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On October 7, 2014, Rotten Tomatoes stopped posting my reviews. Whether this was a temporary glitch or an indefinite misfortune for me, it was the final straw, thus, 1964's "Mothra vs. Godzilla" is my last review for Rotten Tomatoes. As of this statement, I have been a member for almost five years and accumulated a number of reviews that, if I remember correctly, leans closer to 2,000 than 1,000, but I can no longer tolerate the ever-exacerbating incompetence and lack of friendliness to users on this website, and while I do hold admiration for this entity as a review website, it is no longer for me. I will now post my reviews on Letterboxd, with a few modifications to my reviewing format (My conformity to the site's rating system will better fit my personal rating system), but my RT page will stand in its current form as a testament to my long and undeniably rich history as a member of this community. Although my aggravation is overwhelming, I have no real regrets regarding this crucially important chapter in my career as a film critic whose professionalism, style and love for the entertainment industry would not be even remotely what it is now without Rotten Tomatoes. I apologize if this extreme move is disconcerting to my readers, but please the reviews I have posted on this website and will continue to post on Letterboxd. | http://letterboxd.com/cameronwjohnson/
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#1 - Leonardo DiCaprio | #2 - Tom Hanks | #3 - Cate Blanchett and Edward Norton | #4 - Joaquin Phoenix
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TV, hiking, Double Toasted audio reviews, and even more amateur music criticism.
It's all of the excitement of a big lizard facing off against a big moth... and both combatants are giant monstrosities tearing up Japan. Wow, that actually does sound kind of cool, but after "King Kong vs. Godzilla", I think that we could have gone a while without seeing another crossover between "Godzilla" and another monster series, rather than the first of so very, very, very many. There ought to be a little more inspiration this time around, thanks to desperation, because even though the film "Mothra" was fairly successful, the people behind it just had to have known that the "Godzilla" franchise was going to be the best thing to happen to their franchise. If nothing else will make this film more inspired than "King Kong vs. Godzilla", it's the fact that this time around, there aren't any ignorant Americans to mess this project up, like you know they would have, seeing as how when they got ahold of this film, they came up with a title as "inspired and creative" as "Godzilla vs. the Thing". You know that they're not referring to Christian Nyby's "The Thin from Another World", because no one paid that much attention to that creature until John Carpenter's remake that came out about 22 years later, just as no one pays that much attention to Mothra outside of the "Godzilla" franchise. You know, maybe those involved in this crossover aren't too much more creative than the Americans, because, again, even though these rascals are big and destructive, at the end of the day, we are talking about a big lizard facing off against a big moth. Well, at least this film is decidedly better than "King Kong vs. Godzilla", in spite of its shortcomings, such as natural ones.
I mean, I don't how much we're to expect out of a crossover between Mothra and Godzilla in the first place, but this film's story can't even be that meaty, being a lot of dramatically inconsequential chatter, punctuated by action sequences that come without any real sense of consequence over spectacle. That's the usual kaiju premise, and exactly ten years after this monster film genre was established, by way of "Gojira", it was already being worked to death, so, on top of being thin to begin with, this film's story concept is hardly anything new, crafting typical human characters, following a familiar beat and path, and ultimately hitting a number of other fluffy conventions, plenty of which are not the right ones, if you know what I'm getting at, people who saw "Mothra". The "Godzilla" series started out intelligent and reasonably grounded, with some real substance over spectacle, but "Mothra", a more stereotypical Japanese pop piece, carried many a silly aspect that returns here (Those stupid tiny twins), further taking you out of an already somewhat unengaging premise, backed by cheese on the writing that probably shouldn't be there. A lot of the dialogue is cornball, and the humor, while plenty charming and often quite amusing, breaks what tension there is in this rather dated, even if there is always a consistency in a lack of subtlety, which bloats a lot of the popcorn traits, and still not as much as it probably should to really liven things up, at least when it comes to pacing. Running not even 90 minutes, this film is almost as short as those stupid tiny twins, and it's not much of anything beyond dragging, taking what feels like a long, long time to unveil Mothra, and an even longer time to unveil Godzilla, let alone get into the action, and focusing a lot of talk that is colorful, but backed by a subdued air that is occasionally rather dulling. Too much talk has always been a problem with these kaiju classics, but this film, in particular, cannot afford to bore, especially not after "King Kong vs. Godzilla" fell flat as more of a snoozefest than the inconsequential fluff piece that it and this film aims to be. Fluffy, familiar, silly and draggy, this film stands a very real chance of falling to the level of "King Kong vs. Godzilla", but it ultimately gets by as entertaining and, well, focused, for what it is.
Even with all of the over-reliance on chatter, this film doesn't have much pretense about what it is: a fluff piece, and while that establishes a whole lot of natural shortcomings that are made all the more distancing by silly story traits and some cheesy writing, but quite frankly, this premise is plenty of fun, and Shinichi Sekizawa's scripted interpretation does add to that through some charming comic relief, and perhaps even more charming characters. The human characters are genuinely memorable, and every one of them are played the way they ought to be, making them even more charming and endearing amidst all of their aimless chit-chat, and with the help of a competent director. Ishiro Honda, the director who started it all, finally returns to the "Godzilla" franchise, but brings with him sensibilities more in the vein of his directorial performance on "Mothra", complete with more limp pacing than ponderous thoughtfulness, and more emphasis on style over substance, although that is not a huge criticism, considering that Honda often manages to keep the pace tight enough for you feel some, maybe a little too much extensiveness, backed by an adequate deal of flare. Akira Ifukube adds to this flare with a formulaic, but lively and occasionally emotive score, whose underusage keeps it from being as recurrent of a compliment to aesthetic value as Hajime Koizumi's somewhat flat, but colorfully sound and, therefore, handsome cinematography. If nothing else can be admired about the visual style of this film, it's its scope, which immerses you into a number of distinguished, often lovely locations and settings, and creates a sense of scope that further adds to the fun factor of this popcorn piece, especially in the heat of action. We're ultimately here for Mothra and Godzilla, and they take a long time to show up, arriving as effects that have become terribly dated, like a couple of other effects in this film (Those stupid tiny twins didn't always blend in, and those tanks look like the toys they are), yet are still unique and flashy enough to sell, at least as components to spare, but grand and nifty action sequences that are worth waiting a long time for. As things progress, the film does grow livelier and livelier, after plenty of slow early phases, but, honestly, the final product is almost always some degree of entertaining and colorful, keeping up enough charm and entertainment value to satisfy as a fluff piece, even if only that.
When the battle is done, this fluff piece finds its natural shortcomings as an inconsequential story that goes further plagued by familiarity and a silliness which is itself exacerbated by cheesy scripting moments that still don't manage to liven things enough to prevent a surprising amount of dragging and slow spells from threatening the final product's decency, ultimately secured by an at least entertaining premise's being done enough justice by colorfully charming humor, characters, performances and direction, and by charged score work, handsome cinematography and settings, and thrilling, if dated effects and action sequences to make Ishiro Honda's "Mothra vs. Godzilla" a fun, if inconsequential "first" crossover between two of Toho's biggest (Figuratively and literally) icons.
"Whoopie-ti-yo, the biggest lizard raids again!" Sorry, Chris LeDoux and whoever the littlest cowboy is, but I, with a heavy heart, must admit that "Falco Rides Again" fits better, just because of that line, "This is the story of a lonely man who's seen the world, from 'Japan' to Afghanistan!". Well, say what you will about Falco, but when he rode again, he apparently actually got out of Japan eventually, whereas the Gojira/Godzilla stuck with Japan... after returning from the dead... I think. Hey, you have to give us Americans credit for changing this rascal's voice and origin around in 1959 to get the point across that this is, in fact, not the same monster from the original "Gojira", or "Godzilla", or whatever, although we had to have known that we wouldn't make much profit off of "Gigantis". That's actually dumber than "Gorilla-Whale" ("Gojira" is an amalgamation of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale), and as if that's not offensive enough, they gave everyone's favorite monster a demotion, from "King of Monsters" to plain old "Fire Monster". This film has so many titles, but what they really should have done was just aggravated religious nuts even more by calling this "Godzilla: The Second Coming", for his return is an event of such biblical proportions that he brought a few beast to brawl. Yeah, when it comes to advertising, it would appear as though Anguirus gets the shaft most of all, but he'll always have the honor of being Godzilla's first enemy and Gigantis' only one, and in a pretty entertaining flick, no less, until the slow spots come in, that is.
The predecessor tossed in more than a few surprising slow spells, yet it could kind of justify them by featuring an even more surprising amount of depth, whereas with this film, while there is a little more entertainment value, the superficiality intensifies the slow spells as rather dull, almost as much as the dragging in plotting. Seeing as how this film is about 82 minutes long, one of the last things I expected was draggy spells, but the final product manages to find the time to work a couple in there by shaving down on exposition, answering to the extensiveness of the predecessor with glosses over scientific and narrative reasoning behind the establishment of the central conflict, and with limited characterization. With a shortage on a sense of motivation behind the characters, the film's human story angles surrounding the monsters' brawl and rampage fail to convince enough to overcome a sense of contrivance, exacerbated by some silly subtlety issues in the telling of an already either histrionic or over-the-top story. The original's story was by no means especially convincing, and it was a whole lot of chatter, with only so much action, but it did offer some genuine depth and potential, while this film, arguably a little too much action, is simple, dialing social, political and scientific themes way back for fluff. Without the dramatic bite of its predecessor, this film has difficulty in overshadowing the silliness of its premise, and it doesn't help that this kaiju-style story isn't as fresh as it was in its then-five-month-old predecessor, especially not when backed by a couple of tropes of the time which the original "Gojira"/"Godzilla" managed to transcend, and which make this fluff piece all the more predictable. There's something a little lazy about this film, as one might expect from a sequel that was made not even half of a year after its predecessor hit big, and while there is enough compensation in aesthetic and entertainment value to endear, the final product is familiar and superficial, as well as unevenly paced, undercooked and manufactured. The final product may succumb to mediocrity for many, but for me, again, it gets by, not as effective on the level of an already admittedly underwhelming predecessor, but as viscerally and stylistically enjoyable.
Masaru Sato's score isn't as fresh or effective as Akira Ifukube's score for the predecessor, and it is already fairly underused, but its striking lighter spots and grand sweeping spots immerse, not unlike cinematography, by Seiichi Endo, that doesn't have the handsome bleakness of the predecessor, yet remains sometimes beautifully well-lit, with an engrossing range in lensing scope. If nothing else provides a sense of scale in this film, then it is, of course, the effects, which, like those in the predecessor, are dated and sometimes cheesy, - especially considering that this film is even more reliant on them - but are nonetheless remarkable for their time, while still proving respectable to this day, with unique designs for Gojira/Godzilla and Anguirus, whose size and havoc are solid just fine. All of the chaos that comes about when these monsters feud with humans, man-made structures, and each other is not simply where the technical and stylistic value really shines, but where the film itself really shines, with surprisingly dynamic and sweeping staging, and enough flare to the effects to dazzle at times, and consistently engage in the heat of action. To be so slam-banged, this film may actually offer stronger effects than its predecessor, although you might simply think that because the effects are brought more to the forefront, until they try to bring in substance over style with a charming, but thematically superficial and dramatically manufactured human angle that is neither unique or grand. Some color in the narrative goes a long way in holding some degree of your investment, especially when the cast turns in some charismatic performances that are more convincing than the characterization itself, but at the end of the day, this film doesn't have the substance of its predecessor, and neither style nor charm can endear you through the natural and consequential shortcomings here, not without colorful direction. Director Motoyoshi Oda's slow spots in storytelling feel more limp than thoughtful, like the still-sometimes limp direction of Ishiro Honda in the predecessor, but when storytelling does liven up a bit, it holds your attention with a few charming plays with the performers, and really immerses with style, particularly during the action sequences that only mark a height in entertainment value. For all of its slow spots, the film is adequately entertaining throughout its course, and just as the simplicity thins down the potential for this fluff piece, it does establish a potential for a fun factor that is fulfilled just enough by charm and relatively high-caliber production values to get by, even if just barely.
Once the raid has wrapped, at least for now, the final product all but collapses into underwhelmingness under the pressure of superficiality which is stressed by dull and draggy spots, expository shortcomings, contrivances and familiarity, but which is met with enough charming acting, engaging scoring and cinematography, colorful storytelling and relatively spectacular effects and action for "Godzilla Raids Again"... or "Gojira no Gyakushu", or "Counterattack of Godzilla", or "Godzilla: The Second Coming" (We'll just continue to forget about "Gigantis, the Fire Monster") a reasonably entertaining, if perhaps overly fluffy second installment in a legendary franchise.
"Oh no, there goes Tokyo; go-go-gorilla-whale!" Godzilla's original name is Gojira, deriving from the Japanese word for gorilla, "goriria" (Oh yeah, that's not supplementary to racist stereotypes), and the Japanese word for whale, "kujira". Oh yeah, nerds, I just went there, and if you thought that was a slightly uninteresting stretch, well, just wait until you see the rest of the "Godzilla", or "Gojira", or "Gorilla-Whale", or whatever franchise. He literally is a god among lizards, a king among monsters, and yet another over-the-top horror to hit Japan that derived from working with nuclear stuff. I don't know about Tokyo, but this lizard sure is doing a number on people's comfort zones, because he's a nuclear disaster in Japan not ten years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki got bombed, and then he comes over to the States with some sort of sacrilege trailing his new name. It was sacrilege to Japan, too, because when he showed up in the States, almost two years after this film was released, it was heavily re-edited and Americanized, with less emphasis on social and political themes. Shoot, while I do like this film a fair bit, maybe it does need to dial a few things back a bit.
Actually, subtlety issues aren't that enormous of a deal here, at least when it comes to the allegorical themes, which are nonetheless laid on a little thick at times, largely by overdramatic moments that are typical with Japanese cinema, particularly at the time. Sure, the effects, while impressive at the time and still admirable to this day, are pretty decidedly more dated than anything in this film, but as surprisingly serious as this film feels in so many ways, the dramatic writing gets a little overblown, and the atmospheric tension tends to bear down a bit, as well. Tonal contrivances, courtesy of director Ishiro Honda, are actually few and far between, and that's because there's a surprising amount of delicacy in this film's storytelling, which I can appreciate for its providing a sense of importance and weight to a potentially stupid film, but can't really embrace it when material for Honda to draw upon with his thoughtfulness lapses. Pacing and structure are ultimately the film's biggest problems, because there are times in which the film gets a little boring with all of its dry talk, dragging its feet on its way to showcases of the titular iconic monster, who goes underused for a whole lot of nothing. Looking at this basic premise about a prehistoric monster wreaking havoc, and at the lame-brain simplicity of very many of the Kaiju films this classic inspired, it should come as a surprise that this film's subject matter is fairly intelligent and dramatically weighty, but the plot is still a little straightforward, no matter how much they bloat it with aimless chatter and exposition which only stress certain inconsequentialities in this promising, but underwhelming film. So much is done very well here, and I can understand why this classic has resonated and reward so many through the years, for it has a lot of rewarding elements, although it doesn't quite stand strong, getting a little too ambitious, especially with sensibilities of the time, to stay subtle, and getting a little too problematically paced for natural shortcomings to be overlooked. The final product falls short of rewarding, but just barely, because, again, a lot in this film is done very well, even when it comes to technicality.
Glazing some handsome bleakness over a black-and-white palette, and having some hand in the dynamic visual scope that ranges from tightly intimate to sweeping, Masao Tamai delivers on excellent cinematography that compliments the tone of this heavy and broad-scale thriller, more recurrently than Akira Ifukube's powerful score, whose subtleties are racked with tension and, at times, piercing resonance, and whose sweep is occasionally monumental. Aesthetic and technical value stand strong in this film, which is best-remembered for its effects, which have become dated, often terribly so, yet were actually pretty incredible at the time, so much so that you still kind of buy into the unique design of Gojira/Godzilla, and into the illusions utilized to simulate the monstrosity's overwhelming scale. The beast is chillingly enormous, and when he wreaks havoc, while you can see the seams in the miniatures and superimpositions, it makes for spectacle that is still genuinely worth waiting for, through all of aimless plot. Again, this film doesn't use Gojira/Godzilla all that much, and between his raid is a whole lot of social, political and scientific mumbo-jumbo, thus making for something of a thin plot, but not as much of one as you might think, for this film does, albeit sometimes a little heavy-handedly, take on audacious and worthy themes regarding the dangers of working with radioactivity, and the political and social instabilities chaos can bring, backed by a plot that doesn't focus too much on contrived subplots, and takes an extensive look as a society's handling of a grave situation. The human qualities of the film are actually brought to life by a large, very talented cast, whose members project human charisma and chemistry, as well as a genuine sense of fear and a great deal of emotion to define the dramatic significance of this kind of an event. It helps that screenwriters Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata provide quality material to the characterization, which fleshes out most everyone in his or her respective role, without getting uneven, in spite of all of the aimless chatter that is still smart in its complimenting adequately buyable, fictional science, and plenty buyable allegories, with a generally solid degree of subtlety that is capitalized on by Honda's direction, which may get a little subtle for its own good, as well as occasionally a little manipulative, yet is engaging in its thoughtfulness when working with intriguing material, until broadening enough to establish genuine tension. The film is gripping at times, and much more often than that, it is fairly compelling, flattened too much by pacing issues and natural shortcomings, though not to where the final product can't be admired for having intelligence to accompany the originality and intrigue of a story that is handled well enough to come to the brink of rewarding, even if it is only the brink.
Overall, there are a few thematic and dramatic subtlety issues, which are just a part of the fair deal of dated aspects that is challenged by thoughtfulness that largely only emphasizes bland dragging that in turn emphasizes the natural shortcomings of a somewhat underwhelming, but still intriguing story, whose original flare is brought to life by excellent cinematography and score work, and by once-stellar and still-admirable effects and action, while substance goes complimented enough by worthwhile themes, strong performances, intelligently well-rounded writing, and generally effective direction to secure Ishiro Honda's "Godzilla" as a true classic that, for all of its shortcomings, compel reasonably well.
"I have had to fight, almost every night, down throughout these centuries; that is when I say, oh yes, yet again, 'Can you stop the Calvary?'". Sorry, Jona Lewis, but the Cavalry has arrived, but they couldn't even spell their name right, so I don't know how much help they would be. For the record, I understand that Calvary was the spot where they crucified Christ, and now, this poor sucker might end up being crucified, figuratively, at least. Man, the poster makes this film look really important and dramatically intense, and all this and all that, but it is directed by the guy who did 2011's "The Guard", so you know that it's going to be rather lighthearted. I don't know if this dark comedy is going to be heavier on the darkness or heavier on the comedy, because in this film, the type of authority figure Brendan Gleeson is playing is a priest, something that always makes me laugh. Now, before you thumpers of the Catholic Bible-thumpers get mad and, I don't know, flog me or something, first off, this film is actually something of a deconstruction of the Catholic Church, and secondly, as Jonathan Swift taught us, Irish priests have the best sense of dark humor. I think that's just the Irish in general, because they have all gone through some serious junk, including this guy, whose humor still can't completely overshadow his issues or, well, the issues of this film.
A little dramatically weightier and comically lighter than "The Guard", this film would be all over the place with its tone if all of the cold dryness didn't subdued much of the tone, which still finds time to jar about the place, taking you out of the direction of this dark dramedy that cannot afford to lose resonance as either a drama or a comedy. The themes of this satire on Catholicism, at least in modern Ireland, don't always sell, largely because of the inconsistent tone that leaves elements in the narrative that are comically exaggerated to feel more unconvincing than anything. Really, this film is something of a mess in all kinds of ways, especially when it comes to the focus of the plot itself, for although this film keeps a consistent lead to serve as an audience avatar, many characters with a distinct piece of the plot come in and out of play, and hardly ever all that organically. The film might not quite be all over the place in tone, but in plot structure, it is a mighty mess, bloated with layers and layers of seemingly random events that only stress the simplicity of this straightforward, largely comedic opus that doesn't even have the energy to fulfill its comic potential. The script is sharp and the acting is razor-sharp, while direction has some nifty moments to liven things up, but through all of that, this film is quiet and dry, same as "The Guard", with less colorful fluff, resulting in a blandness that very often descends into a dullness. This film is a competent crawl that isn't always dull, and isn't always competent, being disjointed in its tone and, even more so focus, and finding itself meandering along a simple story until the final product finally sputters out as almost forgettable, at least for the most part. John Michael McDonagh once again fails to hit me like he does others, but he got me and will certainly get others by, and almost makes the final product decidedly rewarding, with generally intelligent storytelling, and surprisingly solid score.
If Patrick Cassidy's score doesn't rank among the best of the year, that's simply because it's criminally underused in this very dry affair, because when it is used, it's incredible, with a deeply spiritual connection that ranges from piercingly touching to strikingly intense, and compliments the emotional effectiveness of what dramatic aspects there are in this affair, as surely as it supplements solid aesthetic value. Cassidy is a deeply gifted composer, and I seriously wish that his colorful efforts were much more prominent, although it's not as though the film is aesthetically cold for the most part, for the also gifted Larry Smith delivers an upstanding cinematographic performance whose well-defined, almost dreamy emphasis on crisp lighting and fittingly cold coloration makes for a consistently handsome visual style, punctuated by stunning moments in imagery. Style is solid, and as director, John Michael McDonagh orchestrates it and other technical highlights in order to liven up an atmosphere that he usually chills down to its bone, with a ponderous pace that ranges from bland to dull, but only on the whole, because when his thoughtfulness finds its place, it captures the subtle wit of much of the humor and satire, as well as the sting of the heart of dramatics which grow more and more prominent, until finally coming down to a surprisingly powerful ending. Gradually building in weight as a portrait on a priest losing his faith in humanity as his potential murder draws nearer and nearer, this story has an edge that sharpens as things progress, yet on the whole, this is a story that is too lighthearted to stand up all that firmly against the inconsistencies, although it is always intriguing in its fresh, if sometimes ambiguous deconstructions on the Catholic fate and the true goodness of those who celebrate it, and when McDonagh does do it justice, as writer, he hits deep with the humorous heights in consistently clever dialogue that maintains some degree of entertainment value, while some degree of your investment is maintained by well-rounded characterization. This film is a mess in how it juggles so many characters and layers, but it's almost amazing how McDonagh manages to flesh everyone's respective role out, although, in all fairness, he does receive some help from a solid cast. If nothing else sells the many problematically drawn and juggled characters in this layered opus, it is the characters' charismatic portrayals, found virtually all across the board (Believe it or not, Chris O'Dowd is a dramatic revelation, and I seriously hope to see him flesh out his true capabilities in future films), though not like it is within leading man Brendan Gleeson, who plays his usual charismatic role, and does essentially nothing beyond that, only to end up packing on some powerful layers as the plot thickens, shining a dark light on humanity and seeing the Father James character grow more fearful for his life, while presenting Gleeson the opportunity to express rich dramatic nuance and devastating emotional intensity that he more than fulfills. Gleeson is always engaging, but in the latter acts, he cuts deep, and just as his highlights come in a little too late for the performance to be outstanding on the whole, the overall film's highlights come in a little too late for the final product to be all-out rewarding, and yet there's always something engaging about this film, as well, enough so to make the final product decent, if not powerful to many, for all of the shortcomings that leave me feeling a little bit cold.
When it's all said and done, the inconsistencies in tone make it hard to buy into the film's satire and, to a lesser extent, happenings, while an unevenly overblown focal structure reflect an excessiveness in the telling of a simple story that is still told with too much bland, if not dull coldness for the final product to transcend underwhelmingness, in spite of the magnificent, if criminally underused score work, solid cinematography, intriguing subject matter, sometimes effectively thoughtful direction, generally clever and well-characterized writing, and across-the-board engaging performances - especially that of Brendan Gleeson - that secure John Michael McDonagh's "Calvary" as an always fairly smart and occasionally powerful black comedy-drama that fails to hit as hard as it probably should have on the whole, but is decent.
"Belle... the Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time." You're chillin' out to some Al Green on CJEZ-Listening, because in a film titled "Belle" that is kind of about black people problems, which other musician are you going to make a reference to? There are plenty of songs of this film's name to pick from, because this film's title is pretty generic, although when it comes to the film itself, it is refreshing to see a British film about prejudice against blacks... and in British films actually set in Britain (You sure wouldn't forget that "12 Years a Slaves" is British if you looked into most of the staff's nationality). Well, it's not that refreshing if you're that one person who is familiar with director Amma Asante, because it's been ten years after "A Way of Life", and she's still on racism, so I reckon even the British sisters have to represent. Hey, I hate how black people were treated all over the world, and are still being treated in certain places, but there's enough carrying on about civil rights in liberal America, and now, "12 Years a Slave" is getting everyone in the UK up in arms. Well, that's probably a good thing, because, again, black people weren't doing so hot outside of America, and someone should address that even the Mulatto royals couldn't catch a break in the 17th century. If nothing else, it should make for an engaging story, and sure enough, it does here, even if this film tries a little too much harder than "12 Years a Slave" to be British.
This film is so British that it comes complete with a great deal of dryness, with often bitingly witty, but stuffy dialogue and a subdued atmosphere which render the film, maybe not dull, but a little bland especially when the narrative is dragged out. There was never to be all that much activity in this film, not with a minimalist story concept that I will touch more upon here in a second, but just over 100 minutes still feels too long for momentum to be maintained within the storytelling that ends up dragging its way to a predictable point. British-grade dryness is not the only familiar trait in this film, which is generic something fierce as a predictable, trope-heavy portrait on high-class affairs in 18th century London, no matter how much they incorporate elements regarding race relations that are themselves conventional. This really is nothing new, to my surprise, and this film cannot afford to be so predictable, because, again, its story is thin enough as it is, carrying intriguingly worthy themes and heart, but basing it all around idle chit-chat and subdued action that the filmmakers sometimes try too hard to compensate for. Timely melodramatics come off as cloying from time to time, when Amma Asante's direction imbues the atmosphere with a sentimentality that could itself be compensated for if this film, even with its natural shortcomings, had some sort of edge, and didn't tap dance around strikingly harrowing visuals or a consistency in issues which would supplement the genuineness and the overall effectiveness of the thematic weight of this drama on racism and typical high-class issues. Let me tell you right now that if this story was told by a liberal American, it would have beaten you half to death with its themes, and as things stand, no matter how passionate Asante may be about ethnicity's rocky history in British society, - whose race issues have admittedly been underexplored in film - the overt subtlety counteracts many of the subtlety issues, but there is too much sensitivity and ambition in this dramatic interpretation of a story of only so much meat, and nearly no real originality. The final product ultimately sputters out quite a ways shy of what it wants to be, yet it does actually come close enough to endear, and immerse.
Claudio Campa's and Ben Smith's immersive art direction is not particularly unique, although it is pretty lavish, joining production designer Simon Bowles and costume designer Anushia Nieradzik in restoring upper-class London with an extensive craftsmanship and handsomeness. Ben Smithard's cinematography further define the film's good looks, too chilled in color to stun, yet clean and well-lit enough to catch your eye time and again, while a score by the great Rachel Portman proves to beautiful in its violin-driven sentimentality, in spite of its being conventional and often abused by director Amma Asante at the expense of full dramatic subtlety. Asante is either overblown with her dramatic atmosphere or overly safe with her portrayal of pressing issues within the subject matter, and yet, she never gets too cloying, nor does she ever get too safe, and when she finds a proper balance in dramatic storytelling, her efforts resonate, compelling you with glimpses of what could have been. Indeed, there is some potential in this imagination of events surrounding a painting of the titular Dido Elizabeth Belle, which is melodramatic sure, but no more so than the usual British drama of this nature, being generally convincing, if familiar, and intimate, if minimalist, with themes on British race relations, challenging tradition with true love, and conflicts in family and honor. This subject matter does have a lot of promise, and for betrayal screenwriter Misan Sagay places against the potential, she delivers on enough sharp and recurring dialogue to hold your attention, and enough busy set pieces to keep dullness at bay, while fleshing out nuanced, compelling characters whose human value plays as instrumental a role as anything in making the film as engaging as it ultimately is. Quite frankly, it may be the performances that bring to such a point, for it is the portrayal of compelling characters that most compels, with standouts including Tom Wilkinson as a man of an integrity he aims to maintain alongside the love of his apparently blemished family, the lovely Sarah Gadon as a lady who fears for her struggles and the struggles of her best friend, Sam "Aussie Armie Hammer" Reid as an open-minded humanist with a questionable love interest, and, of course, leading lady Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a respectable, good-hearted lady who must face emotional devastation and uphold composure against the oppressions that fall over her as both a woman of black blood, and as a woman in general. Mbatha-Raw is not given the material to be stellar, but she is a revelation, a worthy, driving lead who helps greatly in defining the final product as compelling, in spite of its natural and consequential shortcomings.
Overall, the film is a little blandly dry and tends to drag its feet, not unlike other British films of its type, but the tropes don't end there in this generic, conceptually thin, and either sentimentally or safely drawn story, thus, the final product fails to reward, but through immersive art direction, beautiful cinematography and score work, and a largely worthy story, brought to life by heartfelt direction and writing, and carried by a solid cast, Amma Asante's "Belle" stands as an improvable, but admirable portrait on racial and high-class social issues in 18th century England.