At the end of every month this year I’m hoping to have quick reviews for the other new films I’ve seen in the past 30 or so days, especially those little-known titles that I happened upon on streaming options. First instalment below.
Godzilla: The Planet Eater
In the conclusion (?) to the recent animated trilogy, Haruo (Mamuro Miyano/Chris Niosi) finds himself unwittingly becoming a messianic figure when what is left of humanity is caught in a terrible battle between Godzilla and a three-headed inter-dimensional harbinger of doom. The fate of the planet comes down to whether Haruo can break through the religious ideology of the mysterious Metphies (Takahiro Sakurai/Lucien Dodge).
I blasted through the first two films of this series in the first week of the year, and The Planet Eater is 2019’s apparent final instalment. It can’t be watched in isolation however, being a direct continuation of City On The Edge Of Battle, so you might have to bear with me on some of the finer details. The overall narrative of this trilogy is an unexpectedly weighty thing, an effort to apply some science fiction originality to the well-worn concept of “Giant lizard wrecks buildings/is metaphor for nuclear proliferation”.
So there are numerous alien races, and other dimensions, and time travel and lots of religious mumbo-jumbo that litters the screen and screen-play. The question to be asked is whether this attempt at creating a whole universe around the Godzilla concept is better or worse than the Americanised adaptations of recent years, which amount to “monster fights other monster, humans look up and gasp”. In the end, while I appreciate the effort from Toho Animation, I can’t help but feel that there is only so much epic story-telling you can try with this concept before the titular lizard becomes rather superfluous to proceedings. I mean, he should be considered rather important, right? His name is title (he isn’t eating the planet though).
So the VA work is fine, the writing is OK, and the visuals are noteworthy, being that more modern occasionally 3D style of anime. But it can’t save a drifting narrative. You watch a film like this to see Godzilla fight Ghidorah, but it’s hard to enjoy that confrontation when Ghidorah is now some kind of quasi-deity who thrives on the faith of humans, while Godzilla is a manifestation of our fear, and the only to stop Ghidorah is a 2001-esque mind-trip sequence that may or may not include some sort of mind-Mothra to boot, and you know what? I don’t want any of this. This series was at its most entertaining when it was humans trying to outsmart and kill a lumbering Godzilla, whose design is one of the few things that I really enjoyed about all three of these films, he being portrayed here as an ancient, gnarly force of nature. Him fighting a (literally) intangible three headed snake dragon isn’t on the save level.
What’s left is the human/alien drama, and that is an overwrought grim affair, touching on themes of PTSD, misplaced faith and the dangers of rampant technological advancement, but never in a way that made me do anything but sigh and roll my eyes. The characters are one-dimensional, the set-pieces, bar Ghidorah’s first appearance, are flat and the conclusion is a bleak, uninspired thing. Not recommended.
In the not-too-distant future, dangerous criminals are dumped on an isolated island, where they form their own societies and factions in a bid to survive. When new arrival Yool (Bruce Khan) shows up, he commences a bloody campaign against any who stand in his way, as he aims to take revenge on the hoodlum’s leader.
Another in what is becoming a long line of “From the people who brought you The Raid” experiences, Revenger is, like the others, short on plot, characters and basic narrative, but big on extended sequences where one guy fights many other guys.
The problem is that Revenger actually has delusions of being something grander than that, with its fight sequences – the bread and butter of the cast and crew – extending only as far as the opening, a prison-based sequence at the midpoint, and then an extended ending sequence, with the filler sections remarkably elongated for the genre. At the end of the day it doesn’t take all that much brainpower to figure out that Yool is out to get revenge on the crime boss that killed his family, with all of the other stuff involving the “good” tribe and their wacky internal politics feeling all rather needless. The nods to other films of a similar nature, from Battle Royale to The Hunger Games, come off less like worship and more like replication.
The Raid and its sequel understood this, even if it veered too far towards the brainless end of the scale. Nobody watches these movies for the plot, not really. They want inventive fight sequences, and if they are covered by a sheen of emotional engagement towards the undercover cop/man out for revenge/amnesiac stranger/fugitive trying to clear his name, then that’s fine. But that’s all it has to be. Pretentions of creating something more than that invariably result, as they have here, in a soap-opera-esque mess of children with absent father figures and forgettable family bickering.
What Revenger does right is those few fight sequences, which showcase the kind of inventiveness that The Raid had, without ever scaling the complete heights set up by those who went before. It’s also fairly well-shot, with the jungle and beach surrounds looking rather well, as are the few grungy interiors that we are faced with. And director Lee Seung-won bests The Raid in at least one way, by inserting some much needed levity on occasion, through the farcical actions of Bao (Kim In-kwon), the comedically inept leader of the good guys who struggles with language barriers.
Offering thoughts on Revenger seems like a waste of time really, as it’s a dime-a-dozen affair that will sink to the bottom of Netflix’s back catalogue quicker than you can say “roundhouse kick” before vanishing forever. For fans of brainless martial arts fighting, there are maybe 20 minutes of the 90 I would encourage you to seek out. For everyone else, not recommended.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
In 2017, Billy McFarland, Ja Rule and a host of other entrepreneur types attempted to host a Bahaman music festival for the “millennial” generation, replete with social media influencers, celebrities and a top 1% lifestyle for a weekend. The result was an infamous disaster: this documentary attempts to examine what happened, why it happened, and who should be blamed.
The furore surrounding the competing documentaries on this topic – Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, which I have not seen, was released the day before Netflix’s Fyre – threatens to distract from the common cause the two production should have, which is the exposure of Billy McFarland and his cronies for the sensational scam they tried to pull off when it came to the Fyre Festival. I can’t comment on Fyre Fraud, but Fyre is a compelling examination of the event, and the morass of reasons it became the disaster it was.
First and foremost is the examination of McFarland, repeatedly described as both a sociopath and a compulsive liar, albeit one with immense charm and a flair for the dramatic. McFarland’s personal energy is enough to propel the Fyre Festival idea along, long past the point when it was clear it was about to become a catastrophe; his ability to bend the truth, manipulate and get what he wants comparable to Jordan Belfort of The Wolf Of Wall Street.
He’s not alone though. There are those that went along willingly with the scam, like Ja Rule – at one point nit picking the difference between “fraud” and “false advertising” to describe what they are all guilty of – or the ones who were unable or unwilling to admit what was happening until it was too late, consisting of event organisers, social media moderators and a host of influencers. The film does devote lengthy time to events at the festival itself and the experiences of a select few attendees and staff willing to testify, and it’s a mixture of horror over what became a potentially life-threatening event and heartbreak over the sheer amount of money some people lost, seemingly with no redress. But the film is, I must admit, more interesting when focusing on those who worked closely with McFarland and are at a loss to understand how they got so duped for so long.
McFarland is a scam artist for that modern generation, unable to admit he’s done anything wrong and knowingly committing further scams while out on bail for Fyre (and filming himself doing so for some reason). To the end, he’s unrepentant, and insistent that he will not be going to jail (he was eventually sentenced to six years, though there is a question mark over how much time he will serve). The effect he had on people is incredible: one employee claims he was close to performing oral sex on a difficult customs officer at McFarland’s behest, before the officer simply asked for the money he was owed. The really bizarre thing is that it all started with a simple, but innovative idea of an app rich people can use to book celebrities for events; the creators of this aspect of Fyre are left dumbfounded by how all their hard work goes up in smoke over a festival they had nothing to do with.
The documentary is shot in simple style, with testimonial interviews emphasising personality and humanity, and the reams of existing footage filling in the rest. It does a good job of mixing in the popular perception of Fyre – the social media backlash of schadenfreude could be a documentary in itself – and of giving the many, many victims of McFarland’s crimes the chance to have their say (Hulu’s version apparently included interviews with McFarland himself, for which he was paid; its producers counter that Fyre was produced by FuckJerry media, who were also involved in the festival). The end result is one where you can’t help but feel for even those who were intimately involved, for being hoodwinked and manipulated to the full, to the extent that their own ability to trust people is in tatters, and they themselves are the subject of lawsuits and FBI investigations. An insightful documentary, this is strongly recommended.
In a future world destroyed by pollution to the extent that most of the atmosphere is unbreathable, Sam (Margaret Qualley) is one of the last holdouts refusing to travel to the new human settlement orbiting Jupiter’s moon Io, continuing her father’s work to see if nature can adapt to the new conditions on Earth. When another traveller (Anthony Mackie) arrives at her isolated home, she must decide whether to stay or take the last transport leaving the dying planet.
I was looking forward to this one, and I wasn’t disappointed. We might remember another Netflix release recently, The Titan, that had a similar plotline but ended up being singularly awful. Here, with a very strong emphasis on character, things are much, much better.
With a cast of just four (one of whom shows up only in flashbacks, and the other being just a voice reading e-mails) there’s an obvious opportunity for a character study and Io, through director Jonathan Helbert and writers Clay Jeter, Charles Spano and Will Basanta, takes that ball and runs with it. Sam wallows in both her stringent isolation and almost pathetic adherence to the idea that there is some hope for what appears to be a doomed Earth; Micha struggles with the dark choices of his past, and with meeting someone who does not share his cynical and downbeat attitude to the fate of the planet.
It’s a good mix for what is essentially a two-hander. The larger drama about a dying Earth is basically just background to a thesis on loneliness, longing for somewhere to fit in, and a clash between stubborn idealism and fatigued acceptance. The relationship between Sam and Micha evolves slowly, feeling much lengthier than the film’s 90 minute and change running time, bolstered by strong performances from Qualley and Mackie.
Io also dips into philosophical issues, centring this portion of proceedings around Yeats’ Leda and the Swan, and one line in particular drawing discussion on butterfly effects and “Past is prologue” mentalities. If the film is a combat between Sam’s hope and Micah’s despair, her argument would seem to be based on the idea that one small, insignificant act can have grand repercussions; the film’s finale may dissatisfy some given the emotional weight of what came before, but ties into this idea rather well, and further serves as a cathartic exit point.
It may not be to everyone’s taste, but in that niche genre of “humans leaving a ruined earth” science-fiction, Io is a welcome step up from The Titan. Recommended.
Sam (Noomi Rapace) is one of the best bodyguard’s in the business, despite some hidden personal issues. When her client Zoe (Sophie Nelisse), a teenage heiress whose stepmother is in the midst of a multi-million mineral deal, finds herself caught up in a kidnapping plot motivated by corporate intrigue, Sam finds herself in a fight for her life.
Rapace I last saw in the underwhelming What Happened To Monday?, but fortunately she is dealing with much more enjoyable fare here, proof, perhaps, that sometimes the high concept sci-fi should be avoided in favour of more straightforward stories. Close is essentially another member of the Bourne club – intrigue, exotic locales, hacking, and brutal in-your-face violence – but it’s one with a hint of depth and with female leads.
Director Vicky Jewson does, at times, struggle with that central relationship. There’s a theme of surrogate motherhood that is inserted, that the principals struggle with given the short running time. It’s better when it is more focused on the action, of a bodyguard and her client lost and isolated in a foreign country and struggling to figure out who they can and cannot trust. This formula has been played about with plenty, but I believe it’s rare for both the guard and the client to be female, important as the film can’t really fall back on a romantic plot-line as a crutch (indeed, the reason Sam is hired is because Zoe keeps sleeping with her male guards).
Sam is an interesting character, notwithstanding the film’s occasional attempts to portray her as a James Bond type, replete with an opening title sequence. The film opens with her expertly dealing with an ambush in the Sudan, and she rarely lets up from the aura of confidence and competence. It’s in those rare moments that Rapace’s skill as an actor shines through, when she struggles with personal difficulties, half-formed romantic relationships and the choice between keeping Zoe at an emotional distance or being her friend. Rapace is much better in this kind of role than in the, perhaps, more challenging What Happened To Monday? and plays ably off Nelisse, showcasing both a toughness and an emotional vulnerability that the role needs.
The action is actually somewhat limited, and this can be a drag: the first half of the film starts to wear on you as Jewson takes a lot of time with her set-up. When it does come it’s a nice mix of traditional gunplay, visceral hand-to-hand and even a few instances of more inspired stuff, such as an underwater fight inside a fish farm. Aside from that the film is obviously shot on a bit of a shoe string – the interiors of dingy slum apartments really aren’t all that different to what are supposed to be opulent mansions – but I can appreciate the effort being put into things.
Unlikely to be a true standout on Netflix, Close deserves a bit more of an audience than it is likely to get, if only for Rapace’s performance and the way it advances the cause of female-centred action movies. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Little Big Pictures and Netflix).