There are plenty of issues with the world of cinema in 2016. But it is hard not to be a little optimistic when a new Toho Godzilla flick gets a good cinematic run, joining the western Godzilla franchise that Gareth Edwards kicked off a couple of years back. Personally I could handle two Godzilla series running parallel for years to come.
Shin Godzilla (2016) is the first Toho Godzilla film since Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). The film is a reboot, taking place in a modern day Japan that has never faced the beast before. Especially early on, this is a manic film. The opening 15 minutes is a cacophony of dialogue, characters, places and meaningless government taskforces. Although impossible to follow, this sets up what is at the heart of the human plot elements – a deep dive into the bureaucratic and ministerial response to a disaster. The monster arrives early, looking far from how I expected it to, but clearly evoking Godzillas past. Coming so fast on the heels of the relatively popular and well received American incarnation, there was a fear that Shin Godzilla could lack that distinctive Toho identity. The appearance of the main attraction is one of many pieces of evidence that prove we shouldn’t have been concerned, and that Toho have no interest in changing how they have always brought the character to life. Whilst the vibe of the monster is similar to what the company has given us previously, the evolving nature of the character is a great asset. The monster evolves as the film progresses, giving a different visual look, different powers and representing a different challenge to its human combatants. So whilst the film only features one monster, it essentially functions as a few different ones. Also nicely done in the plot is how the action escalates. The first extended military engagement is a highlight, the cool progression of weaponry brought to bear on the creature who happily saunters through it all. However the film does have too many stretches where Godzilla is dormant, which sucks a fair bit of the life out of the film.
If there is one moment that you will know for sure if Shin Godzilla is for you, it is the first appearance of the monster. Bug eyed, low to the ground and reminiscent of film monsters many years past, it is quite a unique thing to see in a 2016 cinema. My jaw swung open and I immediately fell in love with what this film was doing. But I could understand people rapidly assessing what they had gotten themselves in for as they copped a look at that. The monster is reminiscent of the rest of the film, both stylistically and thematically. Many elements of the film, the characterisation and destruction, share a schlocky, delightful throwback vibe to them. The mo-cap/CGI rendering of the monster mimics the man in the rubber suit vibe of films past, rather than the slick sheen of American iterations. Understandably given the ongoing horrors of Fukushima, nuclear concerns are situated at the heart of the film thematically. Complementing that focus are issues around laboured governmental decision making and the impact that has on making already dire situations even worse. Questionable international relations are also evoked as the USA decides, more or less unilaterally, to nuke Tokyo. The film is situated intelligently in the 20th century history of Japanese militarism. You can feel the weight of decisions made to take up arms and engage the might of the armed forces, the pall of WWII hanging over them. And of course the most important takeaway, as with all Godzilla films, is that “man is more frightening than Gojira”.
Verdict: Shin Godzilla is a proud throwback, not concerned with delivering a similar experience to what Edwards and co brought to screens. This is a film that will delight fans of the earlier Toho fans, and may also garner new ones with the astute social commentary complementing the schlock. Pint of Kilkenny
Bit of a mixed bag for September. A couple of new releases were duds, but overall the year continues to improve with a bunch more excellent new releases. I also dug further into the filmographies of a couple of directors I really like, such as Spike Lee, Herzog and a few more, which yielded really good results.
- Grace and Frankie Season 1 (2015), Marta Kauffman & Howard J. Morris – Four great characters at the core. They are a touch broad at least initially, but they have a lot of texture to them by the end. Not simplistic in what it’s saying. The two men coming off as assholes at times is a good approach. Very funny, but never neglects the complexity of the situation – the sense of loss that abounds basically everywhere. Not all quirky old lady buddy comedy. The performances are all good, though Lily Tomlin is the clear MVP bringing a hilarious spark to Frankie, a character that could have been a caricature. Late in the season, it really gets its patter, timing and extended cast of characters down.
- Perfect Strangers (2016), Paolo Genovese – An interesting enough twist on the dinner party where secrets are exposed subgenre. A smartphone based plot makes it a modern feeling update. A charmingly performed avalanche of characters, though most of the performers are excelling at being distinctly unlikable. Even when it goes some obvious places, it does so with charm. Has a mix of poignancy and silly comedy that works pretty well. Takes a bold choice on the ending that initially frustrated me, but really made the film linger in my mind.
- Heart of Glass(1976), Werner Herzog – This very early Herzog feature screams 70s Euro arthouse with long dialogue free stretches, opera etc. But it’s also distinctly Herzogy with the oblique voiceover referencing both apocalypse and renewal, and the kinetic stock footage of nature cut in. A world of superstitious villagers, a soothsayer and a lost glass recipe. At times hard to take in, but the sense of chaotic confusion and desperation amongst the villagers is well conveyed. Also some really good sequences of artisans at work. Liked it a lot, though its ethereal notions may frustrate.
- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans(2009), Werner Herzog – I loved this. Perhaps the best distillation of Herzog’s unique worldview in a fictional film. Follows Nicolas Cage’s broken, desperate, corrupt, addict of a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans. Cage is excellent, bringing an appropriately grotesque physical presence, lumbering and hunched. His performance is all tics, wild eyes and comedic timing, which is exactly what the film calls for. You really ride with the character the whole time, all the ups and downs. The supports in Val Kilmer, Xzibit and Eva Mendes are also really good. The score is great too, enhancing the dirtiness and atmosphere of the film. But amidst all the randomness is a simple crime story structure – cops running down leads, interviewing suspects. The dark descent of a man is a common theme of Herzog’s. This film tracks it better than his more lauded efforts.
- My Soul to Take(2010), Wes Craven – Certainly lesser Craven, but the man just knows how to make an interesting slasher. A split personality killer returns 16 years after his apparent death, slaying kids born on the day he died. Craven always subtly tweaks the genre. Here the film toys nicely with the notion of whodunit, which is not really a slasher hallmark. Frank Grillo has a good presence for a cop whilst the teens are all good cipher characters. One of a few late films where Craven started to mix in elements of the teen film, relatively well too.
- Misery (1990), Rob Reiner – A fantastic, contained psychological thriller. In some ways a preview of where obsessive fandom would be 25 years later with an author held hostage by a super fan. There are great performances. Obviously from Kathy Bates, but Caan works off her in a really great duo. It’s awesome to see Lauren Bacall pop up too. The film escalates really well, as Bates’ character reveals herself. There’s some very dark humour and the darkness spills over early in a great scene where she finds out he killed her favourite character. It’s a cerebral game, as he starts to toy with her. And it gets vicious toward the end. Even though it mostly takes place in a single room, it’s interestingly shot with care given to camera placement and big moments punctuated by zooms on to character’s faces. Annie Wilkes is a great character and Bates brings her to life strikingly.
- Tunnel (2016), Seong-hun Kim – Tense Korean genre effort with a deliciously simple premise – dude gets stuck in a tunnel is basically it. The film has some great special effects. The outside/inside structure works really well. Interestingly it is the big, effects laden set pieces that work the best, as opposed to the quieter character moments. It perhaps doesn’t all quite come together. On a plot level all of the characters and institutions make too many unrealistically dopey decisions, and it foreshadows the shit outta some stuff. The soundtrack is distracting and used at a lot of unnecessary moments too. And it never really captures the claustrophobia of the situation. But there is one exceptionally emotional moment, carried by Doona Bae in the lead female role. A few of them hit hard late in the film actually, which meant I found myself utterly invested towards the end.
- The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (2015), Steve Yu -Taps into the psychology that made him so great as a wrestler. Gives you an early, very emotional, glimpse of his fall. Also gets to the fundamental lifestyle/career of a pro-wrestler that makes them addicts of all kinds. A dark fuckin life has left Jake Roberts a broken down dude. At times it does feel a little like an infomercial for DDP Yoga and it gets a little repetitive. But more of it is a really great portrait of an addict and addiction. Moments like seeing a man realise he’s been a really shit father, just like he always promised himself he wouldn’t be, are powerful to watch.
- Crooklyn (1994), Spike Lee – A great portrait of an African American neighbourhood, accompanied by a perfectly selected soundtrack. The kind of film that reminds you why Lee is such an important director. Generally never see neighbourhoods like this onscreen. Focuses in part on the struggle of artistic pursuit in the face of brutal societal monetary pressure. But is more just a collection of one family’s tales over time, rather than anything particularly plot-focused. There are some very emotional beats toward the end though. The characters grow on you. No clumsy setup, is just that by the end you are totally on board with them.
- Girl Asleep (2015), Rosemary Myers – Great to see films like this being made in Australia. Stylish as fuck. Shot in 4:3 and delightfully framed. Just the right side of Wes Andersony, aka not annoying. Performances are all good but Bethany Whitmore is exceptional. The whole film perfectly captures that time of life, of being 14 going on 15. Such a charming film, I can’t really imagine people not loving it. There is a long fantastical detour, which could jar or feel like a throwaway. But here it amplifies the themes of the film really nicely.
- Cigarette Burns (2005), John Carpenter – A ‘Masters of Horror’ entry. Interestingly written by film critic Drew McWeeny. The loving film nerd touches in the script are one of the major positives in this pretty minor, albeit scary and fun, effort from a legend. A film about film, the opening line referring to the magic of the medium, the threat coming from a mythical haunted film as well as various references to festivals and archives. Also considers the lasting effect that a film can have on people, as well as the form and practice of horror filmmaking. All of which is in the script, not necessarily the filmmaking. The conclusion goes some schlocky, gross places, perhaps struggling to pay off what has been set up.
- Midnight Special (2016), Jeff Nichols – A sci-fi road film erupting out of a Texas of cult-like conservative Christianity. There is a great sense of mystery as a kid deity is kidnapped by his dad and they race down highways with both the church and the feds in pursuit. It is really well performed. Child lead Jaeden Liebherher, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon and Adam Driver in what I think is his best performance yet. It’s not a story dripping in originality. But it takes sci-fi tropes and turns them into a mediation on the nature of being a parent. The film also ponders unconventional forms of parenting, such as fostering, and the struggle of sending your child out into their own world. It is rare to see these themes examined through a unique prism such as this. Nicholls brings a lot of craft to the film, and the score is incredible. Spooky, melodic and driving. One of the year’s best.
- Sisters (2015), Jason Moore – A patchy effort. But especially in the first half there is some very funny scripting, not hurt at all by the fact it is Amy Poehler and Tina Fey delivering it. Taps into nostalgia for childhood, for your stuff and formative experiences. Their connection from years working together means you buy them as sisters. There are some great comedic performers in supporting roles, such as Kate McKinnon and Maya Rudolph, though they are a little wasted. The second half is very, very rough. Nowhere near the charm of the first not to mention Fey’s usual racial blindspots really come out.
- The Red Turtle (2016), Michael Dudok de Wit – You won’t see anything else like this bold film in cinemas this year. An essentially wordless shipwreck film with some of the fantastical mixed in. Those fantastical elements are a sightly mixed bag and they contribute to the film dragging a little through the middle. But they also provide some of the film’s most poignant moments. The soundtrack is great, particularly in the way it interacts with the very old school textural animation. The storytelling is a little off at times, particularly the second half where it meanders and goes some strange places. That is definitely a minor quibble though.
- Life Happens (2011), Kat Coiro – Chose this because I dig the cast, in particular Krysten Ritter and Rachel Bilson. The latter is ok, but doesn’t have all that much to do. But Ritter (also on co-writing duties) is one of the chief reasons to tune in. She really convinces and helps the film to convey just how fuckin hard it is to be a parent. Cool to see a single mum as the lead in a rom-com. Some of those more straightforward rom-com elements are a little cloying, with male lead Geoff Stults not able to match Ritter’s charisma. But the astute consideration of being a parent and how that changes you, makes this different enough from the norm to be worth recommending.
- Finder’s Keepers (2015), Bryan Carberry & Clay Tweel – An absurdist documentary that starts hilarious and gives way to a portrait of sadness. Set in a very southern, ‘redneck’ world, where everyone in town knows the fourth generation mortician. The ‘man finds a severed leg in a bbq he buys’ pitch gives way to an examination of guilt and family issues at the heart of the story. There is some nice examination of how class issues play out in small towns and the film comes with a readymade villain in the deluded and greedy Shannon (who finds the leg and sees that as his big break into stardom). It feels stretched at times, but there is enough thematic weight here to maintain interest.
- Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), Travis Knight – Ethereal yet tactile, both in looks and plot. There are some straight up horror elements to darken the fantasy tropes. The voice cast is over-familiar in a distracting way. But this is a rip-roaring and funny adventure film. Combines the jokiness of a Western style animated film, with the quest based structure of fantasy fiction. Love the ending too, taking a totally different tact to the big battle. A film full of incredible craft.
Not Worth Watching
- High-Rise(2015), Ben Wheatley – Rubbed me up the wrong way from the very beginning. Feels far too deliberate, as well as visually uninteresting. Actually as far as I can tell, Wheatley brings very little to this at all. Takes Ballard’s already unsubtle piece and makes it blunter. Though managing to have less to say at the same time. Luke Evans is woefully miscast, Hiddleston is decent whilst Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss give the film’s best performances. Narrative doesn’t build and surge as it should. Rather it clunks and lurches, which is a large part of the reason it’s essentially toothless. Takes the more (potentially) schlocky elements of the book and makes them surrealist instead. A choice that doesn’t work.
- Bernard-l’hermite (1930), Jean Painleve – Can tell this is an early work of his. No real connections between the footage and any thematic consideration. Using stark imagery to suggest something monstrous. There is manipulation in all documentaries. The issue is that with Painleve it often, for example here, feels exploitative.
- Sully (2016), Clint Eastwood – This is a totally flat effort. Plainest possible telling of a story that is unexceptional, at least in Eastwood’s hands. The director is not able to articulate onscreen what makes the actions of these people at all remarkable. The approach gives no thrill, no sense of the terror. All we get are these strangely evil, and inept investigators culminating in a comical public hearing where the reveals are meant to take our breath away. But they barely elicit a shrug. The awful fuckin dad joke the film ends on sums up the movie really.
- Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Lauren Montgomery – These films have a strong sense of assuredness and this one is no different. That is coupled with a good sense of place, the working class docks of Gotham for example. However a lot of that disappears when the film heads off-world for a lot of the run time. These less grounded sequences feel rushed and the fantasy moments don’t feel anywhere near as weighty as they should. The film also only works so-so as an intro for Supergirl. There is much to like, the dichotomy of the two titular characters is really strong and some of the action is really clearly & physically conveyed. But the issues outweigh the good unfortunately.
If you only have time to watch one Girl Asleep
Avoid at all costs High-Rise
I have always been a wrestling fan. There has always been an allure to the over the top storytelling and athleticism that the ‘sport’ brings. A unique blend that when done well, is hard to match for pure entertainment. However something that myself and many other fans of wrestling often struggle with is the problematic portrayal of homosexuality (and basically all minorities actually) in the art form. This is based on my wrestling consumption which has been 99% American. Los Exoticos (2013) is a documentary glimpse into the tradition of drag wrestlers, or exoticos, in Mexico, a much more positive approach to the portrayal of minorities in wrestling.
Mexico, along with the USA and Japan, is one of the big three wrestling nations. Los Exoticos does an excellent job of outlining the integral place of the exotico tradition in Mexican wrestling culture. The makeup and character of an exotico is likened to a Luchador’s mask, which is a powerful symbol in Mexico (luchadors often square off in high stakes ‘mask vs mask’ matches, where the loser is never permitted to where a mask again). The film also contains a lot of great historical and stylistic analysis of the exoticos. Where they fit in to wrestling and the evolution of the form as societal attitudes changed, with more overt acknowledgements toward homosexuality. Though the open embrace of these performers, the fact that they compete not just amongst themselves but against masked luchadors and are respected as athletes, shows homosexuality is much more acknowledged in Mexican wrestling, the film does not shy away from the homophobia (both historical and contemporary) that these men suffer. We see that they are subjected to more sustained abuse from the crowds, specifically focused on their sexuality. However the telling of the film is a little workmanlike. It meanders along, going down on tangents that are not well integrated into the core themes of the film and there are long sequences of footage that are not explained or examined. It is not bad per se, just a little plain.
Los Exoticos is at its best when discussing the connection of the exotico tradition to gay identity. It seems that it is a rite of passage of sorts for gay Mexican wrestlers to perform as exoticos. Whilst previously, many exoticos were straight (and a number of older, straight wrestlers curmudgeonly complain about the current status of exoticos, with a fair bit of ‘back in my day’ style muttering) nowadays there is a strong connection between homosexuality and performing as an exotico. Much of their in-ring work relies on this, playing on notions of gay panic, with lots of kissing of opponents for example. As well as this, the film illustrates the importance of exoticos to the broader LGBTQ movement in Mexico. Their prominence, ability and general acceptance in a traditionally heterosexually dominated realm is a powerful piece of symbolism. Interviews at a gay rights rally show the inspiration these performers provide for a lot of members of the community. One of the great joys of good documentary filmmaking is having your worldview expanded. Even as a lifelong wrestling fan, I was not aware of exoticos and the role they played in Mexican wrestling, not to mention their courage and dynamic wrestling ability. To gain an appreciation for all of that through the film makes it easy to forgive some of the deficiencies in the filmmaking.
Verdict: This film is a must watch for anyone interested in wrestling or sexuality whatsoever. The filmmaking itself is perhaps average enough to mean that if you don’t have those particular interests you could give it a miss. However give it a shot and I doubt you will be disappointed or come away without a new appreciation for these wrestlers. Stubby of Reschs