Bungle in the jungle

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros.

 

Godzilla versus Kong.  The King of the Monsters versus the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The supreme clash of the titans, the ultimate showdown between the royalty of kaiju cinema.  In the left corner, we have King Kong, the giant simian star of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic that created the template for movies wherein prehistoric monsters rampage through human metropolises.  And in the right corner, we have Godzilla, the massive radioactive-breathed lizard who first surfaced in 1954, courtesy of Toho Studios, to flatten Tokyo as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the atomic bombs that’d flattened real Japanese cities a decade earlier – although, while he appeared in dozens of subsequent movies battling against similarly-sized monstrous adversaries, he gradually morphed from being the destroyer of Japan to being the unofficial champion of it.

 

Having this pair square up to one another – an event that’s only happened once before, in the ultra-ropey but endearingly goofy 1962 Toho movie King Kong vs Godzilla – should be an epic cinematic experience, the kaiju equivalent of Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazer or Ali versus George Foreman, of the Thrilla in Manilla or the Rumble in the Jungle.

 

Alas, the recently released Godzilla vs Kong, the fourth entry in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse franchise, isn’t so much the Rumble in the Jungle as a Bungle in the Jungle.

 

Of its three predecessors, the first instalment, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by talented Welshman Gareth Edwards, is the one that stands as a quality film.  It had some truly cinematic sequences and a memorably sombre tone, embodied in the apocalyptic clouds of ash and dust that swirled around Godzilla while he went about his city-demolishing business.  However, it wasn’t the big, enjoyably dumb monster-on-the-loose movie that many people expected and in some quarters it was met with disappointment.  And I have to say that while I admired Godzilla, I didn’t massively enjoy it.

 

Edwards’ downbeat film was the antithesis of the second film in the franchise, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, which arrived three years later.  Set in the early 1970s, this was a brash, colourful rollercoaster of a movie that managed to balance crowd-pleasing action with enough smart touches to engage the more cerebral members of the audience – smart touches ranging from jokes about Richard Nixon to an outrageous sequence where Kong takes on what is basically the fleet of helicopters from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid rather than Richard Wagner’s Ride of the ValkyriesKong: Skull Island also benefitted from having a cast of veteran character actors like John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman chew up any scenery that Kong wasn’t stomping on.

 

By the third movie, though, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), the rot had set in.  The kaiju remained magnificent, but too much screen-time was devoted to the human characters, most of whom barely qualified as two-dimensional let alone three-dimensional.  Also, between the film’s set-pieces were sections where screenwriters Dougherty and Zach Shields couldn’t be bothered plotting in any credible or meaningful way.  You got ridiculous sequences like, for example, the bit where 12-year-old kid Madison Russell (Milly Bobby Brown) strolls out of the heavily fortified, heavily guarded lair of master-terrorist Jonah (Charles Dance) carrying a vital piece of technology that can communicate with and summon the monsters.  She then manages to set up the device and operate it in Kenway Park, home-ground of the Boston Red Sox.  Wow.   When I was 12 years old, I was still having problems tying a knot correctly in my school tie.

 

© Toho Studios

 

Brown’s Madison Russell character is, unfortunately, back in Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs Kong and the chasms in plot logic are as gaping as they were before.  Here, she and a couple of conspiracy-theory-obsessed associates infiltrate, no, wander into the premises of a secretive corporation called Apex, which they suspect is up to no good.  With almost no visible effort, this motley collection of teenagers / conspiracy nuts discovers and breaks into a series of secret subterranean levels that are full of futuristic technology.  Apex might be the bees’ knees when it comes to developing high-tech gizmos, but they are evidently shit at hiring competent security staff.

 

The human characters involved in the film’s other main storyline, played by Alexander Skarsgård and Rebecca Hall (who, by accident or design in this movie, looks a bit like New Zealand premier Jacinda Ahern), fare no better.  They’re saddled with a don’t-even-try-to-think-about-it subplot where they join an expedition, sponsored by that shifty Apex corporation, to travel to the fabled ‘hollow earth’ alluded to by previous movies in the franchise.  To get there, they need to use King Kong to lead them, like a giant homing pigeon or upstream-swimming salmon, through the labyrinthine tunnels that connect it with the earth’s surface.  The hollow earth, which looks like the planet in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) with some gravity-defying upside-down bits, is not only the home of Kong’s ancestors but also the location of a new energy source that Apex are keen to procure.  Once they find the energy source, they promptly download it to a computer in Hong Kong.  Yes, download it.  Don’t ask me how.

 

But I’ll try to be positive.  What did I like about Godzilla vs Kong?  Well, the first battle between the kaiju is a cracker.  Godzilla erupts out of the waves to confront Kong, who’s chained to the deck of one of a fleet of battleships and aircraft carriers, and the two beasties then slug it out while hopping from one beleaguered ship’s deck to another.  The sequence put in mind slightly of the 1974 Bond film Live and Let Die, in which Roger Moore escapes to safety by using some bobbing alligators as stepping stones.

 

Also, I liked the character of the little girl who learns to communicate secretly with Kong via sign language.  Played with a charming simplicity and straightforwardness by Kaylee Hottle, who in real life is a member of the deaf community, she wins more of the audience’s sympathy than all the synthetic, going-through-the-motions adult characters put together.

 

And I liked Milly Bobby Brown’s nerdy friend Josh, who gets unwillingly roped into her scheme to infiltrate Apex.  This is partly because he’s played by Julian Dennison from Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and partly because when we first meet him he’s listening to Breaking the Law by Judas Priest.

 

And I liked how, two-thirds of the way through, a third classic kaiju, one who made his debut in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, suddenly shows up to give Kong and Godzilla a common foe.  It’s just a pity that the ensuing stramash, which takes place in Hong Kong, feels a bit second-hand.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) has already featured giant organic monsters and giant robotic ones beating the crap out of each other in Hong Kong.  Also, the final denouement, involving a heavily foreshadowed flask of whisky, is stupid even by the recent standards of this franchise.

 

At the end of the day, I can’t say I liked Godzilla vs Kong any more than Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The earlier film at least treated us to spectacular re-imaginings of some of Toho Studio’s kaiju heavyweights, including the vicious three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, the scaly giant Pteranodon Rodan and the vast gorgeous lepidopteran Mothra.  The new film doesn’t have that level of interest, seeing as we’ve already met Godzilla and Kong in previous films.

 

At least I managed to see Godzilla vs Kong on a big screen, for this was my first outing to a cinema during the Covid-19 pandemic since I saw Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) in one last summer.  That no doubt made the film appear more spectacular than if I’d seen it, streamed, on a domestic-sized screen.  And I have to say that in this large-sized format the film certainly held the attentions of the Sri Lankan kids and teenagers whom I watched it alongside.

 

I’m not, however, in any rush to see a fifth instalment in the MonsterVerse franchise.  Unless they figure out a way of getting Gamera into Movie Number Five.

 

© Daiei Film / Kadokawa Daiei Studio

All the time in the whirled

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

 

A  few weeks ago Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster movie Tenet (2020) arrived in Sri Lanka.

 

Tenet must have been welcomed by Sri Lankan cinema owners, because for months after the easing of the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdown they were able to show only a meagre selection of movies.  For example, once the Savoy Cinema in our neighbourhood in Wellawatta had reopened, it was limited to showing the Sri Lankan / Sinhala comedy drama The Newspaper (2020); and Frozen II (2019) from the previous year’s Christmas season; and something called Primal (2019), starring Nicholas Cage as a big game hunter, of which orcasound.com noted: “All you need to know is that the best scenes in the film are those between Cage and a red parrot.  They have the best on screen chemistry of any of the actors.”

 

Yet when my partner and I went to see Tenet a few afternoons ago, we had the cinema almost to ourselves.  Only one other couple was present, and they walked out two-thirds of the way through, presumably for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute.  Admittedly, we’d decided to treat ourselves for this, our first visit to the cinema in absolute ages, and booked seats in the high-end Gold Standard Theatre in the cinema complex above the swanky Colombo City Centre shopping mall.  The Gold Standard Theatre contains only a small number of seats, so that those seats can be as big and comfortable as possible.  But despite the fact that the place was designed for a small audience and despite the high price (by Sri Lankan standards) of the tickets, I’d expected to see a few more folk there.

 

The fact is, for all its spectacle and entertainment value, Tenet is not a movie with obvious mass appeal.  It’s challenging – at times, bloody bewildering.  I can imagine Hollywood bigwigs experiencing an initial burst of excitement that someone had had the balls to deliver a big-budget sci-fi movie part of the way through the Covid-19 pandemic, one that would hopefully encourage the pandemic-cowed public to venture into cinemas again – but then gnashing their teeth when they realised that Christopher Nolan had created something as likely to exhaust the viewers’ braincells as it was to get their adrenalin flowing.  No doubt those afore-mentioned Sri Lankan cinema owners have felt the same emotions recently.

 

Just how mentally taxing is Tenet, then?  Well, you need to keep your wits about you from the start.  There’s a lot going on even in the first few minutes.  An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) barely manages to survive a hostage-siege-rescue operation in Ukraine and then finds himself opted into a top-secret organisation called Tenet, which is grappling with the phenomenon of mysterious materials that can travel backwards through time, for example, bullets that shoot back into their guns before you fire them.  These materials are traced to arms-dealing Russian oligarch scumbag Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who seems to have established a link with unseen forces in the future, who for some nefarious reason are sending the stuff back to him in the here-and-now.

 

There follows a series of adventures in India, Britain, Italy, Norway, Estonia and Russia where Washington tries to close in on Branagh, discover what he and his futuristic allies are up to and – when it transpires that they’re up to something very bad indeed – stop them from doing it.  To this end, he has to win the trust of Branagh’s abused and disillusioned wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and enlist her to his cause.  Also, he encounters several giant whirligig-type devices that can change the orientation by which you’re moving through time, switching you from moving forward through it to moving backwards through it, and vice versa.  And that’s when things start to get truly complicated…

 

I’ll confess that there was a period of 15 or 20 minutes (which coincidentally was when the other people in the cinema threw in the towel and left) when I hadn’t a clue what was going on.  But I kept watching and eventually, towards the movie’s end, I figured the plot out.  Well, I think I figured it out.  Though afterwards, I have to say, I tried not to discuss the intricacies of Tenet too much with my partner, for fear that she’d point out something to me that made me realise I hadn’t understood it at all.

 

Some critics have blamed the film’s sound mixing, claiming that it’s difficult to follow what’s happening because you can’t hear all the dialogue clearly.  But to be honest I don’t think there’s much exposition in the dialogue anyway.  Nolan bravely forces his audience to concentrate on events on the screen and, from those, gradually pick up the gist of things.

 

So that’s the challenging part of Tenet described.  What about the rest of it?  I’m pleased to say that it’s generally really good.  For a start, it looks magnificent, at least on a big screen.  Leave out the time-travelling element and what you have is Christopher Nolan doing his version of a James Bond movie.  Like the average Bond, Tenet features a string of glamorous locations, speeding from one to the other so that you never have time to get bored.  Ensconced on his luxury yacht and simmering with a mixture of 60% pure evilness and 40% teeth-grinding jealousy as 007, sorry, John David Washington, wins the affections of his missus, Branagh is a pure Bond villain – most closely modelled, I’d say, on Emilio Largo in 1965’s Thunderball.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy

 

Several of the action set-pieces resemble turbo-powered versions of set-pieces from old Bond films too.  The bit where Washington and his accomplice Neil (Robert Pattinson) infiltrate the multi-storey stronghold of an Indian arms dealer put me in mind of the bungee-jumping sequence at the start of 1995’s Goldeneye, although here Washington and Pattinson somehow manage to bungee-jump upwards rather than downwards.  The London section sees a brief but pleasingly nasty fight in a restaurant kitchen that’s reminiscent of the kitchen fight in 1987’s The Living Daylights.  And a vehicle-chase scene has Washington trying to board a hurtling armoured truck by swinging across to it using the ladders on top of a similarly hurtling fire engine, which calls to mind a sequence in 1985’s A View to a Kill.  All right, in the 1985 movie, the person on the ladders was a 57-year-old Roger Moore and the driver of the fire engine was Tanya Roberts from TV’s Charlie’s Angels (1980), so Tenet’s version of this is rather less cheesy.

 

The new official Bond movie No Time to Die – the trailer for which was actually shown in the cinema before Tenet started – will have its work cut out to match the spectacle that Nolan offers here.  Indeed, it’s just been announced that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed back from November 2020 to April 2021, supposedly because of fears about how the pandemic will impact on box office takings.  I can’t help having a sneaking suspicion, though, that after seeing Tenet Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli took fright and decided they needed more time to beef up their movie’s action sequences.

 

Tenet’s cast is also a pleasure.  Washington has received some flak from critics for playing his character as a ‘cypher’, which I can’t understand.  I find him a very personable actor, with as much charisma as his dad, and besides his character does display some humanity, largely in relation to Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, whom he tries to protect from her oligarch husband even as he reluctantly encourages her to conspire against him.  The elegant Debicki gives a good performance too, one combining vulnerability with resilience.  I particularly like the fact that Nolan cast a tall actress here.  190 centimetres in height, Debicki looms some 15 centimetres above both Washington and Branagh, but this isn’t allowed to be an issue.  (I can think of certain temperamental, short-ass actors of yesteryear who’d probably have refused to work with her.)

 

And Robert Pattinson gives an endearing turn as the bemused, raffish Neil, shaking off memories of how he once had to play a spangly adolescent vampire in the limp Twilight movies (2008-12).  Mind you, at times, it feels like he’s channelling the Eames character played by Tom Hardy in 2010’s Inception, the movie in Nolan’s back catalogue that Tenet most resembles.

 

In conclusion, then, Tenet is an unlikely mixture, simultaneously a blockbuster homage to the James Bond movies and an enigma that’s completely unafraid to baffle its audience.  It’s half Goldfinger (1964) and half ‘go figure’.  I enjoyed both halves, although I’m glad there was plenty of action and spectacle to soothe my eyes even when my brain felt beleaguered.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy