of this film, but it has no vigour in pursuing its spectacle or symbolism.

Roger Ebert liked to tell the story of William Randolph Hearst telling Richard Harding Davis (in Davis’s coverage of the Johnstown flood), “Forget flood. Interview God.” It’s too bad that Gareth Edwards just keeps on covering the flood, forgetting about his GODZILLA.

Listening to Roger Ebert One Year Later

Two years ago when Roger Ebert was still with us, I sent him an idea of mine. I asked him if he would consider having a video essay made for each film in his “Great Movies” series. At the time, his temporarily resurrected show “At The Movies” was on hiatus. But in that show, he had a segment where he would reflect on cinematic subjects in the voice of “Alex” from his MacBook. It wasn’t his real voice, but in the time since he had lost his speech, it was one that those of us who have long followed him had identified with.

Roger told me that he felt a little creepy about the notion. But I left the door open for him to explore later on, as I was convinced that no matter what manner he chose to communicate, his wisdom and warmth would always pull us in. We never got to bring it up again.

Roger was the one who got me into making video essays, unintentionally at first. He wanted his original Far Flung Correspondents to introduce themselves to his audience as he brought us on board. We all were incredibly shy at first, but how could we say no to him? We each gave it our shot by talking about a film that was dear to us. But I thought rather than let people see me talk about it, why not show them what I was talking about. And so started my love affair with this craft of revealing the beauty of films, by making them.

I have always been grateful to Roger Ebert for a great many things. And the memory of his passing only amplifies my desire to see him not forgotten. No one loved movies more, and by creating this video essay from his film commentary for DARK CITY, I choose to bring his cinematic intimacy back to as much life as I can. I send my great thanks to Chaz Ebert for giving me the chance to bring back Roger, even for a few moments. Because God knows how much he is missed.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Rousing PACIFIC RIM Is a Joyous Homage to Pacific Inspirations

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Any Filipino who grew up as a kid in the early 80s will tell you about their love for giant robots. As a country that was once invaded by Japan, it can seem strange that Philippine culture would wholeheartedly embrace an invasion of mammoth-sized mechas during the time of Marcos. Mekanda Robo, Mazinger Z, Daimos, Gaiking, Grendizer, Macross. These animated wonders filled our large imaginations long before their American counterparts came along in the Gobots, Transformers, Robotech and Voltron. I suspect that many of my compatriots know the Japanese lyrics to Voltes V by heart as much as we do our national anthem.

Read the rest of this film review at Movie Mezzanine!

Manny Pacquiao’s immeasurable gift to the Filipino

I was on my way home from the supermarket when I realized that Manny Paquiao’s bout with Juan Manuel Marquez was just a few hours ago. When my wife was checking her phone for the results, I joked that Pacquiao lost, knowing that such a outcome was unlikely. As I read the news, my smile was wiped off my face. Manny was knocked out, and knocked out cold, in the sixth round.

Being a Filipino sports fan for the last 30 years brings little ROI on the global stage. We are fanatical for basketball but too small to compete internationally. We lack the expertise and equipment to train many of our elite athletes to be truly elite. And until recently, we’ve been too selfish to play the purest of team sports that is soccer.

So it’s no wonder that the athletic areas where we excel the most are those which require the least. They tend to be individual, basic, inexpensive and accessible. Let’s call them the three B’s: Bowling, Billiards and Boxing.

We’ve had a gold medalist in bowling, and world champions in pool. But you’ll never see them heralded in Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated or The New York Times. For the longest time, a Filipino athlete was an unknown. A pushover. A nobody.

Manny Pacquiao changed everything.

He came along in the typical bruising style most Filipino boxers are known for. Relentless punching with no regard for personal safety. Brawn not brains. Mind under matter. But his physical gifts stood out: blinding speed, endless stamina and remarkable power. He got by with these early in his career. And when he joined the big boys, he found out he needed not just will, but skill.

It was lucky he found Freddie Roach, who saw his gifts and took him on. And it was a blessing that he had the smarts to adapt and learn to be a true ring tactician. Longtime Filipino fans will tell you that his rise seemed miraculous.

The moment I realised that Manny had hit it big was in his first match with Marco Antonio Barrera, who at the time was considered pound-for-pound the best featherweight fighter in the world. I was just happy to see that Manny reach what I thought would be the pinnacle of his career. But after Manny pummelled Barrera, I was in complete shock. Could it be that a Filipino was the best in his class? In his sport?

Manny’s stock continued to rise with each succeeding big bout. He lost his first fight with Erik Morales and was beaten badly in a draw with Marquez. But he won each rematch in convincing fashion, fighting smartly and sticking to strategy. Each succeeding win became more and more resounding and one-sided. Manny Pacquiao became something that the Philippines never had: A dominating superstar in a high-profile global sport.

His powers became so great that he no longer took on opponents in his own weight class. Many thought his superfight with Oscar De La Hoya, a gold-medalist and boxing superstar in his own right, was downright foolish (myself included). But heavens be praised, he made Oscar look like his namesake statue. He continued to overpower bigger fighters meant to overpower him. His quickness and explosiveness remained constant despite his weight change. He became legendary, recognizable as a single name: Ali. Leonard. Pacquiao.

A worldwide Filipino icon. Was this really happening? Was it all a dream?

It’s hard to describe to Americans how much Manny Pacquiao means to us. Yes, you’ve seen the headlines where the whole nation stops to watch his matches. Rebel factions fighting against the government hold truces. Crime rates plummet while heart attacks soar. Entire towns fill public squares. Movie theatres feature his fights as the main bill. When I was in living in Malaysia, I knew Pacquiao won that day when a nearby building (full of my fellow countrymen) screamed in joy over a knockdown.

You have to realise that Filipinos for the last three decades have had nearly nothing to look forward to. We’ve witnessed multiple coups d’état and grown tired of overthrowing our own heads of state. We’ve seen innumerable scandals. Gotten used to graft and corruption. Violent crimes, deteriorating infrastructure, red tape, disease, yearly typhoons, and occasional earthquakes are a way of life. It’s a miracle that we’re such cheerful people.

So if there’s anything that’s sure in Philippine life, it’s uncertainty. It’s why our diaspora exists, to escape the hopelessness of it all. But in Manny’s meteoric rise, we were all there with him. Hoping against all hope that he wouldn’t lose. Hoping “we” would win. And win he did.

Manny gave us hope. And at his peak, he gave us certainty. Was there any other time, where we Pinoys knew in our very bones that any of us would win?

You will read how boxing is a brutal exercise (and it is very much so), robbing its pugilists of their wits when they fight too hard and too long. But I don’t know of any other sport where so many of its warriors come from so much hardship. They fight to escape misery. Their metaphor is their reality. So when someone like Manny who comes from virtually nothing, from nowhere, showing a nation what we can do with our bare hands, it’s glorious and undeniable.

I write this today a little sad knowing Manny has suffered a clear cut defeat. His loss is felt by all of us who rode along with him. It was a great ride, full of ecstasy, uproar and triumph. For everything Manny provided, I am beyond grateful. It will be hard for him to give up the glory, especially with his entourage who has latched onto him hoping that ride’s not over. It’s my fervent wish that he finds the courage to retire and serve as a public servant with the same fervour he showed in the ring.

The good times are over. But they’ll never be forgotten. Thank you Manny for everything.