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Filming the Fear Index

Taking a break from my customary fare of small-budget radical films that get short shrift in the mainstream media, I decided to check out “Godzilla” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, two films playing at Multiplexes everywhere. While my primary motivation was to soak up some mindless entertainment, there was the added incentive of the films as apparently having something in common with my regular agitprop diet.

Director Gareth Edwards told the Telegraph that his remake of Godzilla was supposed to reflect the questions that the incident at Fukushima raised. This would not be the first attempt by Edwards to use a monster movie as a vehicle for politics. Filmed near the Mexican-US border, his 2010 “Monsters” was widely interpreted as a comment on the immigration debate.

As for Captain America, he is trying to preempt a cabal taking over the planet through the use of drones. Sound familiar? Well, this is what co-director Joe Russo told the NY Times: “We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address. If you’re saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?”

Just to remind myself of what the original was about, I watched the 1954 “Godzilla” on Amazon streaming. At 99 cents, it is a bargain at twice the price. While American audiences (and I was part of them way back then) were strictly interested in the monster destroying Tokyo scenes, the film had much more in common with Akira Kurosawa’s “I Live in Fear” that came out a year later. Try to imagine what it was like to live in Japan in 1954. Just 9 years earlier two major cities had been leveled by atomic bombs and now the USA was testing hydrogen bombs in the Pacific. In “I Live in Fear”, a heavily made-up Toshiro Mifune starred as an elderly wealthy businessman who had become obsessed with the Bomb. Kurosawa said that he was inspired to make the film by conversations he had with his longtime film composer Fumio Hayasaka who had become seriously ill during the making of “Seven Samurai”. Hayasaka had told him, “The world has come to such a state that we don’t really know what is in store for us tomorrow. I wouldn’t even know how to go on living – I’m that uncertain. Uncertainties, nothing but uncertainties. Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe. Soon there will be no place at all.”

“Every day there are fewer and fewer places that are safe”—those are the words that could serve as the 1954 film’s epigraph. Nuclear testing in the South Pacific has awoken Godzilla from his slumbers. As he lumbers toward Tokyo, the military struggles to come up with a plan to stop him in his tracks.

Most of the film consists of dialog between scientists over what role they can play in defending civilization with scientist Daisuke Serizawa agonizing over whether he should inform the military brass about his latest invention, a death ray that will kill Godzilla but all the marine life near Tokyo as well. As a way of dramatizing Japan’s recent traumas, Serizawa wears a patch to cover an eye lost fighting in WWII.

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The actor playing Dr. Serizawa is Akihiko Hirata, who acted as well in a number of Kurosawa films as did Takashi Shimura, who also played a scientist in “Godzilla”. Next to Mifune, Shimura was Kurosawa’s favorite lead actor, starring in “To Live” and “Seven Samurai”. Both actors had careers in monster movies, called kaiju by the Japanese, as well as Kurosawa classics. Director Ishirō Honda also had close ties to Kurosawa. Not only was he a life-long friend; he also worked as directorial advisor, production coordinator and creative consultant on Kurosawa’s last five films. Clearly the divide between high art and popular culture was not as wide as it was in the USA. The only analogy I can think of is someone like Steven Soderbergh making fluff like “Oceans 11” around the same time he was making a film about Che Guevara although he probably considered the first film as a day job meant to support his more heart-felt films.

Sadly as it became more difficult for Soderbergh to make leading-edge films, he washed his hands of Hollywood and retired. That fate was not much different than the one suffered by Kurosawa who discovered in the 1970s that Japanese audiences had become corrupted by Hollywood junk and less receptive to his sort of work. Although he never retired, Kurosawa found financing and critical support more and more difficult to garner.

Honda’s “Godzilla” opens with fisherman exposed to a bright light that sickened them; it turns out to be Godzilla’s radioactive blasts. This resonated with current events. In March of 1954 tuna fishermen were exposed to radioactive ash from an American underwater nuclear test in the South Pacific.

Ishirō Honda was no stranger to the horrors of WWII. He saw combat in the infantry and walked through the rubble of Hiroshima. Although the producers saw “Godzilla” as a way of cashing in on the popularity of monster movies in the 1950s (it seems like I saw about one every month), Honda had a different agenda: “I wanted to make radiation visible”.

For all practical purposes, Godzilla is a symbol of the nuclear attacks on Japan. With his radioactivity, his leveling of city blocks, and most of all his irrationality, he would remind the Japanese of the American savagery.

If you come to the original film with expectations of impressive special effects, you will be disappointed. A stunt actor in a costume plays Godzilla and it looks like it. To save money, the studios told Honda that the film had to be in black-and-white rather than color, a decision that actually strengthens its noirish sensibility.

My recommendation is to see this classic and “I Live in Fear” side-by-side. It will be a much more rewarding experience than the remake that I turn to now.

Whether it was his decision or one forced upon him by the studios, Gareth Edwards made a film that had more in common with “The Transformers” than the original Godzilla or his own “Monsters” for that matter. This is a film with almost no character development or dramatic conflict. The characters are almost an afterthought with most of the film devoted to an exhausting series of battles between Godzilla and two huge insects that looked like a cross between a praying mantis and the creature in the “Alien” movies.

The lead character is a total cipher. Like other young beefcakes (Taylor Kitsch, Channing Tatum et al), Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the hero of the film, one Ford Brody—a Navy demolitions expert whose father (Bryan Cranston, overacting as usual) was killed by one of the insect creatures running amok. Perhaps if screenwriter Max Borenstein had decided to develop the relationship between father and son, there would have been something of human interest there. But since this is Borenstein’s first screenplay and one obviously catering to an audience raised on video games, he has the father killed off early on. That leaves Ford Brody to soldier on in one high-stakes CGI-enhanced scene after another.

Probably the best expression of the script’s shallowness is the inclusion of a character named Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Wanatabe), who is the son of the scientist in Honda’s film. As the only Japanese character, his role is to wear a frown as things go downhill from one scene to the next and to occasionally remind the military that it might not be a great idea to launch a nuclear missile against the monsters in close proximity to Tokyo. I guess the Hollywood studios thought it was best to use characters that an American audience can identify with, like the one-dimensional Ford Brody.

A day after I saw this visually impressive but mind-numbing film, I reflected on why it was such a flop. Before long I realized that it could not compare to “Independence Day”, another earth is in danger—what will we do type flick. In that film, there was a balance between human drama and CGI fireworks. For example, you also had a father and son relationship in “Independence Day” with Jeff Goldblum playing a geeky Jewish scientist—the sort of role he often plays—and Judd Hirsch playing his father as a kind of Jewish mother in fact. Throughout the film, the father is alternately proud of his son or ready to disown him. Yes, it was great to see the White House blown up but unless you throw in some human drama, it becomes a bore–sort of like pornography. It is interesting to watch a couple of people having intercourse but not for two hours straight.

Since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was a sequel to the 2011 “Captain America: the First Avenger”, I decided to take in the first film as background (Amazon streaming for $2.99). The first film pretty much follows the plot line of the Marvel Comics series that was launched in 1941 with a consciously pro-war message. Joe Simon, the creator and a Jew, said: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” All that changed at the end of 1941, of course, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Captain America is a former 97-pound weakling who becomes engineered into a superhero by a Jewish scientist named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a plot line reminiscent of the Spider Man series, another Marvel Comics classic.

Much of “Captain America” will remind you of “Inglourious Basterds” with Captain America leading a motley crew of soldiers behind Nazi lines to attack and destroy manufacturing plants for a super-weapon that would turn the tide in Hitler’s favor. Like Edwards’s “Godzilla”, most of the film consisted of set pieces in CGI that grew tiresome before long.

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With that in mind, I went to the sequel expecting more of the same. I am happy to report that it was not only better, but also one of the more enjoyable action films I have seen in quite some time.

Although Christopher Markus wrote the scripts for both films, I would have bet that someone else wrote the second since it was more dramatic, more witty, more politically on target, and most of all more exciting.

Casting against type, Robert Redford plays the head of something called the Shield, which is a top-secret government agency modeled on the CIA but much more sinister. Redford, as always, is splendid. As Alexander Pierce, Redford has a secret agenda to take over the world in the interests of peace. He is all set to deploy a fleet of super-drones whose first task will be to kill 3 million people who will supposedly be terrorists at some time in the future. This will remind you of the plot line in “Minority Report”, of course.

Unlike the mutant “precogs” in “Minority Report” who can predict the future, Pierce will rely on a AI program developed by a Nazi scientist from the first film who began working with the West after the fashion of Operation Paper Clip, an OSS program that recruited Nazi scientists. The software sucks up all the electronic information about everybody on the planet from phone calls to email in order to develop a profile that will allow the drones to terminate them. As director Joe Russo said, he and his brother Andrew, his co-director, were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address. Yes, indeed.

This is the only the second feature film directed by the Russos; their first was the sentimental Owen Wilson vehicle “You, Me, and Dupree.” In the past they collaborated on a number of TV shows, including “Community”.

What distinguishes the sequel from the first film is the interaction between Captain America and his two main allies, his handler Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) and his female co-warrior Natasha Romanoff (played ably by Scarlett Johansson but who needs terminating by a super-hero after her shameful defiance of BDS.)

The characters exchange playful banter that keeps things bubbling along after the fashion of Clark Kent and Lois Lane (at least in the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder films.) In one particularly amusing scene, Captain America and Natasha go to an Apple store (product placement, I guess) in order to find a secure computer. They are “helped” by the typical sort of geek who works in such places, a priceless touch given the generally apocalyptic tone that prevails.)

The final half-hour of the film consists of the de rigueur showdown between the good guys and the bad guys but unlike either Gareth Edwards’s “Godzilla” or the first Captain America film, it is skillfully choreographed and a joy to watch. I can think of other films that will probably get on my 5 best of 2014 list, but this one is a load of fun as well as a welcome thumb in the Obama administration’s eye.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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