"Godzilla" (PG) Nationwide
"Size does matter," say the makers of Godzilla, but somebody should have told them that it's dangerous to boast, and that personality also counts. It would be fun to report that Godzilla is a 400-foot-tall turkey in lizard's clothing, but the truth is that it's just rather dull.
The writing-producing-directing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have made a successful career out of plundering the B-movie archive for ideas which could be spiced up with a little 1990s technology. It worked for them with the enjoyably trashy sci-fi fantasy Stargate and it certainly hit paydirt with Independence Day. With their talent for reinventing and reinvigorating hoary old genres, the pair must have seemed the ideal choice to tackle this particular re-make, but, whether through hubris or a simple lack of imagination, the formula fails to fizz this time. The "echoes" of other movies (Frankenstein, King Kong, Jaws and Aliens spring immediately and forcefully to mind) are all there, but they just serve to remind you that the originals were rather better, and the creature itself seems uncomfortably closely related to the inhabitants of Jurassic Park. Another problem is the film's colour palette; the breezy bright colours of Independence Day are replaced by brooding dark colours and deep shadows. Most of the action takes place at night, and the daytime scenes are filmed under lowering clouds and torrential rain in a look akin to that of Rain City in Seven - an interesting technical challenge, perhaps (although one suspects it might have something to do with covering up the shortcomings of the digital effects), but hardly what one expects from a summer blockbuster.
Even worse, the plotting seems designed to make sure we'll never get too excited. The opening is fine, with plenty of ominous foreboding as the mysterious creature is sighted making its way up the Eastern seaboard of the United States. With the nuclear theme of the original updated to the 1990s, the French shoulder most of the blame for Godzilla's mutation, caused by their nuclear tests in the Pacific. Tension is effectively built as the creature heads for its unknown destination (at least, it's unknown if you haven't seen one of the zillion trailers and teaser ads). But once Godzilla gets to New York, things fall apart very quickly. Manhattan is evacuated while the creature hides out in the city's subways, avoiding all military attempts to flush him out, and we're forced against our will to follow some rather dreary human interest in the shape of Matthew Broderick as the scientist who comes to understand what's going on, and Maria Pitillo in what is already becoming the cliched role of the year, the ambitious young TV reporter. Jean Reno is running around in the background as a mysterious French secret agent, making heavy-handed, deeply unfunny jokes about bad American coffee. Sooner or later, of course, they all have to head for the city and face the monster, but it takes an awfully long time. Is there any reason on earth why a film like this should be two hours and 19 minutes long? At 90 minutes, Emmerich and Devlin might conceivably have had an exciting movie. Size matters all right, but not the way they seem to think.
"The Little Mermaid" (General) Nationwide
Long, long ago, in a kingdom far away, a famous and venerable animation studio seemed to have lost the art of making good movies. But all that changed when the overhauled and revived Disney Corporation released The Little Mermaid eight years ago, reversing the received wisdom that the age of the animated feature was over and setting the standard for a string of huge hits in the 1990s.
Not that any of this will matter too much to most of the audience for this welcome re-release - but it's worth remembering the doldrums into which Disney's animation division had sunk before The Little Mermaid turned things around, while noting that it still looks like one of the best modern offerings from the studio. The underwater sequences are absolutely wonderful, the story is classically simple and the whole thing is mercifully free of the schlocky sub-PC hokum of later offerings like Pocahontas. Even the songs are rather good, and the intimate scale of the whole thing makes one wonder whether all the fancy, computer-generated panoramas of more recent productions are at all necessary. A pleasure from start to finish, and a film that should thrill the new generation born since the original release.
"The Thief" (Members and Guests) IFC
After the turbulence of the immediate post-Gorbachev years, when it seemed that one of the world's great film cultures might be swept away entirely, Russian cinema has been experiencing a modest but definite resurgence. A few months after Sergei Bodrov's fine Prisoner Of The Mountains was shown at the IFC, Pavel Chukhrai's exquisitely made film, set during the harshest years of post-war Stalinism, confirms the trend. Ekaterina Rednikova plays Katya, a young war widow with a six-year-old son Sanya (Misha Philipchuk). Aboard a train, she meets handsome, rogueish army officer Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), and the two begin a sexual relationship which sets them against the rigid oppression of the police state.
The unfolding developments of the story are so masterfully handled that it would be wrong to reveal any more, but The Thief skilfully and believably interweaves its three protagonists' lives with the stark reality of their predicament. Chukhrai has said that he wanted to make a film about "the childhood of the generation which has had such a strong influence on life in this country today", and the point is rammed home in a rather heavy-handed coda, in which we see Sanya as a middle-aged army officer marshalling his troops in the midst of what looks like a savage, Chechen-style civil war. It's an addition which seems unnecessary (although perhaps not to a Russian audience) but it certainly doesn't detract from this melancholic, beautiful film, whose images linger in the mind for a long time.