Russian Ark (2002)

It’s hard to say whether Russian Ark can truly be considered a movie. There is no plot, no actual story to speak of. There is but one character, a mysterious member of the Russian aristocracy who serves as the protagonist’s guide through the Hermitage. It’s also hard to say whether the protagonist himself is a character. The movie is shot in first person POV and we never really learn anything about the person whose eyes we’re looking through. This protagonist could well be nothing more than an embodiment of the viewer, an easy way for us to take a stroll through the museum without having to set up any rules beforehand. On the other hand, there is clearly a focus on film making technique, as well as artistry in the way that the camera moves around and witnesses whatever is happening around it. Each doorway transports us into a different time frame, giving us a glimpse into the world of the Russian aristocracy and the rise and fall of the royal family, all in the space of a gander through the halls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. There’s also some impressive camera work on display as Russian Ark is filmed in one, excruciatingly long take, Eisenstein be damned. The set piece are beautiful to look at, but one questions whether this beauty arises from the film’s own merits or from the awe-inspiring architecture and design of the building itself. And if the impressive visual quality of the film does indeed arise from the architecture, can it truly be labelled a film? The mise-en-scene is a key part of film making, its manipulation and use in the thematic structuring are, in a way, what separates film as a medium from still photography or video capturing. That, and the presence of a story and/or active characters, both of which, arguably, are absent from Russian Ark.

Nevertheless, Russian Ark presents us with an interesting, if brief, look into the glamorous life of the aristocracy. We see czars and emperors living in almost unfathomable luxury. There’s a total of 2000 actors in Russian Ark, all of them choreographed to look as if they are going about their regular business. This business, of course, is by no means regular by our modern standards. The Hermitage is the stage of an endless ball, the scene of perpetual intrigue and excitement. And this is precisely my main thematic qualm with the movie. There is no semblance of realism, not so much as a pretense to historical accuracy when it comes to the lives of its passing subjects. Not that realism is the point of this film, in fact I assume director Sokurov might’ve viewed it as a nuisance. Cinéma vérité this is not. But even so, knowing that the main focus lies elsewhere, the film insists to an almost worrying degree upon painting the aristocracy as a noble, beautiful relic of a bygone era that is sorely missed. The Russian Ark is a daydream of the wonders of excess and power. One might assume that there’d be at least some judgement passed on to the revelry of this ridiculously rich social class, considering it occurred during a time when the average Russian peasant lived a terrible life of toil and poverty. Instead, the film embraces this culture of hedonism and looks at it through the lens of nostalgia and longing. Many critics fell for this portrayal of Russia, lamenting the death of the world that Russian Ark introduces us to without considering its implications and context.

Some might find my criticism unfitting or see my complaints as deliberately missing the point. I’d implore such readers to consider the nature of Russian film over the years and the way that it has been used to manipulate its audience. Look at Sergei Eisenstein’s works. The man is rightfully considered one of the most important and influential directors and theorists of all time for his contributions to film form as we know it today, but most, if not all, of his movies were propaganda pieces for the new ruling class. The same can be said for many others even today, with the Ministry of Defense financing pictures that paint the annexation of Crimea as a noble and heroic deed. Film has been used as propaganda in Russia since its very inception and it’s important to bear that in mind when watching Russian films that concern themselves with politics and history. That said, it’s not so easy to discern propaganda from the genuine ideology of the film maker today. The Russian people are disillusioned with their reality, as is tradition for them, and in their desperation they look back fondly upon their past, a past that is impossible to truly know and understand due to the nature of time and its tendency to distort and dilute information. For many Russians, the good old days are those of pre-Bolshevik Russia. For others, the Soviet Union represents a state of affairs that they’d like to return to. It’s nigh on impossible to be objective when it comes to Russian history. It’s a topic that is too raw, too politically and ideologically charged to analyze without letting emotions get the best of whoever is taking part in the discussion. In a sense, my criticism of Russian Ark is more of a warning than a genuine complaint based on analysis of the film. Nuance is extremely important when exploring history and this is what Russian Ark pretends to do, albeit it not quite successfully. Granted, it’s a gorgeous exercise in cinematography and the “screw it, we’re doing it live” attitude towards film making, but one must bear in mind the thematic undertones of a movie while praising it for its objectivity or accuracy, as many Western critics have done. Nevertheless, Russian Ark is worth a watch, even if solely for its technical and visual merits.

 

Under 800: Super Dark Times (2017)

There is a frightening sense of coldness and loneliness that permeates Kevin Phillips’ debut feature film Super Dark Times. Every frame of this movie brims with suspense and foreboding, every scene seems to build towards an end that the viewer is completely aware of, yet unable to fully visualize and accept before it’s too late. Here is a movie that is built around its visuals, that fully relies on the atmosphere of its scenery and the effectiveness of its editing. And it pays off in full, resulting in what is one of the most intriguing movies of the year.

Super Dark Times is, at a glance, the story of friends Zach and Josh, two ordinary kids growing up in the 80s, playing video games on boxy television sets and biking through their suburban neighborhood. It’s the type of setting that has seen a resurgence over the past few years with the surprising success of the Netflix original series Stranger Things and, even more recently, the remake of Stephen King’s It. But Super Dark Times does not let itself become just another nostalgia piece with little substance and even less artistic flair. What the world of this movie resembles most closely is David Lynch’s take on Americana in film, a tired vision of the good life, but with a twist lying in wait. It’s a world destined to fall apart. This is an extremely important point and it’s the reason why I believe Super Dark Times to be one of the few movies that feel right at home in this particular 80s suburb setting that is teetering on the edge of the overused cliche. It represents, it seems, in the popular psyche a sort of innocence, a sense of security and childish wonder. And those very feelings are all that is necessary in the beginning of the movie so that they can be utterly crushed later on. Josh becomes a murderer, even if through no fault of his own, while Zach turns into his accomplice. The scene of the accident is raw, not overly emotional but rather painfully cold; it’s unbridled pain at its truest, showing us the different stages of coping with the reality of such a terrible situation. Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan’s performances make the viewer immediately cognizant of the magnitude of what has just happened as they cycle through instant regret, fear and juvenile panic.

The rest of the movie is set in the aftermath of the accident and the subsequent cover-up. Zach takes the lead in this part of the movie, giving us the opportunity to bask in the paranoia of a teenager who has just witnessed the death of his own innocence. These scenes practically ooze anxiety as Zach goes through the motions in a perpetual state of glassy-eyed terror. Kevin Phillips’ steady hand is visible all throughout. Every filmmaking trick in the book is used in order to accentuate the protagonist’s fear. Extremely shallow depth of field shows the barrier between Zach and the outside world after the tragic accident that marks a turning point in his life, lighting is used to convey emotions and thoughts, complimenting the story-telling and giving the viewer subconscious cues as to the direction that the film is taking. For once the dolly zoom is used in a meaningful way rather than to score style points. The framing of the shots and the cool, wintery color scheme pull the viewer into the movie and contribute towards the creeping, inescapable sense of dread that grows with each passing minute. This is a film that lives and dies by its cinematography, a fact that becomes abundantly clear in the very opening shot of the movie. We’re not immediately introduced to the characters. Instead, the camera is alone in the forest. It moves slowly, taking its time before finally showing us a glimpse of civilization. A school. One of its windows is broken. We find ourselves inside now, following a trail of blood. No music. No movement save for the camera’s slow march forward. Then we finally see the source of the blood – a moose, dying in the cafeteria, waiting for someone to put it out of its misery. Which they do. This opening scene, while not tied to the main story plot-wise, acts as a perfect introduction to the thematic core of Super Dark Times. The outside world clashing with the innocence of childhood. A cruel wilderness destroying juvenile order and putting an end to all that represents the world of the young and uninitiated. Super Dark Times stays true to its title from start to finish, and I’m more than happy to say that it is one of the best movies I’ve seen thus far this year.

 

Wind River (2017)

Wind River follows the story of Cory Lambert, a tracker for the Fish & Wildlife Service, and his efforts to aid the FBI and local law enforcement in their investigation into the murder of Natalie, a Native girl found raped and killed miles away from civilization.

Wind River is the conclusion of what many critics have come to describe as Taylor Sheridan’s frontier trilogy. Like Hell or High Water and Sicario, Wind River takes place far from the booming cities and the glitz of the modern world. The story is set, unsurprisingly, in the Wind River Indian Reservation and portrays the struggle of those left behind by the march of technological and social advancement. This particular theme, that of survival and fending for oneself after being left behind by the very institutions that should be protecting the general populace, is one that has shaped all of Sheridan’s work and has won him near endless praise for his ability to shape his screenplays around a solid thematic core while still managing to deliver entertaining and engaging moments. His directorial debut, though, in the form of Wind River is by far his weakest outing and fails to live up to the brilliance of his previous work. It feels like a lesser version of the movies that are based on his screenplays. It delivers very little of the interesting commentary of Hell or High Water and only manages to sprinkle in the occasional moments of terrifying tension that made Sicario as good as it was. That isn’t to say this is a bad movie, far from it, especially considering it’s the work of a first-time director. But it’s mediocre by comparison.

With that said, I enjoyed Wind River quite a bit, if only because of how obvious the learning process that Sheridan goes through during the film is. As it goes on, Wind River becomes more confident in itself, the gelatinous blob of beautiful scenery, constant shaky cam and mumbled dialogue with awkward editing takes form and becomes a competent movie with a clear arc. The progress is impressive, as the final 30 minutes of the film offer one of the greatest Mexican standoffs in recent memory, as well as some excellently planned shoot outs that remind us of Taylor Sheridan’s penchant for suspense and crushing tension. This latter half of Wind River alone is enough to reassure me that Sheridan has the potential to direct some very interesting movies in the future.

The movie is a murder mystery at its core, a sort of quasi-police procedural that doesn’t actually play out like one. There are no clues or hints to be pieced together by the viewer, or by the characters themselves, for that matter. Cory Lambert is as good as trackers get and he does pretty much all of the police’s work for them. Not that Ben, the chief of police in the reservation, minds. Wind River succeeds in creating a sense of small town familiarity; everyone knows everyone, there are very few secrets to be uncovered in such a large, yet sparsely populated area. This brings me to the biggest positive aspect of the film, and that is its tone and all-encompassing atmosphere. There are many wide angle establishing shots in this film, but for once they serve a narrative purpose rather than existing solely as eye candy that is supposed to cover up the lack of interesting cinematography. The sense of isolation is almost crippling. There is nothing around save for the snowy mountains and sleeping forests full of predators. Wind River, at its core, seems to be a story about the relationship between predator and victim, hunter and hunted. That’s established very early on, during the first scene of the movie, as Cory kills a pack of wolves that have gotten dangerously close to a flock of grazing sheep. The movie seems to posit that, in the absence of the powers that be or rather when said powers are asleep at the wheel and ignore the troubles of a part of society that is deemed unworthy of attention, the only thing that can protect the community is individual agency and the willingness of said community to survive. This is a point that is continuously reiterated through the actions of the characters, through the very nature of the story and, in the end, by a monologue by Jeremy Renner’s character, Cory Lambert. If nothing else, Taylor Sheridan knows how to present his ideas and weave them into the plot, and that is a feat that shouldn’t be understated. Perhaps it wasn’t done quite as well as it could have been in this instance, but the effort is still commendable.

Speaking of Jeremy Renner, this is possibly his best performance to date. His stoic exterior is reminiscent of the Western cowboys of yore but with at least a tinge of emotional depth, making Cory Lambert a much more interesting character than most protagonists in Western movies. Elizabeth Olsen delivers in her role as Jane Banner, an FBI agent that flies out to the res in order to help out with the investigation, while most of the Native American actors also do a great job, particularly Gil Birmingham.

Overall, Wind River offers much in the way of entertainment, even if it is lacking in the technical department, especially earlier on. Some viewers might be bothered by the occasional hiccups in some of the most basic aspects of film making, like the shot-reverse-shot that seems to be mistimed in a few instances, but the movie more than makes up for this in its later parts. It feels exactly like the type of film that Tarantino would take inspiration from, had it been made 30 or so years earlier. It’s good but not great, somewhat slow but never boring, very atmospheric and definitely worth a watch.

The Full Monty, the charm of British comedy, and some thoughts on the state of the industry.

The Brits know comedy better than anyone else in the world, that much has become abundantly clear to me over the past few weeks as I’ve slowly made my way through a long list of comedy movies set in the UK and directed by Brits. But what exactly is it that sets these movies apart, and why do mainstream American comedies pale in comparison?

I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the British comedic form. It is highly situational, arising from seemingly random events. The characters are left to deal with the consequences of something that they had little to no effect over in the first place. The Full Monty illustrates this point rather well. Sheffield, as seen in the movie, is a broken place. A city that was once an industrial hub has reached its expiration date and its inhabitants are left searching for work and dealing with the psychological effects of long-term poverty and unemployment. That’s the undertone of the movie, it permeates the atmosphere and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. But this is never the focus of the movie. It exists as a set up for things to come, as the characters find ridiculous ways to make some money on the side while searching for employment. The Full Monty feels like a look into someone’s life, someone who we can even trick ourselves into identifying with, despite the occasional over-the-top moments of hilarity. The protagonists, Gaz and Dave, have remarkable depth, they’re not cardboard cut-outs waiting to recite their next line of dialogue. The moments of humor come about naturally, we see the most hilarious scenes forming, as the characters build up towards them and set the tone by just being themselves and, more importantly, being real people.

And this is where I feel compelled to voice one of my main complaints when it comes to the US style of comedy, and that’s the way the script plays out and how the jokes are relayed. TJ Miller is, I feel, the very personification of modern American humor in film, his role in Deadpool being an especially egregious example of poor joke conception and delivery. He stands still, center frame, stares right at the character opposite him (in this case Ryan Reynolds’s Wade Wilson) and comments on his looks. What’s funny about that, you might ask, and the answer would be the ridiculous comparisons made by Miller in order to describe what he thinks Wilson looks like, along with a bunch of childish metaphors and gratuitous swearing. This could work, of course, but it rarely does. It never feels earned, there is no progression or build up, movies like Deadpool simply exist as a series of random outbursts of creative playground insults and frankly cringe-worthy scenes that are supposed to shock the viewer and send him or her into a laughing fit, borne not so much out of the quality of the scene but out of how misplaced and nonsensical it feels. It’s incredibly lazy. What’s more, it’s insulting to the audience’s intelligence, dumbing everything down and turning the genre of comedy into a cesspool of slapstick punchlines and insult trading. That isn’t to say Hollywood can’t get comedy right. Films like 50/50, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Groundhog Day and Dr. Strangelove have shown just how good American humor can be and just how well it can be translated into film. But you look at these films and you see a common theme, one that runs through the majority of good British comedy as well – there’s always something below the surface, something more profound than the exterior lets on. It’s this versatility that makes a good film, not just one in the comedy genre. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a movie that can be enjoyed superficially while standing up to deeper analytical scrutiny at the same time. By this I do not mean to posit that every movie, or indeed every comedy movie, should have strong philosophical undercurrents. Depth could refer to many things, and comedy lends itself best to the exploration of certain aspects of our nature as a species and our response to certain external stimuli. The World’s End is a brilliant look into the life of man whose glory days are behind him but he is unable to let go of them and move on. The Full Monty shows us how important meaningful and rewarding work is to a man and how worthless and directionless we feel when left to face the crushing reality of unemployment. And so on. Of course, this too is not a recipe for success and there are plenty of films that are light-hearted to the bone yet still provide brilliant visual and conversational comedy (see Baby Driver, some of the Monty Python movies or Snatch for examples of this very phenomenon). But these are films that are incredibly stylish and well thought out, conceived by people with a clear vision of how they want their movie to look and how they want it to play out. There’s an actual plot to follow, characters to meet and get to know. American comedies skimp on all that and go for complete satirization of everything and everyone, turning themselves into parodies first and foremost while omitting the whole ‘movie’ part and becoming a boring slog to get through, as is the case with the recent Hitman’s Bodyguard.

Acting is another point I’d like to touch on. British comedy is very physical. This very aspect of it greatly enhances the effectiveness of the script, partly because it gives the writer more to work with. The Cornetto Trilogy is brilliant because Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are amazing actors who are more than willing to go the extra mile in order to make the most out of every scene. Passivity in moderation is fine. That is to say that a single character being the equivalent of a vending machine for jokes can be quite amusing and can be a great asset, given the right context. But having all your characters mope around and move at a snail’s pace, without having any sort of physical reaction to whatever is happening around them could potentially make for an incredibly dull experience. Likability is also important, though much more subjective. There’s just something that clicks with Pegg and Frost or Carlyle and Addy, a sort of chemistry that makes the viewer privy to their friendly relations, both inside the movie and out. This could just as easily be my bias making its presence known, though.

In the end, it comes down to the one thing that I’ve advocated for in almost every one of my posts here at Total Misfire and that is for film makers to put more thought into their movies. I don’t mind blockbusters. I don’t mind commercial ventures. I just want to see some passion, I want to see flair. There is no humor to be found in any of the Avengers movies. It’s not because it’s impossible, it’s because superheroes have been turned into a corporate cash cow and artistic integrity has taken a backseat to the business expertise of men with linear programming and minimax solutions in their minds. The audience isn’t comprised of imbeciles, we know when a movie is good and we turn out to watch it, and I will most certainly praise any film that shows respect and love for the medium and reaches for something that is at least slightly interesting.

Under 800: The Guard (2011)

I’ve well and truly run out of superlatives to describe Brendan Gleeson’s acting with, especially when it comes to his work with the McDonagh brothers. His role as the straight man in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges showed just how much depth and likabilty he can bring to the table, while his performance in The Guard is everything you could ever want from the protagonist of a movie that falls under the British gangster comedy subgenre.

The Guard is the story of Sgt. Gerry Boyle, policeman on the island of Galway, who finds himself in the middle of a joint effort between Ireland and the US to bust a local drug ring, rumoured to have a new deal worth half a billion euros… or thereabouts, anyway. The plot isn’t particularly important, it’s merely a vehicle for John Michael McDonagh’s subversion of police procedural tropes and common story beats.

The beginning of the movie finds Gerry Boyle nonchalantly looking on as a car full of drugged up young men crashes, killing all of them. Gerry is left unimpressed, his first order of business being to make sure that the drugs are taken out of one of the boys’ pocket, either because he doesn’t want the parents to find out about them (as he says to himself while popping one of the pills into his mouth) or because he simply wanted to keep some of them for himself. We don’t really get Gerry throughout the movie, we just sort of watch him go about his business and wonder if he’s a genuine idiot or simply uninterested in his job.

Then Gerry meets his new partner, a young and enthusiastic man who wants to do everything by the book and to bring justice to any and every wrongdoer. It comes as no surprise that this young idealist is killed early on in the movie, as can be expected from a movie about a jaded cop and his new partner. Usually what follows is a sudden change of heart on the jaded cop’s part, but The Guard isn’t interested in any of that. In fact, this particular movie does its best to avoid exploring any of the themes that are common throughout the police procedural genre. The Guard mocks the modern Hollywood infatuation with sound bite philosophy and surface-level interpretation of otherwise nuanced and complicated concepts. The group of drug dealers spends its car rides quoting philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, they throw around quotes without context and accuse each other of not having read the source material. Mark Strong’s character even has faux-serious moments of contemplation regarding the pointlessness of his criminal activity and of life in general. It never comes across as overly absurd, but the satirization is overt and enjoyable, as is the case with the majority of the film’s brilliant script.

Speaking of the script, it could have done with some editing, despite its overall stellar quality. Certain plotlines exist seemingly for the sole purpose of humanizing Gerry, something that is somewhat unnecessary considering the nature of the film. Gerry Boyle, to me, isn’t supposed to be a serious character. He’s very much a caricature, both of the jaded, alcoholic cop archetype and of a certain type of Irishman, one that is ignorant of the outside world and its rules, preferring to think only of the rules of his local village or town. When FBI agent Wendell Everett (portrayed by Don Cheadle) arrives on the island, Gerry Boyle proceeds to badger him with questions about the projects and Compton, despite Everett’s saying that he grew up in a privileged family, away from the “hood”. Boyle either doesn’t hear him or doesn’t care, continuing to ask questions about the ghetto and thinking of Wendell as a gangster. All of this is done with a straight face, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle is an idiot, a legitimate racist, or simply someone who is interested in hearing about things that he has never seen or experienced.

The last 20 or so minutes of the movie are a bit too dramatic and seem almost out of tone when analyzed as part of the whole movie, and the ambiguous ending feels a bit forced, leaving the audience to wonder whether Boyle survived his confrontation with Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham’s drug dealer characters.

The dialogue is witty and quick, the character interaction is very reminiscent of that in movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, every exchange feels like a verbal spar. I also appreciated the amount of non-intrusive foreshadowing in the script, it sets up the latter part of the film very well and gives everything that happens a sense of realism and logical consistency. All of this is also helped by the editing, which is fast-paced and gives the film a fresh and energetic look, much like Guy Ritchie’s gangster movies and Edgar Wright’s rapid fire and smash cut comedy, except more understated. It’s not the focus of the funny moments, but it underlines them and gives them some extra oomph. What is it with Brits and visual and technical comedy these days?

Overall, The Guard is an incredibly fun movie, elevated by brilliant acting and an inventive script that brings its characters to life and turns them not into real people, but into people we might wish existed, if only for the comedic value of their very presence.

Under 800: A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story is the greatest meditative experience of the year, bar none. It’s a miracle that such a movie was made in America, considering it bears all the hallmarks of Eastern European cinema – it moves at a snail’s pace, relies on symbolism and visual imagery more than dialogue, and features long, transformative takes that play with the viewer’s perception of time and space.

There isn’t much of a story. A married couple lives in a small house in the American South. It’s all rather idyllic, until the husband is killed in a car accident. The recently deceased comes back as a white-sheeted ghost and returns to his home, where he watches on as his wife deals with his death. Eventually, she moves on and leaves the house, never to return, leaving the ghost trapped inside. The rest of the movie follows the ghost’s journey through time, witnessing other families live their lives in what was once his own home.

There is one scene in particular that seems to have attracted more attention than the rest of the movie, and it is the five-minute-long take of Rooney Mara (the wife) eating pie as the ghost looks on. It’s been used as an example of the film’s pretentiousness and self-indulgence, but in reality it serves a very important narrative purpose. As the story progresses, the time jumps become more frequent, the ghost turns around and finds himself with a new family, or sees the house changed, transformed in the space of two frames. This is in stark contrast with the first half of the film which is much, much slower, with less cuts and more long takes. The passage of time speeds up as the ghost ages, it’s a phenomenon that we all experience as we progress through life. Our formative years seem much longer, each day feels like a whole eternity in and of itself. But as time wears us down, we start to realize that everything is passing by us at a much faster pace. One minute you’re enjoying your summer vacation and the next you’re stuck home, working, snow falling right outside your window. The passage of time is a cruel thing, especially once you become completely cognizant of it. But it’s also an integral part of the formation of memories. We cherish our past because it is unattainable. We look back on it fondly because it is a moment that is forever trapped in time, untouchable and impossible to change or taint. David Lowery knew that when making A Ghost Story and used it to make the viewer empathize with the ghost, despite its being a walking sheet. We see a slice of the husband’s life in the very beginning of the movie, we see how alive he is, we see he has things to do and to live for. All of that is gone in an instant, and his ghost is left wandering through time and the space of his house, constantly remembering what he had and will never have again. He becomes lost in his own home. The first part of the movie sees the wife grieving the loss of her husband, while the second part shows us a man that is nothing but a remnant of the past, helplessly looking for an anchor. The feeling of entrapment is further augmented by the film’s unusual aspect ratio (1.33 : 1, the original silent film ratio) with rounded edges and the constant use of frames within the frame.

Another point of contention has been the longest speaking part of the film, a monologue, delivered by a man at a party as the ghost watches on. In a nutshell, it’s about the finite nature of both our own existence and that of the Universe as a whole, as well as an admission of defeat in the face of pointlessness. It’s somewhat heavy-handed, but in my mind it was very necessary. It ushers in the latter part of the film that sees the ghost moving on from mourning himself and his own fate and realizing the nature of time and the futility of life. It could’ve been done in a more subtle way, but it would’ve meant extending the film’s run time, which would’ve been a disservice to it, as A Ghost Story works much better as a short but heavy and mentally tasking experience.

The score is great and sets the tone perfectly, guiding us through the ghost’s feelings. The editing is also key to setting the tone and controlling the pacing. Some shots linger for what feels like an eternity, but at other points the film cycles through years or decades in a matter of seconds, while still managing to emphasize the emotions of its characters. The pie scene is one such case. The longer we watch the wife eating pie, the harder we’re hit by the realization that she is utterly, completely alone, but also by the recognition of our own selves in Mara’s brilliant performance – the feeling of emptiness after the passing of a loved one, the lack of direction, the listlessness and apathy.

A Ghost Story is a beautiful film that delivers an understated exploration of grand themes through great cinematography and editing. It’s one of the best films of the year and most definitely worth a watch, if only to see Casey Affleck wearing a ghost costume.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Here’s a movie that has left me rather conflicted. On one hand, I can confidently say that this is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a Godzilla flick, while on the other I’m not at all certain that I can objectively describe this movie as anything other than middling.

Let’s start with the good. Godzilla is finally back in Japan where it belongs and I firmly believe that most gigantic monsters work best there, in part due to how culturally ingrained they are in the Japanese psyche and what they represent. The kaiju genre has always reflected Japan’s biggest fear, be it nuclear weapons or natural disasters. Shin Godzilla doesn’t break with tradition and provides a look into the country’s response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the public perception of its handling. Director Hideaki Anno inserted some rather interesting commentary on the nature of Japanese bureaucracy through satire and self-awareness, adding to the overall schlocky goodness of Shin Godzilla. Government officials debate which conference room they should hold their meeting in while Godzilla ravages the city and sends its inhabitants running for their lives in absolute terror. There are long, drawn out conversations about logistics, paper work and politics that take up almost three times the screen time that the monster itself does. These scenes of politicking and strategy-devising are often interlaced with moments of melodrama and cheesy dialogue, but all of this works because the film is aware of its own ridiculousness and embraces it, along with all the tropes and cliches that come with the genre. Some of them are rather annoying to me, as someone watching from the sidelines and only slightly aware of Japanese film culture (which is heavily influenced by anime), but overall they do not detract from the viewing experience due to Anno’s direction, like using overly-dramatic battle music during fairly tame back-and-forths between officials and having the actors staring into the camera and proclaiming something with wide-eyed terror, makes the movie a great throwback to its creature-feature predecessors.

And now for the bad. There’s one thing that bugs me more than anything else in this movie, one thing that I cannot forgive due to it being a crucial component to my enjoyment of a movie like this – Shin Godzilla‘s abhorrent characterization. See, in a movie where monsters the size of the Eiffel tower are roaming the streets of a big, densely-populated city, you have to have a reason to care about all the destruction that will inevitably arise from this tricky predicament that the citizens have found themselves in. The viewer needs someone to root for, a hero that is fleshed out and believable, an anti-hero with honorable motivations, hell, even an everyday person who’s found themselves in the middle of all the carnage like in the original Godzilla from 1954. That’s not the case in Shin Godzilla. There is no character ark in this movie, though, no growth or change whatsoever, no sympathy or connection to be established. What’s the reason for this? It’s because none of the characters in this film have any motivation behind their actions. Sure, they all want to defeat Godzilla and protect their home, but none of them have any direct contact with the creature. We never see their families, hell, they never even mention them. It’s as if all the experts working on a way to deal with this gigantic monster that is ravaging their country are robots, one-dimensional beings that have a single purpose for their existence and nothing else interests them. Shin Godzilla is filled with cardboard cut outs. The only semblance of emotional depth that we see in this movie is when the US announces its plans to drop an A-bomb on Godzilla, prompting another interesting look into the way the Japanese view their history and how that relates to them today. But this isn’t even actual depth, it’s just a reflection of my own ignorance. I find it intriguing because it’s something that I never would’ve seen or experienced if I hadn’t been for this movie. Someone more ingrained in Japanese culture, or someone completely uninterested in it for that matter, would find that there is very little of interest when it comes to the characters in Shin Godzilla. Their interactions are somewhat stiff, mostly professional and straightforward. The hierarchy is mostly clear and there is very little chaos involved in this system, though the movie does do its best to make it clear that it is chaos that is necessary in order to make bureaucracy more flexible and useful to the general populace. It does get that point across, but I didn’t think it did it in a rather effective manner. One more thing – Satomi Ishihara’s character is the most boring one I’ve seen in years. She’s an anime archetype that can be found all throughout Japanese cinema – the cocky hottie that frequently uses English words. Though in this case I found it even more egregious due to Ishihara’s inability to enunciate, despite her character being half-American. Speaking of American, all the US officials’ dialogue (there isn’t much of it, thankfully) sounds like it was written by someone with very limited knowledge of the English language and with the help of an online translation tool. The “actors” they picked didn’t help either, they all behaved and sounded like random tourists the producers had plucked off the street.

Godzilla itself has an interesting design, though the CGI might seem rather dated to Western audiences. Its skin looks rubbery and plastic on purpose, giving it a more authentic look. This Godzilla is rather different than the ones we’ve seen over the past few decades, it’s more passive, more akin to a force of nature than an actual creature. It’s path is predictable and rarely changes and most efforts to stop or stall it are completely ineffective, prompting mass evacuations. This is something that Shin Godzilla absolutely nails – it lets us feel the monster’s immense power. There are hundreds of government workers and officials running around, quite a few of them have at least one or two lines as well. We feel that the efforts to stop Godzilla are those of a whole country, rather than the President and a select few, as is the case in the American versions. Each unsuccessful attempt feels that much more meaningful exactly because we’ve seen just how many of Japan’s brightest and most prepared minds have failed at providing a solution. Everyone is doing their best, yet it just isn’t enough. For the most part. Of course we know that Godzilla is doomed from the very get go, it is a kaiju movie after all.

There are some issues with the sound editing that might jump out at you if the movie has failed to engross you completely, but nothing too glaring or jarring. Visually, it’s nothing too impressive, though some of the bureaucratic segments are filmed rather competently. The lens used throughout most of the movie is anamorphic (as has been the case with quite a few movies I’ve reviewed of late, interestingly enough), but what DP Kosuke Yamada did was squish the shots in order to give the impression of a long telephoto lens but with a wider FOV, allowing for more space in the background of the frame, as is necessary when filming offices and boardrooms. There is some rather annoying shaky cam, filmed with an iPhone, that is supposed to mimic the motions of a real person but ends up making the viewer nauseous.

Overall, Shin Godzilla isn’t particularly good, but it isn’t bad either. It’s a passable movie that acknowledges some (not all) of its shortcomings and subtly makes fun of both itself and its cultural and social context. It’s also an interesting look into Japan for all of us sheltered and uncultured westerners who don’t even know that Japan has its own means of defending itself.