Under 800: Columbus (2017)

Kogonada’s debut feature film tells the story of Jin, a Korean-born man, who finds himself stuck in, surprise surprise, Columbus, Indiana upon hearing the news of his father’s heart attack and consequent coma. There he meets a local girl named Casey who spends her time looking after her drug-addict mother and admiring the architecture of her home town.

As I watched through Columbus, I was struck by a feeling of profound emptiness. The viewer begins to feel trapped in Columbus in just the same way as the characters are. It’s as if there is a wall between us and the world around, a wall that is shared by Jin and Casey as well. They’re framed in ways that highlight both the physical possibility of flight and the emotional distance between them and everything around them. Kogonada is a self-professed fan of Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu and seems to share the latter’s propensity for using frames within the frame and lingering on long, empty corridors. There’s quite a bit of that in Columbus, many a shot shows bustle off into the distance, paths leading far away from the mise-en-scene offering an escape from the entrapment of the characters’ predicament. The protagonists themselves are sometimes showed to blend into the background or appear closer or further away from the screen than they actually are through clever camera angles and forced perspective, further augmenting the overall idea that freedom can become unattainable even while within arm’s reach. Casey is smart and passionate, a recent graduate who by all rights should be off to university but is instead stuck in Columbus helping her mother recover. She has the potential to pursue her interest in architecture but circumstances have forced her to look on as her peers progress through life while she drives around in circles. Jin is in a similar situation; his father was never present, never there for him when he needed him most, but his condition, as well as Korean traditions, lead him away from his life in Seoul and into the monotonous quaintness of Columbus where he can do nothing but wait for his father to either pass away or recover enough strength to move on.

Jin and Casey’s budding friendship is the focus of the film, thankfully, for without it Columbus would have run the risk of seeming too cold, too distant and observing. Their conversations are heartfelt and realistic in a way that is rarely found in modern cinema. Some of the scenes are reminiscent of Linklater’s walk and talk, just two people bonding over a seemingly casual conversation, learning about each other and becoming closer by the minute. I’d like to think that perhaps Kogonada will return to Jin and Casey in ten years like Linklater returned to his characters from Before Sunrise.

Kogonada has managed to create a movie that is both an homage to the styles of other, more prominent film makers, and the beginning of his own directorial trip. Apart from Ozu and Linklater, there’s also quite a bit of late Malick in Columbus as well. The camera focuses on shots of nature, of architectural monuments or simple trinkets in shops or museums. But while Terrence Malick insists on dubbing over these cutaway shots and having his actors talk over them, Kogonada uses the filler to let the audience breathe and take in the feel of the movie. He lets us come to our own conclusions rather than hammering us over the head with poorly written poetry. To be sure, Malick’s style does work in some instances, but a lot of the time it can feel ham-fisted and forced.

Overall, Columbus is a wonderfully pensive journey that takes its time in exploring certain aspects of modern life. It’s beautifully shot, interlacing views of exterior modernism and simplicity with the messy, cluttered nature of the characters’ homes and inner lives, and features outstanding performances by the leads, John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. Columbus will certainly make an appearance on my list at the end of the year and will most likely be a strong contender for the top spot.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Brawl in Cell Block 99 follows the story of Bradley Thomas as he goes from car mechanic to drug runner to convicted felon locked up in the most putrid of detention facilities. Thomas turns to his friend Gil after being fired in order to give his wife the life that they’ve both dreamed for. 18 months later, Gil forces Thomas into carrying out a run for the Mexican cartel. Needless to say, things go wrong. Thomas ends up in prison, where he learns that the cartel has his pregnant wife hostage and is threatening to amputate the legs of her unborn child if Thomas refuses to pay his debt by murdering a man in the titular cell block 99, which turns out to be a “prison within the prison”, situated deep in the underbelly of the Redleaf maximum security prison. Sounds like the schlockiest of schlock, doesn’t it?

And it is. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an unapologetic grindhouse gore-fest straight out of the late 70s and early 80s. It’s everything a midnight theater goer could ever ask for – a stoic protagonist whose main language is witticism, practical effects and well-choreographed, minimally edited fight scenes that almost always end with the blood-curdling sound of bones snapping or flesh hitting concrete. The sound design in particular makes Brawl absolutely devastating; every punch has weight, every smack with the baton practically sends a jolt through the viewer’s body, hell, even the electric belt that Thomas is forced to wear in the later parts of the movie manages to gives us a pretty clear idea of how painful the current running through the prisoner’s body is based on Vince Vaughn’s reaction and the low buzzing sound that the belt itself emits whenever it is switched on.

But what is it that sets this film apart, and what makes it worth a watch for a squeamish viewer who doesn’t find themselves grinning ear to ear as Vince Vaughn takes blows to the face like a champ and doles out terrifying retaliatory strikes? Well for one, unlike most movies that fall into the grindhouse category, Brawl in Cell Block 99 doesn’t forego character development. The first hour of the film is spent slowly building Bradley Thomas, showing us his struggles, his moral compass. He isn’t a thug because he chose to be one or because that’s how he is by nature. Bradley is an intelligent man, sharp and street smart, but it just so happens that violence is one of the things he’s good at and always comes back to haunt him. We learn he used to be a boxer and a boozer before the events of the film and that’s always a recipe for disaster. His past is never completely revealed, but his demeanor and effect on those around him are enough to tell us all we need to know. The opening scene sets him up perfectly, as his manager is visibly afraid of Bradley while laying him off. The first we see of Bradley Thomas is his terrifying exterior – a tall man, muscled like a bull and sporting a tattoo of a cross on the back of his clean shaven head. The viewer senses the tension in the air from the very beginning as we expect him to attack his boss. But nothing happens. In fact, we see Bradley having a friendly exchange with an elderly black man on his way out. Suddenly we’re not quite sure what to think of Bradley. Is he a white supremacist? Is he a felon, or indeed a felon in the making? This is the way the entire first half of the movie goes, we’re constantly shown a new side of the protagonist, we come to understand his reasoning and see him as a decent human being caught up in an unfathomably horrible situation. Time and time again director S. Craig Zahler raises the stakes and makes it seem like Bradley is about to do something horrible to someone innocent, but nothing ever comes of this manufactured tension. It’s as if he’s poking and prodding the viewer’s mind, toying with our preconceptions and biases and prompting us to look deeper and harder rather than falling back into character cliches and notions of how a person should look and behave.

This, of course, would not have been possible if it weren’t for a monumental performance by Vince Vaughn. His towering physique makes him as formidable as a tank on the battlefield, his very presence intimidates both the audience and the characters on screen. There is rage bubbling underneath the calm exterior of Bradley at all times, terrifying anger that threatens to make its existence known every time Vaughn’s character is pushed to the edge. Bradley is a fully fleshed out character thanks to Vaughn and his ability to add meaning to every sullen stare and brooding moment of silence. It also helps that he’s always filmed in a way that accentuates his exceptional height. Bradley looks like a giant walking among men. He also sounds like one, thanks again to the brilliant sound design, which makes each step feel like the slow approach of King Kong.

From a technical side, Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s camera work makes every scene feel cramped; the lighting in particular makes his multiple cells feel that bit more hopeless, like a cage that is growing smaller and dirtier. The film has a desaturated look with emphasis on the blues and the blacks, making the atmosphere extremely oppressive and consuming. The Redleaf facility in particular looks and feels like the point of no return for the character, a black hole that will completely disintegrate him. The beauty of this film lies in its appropriate cinematography. Don’t expect any pretty wide-angle views of rolling meadows.

Overall, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a well-crafted film that shows a genuine love and respect for the works that inspired it and paved its way, but also, perhaps even more importantly, for the art of film. You might not agree with the extreme violence depicted in its later stages, but there’s no denying that there is a certain stark beauty in the gratuity of its gory action sequences. Hats off to Vince Vaughn as well for managing to escape the tight grasp of his goofy fat guy type cast and doing some incredible work in a new role.

The Duellists (1977)

Ridley Scott is a truly intriguing case. How can the director of Blade Runner and Alien go on to create mediocrities like Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor? Why is it that his career has been so uneven and inconsistent? I haven’t the slightest clue. What I do know, however, is that his earliest works are the ones that will forever be regarded as his masterpieces, as the films that cemented Scott’s place in the pantheon of film makers. The Duellists is one of those films, even if it is one of his more obscure and largely forgotten works. It isn’t a cult classic like Blade Runner, or a trend-setter like Alien. It is more an exercise in style than in innovation, but is nevertheless one of the most impressive debuts in film history.

The Duellists follows the story of a small feud between two officers in Napoleon’s army, d’Hubert and Feraud. The cause of this quarrel is insignificant, as Feraud claims to have had his honor slighted by d’Hubert during their very first encounter. What follows is a series of duels, set in different parts of the world, that stretches over more than two decades. One might imagine that the dueling would become quite dull after the first few engagements, but that assumption would be quite far from the truth. The novelty of their fights never wears off. The circumstances of their battles change with each iteration, weapons switch, as do the rules of their duels. But the main focus of these bouts of saber-rattling and gun slinging isn’t the physical act of fighting, it’s what this fighting represents for the two men. Their first duel is quick and largely impersonal, it looks and feels much like the opening scene of the movie in which Feraud battles and defeats an unnamed character. The monotony of this fight is broken in its very end, when d’Hubert prepares to deliver the final blow, by Feraud’s wife. She lunges at d’Hubert and scratches at his face, saving her husband. This interruption, this break with normality, serves as the introduction to their unusually long rivalry.

The most memorable round is also their most bloody. Unlike previous duels, we’re introduced to this one after its beginning, we’re thrown in the middle of a frantic spar in a dimly lit barn. Both men are wounded, heaving and striking at each other ferociously. Their lives are at their lowest at that point, and the fight represents their mental state. Each blow is vicious, delivered with both hands and with as much strength as possible. This is also the first fight that becomes almost intimately physical as they desperately tackle each other trying to get ahead. The camera is hand held, the editing is at its most frantic, the score is tense and thriller-like. All this, combined with the choreography and the fact that Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine both did their own stunts, makes for an incredibly kinetic scene that delivers on all fronts. This practice of using fight scenes as a means of exploring the character’s psyche was later used to even greater effect by Scorsese in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, “…a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution.” But, unlike LaMotta, d’Hubert and Feraud do not seek penance or absolution. Their feud is utterly absurd, even by d’Hubert own admission.

The absurdity of the feud is what makes The Duellists a truly special movie. Instead of focusing on the psychology of the men or wading too far into anti-war territory, Scott explores the way this obsession affects both of them separately, the queer relationship that arises from their frequent battles, the mutual respect that develops over time. It’s a case of protagonist and antagonist establishing a connection at a fundamental level, even if not purposely. There’s a deep beauty to this film, it explores something very human, very natural. It doesn’t look at society as a whole, it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. Instead, it looks at the way life can spiral out of control by no fault of our own through the character of d’Hubert, as well as the cyclical nature of violence towards the end of the movie when Feraud stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates the way his obsession drove him, how it framed his life and completely consumed him. This last shot is incredibly meaningful because it doubles as a commentary on the pointlessness of war without being overt or obvious. It’s a reference to a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on St. Helena by Francois Joseph-Sandmann, as he watches the ship that got him there sailing away. His lengthy campaign amounted to nothing and his life returns to the monotony of balance and normality.

Some have called The DuellistsBarry Lyndon-lite”. It’s easy to see the parallels. The setting, the decor, the way that interiors are shot with seemingly natural light emitted by candles or by the rays of the sun coming in through the windows. There are plenty of establishing, wide-angle shots that show the character slowly making his way through the big world, but these similarities are merely visual, the effect they have on the picture is very, very different. Barry Lyndon is a Kubrick movie, and as such it bears the distinct feeling of cynical detachment that Kubrick is known for. It’s almost as if an alien is looking at the lives of humans, coldly judging them from a distance. The Duellists is much more intimate. There are plenty of close-ups and moments of emotion taking precedence over logic and sound judgement. That said, Scott’s film does indeed owe much to Barry Lyndon in terms of the way that d’Hubert’s life is portrayed in the later parts of the film. The way that the camera shows up early on in the scene, showing characters just sitting around or going about their business puts an emphasis on naturalism and realism, and that is something that Barry Lyndon had in spades.

Overall, The Duellists is a brilliant film that served as a stepping stone for Scott on his way to creating two of the most influential films of the past 50 years. It’s refined and beautiful, though it does not truly reach very far. More than worth a watch for anyone looking for a good historical drama.

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.

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.