We are living in a material world, and we are a material podcast. This episode’s material – Judas and the Black Messiah and Godzilla vs. Kong. If they can’t raise our interest then we’ll have to let them be.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

An important thing to know about Judas and the Black Messiah is in whose view Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party, was messianic, and it’s not the members of his party. No, it is the view of the noted sane, rational and colour-blind J. Edgar Hoover, whose typical calm, rational and totally not frothing-at-the-brain reasoning went something along the lines of “these uppity Blacks will murder us in our beds and destroy our fine, white, country”.

Hoover (played here by Martin Sheen, in facial prosthetics for some reason: Sheen looks perhaps a little like the FBI’s douchecanoe in chief, but mostly looks like Martin Sheen with a silly nose, particularly weird when every other actor playing a real character has gone for “hair is quite like them”) has convinced himself that the Black Panther Party is the greatest domestic threat to the USA (and just look at them, trying to educate and motivate a politically-suppressed populace and also feed hungry children, the bastards), and wants them stopped.

Key to this plan are informants, and one of these, the Judas of the title, is Lakeith Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal, a young man caught impersonating an FBI agent as a ruse to steal a car. Real FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) gives O’Neal two choices: go undercover as in informant in the Black Panther Party, or go to prison. Not seeing this as much of a choice, O’Neal infiltrates the party, eventually rising to head of security for the Illinois chapter, putting him in close, trusted proximity to Hampton, something which will lead to Hampton’s murder (though of course they claimed otherwise) by the Chicago police and the FBI.

This being based on history, the story is not the hook here but the personalities, principally Fred Hampton. The fiery young communist was a mere 21 years old when he was definitely not assassinated by the state, but in Kaluuya’s hands, and those of writers Shaka King and Will Berson, he seems wise beyond those years (and not just because Kaluuya is 32). Thankfully this goes far beyond speeches, which are there, of course, because films love speeches, and understandably so, but also in quieter moments, like those between Hampton and his fiancée, Deborah (Dominique Fishback). The film leavens Hampton’s “kill the pigs!” rhetoric with scenes of him as a gentle, shy and poetic soul, and rather than seeming dissonant, this paints a portrait of a believable, complex and perhaps conflicted character.

Less successfully portrayed is the other half of the film’s title, as I never quite bought Lakeith Stanfield in his role. Certainly his unease in many situations is well-conveyed by Stanfield’s expressive face, and occasionally a suggested inner turmoil, but for the most part he so convincingly looks shifty, ill at ease and ready to flee that, for all his quick-wittedness in talking his way out of dangerous situations, it’s actually very hard to believe any character in the film would be OK with him being in charge of security and Hampton’s personal safety. “We should totally put the dodgy-looking guy who always looks like he’s hiding something in charge of security.”

The bigger problem, though, is that Bill O’Neal, in this film at least, is a cipher, and that’s an issue with the script: we never get to know what he really thinks or believes, whether Hampton’s polemic and rhetoric have any effect on him, whether he acted through fear, self-interest or something else, and script deficiencies also make it hard to buy O’Neal as being close enough to or trusted enough by Hampton to make the “Judas” reference really work. The script also has a sufficiency of scenes within the FBI, almost all of which could have been cut to the film’s benefit, especially the one in which the film stops dead to allow Hoover to be extra racist.

For all that, Judas and the Black Messiah is still quite a compelling watch, and worth viewing for Kaluuya alone, if nothing else, and it’s also a much more successful look at 1960s Civil Rights and Freedom of Speech movement in Chicago than last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Godzilla vs. Kong

Another film where it would seem that the title pretty much describes the content of the film adequately enough. Certainly that’s the marquee attraction of it, although unfortunately Godzilla vs. Kong vs. A Bunch of Nonsense is a more correctly descriptive title.

Anyway, if you need further description of the nonsense elements, here you go. Large monkey Kong is being held in a secured containment facility by generic chaotic neutral science corp Monarch, and the film instantly loses me by not shortening “Kong Containment” to “Kongtainment”. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE? Jeez. Kong’s being held because if large lizard Godzilla detects him, there will be a barney to establish who is the Alpha Titan. Now, some of you might be asking why Godzilla was happy enough to let Kong chill on Skull Island, but not anywhere else, and if so why would Monarch risk removing Kong from Skull Island, and I say to you, kiddo, if you’re going to pick plot holes in a film called Godzilla vs. Kong you’re in for a long night, and maybe ought to watch a film more based on established science, like The Core.

Meanwhile, lawful evil science corp Apex Cybernetics are up to something no good, according to Brian Tyree Henry’s swivel-eyed conspiracy theorist Bernie Hayes, a mystery which does indeed mysteriously attract the attention of Godzilla, who does a bit of patented stomping of their American facility. Millie Bobby Brown’s Madison Russell can’t bring herself to accept Godzilla’s heel turn and seeks, alongside Bernie, an explanation for this behaviour. Turns out it’s Mechagodzilla, telepathically controlled using reanimated tissue of General Zod. Sorry, Ghidora. Error in my notes there.

Further meanwhile, Apex have convinced Monarch to let them borrow Kong for an outing to the hollow earth in their alternate gravity shuttlecraft for some reason. Something to do with energy signatures to wirelessly charge Mechagodzilla I think, but the important thing, it says here, is that Godzilla finds a magic axe to fight the lizard with. Am I on drugs? Was this real? Where am I? Who is the President?

Axe in hand, Kong then fights Godzilla against a backdrop of Hong Kong skyscrapers with their RGB lighting set to Vapourwave until they realise that both their mother’s names were Martha and team up to fight Mechagodzilla, who, wouldn’t you know it, has gone evil. I am as surprised as you are.

Look, I am not yet so destroyed by cynicism that I cannot appreciate a solid CG showreel of action nonsense, and there’s about half an hour of solid CG thumpybattles and ludicrous destruction that appeals to me on a base level. Unfortunately this is a nigh on two hour film, and is diluted heavily with incoherent technodrivel spouted off by characters ultimately so inconsequential I’ve not even mentioned them in the recap, despite them having more screen time than the headline attractions.

I entirely understand this from a production and budgetary standpoint – it’s a lot cheaper per inch of film to animate Kyle Chandler than King Kong, but with respect to all involved, no-one’s signing up to see this film on the basis of Alexander Skarsgård vs Rebecca Hall. It’s Godzilla vs. Kong, but contains altogether too little of that and too much of Brian Tyree Henry’s teeth-grindingly irritating supposed comic relief.

I am, by this point, old enough and ugly enough to have seen much worse films attempting similar spectacle, but after the enjoyable Godzilla: King of the Monsters I had hoped this franchise had hit its stride. This is a definite stumble, if not a complete face plant. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.


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